WordPlay: Roman Power (Ῥώμη Ῥώμη)

Rome was destined to be powerful in Greek eyes and ears.

Rome (Ῥώμη)

In the 1st c. CE the role of the Romans in world history was clear: they were the dominators, the rulers of the known world. While ancient empires had arisen in the past and faded away in the same (Babylon, Persia, etc.) Rome was here to stay. This was not so much a philosophical position as a recognition of current realities: Rome was in control, and would continue to be so until the end of time.

If, for some unforseen reason, Rome was to fall, another like it would arise in its place. In this sense the uniqueness of Rome is somewhat compromised. Rome is the unique One at the moment, but like all other Powerful Ones it will eventually fall. Rome is simply the latest and greatest of the Powerful Ones.

This is tempered with the idea in the 1st c. that the world was coming to an end rather soon. This idea has roots in Jewish writings such as Daniel and 1 Enoch, and the idea had wide acceptance in the 1st c. apocalyptic movements in Judea and elsewhere.

Rome was one beast among many, but at the same time the historical timeline that Jews held to was running out. There was not an expectation that Rome would fall to another empire other than that of God himself. Rome was the last of the Powerful Ones.


Powerful One (Ῥώμη)

The view of Rome by Jews in the 1st c. was ambiguous: on the one hand Rome was a protector and granter of peace, while on the other hand it was a threat to the peace of Jerusalem. Roman power enabled the complete  building of the Temple in Jerusalem, while the earlier Persian power had only allowed the Second Temple to be built to half of the desired height. Imperial power was portrayed in Isaiah as a tool of God. Cyrus was called the “messiah” and he was to return the Jews to Judea and rebuild the Temple. This did not happen under Cyrus, and even when it did happen it was unsatisfactory to many Jews both then and now. It was as if this prophecy had yet to be actually fulfilled, and it was finally fulfilled in the building of the Temple by Herod under Roman power.

Power for the Greco-Romans was not simply a matter of influence, but also of holiness. To be powerful was to be divine, and the more powerful one was, the ore godlike they were. This open acknowledgement of power as the guiding principle of existence is in contrast to the Jewish ad Christian traditions of power in weakness. For Romans, it was axiomatic that power was divine, and the old adage that “power corrupts” would appear to them a partial truth, one which remains silent to the more important fact that “power preserves.” The powerful rise above corrupt mortality and enter into the life of the immortal gods.


The “Prophetic” Coincidence of Ῥώμη

This brings us to our original point: it was a linguistic fact that Romans were powerful. In other words, to call somebody “powerful” was to call them “Roman.” The word for “Rome” and “powerful” were exactly the same (Ῥώμη).

This is all the more striking since the coincidence of names is not designed: Rome was named (most probably) for “flowing water” in Etruscan, and later the meaning of “teat” was adopted. This makes sense in Latin, but the Greek interaction with Rome would have interpreted the name rather differently.

For Greeks, Rome was known as Ῥώμη, the Greek meaning of which was “power.” When Rome began to exert its power and domination in the Greek world, it would have appeared to have been forecast by the Greek language itself! This power over the Greeks would never be broken historically, since the end of the Roman Empire in the East did not convert the “Greeks” to a different culture. The legacy of Rome remained powerful in the Greek mind, as it did in their language.


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