The Eternal City: Empires Old and New

We arrived at Rome in the middle of the afternoon on July 2. Roman history is one of my favorite areas of study so I anticipated Rome with more excitement than I any other city we visited. We parked at the train station in EUR, a less than eternal suburb of Rome, and took the train into the city for an introductory exploration. It was the oddest thing to walk out of the dirty metro station and see the Colosseum, one of the greatest relics of the ancient world, right in front of me.

This magnificent stadium was our introduction to a feeling that would soon become familiar during our stay at Rome: a sense stupefied wonder that something so old could still be standing. Because it was only two hours before the Colosseum closed we decided to postpone our tour until we could be sure of enough time to truly experience it. We began making our way to the Pantheon, hoping for an opportunity to watch the rain that loomed in the Eastern sky fall through the hole in the center of the dome. The weather did not oblige, however, because suddenly the sky opened in a truly torrential downpour. We were caught in the open with no accessible buildings within sprinting distance but finally found adequate shelter under the bowl of an nonoperational fountain. We watched with amusement as mobs of shrieking tourists ran by, umbrellas rendered useless by the driving wind, in desperate search for shelter.

When the skies finally cleared we made our way towards the Pantheon once more. It proved magnificent both inside and out. Unlike most relics of ancient Rome, the Pantheon has not crumbled under the weight of dozens of centuries and still appears (except for the replacement inside of Catholic saints for Roman gods) as it did when it was first constructed. Its huge dome is still a mystery to modern architects. From the Pantheon we walked to Vatican City and St.Peter’s Cathedral before turning back towards the Colosseum metro station. On our way back we got what was to become a staple of our stay in Rome: Gelato ice cream. It was nearly as magnificent as the city itself and we had it every day of our visit.

The next morning we toured the Colosseum and Capital hill where Nero and the Flavain emperors (Vespasian and sons) built their stupendous palaces. It was spectacular to be walking in and around structures that were in use almost 2,000 years ago (The Colosseum was built 80 AD). Many aspects of the Colosseum were on par with modern stadiums (e.g., Retractable roof and efficient exit system that evacuated 50,000 spectators in minutes), though perhaps the fact that it can still accommodate visitors after thousands of years on earthquake-prone gound is most impressive. Capital Hill was also amazing in this regard. Structures towered over us, arches and half domes and tunnels millennium old, but made of brick that could have been laid a few days ago. That evening we dined on genuine Italian pizza, with beverage and appetizer, for only eight euros. It was probably the best money I have ever spent.

We spent our last full day in Rome in Vatican city. We began with a tour of St. Peter’s, which was free unless you didn’t have sleeves. Its size alone is awe inspiring, but before you have fully absorbed the height of the vaulted ceiling or the length of the sanctuary, you become aware of its astonishing sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and decorations. No where else in the world could the Superbowl be played inside while Michelangelo’s Pieta looks on. The other highlight of Vatican City was the Sistine Chapel. It was as spectacular as I have always believed, trumping even Raphael’s incredible paintings which we saw en rout. Though taking pictures and conversation were prohibited, everyone in the chapel did both with unrestrained enthusiasm in spite of the attendant’s feeble (And very disruptive) attempts to stop us.

On the Sunday of July 5 we attended mass in St.Peter’s. It was fascinating to see how many of those present were just tourists like ourselves and how many were genuine Catholics, going to church at the epicenter of their faith. To take mass in the capital of Catholicism, with your church’s most magnificent expression of devotion to God souring above your head and with the bones of Peter and beneath your feet, would have to be a truly religious experience for a Catholic. I was left a bit bemused, however. Should the Pope’s words or Christ’s be the guide of our religion? Are buildings like St.Peter’s the way God wants the Church to make its mark, or should the funds used to build it have been utilized instead to feed the poor? Should we place more importance on where Peter is buried or on the gospel he died for? Whether or not the Church is meant to be so physically rooted in this world, Rome’s power is still very real and its impact on millions of people is undeniable. Though its jurisdiction is spiritual instead physical, Rome remains the center of a mighty empire whose influence spreads across the globe. It truly is the Eternal City.

Daniel Shenk

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