In Rome’s Piazza Colonna stands the 130-foot column dedicated to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who led the empire between 161-180 AD. Aurelius was one of the great emperors. He 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 of the emperor’s many titles, as well as 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 is 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 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. Aurelius did not pass the judgment of the Christian era. The monuments to 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 and 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 – who is 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. Just as we remember Sixths V, 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.
This blog is based on a New Orleans Magazine editorial written by Errol Laborde.
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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new 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.