Sam Bennett ’14 – The 35 of us visited Ostia last Tuesday, an ancient port-city located where the Mediterranean Sea and the River Tiber are joined. Field trips like this one take place on most Tuesdays and Thursdays, and, in accordance with Murphy and his legal tendencies, lately it has been raining heavily on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In Ostia, the trend continued. As we traversed from Ancient Roman apartment complexes to spacious market places and administrative buildings, thick droplets in what I suppose must have been river-effect showers accompanied us throughout most of our journey. Just prior to the day being half completed, we visited the House of the Painted Vaults.
Inside, the floors were mosaic, there was a room with the Muses featured—each in her own private, painted niche—and there was a pigeon trapped in the courtyard. You see, Ostia was a very important locale in antiquity. When the Romans needed to trade with those cultures which developed across the Mediterranean, Ostia’s position was convenient for the transport of grain, olive oil, and most importantly, wine (many ancient water sources were impure, and the fermented and alcoholic nectar was almost always safer to drink such that soldiers even carried a pouch of it with them into battle). Often neglected in relation to volcanically-preserved Pompeii, Ostia maintains serious historical and archaeological significance. The sites of ancient dwelling places, resort-like apartment complexes, and lavish marketplaces have been under close examination since the early 19th century and, like most areas of archaeological interest, still undergo rigorous study today. Since many of these ancient objects of intrigue are still standing (thanks to a small bit of reconstruction), preventative measures against damage have been taken. Courtyards, in particular, have been covered over with a mesh-wire netting to keep the birds out. However—in the House of the Painted Vaults—there was a pigeon trapped in the courtyard.
She flew in somehow; perhaps she crept beneath a weakness in the netting over the open ceiling. In vain, the pigeon threw herself against the mesh-wire over and over again. As the 35 of us filled the courtyard, she stopped and hid in a crevice of brick and stucco and plaster. And she made me think about myself.
Trapped beneath an invisible ceiling, the last few years of my life have been in preparation for such a Roman journey—and now that I have arrived, what exactly have I learned? What exactly have I encountered? Everything slips back into normality sooner or later and whatever coming-of-age I both expected and condemned to result from this semester abroad hasn’t come to light, leaving me both bewildered and comfortable. It never happened, like the movies and books said it would, and thank God, for I’m not usually inclined to surround myself with clichés. But at the same time, I do not understand how something so wildly different as the Italian manner of life could quickly become so normal. And regarding my studies—I’m still inspired by the literature, the poetry of Lucan, the ancient romances of Chariton—but we’re approaching a certain flat line here. This supposed “classical education” has taught us nothing about the ancient world and has turned into a process of mere fact-gathering. Archaeology could change that, but only incidentally and as a result of its necessary immersion within history and philology and (worthwhile) speculation. But as modernists, we are supposedly learning about antiquity and, even then, subsequently at a distance from antiquity; we are failing to seriously engage with antiquity.
Please don’t read this as a condemnation of the program I’m studying within — rather, read it as a condemnation of the entire field of Classics as we approach it. ICCS has provided me with an abundant font of resources and information—information necessary to any hope for further engagement. But the whole of it — as it spans from the roads of Crawfordsville, Indiana to this street in Rome, just west of the Tiber, up the Tambourine Staircase, at 19 Via A. Algardi, in Room 20 on the first floor of the Centro — leaves us studious characters like pigeons in a net-covered courtyard: at first, we ached to creep in; next, we became aware of our environment; then, we wanted to fly back out to take a better look at where we had situated ourselves, only to find the exit blocked off. And now, we have to work from the inside-out, so to speak, carrying the burdens of scholarship in our backpacks. Who could be so foolish as to complain about the shortcomings of academia when he is surrounded by some of the greatest monuments with which man has ever adorned his cities? Yes, who indeed?
I don’t complain because I have nothing better to do. I complain because there is something better that can be done.