When In Rome (OP)

4th July 2007

Continuing to watch Rome, the second series, and reading a lengthy discussion on ECW about classicism, I fell to musing on these topics. The problem with the discussion was the lack of definition of ‘classicism’. What do we mean by this? In the context of talking about the Eighteenth Century we use the term almost as a negative – it is ‘not Romanticism’. This can be considered in terms of a series of dualities – urban v rural, social v solitary, ‘civilised’ v ‘natural’, man v nature, ordered v wild, universal v particular, logic v emotion and so on, all of which contain elements of truth and elements of falsehood. There can be no doubt whatever that there is a duality ; the leap from a Pope to a Wordsworth (to take extremes) is too immense to contemplate without taking some account of some tectonic cultural/social/political shift. But its’ precise nature and the reasons for it are subjects to which far better brains than mine will devote their whole lives in vain. We have to endlessly qualify and question. Ellen posted Pope’s Ode on Solitude on ECW a little while back…

Ode on Solitude
Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

Ellen wryly remarked ‘He wrote the above when he was quite young.’ I am more tempted by the cruder ‘Who is he trying to kid?’. But there we are – Pope espousing a set of ‘Romantic’ values. He does it however, in such a way that we never really feel we are leaving the ‘classical’ world. And after all Virgil and Horace were very fond of this kind of posing/cultural stance (take your pick).

But this drifts far from my point. Throughout European culture and history all sorts of artists, thinkers and politicians have set themselves up in relation to the Greco-Roman world, as either heirs or opponents. And the immensity and non-specificity of that concept, the Greco-Roman/classical, world allows for an almost indefinite number of applications. You want democracy, oligarchy, republicanism, imperialism, despotism? You have them. You want city-states or a massive Empire? Take your pick. You want epics, odes, eclogues, tragedy, farce? The only possible way to approach this sensibly is to study what aspects of ‘classicism’ any particular era or culture selects as being relevant to its own needs and identity.

There was a fascinating, if far too brief, programme on Channel 5 yesterday about Mussolini and Italian Fascism (much information which was new to me). Mussolini of course loved to see himself as the restorer of Roman glory; Rome now made synonymous with Italy. An absurd claim perhaps? But were his Libyan and Ethiopian campaigns of slaughter and conquest (and the programme emphasised the utter horror of these wars which have been rather, as usual, written out of history) really so different from those of his Roman forebears? Carthago delenda est – well Libya and Ethiopia were certainly delenda.

So what are we seeing in Rome? (the HBO series that is). Well certainly not any set of ‘classical’ values as those who elevate the ‘classical’ would have it. Far from order we have a bloody chaos in which the most ruthless, the most powerful, struggle for supremacy mercilessly eliminating any who stand in their way. Intrigue, war, betrayal – these are the commonplaces. Now it can of course be argued that this is merely sensationalised television, using sex and violence to drive up the ratings for a ‘historical’ series which would otherwise languish in obscurity (and indeed probably never get made). This is how certain critics like to approach the series. I am not denying that there is some exploitation here. But if this is your vision of ‘Rome’ then you do have to be brutal, sordid, sensational in your approach to cut through centuries of ‘classicism’. And it should be noted that this is not a remake of I Claudius, Graves’ second-hand Suetonius. Rome is not just a story of a dysfunctional family who happened to rule an Empire. It wants to show how that Empire came to be and present this story at both ends of the social spectrum. Graves is really complicit in traditional classicism. His laugh is knowing. The emperor’s may have perverted and ignored the values but the values themselves are not really questioned (‘order’ ‘rule’ and so on). Now I am not presenting Rome as radical. I suspect it may be highly reactionary and actually endorse the ruthless accumulation of power (though with such a multiplicity of writers and directors it may well be no consistent view on this exists). But it certainly questions the association of classicism with ‘civilisation’. And in this it forces the questioning of assumptions and attitudes. It puts the Mussolini back into Rome! This is, of course, quite apart from the fact that the programme is brilliantly made.

Any simple definition of ‘classicism’ is problematic. We should always ask what is meant by the term? Why is it being used? What for and who by? The answers will always be complex. What did the Romans really do?

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