FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Roman Roads and Modern Emperors

by CONN HALLINAN

Carsulae, Italy.

The Via Flaminia emerges from a hillside—literally—and climbs up a gentle hill toward a ruined forum. Like all Roman roads, it was well built, considerably more so than the modern ones jammed with trucks and cars that crisscross the Umbrian countryside. The large limestone slabs that surface it are still rutted with the wheels of ox carts on their way to Ariminum on the Adriatic.

Wendy Hallinan is pointing out how Carsulae was laid out, with its shops, amphitheatre, and cisterns, and the almost hidden wound that marks the city’s moment of death: a side road that suddenly dips and twists, wrenched by a catastrophic earthquake almost 1500 years ago.

In a way, Carsulae is a little like modern Italian politics: trying to make sense of it is not easy, and much of it is hidden.

On Oct. 7 Italian politics was shaken by its own variety of earthquake. The Constitutional Court ruled that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was subject to the same laws as everyone else in Italy. For Berlusconi—who holds outdoor rallies near Rome’s coliseum and fancies himself a reincarnation of a Roman emperor—it was a serious reversal in his drive to control Italy’s media, lock, stock and barrel.

The court found a law passed last year by the Berlusconi –dominated parliament that makes the Prime Minister, the President and the speakers of the upper and lower houses immune from criminal charges is a violation of the principle that all Italians are equal before the law. In practice, it means that Berlusconi will face charges of tax fraud, bribing a judge, and paying off his British lawyer to lie in court. The lawyer, David Mills, has already been sentenced to 4 1/2 years. Burlusconi will also have to cough up $1.1 billion to a media rival.

The decision came amidst several scandals linking the Prime Minister to prostitutes, under age women, and parties filled with naked people. The Financial Times termed the uproar “Circus Maximus,” and there was indeed a flavor of ancient debauchery about the whole matter. Nero’s reign comes to mind.

But if Silvio’s personal antics are comedic, his political and economic machinations are anything but. There is an odor of 1922 about the man, the year Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts marched on Rome and put the fascists into power. By owning three of Italy’s most watched television channels, plus controlling the public channel RAI through his command of the government, Berlusconi can determine what Italians see. That means lots of sports, soap operas, and cleavage, but virtually nothing about silent factories and the economic crisis.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Italy’s economy will shrink 5.1 percent in 2009. It contracted 1 percent last year, and its growth rate has been less than 1 percent a year since 2000. Among the G7 countries, only Japan has a bigger GDP loss.

According to Concita de Gregorio, editor of the former Communist Party newspaper L’Unita— one of four newspapers being sued by the Prime Minister for defamation—Italians are anesthetized by Berlusconi’s TV stations, the medium from which most of them get their information. Fewer than 10 percent of Italians read newspapers.

De Gregorio argues that unlike Spain, where a new generation overthrew the legacy of fascist Francisco Franco, in Italy “…the personalities, the dark forces, the Mafia, the Masonic lodges and the unexplained bombings of the past and the secret service, none of this has disappeared.”

Masonic lodges have been linked to violent fascist groups and shadowy elements in the state’s intelligence services. The 1969 bombings in Milan and Rome were the work of the neo-fascist Ordine Nuovo (New Order), a group with ties to SID, Italy’s military intelligence agency. There are also persistent charges that the CIA knew of the bombings beforehand, but remained silent because it thought the attacks would discredit the Left.

Prosecutors in Naples and Palermo are currently investigating ties between the Mafia and Berlusconi, and the recent Constitutional Court decision means that investigators will soon be closing in on Fininvest, the Prime Minister’s massive holding company, worth $6.5 billion.

Fininvest owns Mediaset, one of the largest media companies on the continent, which controls not only Italy’s three most watched channels, but a majority of Telecinco, a Spanish station. Berlusconi also owns the publication company Mondadori, the financial services company Mediolanum, and trophy assets like the soccer team AC Milan and the Teatro Manzoni.

The Prime Minister’s reaction to criticism is imperial. When newspapers printed stories about his legal difficulties, he sued them and called on business to withdraw their ads. When one of RAI’s programs interviewed a call girl who said Berlusconi had purchased her services, he tried to cancel the program—it is one of RAI’s most popular, with an audience of 7 million—and he got two hours on another RAI program to answer the charges.

But there is a growing sense that the Prime Minister is in trouble, and, like in ancient Rome, any hint of weakness is liable to bring forth the daggers.

One of his allies, Gianfranco Fini, founder of the neo-fascist National Alliance Party and currently Speaker of the Parliament, has already begun positioning himself as a successor. The National Alliance joined with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party to create the current right-wing ruling party, the People of Liberty.

The Prime Minister’s reaction to Fini’s maneuvers has been to unleash his media attack dogs, accusing the Speaker of disloyalty and being involved in sex scandals. Fini is suing.

Roman emperors always worried about Italy’s north, with its restive Celts and intense regionalism, and right now the north is trouble for Berlusconi. Umberto Bossi’s rightwing and openly racist Northern League dominates much of the region, and the party gives the Prime Minister a majority in the upper house.

But Bossi is a loose cannon that brought down the 1994 Berlusconi government. When Bossi dropped a hint that he might again withdraw his support, Berlusconi snapped that he didn’t think much of people who wore “colanders on their heads.” When League members gather annually to bless the Po River, they sport an odd looking hat that vaguely resembles something for draining pasta.

The Prime Minister has also picked a fight with Italy’s powerful Catholic bishops by forcing the resignation of an editor of a Vatican run newspaper who had questioned his morals. He is also in a nasty battle with another ally, Rupert Murdoch, a war Berlusconi apparently initiated.

Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad?

Maybe. The polls do show some erosion of support, but many Italians shoot up the soaps and shrug.

Not all of them, however.

More than a quarter of a million people, led by the trade union movement and opposition journalists, rallied Oct. 3 in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo to challenge Berlusconi’s control of the media. “Not since Mussolini’s time has an Italian government’s interference with the media been more blatant or alarming,” editorialized the Economist on the eve of the rally.

In Roman days the swords of the Praetorian Guard would have solved Berlusconi’s problems. From 215 AD to 305 AD there were 12 emperors, all but two died by violence, five were murdered.

The problem in Italy today is that while the Right appears rudderless, the Left is fractious, divided, and with a political program that has yet to generate much traction. That may change, particularly if the economy continues to stall, a subject about which the Right has virtually nothing sensible to say.

***

Wendy is angling down a grassy slope to some stairs and a section of wall she unearthed last year. It doesn’t look like much, particularly compared to Carsulae’s Arch of San Damiano and Augustan theater. But Roman towns, like contemporary Italian politics, have multiple layers.

This particular wall is not Roman, thus accomplishing what archeologists the world over love to do most: overturn established fact. According to the official site guide: “Urban development of Carsulae along the Via Flaminia dates back to the 2nd century BC.” Nope. The rough-hewn wall with its cut stone staircase says there were people here long before Rome rose on the Tiber. Who and how long ago? That’s for another season’s dig.

Carsulae had been in decline since the Via Flaminia divided at Narnia, and traffic shifted to the road’s shorter, eastern arm. By the time the earthquake finished it off, it was a ghost of its former self. Finally the town disappeared beneath the rolling Umbrian hills until archaeologists unearthed it. Most of Carsulae is still hidden. Wendy looks longingly at a huge field. “That’s where the houses are. I’m sure of it,” she says.

What we do know is that the Umbrians who came together almost 3,000 years ago to build a town around a spring faced pretty much the same problems that people face today: how to build a society that feeds, clothes and houses its members. Then, as now, the powerful build monuments to themselves and discovered that circuses are a handy way to divert people’s attention.

But when Giuseppe Garibaldi marched to free Umbria from the Pope in 1860, the people of Perugia, the province’s capital, rose up and smashed the grim castle that dominated their hill top city. Maybe the lesson buried in Carsulae is that, while cities may vanish, people endure, and sooner or later they tire of emperors, lords, Popes, and one hopes, prime ministers.

Archaeologist Wendy Hallinan is also my sister-in-law.

CONN HALLINAN can be reached at: ringoanne@sbcglobal.net

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious madness in Ulster
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
January 19, 2017
Melvin Goodman
America’s Russian Problem
Dave Lindorff
Right a Terrible Wrong: Why Obama Should Reverse Himself and Pardon Leonard Peltier
Laura Carlsen
Bringing Mexico to Its Knees Will Not “Make America Great Again”
John W. Whitehead
Nothing is Real: When Reality TV Programming Masquerades as Politics
Yoav Litvin
Time to Diss Obey: the Failure of Identity Politics and Protest
Mike Whitney
The Trump Speech That No One Heard 
Conn Hallinan
Is Europe Heading for a “Lexit”?
Stephen Cooper
Truth or Twitter? Why Donald Trump Is No John Steinbeck
Binoy Kampmark
Scoundrels of Patriotism: The Freeing of Chelsea Manning
Ramzy Baroud
The Balancing Act is Over: What Elor Azaria Taught Us about Israel
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail