On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the Cathedral of Notre Dame within five years, in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
While some experts have raised doubts that timeline is feasible, Barry Strauss, professor of history at Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, says that Macron’s approach mirrors that of Roman emperors who, since ancient times, have been conscious of the symbolic – and political – power of holy sites.
“Vespasian started the siege of Jerusalem before leaving to run a civil war that would make him emperor, handing over command to Titus. Back in Rome, the Temple of Jupiter was destroyed in a fire. Vespasian was very hands-on in the rebuilding, even hauling bricks himself. It was a way to unify Rome after a civil war. More generally, the Roman emperors knew that rebuilding – or destroying – a holy site was a political symbol of tremendous power.”