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France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

Man of Roma:

Ce poste n’est pas daté, j’espère, et en tout cas il exprime l’amour des Italiens pour les Français.

Originally posted on Man of Roma:

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

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, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

This Empire – Frankish, Germanic and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only – considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and 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…

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Julius Caesar’s Trapped Legion

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Part of a display seen at Old Sarum in Wiltshire, 1998. Click for credits

54 BC, November. A typical grey rainy day in eastern Belgium. One of Julius Caesar’s legions plus 5 additional cohortes are wintering in the land of the Eburones, a German tribe. The other Roman legions are scattered far away in Gaul in their fortified camps, as was Caesar’s habit during winter. Caesar is heading towards Italia in order to take care of political matters.

The Eburones, commanded by their two kings, Ambiorix and Cativolcus, wipe out with a sudden attack a small group of Roman soldiers foraging for wood not far from their camp.

A parley thus began. Ambiorix (see below a statue dedicated to him in Tongeren, Belgium) told the Romans that a revolt was occurring in Gaul and that many Germans were about to pass the Rhine ready to join the Gauls against the Romans. He offered a safe passage towards other Roman camps fifty miles away.

The two Roman commanders, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, began a heated discussion within the council. Cotta was for staying: they had enough food and the legion was well entrenched. Sabinus was instead for leaving. Caesar would never arrive in time, he said, and their only opportunity was following Ambiorix’s advice. Around midnight Cotta had to give up since Sabinus’ opinion had prevailed in the council and even the soldiers were for leaving the camp.

These soldiers were the least experienced among Caesar’s legions, enrolled just a few months earlier and used only as baggage guards in important battles.

At break of day the Roman force, more than seven thousand men, quit the camp marching not in battle order but in a very extended line and with a very large amount of baggage. This showed that Sabinus’ idea, that the Germans must be trusted, had prevailed among the Roman commanders except Cotta. The Eburones were concealed in a thick wood waiting for the Romans. When the Romans entered the wood they let them pass through and descend to a deep valley where they abruptly showed up on either side of it. The Romans realised they were encircled and trapped.

Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren in Belgium. Click for credits

Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren, Belgium. Click for credits

The Eburones, fearing to attack the Romans directly went high above them on both sides and started pouring down missiles and rocks on the heads of the Romans. Sabinus lost his head, since he knew he had led the Romans into a mortal ambush. But Cotta kept his cool and quickly had the column pulled into a square. The Roman force held on for an extraordinary 8 hours though the casualties augmented.

At this point Sabinus tried to parley with Ambiorix, but was slaughtered by the king himself during talk. The Eburones then charged down en masse and many other Romans died, including Cotta.

Some still kept formation and succeeded to get back to the camp fighting.

“There the survivors kept the Eburones out until nightfall, and then, to a man, committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.”

“If the baggage guard would fight all day with no hope of success and commit mass suicide rather than surrender, Rome’s enemies were going to be in serious trouble.”

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Note. Freely inspired by the The Fall of the Roman Empire – A new history, by Peter Heather, Macmillan 2005, where the last two paragraphs are taken from; the episode is narrated by Julius Caesar in chapt. V of his De Bello Gallico. Here the English Gutenberg text)

France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

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, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

Such Empire, Frankish, Germanic (and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only) considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.

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When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror Ottoman Mehmed II thought he was continuing the power (and idea) of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped in 1480 CE by both the Papal and Neapolitan armies.

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.

[2014 update: allow us to remind that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, id est Caesar.

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So many heirs of Rome! Seems like a futile historical game.

It is not.

Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.

The Victorians, the Italians and the USA

Benito Mussolini. Wikimedia. Public Domain

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 a doubt.

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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.)

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We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)

Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?

The First French Empire

France 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.

We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wikimedia

Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.

The person who shaped 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 personages 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 Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 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 identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.

Empire silhouette Dresses. 1804. Metropolitan M. of Art. Fair use

Two dresses, ca. 1810. Courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?

Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:

“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today … This ancient fatherland – Gramsci argues – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”

Well, something said to displease whom? Our philosopher probably referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.

Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)

France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. 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 could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.

I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc.

This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer, Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion – and so forth.

But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.

If the French may envy us, we envy them more.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

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