Monday, November 21, 2011

The real Rome wasn't for tourists

Robert Hughes, the former art critic for Time magazine, has penned what the New York Times calls an "engrossing, passionately written" new book: Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. The historical reality of the ancient city and its people are not what you think. Hughes writes: “We cannot make the mistake with Romans of supposing that they were refined, like the Greeks they envied and imitated. They tended to be brutes, arrivistes, nouveaux-riches. Naturally, that is why they continue to fascinate us — we imagine being like them, as we cannot imagine being like the ancient Greeks. And we know that what they liked best to do was astonish people — with spectacle, expense, violence, or a fusion of all three.” Even our popular image of Classical Roma the city is distorted thanks to its glamorization by latter-day artists and Hollywood. Though the Rome of antiquity was indeed suffused with majestic marble columns, ascendant stairways and other architectural marvels of imperial power, Hughes reminds us that the city was actually a “Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean — crowded, chaotic, and filthy,” even at its Augustan peak. And it's easy to forget that roughly "one person in three was a slave." Idyllic utopia it wasn't. Yet, who among us has not dreamed of traveling back in time to antiquity as a tourist? We could discover what Caesar actually looked like, listen to Cicero wax philosophically, and sip real Roman wine as white-robed artisans plucked their lutes sweetly. But if we could book such a trip, I bet most of us would quickly recoil in horror at the smelly, squalid, brutish reality we would actually confront -- and catch the first train back to the present.

1 comment:

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