Saturday, June 18, 2011

Day 2 in Rome: About Soft Power


My day two in Rome was, predictably, spent in Vatican. In sharp contrast to the squalor and graffiti of the backstreets of Rome, Vatican is a neat, fabulously wealthy, glittering affair. It is expensive too - a total of 22 Euros just for the museums - but it is all worth it being able to spend a few minutes inside The Sistine Chapel (above, the photo I took before being told not to use my camera).

But, while I, like many others, went to Vatican to see Sistine Chapel in person, the real show is in the St Peters Square. Being accustomed the Hindu holy places, which are bare and serene, the St Peters Square was very different from what I was expecting: This was, in my perception, more about power than piety. This looked every bit as imperial as the Roman ruins I saw yesterday. I was almost thinking of the idea of one unending empire, that of Cesare and Augustus, carried on by Constantine when he took over Christianity in what would be world's foremost exercise of soft power (though the term was invented only very recently by Joseph Nye): It is possible to see St Peters Square as the springboard of all of Western civilization as it stands today, but also the whole existence of it in direct line of descent from the Colosseum.

What plays in my mind now whether Christianity won over the Roman Empire or it was the other way around: Whether common men's beliefs always get institutionalized into grand religions like this. I see religion as a private affair, an individual's very own choices of behaviour and faith, and any public religion (including Hinduism where it is institutional and oppressive) is, I would believe, constructed for the convenience of the ruling class. This isn't my pet conspiracy theory, but something that I learned through reading history and looking at places like St Peters.

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