The title of Boris’s forthcoming book on the people of London claims that it is ‘the city that made the world’. Whoa back, steady on, now. Surely Boris means Rome, centre of a vast ancient empire, not to mention the worldwide Catholic Church?
When the poet Martial described the opening of the Colosseum in ad 80, he observed the vast throng gathered in it and wondered if there was any race so remote, so barbarous that it was not represented — Thracians, Sarmatians (from the Danube), Britons, Arabs, Sygambrians (a German people), Ethiopians, ‘their voices a babel, yet one, when they call you, emperor, true father of the fatherland’. The emperor indeed had the whole wide world in his hands, and the peoples of the world knew it. So did the animals from all over the empire on display for their pleasure — bears, rhinos, lions, tigers, elephants.
The city used the world’s materials — Aswan granite, Numidian and Phrygian marble — and the poor enjoyed its produce: bread baked with wheat from North Africa, fish from Gibraltar, utensils of copper mined in Spain, wine from France. Wives of the rich, seated on Indian ebony or teak inlaid with African ivory, adorned themselves in silks from China, diamonds and pearls from India and cosmetics from southern Arabia.
It was not just Romans like Ovid who claimed that ‘the world and the city of Rome occupy the same space’. The Gallic poet Rutilius said that Rome offered the vanquished a share in their justice, thus ‘making a city out of what was once the world’. The Greek Aristides argued that all you had to do was to look at the city to understand how the world was ruled by it; indeed, you could visit the whole world simply by visiting Rome. Rome not merely made the world (cosmotrophos was sometimes applied to it, ‘nurturer of the cosmos’); it was the world.
A final, glorious conceit: roads out of Rome marked only the distance from the city, not to anywhere. All that counted was how near or far you were from it. Not even Boris would dare to do that for London. Would he?