Voices boom from the parliament building on the north end of the Piazza. The Italian parliament is in session, and it rings forth the amplified diatribes of the representatives of Il Popolo. They’ve had a bit of practice—after all this is the sixty-fifth government since Word War II.

In the great hall, the modern-day proconsuls, tribunes, and senators denounce injustices, punctuating their speech with a raised fist, but in the quiet osterias hidden in narrow alleys, they wheel and deal, promoting patronage over whisky and cigars.

These pretences of democracy, where rules are made and unmade, and careful exceptions crafted into law,  are Judaico-Christian traditions of two millenia and more.

To walk in Rome, a city traditionally limited by the Aurelian walls, is to follow the ghosts of long-lost empire, and any student of history cannot fail to draw comparisons to other great empires, old and new. Aurelianus, or more properly Imperator Caesar Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Pius Felix Invictus Augustus, was the man who ordered the walls built—such is the power of history that Roman cabs charge a single fare for the airport run to the city, bound within the Mura Aureliane.

By the time of Aurelian, the Roman Empire was in convulsion. He spent a good deal of time fighting the Goths, the Gauls, the Vandals, and revolts in various regions on the eastern front of the empire.

A projection of the Roman Empire in the days of Aurelianus, roughly fitted on today's geopolitical scene.

A projection of the Roman Empire in the days of Aurelianus, roughly fitted on today’s geopolitical scene. The red area is the Roman Empire, which also included Iberia to the west, and the yellow section in Asia Minor is the Palmyrene Empire.The Gallic Empire, which included France and northern Europe, is not shown.

As often happens nowadays, the army elected Aurelianus as the nation’s new leader. In this way, a man who was born in Bulgaria, the son of a minor family, and whose entire career was spent in the army, became the leader of the empire.

Almost like an American president, Aurelian served a five year term. Like a number of them, he was assassinated, murdered in Thrace, on his way to Asia Minor. And he built a wall, perhaps to compensate for the many he tore down in his military career.

Only the city of Tyana was spared during the fight for the Palmyrene Empire, named after Palmyra, in Syria. The eastern empire was ruled by an Egyptian queen, Zenobia, who was later paraded in Rome as a prisoner, in the habeas corpus tradition of Rome.  The ruins of Palmyra, two hours from Damascus, are now threatened by the Syrian civil war.

All empires celebrate their triumphs in monumental fashion, and neither Americans nor Romans are an exception. That’s why the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and White House were the emblematic choices for nine-eleven.

No one in the nineteenth century could envisage the decline of the British Empire that swiftly followed World War I, a spiral of ruin triggered by debt. Yet by World War II, the theater was brought to the heart of England, with mass bombings of London, Coventry, and Southampton. That was the first time Britain was invaded since the arrival of the Normans in 1066. Just as the Roman Empire was invaded by the Goths, the Caliphate by the Portuguese, and the Spanish and Portuguese Empires by the Dutch and the English.

The empires of Rome, Portugal, Spain, and Britain shared a common feature: the small size of the nation when compared to its territories. We’re talking ratios of one to a hundred, in some cases even a thousand.

That’s a major difference from China and the U.S., and arguably also from the Caliphate, where religion seemed to provide a glue stronger than nationality. Still today, there’s much more talk of Sunni and Shia than of Jordan, Bahrain, or Qatar.

For the West, which now appears as toothless as the once powerful lions in Venice’s Piazza de San Marco, intervention has become a story of qualms and self-doubt. In Europe no nation wishes to step forward alone, and in the United States, originator of the televised war, we’re now at a stage of televised pre-war.

Obama’s thin red line is a bizarre discussion of limits, full of bingo buzzwords such as surgical and containment. After Bush’s excellent adventure in Iraq, the current president doesn’t want to celebrate his second term with the mother of all cock-ups, giving Syria to Al Qaeda, or alternatively propping up Iran and Hizballah.

Meanwhile the Russians have plainly said they will oppose Western strikes on Syria—many Russian hawks, wings clipped by Afghanistan and the collapse of the USSR, long for the return to greatness of the Родина. After a quieter period with Mevedev, Putin’s opening salvo to the Americans when he became president was: “so when do you plan to bomb Syria?”

You might be perplexed why a hard-right (fascist) organization might support Putin? Because of his anti-gay stance. Note the letters SPQR above this poster on Via Scrofa. The meblem of the Roman legions, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus

You might be perplexed why a hard-right (fascist) organization might support Putin? Because of his anti-gay stance. Note the letters SPQR above this poster on Via Scrofa, the emblem of the Roman legions, Senatus Populusque Romanus.

Israel sits tight and hopes Syria implodes, a kind of mutual assured destruction that will castrate both Hizballah and Al Qaeda―strength is a relative concept, and the only war the Jewish state can win is one of divisions.

I strolled west toward the Tiber, and the Sant’Angelo bridge, once called the bridge of Hadrian. a man known for building a wall or two. In a moment of serendipity, the back streets led me to the Via dei Portoghesi, a narrow street that boasts the quintessentially Lusitanian church of St. Anthony. Right next to it is a cathedral of a different sort, a dingy enoteca piled high with Italian wines.

It’s a store from a different generation, with scores of wines that cost less than ten dollars. And somewhere among the pricey Amarones and Barolos lay a pearl of the south, unknown to me and I believe to most of you. The owner pointed to the upper atmospheric shelves, and carefully pulled down a bottle of Aglianico del Vulture. He used a hook fastened to the end of a broomstick.

I watched nervously. “Molto pericoloso!”

“Eet ees the oldest grape in Italy,” the owner explained. “Brought over by the Greeks.”

That’s what, four thousand years ago? Maybe it helps put austerity in perspective.

I bought a couple of bottles on the offchance, the 2010 from Cantina di Venosa. Wrapped them, as the saying goes, in swaddling clothes. Watched them disappear into the hold. Retrieved them lovingly in Lisbon. One’s gone. The other goes tonight. The man was right, the grape was once called Hellenica, and the name was changed to Aglianico when Aragon ruled southern Italy.  This is a wonderful wine, and you don’t need to take my word for it. Your problem, like mine, will be finding more.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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