ATHENS AND ROME
I visited Rome in 1959 during the preparations for the Olympic Games, and Athens 1n 1964. Thus I had the opportunity to visit two of the world's greatest buildings, the Parthenon and St Peter's. Because of this I was able to develop some ideas that I have not seen in print elsewhere, so I am setting them down in this small article.
The Parthenon is still magnificent, though it has not been repaired since a German artilleryman blew it up on 26th September 1687. This was during a war between Turkey and Venice. The Turks had been using the building as a magazine. In the early 19th Century the then British Consul in Turkish Athens, Lord Elgin, stripped the frieze off it and brought it to London, where it has been exhibited ever since as “The Elgin Marbles”.
It is my view that temples of this type are stone-built replicas or replacements of earlier wooden models. The ornamented gables that were reintroduced into architecture as “Classical” were stone representations of what would have been roof timbers and jutting beam-ends. Why should anyone want to copy the design of a wooden structure in marble?
I think the answer is to be found in the word “grove”, which means a deliberate formal plantation of trees. In the eastern Mediterranean, every city had its own acropolis; in fact there could be no city without an acropolis. Observe that Athens is four miles from its port, Piraeus, which was the basis of the city's wealth. The acropolis was the residence of the city's tutelary deity. When the barbarians attacked, the civilised people (literally, the city people) took themselves and their animals inside the city walls, where they sat out the onslaught and waited for the inevitable breakdown of the barbarians' organisation. The deity resided within a grove of the particular trees that were sacred to him or her. In the middle of the grove, roofed over for protection, was an image of the said deity. In Athens that was Athena.
If the local geography did not provide a suitable acropolis, the inhabitants built one. This is how the ziggurats of Mesopotamia should be understood. The Romans had a ceremony called “evocatio”, the enticement away of the enemy defenders' tutelary deity. If the enemy could be persuaded to believe that their god had forsaken them, their morale was destroyed. For this reason the practice developed of a city having two names, one public and one secret. (The secret name of Rome was...Valeria).
What I am suggesting is that the classical temple is nothing other than a “grove” as Tyndale's New Testament has it.
[The fashion for Classical architecture in the Western European 18th Century was due, regrettably, to the practice of slavery. The unspoken assertion was that the Greeks had slaves and the Greeks constructed a magnificent civilisation. Note that the United States Capitol was built on what was originally slave-owning Virginian territory. Note also that the romantic proponents of liberation sought a quite different architecture, which they found in the Gothic revival.]
[I personally would like to see the Parthenon restored to its original Periclean splendour, and the Elgin marbles handed back to Greece to complete the job. The Greeks would have to do something about their appalling atmospheric pollution, though.]
Coming into the centre of Latin Christendom, we can see St Peter's, Rome, as encapsulating an idea at one particular juncture in history. Its construction was begun by Pope Julius II (1503-13), and we have to ask why. The point is that Julius was elected to clean up after the Borgias. What he did first was to knock down the previous basilica that had stood since the days of the Roman Empire, a dreadful piece of vandalism no doubt, and commission the grandest conceivable building in its place. The present St Peter's is intended to overawe visitors with the majesty of the Church. Not of God; the Church. And it certainly does.
Underlying this purpose is, I think, another, deeper intention, which is to say: “Anything the Romans could do, we can do better.” Thus St Peter's marks the beginning of modern Western European civilisation. Ever since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans had felt themselves to be unworthy successors to a greater civilisation. The Romans built in stone on a huge scale; modern people lived in huts made of wattle and dung. Latin was the sole language of learning, and the Church monopolised the teaching of it.
Unfortunately for me, with no doubt a residual Protestant outlook, I refused to be intimidated; I found the overall effect ugly and depressing. I even found Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, remarkable though it is, ugly too, with its sprawling men and even God with huge muscles and minuscule genitals. Overall, I suspect that St Peter's did a lot to confirm my burgeoning atheism. And I was certainly not the first person, or even the millionth, to have reacted in this way.
Let us look at the consequences of the building of St Peter's.
Overall, once Modern Westerners had started to challenge the supremacy of Roman civilisation, they challenged the supremacy of religion and they replaced the Latin language with their own modern languages. In a sense, the massive explosion of science and technology that is still happening can trace its intellectual ancestry back to the new-found confidence that derived from the construction of St Peter's.
Historically, there were more specific consequences, resulting from the sheer expense of such a vast construction. The building took 120 years to complete, and it had to be paid for. For a start, François I, an almost exact contemporary of our Henry VIII, said “I'm not paying for that.” He backed up his refusal by winning a series of military victories in Northern Italy that gave him the power to impose the Concordat of 1516 on the papacy. Between that date and the Revolution, the French Kings ran the Church in France just as they liked, and just as Henry VIII would have liked if he too had had the military muscle to insist. The French opting out put pressure on fund-raisers elsewhere, notably in Germany. The new-fangled printing presses were drafted in to produce “indulgences”, the first lamentable example of forms that you have to fill in. The lucky purchaser of an indulgence would have his sins forgiven; and if he paid a lot extra he would also have those sins that he intended to commit forgiven in advance. Opposition to this racket gave Martin Luther his initial impetus*. Thus the building of St Peter's ironically caused the Protestant Reformation.
Henry VIII of England and Gustav Vasa of Sweden got in on the act very quickly. To begin with, they prevented the Church from levying taxation within their dominions. It did not take long for them to get round to nationalising Church property and flogging it to those that they hoped would remain supporters of their régimes.
There can be no other building that has had such a colossal effect on human history.
* Less well known is that the Elector of Saxony, Martin Luther's protector, was running his own indulgences racket. Like any modern gangster, he objected to another mob intruding on his patch. In the wise words of a Welsh sage: “Nid oes a wnelo crefydd â moesoldeb o gwbl” (Religion has nothing whatever to do with morality.)