In Rome’s Piazza Colonna stands the 130-foot column dedicated to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who led the empire between 161-180. Aurelius was one of the great emperors who is remembered as a philosopher and as an aggressive general famous for his conquests in the northern portion of the Roman world.
At the base of the monument the inscription tells about the emperor’s many titles, as well as those of some of his closest colleagues. What is most curious about the column though is the statue on top. It is not of Aurelius. As Christianity grew more powerful, Pope Sixtus V, in 1588, ordered that a tribute to St. Paul be placed on top of Aurelius’ monument.
Christian figures standing on pagan era monuments are not uncommon in Rome. A nearby column to the emperor Trajan is topped by a statue of St. Peter. At the Coliseum, where the Christians once fought the lions, there is a large crucifix inside.
What happened in Rome represents an eternal trend; one era in history passing judgment on the past and finding itself to be superior. Aurelius was a great man, but slavery was prevalent during his time and while he could do nothing to stop it, he at least tried to establish guidelines more fairly governing the rights of the suppressed. Like many leaders in the centuries to follow, he was caught in the vice of the times.
As the world changed Aurelius’ greatest offense is that he, and the other old emperors, became yesterday’s news. A new crowd was in charge and it wanted to promote its own heroes. Marcus did not pass the sinister judgment of the Christian era. The monuments of him and his colleagues were replaced.
Paul was a great man too, his mission being to spread the compassionate message of Christianity, especially beyond the Jewish world. Yet the paths that Paul walked, the boats he rode, the villages he lived in, the boundaries that he was able to cross freely, would not have existed without the Roman world. Brutal as it might have been, Rome made the growth of Christianity possible.
(Not that Paul could escape the brutality issue. According to legend Paul, before his conversion, was part of the crowd that stoned Stephen, remembered as the first Christian martyr.)
Who is forgiven and who is not; whose monument stands and whose is removed; who is revered and who is reviled is a thorny issue that probably should begin with historians and philosophers, but ultimately is in the hands of politicians who consider themselves better at hearing angry voices from the crowd—either real or imagined. Sixtus V would hardly be remembered were it not for his undermining an emperor. Nevertheless, each fallen statue is a monument to those who removed them, whether right or wrong.
Posterity might build more lasting monuments if only the future would try harder to understand the past.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.