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A Roman Theatre and Modern Politics

May 17, 2013

I’ve been out of blogdom for a couple of weeks, on holidays with my wife, in Andalucia this year, a few days each in Malaga, Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada.  I recommend all these cites, but probably during April/May and/or September, when you’ll likely experience temperatures no higher than the 30s (celsius).  Mid-summer, it’s the 40s for sure. But I turn now to something a bit more relevant to this site.

On our last day in Malaga, we took in the excavated Roman theatre and the linked “interpretative centre” located at the foot of the Alcazaba.  I always look out for Roman remains in our holidays in various European countries, and Spain is particularly richly provided with such (both sites and museum collections).  Roman theatres were one of the most common ways that Rome stamped its cultural presence and dominance in the various parts of the empire.  Theatres might be the benefaction of some wealthy local person, and they typically also referred to the emperor (and his religious significance).  The plays were often about the Roman (or Greek) gods, giving the theatre an additional religious air.  So, it’s understandable that among early Christians there was often a reluctance to take part in theatre or even to attend.

This wasn’t my first Roman theatre, however, and what struck us about this one was the story of how it came to be excavated and restored.  On the site some decades ago during the Franco regime, a “Casa de Cultura” (a large museum) was built on the site, burying the remains of the Roman theatre for good, or so it seemed.  But after the end of the Franco regime, with some prompting from archaeologists, there arose a popular cry for the Casa de Cultura to be demolished, so that the Roman remains could be excavated properly and the site restored.  This in itself was a remarkable decision, demolishing an expensive newer building to allow archaeological work.

But the more remarkable thing to me was how this was “spun”.  Per the interpretative centre, the Casa de Cultura was seen as a monument to the Franco regime, which obviously didn’t have a great deal of popular support.  So demolishing the Casa was away of effacing that regime.  OK.  And the excavation and emphasis on the Roman theatre was presented as reflective of the post-Franco, democratic aspirations of the Spanish people.  Interesting:  A monument that originally signified the imperial rule of Rome over the area of Spain, a symbol of the dictatorial power of the Roman Emperor, now functioning as a symbol of the democratic leanings of post-Franco Spain!

It shows how we use history to define ourselves, and so we have to choose what history by which to do so.  It shows also how historical things that once bore one meaning can acquire (or be given) a very different meaning, when people need to do so.  In this case, it also shows a striking instance of how archaeology played a role in profound political developments of the recent past.

Not strictly about Christian origins, I agree.  But I found the whole thing so interesting that I couldn’t resist a posting about it.

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