It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.
—Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings
By “ruins” I mean all the buildings and monuments that antedate Constantine’s death (337), and were built some time during the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire. I will say no more. The ruins of Rome need no introduction, so I won’t introduce them.
I was stressed, sweaty, tired, and running a little late. Today was my day to visit the Vatican. I needed to get to the ticket office on time, or risk losing my entry to that sacred place. The only problem was that, because I didn’t trust myself with navigating Rome’s metro, especially not when so much was at stake, I opted to walk; and this meant over an hour of trekking, at full speed, on a humid sunny day, as I followed my phone—which occasionally froze and required me to restart the map program—through the unfamiliar city.
Nothing could stop me or slow me down: not the lure of food, not the heat of the sun, not the ambling tourists that crowded the sidewalks. The only thing that could halt my steps was, as it turned out, Trajan’s Column.
I had first seen this monument in art history class; even now I can vividly remember how awed and impressed I was at the craftsmanship displayed by the Romans in this work. The column, I should explain, was made to celebrate the military victories of Trajan. It stands 30 meters (98 feet) tall, and even higher if you include the pedestal. Twisting along this length, covering the entire surface, is a series of bas reliefs depicting Trajan’s military campaigns. The detail is fine and exquisite: hundreds and hundreds of figures, legionaries, barbarians, and beasts of burden, in all varieties of poses and positions, marching and fighting up and down the column. We see Trajan laying siege, crossing rivers, celebrating victory; trumpeters blowing their horns, animals being led to the sacrifice, barbarians being tortured and trampled underfoot.
I must immediately admit, however, that all this detail was mostly invisible to me. You see, the column now sits in a parking lot—quite forlornly, I think—and it isn’t possible to get close enough to really appreciate the bas relief. It would be better if there were some sort of scaffold surrounding the column. As it stands now, the tourist must gape up from a distance.
There is a platform on the top, which can be reached by climbing up the steps inside the column. Originally the work was topped with a statue of an eagle, later replaced by a statue of Trajan himself. This statue was, in turn, later replaced by a statue of St. Peter during the Renaissance. Nowadays the Fords and Hondas that surround the column add an extra contemporary flavor. Thus time and changing fashions conspire to render the old glory of the Roman emperor obsolete and ridiculous. And yet, even now, there is no way to look upon Trajan’s Column without imagining that same emperor standing on the top, looking proudly out at his city and his empire, the ruler and conqueror of all within view and beyond the horizon in every direction.
I turned a corner, and there it was: the Pantheon. I wasn’t even looking for it; I had been searching for the Trevi Fountain. Only in Rome can you unintentionally stumble upon one of the most famous buildings in the world.
The exterior of the building is striking enough. In front is a portico, supported by eight Corinthian columns. Sticking out behind this portico is a somewhat bulbous mass, a circular structure made of plain, drab concrete. The surface is discolored from centuries of rain, leaving ugly water stains, and is cheerlessly grey, even in the bright summer sun of Rome. But contained within this somewhat unpromising exterior is one of the most beautiful spaces in history.
The Pantheon’s name, which means “all the gods,” reveals its original function as a temple. (I read on the Wikipedia, however, that there is some doubt about whether all the Olympian gods were actually worshipped there.) It was built during the reign of Hadrian, in about 120 CE, and is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome. Indeed, it seems hardly fitting to include the Pantheon in my post on “ruins,” since it is a fully functioning building.
The building was mobbed when I arrived. A line extended out the door; the surrounding area was packed with people; and inside there was hardly an inch of elbow room. This is unsurprising, considering that the ancient temple is right in the center of Rome, free to visit, and one of the most famous edifices in the world.
Since the beginning of the medieval period, the Pantheon has been used as a Christian church. It was this re-consecration and repurposing that saved the building from oblivion. (The official name is the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs.) There is an altar at the far end of the building; and statues of Mary and various Saints stand guard around the perimeter of the building. The final effect is somewhat like standing in the Mezquita in Cordova: the Christian trapping look out of place in building whose architectural language is so different from a usual church.
The real highlight of the Pantheon is its ceiling. Even today, there is no unreinforced concrete dome larger than the Pantheon’s. It is a magnificent architectural feat. To me it scarcely seems believable that the Romans, without computers or calculators or even protractors, could have designed and executed something so geometrically precise. The coffering is so clean and regular that it looks digital.
In the center of this dome is an oculus, or opening, that lets sunlight pour into the building. A bright, yellow spot of the sun’s rays illuminates the interior like a searchlight, traveling around the space as the sun moves in the sky. On the floor below this opening are drains, so that the building doesn’t flood in the rain.
I sat down on one of the pews facing the altar, and stared up at the magnificent ceiling, suspended so enchantingly above me. This temple had been built for many gods, and had been re-dedicated to One; but as I sat there, it was easy to see what that the Pantheon was really consecrating: the force of human genius.
The architecture of Rome speaks the language of power. It has been imitated around the world, in ancient and modern times, to symbolize dominance and military might.
You can see this in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Porte Saint-Denise in the same city; you can see this in Madrid, with the Puerta de Alcalá; you can see this in London, with the Wellington Arch; you can see this in New York City, with the Washington Square Arch; and you can see this most clearly, perhaps, in Berlin, with the Reichstag Building and its neoclassical portico, the towering Berlin Victory Column inspired by Trajan’s Column, and the Brandenburg Gate, one of so many triumphal arches to be inspired by Roman examples.
One of the earlier and most influential of these Roman arches is that of Titus, located just outside the Roman Forum, on the famous Via Sacra. Built in the first century CE, it has only one arch. The inside of this arch is coffered with floral motifs. On the inner walls, on both sides, are reliefs commemorating the victories of Titus, the emperor Domitian’s older brother. I remembered from my art history class that this arch is notable for having one of the earliest depictions of a Menorah, which is pictured in the frieze celebrating Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem.
Larger and grander is the arch of Septimius Severus, which is in the Roman Forum itself. This was completed in 203 CE, and dedicated to the military victories of Septimus Severus and his sons against the Parthians. It has three arches—a large one in the center, and two smaller ones flanking it—and its façades are covered with reliefs depicting military campaigns. One of Septimius Severus’s sons, Caracalla, eventually had his brother Geta assassinated; and Geta’s name and image were removed from all monuments.
The largest of the three triumphal arches is the Arch of Constantine, completed in 315. This arch is situated between the Coliseum and the Roman Forum; originally it spanned the Via triumphalis, the road that generals and emperors traveled when they entered the city in triumph. It is an interesting stylistic jumble, since it was built out of spolia, or the remains of earlier pieces, which leads to juxtapositions of artistic periods. I can’t help but seeing this gesture—appropriating Rome’s glorious past—as a sign of the empire’s decadence. Indeed, Constantine’s arch, while the largest, was also the last triumphal arch built in Rome.
The Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum are included on the same ticket. This is important to know, since it makes buying your ticket much more convenient. Most people buy their tickets at the Colosseum ticket office, which can mean quite a long wait on line. You might have better luck doing as I did, and buying your tickets at the Palatine Hill ticket office, on Via San Gregorio 30. There wasn’t a single person ahead of me; in three minutes I had my tickets and was strolling around the Palatine Hill. And this was on a Saturday!
The Palatine Hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome; and of these seven it is the most central. According to legend, this hill was where the she-wolf, Lupa, nurtured the abandoned Romulus and Remus, and where Romulus, after killing his brother in a fit of pique, decided to found the city that bears his name. The less-mythological origins of this hill are also interesting; archaeologists have discovered settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, the remains of which you can see displayed in the Palatine Museum. Both in fable and in fact, then, the Palatine Hill is at the heart of Rome’s history.
As you stroll up the hill, a jumble of sun-baked brick strikes your eye. Arches tower over arches, in a rolling, chaotic mass of rusty red. I could not guess what any of these skeletal structures had been used for. I was first reminded of the abandoned Yonkers Power Plant, near my home in Sleepy Hollow, a similarly empty pile of brick. Yet that ruin, far younger, is somewhat ghoulish; it still echoes with the sounds of departed life. These bones of Rome had been washed by the rain of a thousand seasons, and bleached by the sun of a thousand summers. They were dead and sterile; they seemed to be part of the landscape, growing from the soil, rather than anything put there by people.
But of course people did build these structures—very powerful people. These ruins are, most of them, the remains of palace complexes of erstwhile emperors; the biggest of these is the Flavian Palace (Domus Flavia), which owes its ultimate form to Septimius Severus, but there are also temples and aristocratic houses from the Republican period. Another notable structure is the one known as the Stadium of Domitian, which looks like a hippodrome for chariot races, except that it is obviously too small to fulfill that purpose. This has led to some speculation as to its function; the most popular theory is that it was the emperor’s private gardens.
Because there were so many different buildings, from different eras, jutting up against one another and superimposed on top of one another, it was difficult for me to get a sense of what it used to look like by walking around the ruins. Instead, I was given a sense of time, of lost time; a feel for the lapsed years that disappeared into an unknown past. So many generations had come and gone on this hill, dismantling, repurposing, renovating, and expanding the work of their predecessors. These were people like me, with their own ambitions and ideologies, their own perspectives; and some were the most powerful men of their time. And now look what is left.
Aside from its ruins, the Palatine Hill is worth visiting simply for the view. Standing atop of the hill, surrounded by the remains of an ancient empire, you can see modern Rome stretch out before you. St. Peter’s stands proudly in the distance; to one side is the Circus Maximus; and standing above the enormous retaining walls, which extended the hill’s scope to accommodate the ever-growing imperial palace, you can see the whole Roman Forum.
The only thing, besides the burning Roman sun, that detracted from my visit were the art installations set up around the site. Take, for example, Mark Lulic’s piece, The Death of the Monument. This is just a large sign that says “Death of the Monument” in bright red letters. Now, in my opinion this piece obviously has no aesthetic merit, since it looks like an unimaginative advertisement. Its only purpose, then, can be conceptual. And as one might expect, accompanying this work is an explanatory caption, written in pretentious art jargon. I will quote an example:
Persuasive and seducing like in the best mass communication marketing tradition, the admonition transforms into an illogical presence of the artwork, which is a monumental negation of itself. The visual impact conveyed through a specialized and unconscious mechanism acquires instinctively a conceptual form, leading us to raise some questions: doesn’t the death of the monument coincide with its birth?
And so on in the same vein.
I find this disturbing on many levels. First, I am against any work of art that lacks both aesthetic and intellectual interest, and requires a condescending and badly written plaque in order to explain the art to the viewer. Good art should never need to be explained, only experienced. This is putting aside the sacrilege of putting such mediocre art in the middle of the Palatine Hill, turning a profound historical visit into a trip to a mediocre art gallery. The artist’s bad taste has been compounded by the bad taste of whoever let him install his art here. And this piece is only one example of many that pollute the Palatine Hill. Such art is a depressing index of our current cultural moment.
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) sits in a valley underneath the Palatine Hill. This forum was, for many hundreds of years, the heart of Rome; it was a center of commerce, trade, worship, and political power. Now it is center of tourism.
Looking down from that hill, you can see the Forum in its entirety. What you see is a jumble of columns with no roof to support, domes hanging over open air, fragmentary walls slowly crumbling to dust, the foundations of demolished buildings, and doorways leading nowhere; you see arches celebrating long-dead emperors, fountains sacred to long-dead heroes, temples dedicated to long-dead gods: the ruins of an entire civilization.
It would take many thousands of words to describe all of these ruins individually. I will only mention a few in passing. The Temple of Castor and Pollux, built around 500 BCE, is now little more than three towering Corinthian columns supporting the smallest bit of roof. The Temple of Saturn, built about the same time, is somewhat more complete, still possessing all of its front portico; in the old temple building, now long-gone, the Romans used to keep the official scales for weighing precious metals. The old Palace of the Vestal Virgins—where virgins lived a life of solitude, tending a sacred flame—has been lost; but several statues of the blessed women still grace the forum.
Perhaps the most impressive ruin, at least for sheer size, is the Basilica of Maxentius. This was completed during the reign of Constantine. Now only three of the basilica’s three concrete barrel vaults, coffered to save weight, remain standing. Rising to 39 meters (130 feet), it was the largest building in the Roman Forum; even now it is so large that it looks scarcely out of place amid the modern city. How on earth Romans managed to construct a building so large, with little internal support, is beyond my feeble understanding and imagination.
The most complete building in the Roman Forum might be Santa Maria Antiqua. Built in the 5th century, this is the oldest Christian monument in the forum, and one of the most important examples of early Christian art. The reason it has been so well-preserved is because an earthquake buried the church in the 9th century, and it stayed sealed under the rocks for over 1,000 years, until finally it was re-opened in the 20th century. This makes the church something of an unintentional time-capsule. What was revealed, upon its re-discovery, was a wonderful assortment of frescoes, their vivid colors preserved by the sterile air. These frescoes are especially valuable, since they provide a window into the pre-iconoclastic period of Christian art.
For my part, although I am ignorant as to their scholarly importance, I could not but be moved by these ancient, decaying portraits of angels and saints. In the dim light and dusky air, amid the faded ink and chipped plaster, the serene eyes of the first Christians stared back at me from across centuries—a triumphant victory, however temporary, against Time’s sharp tooth.
Finally it was time to visit the last ruin. Blinking in the hot sun, overwhelmed by all I had seen—far too much to take in for one day—I walked away from the forum and towards the most famous building in Rome. I still remember seeing the Colosseum in pictures in my sixth grade history class. I remember learning about the gladiators, the battles between wild animals and condemned prisoners, the executions of Christians, the mock-naval battles. Now I was finally here.
Purists will insist on calling it the Flavian Amphitheater. This was its original name, which it took from the name of the dynasty who built it. Construction began in 72 under Vespasian, and was completed in 80 by Titus; then Domitian, also a Flavian emperor, couldn’t resist making a few modifications of his own. It is known as the Colosseum—or so the theory goes—because of the colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby. (According to Wiki, this statue was 30 meters, or 100 feet, tall. Now no trace of it remains, save its base. How something like that disappears isn’t easy to fathom.)
The Colosseum is the biggest amphitheater ever built. It could hold somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Its tall outer walls reach a height of 48 meters (157 feet). Elliptical rather than perfectly circular, it is 189 meters (615 feet) long and 156 meters (510 feet) wide; its perimeter stretches to about 550 meters (1,800 feet).
But these numbers seem pale and lifeless compared to the experience of seeing it with your own eyes. It is a mammoth structure. As you stand on the hillside facing its outer walls, the building fills up your entire field of vision. Its walls tower above you, dwarfing the hundreds of people scurrying about its edges. Circumambulating the building takes five long minutes. The tall outer wall only extends about halfway round the structure; where it has collapsed, you can see the rows of interior arches that supported the many rows of seats inside. The entire area around the Colosseum is packed with tourists, tour guides, and vendors. Selfie sticks jut out left and right; groups pose for photo after photo; aggressive guides try to sell you their services.
Even though I had a ticket, I had to wait a few minutes on a long line. The security was pretty tight; everyone had to scuttle through a pair of overworked metal detectors. When you are finally inside, the most striking thing is the place’s familiarity. I had already seen so many photos of the place that every curve of its outline was already known to me. This happens with every iconic monument. It takes an act of will to see the place as it really is, rather than as a cultural symbol. I tried to blink away my preconceptions, to see the Colosseum afresh, as a hunk of stones laden with history; but so many notions had already molded my reaction that I felt strangely disconnected.
There is nothing especially beautiful about the Colosseum’s interior. Every part of the building is the same shade of brown; and its partially collapsed state makes it seem like a rolling mass of dun-colored stones in some lonely desert. The building is so filled with windows and arches that it is practically transparent; what remains today are just the building’s bones, its vital organs having long been reduced to dust. Today there are two levels available to visitors, though in the past there must have been at least four (and many more rows of seats). As I walked in the covered corridors that circumscribe the amphitheater, I was reminded when I was in Madrid’s bull ring, Las Ventas: and in that moment I could dimly imagine how it must have felt to be a Roman bustling through a crowd, trying to find his seat, so he could watch a bloody spectacle.
Beautiful or not, the building is grand and impressive. Merely as a feat of engineering, it is enough to inspire awe. Putting aside its massive size and its thoughtful organization, allowing visitors quick exit and entry, the Colosseum also boasted a system, called the hypogeum, of trap-doors and hidden chambers that allowed gladiators and animals to enter the ring from many different spots. What remains of this elaborate system can be seen in the amphitheater’s arena.
The now-absent floor of the Colosseum was made of wood and covered with sand. The hypogeum was below this, which consisted of walls, cages, and tunnels, two levels deep. Complex pulleys, and even hydraulic equipment, were used to haul men and animals onto the stage. Animals as big as elephants could be introduced this way. Tunnels also connected the Colosseum with nearby stables and gladiator barracks, allowing the “performers” to enter into the arena unseen by the crowd. Before this hypogeum was built, the arena could be flooded with water to have mock-naval battles.
The ultimate irony of the Colosseum is, of course, that something so grand and inspiring, the result of so much knowledge and work, could be used for such barbarous purposes. Slaves condemned to kill other slaves, exotic animals brought to be butchered, prisoners mauled by lions en masse. This is only another example of the sad human truth, that our greatest gifts and capabilities, our art and our technology, can be employed in the service of the darkest side of our nature. This is why we must focus our education on ends as well as means.
Edward Gibbon decided to write his magisterial history of Rome’s decline and fall after seeing her ruins. Upon witnessing these remains of a long-dead empire, the contemporary visitor cannot help but ask the same question as did Gibbon: how did such a powerful civilization collapse and fail? How is it possible that the people who built the Pantheon and who decorated Trajan’s column could vanish?
History teaches few lessons more clearly than this: that all human order requires constant reinforcement, or it will fall into disorder. Gibbon said much the same thing when he reminded us that “all that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.” Rome’s progress from the proud conqueror who erected arches celebrating her victories, to the aging empire of Constantine that looked backward to Rome’s glory days, to the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410; her progress from the glorious marble wings you can see in the Palatine Hill Museum, to the sad faces that stare back at you from the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua; her progress from the engineers who could create the concrete dome of the Pantheon, to the middle ages when the secret of making concrete had been lost: What does all this mean for us? Are we staring into our past, or our future?
And yet, did Rome really fall? Here I am, writing in a Latinized language, in a European country whose laws and institutions were influenced by Rome’s, and whose language, Spanish, grew directly out of Rome’s. Here I am in Spain, one of the many countries of the European Union, an effort to unite the continent largely inspired by Rome’s example. Order, when neglected, may fall into disorder; and perhaps it always does. But the ideal of order persists: it persists in the memories of men and women, it persists in books and the spoken word, and it persists in monumental ruins—in broken columns, crumbling amphitheaters, and cracked foundations—that serve as a beacon for future generations.