Roman Scandals

If you consider the HBO series Rome to be historically accurate, you probably think that, with all its lust, bloodshed and social upheaval, one of the world’s greatest civilizations was little more than The Sopranos: The Early Years. Okay, so less than half of the Roman emperors died of natural causes; still, the empire and its centuries-long dominance of world affairs set the standard for a lot of the social and political practices of today -- and not just the orgy.

“Imperial Rome,” at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, tells the real story with more than 400 artifacts on loan from Italian museums, including sculptures, coins and jewelry, as well as illustrative and interactive displays. “It is a sobering thought to realize that all great civilizations go through the same cycle of starting small and achieving zenith followed by a slow decline and total collapse,” says curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout, who often asks students how that model might relate to our current society -- and most often gets silence as a response. (Now, that gives us enormous faith in our country’s future.) The importance of flexibility as a societal trait, Van Tuerenhout says, is the real lesson of this exhibit.

And ancient Rome should be remembered not just for Caesar’s brutal assassination or Nero’s fiddling, but also for its contributions to the arts and sciences -- including the invention of cement. Maybe Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts are only paying homage to their forefathers when they fashion shoes for stool pigeons.


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