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from issue no. 06/07 - 2004

A SINGLE POWER. The differences between the pax romana and the pax americana.

Rome and the limits of its empire

An interview with Luciano Canfora, Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Bari, historian and editorial writer for Corriere della Sera. His book, Noi e gli antichi [The ancients and us. Why the study of the Greeks and the Romans helps the understanding of moderns], has just been republished by Rizzoli.

by Pina Baglioni

Battle between the Romans and Germans, Ludovisi sarcophagus, Roman National Museum, Palazzo Altemps, Roma

Battle between the Romans and Germans, Ludovisi sarcophagus, Roman National Museum, Palazzo Altemps, Roma

Defined as «dissector of ideologies, dismantler of dogmas, scourge of conformities, an uncomfortable teacher», Luciano Canfora has just republished, in a new amplified and enriched edition, the fundamental essay of 2002, Noi e gli antichi. Perché lo studio dei Greci e dei Romani giova all’ intelligenza dei moderni. In it a method of research almost unique in Italy is set out: one provides a true history of the past only if it succeeds in clarifying something about the present. A highly relevant topic today. Luciano Canfora agreed to answer some questions.

One of the key judgments in your book is that the way to “utilize” ancient history in intelligent fashion is to aim at knowing per differentiam. What are the differences between the actual attempt to impose the pax americana and the ancient pax romana as you see them?
LUCIANO CANFORA: A significant difference lies in the actual destructive power of weapons. The Romans knew (though they presented their empire as universal) that they were limited, abroad, by the Parthians (a bordering and rival empire) and by the Germans, (that is by peoples that the Romans considered “inferior” but weren’t able to dominate). Today, the Chinese “empire” is also a rival and bordering (like the ancient Parthians), while the people who identify themselves in “Islamic fundamentalism”, these also represented as being less civilized (or uncivilized), keep themselves beyond the dominion of the American empire (as did the ancient Germans). Today, however, the American empire could bring the whole world to catastrophe (a nuclear war against China, already according to some a possibility for 2016). The Romans instead did not have a military technology so superior as to be tempted to use it whatever the consequences might be. Ergo, our current situation, from that point of view, is a great deal worse.
In terms of singleness of power and its consequences, our director, Senator Giulio Andreotti, recently says in this issue that «Africa is the forgotten continent and that the end of the Cold War also saw an end to much of the aid provided for political reasons by Russians, Americans and even Chinese».
CANFORA: I totally agree with Andreotti’s analysis. I would add a reflection taken from the book written over a decade ago by the former Soviet mathematician Aleksandr Zinov’ev, The fall of the «Evil Empire». The West – Zinov’ev wrote – not only does not want to but cannot “export” its standards of living to the rest of the world. The West as a whole, even with its enclaves of poverty, lives too well and doesn’t want to lose anything of its material well-being. The resources of the planet could never permit the extension of such a “brazenly opulent” style and standard of living to all humanity. Thence the lying character of the alleged “exportation of democracy” of which so much is said. The bipolar structure and the “system competition” of the seventies-eighties of the twentieth century forced the superpowers to help others instead. And this was a good thing, as well as being a form of tendential (though not spontaneous) equal distribution.
Baghdad, 9 April 2003. American troops pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein

Baghdad, 9 April 2003. American troops pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein

The Catholic Church has, as far as possible, always attempted to favor a plurality of powers against a single holder of worldly power. That political tradition seems to have been interrupted by Centesimus annus, with its chapter in praise of 1989.
CANFORA: The Catholic Church is clearly the most enduring institution on the planet. The political causes (I omit those of another kind, though also important) that allowed it this are at least two: a) knowing how to adapt, but in a manner neither precipitous nor purely “opportunistic”, to epochal political changes (the capacity to withstand 1789-1815, Bonaparte’s concordat included, is emblematic; as the work of a Casaroli in terms of Poland and East Europe is emblematic); b) never aligning itself totally with only one side in the struggles for power (even if decked out in ideology). Failing to hold on to either of these two pillars would be a mistake on the part of the leadership of the Church. It’s to be hoped that the mistake never happens.
In a recent article you wrote: «The vitality of Catholicism in vast worlds, far from the Roman-Curial continuity, owes nothing to the remote heritage of temporal power».
CANFORA: Briefly and schematically one could say that the proof of the extraordinary vitality given by Catholicism in the age of decolonization consisted in its capacity to root itself in worlds (such as Brazil for example) where the tradition of “temporal power”, the “Roman question”, etc., had no significance. With the end of the temporal power, the story of Catholicism has in reality begun again, on much broader bases. An historical phenomenon of extraordinary interest.

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