I guess it’s true: Men really are from Mars.
The recent social media ripple where women questioned the infatuation men have for ancient Rome on TikTok videos left me feeling exposed. How did t strangers know so much about me? Phillip Campbell’s response in Angelus provided a solid foundation as to how the Rome of long ago still matters today with respect to language, architecture, etc., but I think he gave short shrift to the cultural aspect of Rome — and especially how Rome was portrayed to a couple generations’ worth of impressionable boys like me.
I feel like I should join a 12-step recovery group. Hello, my name is Robert, and I wax on relentlessly about the Punic Wars. I have been known to reference the Roman Empire in polite conversation, around dinner tables and other social events. If no one shares my affinity for Caesar’s bold move in crossing the Rubicon with his army in tow, things can get awkward.
I think the reason a lot of men of a certain vintage still think about Rome is not that they spent so much time reading Virgil, but that they spent that time in darkened movie theaters and in front of television screens, watching Hollywood’s sword and sandal epics.
In a not so ancient past, Roman Empire-themed films would be re-released into theaters or shown on the “late show” on TV. The result would be legions of neighborhood kids pouring out onto the streets, forming cohorts ready to do battle with barbarians. We used trash can lids as shields, fashioned swords from scrap wood, and made spears out of mop handles secured by brazen, clandestine raids on our mother’s broom closets that Marcus Aurelius would have admired.
Maybe it was just a boy thing. Like western movies, the Roman epics of my youth spoke to some inner desire to be brave, bold, and heroic. But there was something else about these films that spoke to our Catholic hearts. Almost without exception, these films that fired our imaginations and spawned many campaigns from neighborhood centurions could be reverse engineered and seen as deeply religious undertakings. Us Catholic boys may have been more concerned with the integrity of our “turtle” formation in defense against incoming dirt clods from the tribe across the street, but these films were also reinforcing our faith.
If you were well versed in your Baltimore Catechism, you understood what was happening to the main characters in “Ben-Hur,” “Quo Vadis,” and “The Robe.” During the era of the Hollywood historical epic, it was said that these films were made by Jewish producers, for Protestant audiences, with Catholic theology. Their plots could not exist without either the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, or both.
I was barely old enough to remember seeing “Ben-Hur” from the back of an overcrowded station wagon at a drive in. I was asleep before Charlton Heston’s oar ever touched water in that slave galley, let alone conscious enough to see the famous chariot race in all its widescreen glory. I wasn’t born when “Quo Vadis” and “The Robe” were made. Thanks to the “magic” of television, these films lived on. They were “events” at our house when they were broadcast into our living rooms. The formatting was not great, and half the chariot teams in “Ben-Hur” were lost due to the limitations of mid-20th-century cathode ray tube technology.
As we get older and begin to realize, after the umpteenth viewing of these films, how they are fanciful Hollywood versions of history, those of us who still yearned for the adventure would eventually get around to Virgil and more serious investigations of the Roman world. Like Phillip Campbell suggests, the truth is many times more remarkable than the fiction we so gleefully consumed as children.
I would like to think I have taken St. Paul’s (a Roman citizen, by the way) advice and put aside the things of my childhood. But I can still hold fast and, even to the point of obsession, remain curious about the impact the Roman world had on so many things today.
Maybe my lifelong curiosity about ancient Rome first sprung from Hollywood epics. The facts remain, philosophy got serious with Athens. God injected himself into Jerusalem. And Rome, which was once the nemesis of the faith, became the conduit by which it would spread. So, I guess I can say without fear of contradiction, “omnes viae Romam.”