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. Continue reading