Rome (part IV)

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We must turn our back on the temples, give scarcely a glance to the massive arches and columns of triumph. Around them the brutal mounting of the processions lifts the power of Rome to an empyrean no higher than their summit. The Rome, which wanted to be and believed itself to be an artist, put the whole of its native genius into the marble portraits and into certain bas-reliefs of startling authority and ruggedness. To find this genius again in more characteristic and disproportionately imposing manifestations, we must leave the domain of art, properly so-called, of that superior function whose role is to exalt all the higher activities of the intelligence and of love. We must consider the expressions of Rome's positive and materialistic daily life. Rome had no other moral need than that of proclaiming her external glory, and any monument sufficed for that, provided it was graced with the name of temple, arch of triumph, rostrum, or trophy. But Rome had great needs in matters of health, physical strength, and, later on—in order to pour out this health and strength which had grown too heavy to bear after the end of the wars—it had great need of food, of women, and of violent games. Hence the paved roads, the bridges, and aqueducts at first, and afterwards the theaters, the baths, and the circuses—blood and meat after travel and water.

The Roman ideal throughout history has the uniformity and the constancy of an administrative regulation. In Rome the real artist is the engineer, as the true poet is the historian and the true philosopher is the jurist. The Roman imposes on the family, on society, and on nature the form of his will. He represses his instinct for rapine; by living on himself he acquires the moral vigor necessary to conquer the earth; he escapes from his arid surroundings by reaching out with his tentacles of stone to the ends of the world. He plans the whole of his work—his law, his annals, and his roads, with one paving stone after the other, just as, starting from Rome, he extends over the plains, the mountains, and the sea, circle after circle of his domination.

The pride of this people and its strength were the sites where it dwelt—a few low hills amid the marshes, from which the inhabitants of the Sabine heights and the plowman of Latium flee. There is neither bread nor water, the view is closed by a distant circle of hostile mountains. It is a refuge of pariahs, but of violent and voracious pariahs who know that there are fat lands, rich cities, and herds behind the horizon. Cost what it may, they must break through the accursed circle. The race is to draw its strength from the mountain springs which rigid paths of stone are to spread in torrents over Rome. Rigid lines of stone are to direct that force across the dry marshes, across the open forests, the rivers, solitudes, and mountains, to the light of the south and the mists of the north. Cement binds the stones and the slabs of the pavement, making of them a single, continuous block, from the center of the inhabited world to its boundaries. Blood starts from the heart. Rome is in the whole empire, the whole empire is in Rome. The ancient world is an immense oasis of woods, of plowed lands, of opulent cities, and fecund oceans; Rome is a mass of walls and huts, a surge, black and low, of the dens of the people; its noise never ceases, if crowns itself laboriously with hard buildings of stone, heavy in their form and in their silence. Between the world and the city lies a mournful desert crossed by rigid arteries; as far as the circle of the horizon, it is a sad tract of country, undulating like a sea under the sun or the night.

Thus to weld this isolated city to the rest of the world, materially and morally, an enormous pride was needed, an enormous energy, and enormous works that increased this energy, exalted this pride, and incited it to undertake works still more enormous. Under the Empire the tendency toward the enormous quickens till it becomes a wild pace. More aqueducts, bridges, and roads, more stones beside stones. With Asia subjected and peace imposed, the thirst for pleasure and the freedom needed for it made their entry into Rome. The city gives itself up to enjoyment with all the strength it had devoted to conquest and authority. The enormous is in demand more and more—in play, in love, in idleness, as in war, law, history, and the construction of the city. Rome is no longer content to make the pulsations of its heart felt to the limits of her empire, she is not to rest until she has brought the material of the empire back to herself. Men of all races congest her streets, bringing with them their manners, their gods, and their soil. "The climates are conquered, nature is subjected; the African giraffe and the Indian elephant walk about Rome under a movable forest; vessels fight on land" [Michelet, Histoire Romaine]. After the aqueducts and the roads, amphitheaters are constructed, circuses in which armies kill each other, where eighty thousand Romans can see all the beasts of the desert, forest, and mountain let loose upon men, while pools of hot blood dampen the blood already clotted. Thermae are built with tanks in which three thousand persons can bathe at ease, immense tepidariums, promenades with monstrous vaults, where the idler passes his day amid women, dancers, musicians, rhetoricians, sophists, and statues brought from Greece. But the soul of Greece did not enter with them. The Greek, even to the days of his saddest decline, loved these forms for themselves. The Roman sees in them a fit frame for his orgy of the flesh, of blood, of streaming waters. He plunges with frenzy into his heavy sensuality.

But in that, at least, without knowing it, he is an artist. The activity is of a low form, doubtless—quite positive, egoistic, cruel, and not to be freed from materialism. But the organization it calls forth is so powerfully adapted to it, that it thereby acquires a crushing, rare, direct, and monotonous splendor. Thus in all cases, at the bottom of the scale as at the top, on the lowest step of the temple as in its pediment, in the material as in the moral order, the beautiful and the useful mysteriously agree.

The official religious architecture is flooded with ornaments, quadrigas, bas-reliefs, allegories, and false columns. The Corinthian column which, with the leaves of its capital crushed by the entablature, was so illogical that the Greeks hardly ever used it, seems invented to permit the Romans to display, in stupefying contrast, the lack of artistic intelligence of those among them who were intrusted with preserving the city of art. As soon as they use ornament, their architecture loses its beauty, because it loses its logic. And the same error occurs every time they aim at effect before considering function. Here are silver cups of the Romans, their bowls cluttered with chiseled forms. One can scarcely drink from them. A lover of enjoyment and the positive life, the Roman goes astray when he approaches speculation, the general idea, the symbol. As soon as it is a question of satisfying his material instincts, he says admirable things.

There are no ornaments on his aqueducts, his bridges, or his thermae, very few on his amphitheaters, and these are, with those positive portraits, his only real works of art. Bare, straight, categorical, accepting their role, they present to us their terrible walls, piles of matter gilded by the southern fire, crackled and whitened by the frosts of the north. They present their aerial vaults on cyclopean pillars, the lines of giant arches bestriding the valleys and the swamps, bursting through rocky barriers or sealing them—as sure, in their vertical rise or their progression, as cliffs or as herds of primitive monsters. The goal toward which they aim gives them a look of implacability. They have the inflexibility of mathematics, the force of the will, the authority of pride.

They have the lightness of the foliage that quivers at the top of the trees, sixty feet above the ground. The arch, the vaults of various kinds, the corridors, and the cupolas, a thousand blocks of granite are, for twenty centuries, suspended in the air like leaves. They cannot crumble before the infiltration of water and the assault of the winds and the sun have uprooted their trunks; they have an air of being natural growths which would outlast all winters. To petrify the depth of the azure, the depth of the tree top! It needed the imagination of man to realize the miracle of offering to the crowds, as their perpetual shelter, the curves which bent over the curve of the earth. It needed the audacity of man to suspend matter in space by its own weight, to stick stones to one another by leaving so little space between them that they cannot fall, to check their tendency to separate by thickening the pillars that bear them, until a point of absolute solidity is reached.

The higher it is, the straighter it is; the barer, the denser; the less of light, the fewer openings and empty spaces it offers, the better the wall presents, on the smiling or dramatic face of the soil, the image of will, of energy, of continuity in effort. The Roman wall is one of the great things of history. And, as it is Might, it is Right. It seems to be uninterrupted, it holds forever, even when split and fissured. The fall of a thousand stones does not shake it. For ten centuries all the houses of Rome were built of the stones of the Colosseum. The Colosseum has not changed its form. The Roman wall remains identical with itself everywhere. The pavement of the roads, which for two hundred leagues pursues its rigid march, is only a wall lying on the earth to embrace it and enslave it. The arch of the bridges, which is only a wall bent like the wood of a bow, draws taut the passive bowstring of the rivers. The wall of the aqueducts, hollowed out like the beds of the rivers themselves, carried their waters in a straight line wherever the aedile wants them to go. High and bare, the outer wall of the theater prevents those whose appetite or rebellion is to be overcome from peering into the free expanse of the horizon. The wall of the circuses, continuous and compact as a circle of bronze, incloses the bloody orgy within the geometrical rigor of a law. The wall that rounds itself over the tepidarium and the swimming pools, with the docility of an atmosphere kept within in its spherical boundaries by the gravitation of the heavens, confers on voluptuousness and hygiene the grand authority of a natural order.

It was in Rome that the Pelasgic poem of the wall, developed so sensitively and wisely by the Greeks and the Etruscans, found its most powerful and durable expressions. It was in Rome that the applications of the Asiatic vault were the most various, its use the most frequent, its employment the most methodical. The vault, in Chaldea and in Assyria, had lengthened itself out, weighed down on the palaces and houses or swelled above them, and hung over the cities. In Rome it is the very base of every utilitarian construction, and the greater part of the architectonic forms derive from its presence—the arches of the bridges, the portals, the corridors around the circuses, the immensity of the halls made possible by the might of the walls, the power of the supports, required by the height of the edifice, the circular monuments—images of the horizon, of the plains bearing the cupola of the sky.

The Tombs of Cecilia Metella, the Mole of Hadrian, and the Pantheon of Agrippa especially, are epitomes of the force of Rome and of the severe and savage ring of hills, the circus in the center of which it is built. It is a sad power that it possesses; the full walls are as rough as the hide of a monster, the interior is as secret and jealous as the soul of this people, which did not consent to manifest itself before having stripped from every other people the right to discuss that soul. The thing weighs on the crust of the earth and seems to emanate from it. At the top of the Pantheon a circular opening lets in the light of heaven. It falls as if regretfully, and never succeeds in illuminating the farther corners. Rome is self-willed and closed.

It is only into the stone circuses that the sun entered in a flood, to light up the spectacles which the tamed world gave to Rome while it waited till it should gather up in the city its hatred, revolt, and thirst for purification. Panem et Circenses! The Colosseum is nothing but the formula in stone of the monstrous needs of the king-people. The patrician no longer has war at his command to occupy the plebeian. Here is bread—here are circuses, in which a whole city can be seated and which are built in such a way that from each of the seats one can witness the death struggle of that city. Never has there been seen under the heavens a theater better arranged for presenting the spectacle of a suicide than that one.

The equilibrium of Rome had not the spontaneous and philosophic character of the equilibrium of Athens, and this does not result so much from the multiform extent of the Roman Empire as from the depth of its moral anarchy. Greece, while at war with Persia, was much nearer to harmony than Rome was at the very hour when she decreed peace. Her repose, her art, her pleasure, even, were of an administrative order. The struggle of interests, the rivalry of classes, and the social disorder continued from the early days of the Republic to the triumph of Christianity. Throughout Roman history the poor man struggles against the rich man, who holds him, first by war, then by games. But below the poor man there was a more miserable being who rarely saw the games, save as an actor in them. This was the slave, the dark rumbling of Suburra and the Catacombs, and woman, another slave, outraged every day and by all, in her flesh and in her tenderness. The being who lives in the shadows ceaselessly calls upon the sun to rise within him. The mystic tide of the poor, the tide born of Hellenic scepticism was mounting and was to submerge Roman materialism. Rome did not dream, doubtless, that the day on which she broke the frightful resistance of the little Jewish people marked the beginning of the victory of the little Jewish people over herself. It was in the law of things that the soul of the ancient world, compressed by Rome, should flow back into the soul of Rome. The patricians had been dominated by the Greek ideal; the plebeians, in their turn, were dominated by the Jewish ideal.

The church was to be built on this hard stone, and the rich man was again to enslave the poor man by giving him the promise, or the simulacrum, of the well-being to which he laid claim. Rome, by becoming Christian, did not cease to be herself; as she had remained Rome when she thought she had become Hellenistic. The apostles had already veiled the face of Christ. Rome had no trouble in casting the feeling of the masses in the mold of her will to launch them anew upon the conquest of the earth. Her material desire for world-empire was to reawaken upon coming into contact with the dream of universal moral communion, which Christianity, after far-away Buddhism, implanted in the souls of men; and it was to transform this dream to its profit. Julian the Apostate, the last hero who appeared on the dark earth before the fall of the sun, thought he was combating the religion of Asia. It was already against Rome that he was struggling, and Rome had the habit of conquering. The men of the north, flood after flood, may descend toward the Mediterranean, the great mirror of the divine figures, the inexhaustible basin of rays to which all the ancient peoples came to draw up light. Rome, buried under incessant human waves for more than a thousand years, is to remain Rome, and when she reappears at the head of the peoples, the peoples are to perceive that they are marked with her imprint. 

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