Teresa Stolarskyj

Reflections on culture and society

Identity, memory and belonging: The agony and opportunity of identity in Rome

Identity, as the “Eternal Tiber,”[1] is fluid and changing, sometimes evolving so subtly as to avoid notice, sometimes breaching the riverbanks in a fluid rush that wipes away what previously existed. Change, whether gradual or instantaneous, forces a reckoning, a choice to be made about the one’s place in, and response to, one’s surroundings. Should one fight to preserve the past, and somehow animate it in a new context? Should one let go and adopt a new persona that invites radical change? Or is there a middle ground that provides harmony between the past and the future?

The right answer is subject to personal circumstances. Memory, however reliable, will influence one’s idea of self, and will pull from upstream some of what came before. But the river is ever flowing, defined not by a prior experience, but continually recreating itself. It cannot contain what came before, either to retain or expunge it, nor can it stop, for stagnation turns flowing beauty into putrid bog. The river must keep moving, taking some of what came before, and leaving some behind, making space for what comes downstream.

The river accepts its course, carrying on as nature invites it to. Change is its only permanence. The mighty Tiber, which has inspired awe and reverence over the ages, is a different river to each viewer: there are no two Tibers alike. There is but the sense of the shape of it and its movement, and the feeling it evokes.

Likewise, individuals can embrace the flow of their identity as they travel through live. They can work to alter their river’s course or build up protective barriers against catastrophe. Regardless, it runs toward new spaces. One can master the currents, learning to navigate with grace and skill, or become subsumed by exhaustion, nostalgia, or self-annihilation.

Rome, like it’s mighty Tiber, compels its inhabitants to question and redefine their individual identities. Whether native-born or foreign, they face a tension between past and future, reconciling what was with what is. Rome, too, evolves as its denizens do, for while individuals reckon with their identity, they likewise influence the ebbs and flows of Rome itself in a mutual, co-creative exchange.

While the approaches to defining identity are many, it those who prosper in Rome are those who acknowledge their past, accept what is, and take prudent choices with a view to securing the future for generations to come.  

From the time of its founding, Rome has invited the opportunity of a fresh start and renewed identity. The misfits, outsiders, fugitives, and the “homeless and destitute”[2] that comprised its first inhabitants may be assumed to have nothing to forget, no cultural or social identity or belonging. But they must have come from somewhere, had loved ones, perhaps a home, societal roots, even if these ties were tenuous. By force or by choice, they left some of their old selves behind.

Rome offered absolution, and a fresh start. Here, they could cultivate new relationships and reputations, free of lingering judgment or persecution. Livy even gives these first Romans a

new origin story, that they were “born of the earth” to be Romulus’ progeny. Linked as Rome is to nature through Romulus’ own origin story, nature becomes a bedrock of Roman identity, washing clean the slate of self and allowing fresh growth in the proverbial garden. With the soil, the water, and the sun as their only ancestors, the Romans successfully established their settlement, and like flowers, fields and shrubs each have a role in nature, each Roman could cultivate his part in the protection, provision, and pleasure of the new city. Leaving the past behind and adopting the new Roman identity allows the settlement to thrive.

The settlement required women, however, in order to secure its future, and their solution was to abduct the Sabine women, who were “indignant and…full of foreboding for the future”[3] at this event. Livy is silent on their process of acclimation, whether they continued to resist in the face of captivity, or whether they readily subsumed themselves to their new reality. With neither blueprint nor expectations of what their new identity “ought” to be, it is likely that they drew on their memories and past learning to establish their new households and community.

As the Sabine women became mothers, a return outright to the past became especially impossible. When the Sabine parents come to exact revenge, the women find themselves caught between two identities. Rather than choosing sides, however, they compel the Sabines and the Romans to redefine themselves, to work cooperatively and with respect to each other’s identities and customs. The Sabine women neither forget their origins, nor become prisoners of their past. They have forged a new identity, supported by their heritage but concerned for the future of their children, and invoking a collaborative co-existence between former enemies.

Rome’s early inhabitants showed willingness to adapt their sense of self, whether freely or by force. The first Romans and the Sabines take a pragmatic tack, creating opportunities for a better future, however bright their past may or may not have been.  

Rome, like these first inhabitants, is dynamic and changing. This rude discovery is made by Mary Shelley’s titular Valerius, reanimated after nearly two millennia. With Rome much changed, he finds himself physically and spiritually displaced. The built environment and markers of the principal faith are drastically at odds with his memory.

Valerius is pained because he has developed his identity on externalities. It is ironic that he finds solace in the “eternal Tiber” and the constant heavens which are “not changed,”[4] for these elements of nature are ever and immutably changing. Like the first Romans, Valerius takes solace in nature, as it if it his life’s source.

Like the river, Valerius must replenish and evolve. In recounting his story, he slips into a reverie, “eyes fixed on the dead waters before him.”[5] The stagnant pool may reflect his own confused, stagnant sense of self, or his dampened feelings for the old, dead Rome. A breeze ripples through the water, and this “smallest change…awakened the Roman.” The living, ever-changing waters, provide Valerius a rebirth, reminding him to evolve if he is to stay alive and well, and reanimating him with new life.

Valerius’ resemblance to the statue of Marcus Aurelius provides further irony which illustrates inevitable change. Over time, Marcus has been manipulated to face both Pagan and Christian Romes, despite his being a Stoic. Forces beyond his control alter his reality and what he appears to stand for. It also suggests that Valerius’ woe over Rome’s change to Christianity is folly, that faith as identity is a myth, another externality too tenuous to anchor one’s identity to.

While Valerius struggles to come to terms with himself in a Rome much changed from that of his memory, Parviz and Amadeo in Lakhous’ A Clash of Civilizations in an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio provide a study in opposites, each reckoning with their origins and new realities. Each has suffered, sacrificed, and lost, and neither can return to whence they came.

Desperate not to lose connection with his origins, Parviz struggles to adapt. He refuses to adopt Italian customs, even for the benefit of his short-term survival. He sees pizza as deadlier than cigarettes,[6] perceiving a potentially nourishing substance as fatal; to change would be the death of him. Regardless of his physical existence, he “lives in Shiraz, not Rome,”[7] and escapes back to that place through cooking his home cuisine. This is folly, for although the Arab proverb suggests, “you can’t fit two swords in a single sheath,”[8] there is no reason Parviz cannot alternate swords.

Instead, he relies on Chianti, an Italian wine, to deliver him to stupor, to forget his pain as he attempts not to forget his past. Clinging his old identity leads him to self-harm, using Italian tools to dull his pain; unlike pizza, this poison is acceptable to him. Parviz struggles to move on from a past which exists only in his memory, a static moment in time. He does not consider that his native Shiraz marches on without him. Even if he could return, he may feel as displaced and foreign as Valerius in a later iteration of Rome.

If Parviz refuses to forget, Amadeo takes the opposite tack, desperately attempting to obliterate his memories. So successful he seems in adopting a new identity that each featured character insists that Amadeo must be Italian. But although his public face is convincing, Amadeo is haunted by the past, evidenced by his wolf wails and nightmares. He indulges his homesickness with couscous at an Arabic restaurant, and quickly throws it up,[9] a violent and visceral rejection his past identity. In contrast to those immigrants who drink alcohol to forget the agonies of their new Roman reality, Amadeo drinks the “milk” of all things Italian, nourished by the wolf rather than pained by its bite.[10]

Finding one’s identity in Rome again hearkens back to nature, to Romulus and the first settlers. Yet as much as Amadeo attempts to dissociate with the past and establish a new identity, his burden is heavy. “Memory is the rock of Sisyphus,”[11] he notes, that weight always calling for his attention, draining his energy and surly tiring him as the eternal pushing uphill of a boulder must. But to let the boulder go would certainly be crushing.

Amadeo is ultimately run over in a street near the Coliseum, that ancient ruin symbolic of carnage and martyrdom. Crushed by the weight of his past, and unable to free his identity enough to become fully Roman, he becomes a victim instead. Amadeo may have let the rock go, or he may have lost resolve. Perhaps it was purely an accident. Regardless, he suffers a traumatic brain injury, as a result of which he may lose his memory and finally achieve his wish to forget. It is left in the hands of nature, for even medicine is unable to help him further.

In this way, Amadeo becomes a blank slate, just as the first Romans. Forgetting would allow him to create a fresh identity with seemingly no baggage, and no expectation of what the future should hold. Yet this would also mean sacrificing all he has built in his life, including friendships, resources, and the ability to navigate the world at hand.

Amadeo cannot remember, and Parviz refuses to forget. Both suffer isolation as a result, obliterating their minds, temporarily or otherwise. Neither navigates the current skillfully enough to integrate his past while creating a fresh future. Rather, it is Iqbal the Bangladeshi who best achieves this.

Iqbal is proud of his heritage, insisting on honoring his father’s name.Yet he determines to give his expected child an Italian first name to avoid the very troubles he faces. He is proud to think this child will be the first in Bangladesh with such a name, and that Italians will smile at his child, whose name is familiar to the local ear. Like the Sabine women, Iqbal makes prudent present choices to the benefit of the next generation. He grapples with the question of whether to send the child to a Bangladeshi or Italian preschool, cognizant that each will have its benefits and drawbacks. He recognizes and weighs his choices, moving forward while incorporating what is relevant from the past. He allows his identity to evolve, seeing it as an obligation to ease his children’s future as Romans.

Identity is a construct based on memory, personal filters, perspectives, and prejudices, none of which are objectively true nor entirely reliable. These are subjective measures, and like association with place, faith, or culture, can be disrupted and changed. Whether invoked by a conscious choice, an escape from potential harm, or an unwanted life disruption, identity is transmutable. But there is danger to fixing it to externalities and demanding it be static.

Identity is a choice, informed by one’s origins but not defined by it. Like the Eternal Tiber, whether gradually winding along, changing the banks and the water’s content in its wake, or whether breaching in a catastrophic moment, it is changing. To be eternally at home with one’s identity, it too must ebb and flow and refresh; it is not externalities which define one’s self, but one’s response to changing circumstances. Some choose to actively create and evolve their identity, pruning the old and fomenting new growth. Others choose to be controlled by it, victim to circumstances beyond their control. Identity can help or harm a person, but that decision is theirs to make.


Lakhous, Amara. Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2006.

Livy. The Early History of Rome. Books I-V of The History of Rome from its Foundations. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. Penguin Classics, 2002.

Shelley, Mary. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories with Original Engravings. Johns Hopkins Press, 1990


[1] Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories with Original Engravings. Johns Hopkins Press, 1990, 334.

[2] Livy. The Early History of Rome. Books I-V of The History of Rome from its Foundations. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. Penguin Classics, 2002, 39.

[3] Livy, 41.

[4] Shelley, 334, 341.

[5] Shelley, 337.

[6] Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2006, 13.

[7] Lakhous, 29.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lakhous, 118.

[10] Lakhous, 118.

[11] Lakhous, 131.

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