Monday, February 11, 2008

The Surprising History of Rome

Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) co-wrote and presents this film exploring the inglorious underbelly of the Roman Empire. Looking at the daily lives of the plebian and enslaved classes, through the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Rome itself, the film vividly describes the dramatic gulf between the historically celebrated aspects of Roman achievement and the more grim reality faced by the vast majority of citizens and slaves.

Comments of a professor interviewed in the film: “There was no welfare state in ancient Rome and the handicapped or deformed were more often than not singled out at birth. Notice there’s no orphanages in ancient Rome. No need to… no need to even have contraception, or to have abortion because they frequently just practiced exposure of children. Unwanted children…? There is absolutely no reason why some young mother wouldn’t expose a child. You’re allowed to do it because the child may be malformed. You certainly wouldn’t bring up a malformed child — you’d expose it and let it die… [by] simply taking it to the town rubbish dump.”

Jones: “The same Romans that conquered the Mediterranean, that built aqueducts and amphitheaters, also dumped unwanted children with the city garbage.”

It would be wrong to characterize this film according to the above point that’s raised, although it did strike me as being perhaps the most highly salient contrast between the lofty aspirations of the Romans that we’re more normally acquainted with in the conventional (and sadly, all too cursory) teaching of history and the more brutally uncompromising aspects of the exploitative economic imperatives that motivated the Roman Imperium.