Today’s Latin Lesson


I remember it from Latin class. It was the insignia on battle standards carried by the Roman legions. Now the letters adorn the manhole covers for Rome’s sewers.

My wife asked me: “What does SPQR stand for.” Latin class may have been 50 years ago (which in itself is a scary thought) but there are some things I remember. Without thinking I rhymed it off; “Senatus Populus Que Romanus” – the Senate and people of Rome. It was a statement of the unity between the political will and the popular will. The mightiest empire of its time, one of the most powerful and influential in human history was built around that concept of togetherness.

Tourists snap up souvenirs displaying the letters. My SPQR baseball cap is long gone, a victim of age. I bought a fridge magnet on our recent trip to Rome to replace it. Unlike the cap, it won’t wear out and receive my wife’s fashion-conscious thumbs down. Tourists in Rome know the letters have something to do with Roman history, but I doubt one in a hundred knows the meaning or the significance. IMG_3114

I find it somewhat ironic that what was once a symbol of power and authority has been reduced primarily to an indication of where the sewers are. I don’t know who in the Roman civic administration thought this was something appropriate to put on their manhole covers, but it seems to me they had no sense of history. Or maybe they did.

Empires come and go. We know that intellectually; but have much more difficulty when we consider the present. I suspect neither Donald Trump nor Vladimir Putin can see the day when the United States or Russia are second rate countries (and I leave it to you to determine if they are that today). They firmly believe they command the power of Empire, ones that will never fade. So many leaders before them have thought the same and have discovered that history has a way of taking care of people who think they are important.

The citizens of Rome (or Italy if you want to expand the area) could teach the Americans and Russians about empires and time. If you are an Italian, then of course Italy matters. People in the rest of the world don’t give the country much thought except perhaps if they are eating pasta. Italy is not the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of temporal or financial clout. It doesn’t rank high on the list of influential countries. It’s a nice place to visit, but they won’t be ruling the world again anytime soon.

It reminds me of another Latin phrase: Sic transit gloria mundi (so passes the glory of this world).

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