Sunday, February 24, 2013

The real reason Rome fell

Two thousand years ago, Rome reached to the ends of the known world, amalgamating its conquered peoples, cultures and traditions into the greatest empire history has even seen. Even under dictatorial rule, they laid the foundation for modern democracy, art, food and an Academy Award for Russell Crowe.

And then they threw it all away. Through a combination of disease, religious turmoil, political infighting and constant barrage attacks from those nasty barbarians, the Empire disintegrated. Power in Europe shifted to other shores, leaving Rome abandoned to its own squalor and forgotten for years.

Modern day Rome has bounced back, of course, built around the stunning remains of its once great empire. Spend a few days exploring this magnificent city and its historical treasures and you begin to wonder how it could have all gone so wrong. But look a little closer, listen to your audio guide just a little more attentively and a few serious lacks in judgment begin to appear; some even surviving into modern times.

I’m no historian but after noticing a few key institutional flaws in 2013 Rome, and subsequently learning of their existence in ancient times, I’m skeptical about the textbook version of the fall of Rome. Sure, the barbarian hordes probably hastened the demise, but I’m thinking they were just big, ugly and very violent scapegoats for a self-inflicted wound.

The way I see it, the fall was caused by three very easily fixable logistical problems. In short, Rome could’ve been saved with a little moderation and good public works department. The only victim would’ve been Russell Crowe’s Oscar.

3. Broken Ankles

When traveling, I wear sturdy hiking boots regardless of the terrain. They keep my feet comfortable, joints padded and traction controlled. I’ve climbed peaks in Yosemite, castles in Germany and cathedrals in France without issue.

Walking down La Via Sacra through the Roman Forum, Ancient Rome’s version of Broadway and Times Square, I stumbled several times, turned my ankle twice and only by the grace of one of those gods on Olympus (I don’t remember the name of the god of ankles), did I not break something. The road is comprised of massive paving stones, jagged and jutting and rounded (perhaps from years of togas dragging alone them). If this is what the ancient Romans were walking on, they must have been a civilization filled with limping citizens.  

The problem continues in modern day Rome along the cobbled roads spider-webbing through each neighborhood. Most of the side-streets and pedestrian walkways are made up of uneven cubic stones, with inch-wide gaps. Not the most comfortable surface to escape being hit by a guy on a scooter.

And if you think those crazy modern Romans whizzing by on Vespas are bad? Try jumping out of the way of Claudius on his chariot when the road is uneven.

How was the Empire supposed to defend itself with sword and spear if one arm was constantly preoccupied with a crutch? No wonder the Barbarians had their way with them. I know what you’re saying, this is a little far-fetched. Oh really? Hop back even farther into history to the preceding Empire – the Greeks. Their greatest warrior, Achilles, was impenetrable. Until he was shot by an arrow in his – yup, you guessed it – ankle. The Romans, just like with everything else in their civilization, must have stolen that disregard for lower-leg safety from the Greeks.

Here is where a solid DPW would come into play, making good use of some asphalt. Plus they could’ve provided a few jobs to the working class, dolled up those chariots and invited the barbarians in for a parade rather than antagonizing them into brutal war.

2. Killed off all the easy chicks

Rome’s Forum is a history lesson you don’t want to fall asleep during. You truly get a sense of how the Empire revolved around these few acres, and their religion and government flowed from each doorstep. You literally get to walk the streets once walked by the titans of early civilization. Columns, arches, temples and pulpits still stand, beckoning you to touch and feel.

But don't get too touchy-feely. 

The Vestal Virgins were recruited at an early age to tend the everlasting flame in Rome’s Forum. They were revered by all, lounged in their own luxury box at the Coliseum and given a nice severance package after 30 years of celibacy and service to the Empire. Problem was, they were young virgins in Ancient Rome, where toga parties originated. A young, attractive woman living the working life in the city sometimes just needs to let her hair down. Vow of celibacy? Eh, come on now, what could go wrong? Amidst a civilization where wine and partially nude men engrossed most every street corner, saving oneself for retirement must have been quite the difficult task. And so more than a few were led astray by temptations of the flesh.

The Romans had an answer for breaking a vow of celibacy. The impure Vestal Virgin was led out of town, given some food and lamp oil and buried alive. Permanently.

This did two things: deterred the next recruits from falling off the wagon (lest they then be tossed on one heading toward their own tomb); and prevented women who clearly had no problem with procreation from, well, procreating.

I don’t mean to be crass, but given their ever-spreading Empire and feuds with their neighbors, Rome could’ve done well by beefing up their ranks. One can never have too many soldiers when one is attempting world domination.

And yet they clung to their virtues and disposed of women who wanted to do just that. Seems a little backwards to me, but then again I’m not attempting world domination. Perhaps some bending of the rules might’ve gone a long way.

1. Get to work!

Touring the Coliseum, my audio guide revealed some insight into the Roman calendar. Not the months and days, but their work week – or lack thereof. Romans had around 170 holidays or festival days throughout the year. Hence why the Coliseum itself was so busy.

I’m all for half a year of work and half a year of partying, but when it comes to ruling people all across creation, maybe you should at least punch in a little early. Even a ¾ schedule would’ve enabled a DPW to fix the roads and a commission to examine the population growth incited by not murdering the not-so-virginal Vestal Virgins.

Walking around the ruins here, from level to level the grandeur becomes evident. The structure rises all around you, engulfing you in ancient aura. You can almost hear the oohs and ahhs raining down from the nosebleeds seats.

What’s more aggravating, is that they built Rome’s splendor with so many days off. What more could’ve been accomplished by the Empire had they taken off some of those days off?

Looking down upon the Forum and Coliseum from Palatine Hill or the summit of the Victor Emmanuel Monument, and the city’s once golden majesty shimmers into vision. This city changed the world and then went away, but in the process leaving an indelible mark on history, still evident in present day, halfway across the world in lands they never knew existed. So really, who am I to judge? The Romans did just fine without my help.   

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