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The Spirit of Roman Civilization

romanbust [1]2,803 words

Translated by Cologero Salvo

With the appearance of every new work on Roman Civilization, we experience a certain sense of annoyance: in fact, for the most part, we take notice of books of this type only perfunctorily, they do not reveal any new idea, they repeat the clichés of earlier “positivist” interpretations, adding only the rhetorical hype of commemoration, thereby producing a pathetic effect, and whatever true meaning it has of our original tradition, it is not so much illuminated by similar writings, but rather trivialized and almost profaned.

We were therefore pleased to have been removed, at least once, from prejudices of that type in reading a very recent book of crystalline clarity written by Pietro De Francisci on the Spirit of Roman Civilization [Spirito della civilita romana, 1940]. Above all, beginning with its first chapters, we had to admit: Finally there is an authoritative person who hits the mark and knows what must be considered essential in Romanity. And we also found ourselves totally consenting to the justification of the books, viz., that no constructive revolution is a creation from nothing, but has as conditions the return to elementary principles and factors, which for us can only be those of the original tradition of Rome. And De Francisci also very correctly criticizes those who break our history into two parts: the history of Rom and her Empire on one side, the history of Italy on the other.

As for Corradini, so also for De Francisci, Italianity and Romanity are a single thing, or said better: they must be a single thing, on the basis of a decisive choice of their own callings and traditions: that is, we must exalt, consider as our own, and glorify as “Italian” only what is of value to us in our history, as “Roman,” and not have any lenience or mitigation for the rest. De Francisci correctly says that to bring youth to the awareness of the power and depth of the current of Romanity that spreads throughout all our medieval and modern history, eliminating wrong ideas and destroying old and new prejudices, means to draw on precious nourishment for the ideal strength of our revolution.

Who does not see the abyss that separates similar positions from those which, nevertheless like De Francisci, had to have the direction of the fascist Istituto Nazionale di Cultura [National Institute of Culture]—we mean Gentile, who did not hesitate to assert what Romanity is for us, but only in the empty rhetoric of life and content, because for him the true Italian tradition is identified with a series of suspect thinkers and heretical rebels starting with the Renaissance, as if in fascist Italy itself no others should be seen and desired except those involved in the development of Italy of 1870? [when Italy was unified].

As the premise of his treatise, De Francisci, following up on an idea from Spengler, makes the appropriate morphological distinction between culture and civilization. Culture, both as an intellectualistic phenomenon, as well as refinement of the material conditions of the life of a people, has nothing to share with civilization, reality. De Fransisci writes this very profound passage:

Civilization is not only a manifestation of the prevalent intellectual activities but the complex and concrete expression of all the energies of the spirit: it is not only the ruler of man in his exterior nature, but is at the same time the dominion of man over his own human nature, the awareness of coordination with other men, of subordination to a certain hierarchical order, and of dependence by a supreme, divine and transcendent power.

It is a unitary and organic construction which, by being such, even permeates the political field, i.e., it also presupposes a political organization as the realizer and promoter of the fundamental values resting on the base of the organization itself. And in this special point, we see the contrast between the idea of civilization and the abstract conception of “culture,” as meant in its modern understanding, in which, culture would be a kingdom to itself, alienated from everything that is “political,” instead of being the highest animating and justifying force of the political, as always happened in all traditional civilizations and, at the forefront, let us admit it now, in the Roman civilization.

Now, De Fransicsi studies the ancient Roman world exactly in respect to “civilization” in this precise meaning. Rome was eminently “civilization” and its greatness must speak to us in the sense of this unitary and anti-intellectualist ideal. What was the specific face of such a civilization? What are the fundamental, typical, and constant elements of its “style”? De Francisci considers four above all:

First of all, clarity and simplicity, founded on a precise and certain intuition of reality, and not only of visible reality, but also—it is the merit of our author to recognize it—invisible reality.

While the Romans were realists, they never were materialists: thus few people like the Romans carried with themselves for centuries the conviction of the existence of a will and a transcendent power, to which laws must be adapted and human conduct conformed. But clarity and simplicity are the elements of grandeur.

These are reflected—as the echo of something eternal and detached from the small events of individuals, from everything that is pathos and sensibility—in the monumental element of the Roman world, Furthermore, the unity that together is organicity and solidity, founded on a balance of forces and factors, on a wise bond that surpasses and encompasses all varieties, distinctions, complications: unity as formative and organizing power.

An order results from it, which, while “it was experienced as a transcendent system of principles determined by the very nature of things” (which is the ancient Aryan conception of cosmos or rta [2]), is expressed in a rigorous, definite, and essential style: intolerance for everything that is disordered, uncertain, subjective, scattered. Precision and clarity predominate in the ethos, but not as only a human norm, but rather as the rigorous objectification of a supersensible reality.

In that regard, De Francisci rightly opposes those who prefer to portray the ancient Roman as dry, lacking sentiment and imagination. What, alone, remains alien from the Roman soul, was the sterile subjectivism that surrenders itself to the caprices of the arbitrary in which every moral energy is scattered and dissipated:

But not for this reason is his interiority less rich, which consists above all in the adhesion of the spirit to the norms of a higher Order.

This is demonstrated in the three virtues of pietasfides and gravitas. And, as we ourselves on other occasions have emphasized, the lack of imagination in the Romans is more a sign of superiority than inferiority: it is to be taken in the sense, as De Francisci says:

The imagination of the Romans is not a gratuitous game of intellectual boldness, it is not the creation of a world of images detached from reality, but an instrument to seal this reality in well-defined forms, to frame and organize its forces.

The same thing must be pointed out regarding the accusation made against the Romans of having degraded thought in favor of action. But what thought is this about?  No one denies the scarce sympathy of the Romans for theoretical constructions. But action itself, when it proves to be coherent, consistent, and efficacious—De Francisci notes—does that not itself bear witness to a thought, or rather, a higher power of thought? All the history of the Romans stands to demonstrate that they believed in such values and held firm to principles which, through their experience, were defined, made precise, affirmed, and even assumed an ever more universal importance and applicability.

In the order of the structural element, there is a specific element in the “civilization” of Rome, i.e., a hierarchy, in which the preeminence is reserved to political values: everything is assumed and organized in the operation of the State. But we were pleased to see that De Francisci avoided a double false turn in which, in this regard, he finishes the greatest part of the modern interpretations of Romanity. In fact, in the first place, such a preeminence of the political element is not at all to be understood according to certain modern political pretensions to the primacy of a temporal power over any spiritual authority. The political and religious elements in ancient Rome were in an indissoluble union. The starting point of the Roman was the awareness that divine and transcendent forces exist and act behind human and historical forces. So the highest principle of Roman “politics,” and consequently of every determination of will and action, was that of conforming individual and collective life to the fas [divine law],

The revealed divine will, which is the supreme law against which it is not possible to revel without committing a nefas [sin], i.e., not just a reproachable act but having mortal consequences.

After all, De Francisci had already mentioned the religious base of the first Roman law in his earlier History of Roman Law. In the new book he recalls the profound significance relative to the fact of the inseparable connection of the imperium of the Roman political leaders, with the auspicium [divination], that is to say, with a discipline having as a presupposition the possibility of coming into relationship with the divine forces and of presenting the directions, along which they were able to confirm and empower human forces and actions. Even if De Francisci doesn’t go beyond an examination deeper into the meaning of the rite in the ancient world, but in that there is quite enough to clearly distance it from those, in this regard, who see only “superstitions” and “obtuse fatalism” in order to appreciate, in the Roman ius [law], only its positive juridical cadaver.

The other prejudice, which is often fostered in relation to the totalitarianism of Roman political civilization, relates to libertas [civil liberty]. But, again, it is impossible to judge the ancient world with modern measures, which then are simply false and misleading. De Francisci clearly points out all the respect that ancient Rome attributed to libertas: but it is a concrete libertas, comprising in itself the concept of limits: it is freedom as the faculty and the legitimate right of movement, of acting, of disposing oneself, and even within a well-defined space, within a positive hierarchy, where each recognizes his own: suum cuique. So the Roman would know an exemplary balance of auctoritas [responsibility] or lex [law] and libertas while disregarding the democratic concept of equality characteristic of Hellenic decadence, in the surpassing individualism with a determination of limits, with an obsession with hierarchy, with a coordination of activity. And this is another of the aspects, according to which Romanity remains, for centuries, the sign and symbol of a higher political and traditional ideal.

Since we nailed down the truly valuable and, for many, the illuminative, aspect of De Francisci’s new work in these terms, let’s allow ourselves to make some other points.

First of all, in regard to origins: It is true that, in this respect, one hears nothing said about them today. Nevertheless, whoever has eyes sufficiently trained can recognize and discern what there is of value in regards to race and spiritual forces of the world of the origins. On the Aryan problem in Italy, on the meaning of the crossing or make up of various symbols and costumes—for example the rites of burial or cremation, solar cults and telluric-maternal cults, etc.—the spiritual relations between Etruria and Rome and so on, little or nothing is found in De Francisci’s book. Now, if one does not succeed in having a, so to speak, dramatic vision of the ancient Italic world, as it concerns both race and spirit, one can in no way grasp the true meaning of Rome, her battles, her mission, her destiny.

In relation to that, what is equally missing in the work of De Francisci is any investigation of what we would call the “subterranean history” of Rome. In his book, attention remains concentrated on history in the common bi-dimensional meaning of the term, even if examined with undeniable acumen. The analysis of the most profound, spiritual aspect of certain social rifts and certain oppositions of worship in Rome is not made. What was, for example, the influence that acts, in ancient Rome, through the Sibylline Books [3]? It is a problem, among many others, of the subterranean history of Roma, whose importance is anything but to be neglected.

De Francisci, as we said, saw clearly in the connection of the human will, and therefore of action, to a more than human significance, an element characteristic of Roman reality. And it was emphasized more particularly by others that the Roman perceived essentially the revelation of the divine not in space, as a vision, but in time and in history, like action. Now, can one recognize that, without also recognizing that a history of Romanity will always be incomplete, if it does not become, to a certain degree, a metaphysics of history, i.e., if it does not strive to grasp a symbolic content in its objective way in the more important and decisive upheavals of Romanity? The danger of digression and pure personal interpretations, here, naturally, is great. Nevertheless, it is necessary to do something in this direction, if Roman history is to truly speak to us. Does De Francisci know the famous introduction to Bachofen’s Legend of Tanaquil? In this old work, even in reference to Romanity, there are methodological ideas that still are particularly important today. [Such as the interpretation of legend as history and the use of imagination or intuition to grasp it. – Trans.]

Also, De Francisci treated various problems of the imperial period, such as the importation of “Asiatic” cults and their significance, in only an “historical” way, in the current meaning of the word. The racial moment on the level of the elements of civilization and cult, were not developed. For example: what of the Asiatic cults and forms of the same imperial cult, referring back, in spite of the degeneration of their exterior expressions, to elements of a common archaic Aryan tradition, inasmuch as, for example, certain aspects of the Augustan religious reform, in fact,  call back to life some ideas forgotten or obscured by the first Romanity?

Instead, the best is the analysis made by De Francisci of the various political and social factors and various attempts of the restoration of the late imperial period. He brings to light the true cause of decadence: the universal Empire could only hold on provided that the expansive moment would have a corresponding moment of deconcentration and national-racial intensification. Although indispensable, a unique supreme point of reference—the imperial divine authority—could not be sufficient: it would have been instead necessary to provide simultaneously for the spiritual and material defense of the Italico-Roman race as the matrix privileged by elements destined to govern and command in the world. In place of that, Rome accepted cosmopolitanism, the turmoil of leveling and disarticulation. The Empire presumed to embrace universally the human species without distinction of race, peoples or traditions, on the only basis of the supreme central divine power, and close to a break up and a “positivisation” of the ancient juridical idea, at this point turning into the natural law.

On such a basis we incline tend to believe that contrary to the opinions of most and, it can be said, to judge by some of his comments, of De Francicsi himself, Christianity or, at least, a certain Christianity, assumed the inheritance of only the negative aspects of the Empire. In fact, only in terms of the “spirit,” universalistically, it proposed to unify and gather the scattered peoples in the Empire; and if, beyond that, it created in the clergy a hierarchy and a central power, it was created without any racial presuppositions: the clergy was recruited from all the class and peoples and, because of celibacy, could not constitute a caste, it could not give rise to a regular tradition, also supported on blood, as instead happens in many ancient Aryan societies.

Only in the Middle Ages, by means of the Aryo-Germanic contribution, there came to a certain rectification of these negative aspects of the legacy of the last Romanity. The organic ideal arose. Catholicism itself came to show less the traits of a universalistic religion than those of the faith characteristic of the fighting block of the Aryan and European nations of “Christianity.” And it is in these terms and in forms that, as we have had the occasion recently to note in this journal, today have a curious aspect of current affairs and even of “futurism,” that the purest force of our origins is reaffirmed beyond the decline of the first Rome.

Source: La Vita Italiana, December, 1940; http://www.gornahoor.net/?p=4017 [4]