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Reflecting on Rome, Italy

Patrick Smith '08 - They say that Rome is the eternal city, which is probably true; if time does not stand still for Rome, then nothing will. It is a city in constant motion. In modern Pompeii, the traffic ceases after a certain hour, as though controlled by a switch. Rome affords the visitor no such luxury. Even, as some of us did, wandering around the neighborhood of Trastevere late at night, one can find a crowd. It should go without saying that the city is positively steeped in history – from the grandeur of Imperial Rome to the ignominy of fascist Italy. In Pompeii, we learned about the Romans; in Rome, we learned about the city.

Driving up from the Bay of Naples, Rome seemed to explode out of the bucolic countryside. Every corner of the metropolis seemed to teem with activity and movement. In contrast, Naples seemed relaxed, and modern Pompeii seemed as devoid of activity as the ruins. Our hotel was in the very center of things, right off the Campo de’ Fiori and a short stroll from Piazza Navona and Largo Argentina. Our hotel had, indeed, long been in the center of things: it was built over the site of the Theatre of Pompey, where the Dictator was murdered.

The next day, we saw such monuments as Augustus’ Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, his mausoleum, and the Pantheon. While Pompeii afforded us the opportunity to look at things we had read about in class, this was the first day when we saw things we’d read about our whole academic lives. Standing in front of the Pantheon, the temple to all the gods, now a Catholic church, it began to sink in: this is Italy. Built by Augustus’ associate Marcus Agrippa, the Pantheon is an impressive building that has seen a lot of history and a lot of change.

The same day, proving that Wabash men can keep a pace that would impress a Roman, we traced the ancient route of triumphant Roman generals through the city. As the great historian, Cornelius Tacitus, noted at the very beginning of his Annals, Rome had kings at the beginning, until Lucius Brutus brought liberty and the consulate. However, when voted a triumph, a victorious Roman commander came as close as anyone to the monarchy – until Caesar and the Augustan revolution, to borrow from Sir Ronald Syme. Looking at the Circus Maximus, the Forum Romanum, and the various monuments along the way, the might of Rome became apparent through her public buildings.

Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome, was our next stop. Unlike Pompeii, preserved by Vesuvius’ devastating blast, Ostia was inhabited throughout antiquity, until it was abandoned. It is both better preserved, in some regards, and less interesting than Pompeii. Far from being a snapshot of an ancient city, it is a place where one can trace the development of the European city through history. Ostia, through the wisdom of the often-maligned Claudius, was the primary source of food – i.e., grain – for Rome. It provided a look at urban, commercial space for the class; as opposed to Pompeii’s rural environment.

The Vatican was our next stop. Books, to say nothing of blog posts, could be written about the country (by virtue of the Lateran Treaty). The power of the Catholic Church and the papacy was made manifest in a collection of art that would awe anyone, and buildings no less awesome. The most important men in Europe at times, the popes managed to assemble an art history textbook and call it “home.” The important works we saw are too numerous to mention. Standing inside St. Peter’s though, it became obvious that we were no longer students of the Roman city: we were participants, though briefly, in the successor to that city.

The next day, we visited the Baths of both Caracalla and Diocletian. The Baths of Caracalla served, no doubt, to make everyone feel very small. These monumental edifices were offered by the emperors of the late Empire, as the city of Rome began to dwindle in importance, in favor of Milan and Constantinople, to the people of that city as public amenities. The soaring arches and vaults stand, as ruins, as monuments to the engineering genius of the Romans. While it is nice to read Cicero and Vergil and see the rhetoric of republic and empire, it is really powerful to see the brick-and-mortar accomplishments of men and women who died two thousand, more or less, years before any of us were born.

Far too much happened in Rome to give a blow-by-blow account. However, it is safe to say that everyone was impressed by a city that manages to be ancient and vibrant, European and cosmopolitan, and – above all – huge. Everything in Rome, from buildings to experiences, is on a monumental scale. The smallest churches and piazzas manage to pack a surprisingly stout wallop. The Romans even do gelato on a big scale: Giolitti, the famed Roman confectioner, had more varieties of gelato than anyone (that is, anyone ignorant of their wares) could have imagined. In a city that takes ice cream seriously, is it any surprise that there are wonders around every corner?

Probably not.