All roads, historically speaking, lead to Rome.
Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Athens and Jerusalem are not the sum of symbolic ancient cities. And in truth, they never have been. Even when Tertullian coined that distinction early in the third century—“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the Academy with the Church?”—he did so in the context of Rome: He was the son of a centurion, preaching and scribbling away in long-before-conquered Carthage. The Roman Empire was the ground on which he walked, so vast and omnipresent he could barely notice its existence.
The map remains the same, even for us today. We may still derive an intellectual and spiritual geography from such ideas as Athens and Jerusalem, from the contrasts of philosophy and religion, reason and faith. But we are able to do so only because they are nodes in the empire of Ancient Rome. The rivalry of those cities—like single, towering mountains, glowering at each other across the plain—is visible because the plain is real: the long Pax Romana that stretches between them. Somehow, in the political construction of reality, Rome endures as our eternal baseline, the universal empire that promised, for the majority of its citizens, the end of war.
The Emporer Claudius
Edward Gibbon stands as our most famous literary monument to the defining reality that was Rome. Writing in the midst of rising British power at the end of the 18th century, he sat down to explain how the world’s greatest empire came to an end. But the question his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire actually raises is why did it last so long? The fall of Rome, as we might put it, was overdetermined: In every empire, the natural entropy of politics drags the state down to imperial collapse.
On the other hand, Woolf is at pains to demonstrate that the Romans were astonishingly quick to evolve new methods for survival, learning from their defeats and building on their victories. They certainly were not military geniuses: As generals, Pompey was good, Caesar was better, and Scipio was perhaps best of all. But the history of Roman warfare is a history of stumbles whenever the city faced a superior military mind, from Pyrrhus to Hannibal. And yet, after their lost fights, the Romans would return to the city, raise another army, and fight again.