It’s an incredible city. Flying back home from it yesterday, landing at O’Hare airport, I looked at our beloved Chicago –flat, expansive, with Lake Michigan and the gleaming downtown beneath us– and it struck me how unbelievably different the two cities are.
Our college, Loyola University of Chicago, has a campus in Rome named, appropriately enough, LU Rome Campus or LURC, and a student can go there for essentially the price of the airline tickets there and back. So I went for a semester in my junior year. Now our daughter is in Rome for a semester (but not at LURC), and if she’s lucky enough to have children someday, perhaps those kids can go there, too!
We landed at 0730 at the Rome-Fiumicino airport, which is between Rome (“La Roma”) and the eastern port of Ostia. We taxied into our hotel, which was in the Piazza della Rotunda beside the Roman Pantheon. The Pantheon was built by the emperor Hadrian (75-126 AD), who was one of Rome’s “Five good emperors” according to [this next sentence borrowed from Wikipedia] the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, in his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. [He] opined that their rule was a time when “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. Gibbon believed these “benevolent dictators” and their moderate policies were unusual and contrasted with their more tyrannical and oppressive successors.
Hadrian, if I remember correctly from my favorite podcast Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome” [http://thehistoryofrome.com], chose not to occupy the recently conquered Persia and “Dacia” (mostly Romania and Moldova, in modern day) because he thought it would sap the empire of its strength to attempt it, and instead he concentrated on solidifying the already huge empire he had under his definitive control. He personally traveled through / visited the entire empire (and built “Hadrian’s wall b/w Scotland and England, for example), built a massive temple of Venus and Roma, and, he re-built this ancient Pantheon, which had burned down. He crushed a rebellion in Jerusalem, if I remember, and when the Romans crushed a rebellion they generally took the “crush” to an extreme (“The Romans create a desert and call it peace” the saying went), so Jewish history probably doesn’t consider Hadrian a “benevolent dictator” at all, and for good reason.
Anyway, the massive columns of the Pantheon were single pieces of stone, mined in Egypt, and brought over by special boats constructed for the purpose. The dome was massive and has not been upgraded in 2000 years, and between the fall of Rome (475ish) and the building of the Duomo in Florence (15th century), not another dome comparable to it was ever built. Think about it, with only pulleys and slaves, how did they make something this big, this perfect, this durable, 2000 years ago? Could any building we build today last that long?
And that was just one of a great many buildings! We visited the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, which was again absolutely mind-blowing. A question I had when a student in college was how could they justify building such magnificent structures when the rest of Europe was starving (late middle ages)? But the answer comes to me thirty years later, when I visit again, noting that the Vatican has 11,000,000 visitors EVERY year. It’s been drawing crowds since before St. Martin Luther’s time. Yes the Church has gone to excesses that can justly be criticized, but on the flip side that kind of magnificence and draw has brought Catholics and non-Catholics deeper into Catholicism for centuries, it brings us together, and creates permanency, and it makes a great difference; when the basilica was constructed, the majority of the population was illiterate but this glorious architecture and art was immediately comprehensible, and this fifty-year-old me respects it much more than the twenty year old punk ever did.
Following day we visited the Roman Forum and Colosseum, which, as an ancient Rome buff, I absolutely loved. Meg and the kids loved it as well. We had a charming Italian PhD in Archeology named Sara as our guide for both the Vatican City/St. Pietro, and the Forum, and she gave the historical context and significance to everything there. When I was in Rome in college I took a class on the Forum, and we went there once a week; the progress made over the past 30 years in the area I thought was pretty substantial, and touring the area is even better now than before. I just find it extremely fascinating to be standing in the area where, 2,000 years before, the ancient Romans were busy creating the basis of Western Civilization (I’m not trying to discount the ancient Greeks, or the Persians, but I cannot get into all that, here!)
We went to a AS Roma soccer game at Stadio Olympico, a European Champions Cup game against Shakhtar (from Ukraine), and we sat in the south section of the stadium next to the “Ultras,” which is their rabid fan club. Huge flags, drums, chanting, flares and constant songs filled the air during the entire game. When Roma scored their only goal in the 1-0 victory (which advanced them in the tournament) the fans erupted into pure insanity. Very exciting.
Lastly, to keep this from getting too long, would be the city itself. Wandering the streets, visiting restaurant after restaurant, some average, a number of them absolutely outstanding, that was as much a joy as any other aspect of the entire trip!