Concluding a week in Rome, I stood yesterday at the top of the monument to Emmanuel Vittoria II, liberator and first king of the unified Italy that emerged in the 1860’s. Wikipedia records the monument (including the statues atop it) as 443 ft wide and 266 ft high, with an area of 20,332 square yards.

The 360 degree Rome skyline includes the ruins of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, remnants of colossal temples, dozens of standing domes and obelisks, and the astonishing wealth of the Vatican…itself an ironical tribute to a child born in a barn. The singular, recurring word in my head was “hubris.” All these pretensions to eternal power and esteem, sad reflection on how a small, insignificant and transient creature graced with a remarkable brain and opposable thumbs has chosen to express his gratitude for such gifts.  

I came home and looked up Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poem to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Ramesses was an Egyptian king who, 3,500 years ago, had similar aspirations. Here is the final stanza:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)