So far we’ve covered about five hundred years from the mythical beginnings of Rome, and there’s still a long way to go. The Romans have gone from zeroes to heroes and are now busy wiping out other regional powers.
Today sees the final, brutal eradication of Carthage, which I had to look up in Wikipedia, despite our writer’s explanations in Episode 6 as to its location, now forgotten.
Turns out it was where Tunisia now is – I even went there on holiday once, but hadn’t made the connection! And Carthage controlled half of Spain, which the Romans bagged too, before turning to Greece.
Well at least that shouldn’t be complicated, right? Everyone knows were Greece is – down there at the bottom of the Balkans, across the sea from the end of Italy, direction east. Plus a bunch of islands.
But no. There were a confusing array of ‘Greek’ zones which, if I understood Francesca’s explanations correctly, were basically the remnants of the empire established by Alexander the Great which had broken up into bits after his death.
So ‘Greece’ was a good chunk of the Balkans, a slice of what is now Turkey, Syria (did I get that right?) and, um, Egypt. Who knew?
So, to cut a long story short, the Romans set about dividing and ruling, as was their wont, allying with some ‘Greeks’, invading others, so generally stirring things up to their own advantage.
Which must have been irritating, given that for the Greeks (Macedonians, Syrians, Turks, Egyptians etc.) these upstarts from the Italian peninsula were cultureless johnny-come-latelies, whose marauding around the Mediterranean was in rather poor taste. They couldn’t even speak Greek! Our writer, Francesca, puts it like this:
I Romani sono una potenza nel Mediterraneo ma i Greci, fieri della loro millenaria cultura, li considerano comunque dei “barbari”. Ciò, letteralmente, significa che si esprimono con suoni primitivi, rozzi, versi animaleschi e incomprensibili per un greco, come bar-bar. I Greci si sentono superiori in virtù della loro grandiosa civiltà: secondo loro, in effetti, tutti i non-Greci sono barbari!
All this had me rather scratching my head and congratulating myself for having given up the complexities of history and geography in favour of the much more straightforward processes of language-learning and running a business. That said, what I do remember from studying history is something our professor told us in our very first college seminar on the subject:
“When I was a student,” he boomed (he was rather round, and his self-confidence was as extensive as his girth), “I only knew ten facts!”
Only ten! We freshmen and women, freshpeople I suppose, exchanged anxious glances, each wondering what those vital ten facts would turn out to be, and whether we would be expected to memorize them too.
“But now,” the learned man continued, “I’ve forgotten them all!”
This was by way of introduction to the idea that history at college/university was more about understanding ideas that about memorizing information, as we had presumably done at school – all those sequences of monarchs and dates of world wars.
Which was a useful, and memorable, lesson, perhaps one of the few from three years of higher education, and the reason for which I now pardon myself for not sweating the details, thirty years later.
SOME details are vital, of course (some clauses in contracts, certain laws, numbers that represent money or margins). But a lot of the time the details are simply a distraction.
Try to remember everything, try to ‘learn’ facts as you encounter them, and there’s an opportunity cost to pay: you have less time and energy available for appreciating the bigger picture.
‘La storia di Roma‘ is a lot of material to absorb in one summer, and it’s in Italian, and not particularly simple Italian at that.
But engaging with it, even superficially, so just listening and reading rather than STUDYING, and hopefully by the end of the series you’ll have a much better idea of the generalities of how things were than you did at the beginning.
You’ll know, for instance, that Carthage was where moden-day Tunisa is (we visited a crocodile farm!), that the Carthaginians controlled much of Spain but lost it to the Romans, that Alexander the Great’s extensive domains broke up into independent bits after his death, which were therefore easy meat for the Romans. And that the Romans, despite their conquests, had a bit of an inferiority complex because they weren’t ‘Greek’.
The same is true for the Italian language aspect of it – engage, skip the words you don’t know, and if whole paragraphs whizz past your ears without a word entering, well so what? It’s not a test.
Stick with us for the summer and not only will you gain an overview of a thousand years of Roman history but you’ll also benefit from the hours and hours of Italian reading and listening practice that you might not otherwise have done.
With language-learning, as with history and geography, I’m a ‘macro’ rather than a ‘micro’ person.
You should be too. Aim to get the big picture, and let the details look after themselves.