Cellular Memory

You can stop me in my tracks with a program or story about ancient Rome. My stomach flutters when I look at photos of the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, and imagine the people who filled them, 2000 years ago. Gazing at lustrous marble statues of curly-haired emperors,  elaborate friezes of grappling soldiers, I feel almost holy, as if I’m approaching important truths, closing in on a memory.

The cells in our bodies have age-old intelligence. Consider migration, the way in which a creature knows, from birth, precisely where to head. This innate intelligence works in the background, constantly informing us, keeping us alive. If a pathogen from the past resurfaces, our bodies know how to handle it. We are now learning that this cellular memory is also evident in organ transplant patients, particularly heart recipients, who will sometimes assume the habits, behaviors and preferences of their donors. Every breath we take and every bite we swallow is composed of atoms that have been here since the earth began. Perhaps we are stirred by the places and cultures we were once a part of. If you love the violin, your forebear might have played the lute.

So, along with my blue eyes and cautious ways, there’s a reasonable chance I was born with this tenderness toward ancient Rome. I once wrote a story about Pompeii and became lost in the research; for weeks I could think of little else, and even my dreams were filled with fire and pumice.

I have spent some time thinking about the Coliseum and what went on inside those massive walls. Commissioned by Emperor Vespesian in 72 AD, the project was completed eight years later. With a population of nearly one million, Rome was becoming unmanageable and agitation was on the rise. Vespesian hoped to quell the anger and gain popularity by staging deadly combats between gladiators, as well as animals fights—over nine thousand animals were killed in the inaugural games. If a gladiatorial struggle did not end in death, the presiding emperor would decide the fate of the fallen: thumb’s up or thumb’s down. Sitting in rows according to their social status, 55,000 Romans cursed and cheered as they watched the slaughter below. When the crowd grew more restive, the games grew more bizarre, but as the empire neared its end, nothing could appease the frenzied masses.

While there are many reasons for the fall of the Roman empire, the problems began with the politics. The Senate, designed to govern fairly and wisely, became riddled with corruption. Consuls and officials offered positions to those who could pay for them. Bribes were accepted in exchange for favors. Unscrupulous emperors took control, while merciless minions carried out their atrocities. At last, there was nothing for the masses to do but form coalitions against their own government and eventually overpower it.

Aside from a vile few, people today would not tolerate the butchery that went on in the Coliseum, but we do have our own ignoble forms of entertainment on the small screen. Buckwild. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Amish Mafia. Bridalplasty. If we can’t watch people kill themselves, we can at least see them at their lowest. Some say that reality shows, having gotten so bad, are on the wane. If so, we are one step closer to freedom.

Before the Roman coalitions became a real threat to the government, before they began to take back their own lost power, there must have been ancient Occupy movements, small groups of loosely organized plebeians desperate to be heard.

We know that history repeats itself. To see that nothing is too big to fail, all we need to do is look back. The change that must happen is already upon us. In my cells I can feel it coming.


Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

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