This week, the conclave to elect a new pope convenes in Rome – fittingly, the original Capital of the World. In 27 B.C.E., the historian Titus Livy reported an oral tradition that the city founder Romulus had descended from heaven nearly seven centuries before to direct the Romans to transform their city into caput orbis terrarum – the Capital of the World. “Tell the Romans that by heaven’s will my Rome shall be the capital of the world,” Romulus instructed. “Let them learn to be soldiers. Let them know, and teach their children, that no power on earth can stand against Roman arms.”The phrase “capital of the world” remained attached to Rome into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sustained by classical educations and appearing frequently in histories, periodicals, and travel guides. The idea of Rome as a world capital had its origins in warfare and empire, but it came to represent a more general appreciation of Rome as a center of culture, civilization, and significance for Christianity.
Since Livy’s times, the idea of a Capital of the World has evolved in ways both trivial and grand. European imperialism during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spawned new claims of world dominance for seats of empire. “The great object of every British patriot should be, to place his country at the head of the nations, and to make it the capital of the world,” advised The Prospects of Britain, a volume published in London and Edinburgh in 1831. London’s reputation as world capital grew during preparations for the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, the first world’s fair, which called attention to the vast holdings of the British empire. Paris, too, earned a reputation as the Capital of the World based on its standing as a center of ideas, revolution, culture, and high fashion.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Capital of the World was not an undisputed title but a more fluid idea that could be attached to new aspirations and predictions. A Jewish journalist in New York predicted in 1885 that when the Jewish people restored their place in Palestine, “Jerusalem will be rebuilt on a splendid scale. It will become the capital of the world and the seat of the Messiah, who will reign 1,000 years the acknowledged sovereign of mankind.” Lew Wallace, an American Civil War general regarded as an authority on the Middle East after writing the novel Ben-Hur (1880), assessed events in Turkey in the 1890s and declared that “one of the results of the present agitation and their settlement will be to make Constantinople the capital of the world.”
The idea of Capital of the World also emerged in a Buddhist context in Thailand (Siam) in 1872. There, the new Chakkri dynasty signaled its power and intentions for its capital at Bangkok (Krung Thep) with an expansive new title: “The City of Angels, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, Capital of the World Endowed with Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City Abounding in Great Royal Palaces which Resemble the Heavenly Abode Wherein Dwell the Reincarnated Gods, a City Given by Indra and Built by Vishnukarn.” Spirituality, architecture, and wealth provided the foundation for this Capital of the World.
In the age of industrial capitalism, from the middle nineteenth century into the twentieth, new “capitals of the world” sprang into existence by declaration of companies, civic boosters, and journalists:
Manufacturing Capital of the World (Manchester, England).
Oil Capital of the World (Tulsa, Oklahoma).
Film Capital of the World (Los Angeles, California).
Chewing Gum Capital of the World (Chicago, Illinois).
With such slogans, cities and towns became not only places but also brands that could be advertised for further advantage. Gary, Indiana, could achieve fame as the “steel capital of the world” at a time when steel-supported skyscrapers carried cities to new heights, and Akron, Ohio, could rule in the automobile age as the “rubber capital of the world.” The phrase “capital of the world” gained such currency that it became a tool of general description. During the First World War, for example, a writer described Madrid as the “spy capital of the world”; another writer reaching to describe Greenwich Village in the 1920s described it as the “new bohemian capital of the world.”
All of these precedents fed into the idea of “capital of the world” at the end of the Second World War, which is the subject of Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations. But the most direct foundation for imagining that the site for the new United Nations headquarters would also be the world’s capital came from the international peace conferences that began at the end of the nineteenth century. “World capital,” long associated with domination and empire, also became a term for places for peaceful negotiation. News accounts bestowed the title on The Hague, in the Netherlands, during the series of international conferences held there between 1899 and 1907. Other cities could become the Capital of the World whenever diplomats gathered. “Washington is Capital of the World Today,” a headline in an American newspaper reported during a summit of allies during the First World War, for example. With precedents such as these established, news accounts naturally described Geneva in Switzerland as the Capital of the World after its selection as headquarters site for the League of Nations in 1919. New York City, the site of the UN, has embraced and promoted its reputation as the Capital of the World.
Today the phrase “Capital of the World” percolates minute by minute in the chatter on Twitter, where it is used to boast but also to criticize (“murder capital of the world”) and for ironic effect (“Sioux Falls is the spring break capital of the world”). It is a far cry from Titus Livy and the solemnity of Rome during this week of the conclave, but social media is propelling the idea of a Capital of the World into a new age and documenting its meaning for our time.
Described usage of the phrase “capital of the world” derives from searches of the following databases: America’s Historical Newspapers (Newsbank); The Making of the Modern World (Gale); American Periodicals Series; The Times of London; and The New York Times, supplemented by: Titus Livy, The Early History of Rome, Book I, Chapter 16, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (1960; repr. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002), 49; Lidia Storoni Mazzolani, The Idea of the City in Roman Thought: From Walled City to Spiritual Commonwealth, trans. S. O’Donnell (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1970), 62-67, 176-80; Patrice Higonnet, Paris: Capital of the World, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 230-60. Mark Askew, Bangkok: Place, Practice and Representation (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 15-16.