Kamila Etcheverry: Grand Tour Redux 2019


During my time in Venice, I consistently saw a poster for Biennale Arte that read “May You Live In Interesting Times.” I took it literally at first, thinking it was a perfect phrase for my time spent in Italy, but later discovered that my interpretation was completely incorrect. The phrase was first used in the late 1930s by Sir Austen Chamberlain, who believed it to be an ancient Chinese curse and one to be used ironically, for ‘interesting times’ was really in reference to times of chaos, disorder, and turmoil. Although there was actually never any evidence of it being a Chinese curse, the phrase held its ironic meaning and continued to be a representation of difficulty and struggle. When I discovered all of this, discarding it as an adequate phrase for my time in Italy, I found it to be a much better one for the time periods and history that I have learned about on this trip. The chaos of ancient Rome and the assassination of Julius Caesar, the influential power of the Medici over Florence and the horrors of the Black Death, the need for Rinascimento and the struggle and rise of women like Artemisia Gentileschi, the foundation and fall of Venice.

This project represents my own reflections and interpretations of Italy. It explores certain themes that stood out to me the most in specific locations, all of which are rich in culture, history, and born of these ‘interesting times.’


It is often easy to feel disconnected from history when the extent of our interaction with it only goes as far as textbooks and other assigned readings. Even studying the past of Rome with all its power and glory is not enough until you are there, standing on ancient ruins and the very places where blood was shed, chariots were ridden, and emperors lived. It is even more impactful when you realize how despite the thousands of years between you and the culture you are studying, there are more similarities than there are differences between the two. This realization became obvious to me several times on the trip as a whole, but especially during my time in Rome.

The Colosseum, for instance, is a prime example of this. Completed in 80 AD, it served as a common area for people to come together and witness gladiator shows, wild and exotic animals, simulated battles, and other performances. It became a center of entertainment and in some twisted way, brought people together through the violence that often took place. Circus Maximus represents something similar as well, providing entertainment for the people of Rome with chariot races, religious festivals, and theatrical performances. Today, in our own culture, we share the same need for entertainment but experience it in the form of football games, wrestling matches, rodeos, and races. If we are not experiencing it in person, we are experiencing it in our living rooms when our friends come over to watch people be slaughtered or raped on Game of Thrones. It brings us together the same way it brought people together in Rome and while I stood there, in both locations, it made me wonder how different we really are from one another. I remembered how before the course, I would have considered certain aspects of ancient Rome to have been unethical and even sometimes barbaric, and yet, simultaneously, here is my own culture engaging in essentially the same activities and interested in the same primal behaviors. Once I had become mindful of this, it made me question my own idea of ethics and when our society decided that some things were more morally acceptable than others. Are we really any different from them? Any more ethical? Or have we just figured out a way to make it all seem less repugnant?

In another way, it was also comforting to know that we are so alike to a civilization that changed the course of mankind forever. A culture whose history is so influential that thousands of tourists from around the world flock to the places that hold its buildings and its ruins. It is impossible to miss the excellence and imprint left from ancient Rome. I felt it in the Forum, where the ruins of ancient government buildings and daily life still stand. I felt it in the Capitoline Museum, home to several Greek and Roman sculptures and an incredible monument of Marcus Aurelius. I felt it at the Palatine Hill, where legend has it that Remus and Romulus were born. I felt it in the Baths of Caracalla, whose worn out but intricate mosaics give a sneak-peek of the delicate beauty that it once was.

In Roma, it is everywhere; history and knowing you are somewhere that has earned its place in time.


I often say that I miss the sense of community that I get to experience back in my family’s hometown in Argentina. Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, but it’s not something I see much of in Miami so whenever I get the warm feeling of unity and connection, I like to take note of it because it reminds me of home. In Firenze, particularly in Piazzale Michelangelo, the sense of community was extremely present for me.

Piazzale Michelangelo was designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi in 1869. It stands on a hill and has a square dedicated to Michelangelo with copies of some of his work, including a bronze statue of the David. On the way up the hill and the surrounding area are the Rose Garden and the Iris Garden, consisting of hundreds of different plant varieties and spots to picnic at. During my time in Florence, I undoubtedly had some incredible views, but of them all, Piazzale Michelangelo was the best. On my way up, I stopped at the Rose Garden and became surrounded by an incredible amount of flowers with different smells and vibrant colors. Couples and friends laid around me, enjoying glasses of wine and the tastes of Italy in what I found to be the most romantic spot I had seen in all of Florence. When I finally arrived at the square up top, the view was unlike any other. It overlooks the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, the bell tower, the rooftops, the hills in the far horizon, and so much more beauty. Apart from the view, however, I was surprised to find the quantity of people that were there just enjoying the experience and each other’s presence. I had originally gone up there to watch the sunset and celebrate a friend’s birthday but instead, was found with a feeling of connection that I wasn’t expecting to receive at first. At the steps leading up to the square, sat what could have been about a hundred or so people with drinks and food in hand, talking and laughing as the slowly descending sun illuminated Florence’s golden sky. A newly wedded wife kissed her husband and the entire crowd cheered. Parents brought their children and friends brought each other at these steps. Moments later, as we sang “happy birthday”, strangers tagged along and sang with us, adding a little more significance to an already significant moment.

For a moment during my time in Piazzale Michelangelo, I thought about how special it is for the people of Florence to have a spot that brings people together in such an exceptional way. The view is one of a kind, and it will always be there, but what really makes it is that you are sharing this moment with so many different individuals, so many people of different races and origins and walks of life, who came to the same exact spot as you on that same day to experience the beauty of Firenze.


No matter what you’ve seen or where you’ve already been, Cinque Terre will leave you awestruck. It sits surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, vibrant with the colors of each building and the life that it brings through tourism. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cinque Terre and its five villages are protected from any more altering of the location made by man, but also attract an incredible amount of travelers daily. Vernazza, in particular, is often considered the most beautiful village, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves that lead down to the town itself, whose colorful homes sit on cliffs and beside the water. The beaches are small but picture-esque, as you look out at the bright blue Mediterranean waters and see sailboats sailing behind rocks that peek out of the sea.

On my hike there, I passed by other hikers who I assumed were just on a visit much like myself. I heard them speak french, spanish, english, german, and other languages; all of us joined together in some way on this adventure. When I arrived at Vernazza, the few different languages I had heard moments before became an explosion of cultures and countries admiring the beauty of the town. People from all over the world were there experiencing the kind of slow-down to life that only Cinque Terre could offer.

In many ways, it reminded me of the influx of people that visit and often stay in the US. Like Cinque Terre, the United States has its own culture, of course, with its particular food and drinks, its breathtaking mountains and seas, its distinctive cities and sites. Just as the tourism in Vernazza doesn ́t take away from the authenticity of the location, the tourism in the states doesn’t take away from the lifestyle and culture of America. In fact, the combination of cultures adds life to the experience, just as the multitude of people from all over the world that come to Miami have turned it into a vibrant and eclectic city. How different would Miami be without its Cuban cortaditos? Its Venezuelan arepas, its Argentinian milanesas, the reggaeton that fills in the sounds of Ocean Drive? The comfort of knowing that no matter where you are from, there is probably someone that speaks your language? This, to me, is the beauty of the inclusion of different cultures. The fact that I, like any of the residents of a town like Vernazza, get to live in a location that is so incredible, it has thousands of people that visit and sometimes fall enough in love that they can’t help but stay. A place where the coming together of cultures only further accentuates the already existing beauty of the location.


When I began my walk around Dorsoduro, I was surprised to find little to no people in the streets. As one of the first areas that was immediately inhabited after the founding of Venice, being home to several churches, art galleries, student universities, and historical architecture, I assumed it would have been packed with both locals and visitors. That was only the case in a couple of particular areas I was in, however, while many others seemed a bit more desolate. I walked past closed churches, residential areas, a quiet university, and cafes that were not open. Perhaps it was the time of day or the day itself, but regardless, I was not particularly disappointed by the lack of movement. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more than the touristy areas of Venice. Clothes hung off of balconies and in some moments, without a person in sight, the only existing noise was the blowing of the wind. It felt authentic.

After some unsuccessful attempts at visiting churches, I took a walk next to a narrow canal when I heard a man shout hello at me. I brushed it off at first but when it happened again, I looked up to find that it was coming from a tiny window of a bleak, brick building. The window was barred and surrounding the building was a tall brick wall with spikes at the very top. It dawned on me that it was probably a prison but that was then confirmed when he said again, “hello!”, followed by, “this is prison!” All of a sudden, three heads managed to squeeze as much as possible through the small opening; three prisoners looking to start conversation over the barred window and perimeter wall. If the rules were anything like America, I assumed it was probably not allowed, so I cut the conversation short and left after a couple of minutes. As I made my way towards Ponte dell’Accademia, one of the more populated areas I saw in Dorsoduro, and became surrounded by tourists enjoying their afternoons, I thought about the prisoners again and how the only thing that separates expression and experiences from captivity and lack of autonomy is a brick wall. I thought about how ironic it was that one of them would be in there for three years for possession of marijuana and yet the smell of weed filled the air in some of the more youthful parts of Venice. Granted, prisoners are not typically in prison for nothing, but even then, it was an interesting and completely unexpected perspective to have received on a sunny afternoon walk. Rarely do I ever really think about my own freedom, especially back in the States, where I am privileged enough to be able to walk the streets and express myself freely. But that day, I became aware of my own freedom and of the contrasts of life experiences that were happening in this small district in Venice. Dorsoduro is known for its young population that come to create a future at Universitá Ca’Foscari and then illuminate the streets at night with vibrancy and energy, a youth that represents life that has just begun and experiences that have not been had yet. A future to tackle and nothing but time. And yet, just a 10 minute walk from where these futures and identities are being explored, other futures have ended and identities are reduced to convictions.

Kamila Etcheverry: Italia as Text 2019

Tivoli as Text

“Body and Venus” by Kamila Etcheverry of FIU at Tivoli, Italy

Walking through Hadrian’s Villa, you will have your attention caught by the statue of a headless, naked Venus. She stands bare, surrounded by columns, broken parts of her very own temple. It will call out to you for neither of those qualities, but rather for the shape of her body instead.

It will remind you of all the time you spent over analyzing every inch of your own,

and of the pressure you and other women your age may feel to be thin,

and how that same pressure landed one of your close friends in a treatment center,

and how for many years, thin felt exactly the same as beautiful, but now Venus was showing you otherwise.

There is confidence and sexuality through her nudity, yet modesty in the way she gracefully covers herself. She is feminine and sensual, her body voluptuous, raw, real. She does not wince at the sight of her own flesh. She does not carry the self-criticism the fuels our friends, our mothers, and our sisters. Her curves are desired and respected, admired enough to hold their own place in history, in the town of Tivoli, in the home of Hadrian, in museums, in books, and for the remainder of time.

I see her surrounded by her own temple in the home of a Roman emperor, with a body that our society may deem imperfect, and it makes me wonder why we ever hold so much self-hatred.

Roma as Text

“Look Up” by Kamila Etcheverry of FIU at Rome, Italy

In Rome, I look down frequently to make sure I’m not tripping over the pavement. If I do fall, my hands will meet the ancient cobblestone and I’ll see S.P.Q.R. inscribed in front of me; an acronym referring to the government of the ancient Roman republic. I’ll pick myself back up, brush the dirt off my knees, and look back up only to find myself in front of the largest amphitheater ever built, or one of the greatest pieces of architecture ever built, or the church that holds the tomb of St. Peter. I might take a walk through the Roman Forum, where I’ll be surrounded by ruins and the temple to one of the most influential leaders of all time, Julius Caesar. I might arrive at the Pantheon and be moved by the perfection of it all and the symmetry that took place way ahead of its time.

The history here is tangible, it’s the ground I walk on and the marble I touch and the sculptures I see. It is a reminder of the way things were and a challenge to the perception of my own purpose in time and history. Capuchin Friars tell me that what I am now, they used to be and what they are now, I will one day be. The skeletons feel like a call to action for a life not free of sin, but free of stagnancy and discontent. The ruins of the city feel like a warning to where things could go wrong and where they could go right. The Colosseum, full of witnesses hungry for entertainment and participants hungry for blood, feels like a reminder of how painfully human we are. That no matter how hard we try to stray away from our instincts, they will always prevail. That entertainment and violence have been two sides of the same coin since the beginning of time and that we are more a part of that past than we think.

I stood in the Colosseum once and imagined it full. I thought about what led me here and how much of a role I played in being there. Was it chance? Or was it meant to be this way, in this moment, long after the years of spectators and gladiators are over?

Pompeii as Text

“Routines to Ashes” by Kamila Etcheverry of FIU at Pompeii, Italy

Over time, routine has seeped its way into my life, making every day a mirror to the next. I used to hate the idea of conformity but now it feels as though the structure is a necessary part of how I function. I plan ahead, I worry about the future, I worry about the past, I feel out of control when things don’t go as intended. I wasn’t always this way though, and every now and then, I get a brief moment where I feel like the version of me that doesn’t care to plan for the future and just lives in the now. Those are the moments I try to hold onto the most.

I thought about this as I walked through Pompeii, an ancient city that was covered in volcanic ash in 79 AD after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Before the eruption, it was a city like any other, with its residents and its brothels and its street food. Pompeii had its children running through the streets and its pregnant mothers awaiting babies of their own. After the eruption, about 2,000 people had died and the ash covering their bodies remained. Archaeologists incorporated plaster in their excavation process and were able to preserve the shapes of those bodies. Today, the plaster casts of these individuals still remain, laying behind glass windows for visitors to see. Tour guides bring their groups around the city, stopping at the bodies and sharing facts about how many died or when or how many got away. By the end of the day, the bodies are reduced to numbers and we forget that each of them were once individuals like you and me, with likes, dislikes, favorite foods, and favorite things to do. They were someone’s mother or father, a sister, a brother, and a friend. In the blink of an eye, they lost their lives and with that, their routines suddenly lost their meaning.

It made me think of how much importance I place on my own routines and how the stress of my own impermanence can either push me to do more or leave me with almost paralyzing anxiety. In reality, I can’t predict the end to my own story. I don’t know when my Mount Vesuvius will erupt but until then, I want to make sure I was present for it all. I want to stop and accept the ebb and flow of things, the unpredictability of life. I want to know that anxiety about the future can still be there, but does not have to be all-consuming. Because if I’m anything like the victims in Pompeii, things can take you by surprise, and the only thing worse than that is knowing you took it for granted.

Pisa as Text

“A Shift in Objective” by Kamila Etcheverry of FIU at Pisa, Italy

Camposanto Monumentale is one of four historical edifices in the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa. The outer walls of the cemetery stand tall with several arches that go around the perimeter of the building. The entrances lead to the halls, whose walls consist of frescoes that date as far back as the 1300s. The frescoes vary in content but stay within the realm of religious imagery, such as depictions of the last judgement, hell, saints, the crucifixion, and stories from the Bible. While some of the paintings are in good condition, others are not, due to damage done during World War II, when remains of a bomb began a fire in Camposanto that could not be put out in time. During the event, the roof was severely damaged, as well as most of the sculptures and many paintings. Those that were restored or salvaged, however, are in their condition due to the efforts made by Deane Keller, who was an officer in the U.S. Army during the time that the fire began. His efforts towards the restoration and preservation of the art in Camposanto are single handedly the reason that the remaining paintings and sculptures still stand today, making Keller an extremely influential part of the site and earning himself a grave on the marble floors of the cemetery.

Generally, talk of war stirs emotions within me. Maybe it’s the nonsense of it all, or the chaos, or the tragedy, the politics pulling strings in the background, or the experiences I’ll never fully understand. Around this time a year ago, I was walking through a jungle whose soil is tainted with the blood of both Vietnamese and American soldiers. I only heard stories of heartbreak and pain and violence, stories of man turning on man and God turning on mankind.

This time, I heard a different kind of war story, one where preservation was the objective rather than loss, and found it inspiring to know that good can exist in a time of hell and no mercy. If you dig deep enough, through the rubble and the violence, the broken bones and the heartbroken mothers, you’ll find individuals who changed the course of history in war. Deane Keller is one of those individuals, changing not only history, but the perspective of people like myself, who struggle to look past the sheer violence that takes place during a war like WWII and shedding light on the beauty that ascends from the ashes.

Firenze as Text

“Over Two Years” by Kamila Etcheverry of FIU at Firenze, Italy

It took him over two years to create me.

Over two years of daily efforts, of chipping and chiseling away, of a slow inching towards completion. I was made with rock in hand, prepared, feet a bit too large for my body, and a slingshot draped over my shoulder. My stance exudes confidence, my physique oozes perfection, but no matter how different you and I may seem, my expression could not be more human.

I stand 17 feet tall and 11,000 pounds heavy at the end of a hall in the Galleria Dell’Accademia Di Firenze. To get to me, you have to walk past his uncompleted works, sculptures that you will almost completely ignore as you become entranced with the sheer size of me. When you reach me, you’ll see visitors sitting behind me, staring at the way the light bounces off the curve of my right hip, or you’ll see a young man who cries at the very sight of me, or a young lady who can’t seem to stop staring.

It took over two years to create me and I’ve been chipped at, flashed at, swung at, and cried at. Some visitors come to have photo shoots in front of me and others come to truly appreciate the work that was put into me. Between the two, I’ve noticed a difference in interpretation, or even a complete lack of interpretation. I am often portrayed as powerful and perfect, but to some, I am nothing but a window of opportunity. To them, I sometimes wish he had given me the opportunity to speak, for I would like to ask questions. Are you not entertained? Do you see yourself in me or did you forget to look up first?

Cinque Terre as Text

“Lessons from Self Doubt” by Kamila Etcheverry of FIU at Cinque Terre, Italy

The morning of the hike, I couldn’t get myself to eat enough at breakfast. My chest was tight, my lungs couldn’t take a deep breath, and the very familiar, yet always unsettling feeling of anxiety began to creep up on me. I had heard of how difficult the hike would be and my mind was racing with the possibilities of things that could go wrong. I tried calming myself down and began the first descent of the 18 mile hike, where with each downwards step I made, the anxiety began to dissipate bit by bit. It wasn’t until I reached the first village that the fear had been completely replaced by curiosity of the four towns that were about to come.

Cinque Terre’s, or “Five Lands”, five villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. As you walk from village to village, up top, you run into vineyards and terraces, while down below, you pass by fishing boats and local seafood shops. The area is especially known for its wine, olives, seafood, pesto, and lemons. Being its own national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thousands and thousands of people visit Cinque Terre, but not all embark on the hike that I went on. By the time I had started the trek between Corniglia and Manarola, my body had started to grow slightly tired. There were moments during that particular part of the hike that I began to struggle a bit, wondering if I would be able to get there safely or even get there at all, and yet continued to power on. Some uphills were mental tug-o-war’s where my body kept telling me to stop but my mind insisted to push on forward, and most downhills felt like a reward for not giving in. Every view of the towns, the lush green trees, or the colorful flowers became reinforcers for why I was on the hike to begin with and while I was able to witness pure beauty, it also allowed me to think of my life back home and gain a bit of perspective.

The anxiety that consumed me that early morning is the same voice inside my head that told me I wouldn’t be able to feel well enough to continue the hike. It’s the same voice that tells you you aren’t good enough or strong enough, but also the same voice that shuts up when you reach the top of the mountain. After every uphill struggle came a view that was infinitely more powerful than the doubts that had been brewing inside my mind just moments earlier. On the way up, you’d pass by vineyards and crops that I sometimes ignored because I was too busy focusing on how tired I felt or how careful I wanted to be.

Off the hiking trail, things often feel that way too. People rush to the top and miss the beauty around them because they’re too consumed by the necessity to feel comfortable or safe. People doubt themselves the whole way through, only to find that beauty was waiting for them not only after struggles but along the way as well. For years, I have known that nature can provide opportunities for growth, but this particular experience gave me much more than I expected to receive. It gave struggle a purpose and triumph a view unlike any else.

Venezia as Text

“No Mafia! Venezia E’ Sacra” by Kamila Etcheverry of FIU at Venice, Italy

Colorful buildings, music through the streets, and the remarkable beauty of St. Mark’s Square. The experience of Venice is almost magical, an Italian fairy-tale come to life. Tourists are enjoying their stay, drinking wine and taking gondola rides at the golden hour, but above them, on a little residency by the canal, hangs a banner that reads, “NO MAFIA! VENEZIA E’ SACRA.” The fairy-tale comes to a screeching halt.

In the 60s and 70s, several important members of the Sicilian Mafia were spread out through certain parts of Italy to be placed in solitary confinement. The idea behind this was that if members were far away from each other, it would slow down or completely cut off their interactions and then decrease the amount of organized crime as a result. What they didn’t anticipate, however, was that often times, no matter where these men went, new members would come about. In Venice, already-existing criminals and hopeful mafiosos reached out to these Sicilian mafia members and eventually organized a mafia of their own, becoming known as the Mala del Brenta. Although government officials have managed to crack down on them over time, men of the former mob bosses have simply created new and more discrete versions of Mala del Brenta and are said to still be involved in drug trafficking and robberies today. Big operations can be traced back as recent as 2008 and just this year, in January, a member was arrested for the trafficking of heroin and cocaine.

In Rome, after a night out in Trastevere, an old man told me that if the Mafia is anywhere, it is in Venice. He later added that it isn’t something Italians ever really talk about. When I saw the banner, I was instantly reminded of him and of the hush-hush mentality he seemed to have about it. A big part of me found it unfortunate that it was something the people of Italy were still dealing with, even if it is no longer of the same severity as it once was. But another part of me, as I walked on the Rialto Bridge under a sunny sky and over moving gondolas, thought it was one of the most Italian things I had seen all month.

Italia America: Patronage in Ancient Rome and The Mafia in America



Before we can begin to look into patronage in ancient Rome, it is essential to have an understanding of the origins behind the social hierarchy. According to Roman historian Titus Livy, Romulus himself separated 100 men and made them senators. The descendants of these senators were considered upper class and more specifically known as patricians. Those who were not descendants, also considered the common people of Rome and lower class, were known as plebeians. The distinction between the two groups was dependent mainly on the original ancestry and extremely wealthy land-owning individuals. Within these different classes, a complex and reciprocal relationship known as patronage was founded.

Ancient Rome: Patron-Client Relationships

Patronage consists of a relationship in which a patron, a person of high position and power, uses his influence to assist or take care of another individual, thus making them his ‘client’ and requiring services in return. If a client were unable to repay their ‘debt’, the loss of trust and loyalty would lead to the termination of the relationship.

Some of these services include but are not limited to:
– Unconditional respect and support
– Political support and votes
– Fighting in war for his patron
– Reporting any plots against the patron being conspired by others
– Ransoming family members caught in battle
– Raising money for patron’s daughter’s dowry

Structurally, no matter how powerful or important a patrician, there was always someone above them, such as the emperor. Sometimes, patricians themselves became clients to the emperor, as the emperor would assist in the patrician’s social or political status and the patrician would sign the emperor’s name in their will. The common people of Rome, however, became clients to the patricians instead and supported them regardless of their patron’s interests and opinions. These clients were in need of material goods/security that were then granted by their patrons as long as the client returned the favor, which typically consisted of political votes and support. A patron was free to have as many clients as they were able to, which only added to the patron’s prestige as their number of clients and support increased. However, as listed above, the exchanges would consist of different things and it was expected that the client be fully committed to whatever was asked of him by his patron.

Three Core Characteristics of Patron-Client Relationships

The three core characteristics of patron-client relationships are:
– The inequality in status, wealth, and influence between the two parties
– The element of reciprocity in the exchange of goods and services
– The importance of face-to-face contact between both parties.

Regardless of the nature of the relationship, what the exchanges in services specifically entail, and who the individuals are, these three characteristics are present in every patron-client relationship. Apart from this, a crucial component in these relationships is also a kind of loyalty and honor that resembles that of blood-related family, which is seen in both ancient Rome and the Mafia.

Beginnings: The Mafia In Sicily

Map of Sicily

German scholar Henner Hess described the mafia as, “neither an organization nor a secret society, but a method” where “the Mafioso not only achieves a personal material or prestige gain but also discharges certain functions within the subcultural system by entering the service of others.”

For many years, the island of Sicily seemed to have been struggling with developing some kind of a proper government and creating trust between the people and formal organizations. It was inconsistently ruled by foreign aliens and had an influx of bandit-type fugitives that highly influenced the nature and customs of the region, as the values that were held by these people leaned more towards lawlessness than anything else. Without the promise of a fair government present to protect the people and their property, towns and villages created groups or clans known as ‘families’ that relied on compromise and revenge to achieve protection and justice. At the time, the main relationships present in Sicily were between peasants, bandits, and the Mafiosos. The peasants were responsible for taking care of farming and property owned by wealthier landowners and the bandits made their income by robbing these peasants. Due to the general distrust of government and authority in Sicily, rather than turning to law enforcement, landowners and peasants turned to the Mafiosos for property protection. From this was born a patron-client relationship, where the Mafia granted property protection to the peasants from the bandits in exchange for a fee of a percentage of crops produced. Moreover, the Mafia would sometimes work both sides, allowing the bandits to complete their operations without punishment. In return, the bandits would give them part of the profit they made. As this went on, the Mafia became more powerful and were able to establish themselves as a viable source of protection and enforcement within Sicily through the success of these reciprocal relationships. However, their power ran into trouble around 1925 when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made it a goal to destroy the Mafia, as it posed a threat to his own power and reputation. As he started cracking down on Mafiosos, Italian immigrants began to flock to the United States in search for opportunity and fleeing vendettas.

Beginnings: The Mafia in America

In January 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed, thus banning the export of liquors and the home brewing of beverages with over half a percent of alcohol. The passing of this act in combination with the Italian immigrants coming in from Mussolini’s rule essentially gave birth to the American Mafia. Many of these immigrants were former Sicilian mafiosos or criminals that situated themselves in specific parts of New York City, one of which became known as Little Italy, where they began their new lives of crime. The high demand for alcohol at the time gave opportunity for criminals to smuggle in alcohol from other countries or opening their own secret breweries. In turn, the profits from these illegal activities greatly contributed to the wealth and success of the American Mafia in New York City, expanding the number of active families. As the number of members and wealth grew, the American Mafia engaged under the same concept of patron-client relationships in Rome and almost identical to the patron-client relationships seen in Sicily.

Patronage and the American Mafia

Roman philosopher Seneca stated, “if you wish to make a return for a favor, you must be willing to go into exile, or to put forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders.” This level of dedication and loyalty are seen in both ancient Roman times between a patron and his client and hundreds of years later in the American Mafia.

Members doing the dirty work, known as soldiers (who will be discussed later in this post), were completing operations ordered from the boss in exchange for a cut of the profit and the protection/pride that comes from being a made member of the family. This relationship between soldier and boss checked off the three core characteristics mentioned earlier (inequality in status, face-to-face contact, and exchange of goods/services); the boss is of a much higher ranking than the soldier, all ideas or orders for operations are spoken of in person, and the boss provides his members with protection and profit in exchange for the completed operation. The more money being earned and the more successful operations, the more powerful and feared a family became, much like the power and prestige from having multiple clients in ancient Rome.

Outside of the members, the patron-client relationships with the Mafia were even more highlighted. For instance, of their many money-making sources, the American Mafia became very prosperous through their involvement with the workforce. By the 1970s, they controlled all of the labor unions in New York City. An example of this is their relationship with construction companies; all concrete companies would get work allocated by the mobsters and then the family in charge of the company would receive a cut of the profit made from the job. Another example is with regular businesses. Mobsters often engaged in protection racketeering, where they would offer protection to business owners from other mobsters in return for money. If the business owner did not agree to it, the mobsters themselves would retaliate, causing the business owner to need protection regardless of whether they agreed or not, and in turn, would become a client of the family for that protection.

In contrast, failure to follow through with your ‘debt’ in ancient Rome typically resulted in loss of trust and termination of the relationship. You may have been seen as an ingrate for doing so but the consequences were not as violent as in the Mafia. Failure to follow through with your debt or loyalty to the mobster family usually resulted in death. Patronage then and in the Mafia also differ in the kind of activity that is happening in the exchanges. From what I understand, patronage in ancient Rome was less coercive than in the Mafia. Mobsters are consistently involved in patron-client relationships but many of them have an underlying nature of force or extortion. The element of fear is greatly present in mobster relationships and I wonder if the line gets blurred between reciprocity and coercion. In both, there exists exchange but the fear behind coercion leaves a relationship that is so unbalanced, it can function with fear alone, which is something that is not necessarily seen the same way in patron-client relationships in Rome.

Despite the potential differences, there is no doubt that patronage contributes greatly to the success of the Mafia, whether it be through fear alone or not. However, patronage is not the only contributing factor to their power. The structure and order within the Mafia played a significant role as well, also becoming two aspects of the mob that can also be traced to ancient Rome in some ways. To understand this, we have to look back at the internal conflict that helped reorganize things: The Castellammarese War; the power struggle between two crime bosses in the early 1930s between Salvatore Maranzano and Joseph Masseria.

Joseph Masseria

Maranzano was one of the many immigrants driven out by Mussolini’s power and quickly involved himself in the bootlegging business as soon as he arrived to New York. He soon earned the nickname of “Little Caesar” due to his obsession with Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire, and a library at his home with books and statues dedicated to his idol.

Around the same time, Joseph Masseria, another successful mobster, was trying to move up the ladder of power and success, getting himself to a place of superiority above other mobsters. Maranzano refused to submit to Masseria’s supremacy, however, and took a chance when Masseria’s top lieutenant, Lucky Luciano, came to Maranzano with his plan to betray and kill Masseria. In a Brutus-esque manner, Luciano expressed his concerns for the reputation and function of the gang under Masseria’s control and, in April of 1931, orchestrated the murder of his own boss with the help of other men.

Lucky Luciano

After the death of Massiera, although Lucky Luciano was granted some power for himself, Salvatore Maranzano labeled himself as the highest-ranked superior in New York and the “capo di tutti capi”, which translates to: the boss of all bosses. Inspired by his idol Julius Caesar, he planned to have the family structure based off of the military chain of command of a Roman legion. As the top boss, he would hold a power that was unquestionable. Lucky Luciano, once again concerned with the negative effects of power-hungry bosses and a desire to ensure efficient operations, orchestrated yet another murder and ended the power of Little Caesar only 5 months after his hit on Joseph Masseria.

Mafia Life After Luciano: Structure and Order

At the time of Maranzano’s death, there were four other mafia families present in the state of New York. After he was killed, Lucky Luciano hoped to create a layout of some sort in which the families could avoid as much conflict as possible with one another. In hopes to accomplish this, he arranged a private meeting with all five families of New York along with other mafia families from around the country, where they agreed to keep Maranzano’s structure inspired by ancient Roman legions.

Structure: Mafia and Roman Legions

Roman legions were a part of the general Roman army and were the principal force of the Roman Empire. The units went as follows:
– a contubernia (8 men)
– a century (10 contubernium together – 80 men)
– a cohort ( 6 centuries together – 480 men)
– the legion (10 cohorts)

Each legion had an officer who was third in command, named praefectus castrorum (camp prefect), in charge of the daily maintenance and running of the legion. He also looked after food supply, nutrition, equipment supply, etc. Above the camp prefect, stood six military tribunes, of which one was the senior tribune, second in command, and referred to as tribunus laticlavius (senior tribune). Finally, above the senior tribune, was the legatus legionis, the legionary commander in charge of the legion as a whole. Eventually, the senior tribune would look forward to taking his place. The legionary commander was part of the Roman senate off the battlefield.

CC BY-SA 4.0

As for a solider, he was to be of full Roman citizenship and required to take an oath to serve the Emperor and army until death, acknowledging the harsh punishment involved if he were to participate in any kind of disobedience. New soldiers were also required to do dirty work until they were able to secure a better position.

Seeing as the structure of the Mafia was inspired by Roman legions, many similarities can be seen between the two. In the families, each had a group of men known as soldiers, or made men, who were considered the lowest members of the family. Like the Romans, soldiers in the Mafia were required to take an oath for life and were typically responsible for the dirty work that keeps the family powerful. Loyalty was a must in both the Mafia and the legion. Membership exclusivity was also seen in both the legion and the mobsters, as the legion required full Roman citizenship and the mobsters required full Italian descent.
Above the soldiers, stand the caporegime, or more commonly known as capo, who is in charge of leading his crew of soldiers. Much like the praefectus castrorum in the Roman legion, the capo was responsible for looking after the operations and daily activities of his soldiers. Above the capo is the underboss who takes instructions from the boss and makes sure that everything is carried out effectively. The underboss, too, can look forward to taking the position of the boss as he is next in line in the hierarchy incase anything happens to the boss. Finally, the boss is the legatus legionis of the Mafia family, in charge of the family as a whole. Also known as the Don, the boss is a highly respected, undisputed, and even feared leader of the family that oversees every single operation.

Order: The Commission and The Senate

Luciano was also responsible for founding the Commission which shared some similarities with the Roman Senate. Just as Rome transitioned from monarchy to republic, ridding itself of the idea of just one king, Lucky Luciano wanted the same for the Mafia families. No more boss of all bosses, just consensus among the families.

After the fall of the monarchy, the Roman Senate functioned as a governing and advisory council that was responsible for appointing officials, presenting proposals, controlling finances, and handling debates. Members of the Senate were appointed by someone of higher status, the consul, and were expected to serve as senators for life.
Lucky Luciano’s Commission served a similar purpose in some aspects. The Commission became a governing body where new members were voted in, policies and regulations were established, and disputes between families could be settled. It consisted of the five New York mafia bosses, the Chicago boss, and the Buffalo boss. Similar to the appointing of new senators in the Roman Senate, new members into the Mafia were chosen by the bosses. Just as the Roman legion’s legatus legionis held a position in the Roman Senate, the Mafia boss held a position in the Commission. When the bosses could all agree on one individual for induction, that chosen person could become a soldier. The bosses served a similar purpose as the consuls in the induction of new members. Seeing as the only way out of the Mafia was death, members of the Commission were members for life, much like the members of the Senate were as well. Additionally, just as proposals took place in the Roman Senate, proposals of a different kind took place in the Commission. For instance, if a member wanted to kill a law enforcement officer, which was against the Mafia rules, they had to run it by the Commission first and get the notion accepted.

Despite some similarities, the Commission and the Senate have a fair share of differences as well. In the Senate, consuls were selected by the people of Rome, whereas the mob bosses were selected by other very important members of the Commission rather than regular (or more common) members of the families. The Senate was mainly responsible for advising the magistrates while the Commission was not really looking to advise anyone. Because the men in the Commission were already considered of the highest ranking, there was no idea or conflict that needed to be run by anyone above them. Moreover, considering the fact that the Mafia was composed of a number of highly dangerous criminals, any conversation ever had about or within the families was of top secrecy. The meetings held by the Commission were extremely confidential and held in secret, while the Senate meetings were open to the public.


To most, ancient Rome may feel different than our lives today in about a million ways. The traditions, the violence, and the influences of power seem so ruthless compared to what we have grown accustomed to here; so far removed, yet so much a part of us without many of us ever realizing. Over the years, the life of the Mafia became sensationalized in American society with successful movies such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, The Untouchables, etc. Mobsters became glamorized in pop culture and although the Italian-American identity has been recognized, the influence of ancient Rome has not. Perhaps it is too distant in history or simply too complex a detail to make use of in the big screens, but its roots dig deeper into history than we could have ever imagined. Although beginnings seem to have started in Sicily, true origins and concrete influences came from ancient Rome, a society whose structure, order, and brutality from hundreds of years ago managed to slither its way into one of the most successful criminal societies in the history of the United States of America.


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