Jul 1, 2011

The Glory that was Rome

As in an artist’s painting, we waited on that rainy, misty morning, alone as the gatekeepers made ready. The gates then swung open and down we walked, back in time to what was once the glory of Rome. And for a brief moment, we had it all to ourselves.

Here were the toppled columns where once stood great temples, marking a wondrous Empire that lasted a thousand years. Here stood the Roman Forum where Julius Caesar’s body was cremated and Mark Antony said those famous words embellished by William Shakespeare:
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.”

It was now all a mess, excavated from hundreds of years of decay. Cleaned up for tourists; for us. Indeed, it was of another day.

As we strolled this lonely grave yard of memories, it was hard to fathom the power that had once ruled the known world. An Empire, the likes the world has not seen since.

It was brutal, mean, deadly and destructive to it’s enemies. A bloodthirsty Empire of mass murders. Yet, it was a civilization that brought us law, art, literature, government, architecture, bricks and mortar, roads, irrigation, sewers, medicine, fresh water, public order and, of course, wine.

By the time the Empire disintegrated in the 5th century, the Roman Catholic religion was building its edifices and it needed building materials, marble, columns, rock, etc. The Roman buildings were scavenged and, what once was an lavish city of great marble building and advanced architecture, ended up as the building blocks of many churches. In time, the idea of the Roman Emperor became the Church of Rome’s Pope, the generals became the bishops and what was left of ancient Rome became buried in time: Forgotten to all except those who wrote about it, painted it, made movies about.

To wander this uncovered ruin of Rome was overwhelming for a history buff like myself. At one end of this ancient city stands the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum where thousands of men, women, children and animals lost their lives in gladiator fights. At the other end sits what is left of the Forum, the Senate and many other identified buildings, open spaces or areas built upon by modern city roads. In between sits the Palatine hill, on top of which stood the Emperor’s palace. The inter-connecting roads hosted the grand parades and displays of pageantry, especially when the Roman armies had just wiped out and looted other civilization. On the opposite side of the Hill, the Emperor’s Palace overlooks the Circus Maximus. Here the blood fest of the chariot races were held.

It’s all long gone, and unlike many other archeological sites I have experienced, this one felt strange. I felt no sense of the glory that was Rome, that is for the imagination to conjure up, and for the history books and artists to expose. I can see Rome in the artistry of a great performance by Marlon Brando playing Mark Antony and speaking Shakespeare’s words, but somehow I couldn’t relate it to this rubble before me. I can see the chariot races in the movie Ben Hur but wandering around the Circus Maximus does not give me the same thrill that the film makers are able to excite in their recreation of the great spectacle. Today the Circus Maximus is just a huge field that is used for Papal ceremonies and perhaps rock concerts.

Napoleon said it well, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” Yet, it’s the artists that can bring back an age when the world was different. To wander the painting galleries and the sculpture gardens depicting Ancient Rome is where my thrill really lives. To experience a play by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar or Caesar and Cleopatra, or a film like Ben Hur or Spartacus, will bring Rome to life. Art, for me, is more real than the reality of this decrepit site.

Standing among the ruins was overwhelming, but dead. I had to experience the Roman Forum a couple of times before it reality sank in. But I came away with a newly formed respect for the artists who bring it all to life. It is through art, literature, painting, sculpture, theatre and movies etc., that history can be brought alive with stories that help us relate and connect with ancient people just like us.

A note to today’s politicians: Be kind to the artists, for they will live forever.

"In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs forever and ever."
- Oscar Wild

"All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon."
- Voltaire

"Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history."
- Plato

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it myself."
- Winston Churchill