April 13, 2009
April is the perfect month to write about Rome. According to legend, April 21 is when the imperial city was founded. Also, when you live outside Rome and especially if you live abroad, it is always at Easter when you have this special connection with Rome because of the activities the Pope performs. I’m talking about the broadcasting of the Via Crucis from the Colosseum, and then the Easter Mass and the multilingual Urbi et Orbi blessing (Urbi et Orbi means to the city – of Rome – and to the world).
It is hard to write just a few lines about Rome, the city that was the capital of the Roman Empire and then became the capital of the largest spiritual empire in history. That’s why Rome is known as the eternal city and capital of the world. It’s astonishing how all the hectic contrasts in Rome build a perfect harmony that allows us to enjoy a fabulous experience, full of history and passion: Rome is baroque, classic, sacred, profane, pagan and Christian. When you have the pleasure of visiting the Roman Forum, the Palatine hill or the Colosseum, or when you’re walking down the Via Sacra or the Via Appia, you can close your eyes and you’ll have the feeling of experiencing the birth of western culture.
According to legend, Rome has its origins with Romulus and Remus. However its historical roots are clear: the Etruscan, the Latin and the Greek worlds. In 753 B.C. Romulus, the mythical founder and first king of Rome, traced the boundaries of the new city around the seven Roman hills. The new city was chaotic from the beginning, with simple huts and narrow and dirty streets. However Romulus, who knew about conquest because he was the son of Mars – the god of war – and Rhea Silvia – a direct descendant of the Trojan fugitives –, together with his Latin fellows rapidly took possession of the Etruscan surroundings of Rome. The next step was obvious: conquering the known world. It was the Roman fate to command the nations: “tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento”. The city got bigger and, because of the limited space, houses with several storeys were built. The streets were still narrow and because of the high density of the population and the poor quality of building materials, the hazard of fire was a constant threat. In fact and as you might have known, fires destroyed Rome on several occasions – “Nero’s” fire being the most famous one.
It was Augustus who, as emperor, received a Rome made of brick and left a Rome made of marble. He ordered and managed the renovation of the city. Rome could no longer have the appearance of a provincial city, and a new Rome had to be built to be a worthy capital of the new empire that had been forged. Rome was enriched with parks, temples, monumental public buildings and the Forum, the Roman version of the Greek agora, was consolidated as the center and meeting point of the city. The Forum was populated by merchants who offered the most varied of products. Later, new Fora were scattered around the city.
Trade was so important for Romans that entire large buildings were dedicated to commercial activities. A clear example is Trajan’s Market, which can still be seen surrounding the Roman Forum. This building had several storeys, which housed more than 150 stores: a veritable shopping mall of ancient times.
In the Palatine Hill magnificent palaces for the new emperors were built. These palaces were so grandiose that the word palace comes from the name of the Palatine Hill. At this point you might notice a big difference with the Greek world: the Romans exalted certain men over others. Romans not only built great temples, but also huge mansions and ostentatious mausoleums. The most important and influential Roman men were perceived as having a divine component. For example, the first work of Augustus in Rome was the construction of the Temple of Divus Julius, in commemoration of his adoptive father, Julius Cæsar.
Most of the people of Rome lived in insulæ, large apartment buildings of up to seven storeys with a very fragile structure. Juvenal, the Roman satiric poet, once wrote: “But here we inhabit a city propped up for the most part by slats: for that is how the landlord patches up the crack in the old wall, bidding the inmates sleep at ease under the ruin that hangs above their heads”.
But Romans were remarkable engineers, especially good at hydraulic engineering. Using a net of aqueducts (some of them still in use), water was brought in to Rome to supply fountains, bathhouses and public bathrooms. One of the pleasures of Rome still is to drink water directly from one of the thousands of highly decorated fountains. The rich had pipes that carried water to their homes and, around Rome, some villas even had central heating.
During imperial times, Rome had eleven public baths, more than a thousand fountains and pools, nineteen aqueducts, thirty-six arches, two amphitheaters and six circuses.
The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater was the meeting place of the common people. There, the inhabitants of Rome could forget their poverty and their problems, concentrating on the shows that were offered: the ludi or games where gladiators wrestled with wild beasts of every kind. The amphitheater was a Roman invention: the precedent for modern stadiums was born of the union of two Greek-style theaters joined together facing each other (amphi meaning on both sides in Greek). Although there is some evidence of Christians being executed in the Colosseum, the truth is that Christian martyrdom was held in the circus, the same place that hosted chariot races. The biggest circus was the Circus Maximus, with a seating capacity of 250,000 spectators. Today almost nothing remains of the Circus Maximus, but you can still have an idea of the size of it by looking at the park there now. Another circus was built under what is now Piazza Navona: actually the unusual shape of the square is due to the ancient track! On the Vatican hill there was another circus, right where St Peter’s basilica is found now.
While it is still possible to admire and recognize the wonders of imperial Rome, most of the things you see are just moribund pieces of a magnificent past. These ruins survived a destructive process caused primarily by looting and the practice of recycling marble. And not only barbarians destroyed the city: part of the marble you can currently see in Roman churches has an obvious origin. Moreover, the famous bronze figure of St Peter in the Vatican was made by casting ancient bronze statues. But this is not an indictment of the Church, because the Romans often acted similarly with the places they conquered. For example the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and they brought to Rome what they found inside.
It was Pope Benedict XIV who saved the Colosseum from marble extraction for churches. The Colosseum was then devoted to the Via Crucis.
Note that there is only one building that remains standing and almost intact from Imperial Rome: the Pantheon. The Pantheon was built to honor all gods, and it was precisely this concept that saved it from destruction. With its large dome, in a way the Pantheon seems like a church and actually during medieval times it became a church dedicated to Our Lady.
Finally, when visiting St Peter’s Basilica (it was the Romans who created the idea of basilicas) you totally feel that the Catholic Church was the natural heir to the Roman Empire; even the images of saints are represented in such a way that, with very little imagination, you can sense a certain similarity to the Roman gods.
To a large extent our laws, our institutions and many of the languages spoken in the Western hemisphere (even English), all have deep Roman roots. Therefore, to know Rome is to know a little more of ourselves.