As you walk down the Rue de Souffle in the Latin Quarter of Paris, looking straight ahead of you, it is impossible to ignore the pure beauty of the Pantheon as it towers above everything else surrounding it. The road, named after the Architect of the Pantheon; Jacques-Germain Soufflot, is at first glance a fitting tribute to the French master of Neoclassical architecture. Voltaire, who is buried in the Crypt at the Pantheon, is said to have been taken in the funeral procession to the Pantheon, alongside a crowd on the Rue de Souffle, of over a million people.
Inside the Pantheon, you will have already past the huge columns forcefully holding up the entrance. You are then greeted by an amazing inner dome, which reaches to the sky, and is just as wide as it is tall. In the centre, is a giant piece of scientific brilliance, by the scientist Léon Foucault, erected in 1851 with the intention of being the first to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth on its axis. I cannot explain the experiment, because it hurts my head to think about it too much; needless to say, it is a work of beauty.
An equally as beautiful work of art stands at the back of the main hall. I stood in awe for a while at the incessantly attractive sculpture, depicting the “heroes” of the French revolution. The realism is romanticism at its finest, surrounded by neoclassicalism at its finest.
The Crypt is now the resting place of some of the greatest French artists, writers, philosophers, poets and politicians that ever lived. Voltaire, Mirabeau, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, Soufflot, Braille, Curie, Dumas; are all buried in the Crypt at the Pantheon.
And yet, despite all of this, there is a sign within the crypt at the Pantheon, letting people know, that actually, the structure is in constant need of restoration because its falling apart.
The successful failure, as i’m naming the beautiful yet slightly shoddy craftsmanship of the Pantheon in its attempt to resurrect the architectural genius of the Pantheon still standing strongly in the centre of Rome, is mirrored in 19th Century France when it comes to the death of the Monarchy, an attempt at Republic, and the falling into Empire. Rome experienced much the same structure of governance.
The last King of Rome; Lucius Tarquinius was driven to exile by Lucius Brutus in 509bc, and the Roman Republic era began. The end of the Roman Republic arguably ended with Julius Caesar being proclaimed Dictator for life in around late 45bc. Caesar was considered the hero of the common people. His face was stamped on coins, he sat on a throne-like seat in the Senate which had no one had dared to do since the fall of the Kingdom, he then had a statue of himself erected. This aroused suspicion that he intended to overthrow the beloved Republic and establish himself as King (which is probably true), and so a group of Senators lead by Brutus (an apparent ancestor of the Brutus who established the Republic 450 years previous, though it isn’t provable) murdered Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey (not in the Senate house, as most people think), underneath the statue of Pompey; Caesar’s old friend turned enemy. In killing the people’s hero Julius Caesar, his adopted son Octavian soon became the people’s hero, and used his popularity to hunt down and kill all of Caesar’s killers, to do away with Marc Anthony and to establish himself, cunningly, as the first Emperor of Rome; Augustus.
Similarly, as King Louis XVI was killed off by revolutionaries set to form a Republic, the aspirations of a young general who had visions of expanding the territory of France, as Caesar had done as General of the Roman Legions during his expanding of the Roman territory into Gaul (modern day France, Austria, Switzerland); Napoleon Bonaparte. After his success as a General, Bonaparte became First Consulate of the French Senate in 1799. Effectively, granting himself the right of Dictator for life, as Caesar had done. Following Caesar’s lead, Bonaparte started to wear the crown of laurel leaves. Caesar took the idea of wearing a laurel wreath from the old Greek tales of the God Apollo, who was always depicted wearing one. Caesar was putting himself on a par with the Gods. Napoleon was trying to emulate Caesar. It is almost scientific. The violent change from Kingdom to Republic to Empire is almost the necessary result of socio-historical processes that have been seen in Rome, France, and to some extent, the USA. Whilst personal characteristics of people like Caesar and Napoleon, and their lust and arrogance for absolute power are important in the narrative, they are merely one part in a much larger narrative of history that leads from Kingdom to Empire. When Republic is faltering, it is amazing to see, throughout history, an overbearing and maniacal personality appears on the scene almost right on cue, to force his way into the seat of power. Empire is inevitable at that point, and Empire is necessarily imperialist by nature. Napoleon and Caesar were both not popular with the nobility of their respective Country’s before in their younger days. Napoleon felt he was of social inferiority in comparison to the French nobility, he was an introvert and a loner by nature. Caesar’s family had very little political influence and he was a bit of an outcast. Napoleon saw, as did Caesar, that the State was falling, and a strong political and military mind could quite easily fill the gap. Napoleon once remarked:
“What a great people were these Romans, especially down to the Second Punic War. But Caesar! Ah Caesar! That was the great man!”
Napoleon, had himself crowned Emperor, emulating Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (Augustus) in 1804. The French Empire expanded at first, but soon crumbled under his leadership. He successfully defeated coalition partners of Europe five times, before tempting fate with an ill conceived invasion of Russia in 1812, and was forced to abdicate and exiled in 1813. The strong and mystifying exterior of Napoleon, soon crumbled, like the walls of the Pantheon.
One could argue that Napoleon is actually not at all the personified mirror of the Pantheon, and actually far more successful than Julius Caesar given that Caesar was murdered before he could become Emperor, whereas Napoleon was successful in turning France into an Empire, taking control of most of Western and Central Europe in less than twelve years, and lasted a decade more than Caesar after taking power. Napoleon was a genius. Although, one would have to take into consideration the lasting legacy of both Caesar and Napoleon. For example, every Emperor of Rome was referred to as Caesar, for over 400 years after his death. The name Napoleon has long since died, other than Orwell’s use of the name for a horse in Animal Farm. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was plunged into centuries of the Dark Ages; a truly regressive era in our history. When Napoleon fell, France thrived. The people adored Caesar. The people did not adore Napoleon. Caesar was proclaimed a God, and worshipped as such for the next half a millennium. Napoleon never came close to such accolade. The model of Rome during the Empire has been the inspiration for great artists, architects (such as Souffle’s Pantheon, and even as far as the Capitol building in Washington D.C), sculptors, writers, and people like Napoleon have tried to copy the system of governance for centuries since the final collapse of Rome in the fifth century. I cannot imagine the short phase of French Empire is going to be the inspiration for any such renaissance. The greatest poets during the Renaissance in Florence and Milan were crowned with a laurel wreath, in the style of Caesar to show that they were the masters of the poets. The legacy of the Roman Empire is far stronger and has a greater romance attached to it, than Bonaparte’s France.
The brief revival of the French Empire under Napoleon III was arguably more successful in terms of policy successes and the modernisation of France as an industrial power. And yet Napoleon III is often overlooked as a key figure in French history. His taking of power from the 2nd Republic which was established after the fall of his uncle, Napoleon, was largely a result of the fact that the new Republic was not a Republic at all, having abolished Universal Suffrage and a left over from the political upheaval of the fifty years previous. Stable government had not been known in France by the time Napoleon III took control, for around sixty years.
By the time Octavian became Emperor Augustus in Rome, the Republic had been dead for a long time. Whilst Augustus’ reign was far superior to Caesar’s and Napoleon’s and most Emperors with perhaps the exception of Trajan, he only managed to become Emperor – albeit cleverly and shrewdly – by building on the groundwork laid by his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. The political instability and the uncertain population was crying out for leadership; Octavian provided it.
Rome has a proud tradition. It, along with Ancient Greece certainly spawned Western Neoclassical art and architecture that has produced, with inspiration from the Ancient World, some spectacular works of art. The library in Helsinki is a great example of a Neoclassical building with a modern twist. Le Petit Trianon at Versailles in Paris, has a White House-esque look to it, fundamentally Neoclassical, but modern in feel. St Peter’s in Vatican City, is beautifully designed, and looks back across the Tiber and across history, to its Roman and Pagan ancestry for inspiration. Rome is the father of such brilliance. As it is politically….
If the line of history is to play out again and again, then surely it is not a coincidence that the Republic of the United States of America, which emerged as a result of the violent revolution against Kingdom, is often considered to now be an Empire. But, why is there no Emperor? Why has the Republic not collapsed as History would proscribe? Is America a new kind of Empire? A purely economic Empire, that is a product of advanced Capitalism? A Capitalist American Empire that requires a Napoleon-esque strategic mind, not for Statism and the old conception of Empire, but for ruthless business, coupled with aggressive foreign policy; the new Empire. And so no longer requiring of an overbearing, too powerful Centralised State with a single powerful person at its helm, because that would be contradictory to its “free market” economic purposes and so does it transcend the part of history that would proscribe the fall into the hands of a single person, because the Emperor, is no longer a human being, but instead the excessive power of capital? Or is it destined, after a period of prolonged success, to follow an inevitable path of history?