Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.
After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire was established in 800 – Frankish, Germanic and later Austrian. This Empire considered itself as the heir of the Western Roman Empire, while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and it remained unconquered until 1453 CE.
When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror, the Ottoman Mehmed II, thought he was continuing the power of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped by the Papal and Neapolitan armies in 1480. After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.
So many heirs of Rome indeed! Seems like a futile historical game!
Well, it is not.
Let us see how other nations have continued to claim the Roman heritage.
The Victorians, the Italians and the USA
The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.
Or both the Italian patriots, who unified Italy, and later the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World. A disproportionate idea, without any doubt.
And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)
But we will talk today about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity).
Well, can’t France lay claims as well?
The First French Empire
France has obviously inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest. Less obvious are interesting similarities like those between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.
Much more significant however is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some historians, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people. The person who shaped this type of France and this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 – 1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.
Other great characters such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like he became First Consul of the French Republic. Then, after receiving the crown from the Pope, the bishop of Rome, on Dic. 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire style in architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies. Napoleon was reading Caesar’s writings continuously and he succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever existed, together with Julius Caesar and Alexander.
“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today.” This ancient fatherland – argues Gramsci – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. “Something that was said, and it is especially said today, to displease no small number of people.”
The French and the Italians. Who Envies Who?
Well, something said to displease whom? I believe our philosopher referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.
Focusing on the Italians, one can wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.) France was always admired in Italy. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state couldn’t exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed – argues Gramsci – a strong dislike and a substantial envy.
I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins, when they consider our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc. This envy comes out every time we do something better: with soccer or Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion, and so on.
But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.
If they may envy us, we envy them more.
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