A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (2). Is a Roman ‘Race’ Surviving?

Arch of Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus
Arch of Titus Flavius Vespasianus at the Roman Forum. Click for credits and a larger picture

Lichanos
But I don’t understand why you say the Jews are the most ancient Romans. What about non-Jews whose families have been in Rome just as long? Or are there none, what with migration, free movement, and the currents of history? Are you saying that the ghetto and the social restrictions on Jews kept their community intact all that time while others dissolved? THAT would be quite an irony!

MoR
Yes, the ghetto, the social restrictions and the tenacious interrelation ethnicity / religion / nationality typical of the Jews helped them to remain sort of intact compared to other Romans, I believe [see below the ethnicity thing.]

Are they Roman, Jew or both? Both in my view. And their Roman side is very ancient, there’s a lot of evidence: their cooking, their behaviours, their vernacular sooo Roman and archaic to our ears.

I mean, why shouldn’t they be Roman? After living in Rome and beholding the Tiber for 2,000 years …

An irony? Roman-ness has nothing to do with an ethnic group. It’s cultural transmission, like at the (multi-ethnic) times of the Empire.

I’ll try to explain this roman-ness concept the way I see it.

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

A. Being Roman in antiquity meant an ethnic thing only in early Republican times. With the late Republic and the Empire “Rome” and its territories became a huge melting pot, more or less like America today (Pompey had Celtic blood and Cato the younger had a slave among his ancestors.)

Very strong cultural traits [one can check ‘Romanitas’ in any history manual] were transmitted to Berbers, Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Gauls, Spaniards, South and West Germans, Romanians etc. Even the class of the emperors was multi-ethnic, and polytheism made every creed and religion accepted. Focusing on Rome only, it was additionally populated by so many slaves coming from anywhere that it is foolish to think in terms of a Roman “race” surviving today.

B. Being Roman today. As for Romanness today, I clearly feel connections between an ancient Roman and a Roman of today.

The ancient Roman populace progressively lost its simplicity, temperance and character. Even the poor were proud of living in Rome (the Jews were among the poor) and had ‘panem et circenses’ without any merit.

Privileged and spoiled compared to other folks they became bit by bit crass, indolent, cynical, blasphemous, braggart, with a couldn’t-care-less attitude towards anything.

They nonetheless retained bits of magnanimity, of a sense of universalism, and a good nature and compassion that comes from the ancient Romans (yes, the Romans were compassionate and had a good nature).

The Roman actor Aldo Frabrizi
The Roman actor Aldo Fabrizi, a modern Roman icon

Their vulgar Latin turned little by little into this loose modern dialect that is either loved unconditionally or hated in this country, and which can be terribly concise and abrupt. The true Roman – a species dying out – doesn’t speak that much, he is ironic, full of humour, and can knock you out with very few words, as the Calcagnis, my grandmother’s family, could do (and did).

We are all sons of the base empire a bit! But in our decadence there’s vitality and toughness – some old Romans look like lions and jump off the Tiber bridges even in their 70s.

The modern Roman verve is well depicted in *Carlo Calcagni’s memoirs*.

And, when Leone Limentani the Jew exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!”- it was a typically Roman (more than Jewish) scene [see the previous post for it.]

A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (1) The Roman Jews

A view of Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1729-1778)
A view of Rome. Etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1729-1778). Click for credits and larger picture

The previous post on the Roman Jews had kicked off an interesting conversation with readers and especially with Lichanos on a theme central in this blog: Romanness past and present.

Huge topic, I know.

Lichanos’ energizing comments have though compelled me to clarify and integrate what I had in mind. I really thank ALL my readers for their contribution. Discussion helps to clarify and enrich lumpy mind stuff still at an intuition stage (see my method post.)

My friend Mario has told me recently: “You are exploiting your commentatori”.

Roman-like, and using polite words in my translation, I told him he better shut his helluva mouth up.

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

MoR
So what Davide Limentani said is probably true: the Roman Jews are the most ancient Romans surviving. The origin of their roman-ness appears to be prior to the era of the Flavian Emperors. Actually Jews have lived in Rome for over 2,000 years!

Lichanos
I don’t understand why you say the Jews are the most ancient Romans. What about non-Jews whose families have been in Rome just as long? Or are there none, what with migration, free movement, and the currents of history? Are you saying that the ghetto and the social restrictions on Jews kept their community intact all that time while others dissolved? THAT would be quite an irony!

MoR
Yes, the ghetto, the social restrictions and the tenacious interrelation ethnicity / religion / nationality typical of the Jews helped them to remain sort of intact compared to other Romans, I believe.

Are they Roman, Jewish or both? Both in my view. And their Roman side is very ancient, there’s a lot of evidence: their cooking, their behaviours, their vernacular sooo Roman and archaic to our ears. I mean, why shouldn’t they be Roman? After living in Rome and beholding the Tiber for 2,000 years …

An irony? Romanness has nothing to do with an ethnic group. It’s cultural transmission, like at the (multi-ethnic) times of the Empire.

Lichanos
Touché! The stereotype inverted! I was thinking it was ironic because Jews are usually thought of as the “other – not us” group, so it seemed ironic that they would be the most Roman. Of course the Jews are the most Roman, stands to reason given their history there…

MoR
Jews … usually thought of as the “other – not us” group
A bit being due to elements of the Jewish culture, people who see the Jews as aliens are either racist, stupid or narrow-minded (I’ll bypass the religious fanatics). Variety is what makes life interesting! Plus they are usually very intelligent, which is not bad these days.

Ψ

My personal take on Romanness has been pruned from the above conversation for the sake of readability. See the upcoming post for it. The Roman Jews (2) writing will soon follow.

On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World

Festa de Noantri. Trastevere. Madonna Fiumarola. From EternallyCool

The discussion over the third from last post had focused a) on a different vision of Italy by Italians from Italy and by North Americans of Italian origin; b) on Italian and Roman roots and the survival of ways which the Roman actress Anna Magnani epitomizes.

This post is mainly reporting the discussion over the second topic. I hence apologize to those readers whose comments have been omitted. I also apologize since all published comments have been edited out for the sake of brevity. Here you can read the original discussion.

Ψ

MoR. When I wrote this post I had some headache and I later realised a few words were not just right. For example, Anna Magnani “weird mixture of nobility and abjection …” was overstated. I changed ‘abjection’ with ‘crudity’. Such crudity, not deprived of nobleness, is present almost only in Rome in my view. I’m sure the great and unusual past of the eternal city has something to do with it.

Market at Testaccio. From EternallyCool. Click for credits

Joe@italyville. In my opinion, you must be critical of your country. What would have happened if there was no criticism of Mussolini or Bush. If we didn’t criticize the handling of New Orleans or the trash in the streets of Napoli. [Joe’s blog]

The Commentator. These videos and songs remind me of my close friend Flavio who is, like me, Canadian born and my age. In the 1990s, I devoured Italian and French films ad nauseam. In the case of Italian films two defining characteristics stood out for me: humor, as in using humor to deal with the hard side of Italian life. The other was realism. Italians faced their decadence through film. My close friend Flavio made the exact same remarks about Romans as you said in your post. He found them to be crude. [The Commentator’s blog]

MoR. Well, Rome is so beautiful that those who have produced such beauty cannot be defined as just ‘crude’. There must be something else.

Pantheon by night

Joanne at Frutto della Passione. As a Canadian of Italian descent, living in Italy I know without a doubt that my view of Italy is very different from my father’s (Italian born, immigrated to Canada) who views it as the motherland and has romanticized it and all of his memories. My view? It changes almost daily. Somedays I love it beyond words other days it frustrates me to the point of tears. [Joanne’s blog]

MoR. I understand your difficulties, despite your roots. Well, here in Italy habits survive that puzzle many foreigners, historical remnants whose disadvantages towards ‘modernity’ seem clear. Are they only disadvantages? Foreigners from North America surely don’t come to Rome or to Naples to admire how scientifically organized traffic is. They come to enjoy other stuff (and not just the monuments.)

Commentator. Just would like to add something else. While there’s no doubt many still look fondly back on Italy, there are still others who don’t. I’ve known and met many Italians who wanted to forget everything about the old country and wanted nothing to do with it. Such was their anger towards her.

MoR. As I told Joanne, some survivals are real obstacles to progress. The “patron-client” relationship, for example, present here in disgusting ways: in universities, in state institutions and in the civil society of areas of the country. I don’t think it’s by chance that ‘patronatus’, ‘patronus’, ‘clientes’ are Ancient Roman words and concepts. I mean, favouritisms, recommendations etc. are here so ingrained that the best brains fly to countries where there is more meritocracy.

Colosseum candy at piazza Navona. EternallyCool. Click for credits

Paul Costopoulos. Dear MoR, “favouritism” exists everywhere. Here, we call it the “Old boys network” or “le patronage”, in Québec. Merit certainly enters the equation somewhere but «knowing the right person» is of great help. What my women friends of all origins were bothered by in Italy was the ogling and buttocks pinching they endured. It seems Italian males have restless hands. Maybe that is what Frutto della passione is writing about. Fruit of passion…very evocative. [Paul’s blog]

MoR. Ah ah ah, Paul, you made me laugh! Yes, you made me laugh but then you depressed me (even though I’ll say aloud to my female readers that I don’t go around pinching buttocks.)

Paul. Cheer up Man, certainly the sun and warm Mediterranean climate is responsible for all that. All those provocative sculptures that ornate your squares, fountains and even churches are probably the main culprits. They overstimulate and induce into temptation even the most hardy souls as so many popes attest to. The Medicis popes surely are eloquent examples.

MoR. Yes, Paul, yes, even the most hardy souls, no doubt.

Paul. You show great fortitude.

MoR. I do, Paul.

[See a post on Italian Don Juanism, an irritating behaviour now declining, to tell the truth]

Commentator. Quebec functions very much like a Latin country (corruption, patronage etc.), like Italy – only it’s not so overt.

Paul. Commentator, it’s not only less overt, it’s also less. Under Maurice Duplessis, from 1936 to 1960 it was rampant and well organised, since then checks have been put in place…

Anna Magnani in the film Mamma Roma

Commentator. Here’s yet another thing regarding M. Anna Magnani. I was observing her and couldn’t help but notice she shares a common trait with how Italian women are generally perceived here. There are more “Anna’s” than women with the sensibilities or accent of a Northerner. Here, it’s all Rome and south. I went to school with many tough, joyous “Anna’s.” And you know what? There was indeed a certain way to them. What came off as crude didn’t mean there wasn’t a typically Italian panache to them. Shoot, in my family alone we have a gal that pretty much is Anna.

Mor. People in fact migrated from the most traditional areas of this country. I too like this crudity: it has verve, dash. Wow, so you have an Anna in family. Well, I do also, to a certain extent. These Annas I call ‘ancient’. Fellini said Anna (Annas) is/are a symbol and a survival. This he also meant by “She-wolf and Vestal, aristocratic and tramp, dark and buffoonish;” (listen to him saying it to Anna in the film “Roma”.)

I’m sure the perception of the artist is sometimes superior to that of the scholar. On the other hand, in my opinion, a peasant from the Italian South (or from Greece) is closer to the Greco-Romans than any historian of antiquity.

Moreover it could be that in the New World – and you seem to confirm it – some primordial traits are preserved, like hibernated, while here they can disappear: take archaisms in language (US ‘gotten’ instead of the more recent UK ‘got’), or cultures like the Amish in Ohio & Pennsylvania.
Actually I met a stunning Anna from Chicago here in Rome. This post tells about her .

Commentator. We are caught in an “Italy from a time past.” My friend went to Sicily in the early 1990s and they laughed at his accent. “We don’t speak dialect any more!”

MoR. Which makes the New World even more fascinating to me!

Female Portrait. Mosaic from PompeiiPaul. Man of Roma, the so called New World is a reservoir of cultures. The USA has strived to homogenize, the others such as Canada have taken pain to recognize, and even preserve, the cultures of their immigrant citizens. Thus our Anglophones speak a Victorian English, dans plusieurs régions du Canada les francophones parlent la langue de la province française de leurs ancêtres. The others tend to bunch together often by villages or towns they come from and keep the traditions and languages, at least the second, and at times third, generation. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver all have strong ethnic neighbourhoods where you find restaurants, stores, groceries, newspapers all catering to the native tongue of their inhabitants. It’s the Canadian mosaic…and I love it.

Roman woman. Late Republic. Click for credits

MoR. The Commentator had told me a bit about this USA – Canada difference. I have to get to Canada some day. I think I have a friend living in Toronto. I might love Montreal better though. Some students had told me Montreal is like a world-wide francophone hub, thence my interest.

Exposrip. As for melting pot versus multiculturalism I think I break with Paul here. Personally, enshrining multiculturalism in the Charter is nonsense. [Exposrip’s blog, warehouse of Commentator’s stories]

MoR. I see your point about multiculturalism: you care more about a Canadian identity, which I can understand. Although, call it selfishness, I like that somewhere things are preserved.

Paul. Go to Little Italy around La Madonna della Diffesa and you won’t know you are in Montreal. You may even not hear a word of French or English, but maybe lots of Abruzzi and Calabresi. As for food well you will judge. Caffe Italia may also please you.

Commentator. I think MOR would want to observe French-Canadian culture in action on rue St. Denis.

Paul. I agree with The Commentator, St-Denis and the Latin Quarter aroud UQAM are French Montreal “par excellence”.

MoR. I’ll be there Paul.

Canadians of Italian descent in Little Italy, Montreal

Paul. Welcome, and let us know, perhaps we could arrange a little informal meeting…however risky that may be…you know the Web and all that.

MoR. Thank you for saying that Paul. Oh … of course Paul, the risky chat encounters … I’ll bring my 4 bodyguards.

Paul. Sounds like a Maffia boss, I may hide. Ha! Ha!

MoR. Ah ah ah

(*Silly Roman laugh…making a phone call in search of the four boys*)

Ψ

Other related posts:

Italian Songs. Anna Magnani, Dean Martin, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors
Pre-Christian Rome lives
Experiencing All

Are We Going Anywhere?

Gorilla-thinking. Fair use

My time has been limited in the last days so I could not prepare the post I had in mind.

What I can say is that this blog is going better than I thought.

Despite the fact that – as I said – “our topics are too heavy for the common reader while too unsophisticated for the happy few” the number of hits has been greater than expected.

We have published 47 posts and received 395 comments (some of which very long) which means some discussion has arisen from the themes presented. The discussion has been international, which greatly pleases us: Indian, American, British, Chinese, Swedish, Italian readers have commented. It is our intention to dedicate a future post to readers’ feedback and ideas.

This is only a brief moment of pause and not a thorough overview of our activity, which might occur after 12 months of blogging have elapsed.

I have to say that it is a bit fatiguing to write in a foreign language but since some people from America and the UK have praised my way of writing, this means my English is decent enough and that I make myself understood.

ψ

The main point though being another one.

In a previous post I had said that this blog is ‘a man-in-the-street-of-Rome research on Roman-ness’.

Now I am asking myself: is this research going anywhere?

I do not know yet. I do not really know. I feel I am getting somewhere though I still don’t know where 😉

See you soon.

Man of Roma