Rome, Pompeii, Tarquinia and Cerveteri, 2000
(3rd edition, revised, w/addendum)
Being There Breathing History on the Forum Romanum
The Etruscan Beginnings
Modern Day Rome
The Eternal City
Addendum January 2001
Like millions of pilgrims before us we just had to visit Rome - one of the must-see places of the western world - and what better time to choose than the year of the grand Jubilee 2000? The following account will be a mix of some of our experiences and the resulting ruminations that haunt you when you have been exposed to history first hand in the buzzing and many faceted city that was once the political head of the world and has been a religious center for more than a thousand years.
Literally, pilgrim means "somebody who is easily fooled", and through the ages people from all over the world have taken the perilous journey to Rome, some of them to seek absolution through an act of penance that would take them to seven particular churches in Rome, a task usually completed in one or two days.
To boost the falling number of pilgrims Pope Bonifacius VIII proclaimed that pilgrims who visited the seven churches 30 times would be absolved of all sins, and the year 1300 was pronounced a year of jubilee, the next being scheduled to the year 1400. Later times shortened the period between jubilees to 25 years, and in the 1900s Pious XI revived the old attempt to make also years ending in 33 (the living age of Christ) and 83 a year of jubilee. Thus the last julilee was in 1983.
The purpose of all this is, of course, to raise the necessary funds to keep the Catholic church strong and magnificent - a spiritual authority needs a strong economical foundation to express political power - and the resulting output in terms of churches and administrative buildings is indeed amazing: about 400 churches are scattered all over the city.
The famous words Tu es Petrus... (Matthew 16:18f) "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and ... I will give you the keys to heaven" (cited above the altar in St. Peter's Basilica) have given the church as an institution the absolute power and undebatable right to instruct people, rather than the instructions of the New Testament itself.
(I must admit that I have had rather mixed feelings about magnificent churches ever since I pointed out the breathtaking structure of Lincoln Cathedral in England to my son who answered, "Have you considered the toil and wants of the people who paid for the church, what they had to miss due to heavy taxation inflicted on them by their masters who ordered the church built to express their own absolute power?")
However, we did not go to Rome for religious reasons. Instead, first and foremost we wanted to experience the atmosphere of the classic city from which the Caesars ruled the world.
The ruins in the Forum Romanum and its adjacent areas are known to most people as one of the cradles of western civilization. We know how the returning soldiers marched through triumphal arches in the square, and most of us also know about the gladiator fights in the arena of the Coliseum (Colosseum) and how the early Christians were persecuted and eventually fed to the lions by decadent rulers like Nero. If not from other sources, we know it from movies like The Robe, Quo Vadis?, Ben Hur, Spartacus and most recently, Gladiator. The only trouble is that the movies may err in their presentation of historic facts and events and the people populating these historical epics (see also Hollywood for other deceptions of this kind).
Thus the Coliseum was not built during Nero's reign, but completed by his successor's son Titus, who also ordered erected the self-promoting triumphal arch that bears his name. However, this arch lies east of the Forum Romanum whereas the one by Septimus Severus - between the Rostra (the speaker's platform) and the Curia (the building housing the Senate) and which is often seen in movies depicting the famous incidents from the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. to the early years A.D. - was not built until two centuries later. (Actually, returning armies never marched through the permanent, propagating triumphal arches in the Forum Romanum - instead they used arches erected for the occasion outside the Forum. And Caesar was not murdered on the steps of the Curia or the Capitol but in the area called Campus Martius northwest of the Forum. His body, however, was burnt in the Forum Romanum. Shakespeare is probably the one to blame for that misconception.)
Further, although Nero did persecute the Christians, he couldn't very well have presided over their execution in a Coliseum not yet built, and the mixed program of horse racing and execution of Christians as seen in Ben Hur never took place in the Coliseum; instead, the popular horse racing took place in the Circus Maximus which held about 250,000 spectators in its terraces in contrast to the "mere" 50,000 seats in the Coliseum.
However, the Coliseum is still there (if only a spectacular ruin) whereas the Circus Maximus is completely gone except for the outline of its whereabouts, and it is thus obvious why the two have been substituted in films: the set might easily have displayed a replica of the Circus Maximus, but few would know it the way they know the Coliseum.
Finally, like so many other myths about Rome, the often retailed myth of the early Christians hiding in the catacombs (Roman underground burial tombs) is not true since everybody knew about the catacombs, the official burial grounds for Romans and Christians alike, and which would thus offer little shelter to the Christians. They buried their first martyrs there and thus worshipped there, but they didn't live there.
Being There Breathing History on the Forum Romanum
When descending to the Forum from the modern Via dei Foro Imperiali we passed an American couple who stood looking at the ruins. "I guess there's a story to all this," he said to her. (Sorry, not true, just couldn't help quoting the old joke.) Indeed, the story behind it is exactly what fascinates us today.
Even though the Forum Romanum seemed a mess of ruins at first, it didn't take us long to feel transported back to the time of the Roman emperors when we walked the Via Sacra that runs right through the classic market square lined with temples and basilicas. According to a Unesco survey of the world's treasured artifacts, 50 per cent are in Italy, and of these one in three are in Rome: a total of some 50 million artifacts in Rome alone, many of which are found in museums within a radius of just one-two miles from the Millarium Aureum, the center of the Roman Empire. To the southwest the Palatine, the first hill of habitation and originally a cult place for the goddess Pales, towers behind our backs, reminding us of verbal inheritence in concepts like palace, a universal synonym for power. On our left is Capitol hill, another word that has kept its meaning right from the time of the first rulers - Rome was indeed caput mundi (the head of the world).
The former swamps between the hills were drained by the Etruscans (see below) about 500 B.C., and the Cloaca Maxima (the big sewer which is still in use) was thus a prerequisite for any urban use of the area. But it wasn't until the time of Julius Caesar that the Forum Romanum came to be the bustling center we think of today. Below the Palatine hill is the house and temple of the vestal virgins, the protectors of the symbolic and sacred hearth of fire. Underneath the temple of the holy flame was another temple dedicated to Vulcanus, the god of the devouring fire - a truly Janus-faced feature.
From pictures of modern reconstructions of the fully built center of classical Rome we see that buildings were filling up the square in a way that must have seemed overloaded even back then. When the emperors moved down from the surrounding hills and started building their palaces right in the center, they had to build substitute areas of commerce to preserve the original purpose of the market place, e.g. that of Trajan. Thus to the north of the Via dei Foro Imperiali, and running parallel to the Via Sacra, the newly reconstructed market of Trajan (Forum Trajanum) from about 170 A.D. is a perfect example of a Roman mall.
Incidentally, the customary South European shop fronts in a facade with many small individual openings to the street, and with a second mezzanine floor on top of each shop to furnish the offices and habitation of the shop owners, owe their design to markets like the Forum Trajanum.
But the most impressive building of all is probably the enormous ruin of the basilica finished by Constantine the Great, a building so huge that it outclasses all other buildings in terms of size, a fitting monument over the first Christian emperor who eventually also doomed Rome to oblivion when in 330 A.D. he moved his headquarters to Byzantium (Istanbul) and renamed it Constantinople (city of Constantine). For almost a thousand years after this Rome was but a city of minor importance, much less than other Italian cities in the north, and it was not until the introduction of the jubilees by ambitious popes that Rome regained its importance as an administrative center.
(It is also interesting to note that Rome was always primarily a center of administration and commerce rather than industry, a trait that is reflected in today's distribution of the Italian work force: 5 per cent in agriculture, 32 per cent in industry, and 63 per cent in service related occupations. In Rome proper the figures must be even more biased towards service to cater for the millions of tourists.)
People may ask what is so fascinating about a place that is so dilapidated and broken down, not only by wind and weather, but also by the popes' architects and others who needed marble and other building materials to furnish their own glory? The answer is probably that we (like Keats contemplating the face of his Grecian urn) like to feel transported back to ancient times and picture ourselves in historic surroundings; and even though today we cannot see the buildings the way they were, we still sense the historic importance attributed to those places and breathe a whiff of history when standing on the very platform from which Marc Anthony gave his famous address we know so well in Shakespeare's literary dress: Friends, Romans, countrymen...
The Etruscan Beginnings
Many of the Roman customs and ways that are so well-known to us today thanks to Roman historians and their modern translators and interpreters (e.g. film directors) are not Roman in origin, but Etruscan. To name a few:
Many more traits thought of as typically Roman are, in fact, Etruscan, features like the grid iron cross work of streets as seen today in Pompeii where there's but one street running "astray", incidentally like Broadway in New York City, N.Y.
- the returning victorious army's march through a triumphal arch;
- the exterior housing design of atrium courtyards and loggias;
- the small stool (a director's chair) that senators would use in the senate:
- the habit of dining lying down on a couch;
- the body guard system of private police (the lictores) - are all Etruscan; so is
- the practice of taking omens from the flight of birds, from thunder and lightning, but above all, from scrutinizing internal organs like the liver of sacrificed animals and birds - all with the purpose of foretelling the future, a system open to abuse by those in power or in charge of the interpretation. But perhaps best known of all are
- the gladiators - the bull fighters of ancient times (oh, yes, there really is nothing new under the sun) - originally a custom of Etruscan slaves fighting till the very end to see who would follow his deceased master to the hereafter.
It is difficult to determine just how much of classical Roman daily life has Etruscan origins, but through some seven centuries from the first Etruscan was proclaimed king of Rome till the time of Claudius, the last well-known speaker of the Etruscan tongue, Etruscan habits and customs were woven into Roman customs to such an extent that when Hadrian died in 138 A.D. he was entombed in a mausoleum (the present castle just east of the Vatican) the shape of a round Etruscan burial tomb as they are found in the very impressive necropolis at Cerveteri (see below).
Yet, although the city of Rome was once Etruscan - for many years before the Etruscan conquest the border line to the west was the river Tiber - it was the Latin speaking people of Latium south of Rome that prevailed and came to influence and set the standards for the organizing of many later political states. But contrary to the glorifying tales of Roman history as told by Roman historians, it seems very unlikely that Rome grew and grew in importance to eventually surpass the Etruscan states surrounding her, all the while the city of Rome was run over by a Gallic invasion some six years after the Romans had defeated the Etruscans in a decisive battle at Veii in 396 B.C. But it stands to reason that the people of Latium did prevail until the West-Roman Empire was dissolved in 476 A.D.
The famous eruption of the volcano Vesuvius (near Naples) in 79 A.D. - a disaster which helped preserve the classic town of Pompeii from destruction through "regular" development - allows the tourist of today to walk the paved streets between houses so marvelously full of atmosphere that it is hard to imagine that 2000 years have passed since they were left in a hurry. Nowhere is the sense of traveling back in time felt more acutely than in the rooms still decorated with frescos and mosaics designating their use (e.g. bedroom, kitchen, hallway) - there are even painted advertisements (posters) as well as original graffiti, for instance in the brothels. Just recently new discoveries of a multistoried "hotel" still under construction have been made, and we may thus be able to add to this unique archeological site in the future. (New minute studies of the murals have told us that many of the flowers and herbs we know from the Middle Ages were known to the Romans, e.g. tulips and medicinal herbs.)
Plaster fillings of the many hollow "casts" in the tuff have revealed a "print" of the bodies of people dying from the poisonous gasses that were released by the eruption, but most of the finds are no longer on the site, but in a museum in Naples. Restoration of the site has been very faithful to its original looks down to the trees which are the same species and planted where the original trees were located. Pompeii is a very moving and quiet place, but without the atmosphere of a giant cemetery; instead, it has more of a ghost town quality, only without any creepy feelings attached.
Our visit to Rome also included an excursion to the north, to the Etruscan tombs near Tarquinia and at Cerveteri, many of them discovered within the last 40 years. The Etruscan habit of burying their dead in underground stone houses presumably shaped like the ones they lived in allows us a peek into Etruscan life. But the richly decorated walls tell us more: of their beliefs in a paradisiac hereafter where life is rich and joyful and of orgies that point forward to Roman excesses.
However, one should not draw direct parallels from the life depicted on the walls in the tombs to Etruscan life in general since they may only have depicted what they hoped for in a hereafter. In the younger tombs a gloomy contrast is introduced, much like the dichotomy of a heaven and a hell as in the Greek conception of a Hades.
Although the existence of the tombs has been known since the Renaissance, they were not opened in any great number until the 1800s when many of them were robbed of their contents (amphoras and other vessels and utensils for the journey to the hereafter). Since then many new tombs have been found, some of which have not yet been opened due to the inevitable destruction of the contents (especially the murals) once air has been allowed to tamper with the hitherto sealed rooms. Archeologists speak of how the entombed bodies smoulder away in seconds after the tombs have been opened, and it is hoped that later times will find a way to preserve the mummies intact.
Much of the contents of the tombs is kept at a fine museum in Tarquinia, but through time Etruscan artifacts have been scattered to museums the world over. Although they used Greek letters, the Etruscan people and their culture is still an intriguing mystery to us since we don't know their language, and many museums want a share of the puzzle. Apart from that, Etruscan art has some of the quality found in Greek archaic art, e.g. the plump faces smiling enigmatically. The famous emblem of Rome, the Lupa Capitolina (the she-wolf that fostered Romulus and Remus, now in the museum on Capitol Hill) is also Etruscan.
On our way from Tarquinia to Cerveteri we once again enjoyed the marvelous countryside of Tuscany with hills and mountaintops in every direction, all crowned with castles or other old fortifications.
At Cerveteri is situated another unique archeological site: a necropolis (city of the dead) with hundreds, perhaps thousands of tombs. As in Tarquinia, the burial chambers are under the ground and cut out in the soft tuff, but above ground level the tombs are circular and rounded with a dome of soil much like the Danish dolmens or passage graves, miniatures of the surrounding mountaintops.
The site is big and must have served a large community. Even if the multi chambered tombs were used by more than one family or a succession of generations, the shape of the singular tombs was eventually abandonned in favor of rectangular blocks of "apartments" or non-detached terraces organized in streets that run at right angles to each other. Around a corner were ruts from passing wheels cut into the stony ground (much like the ruts on the Oregon Trail) which indicates heavy traffic from either the time the tombs were built or from later times although it seems strange that a burial ground should be visited very often and in carriages.
Especially one tomb is interesting: besides murals with elaborate ornamentation, the room's colorful reliefs of every day artifacts and household articles make it seem alive as if it were still inhabited. Incidentally, the articles are in each their section of the room: hunting tools in one side and kitchen tools in the other in the fashion of the Navajos in Arizona. The fact that the items are cut in relief also indicates that they are token articles, not the real thing, and they may thus represent a later stage when sacrifices were not necessarily to be taken literally.
Modern Day Rome
Over the years and especially in the 1800s a great many artist have marveled at the wonders of earlier times before creating their own masterpieces in Rome. This may be why modern Romans sometimes seem a little blasé. The many years of being the "head" of the world leaves little to strive for, and - very opportunely - forgotten is the long tradition of moral "blemishes" such as nepotism and political intrigues that have always been an integral part of any ruling class or people. It is thus refreshing to learn that when access to the archeological treasures of Athens and Greece was made possible in the 1800s (after many years of Turkish rule), the same romantic artists and archeologists that had acclaimed Rome found an even more intriguing culture that seemed serene in comparison with the pomposity of Rome.
The epitome of modern Rome - the opulent and vulgar monument to Victor Emmanuel II who completed the unification of Italy in 1870 - speaks clearly of the difference between the balance of proportions and ornamentation that we appreciate today as classic, and the modern practice of heaping on as much as possible to make things look impressive. Situated very massively right next to the Capitol and overlooking a Piazza Venezia that is lined with classic buildings like the Renaissance Palazzo Venezia, the monument reminds one of the puerile (lack of) taste found in a Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, or - perhaps even more strikingly - in the pair (two!) of Venus de Milo's on either side of the stairs to an office building on Fifth Avenue in New York, N.Y.
But then again, such lavish display of la dolce vita may not be new to Rome at all. After all, the Greeks, who in many respects served as role models for the Romans, mixed their wine whereas the Romans of later times knew of no boundaries to their excesses.
The Roman habit of tearing down or building on to old historic monuments without regard for their archeological importance is hardly to be blamed as nobody thought of paying any reverence to remnants from the past, not even when robbing the Parthenon of its bronze to furnish the canopy before the altar in the St. Peter's Basilica. In the same fashion the same haloed apostle crowns the victory column of Trajan's conquests which is used as a mere pedestal, a rather bizarre combination reflected in the flashy kitsch displayed in many furniture shops; apparently, the functional simplicity of Scandinavian design does not appeal to Romans.
But the fact remains that Rome owes its reputation to having been the administrative center of two oligarchies, both administrations not by the people for the people, but by the chosen few for the many who in Rome had a tradition of being pacified by panem et circenses ("bread and circuses"). And even the meanest of Rome's citizens will be somebody if everybody else outside Rome is considered a barbarian, an ideology also sought propagated under Mussolini, but practiced almost universally.
Indeed, nothing seems new in politics or in human conduct as proved by a letter to Cicero when he was preparing to run for consul in Rome: How to run a campaign. The letter seems to have become a regular "manual" for many later politicians throughout the world.
Besides the shops with modern design for the in-crowd and the shops with less refined but flashy items for the rest, Rome also harbors markets that are plentiful and very tempting. Here spices are sold at prices far below what we are used to in Denmark - as if grams have been confused with ounces. Bazaar-like dark and narrow alleys take you into the womb of commerce the way it was before "time is money" spoiled the pleasure of haggling or bargaining. Paying the full price is a "no-no", not only a foolish act, but also anti-social. Sometimes a mere question like "I beg your pardon?" will immediately lower the price some 20 per cent, or you may get two items at the price originally charged for one.
When in Rome, do as the Romans. Romans are good and alert drivers and need to be if they mean to avoid dents and still get somewhere. Most of them drive very impatiently as if in a hurry, and to cross the street one has to play a game of "chicken" or "I dare you." Your driving opponent will approach the foot path without lowering his speed, and you have to stand your ground firmly, i.e. go on crossing the street at a regular pace. Eventually the driver will stop right in front of you if you show him that you are intent on crossing - if you falter or appear undecided, he will not let you cross, and if you step back, you will be run over by the driver behind you.
The great number of cars in Rome (one in two Romans has a car and drives it!) is currently being reduced since many people have discovered the pleasures of the scooter (a small motorbike) which is swift and easy to park. However, this means that instead of a relatively homogenous stream of cars moving along side by side, now veritable hordes of fast moving scooters approach from both sides like a winged army more frightening than cars.
The Eternal City
Like the Etruscan tombs the classic buildings in Rome suffer from being exposed to the pollution from cars and from the tear and wear of wind and weather. The marble is slowly dissolving, and the only way to stop the destruction is to remove the sick parts that are eating away the pillars little by little. But Rome as a city will prevail. The question remains whether she will continue her previous path of a co-existence or symbiosis of ancient monuments and modern life, or whether more drastic measures need to be taken. Even if all traffic in the center is stopped, the environmental dangers of modern civilization will still claim their toll. And as it was pointed out to us by one of our excellent tour guides: every time we dig for and uncover a piece of the past, we destroy other historic layers. And any uncovering of what is beneath the level we know today, would ruin that level.
Apart from a tour of St. Peter's Basilica we didn't get to see the Vatican or the treasures it holds in its museums, nor did we get to visit the Sistine Chapel with the renowned celing by Michelangelo (which was in the top five of our list), but when we realized that time would not allow it, we deliberately slowed down saving something for the next time because - as the saying goes - all roads lead to Rome.
October 2000, Erik Moldrup
Addendum January 2001
Some recently published statistics regarding the number of pilgrims in the year 2000 may be of interest:
About 25 million pilgrims visited Rone in 2000, or about three times the usual number. Originally the estimated number was 40 million, but apparently the usual tourists stayed away because of the predicted chaos. Instead, the visitors seem to have been the true believers as the number of confessions have risen by a similar number whereas the visits to museums and other tourist attractions showed only a mild increase of 20 percent.
But although the church profits from the many visiting pilgrims there is also another - however welcome - prescription for celebrating every 50 years. Thus in Leviticus 25:10 it says: Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you... This meant freedom for slaves, cancelation of debts, and food donations to the poor. But in the early years of Christianity this kind of charity was not practiced, and the jubilee we know today was not introduced until the Middle Ages as described above.
What is important to notice is that the original idea of canceling all debts also included spiritual debts. The restructuring of monetary debts found a parallel in the restructuring of spiritual debts, hence the idea of absolution. But total absolution is no longer to be gained from a visit to Rome. What may be gained is a spititual grant to help the pilgrim overcome the temptations of daily life.
Apart from regular confessions, the Year of Jubilee offers an extra opportunity to gain that spiritual aid by entering the jubilee churches through the so-called jubilee doors which are open only in the years of jubilee. During the last days of the Jubilee 2000 (which ended on January 6th) pilgrims have been queuing up before these doors under their heading: Christ is the door. Through him we go from a life of sin to a life of grace.