OK, so the title has only a little to do with the subject of this post. I just couldn’t resist.

A recent article at Boston.com cited the recent interest in fiction about ancient Rome (sparked by the film Gladiator) and discussed Rome in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the upcoming film version of Coriolanus (more on that in future posts, as well as in the next podcast). Here’s a quote:

Rome is the go-to era for stories of crime, debauchery, and power, for films that push the technical boundaries of the art. But the most intriguing movies and television shows set in ancient Rome tend to be those that attempt less historical accuracy and use the era as a dark mirror to our own times. In “Titus Andronicus,’’ written around 1590, Shakespeare likened the political atmosphere of old Rome to “a wilderness of tigers.’’ But the line could also describe Shakespeare’s era, or Washington’s political churn.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? What is it about Rome that captures our imagination — and the Elizabethan imagination — so much? Is it the glamor of its power? In some ways, I’m tempted to say that instability in Rome is facinating because Rome was so powerful that a collapse of a regime had such tremendous impact. But political instability is as much a theme in King Lear as it is in the Roman plays. But then, it’s not as political as Coriolanus or Julius Caesar.

Rome is something of an amalgam of opposites. At different times, it could be politically stable and politically weak. It was sometimes dictatorial and sometimes democratic. The Romans were capable of great art and humanism, and also horrific cruelty. And it’s the source of so many incredible stories.

I think of it as something like an imperial Wild West in the Western imagination. A place where established governments attempted to maintain order, but wildness and disorder could still reign. And yet, as a militant state (as opposed to a dissociated amalgam of settlements), it can parallel our own society much more than the Wild West can.

What do you think? Why does Rome fascinate us so? What does the setting suggest in Shakespeare?

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