The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.

After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

Such Empire, Frankish, Germanic (and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only) considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.


When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror Ottoman Mehmed II thought he was continuing the power (and idea) of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped in 1480 CE by both the Papal and Neapolitan armies.

After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.

[2014 update: allow us to remind that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, id est Caesar.


So many heirs of Rome! Seems like a futile historical game.

It is not.

Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.

The Victorians, the Italians and the USA

Benito Mussolini. Wikimedia. Public Domain

The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.

Or both the Italian patriots, who unified Italy, and later the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World.

A disproportionate idea, without a doubt.


And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)


We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)

Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?

The First French Empire

France inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest.

We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wikimedia

Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.

The person who shaped this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 –  1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Other great personages such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like, he became First Consul of the French Republic.

Then, after receiving the crown from Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire style in architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies.

Napoleon identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.

Empire silhouette Dresses. 1804. Metropolitan M. of Art. Fair use
Two dresses, ca. 1810. Courtesy of

The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?

Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:

“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today … This ancient fatherland – Gramsci argues – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”

Well, something said to displease whom? Our philosopher probably referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.

Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)

France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.

I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc.

This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer, Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion – and so forth.

But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.

If the French may envy us, we envy them more.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

76 thoughts on “France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

  1. @Paul
    Yes, the Norman conquest of England, when the English had to learn some French lol.
    Well, rhetorical questions shouldn’t require an answer, but yes, love is said to be blind.


  2. Italy did change sides in WWII, but was it “only” because they went to the “winning” side or were they just doing what they should have done in the first play and be an allied country? Mussolini made the decision to be part of the axis but if I’m not mistaken didn’t this surprise the majority of Italians?


    I think both reasons. Let us not forget that Mussolini had a lot of consensus. Loads of people, thinking he was a genius, followed him and his war, he couldn’t be mistaken. The cultivated people only trembled at the idea of fighting against Great Britain and France. And Hitler, not many realised what a real monster he was.

    *Warning*: if I can say stupidities in ancient stuff, might get worse with modern & contemporary stuff.

    Italians good sports in soccer? There’s a great book titled, “Winning at all cost: A Scandalous History Of Italian Soccer” by John Foot.

    MoR: Bad, very bad indeed and a moronic behaviour.


  3. @Paul

    True love does not need to be blind.

    Ok, but one thing is loving a woman, another thing loving one’s country. Les peuples parfois … folks sometimes are stupid when it comes to their fatherland. In some French 19th century paintings the Romans are depicted as total idiots (see *here*), while Vercingetorix looks like an inspired medieval Lord. Or the Germans, with their monuments of *Arminius* (Herman), the guy who defeated Varo’s legions in the Teutoburg Forest and made Augustus close to distraction.

    (Or Man of Roma, when it comes to Rome) 😉


  4. @MoR, bon, vu comme cela, il est peut-être mieux, en effet, que l’amour soit aveugle.


  5. En fait, certain(e)s d’entre nous (et je fais parti du lot) reprochent à l’Italie son passé belliqueux, et ce que leurs ancêtres romains ont fait aux nôtres (celtes et germains). Les romains ont détruit notre culture (celtique et germanique) et civilisation, et l’on remplacé par la leur (greco-latine).

    C’est un drame d’avoir une apparence physique celtique et germanique, mais d’avoir une langue et une culture incompatible avec nos origines septentrionales.


  6. @olbodala

    Grazie. Sei il primo francese del mio blog!

    Je comprends, and I am sorry. Pour votre commentaire, il faudrait un livre pour répondre!

    Les Romains étaient des vainqueurs. En plus, même si la culture celtique était plus complexe qu’on y pense, la Méditerranéen était généralement plus civilisée a cette époque la.

    Aux Italiens du nord (mon père était de là) est arrivé exactement la même chose: celtiques, ils ont perdu leur civilisation.

    Selon plusieurs savants (Braudel, Gramsci etc.), lorsque deux cultures se heurtent il y a deux éléments au moins qui jouent: la force et la séduction (= due à la complexité, à la richesse de la culture même etc.), la première n’étant pas suffisante.

    Simplifiant, un cas classique est celui des Romains et des Grecs. Les Romains ont gagné avec la force, mais les Grecs ont gagné sur eux avec la séduction de leur richesse culturelle.

    Cela n’a pas été le cas quand les Romains et les Celtes se sont heurtés. Si les Celtes ont perdu leur culture, cela veut quand même dire quelque chose.

    Et, inversement, si la civilisation gréco-romaine n’a presque pas laissé des traces en Afrique du Nord ou au Moyen Orient, cela veut aussi dire quelque chose.

    Ce qui ne veut pas dire que la quasi totale destruction de la civilisation celtique ne soit pas une tragédie.

    J’ai oublié les Francs, un peuple germanique qui conquit la Gaule ou France. Évidement, ils exerçant de la force mais pas assez de la séduction, ils sont étés latinisés.


    1. Intéressant point de vue, Giovanni. Doit-on comprendre que les britanniques ont manqué de séduction pour les Québécois puisque la culture française reste florissante au Québec malgré notre immersion dans un océan anglophone?
      Paul Costopoulos


  7. Il primo francese del tuo blog è il tuo sottoscritto cugino… Spero di leggerlo presto in italiano poiché il mio inglese è troppo “rusty” per capire tutto.


    1. Grazie cugino Christian Calcagni! Felice di risentirti. Un Calcagni francesem ma pansa tu … (lo dico ai lettori, io già fui sorpreso, in passato).

      Beh, usa Google Translate. Voi Francesi ve dovete nu poco apri’ anche all’inglese, no? Ho preparato un file audio da inserire qui che piega (in un mio francese ‘in rianimazione’) la modesta opinione personale che i francesi se devono un po’ aprì 😉

      Saluti da Roma a Milano.


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