When Statues Fall
Learning From Marcus Aurelius
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, and is remembered as a philosopher and as an aggressive general famous for his conquests in the northern portion of the Roman world.
An inscription at the base of the monument 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. As Christianity grew more powerful it was, in 1588 by the order of Pope Sixtus V, replaced by St. Paul.
Christian figures replacing pagan-era monuments is not uncommon in Rome. A nearby column to the emperor Trajan is topped by a statue of St. Peter. Inside the Coliseum, where Christians one fought lions, there is a large crucifix.
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 apparently did 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.
Paul was a great man, too, his mission being to spread the 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 St. 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. Just as we remember Sixtus V, each fallen statue is a monument to those who removed it.
Posterity might build more lasting monuments if only the future would try harder to understand the past.