Sunday, January 24, 2016

What happened to Rome?

You might be wondering what happened to me, as I have not posted here in some time.  True, I was buried in work and family commitments, but I still found time to read, so if I had really wanted to write, I could have.

The disheartening thing about social media is that it reveals the creative genius of everyone else. Most people are not only passable authors, they are darn good ones.  And the videos teenage boys everywhere are creating~well, the legitimate media world ought to be beefing up its collective resume.

To add another voice into this above average mix seemed pointless.  Okay, so I loved Kate Atkinson's companion novels, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, so much that I cried reading the latter.  But the idea of casting this cry into something creative wearied me. The final post would not be as good as someone's else's about the exact same thing, both easily laid down and measured word to word by Google the master builder.

So, I just decided to continue reading, and I had no desire to write about anything until last Friday, when I had a discussion with my son about Rome.

I had been reading The Borgias: A Hidden History by G.J. Meyer.  (It was only after starting this book that I realized there is a Showtime series called "The Borgias." Now I wish we had another free preview weekend.)  I knew nothing about the Borgias, except for having a vague idea that Lucrezia was a scheming shrew.  Meyer's premise in this family biography is that the Borgias weren't really as bad as everyone thought.  Over the centuries, enemy gossip hardened from hearsay into fact, Meyer hints. Less scholarly sources on the internet lead me to believe that Meyer is in the minority~cyberspace articles gleefully crow about Borgia corruption. Meyer seems more concerned with chronicling every single Italian city-state battle during the Renaissance, whether or not a Borgia was present. Frankly, the narrative is a little dry, although his "Life in Rome" type chapters  are very good, describing malarial banquets and necromancy. There's even a little bit about syphilis and masks. That's good stuff.

Well, you can imagine that the world of the Borgias would be a good starting point for a conversation with someone intrigued by Rome, which our son is.  Truth be told, I was only reading The Borgias to learn about Rome in a roundabout way.  I could have picked up a travel guide, but I learn better about a place if it's couched in fiction or biography.  I want to know about the Eternal City, but I really can't take such a huge topic head-on. It's intimidating. So, my son and I are eating turkey sandwiches, and I ask him how to pronounce "Cesare," and he answers my question (which any of you with teenagers knows doesn't always happen), so I ask him another question:  what happened to Rome?

And he tells me.

Now, if you want to learn about the fall of Rome, there are plenty of books, both paper and electronic to help with that goal. I won't go into detail here, but believe me, bad emperors and decapitation in the Teutoburg Forest are juicy stories worth pursuing.

What I will tell you is this: good conversation can spring from a so-so book.  It's a kind of miracle to learn history from one's child.  He knows more than I do about many, many things, including antiquity.  Trajan's Column and Hadrian's Tomb, and the Vatican, all buried deep in my mind, now excavated by this discussion. Why those things are there, and what happened after they were built, and what's happened since.  As he reminded me of history, I saw the gray St. Johns River through the restaurant window, spanned by bridges and trains, palm trees bending to the wind on both shores. It had been a gloomy day with rain showers, but I could see a patch of blue sky just then.

We are such creatures of our place and time, I thought, is it possible, just for a little while, to be more than that? To break away from existing in Jacksonville, Florida, 2016 C.E? Yes, it is possible when you start scraping at history, and what you dig up makes sense through the eyes of someone young enough to be your son, and, luckily, who is.

As we walked back from lunch, I looked up, and the same bridge that skirted the river looked like a cathedral from underneath.  I pointed this out to my son, and he said, just wait until you get to Rome, you won't think that anymore. I thought, now there's something to write about!

So I will.