From Empire to Empty

I find myself in Italy at a climactic time when everything is about to change, or stay the same. This is because Italy is holding its parliamentary elections on February 24 & 25, and this election could bring about not only a new government, but also a potentially new republic. For those who do not follow politics or are not particularly interested in political science, I cannot stress enough how important this impending election is for Italy. It is not quite on par with the recent Egyptian elections, but it is still monumental and something that political scientists and leaders around the world will be closely watching. Basically, in laymen’s terms, this election is huge. But what do I mean by “republic?” France is also a nearby European state that is a republic and refers to its political history in terms of “republics.” It is not only a form of government, but also a way to measure time and identify different governments that have been in power over the years.
The story of Italy is not at all flowery, nor is it gruesome or sorrowful. Italy’s history begins famously with the extraordinarily masterful Ancient Romans and has built up to the current system of debt default, embarrassing political scandals, and a people who are considered to be socially and economically behind its European neighbors. In between these two major points on the timeline of Italy’s life story is the process of Italian unification in 1871, when all of the nearly two dozen Italian states came together under one government and saw a dramatic decline of Papal power. Then there was the Second World War where Mussolini lost miserably and Italy was forced to abandon its fascist regime and adopt a republic form of government in 1948 which is still in place today.
As I followed my guide on the “tourist tour” that my program offered this past Friday morning, I found myself wondering what the ancients would think of Rome today. Would they be disappointed? Saddened? Pleased? Or would they simply be happy that there still is a Rome and that it has not completely seeped into the ground like so many of the ruins of years gone by? I hope to be able to partially answer this question by the end of the semester, even though I know it will be difficult to do because I will only be able to discover the ancients’ thoughts on modern Rome through the structures that they have left behind and the traditions that have endured. Still, for a people that once were the greatest empire on Earth to become a country filled with corruption and somewhat of an outcast when compared to its neighbors I am genuinely interested in at least getting the modern local opinion on what Rome has become compared to what it once was.
In combination with the Ancient Greeks, Rome is part of the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of western civilization. Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization, and Rome was the place where that civilization began to mold itself into something more than simply hunters and gatherers. It is out of happenstance that Rome was actually founded on April 21, 753 BC. There are still multitudes of debate as to when exactly the city was officially founded but over the years this date has grown to be the most accepted. In sum, two brothers, Romulus and Remus, chose to establish their own city instead of taking the throne of a city that belonged to them by birthright after being rescued by a she-wolf from the river Tiber and being raised by a shepherd and his wife. Romulus decided to name their new city “Roma” after himself, and the name symbolized mighty strength and vigor and turned out to be fitting for the massive empire that would soon emerge. But if Romulus and his brother decided to take the throne of Alba Longa (in present day central Italy) who knows if there would even be a Rome today?
This is why I believe that nothing in Rome should be taken for granted. Romulus and Remus did not take for granted the vast opportunity that they surely saw before their eyes when they came of age and realized that they were not destined to rule an already established city. Instead, their fate was to create another. And create they did. Because of this, every site that I see, every plate of pasta or pizza that I devour, and even the small architectural feats such as the small water fountains scattered throughout the city which make up the most sophisticated piping system in the world make me pause and remember how lucky I am to be having my study abroad experience in the city of Rome. It was by luck that Rome was founded, and for that reason it is the “Eternal City” because it is not luck that will keep this city going for many millennia to come. The world needs and wants Rome. Without Rome, there would be no focal point for the Catholic faith. There would be no place to turn to for answers on engineering marvels or even for the art of military compilation.
This of course is a brief overview of where Rome has been over the last two plus millennia. But what I am looking forward to sharing with all of you this semester is where the city is headed. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, Italy’s national elections next month will be a major turning point for the country, perhaps unprecedented. Who knows what will happen as a result. The infamous Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi served as prime minister off and on from 1994 until 2011, and is once again a candidate for prime minister for the 2013 elections. Currently, Berlusconi is being investigated for all types of fraud and corruption allegedly committed during his first three terms in office. The current Prime Minister, Mario Monti, was brought in from outside Italian politics by President Giorgio Napolitano in 2011 to save the Italian Republic from financial collapse and has decided to compete to stay on as Prime Minister.
While I could go on for days telling you about Italian politics and how it is essentially a group of men with egos all too big for the room vying to stay in power using whatever piece of the Constitution they can, I must end here because so much is still uncertain about the political and economic future of Italy. I wanted to give you somewhat of a background of Italy so that when I post pictures on Flickr and write about my weekend trips to different Italian cities and daily adventures in Rome you will have a better understanding of where Rome and Italy came from and where they might be going.
On that note, I promise that my next post will not have anything to do with politics. Rather, I will dive into my first impressions of Rome and how I am adjusting to life in my new city so far and some of the things that I have seen so far in this beautiful city. Future posts will be more traditional travel writing posts than historical facts being thrown at you. I will be posting my first round of pictures from orientation week on Flickr tomorrow and hope to have my next blog post up within the next few days. Spread the word about my blog and follow me on Twitter @djpeltier. Chao for now!

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