Spoiler alert: you can be a Roman too.
So, yes, my father is from the city of Rome. He grew up at Via del Babuino 135 which, if you are good with Google, can see is right next to the Spanish Steps. He doesn’t get much more Roman; he has the nose, the quiet confidence of a cultured man, and thinks being Roman is better then being any other thing.
This is not the Roman I am talking about however.
I love my dad, and yes, being from the city of Rome can be very fortunate, surrounded by some of the most prolific art, culture and food the world has to offer. The Roman I speak of is Ancient Rome, and the concept they had about being a citizen of “Rome”, which is more of a concept then a location.
I just got finished watching Mary Beard’s “Ultimate Rome without Limits” which you can watch for free on YouTube and regardless if you are interested in history should. It’s an amazing series that quickly and succinctly puts in perspective just how impressive a feat of culture Rome was. I started watching it because I just finished the ridiculously long Ken Burns series on the Civil War, with 9 episodes well over 10 hours covers just 5 meager years, made me wonder who was the Ken Burns for Ancient Rome, which spanned a millennium. The answer was Mary Beard, and while I like Burns, Mary gets right to the good stuff, at the center of which is the Roman’s main gift to their world domination: citizenship.
Yes, Rome had slaves, yes it was rife with war, and sure a ton of raping and pillaging. There is no easy or right way to conquer a people. One thing however they did differently than any other empire of its time; instead of forcing their culture on their conquest, they let them flourish, to be their own people, and only give them infrastructure and civilization. This is the idea of being a Roman, it is effectively what I’ve always called being a citizen of the world.
The Romans began shrouded in mystery. The story of Romulus and Remus is legendary, two boys discarded on a river bank because their uncle feared they would upserp him once grown, only to be succled by a she-wolf (or prostitute, depending on how you translate “Lupa”) to eventually found the city known as Rome, named after the brother who killed the other. The indigenous people, the Etruscans, who were centered north of Rome were early inhabitants, but it’s real boom came from a treaty that started Rome was an open city, and would harbor anyone, regardless of religion, color, or creed. Rome was a proto-NYC melting pot, and extremely liberal one at that.
This idea of incorporation is what let the empire spread so fast and successfully. Every year towns would attack each other, raiding, raping, and pillaging. Rome was different, yes they would raid, rape and pillage, but instead of just leaving to come back the next year, they would make peace with the town, annexing it, and promise not to raid it again. In return the town would be part of Rome and would increase its numbers, specifically, its military force.
So Rome spread from Africa to Britain this way, town to town, building roads and sewers, libraries and forums. It let the people speak their languages, worship their gods, and be who they were, now improved by the advancement of collective culture which is “Rome”. Rome was a concept more then a place, a mear whisper and it would vanish.
Rome in turn would take the culture from its conquered lands, be it architecture from Greece, oil and silver from Spain, or culinary tastes from the East. Thus, to be Roman was not to be from Rome, but to be part of the empire, which meant, to be part of a unified culture.
What is culture? Good question. To me culture is what a group of people agree upon is “good”. That is all. What it does is make life easier for those that are part of the culture. You don’t have to think about the type of foods, the way laws worked, or how life ran. And for most of the world, Roman culture was something that was welcomed.
Proof of this was the desire those had to be a Roman Citizen, which was gained after serving Rome usually as a soldier, and passed on to your wife and children. The benefit was protection, the ability to make legal documents, but moreover, to be unified as a people. To be Roman ment that you were all equal, if you were in some small town in northern Europe or right in the heart of the Forum in Rome, you had the exact same rights. Equality.
This is a beautiful thought to me. I’m sure it is not nearly as rosie in practice as is it’s philosophy, but nevertheless, it is something I truly believe in even since I first started to travel. Having gone to more countries then I have years, something has always been evident to me, that no matter difference in culture I find they are all equally impressive, none more important than another. Sure I was born in NYC, and while I like to think I am a New Yorker, I do so in philosophy not in geography. The idea of New York is one of forging forward, quick thinking, human and connected. One where dreams are put into action, where being part of a melting pot makes you stronger. New York could be anywhere, it’s a state of mind, and in this way being Roman is the same, even if you weren’t born anywhere near Italy.
My father’s pride no doubt stems from growing up in the shadow of the epicenter of this great philosophy, but to me the power of being Roman is that you can do so being from anywhere on Earth as long as you do it together.