Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pope Francis’ move on abuse leaves out the vital role of lay Catholics

By JD Flynn
May 9, 2019

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Pope Francis on Thursday introduced the Catholic Church’s most comprehensive plan yet for dealing with bishops accused of sexual abuse or negligence. While the plan is a step forward, it doesn’t ­address lay ­involvement, procedural transparency or outside accountability. The US bishops can address these shortcomings — and should.
The plan, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (“You Are the Light of the World”), is the first major policy document to be issued since former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of abuse came to light last summer. The plan addresses several questions brought to light by the McCarrick scandal: It requires bishops to report the sexual misconduct of their colleagues, it protects whistleblowers inside the church and it makes clear that bishops who neglect their civil or church responsibilities to report or address abuse will be held accountable.
Most important, the plan recognizes explicitly that imbalances of power can be exploited for sexual coercion, and it censures those who abuse their positions of influence and trust.
McCarrick, who serially coerced seminarians and young priests and used his credibility as a priest to abuse minors, isn’t the only recent figure to wield influence for sexual gratification. Pope Francis’ plan takes seriously the lessons about power and consent learned from the misdeeds of figures in Hollywood, tech, politics and other realms of life.
The church’s plan, in that sense, is a step other institutions would do well to imitate.
The plan deviates, though, from proposals the US bishops have made for dealing with abuse or negligence among their ranks. Their plans put independent lay experts at the center of investigations, charged with using their experiences in law enforcement, criminal prosecution, management and psychology to dig in to serious complaints against bishops.
The American episcopate hoped that seeking recommendations from autonomous lay bodies would ensure a measure of ­accountability for their own actions and bring at least some transparency to internal church discipline processes. The US bishops know that McCarrick’s misdeeds were reported to church officials multiple times, to little ­effect, and they understand how much that has damaged their credibility as pastors of souls.
In the US, lay people have been involved in investigations of priestly abuse since 2002. The bishops know that such ­involvement has led to a cultural shift in the church on child protection and transformed Catholic environments into some of the safest anywhere for minors.
But the pope’s new policy, while allowing for “qualified” lay Catholics to assist in the investigation of bishops, is a process mostly reserved to senior bishops. Although the Holy Father has condemned “clericalism” for enabling abuse, his plan is largely a clerical one and doesn’ t require lay collaboration, involvement or accountability.
The pope’s plan, of course, is ­intended for a global church, and emphasizing lay involvement is a decidedly Western approach to church governance.
Mandating lay involvement in these matters in some parts of the world would be ineffective. In some jurisdictions, lay voices would simply be ignored. Still, lay involvement, where encouraged, has made for a stronger Church.
Would the pope’s new policy, ­absent a commitment to independent lay involvement, stop another perpetrator like McCarrick? Maybe. But maybe not. The influence of a man like McCarrick on the bishops he shaped and mentored can’t be overstated.
The US bishops will meet in Baltimore next month, where they will continue to discuss the abuse crisis. There they have an opportunity to demonstrate their own commitment to lay involvement in addressing abuse and negligence in office: They can resolve among themselves to involve lay review boards in the investigations of bishops and to take the recommendations of those boards seriously.
That decision would help them regain the trust of frustrated Catholics and show their counterparts around the globe that lay involvement is nothing to be afraid of.
Pope Francis, and the US bishops, have promised accountability, integrity and transparency to Catholics scandalized or harmed by perpetrators like McCarrick. The pope’s plan is a good first step. American bishops now have the chance to take another one, following the pope’s strong lead.

JD Flynn is a canon lawyer and editor of the Catholic News Agency. Twitter: @JDFlynn

Friday, May 10, 2019

'Tolkien' review: this perfunctory biopic turns real life into the stuff of fantasy
1 May 2019

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins in Tolkien (2019)

A zing of excitement shot through the critical corps last week when the family and estate of JRR Tolkien publicly disavowed the new film about the Lord of the Rings author’s younger years. In a brisk statement, both parties noted that they “did not approve of, authorise or participate in” its production, adding that they did not “endorse it or its content in any way”. 

Tantalising! Was the cosy image of the pipe-smoking don about to be up-ended? Did this mean that director Dome Karukoski, whose previous film retold the life story of the gay erotic artist Tom of Finland, was about to treat us to a kind of philologically inclined Sid & Nancy, or a Naked Lunch with hobbits?

Reader, it did not. Tolkien the film does not memorialise or re-contextualise Tolkien the man in any remotely interesting sense: instead, it just meekly prods him through the Theory of Everything-iser and hopes for the best. The result feels like a formulaic retread of that 2014 Stephen Hawking period piece – a kind of dewy-eyed biopic for dummies that frames its subject’s genius as the product of a “personal journey”, entailing in this instance three close male friendships, a grim spell in the trenches of the Somme and a mildly tumultuous love-life.

Note that these events aren’t deemed sufficiently interesting in their own right to serve as the substance for a literary weepie in the vein of Shadowlands. All that matters is how they relate to the hits.

Tolkien himself was famously averse to allegorical readings, and noted in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings that he preferred to think of his writing as a kind of “feigned” history, with “a varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers”. There can be no question that his experience as a battalion signalling officer in the trenches left an unmistakable, if diffuse, mark on his writing.

But here, every life experience, in wartime and peacetime alike, has a Middle-earth equivalent that we’re encouraged to spot. A faithful working-class soldier encountered on the battlefield turns out to be called Sam, while computer-generated visions of dragons and ringwraiths twist through the gun and mortar smoke. Then there is a childhood dressing-down from a bearded and sonorous headmaster, which more or less openly invites the audience to poke one another in the ribs and whisper “Ooh, I bet he turns out to be Gandalf.”
Perhaps the estate’s testy reaction to this film stemmed from their glum realisation that they were about to spend the next however-many years debunking it.
In short it’s a specious, perfunctory exercise, albeit one pieced together with some talent. The picture-perfect period-escapism look is nicely achieved – fans of William Morris wallpapers will find much to coo over – while the lead performances from Nicholas Hoult as the young John Ronald Reuel and Lily Collins as his sweetheart Edith Bratt wring about as much warmth and pathos from the demure, stuffy screenplay as there is to be had.
There is a corny but also oddly sweet sequence where the two quietly drive each other wild in a tearoom by purring the words “cellar door” at each other – a phrase Tolkien singled out for its unusually beautiful sound – before tossing sugar cubes into the hats of fellow customers. (You can tell this is an authentic biographical detail because it doesn’t nudgingly allude to anything in The Lord of the Rings.)
But the scenes centred on his, ahem, “fellowship” of vaguely hobbity-looking school friends, played by Tom Glynn-Carney, Anthony Boyle and Patrick Gibson, are much less credible: “How can it take six hours to tell the story of a ring?” one oh-so-foreshadowingly jokes during a confab on Wagner.
Well-informed, enlightening writing on Tolkien’s life and creative process is hardly scarce. But his genius stems from his scholarship, which doesn’t obviously lend itself to cinema, even with Derek Jacobi on hand as a professor-cum-mentor fruitily declaiming in Gothic as he potters around the quad.
“Myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected,” Tolkien once wrote. This film straps it to the operating table regardless, and as soon as the first cut is made, it conks out.

Tolkien Film Fails to Capture the Majesty of His Achievement

By Joseph Loconte
May 9, 2019

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Perhaps Finnish film director Dome Karukoski took on an impossible task with his biopic Tolkien. When J. R. R. Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, he hoped to give England something he thought it lacked: an epic and transcendent tale of its mythic origins. “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country,” Tolkien explained. “It had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought.” The astonishing appeal of the work — it has sold more than 150 million copies and been translated into dozens of languages — suggests that Tolkien has come closer to achieving that goal than any other author.
And therein lies the challenge: to produce a film about imagination. In Tolkien’s case, this requires much more than biographical knowledge. Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford recreate some beautiful and authentic moments, especially in exploring Tolkien’s passion for languages. The relationship between Tolkien and Edith, the love of his life, is told with tenderness and reserve. Tolkien’s combat experience in the First World War — the plot is revealed through a series of flashbacks from the trenches in France — is a key ingredient in the story. Ultimately, however, the film fails to tap the deepest sources — both human and divine —  of Tolkien’s restless, creative genius.
It is refreshing to see a film that takes up the theme of friendship, especially robust male friendship, which was so vital to Tolkien’s life and career. Tolkien (capably played by Nicholas Hoult) establishes a rich circle of friendships at the King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Together with Geoffrey Bache Smith, Christopher Wiseman, and Robert Gilson, the boys fashion a literary-artistic club with no mean purpose: to change the world.
Yet the film devotes more time to idle bantering and boozing than it does to the group’s literary and moral purposes. It also overlooks a crucial exchange: a meeting in December 1914, dubbed “the Council of London,” which was transformative for Tolkien. “In fact it was a council of life,” writes John Garth, author of the magisterial Tolkien and the Great War. The prospect of the trenches had a sobering effect. Late into the night they talked and debated — about love, literature, patriotism, and religion. It was at this moment, and among this fellowship, that Tolkien began to sense his literary calling. “For Tolkien, the weekend was a revelation,” Garth concludes, “and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life.”
If the film’s writers wanted to depict such a revelatory scene — which they don’t — it would have required familiarity with an ancient source of wisdom. We no longer appreciate how the educated classes of Tolkien’s generation were schooled in the classical and medieval literary traditions. From works such as Virgil’s Aeneid, Tolkien not only read the mythic and violent story of Rome’s beginnings, but also absorbed the concept of the noble and sacrificial quest. Indeed, probably the most influential work in Tolkien’s professional life was Beowulf, which he read as a young man and considered one of the greatest poems of English literature. Declares its epic hero: “Fate oft saveth a man not doomed to die, when his valour fails not.” Tolkien taught, translated, and studied the poem throughout his career.
These older works — once taught as part of the canon of Western civilization — embody something that is almost anathema to our twitter-saturated minds: depth of imagination. “In all these works there was a sense that the author knew more than he was telling,” writes Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-Earth, “that behind his immediate story there was a coherent, consistent, deeply fascinating world about which he had no time (then) to speak.” This, of course, is part of Tolkien’s remarkable legacy. By drawing maps, inventing new languages, and creating histories and genealogies for the inhabitants of his world, Tolkien convinces us that Middle-earth was a real place where real things of great consequence occurred.
The literature important to the man who created perhaps the most beloved character of modern fiction  — the hobbit — offers a view of the heroic pointedly at odds with the Hollywood conception. Tolkien was attracted, aesthetically and spiritually, to works that exalted courage in the context of a tragic world — a world in which defeat is likely and there are no permanent victories. “The worth of defeated valor in this world is deeply felt,” Tolkien declared in his 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The author of Beowulf, he explained, “showed forth the permanent value of that pietas which treasures the memory of man’s struggles in the dark past, man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned.”
These are deep waters. Like no one else, Tolkien retrieved the truths and virtues of the ancient myths and reintroduced them to the modern mind. And, remarkably, he accomplished this in a post-war European society — a “waste land,” in T. S. Eliot’s words — that had soured on the ideas of bravery, valor, virtue, and patriotism. “To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism is inadequate,” wrote his Oxford friend C. S. Lewis in an early review. “Nothing quite like it was ever done before.”
Perhaps this is the most regrettable failing of Tolkien: For all of its impressive production values — and for all the respect its director brings to his subject — the film does not grasp the nature of Tolkien’s achievement, much less its potential sources. Instead, we are presented with World War I battle scenes where a shell-shocked Tolkien has visions, or hallucinations, of the fire-breathing dragons and Black Riders that will terrify us in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, no soldier who fought at the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien tasted “the animal horror” of combat, passed through its hellish flames unscathed. But, as John Garth insightfully explains, Tolkien thought carefully about how the experiences of war can illuminate other, nobler aspects of the human condition. His epic work, Garth writes, “puts glory, honor, majesty, as well as courage, under such stress that they often fracture, but are not utterly destroyed.”
It is this aspect of Tolkien’s fiction that seems to demand something more than a purely materialist or humanist outlook: We cannot fully account for his staggering creativity absent his Christian beliefs. A convert to Catholicism in his youth, Tolkien was unambiguous about the importance of his faith to his life and work. He viewed myths, for example, not merely as human inventions but as a literary means by which God communicates a portion of his truth to the world: a “splintered fragment of the true light.” Tolkien likened the work of the myth-maker to that of a “sub-creator” who helps to fulfill God’s purposes as the Creator.
The author of The Lord of the Rings is still accused of “escapism,” of being so burdened by the loss and sorrows of war that he sought refuge in his imaginary Shire. It is a charge that Tolkien cannot refute, because the film lacks the author’s spiritual commitments. Tolkien’s entire conceptual approach, anchored in a belief in the fall of man and in the hope of redemption, helps to account both for the extraordinary realism and imaginative power of his fiction.
Here is what animates Tolkien’s fierce literary ambition, the central mystery that the film cannot penetrate: It is a belief in what he called the eucatastrophe — a sudden act of grace — whose expression he regarded as the highest function of the fairy tale. “It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance,” he writes in On Fairy Stories. “It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Grief and Joy, as sharp as swords, reconciled by grace: that would be a story worth telling.

Was Sergey Kislyak Part of the Russian Collusion Hoax?

May 9, 2019

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Sergey Kislyak

If the Trump-Russia election collusion hoax was a movie, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak would have a starring role.

From Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ fateful recusal to National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation to the aftermath of FBI Director James Comey’s firing, the former Russian diplomat made more than just a few consequential appearances. The question is, were these incidental cameos or was Kislyak following a script written for him by the collusion fraudsters?
As Senate Republicans threaten to excavate the origins of the corrupt investigation into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, they might want to take a closer look at how Kislyak helped shape the bogus Russian collusion plotline.
Kislyak appears 55 times in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent report. Alleged spy Maria Butina, sentenced last month to 18 months in federal prison for one count of conspiracy, met with Kislyak numerous times in 2015 and 2016 andpromised to “collect the contact information of prominent conservatives” for him. He has openly bragged about his numerous contacts with Trump associates.

But it’s Kislyak’s relationship with the Obama Administration that should raise suspicions that his interactions with Trump campaign aides before and after the election were intentional, designed to help fuel the phony collusion narrative.
According to visitor logs, Kislyak visited the Obama White House nearly two dozen times, including at least twice in October 2016. He met with National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the White House on October 7, 2016, the same day intelligence officials issued the warning about Russian election interference. Kislyak was there allegedly to receive a harshly worded message to Vladimir Putin about the meddling efforts.
McFaul Guy
In another meeting on October 14, 2016, Kislyak ran into his former counterpart, Michael McFaul, who had served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia for two years under President Obama. McFaul is an Obama confidante and was sworn-in as ambassador by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2012: He also is a vocal Trump foe and collusion conspiracy theorist. (More questions: Why was McFaul at the White House on October 14, 2016, when he no longer worked there? Further, why was Kislyak, the representative of our alleged biggest geopolitical foe trying to crash our election, at the White House again?)
McFaul and Kislyak are close. A few weeks after the 2016 presidential election, McFaul lavished effusive praise on the diplomat whose country supposedly had just attacked America’s election, threatening the very foundation of our democracy and whatnot.
During an event at Stanford University on November 30, 2016, McFaul gushed that Kislyak’s job “is to represent his country here and I think he does it fantastically well.” McFaul repeatedly bragged about his relationship with the Kremlin’s diplomat. “He was a tremendous friend and colleague to me when I served in the government. I really value what you helped me do as a government official and what you did for me as a friend,” he said to Kislyak.
It was an odd and oddly timed tribute to the representative of a nation that villainously unleashed social media bots to throw the presidential election to Donald Trump—especially since Kislyak’s boss purportedly stole the election from the woman McFaul worked for at the State Department in an embarrassing rebuke of his friend, Barack Obama.
But perhaps McFaul spared any outrage for his Russian pal because Sergey Kislyak had helped Obama and Clinton loyalists manufacture one of the greatest political hoaxes of all time.
Kislyak solicited meetings with Team Trump beginning in April 2016, when he attended Trump’s foreign policy speech in Washington, D.C. It was the first time, according to the Mueller report, that Kislyak met Trump; he also had brief exchanges with Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner. Later that day, McFaul oddly tweeted, “Did Russian ambassador Kislyak attend opposition campaign event today? #doublestandards.”
In July 2016, Kislyak attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he interacted with Sessions and campaign aides Carter Page and J.D. Gordon. “Ambassador Kislyak continued his efforts to interact with Campaign officials with responsibility for the foreign-policy portfolio—among them Sessions and Gordon—in the weeks after the convention,” the Mueller report stated.
Gordon, perhaps smelling a rat, rejected one overture by Kislyak in August 2016, declining his invitation for lunch at the official Russian residence in D.C. The next month, Kislyak’s office contacted then-Senator Jeff Sessions, a member of Trump’s campaign committee, requesting a meeting. Sessions and Kislyak met in Sessions’ Senate office on September 8, 2016.
Suspicious Contacts
After the election, Kislyak contacted Jared Kushner, who agreed to meet with the diplomat on November 30, 2016. (Michael Flynn also attended the meeting.) According to the Mueller report, Kislyak offered to have Russian generals brief the transition team. (LOL.)
In December 2016, Kislyak continued to pursue more meetings with Trump’s son-in-law. “Kushner declined several proposed meeting dates, but Kushner’s assistant indicated that Kislyak was very insistent about securing a second meeting,” the special counsel wrote. The Russian ambassador also was insistent about wanting “Kushner to meet someone who had a direct line to Putin.” Totally not sketchy. At all.
Despite the fact the brief interactions and communications had nothing to do with a coordinated effort between the campaign and the Kremlin to influence the election, Kislyak’s outreach resulted in explosive news coverage in early 2017 to seed the collusion plotline. McFaul (unconvincingly) tweeted on March 31, 2016, “Never dreamed my former colleague Sergey Kislyak would become so famous,” with a link to a Washington Post article detailing Team Trump’s contact with his Russian pal.
Congressional Democrats pounced. “Ambassador Kislyak . . . also attends the Republican Party convention and meets with Carter Page and additional Trump advisors,” Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said during a March 2017 hearing of the House Intelligence Committee. “Ambassador Kislyak also met with National Campaign committee chair and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
(Earlier that month, based on a recommendation by Justice Department staff, Sessions had recused himself from any matters related to the investigation into the Trump campaign due to his pre-election interactions with Kislyak and alleged attempts to cover-up the meetings.)
A May 2017 Washington Post article claimed Kislyak told Moscow that it was Kushner, not him, who was seeking a “secret communications channel” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
Unsolved Mysteries
But it was Kislyak’s role in the Michael Flynn debacle that is the most suspicious and caused the greatest personal and professional damage to Trump’s short-lived national security advisor. The envoy reached out numerous times to Flynn during the transition, including the night before the Obama administration would announce weak sanctions against Moscow for election meddling on December 28, 2016. The subject of those calls, including how the Kremlin would respond to the sanctions, eventually landed Flynn in legal trouble.
Sally Yates, the acting attorney general for 10 days and a Trump-hating partisan, told the White House shortly after the inauguration that Flynn was in violation of the never-enforced Logan Act for attempting to undermine U.S. foreign policy. When that tactic didn’t work, several officials illegally leaked details about Flynn’s calls with Kislyak to the media and suggested Flynn lied to the public about what had been discussed.
Flynn resigned in February 2017 amid pressure by the Trump White House and later pleaded guilty to one count of lying to federal investigators about the Kislyak calls.
And there is another odd angle to the Kislyak mystery that still is unresolved. The ambassador apparently received a $120,000 payment 10 days after the 2016 election. “Employees at Citibank raised an alarm about the transaction because it didn’t fit with prior payroll patterns and because he immediately split the money in half, sending it by two wire transfers to a separate account he maintained in Russia,” BuzzFeed reported in January 2018. It’s unclear whether this payment remains is under investigation by Congress or the FBI.
It will take months, maybe years, to fully vet all of the information contained in the Mueller report and give renewed scrutiny to the key players in the saga. But Kislyak’s central role, coupled with his close ties to the Obama White House, requires more immediate attention.
If the Russian ambassador to the United States was indeed acting at the direction of American political operatives to infiltrate a rival presidential campaign, influence a presidential election and taint an incoming administration, we can add yet another example of norm-breaking behavior to the long list of malfeasance and misconduct related to the Trump-Russia collusion hoax.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Rome : A History of the Eternal City 1/3

Review: Rome: Eternal City by Ferdinand Addis — a great bloody history

By Patrick Kidd
1 September 2018
In the early days of spring just over 1,100 years ago all the big players in Rome, politicians and clergy, gathered in the city’s mother church, the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, for a macabre show trial. Two popes were in dispute. One, Stephen VI, had convened the gathering to shore up his own fragile political position. His rival, Formosus, was accused of perjury, breaking canon law and usurping the throne of St Peter. Formosus sat there as mute as the flagstones in the Forum as Stephen accused him of letting ambition lead him into villainy. There was little that he could say. Formosus had been dead for 11 months.
The exhumed pontiff was a bit whiffy, no longer looking like a man whose Latin name meant handsome, but he was kitted out in full papal vestments for what became known as the cadaver synod, from the white camelaucum on his head to his red leather sandals. These have been the traditional footwear of Rome’s leaders, right down to modern popes, since Julius Caesar started to appear in red boots, claiming it was what the ancient Latin kings had worn. An appropriate colour since, as Ferdinand Addis’s superb biography of the Eternal City reminds us, Roman politicians have often trod a bloody path.
Formosus’s counsel, a trembling deacon, put up a defence, but the verdict was never in doubt. Pope Stephen found his predecessor guilty, ordered the corpse to be stripped and for the first two fingers of Formosus’s right hand — the ones with which he gave benediction — to be snapped off, invalidating his authority. The rest of him was then cast where so many ambitious men of Rome have ended up: into the foaming waters of the Tiber.
That should have been the end of it, but political fortunes in Rome, like the original river of blood, ebb and flow. Stephen was bumped off a year later in AD897 and, mirabile dictu, Formosus’s corpse was found still bobbing around downstream. Fished out, whatever gristle was passed off by his supporters as the remains of the wronged pope was carried through the streets to what was this time his final resting place in St Peter’s. As the papal jetsam passed, the images of the saints are said to have bowed their heads in sorrow.
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Jean-Paul Laurens, “Pope Formosus and Stephen VI - The Cadaver Synod” (1870) (via Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes)
The river gave birth to Rome. The city’s history begins, mythically at least, with a pair of twin boys, descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, being cast into the Tiber by a jealous great-uncle in the Alban hills and coming ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill, where they were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf before growing up to found the greatest city in the world, then squabbling over who should be prominent. Had Remus won, we might be discussing the history of Remoria. With a shovel blow to the head of his twin, Romulus got naming rights.
Rome’s history is written in blood and Addis, who has a vivid, pacey writing style, spares not the squeamish as he describes three millennia of violence, from the first kings to Il Duce. There is a lot of flesh among the gore, even if some of the story has to be glossed over for the sake of space (if Caligula, for instance, gets a mention it is only a passing one).
In 600 pages we get plenty of entertaining stories, such as the rise and violent fall of the Gracchi, the Jack and Bobby Kennedy of the 2nd century BC, loved by the poor and killed by the elite. A senator declared that whoever brought him the head of Gaius Gracchus, the younger brother, would receive its weight in gold, which led to the man who claimed it ingeniously scooping out poor Gaius’s brains and filling the skull with lead to increase his reward.
Then there is Elagabalus, a Syrian youth put on the throne in AD218 by his ambitious grandmother, but who only wanted to dance and screw. Married and divorced five times while still a teenager, he wasn’t really into women. Whoring himself out to butch men was more his thing. An athlete called Zoticus, renowned for the size of his manhood, was summoned to the imperial chamber. Zoticus bowed and hailed the emperor as his lord. Elagabalus fluttered his eyelashes and replied: “Call me not lord, for I am a lady.” Indeed, he had asked surgeons if they could swap his male genitals for something more feminine. Zoticus apparently got stage fright and couldn’t perform. After four years of this, the same grandmother arranged for Elagabalus to be bumped off. Into the sewer he went, where he acquired the nickname Tiberinus after the method of his departure.
Yet it wasn’t all just bloodshed and debauchery. Addis also sings of the magnificence of Rome: the masters of the arts, propagandists from Virgil to Fellini, who burnished its reputation, and the extraordinary engineering feats in which swamps were drained to become public spaces and aqueducts were built to carry spring water over dozens of miles, a city was famously turned by Augustus from brick to marble and, under the grand vision of Pope Julius II and the talents of Michelangelo and Raphael 1,500 years later, a renaissance flourished.
Far from being Augustine’s City of God, Rome has more often been a city of, as Addis writes, “humans trying, and often failing, to live in history”, yet it holds a powerful spell. “Civis Romanus Sum”, a passport that millions were once proud to boast, invoked by men from Cicero to Lord Palmerston, from St Paul to JFK, may have lost its usefulness when the Goths sacked the city, but the idea of Rome refused to fall.
Even in its darkest days in the late Middle Ages, after centuries of conquest and apathy, when a city of a million souls under Augustus had dwindled to the tens of thousands living in mud huts, something romantic remained for those who were called there. The poet Petrarch, growing up in the early 14th century in Avignon, where the papacy had decamped, felt its pull, as did those embarking on the pilgrimage of a Grand Tour 500 years later.
Petrarch found a scene that was more a giant farmyard than the capital of the world, with cows roaming in the Forum and the Capitoline known as the Monte Caprese, or “hill of goats”. Nonetheless, he was inspired by the ghosts he found among the ruins and urged the creation of a new Rome. Cola di Rienzo, the son of a tavern keeper and Petrarch’s friend, set himself up as a fresh Caesar, adopting the lapsed titles of tribune and senator. He revived the ancient initials SPQR — the Senate and People of Rome — placing them on his banners, just as Mussolini would put them on Rome’s manhole covers 600 years later, as if pasting these sacred letters all over the place would give them greater authority.
The mob murdered both Cola and Mussolini in the end, of course, as they always have done. Yet the dream of Rome never died.

Rome: Eternal City by Ferdinand Addis review – myth, mess and magic

By Emily Gowers
26 September 2018

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Roman Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Panini

Edward Gibbon was famously inspired to embark on his history of the Roman empire when “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter”. But no ruins were visible in 1764: instead, the Capitol was capped by a tidy piazza designed by Michelangelo. Nor had the friars’ church ever been a Temple of Jupiter. As Ferdinand Addis concludes in his own panoramic history, we all see the Rome we want to see.
How to condense 3,000 years of the city’s history into 648 pages? Addis is not lacking in chutzpah. He first arrived in Rome as a teenager in “too-big jeans” and remembers picnicking in traffic fumes by the Baths of Caracalla. He presents himself as just another tourist and his project as a labour of love and curiosity rather than scholarly expertise, let alone original research. But this is an energetic attempt to bring Rome’s history alive through grand narrative; the florid flights and snappy paragraphs are underpinned by serious reading. In his final pages, he muses on just how many cities it contains: “A city of God? A city of sin? A city of power? A city of decay?” As a medieval ditty put it: “Rome contains everyone and everyone’s business.”

Addis’s chosen formula is to serve up selected highlights, mostly the expected ones – Romulus and Remus, the Ides of March, the Borgias, the Sistine Chapel, Garibaldi and La Dolce Vita are all here – but to come at them from quirky angles. The Carthaginian wars with Hannibal are cleverly introduced via the jokes of Plautus’s comedy The Little Carthaginian, and the Augustan age is seen through the subversive eyes of Ovid the love poet, as he prowls in the new marble porticoes. Every chapter starts with an atmospheric mise en scène, as if leading up to the book’s finale – the golden age of 20th-century Roman cinema. The hammed-up tone works to draw the reader in, even if an introduction such as this can’t do much to lighten the complexity of the radical Gracchis’ land reforms: “Up on the Capitoline Hill, the plebeian assembly has gathered. Brown-clad figures press between the vast old pillars of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.” The dark ages appear to have been not only darker but also colder than before (the word “chill” features in two consecutive chapter-openings that introduce less well-documented eras).

As he moves through the centuries, Addis casts a keen eye over not just the big figures of history but also its crowds, mess and detritus. His focus is as much on the sordid underbelly of urban life as it is on Rome the sublime caput mundi. We are swept on by a flood of watery and intestinal metaphors: “The currents of history flowed towards that grim spring day like water to a plug hole”; “So the story of Eternal Rome’s fall was set in perpetual motion, to ripple down the stream of history in wave and counterwave.” In the 18th century, there was such interest in the great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, that Grand Tourists went “trooping by the dozen to see the hole, like so many tiny proctologists peering solemnly into the gaping dark”.
Addis doesn’t shy away from baroque descriptions of death and decay. Pope Formosus’s body, thrown into the river, is “a disintegrating lump of Tiber gristle”; an enemy of the Gracchi is “porcupined” by metal styluses, Saint Sebastian “pincushioned with arrows”. Sometimes the transitions are clunky: “Dark clouds seemed to hunch over the Palatine”; “The city was extremely volatile in those years”; “The road would not be altogether easy. These were troubled times.” The art appreciation isn’t always subtle:Piranesi’s “shadows were always darker”, while Bernini’s Saint Teresa is summed up as “the face of ecstasy”.
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Addis’s remarks on La Dolce Vita might be taken as an unkind caricature of his own book: “its endless cameos, its episodic structure, its capering progress of characters with nowhere to go”. But that would be unfair. An end-to end reading throws up many instructive continuities: sexually rapacious women who stripped off in public – from the ladies of the Borgia court to the aspiring starlet whose nudity at a high society party scandalised 1950s Rome; bodies hurled into the Tiber; syphilis; the red shoes worn by pontifical figures from Julius Caesar to latter-day popes; and visitors of all eras who have despaired of ever being able to get a handle on the city. Byron spoke of “mines of inexhaustible contemplation”. Goethe muttered enigmatically: “The more I see of this city, the more I feel myself getting into deep waters.”
Thanks to his enthusiasm, Addis succeeds in keeping his reader afloat. He relishes the highs and lows of Rome’s past in his purplest passages while pricking the bubbles of other people’s poetic licence. He appreciates that the multilayered, “palimpsestic” quality of Rome is both a cliche and a profound truth. He encourages an approach to the city’s myths that is properly sceptical but still open-mouthed. The famous Trevi fountain scene in La Dolce Vita loses none of its magic when we learn what lay beneath the icy surface: Anita Ekberg strode straight in with Nordic sang-froid, but Marcello Mastroianni was allowed to wear fisherman’s waders.
Rome: Eternal City is published by Head of Zeus. To order a copy for £25.80 (RRP £30) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.