Living in DC has given me an appreciation for cities and places that are trying to live within the tension of both honoring and remembering our past while also moving into the future. New buildings cannot be taller than the Washington Monument and any construction on the Mall must be approved by both historic and economic committees. But in Rome, their historic sites don’t merely commemorate the past, they come from it.
It is hard for me to imagine a city that is as layered as Rome. For more than two and a half thousand years, people have lived on this spot building homes, cities, and cultures by keeping the best of what came before and using the rest to advance the current trends or fashions. Passing by sites that pre-date Christ, it is evident that much of the current city has been built upon the foundations of what came before: the street level has risen by several feet. Thanks to this practice of building on the past, the city is now a blended maze of ancient and modern. The Colosseum is surrounded by a two-lane highway, the aqueducts have new neighbors thanks to urban sprawl, and you can take an audio tour of the Roman Forum. But with just a smidge of imagination, contemporary Roma fades and we can see the world of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire running parallel to our own place in history.
Like all good tourists, we began with the Colosseum. At just four stories tall, I’ve always been impressed at it’s ability to take my breath away. I’m sure its had the same effect on people for the last 2,000 years. Yet the building is just a shadow of its former self. The wooden seats were destroyed in a fire, an earthquake in 1349 caved in on one side and the marble facade and bronze clamps that held it were stripped to be used elsewhere during the Renaissance. As we walk through this ancient place, I put my hands on the pox-marked stone walls and try to imagine what the building looked like when it was new. Even now, it’s easy to imagine a roaring crowd with their eyes fixed on the action happening on the ground. A fragment of the floor has been rebuilt, but most of the underground passage ways and holding cells are now exposed and with it, the double life of this building.
I stand on the balcony alongside my family and see the Arch of Constantine and Palatine Hill and the Forum. If you take away the tall trees and the noise of the traffic and replace it with whole buildings and horses, you can just make out what this view would have looked like in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries.
Leaving the Colosseum we cross the street to the Forum – the political, religious, and social hub of Ancient Rome. The passing of time is evident all throughout this strip of land. Buildings that date back to the 2nd or 3rd century were nearly all built on top of older, crumbling structures. The most intact structures were spared from demolition when churches moved in and set up shop. We walk the same street that Shakespeare wrote about in Julius Caesar and see the very spot where he was betrayed and killed. Tradition holds that both Peter and Paul were imprisoned at the Mamertine Prison which overlooks this Forum. People from all corners of the world are walking along side us, piecing together centuries of Roman history that have reached into the future to impact all of us.
Across town sits the Pantheon, preserved thanks to a clever name change in the 7th century from the Temple to all gods to the Church of all Martyrs. But this switch has worked. Compared with the other remnants of ancient Rome, the Pantheon is remarkable for how intact it is. Walls, pillars, and dome all date back to 127 AD. It’s staggering to think about all they have seen. The building looks like its set into the ground, but in reality, the encroaching city had been so built up around it that the street level has risen significantly.
The piazza surrounding the temple-church is always full of people, but unlike the areas surrounding the Colosseum and Forum, these people all seem to be moving, just passing by this huge stone structure on their way to work, or to the market, or to some other, more eye-catching tourist attraction. At first, we are these people, just passing by en route to other adventures. But we return and linger: to touch the cold, ancient stone; to glimpse the sky through the oculus in the ceiling; and to imagine all that came before.