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In bookstores in Rome, you can buy a poster headed, in English, i have a dream. It has nothing to do with Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil-rights struggle, instead being a map of an imaginary subway system that seamlessly connects all the neighborhoods of the city. In reality, Rome’s public-transportation infrastructure is shaky. Buses come infrequently. Many people resort to rented bikes or scooters. There is a subway system, with just three lines, connecting the central station to a few major places, but since it opened in 1955, it has grown at a sluggish pace. Each time construction begins, yet more important archaeological remains are discovered and it has to be halted again while experts work out how to proceed.

“We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life,” writes Nietzsche in Untimely Meditations, and that’s what the designer of the poster seems to be saying, too. In Rome, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the past: the scale of the achievement, the scale of the loss. You’re aware that the ramshackle city is brimming with life, and also that it’s taking place in the aftermath of something grander, or rather several somethings, millennia of somethings. The impulse to push history away is understandable. I’m convinced all Romans must do it sometimes, if only as a form of psychic defense.

In the center of the city, near the Capitoline Hill and the monstrous slab of wedding cake that is the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument, runs the Via delle Botteghe Oscure, a wide and—by Roman standards—relatively undistinguished street, most notable in recent times as the site of the headquarters of the Italian Communist Party. Patrick Modiano stole its name for one of his melancholy novels about Paris and historical amnesia, but this original “street of dark shops” was dark, for at least part of its history, because of smoke and soot. In the eighth and ninth centuries, it was the site of a kiln in which monuments were broken up and burned to make lime for mortar. The thought of workshops running for decade after decade, century after century, grinding up works of art and feeding them into ovens, induces a kind of sublime terror, a feeling of insignificance in the face of the past. So much has vanished, so much labor and human expression has turned to dust.

One rainy afternoon, suffering from history, I walked up the steps of the Capitoline and stood under an umbrella to pay homage to the fragments of the colossal statue of the emperor Constantine: a giant foot, a giant hand, a head with enormous vacant eyes, staring out at the world with transcendent authority. These pieces of broken statuary have, since the Renaissance, induced complicated feelings in visitors. Somewhere in the clutter on my desk I have a postcard of a drawing by the Swiss Romantic painter Henry Fuseli called The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins. In it, a figure sits, head in hands, below a monumental hand and foot, obviously inspired by the Constantinian fragments. Fuseli had spent eight years in Rome before making it, more than enough time to feel oppressed by the weight of all the dead generations.

In a letter to Pope Leo X written in 1519, Raphael described his “extreme pain . . . at the sight of what you could almost call the corpse of this great, noble city, once queen of the world, so cruelly butchered.” At the time, the butchery was ongoing, as builders dismantled ancient ruins for materials. Raphael lists the monuments that had been obliterated during the ten years he’d spent in Rome, including “a part of the Forum Transitorium, which only a few days ago was consumed by fire, some of the marbles being made into mortar.” Eight years later, a new wave of destruction overtook the city. In 1527, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V arrived with an army that included some fourteen thousand Germans, many of them Lutheran mercenaries called Landsknechts, who hadn’t been paid. They soon got out of control—looting, burning, raping, and killing. They camped in Rome for a year, taking over whichever buildings they pleased.

Guided by the historian Ingrid Rowland, who has written about this chaotic year, I walked around a villa in Trastevere that had been built for one of the richest men in early sixteenth-century Europe, the banker Agostino Chigi, who (luckily for him) had died a few years beforehand. The mercenaries billeted there scrawled graffiti across the frescoes. Over a pastoral view of hills and noble bell towers, we read 1528: why should i who write not laughthe landsknechts have set the pope on the run. The sack of Rome was an epochal disaster. Historians estimate that at least five thousand people were killed. The city’s population dropped from fifty-five thousand to around ten thousand. For comparison, at its height, ancient Rome had a population of more than four hundred thousand, with some historians claiming that the number approached a million.

The English writer Rose Macaulay understood the psychological effects of living in the wake of such destruction—the sense of confusion and diminishment, but also of otherworldliness and potential. In 1941, her London flat was bombed by the Luftwaffe in one of the most destructive raids of the Blitz. The experience of losing everything, and then living through the war’s aftermath, pervades her 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. In it she describes how Roman cities

crumbled away like wavestormed cliffs. In the minds of Romans and barbarians the gigantic ruins brooded, formidable unlaid ghosts; whether they liked it or not, men became ruin-haunted, ruin-minded.

One of the most famously ruin-haunted was the young English grand tourist Edward Gibbon. “It was at Rome,” he wrote,

on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was to become one of the great monuments of English prose, required reading for generations; its celebrated author told various versions of its origin story, always featuring the toppled marbles and the hooded figures that provided such a perfect backdrop for a twentysomething to think deep thoughts about the end times. The same year Gibbon found his inspiration, Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, often considered the first gothic novel. Gibbon’s wistful melancholy was just one symptom of the new Romantic aesthetic that was sweeping across Europe, bringing with it Ruinenlust (because of course there’s a German word for it): the taste for ruins of all kinds.

The phrase “decline and fall” has become so familiar that we don’t tend to dwell on its weight of moral judgment. Why did the Romans stop being the masters? What suddenly made them weak? Gibbon’s diagnosis is that it was

the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

Along with this load-bearing issue, there were bad influences from outside.

The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple.

The question of why empires fall is, naturally enough, of special interest to those who have one. As a young subaltern in Bangalore, in the summer of 1896, Winston Churchill was in search of a reading project to while away the time as he lay on his charpoy in the heat of the early afternoon. He chose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; it was, by all accounts, one of the formative intellectual experiences of his life and an influence on his own massive History of the English-Speaking Peoples. On his way back from his Indian service, Churchill stopped in Rome, “the imperial city around which my reading for so many months has centered,” wondering, as he contemplated its ruins, if the British Empire was similarly doomed. Back home in time for the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, he gave a rousing speech to a local Conservative organization in Bath:

There are not wanting those who say that in this jubilee year our empire had reached the height of its glory and power, and that now we shall begin to decline, as Babylon, Carthage, Rome declined. Do not believe these croakers but give the lie to their dismal croaking by showing by our actions that the vigor and vitality of our race is unimpaired and that our determination is to uphold the empire . . . and carry out our mission of bearing peace, civilization, and good government to the uttermost ends of the earth.

No ruin-haunted bohemian, Churchill. And yet he was to outlive the empire that he celebrated. By the end of his life, the rhetoric of the year of the Diamond Jubilee sounded like a ghostly echo of trumpets, and in his own anachronistic monumentality, he himself had come to seem like one of those colossal statues that were being discreetly relocated from legislatures and traffic islands in newly independent countries.

The successor empire has wasted no time in beginning to fret about its own decline. Comparisons to ancient Rome have been a staple of American public discourse since the country’s founding. Baked into the self-conscious classicism was the inevitable worry about what would happen if republican virtue gave way to late-imperial luxury and vice. In 2023, the New York Times could still run a hopeful opinion piece with the headline america is an empire in decline. that doesnt mean it has to fall. But the suspicion hangs in the air that because luxury and vice—or, as we moderns prefer to say, consumption—are now the engine of the economy, isn’t the stupendous fabric of the country fated to collapse under its own weight? The symptoms of decline are as many in number as their diagnosticians: the coddling of youth, the banality of mass culture, the removal of great books from the curriculum, feminism, narcissism, loneliness, relativism, jazz. Decline has been detected in the nuclear family, literacy, IQ, manufacturing, and religious observance. There are enemies within and without. After 9/11, the hate preacher Jerry Falwell thought he knew who was responsible for the decline and fall of the towers, blaming

the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America.

Once there was Bretton Woods and NATO; now there is sexual license and disharmony. One of the great postapocalyptic visions of the ruin-haunted Sixties was the final scene of Planet of the Apes, in which Charlton Heston discovers the Statue of Liberty half submerged in the sand. Often, it can feel as if America is still at the cinema, replaying his square-jawed anguish over and over again. Meanwhile, in Rome, which has had longer to get used to this kind of existential crisis, alongside the i have a dream subway map, you can also buy posters of ancient monuments—the Colosseum, St. Peter’s, the Pyramid of Cestius—rising up to reveal futuristic infrastructure. Underneath these old stones is some kind of latent future, a fantasy of robotics and propulsion chambers. History is in the process of getting up and flying away.

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