The Rome We Have Lost Cover

The Rome We Have Lost

John Pemble

Oxford University Press, New York, 2018, 192 pages

Book Review published on: May 3, 2019

For more than a thousand years, Rome represented the West and what it meant to be Western. However, after 1870, it became a husk of what it had been, leading to “the tribulations of Europe and the West [that] began rather than ended with the loss of this emblematic and fabled city.” With that bold stroke, Pemble kicks off his analysis.

The author, undeniably a gifted writer, does a commendable job corralling a slew of facts and trends over, in some instances, millennia. Pemble’s book “sets this seismic shift of Rome from the center to the margins of Western consciousness in a broad, historical-intellectual context … [that is] thematic rather than chronological.” Remarkably, he does this in a brief span of only 137 pages. Brevity aside, it is dense in terms of the breadth and depth it delivers. As Pemble puts it, “If you give words room to resonate—by not using ten of them when five will do—then it’s possible even now, at a time of verbal hyperinflation and obese books, to write an appealing short study of a great subject.”

Pemble’s narrative about Rome is a slice of the ongoing public debate about European (primarily Anglo-Saxon) culture and identity. A prolific author, he has been at the University of Bristol since 1977 where he serves as Senior Research Fellow. He weaves together cultural, intellectual, and political history to show how Rome shaped Western understanding of what it meant to be modern and what it meant to be European. In doing so, he traces the transformation of the city from “Old Rome,” a cosmopolitan beacon, enshrined in myth and legend, to “New Rome,” a national capital encumbered with heritage. All of this is done to offer a novel perspective (and possible solution) to the current crisis of Western confidence, specifically Europe’s.

To say Pemble is erudite is an understatement. His observations on a panoply of subjects, all of which he feels are connected in some fashion to the evolution (or devolution) of Rome, are both graceful and thoughtful—indisputable evidence of someone who knows a great deal about a great deal. And yet, notwithstanding all he brings to the effort, his thesis is a Herculean task which, ultimately, he is unable to successfully culminate.

Despite marshalling a wealth of information and crafting multiple “threads” to support his central argument, those amassed threads are not woven into a holistic tapestry that definitively make a connection between Rome’s demise and many of the West’s contemporary problems. He contends his self-identified pillars of “modernity”—the Renaissance, civilization, the Enlightenment—encapsulated by Rome, were eroded and replaced by politically correct postmodernism and postcolonialism. Precisely what those two words mean is difficult to define. Suffice it to say the critiques that spewed forth from those “isms” regarding what preceded them is anemic at best. Indeed, Pemble suggests we are in the beginning stages of a return to modernity precisely because those more recent isms, while able to criticize what came before, lacked the capacity to replace those periods with something more substantive.

In the book, Pemble tries to do two things: First, establish a foundation to show that, collectively, the charisma, and even the stumbles, of Rome in “modern” times were, nevertheless, a constructive force; and second, explain how the rejection of identification with “Old Rome” led to the current malaise afflicting the West in the face of new, complex global challenges.

To that second end, he chronicles what he sees as the communal, evolutionary perception of Rome morphing from a city of light to one filled with darkness. He highlights how advances in archeology (both technological and methodological) led many to eventually believe Rome was but a repository of artistic replicas, the originals to be found elsewhere, like Greece and Asia Minor. Rome, to a growing number, was increasingly viewed as a façade, home to captured trophies, stolen heritage, and perfected artificiality. Why go to “the capital of copies” and idealistic recreations? Why not embrace reality, in all its brokenness, disfigurement, and—most importantly—authenticity? And then there was the wrenching birth of the Italian state which transformed Rome into a national rather than European city, the beginning of a slide away from “modernity.” Add to those developments many others. And finally, there was “the war to end all wars.” With its conclusion, there was an inevitable search for why it occurred. The answers, at least in part, swung European culture away from Rome and the past, toward something else but away from Rome and all Rome had come to represent to a European culture throttled to its core by 1918.

Certainly, Pemble set an ambitious goal. For that, I commend him. And I recommend the book. But ultimately, it must be said, Pemble never accomplishes the task he set for himself: To demonstrate how the loss of Rome as the cultural epicenter of Western identification is somehow the root cause for “the crisis Europe is now confronting as it struggles to reinvent itself without its ancestral center.” From this vantage point, that task remains incomplete and elusive.

It is unclear how Rome’s transformation from epicenter of the Western world to mere capital of the Italian state has a direct correlation to any seeming European (and Western) malaise, though the symbolism is not lost on this reviewer. Pemble’s Rome is emblematic of a shared and thoroughly digested understanding of European culture and past by those who live within it. But does Europe, or the West in general, share such a unified past, let alone agree on it? If not, then can Rome’s transmutation following Italian unification in 1870, isolation of the papacy within the walls and tight confines of the Vatican, and conversion of the city itself from “moonlit ruins [to] floodlit monuments on traffic islands” be the root cause of any alleged European or Western malaise?

Pemble is onto something, but it is likely only part of a collage of developments rather than a monolithic explanation for what ails the West in the wake of what Francis Fukuyama once heralded as the end of history. It seemed, for many decades, Europe was, in fact, making steady progress toward a new form of existence (NATO, EU, demise of the Soviet Union, the Eurozone, NATO expansion, etc.) other regions might someday follow. Today, in a tumultuous, globalized world, with the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” just days away and the idea of European unity in tatters, one has to wonder about the longevity and reversibility of such previously ballyhooed developments. Tracing it all back to Rome, The Rome We Have Lost seems a stretch.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, U.S. Air Force, PhD, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas