Lewis Mumford

Rome from Megalopolis into Necropolis




This is an extract from Chapter 8 of Lewis Mumford's The City In History. The author describes with powerful images the decadence of Rome from Megalopolis into Necropolis, with the spread of external exploitation and internal parasitism. Panem et circenses became the way of life of a vast Roman populace that, in so doing, prepared its own demise.



As an empire, Rome had succeeded better than Athens, which had never been strong enough to protect, even for a generation, the areas it exploited. Yet Rome had not in fact succeeded. For the city of Scipio's and Cicero's dreams vanished even before the sleepers awoke: in fact, it had never existed. Rome's order, Rome's justice, Rome's peace were all built on a savage exploitation and suppression. At its highest point, Rome was an oak whose wide-spreading branches hid the rottenness that was eating from within at the base of the trunk: the pigs might snout for truffles, which flourish best under diseased oaks, in the nearby earth, but more nourishing kind of food would not grow beneath those branches. The Empire, which had pushed back the barbarous tribes that threatened its borders, had erected a greater barbarism at the very heart of its dominion, in Rome itself. Here the prospect of wholesale destruction and extermination from which the city had largely escaped, thanks to Roman arms, came back in the acting out of even more pathological fantasies. Predatory success underwrote a sickening parasitic failure.

The very name 'parasite' was a necessary Roman invention to describe a human relationship that had never before taken such a recognizable, indubitably pathological form. The Roman patricians had for long boasted of a procession of clients, who waited on them and bolstered up their egos: originally, the client was the self-supporting, presumably self-respecting tenant farmer or share cropper of a big landlord, dependent only for his allotment of land, but quite capable of earning his own living. The parasite had sunk much lower: he no longer had any positive economic relation to his patron: he was the fawning hanger-on, the inveterate sponger, who had no other means of livelihood than the bounties and favours of his host. By fastening himself on a rich man, he lost any possibility of independent locomotion or independent support. There are many precedents of this in the animal world.

In nature, this parasitism is often as ruinous to the host as it is to the creature that battens on him: if the latter loses the capacity for free movement or self-maintenance, the host, in turn, becomes dependent and must exert himself further to keep the seemingly weaker creature going. The rich and powerful often found themselves in this position: the decent living that they refused to give the lower classes on economic terms, they were forced to yield in outbursts of indiscriminate public largesse. Now Rome's parasitism was at first brought on and literally fed by Rome's very success in predatory conquest; and it ended by producing in a more general form the same functionless, empty, and dependent life for rich and poor alike, filled with unappeasable appetites and unresolvable anxieties.

In Rome, a whole population, numbering hundreds of thousands, took on the parasitic role for a whole lifetime; and the spreading Empire was turned into an apparatus for ensuring their continued existence, ‘supporting them in the state to which they were accustomed’, by shamelessly bribing the army that alone guaranteed the flow of tribute, slaves, captives, and wild beasts, which poured incessantly into the maw of this insatiable city.

So vital are the autonomous activities of the organism, so necessary are they for keeping it whole, that any surrender of independence has deep psychological repercussions. Particularly, the infantile feeling of dependence, prolonged into adulthood, awakens self-distrust and self-hatred, which exacts a suicidal desire for revenge. The impotent develop a craving for virtual, if not active, power while those who have not lived their own lives experience a violent desire to impose a humiliating death on others. To atone for the limitations of a parasitic existence, the parasite himself transposes the values of life, so that all his acts take a negative form. The hatred the parasite feels for himself he projects upon suitable victims and scapegoats, covering them with his own despair, his own self-loathing, his own desire for death.

By giving a municipal form to its parasitism, indeed by giving it a solid collective basis in the dual hand-out of bread and circuses, Rome solidified the fatal errors of its political exploitation of other lands and cities. Ironically, in yielding to parasitism it forfeited at the same time the predatory vitalities that had made it possible. Sinking under the soporific illusions of the Pax Romana, the old patrician leaders lost their grip. Even outside Rome, self-government gradually disappeared under the Empire: the once autonomous municipalities were governed by local magnates, representing the landed or the commercial interests, nominally servants to the state, who kept themselves and their kin in power by the same brazen methods that had been evolved in Rome. The peace and justice that the Romans boasted had about the same degree of reality as the 'competition' that operates under the current monopolistic control and forced consumption imposed by American business. It was a cold sham. The very pretence of law and order was repeatedly undermined by the murderous court plots, the rapacious blackmail, and the army uprisings that attended the choice of each successive emperor. The Praetorian Guard so greatly preferred a debauched dog like Commodus to his dignified and honourable successor, Pertinax, that they promptly murdered the latter.

The existence of a parasitic economy and a predatory political system produced a typically Roman urban institution that embraced both aspects of its life and gave them a dramatic setting: the old practice of the religious blood sacrifice was given a new secular form in the arena.

Roman life, for all its claims of peace, centred more and more on the imposing rituals of extermination. In the pursuit of sensations sufficiently sharp to cover momentarily the emptiness and meaninglessness of their parasitic existence, the Romans took to staging chariot races, spectacular naval battles set in an artificial lake, theatrical pantomimes in which the strip tease and lewder sexual acts were performed in public. But sensations need constant whipping as people become inured to them: so the whole effort reached a pinnacle in the gladiatorial spectacles, where the agents of this regime applied a diabolic inventiveness to human torture and human extermination.

The inhabitants of modern metropolises are not psychologically too remote from Rome to be unable to appreciate this new form. We have our own equivalent in the daily doses of sadism that follow, like contaminated vitamin capsules, our deficient commonplace food: the newspaper accounts, the radio reports, the television programmes, the novels, the dramas, all devoted to portraying as graphically as possible every variety of violence, perversion, bestiality, criminal delinquency, and nihilistic despair. So, to recover the bare sensation of being alive, the Roman populace, high and low, governors and governed, flocked to the great arenas to participate in person in similar entertainments, more vividly staged, more intimately presented. Every day, in the arena, the Romans witnessed in person acts of vicious torture and wholesale extermination, such as those that Hitler and his agents later devised and vicariously participated in - but apparently lacked the stomach to enjoy regularly in person.

Even before Rome had changed from Republic to Empire, that city had become a vast collective torture chamber. There, at first under the guise of witnessing the just punishment of criminals, the whole population, as Seneca remarked, daily punished itself. So thoroughly was Rome committed to this evil that even the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the State did not do away with the practice. When the Vandals were hammering at the gates of Hippo, Augustine's city, the groans of the dying defenders on the wall mingled with the roar of the spectators in the circus, more concerned with their day's enjoyment than with even their ultimate personal safety.

With their taste for extermination so deeply developed over many centuries, it is no wonder that the Romans thought Greek athletics a little effeminate and uninteresting: there was not enough blood, agony, and frightfulness in mere sporting contests. The life that had taken form in Rome after the suppression of the slaves' rebellion under the Gracchi and the vanquishment of its great commercial rival, Carthage, after the second Punic War, had internally rotted. From the first century B.C. Rome entered those stages of urban existence that Patrick Geddes characterized as ‘parasitopolis’ and ‘patholopolis’: the city of parasites and the city of diseases. Thus Rome became a container of negative life: life turning against itself in perverse and destructive activities. In this, Rome perpetuated and enlarged the evils to which all civilizations seem to expose themselves; for it found an architectural form and a public ritual that favoured the constant expression of these negations. Like our own preparations for nuclear and bacterial extermination, this form gave an acceptable 'normal' outlet to what were otherwise unspeakable and privately inexpressible psychotic acts. In a disintegrating civilization the sanction of numbers makes madness and criminality ‘normal’. Affliction with the universal disease then becomes the criterion for health.

The economic basis of this sadistic ritual was the fact that the proletariat of the city of Rome was supported by a dole: that is by regular handouts to about 200,000 people of bread issued from public storehouses in various parts of the city. The temptation to lead an industrious life, with the hope of improvement in economic status, was weakened, especially in favoured Rome itself, by the fact that the chief needs of existence, like bread and circuses, were available gratis, or in the case of baths, nearly gratis, to the populace.

To make attendance at these spectacles even easier, as early as the reign of Claudius, 159 days were marked as public holidays, and as many as 93, a quarter of the whole year, were devoted to games at the public expense. Vast fortunes were spent on staging even a single one of these events. This was the popular justification for the rapacity of the rich and the rapine of the military leaders. Here again the Roman way of life, like that in America today, knew no quantitative limits. One of the marks of imperial indulgence was the unexpected creation of new holidays to celebrate a victory, and so far from this habit's being curbed when Roman power began to fail, the number of red-letter days steadily increased. By A.D. 354 there were 175 days of games, almost twice the number as under Claudius, while the total number of public holidays came to two hundred, or more than half the year.

No body of citizens, not even the Athenians at the height of their empire, ever had such an abundance of idle time to fill with idiotic occupations. Even mechanized United States, with the five-day week, cannot compare with Rome; for after the hour of noon, in addition, the Roman workers, who had doubtless risen at daybreak, suffered no further demand on their time. The transformation of the active, useful life of the early Republican city into the passive and parasitic life that finally dominated it took centuries. But in the end, attendance at public spectacles, terrestrial and nautical, human and animal, became the principal occupation of their existence; and all other activities fed directly or indirectly into it.

Just as today ‘real’ life, for the millions, exists only on the Afternoon television screen, and all immediate manifestations of life are subordinate, accessory, almost meaningless, so for the Roman the whole routine of the spectacle became a compulsive one: The show must go on! Not to be present at the show was to be deprived of life, liberty, and happiness. Seneca, the teacher and companion of young Nero, regarded his own presence at the gladiatorial games as nothing less than an affliction to the soul; but he went. The habit of resorting to the spectacles regularly was something that even the most sadly sane of Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius, could not break, without fear of hostile public response. It was dangerous for the Emperor to show, even by his absence, his personal distaste.

The need for such mass entertainments became imperative in proportion to the futility of the rest of existence. Even the intellectual life of Rome, never as acute as that of the Greek cities, betrayed a similar inanity and emptiness. Though Rome did not go so far as to invent the quiz show beloved by television audiences, people became interested. in the same kind of vacuous questions: How many men rowed in Aeneas's galley? or what kind of food did Scipio have for breakfast before he conquered the Carthaginians?

We come, then, to a new urban form, the circus: a banked enclosure, open to the sky, where tens of thousands of Romans gathered to view the spectacles, some to pass the whole day there, for the performance would begin in the morning. It was here that the Roman mastery of engineering problems perhaps reached its height: it was here that the Roman delight in quantitative achievement conceived an architectural form whose very success depends upon mass and scale, with the spectators ranged tier upon tier, in a steeply angled ascent.

The new form lent itself to many different purposes. The spectacle was so deeply engrained in Roman life that even the theatre departed from its original semicircular plan, to a complete circle. With that change, the old drama in the Greek style gave way to a form of opera, dependent upon spectacular effects, and the opera evolved into a pantomime - doubtless necessary for an audience too big to hear words clearly in the open air.

Rome had become the arena of arenas, where the usual activities of a city were subordinated to the mass production of violent sensations derived from lust, torture, and murder. The most innocent of all these performances were the chariot races, though the possibility of the chariot being overturned and the driver trampled upon must have sated the illicit craving for blood, as the same possibility does in motor car races today. But the supreme performance of the arena, the one that gave a special stamp to the city in its characteristic degeneracy was the gladiatorial spectacle.

The gladiatorial games were first introduced into Rome in 264 B.C. by the consul Decimus Junius Brutus on the occasion of his father's funeral; but the Romans gave them a more utilitarian turn by employing the deadly contests as a popular means for the public punishment of criminals, at first presumably as much for an admonitory deterrent as an enjoyment. Too soon, unfortunately, the ordeal of the prisoner became the welcome amusement of the spectator; and even the emptying of the jails did not provide a sufficient number of victims to meet the popular demand. As with the religious sacrifices of the Aztecs, military expeditions were directed towards supplying a sufficient number of victims, human and animal. Here in the arena both degraded professionals, thoroughly trained for their occupation, and wholly innocent men and women were tortured with every imaginable body-maiming and fear-producing device for public delight. And here wild animals were butchered, without being eaten, as if they were only men.

The characteristic institutions that helped make the Hellenic city memorable, the gymnasium and the theatre, derived ultimately from a religious source, the funerary games, the springtime and harvest rituals. One may say the same of Rome, but with a difference. In Rome, tragic death, religiously conceived, evoking pity and sober introspection, turned into mass murder, spewing unlimited terror without a saving touch of pity; while, by the same token, the healthy bawdiness of the old Attic comedy, with all its coarse sexual humour, became an obscene toying with the collective genitalia, in which impotence resorted to sadism to counterfeit and exacerbate sexual desire. In the Roman spectacle, even honest animal impulses were deformed and defiled.

The original excuse that justified substituting the gladiatorial games - with their chance of a reprieve - for the sullen execution of criminals was overwhelmed by the mass demand for inexorable murder, no matter who might be the victim. Not the least popular of these horrors was the chain killing, in which a single victim was appointed to be killed by another, who in turn was disarmed and killed, and so on down the line. The later use of Christian maidens as special offerings in the spectacle gave them an additional fillip: that of innocent virginity, being stripped naked before being thrown to the lions. In strict justice, let me add that it is on record that the crowd demanded the release of Androcles, when the lion from whose paw he had once extracted a thorn refused to eat him. Such an exhibition of sportsmanship was too rare to be passed over even now.

The first of the great arenas, the Circus Flaminius, built in the Campus Martius, hard by the Tiber, in 221.B.C., was. already a big structure. This early form was developed out of the simple flat race-course, with seats for spectators on the neighbouring hills, which dates back to the fourth century. But it was Julius Caesar who rebuilt the oldest and the largest of the circuses, the Circus Maximus - a structure that still mysteriously evades excavation - and this was so huge that it contained, according to one fourth-century authority, as many as 385,000 places for spectators, though Carcopino places it as 255,000 seats, and Curtius at ‘only’ 80,000. But though horse racing persisted longer than the gladiatorial spectacles, if only because this became the chief form of contest acceptable to Christian Byzantium, it was in the theatre meant for mass torture that the architectural form reached its highest development. The Colosseum, started by Vespasian, completed by Titus, and decorated by Diocletian, became a model for similar works in smaller cities - while its 45,000 places erected a standard of magnitude not surpassable except in Rome itself until our own day.

Even taking a low figure per unit, it would seem that almost half the population of Rome could be accommodated simultaneously in its circuses and theatres: a far higher proportion than was possible in other cities until electronic communication indefinitely extended the area of the performance and the number of spectators. Even in a small provincial town like Pompeii, the amphitheatre held twenty thousand people: probably more than half of its total adult population. The same inclusiveness characterized the baths, if one adds the hundreds of private institutions to the more gigantic public baths.

The arena and the bath were, in fact, the new Roman contribution to the urban heritage, one contaminating it, the other purifying it: both conceived as colossal structures for mass entertainment, at a time when mass organization demanded spatial compactness and high density of occupation. These two forms came into existence together and vanished together; and in their passage they absorbed interests and energies that might have gone, if they had been more beneficently directed, into the replenishment of the common life and the restoration of autonomous activity. What a grip the gladiatorial shows held one may gather from the fact that Constantine, who dared to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman state, did not abolish the spectacles, not even the gladiatorial games. At most, in 326, he terminated the throwing of criminals to the beasts; and it was not until 404, six years before the barbarian armies of Alaric sacked Rome, that gladiatorial combats were ended by Honorius.

By that time the old lights of the classic world, one by one, were going out. In 394, the last Olympic games were held; and in 537 water ceased to flow in the baths of Caracalla, though the cartloads of wood for heating the water had ceased to come in regularly for many years before. Even more significantly, the greatest contribution made by Greece to this otherwise over-corporealized life, the School of Athens, was closed in 529. So the old Hellenic culture of the well-minded body and the fully embodied mind, and the Roman culture of the largely mindless body, servile to its own sensations, parasitic upon its own power, both vanished together.

But the doom of the Roman way of life and the Roman urban heritage must have been visible in the great amphitheatres at a much earlier date, for those who had eyes to see. As daily life itself became more grim, as terror, suffering, and death could no longer be confined to the circus, those who were awake to its realities or sensitive to its evils must have shrunk from these ugly diversions. They would leave their vacant seats visible in the arena, with ever-widening gaps as the population itself diminished in number. Parasitopolis had become Patholopolis; and even further, Patholopolis had turned into Psycho-patholopolis, with a Nero or a Caligula as absolute ruler. That Patholopolis was beyond saving, even when it turned to Tyrannopolis, and sought to achieve security and continuity by fixed status and fixed residence. The mere momentum of habit, the inertia of numbers, increased the velocity of its downward descent. ‘Sauve qui peut !’ Only one further stage of city development remained, and that came soon: Necropolis, the city of the dead.

By the fifth century the show was over at the centre, though it went on for another thousand years on the eastern fringe of the Empire, where Byzantium, by an immense effort of will, sufficiently modified the contents of Roman life to preserve its institutions in a state of carefully arrested development - notable chiefly for improvements in the military arts. Some of that aft and life still is visible in Rhodes.

But when the amphitheatres became only empty shells, the old performers did not suddenly disappear. You would find them straggling over the highways of this old Roman world, stopping at a barbarian court, drawing a crowd at a fair: the weight-lifter, the acrobat, the daring horseback rider, the man leading a bear. As an after-image in the European mind, perhaps in the living linkage of the flesh, from generation to generation, handing on their arts from parents to children, sometimes greatly venturesome, but no longer committed to death, the old circus folk perhaps continued their play. The monks' chronicles would not notice them, nor, if aware of their existence, even be able to identify them. But as shadow or substance, the circus remained in existence and eventually came back to life in the modem city. Expunged of their Roman sins, the surviving circuses and menageries still recall the Roman way of life. They remind one, too, that Rome itself was once upon a time ‘the greatest show on earth’.


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