Joshua Arthurs Essay
I write this response from Rome, a city that looms large both in my personal history and in the histories that I study as a scholar of modern Italy. I first came to the Eternal City in the early 1990s, on a study abroad program for Classics majors. At the time, I was convinced that I would devote my life to studying the ancient world: Latin and Greek literature, art and architecture, history and archaeology. Where better to do this than Rome, where I could immerse myself completely in the classical past?
Soon after my arrival, though, my perspective started to change in ways that I could not have anticipated. I increasingly found it difficult to go about the city with historical “blinders” on, filtering out the intrusions of the contemporary world – traffic, tour groups, neon signs – and concentrating on what a site might have looked like two thousand years earlier. Instead of blocking them out, I became fascinated by the energy and commotion of modern Rome, and by the juxtaposition between the living city of today and the crumbling reminders of centuries past. In the end, this discovery set me on a new path: to graduate school in modern European history, and ultimately to writing a book about the ways that Italians in the twentieth century – more specifically, Mussolini’s Fascist regime – interpreted, exploited, and transformed Rome’s historical landscape. I don’t think I would have come to this realization had I stayed at home with my Latin textbook. It was the result of lived experience, the product of sights, sounds, smells, and conversations with the people I met in the streets.
In Civilization and its Discontents (1929), Sigmund Freud uses the Eternal City as a metaphor for understanding the psyche. Just like Rome, where the palaces of the Caesars stand alongside medieval churches, Renaissance basilicas and modern buildings, the human mind is a place where nothing, once constructed, ever vanishes. Furthermore, these histories are inseparable from one another, forming layers of an indivisible whole. I was reminded of this just the other day, walking along the Via del Portico d’Ottavia in the old Jewish Ghetto. The original portico was built by the Emperor Augustus around 27 BCE, to honor his sister Octavia; in the 8th century CE, a church was built on top of its ruins; in the 16th century, the building was incorporated into the Ghetto, the walled-in district where Rome’s Jews were forced to live by Papal decree; and in 1943, the portico was the place where Nazi troops rounded up the Ghetto’s residents before sending them on to Auschwitz. Today, the whole area is a popular tourist attraction, featuring some beautiful ancient monuments and some of the city’s best restaurants.
I find it impossible to separate these moments from one another, and it is precisely this accumulation of stories that keeps drawing me back to Rome. If one theme runs through all of my scholarship, it is memory: how individuals, communities and societies understand and interact with their pasts, and how memories in turn shape politics, culture, and conflict. In Rome, I find not only the archives and libraries that support my research, but a physical environment that embodies how I think about history.