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Berlusconi's Circus

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