There’s never anything good on television, but every now and again a programme comes along that changes your mind, and the programme of the moment is Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire without Limit.
We are three in to this mesmerising series, and there’s one to go, so do get it on catch-up while you can.
The programme relies on a winning formula. First of all, a presenter who is not simply an expert in her field, but a television natural; and secondly a subject of perennial interest, the Roman Empire.
You might think enough has been written and said about the Romans, but Professor Beard doesn’t just take us through some of the things we have all seen before, such as Roman communal lavatories (albeit with plush dolphin fittings), she also uncovers for us the question of romanitas, the quality of Roman-ness that gave a common identity to the industrialists of southern Spain, the city dwellers of the Saharan edge, and the garrisons of Hadrian’s wall.
Romanitas is a concept from which we can all learn. The idea of a common identity and a shared mission is the glue of empires. The point of the title (“Empire without limit”) is a reference to the key lines in Virgil’s national epic, the Aeneid, where Jupiter says of Rome: imperium sine fine dedi, I grant them empire without limit. For the Romans, many of whom perhaps never saw Rome itself, this was a core belief: Rome and her Empire were eternal, and the recipient of a divine guarantee. Even St Augustine, no believer in pagan gods, writing after the sack of Rome in 410, says in The City of God that though fallen, Rome will rise again.
You will at this point see where this has a contemporary application. Mary Beard’s series focuses not so much on battles but upon the lives of ordinary Romans, and shows us that this sort of history is every bit as interesting as the history of great men and women; these ordinary men and women identified as Romans, while being from a variety of cultural backgrounds. This recipe for success has not quite been achieved in the European Union, has it? Brussels, or whatever is supposed to be the focus of our unity, does not command the same loyalty of the heart as romanitas once did. Whichever side you stand on in the Brexit debate, that is a problem that must be acknowledged: the European Union has failed to make itself loved.
Romanitas has another contemporary application, and that is in the life of the Catholic Church, at least in its Western half. For centuries a supranational allegiance has been the glue that has held together Catholics from all parts of the globe. This has been done through something as basic as a shared “look”: Catholic churches, fittings, iconography, vestments and dress, from Manila to Mombassa to Managua, have drawn from the same recognisably connected tradition. (“Togas everywhere”, as one witness of Roman Britain, whom Mary Beard quotes, says; with us it is chasubles everywhere.) Moreover, there has been a connection, until recently, through the Latin language and an enduring one through the Roman liturgy. The romanitas of the Church has been an important and providential gift to us all.
If the ancient Romans believed their Empire to be immortal, we Catholics certainly believe the Church will survive to the end of history too. This belief is biblically based. The words of Jesus are: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19) As with the romanitas of old, there is underpinning the idea of Catholicity the confidence that the Church cannot fail.
It is a bit of a cliché to see the Church as the successor to the Roman Empire; but clichés contain more than a grain of truth sometimes. It may well be time for the BBC to commission a history of the romanitas of the Catholic Church.