It happened today - April 5, 2016
Just how long is the shadow of Rome? Well, you could ask the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Or not, since he died on February 24 1558. But some years before that, on April 5 of 1536, he celebrated the last formal Roman triumph honoring his conquest of Tunis in 1535.
It would be easy to dismiss the performance as hollow theatrical kitsch, especially the bit with people dressed as ancient senators hailing this new Caesar as “miles Christi,” a soldier of Christ, as he passed the ruined triumphal arches of genuine Caesars long dead. Particularly because among his titles Charles included King of Spain as well as Duke of Burgundy. And by 1535 King of Spain was clearly the big enchilada, or taco, or whatever dish especially impressed in Madrid in that period.
Holy Roman Emperor might have meant something under Charlemagne, in the 8th century. But there was something more than a little revealing about the triumphal arches being ruins by 1536 because the truth is that as a political and military entity Rome was long gone and Italy was not then a great power nor, frankly, would it ever be one even when given the honorific title from the late 19th century until Mussolini’s military debacles in World War II. (Remember Churchill’s jibe when told Italy had entered the war on the Axis side that “it’s only fair; we had them last time.)
Still, the long shadow of Rome, or the penetrating light, makes Charles’s gesture something a great deal more than frippery. The inheritance of Rome, the rule of law, the creation of something that outlasted itself because of the power of its example, still commanded and deserved respect more than 1,000 years after the reign of Romulus Augustulus fizzled out.
Indeed, for all its apparent magnificence in the 16th century, Imperial Spain not only lasted far less time than Imperial Rome, it left nothing comparable in terms of legacy. The only names we really remember, unless we study its history in obsessive detail or live in Spain, are those like Philip II who posed a vainglorious threat to England then came a right cropper.
It is true that following 1536 no one did a Roman triumph again. At least, not in Rome. Instead they held them in their own capitals. Including Louis XIII creating a triumphal arch for his entry in to Paris in 1628.
Modeled on the Roman kind, right down to a depiction of Pompey in commemoration of his own magnificent third triumph in 61 BC. Which went better than his first in 80 81 BC where the elephants drawing his chariot couldn’t get through the triumphal gate. The Romans were, after all, only human, and often all too human, including the way their leading men often dishonoured their heritage.
Still, they left a legacy rightly studied, admired and imitated for many centuries. And largely forgotten today not because they were unimpressive but because we increasingly are, and no longer care to recall deeds that, for all our fancy technology and exquisite sensitivity, we would not dare try to emulate.