|Edward Gibbon by Sir Joshua Reynolds|
The experience of being in Rome is that of descending into a wormhole that leads to antiquity. It’s not just the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla. It’s every courtyard, balustrade, archway and balcony that connects you to the past. Sometimes it feels the set of some movie which has been restored for tourists to 20th Century Fox’s back lot. You almost have to be awakened to the fact that you’re not witnessing a rehearsal and that you're on the equivalent of a walking dig. Two thousand years later when Imperial America has long fallen, will the new inhabitants of New York still be living their normal lives in the shadow of the kinds of monumentality evidenced by the Altare della Patria (often described as the "wedding cake") that runs from Rome’s Piazza Venezia to the Capitoline Hill? London, Athens, Paris all have their precincts of pastness. In Peking you visit the Forbidden City, in St. Petersberg, the Hermitage. You read about the library that Alexandria once had. But the prospect of Rome is daunting. Historians write about the ascendancy of the Ottoman Empire centuries later. We know the facts, but seeing how resplendent Rome is and how much of it remains, one still marvels that this empire could have been eradicated? Aristotle defined tragedy as the fall of a great man. But what about a civilization? What form of theater would the philosopher have given to describe the end of an entity like Rome which once emanated the illusion of imperturbability? What will be the swan song of Imperial America or of the earth when it’s vaporized by an expanding sun? Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But beyond raw history, is there a play or poem which could create a dramatic arc, which could create a metaphor for such destruction?