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Friday May 1, 2009

All roads lead to Roman proverbs

GREAT cities of the world have been celebrated not only in essays and full-length books, but also in nursery rhymes, songs and poems.

Famous quotations about great cities are still mostly confined to the ‘old’ European capitals of London, Paris and Rome, even though megacities such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Mumbai and Mexico City have long outstripped them in size and population.

When it comes to proverbs about cities, London only has The streets of London are paved with gold, suggesting that London, with its wealth of easy opportunities, is the place to go if you want to make your fortune. This proverb is associated by many people with the legend of Dick Whittington, the penniless youth destined to become Lord Mayor, who was lured to London by the rumour of streets paved with gold.

Rome outstrips London with several time-honoured proverbs associated with its former grandeur, namely All roads lead to Rome, When in Rome, do as the Romans do, Rome was not built in a day and to Fiddle while Rome burns.

Rome was not built in a day teaches patience and perseverance. A job cannot be done properly if it is done too hastily. Important tasks call for a lot of hard work and take a long time to complete, just as it took centuries for Imperial Rome to be built.

However, this proverb (also occasionally heard in reference to other major cities, particularly Paris) has also often been used as an excuse, whether warranted or not, for delay!

All roads lead to Rome suggests that all ways or methods of fulfilling a specific intention end in the same result. For instance, a number of persons — scientists, for instance — can arrive at one common objective or conclusion by different means. This proverb is often used to defend one’s personal way of doing something or to suggest that no one method is better than another.

The proverb recalls the prime of Imperial Rome, when much of Europe was linked by the unparalleled Roman road system and when Rome dominated all matters cultural. It was said that on whichever road one began a journey, if one kept on travelling, one would finally reach the city of Rome.

The idea that Rome was the centre of the human universe was kept alive after the collapse of the Empire through the Roman Catholic Church, which sited its headquarters at the Vatican and thus endowed the city with the claim of being the spiritual centre of the civilised world.

Similar sayings may be found in many other cultures, including those of China (where all roads lead to Beijing) and Japan (where all roads lead to the palace of the Mikado).

When in Rome, do as the Romans do suggests that when we find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, it is good policy to compromise our usual habits and customs and imitate the manners and ways of life practised by the people one is visiting or living with.

The English writer and politician Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son in 1747: “Good breeding, as it is called, is different in almost every country, and merely local; and every man of sense imitates and conforms to that local good breeding of the place he is at.” Despite a shrinking and increasingly homogenised world, Chesterfield’s advice is as relevant today as it was over two-and-a-half centuries ago.

A lesser-known Roman proverb is to Fiddle while Rome burns. It means to do nothing while something important is being ruined or destroyed, and refers to a story about the Roman Emperor Nero, who is said to have played a lyre and sung while he watched Rome burning.

Apart from Rome, the Italian town of Naples is associated with the saying See Naples and die. The idea is that Naples is (or was) the finest city in the world, so having seen it, travellers might as well die, as they will never see anything better.

There is a darker side to this seemingly light-hearted boast, for Naples was once notorious for disease epidemics, and as a result many visitors did die after seeing the city in those days. Whether this proverb was always intended to be ambiguous is a moot point. As Oscar Wilde once noted, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple”, and this can apply as much to the origins of proverbs and idioms as it can to most other things in the rich tapestry of life.

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