March 1st is nothing special, unless you are a Classical Italian. It marks the first unification of Italy in 222 B.C. We know from historical records that Roman Consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus celebrated a triumph for his victory over the Celts in the Po Valley on that day – Italy now reached the Alps!
That victory made Italy the first nation-state in Europe, one year before China was united. It was an accomplishment that put Italy and its 6 million people on the road to empire. That empire, and its devastating fall, created today’s Italian.
Coincidentally, Italy does recognize its second unification on March 17th. That’s when the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861, after Garibaldi conquered southern Italy.
But Garibaldi and Marcus Marcellus could just as well be figures from mythology to the average Italian American. Their stories and a Metrocard will get you on the subway, as they say.
Last week, Black Panther premiered at theaters around the nation. The $200 million Disney movie is a fantasy about a Black superhero and his super-advanced African nation. The African American community is agog at this new dimension in Black pride. Children are inspired by not only the super stunts but how fictitious African science is lightyears ahead of the rest of the world. One pumped up actor speculated that Africa would have been a beacon to the rest of the world had not it been ruined by European colonialism.
Sociologists call this “compensatory history.” We all practice some form of padding our roots: the Irish “saved” civilization, God “gave” Israel to the Jews, and Anglo-America’s “manifest destiny” explained the Mexican War.
Of course, some groups do have bragging rights, like the Greeks. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was spot-on in showing how many Greek Americans value their classical heritage. I’ll bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a Greek home that doesn’t have a statue of Socrates, the Parthenon, or a pagan goddess.
Which brings me back to my Italians.
What’s in your house? Anything from ancient Rome: the She-Wolf, a bust of an emperor, a photo of the Colosseum or Pantheon? How many of our Gen-Xs and Millennials even have modern Italian keepsakes proclaiming their roots? The closest most people come is Leonardo’s Last Supper which is more Catholic than Italic. Do you have a picture of Columbus? Of Garibaldi (below)?
Our heritage is not a fantasy. We are a classical people like the Greeks. But we continued making history long after the Greeks. We don’t have to invent a fantasy history, if anything ours is too vast to embrace.
For East Asians and South Asians heritage isn’t divided into ancient, medieval, and modern – those cultures remained traditional until Europeans arrived – each is one long continuum with enduring symbols such as Confucius, calligraphy, dragons, warriors, and dynasties. But, it’s safe to say their homes reflect their millennial roots.
I attended a Jewish memorial service a few months ago and picked up a calendar for 5778 (A.D. 2018) titled “Heroes of Ancient Israel.” Among the usual heroes – Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – there was a month dedicated to Judith, who cut off an Assyrian general’s head to win a victory for the Israelites. Every crumb of Jewish history is lovingly preserved for their children’s inspiration.
Meanwhile, we treat our history as bunk. How many ethnic groups would sell their souls for our heritage? We not only have the minute details of our long history but we even know what our distant ancestors looked like. Here is Consul Marcellus:
A Yale professor once observed this about us, hurtful but true: “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”
The problem is, how do we change our act? -JLM