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Back when I was a college student, it took me a while to realize that I would get more out of class discussions of a book if I actually read the book before showing up for class. It’s the same with Rome: you will enjoy and appreciate the city much more if you know a little about it before you arrive. If you get ready before you go, you can lift your eyes from the pages of a guidebook, start thinking on your own, and season your meals with good conversation about a wonderful city. You might even put yourself in a position to enter the debate over the merits and shortcomings of the civilization(s) of which Rome was long the capital.

But how should we get ready? My strategy is to find the order that underlies Rome’s cultural cacophony. I describe and illustrate this approach especially in the first three podcasts. The gist is that I propose putting aside, at least for a while, the nice idea that Rome is an “Eternal City.” Instead, consider Rome as three distinct and opposed cities, which are divided by two periods of “transition” or, more accurately, cultural warfare. The first Rome was pagan, generally aristocratic, and eventually classical. We call it “Ancient Rome”; a Father of Modern Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini, labeled it “Rome of the Caesars.” After a long struggle that included both persecution and counter- persecution, Rome’s pagan empire became Christian, and the art, architecture, and soul of the city changed. After 1,500 years of the “Rome of the Popes,” the new ideas of the French Enlightenment were advanced with vigor by powerful thinkers and by Napoleon’s powerful armies, and the Italian movement known as the Risorgimento got rid of papal rule and introduced the “Rome of the People.” This gives us a simple and useful schema with which to begin.

    • Ancient, Pagan, and Aristocratic
    • Over a thousand years, traditionally 753 BC to 476 AD
    • Medieval, Christian, and Monarchical
    • Over a thousand years, from roughly 350 to 1870
    • Modern, Secular, and Democratic
    • One hundred and fifty years (and counting), from 1870 until today

Organized on the basis of these three Romes, this site aspires to help others sense the weightiness and far-reaching consequences of the quarrels between Classical, Christian, and Modern Rome. These and related controversies, which continue even today, concern the way we radically imperfect but occasionally godlike creatures should live our lives together in society. It should also help visitors to Rome organize what they see and begin to reconstruct the rich cultural conversation, or argument, that is expressed by Rome’s stunning art and architecture.

​You may wish to respond by saying, “But there are agreements as well as disagreements among the three Romes!” and “But there are more than three Romes!” True. True. But first things first.

About the Photos Above

I’ve chosen three iconic buildings to represent here “The Three Romes” into which I divide the Eternal City. The  photo of the Colosseum captures two features of special importance. One is the (faint) presence of the plaque with a large cross carved on it near the center of the photo. This is a good reminder that the Catholic Church used the Colosseum in myriad ways for over a thousand years. The second is the end of the Colosseum’s outer wall, held in place by a brick buttress, on the right side of the photo, such that the photo might be labeled, “The Notched Colosseum.” Fifty per cent of this outer wall has disappeared, and yet the Colosseum survived in much better shape than most other Ancient Roman monuments. This helps us become sensitive to questions about what is missing as well as what has survived.

The central photo captures a suitable icon for Christian Rome, the “Rome of the Popes.” It is of the gilded-bronze altar canopy by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, soaring upward toward the dome Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta designed for St. Peter’s Basilica. In the background is more gilded-bronze work by Bernini, the “Chair of St. Peter,” far too big and high for human use but the perfect symbol of papal authority, which the Church understands as having descended from St. Peter. Over six podcasts are devoted to St. Peter’s and such related sites as the Vatican Necropolis and the Vatican Museums.

The monument in the photo on the right is dedicated to the first king of united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II and, by extension, to the Italy he helped to bring into being in 1860. Generally called the “Vittoriano,” its nicknames include “the Wedding Cake” and “the Typewriter.” Whereas the Colosseum has several large crosses on it, the Vittoriano has none, which should help us remember that the new Italy was brought into being partly to weaken the role of the Catholic Church in Italian society. The second podcast will make this more clear, as will six or eight others on monuments to Modern Italy.

Another photo on this page provides the background. It shows the bright light streaming in through the open hole (or, “oculus”) in the dome of the Pantheon and, on the underside of the dome, the not-quite-square coffers that reduced the dome’s weight. Made without iron rebar or other reinforcements, the concrete dome of the Pantheon is a reminder of the skill of the ancient Roman builders. The sphere it inscribes is also an apt reminder of the global reach of Rome at the high point of its empire. It ruled not only much of Europe but northern Africa and a swath of the Near East as well.

The first two of these photos are by Blake Buchannan, the second two are by Charlie Wheeler. Both are now graduates of the University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science, and both have contributed many other photos to this website.


I am especially grateful to the University of Colorado Boulder Study Abroad Office for the opportunity to develop and teach the course on which these podcasts are based. I’m grateful as well for supportive colleagues, and inquisitive students: together they made it possible, pleasant, and personally fulfilling for me to teach in Rome. I’ll be pleased if students of all ages find these podcasts as stimulating as did my students at the University of Colorado.

I’m no less grateful to my wife and children, who embraced with enthusiasm the adventure of spending a decade in Rome, notwithstanding such challenges as heading off to schools and maternity wards where our native tongue was of little use.

A young and enthusiastic friend, Joey Pustejovsky, both encouraged and guided me in the building of this website. He will continue to help as the producer of the pods, at least if I can persuade him to do so.

And who is this “I”?

I’m Wayne Ambler, a retired college prof, who can’t sit still. I taught first at the University of Dallas, and spent ten years with my wife and three daughters on the UD Rome Campus, initially as a professor but later as a dean. Then I took a position with the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics & Society here at the University of Colorado Boulder, which gave me a chance to organize my thoughts on Rome and to take CU students to Rome every May for a decade. I called this program “Culture Wars in Rome,” and it is the basis for these podcasts. My guiding hope and belief is that my experience developing and teaching this course will help virtual and actual travelers enjoy some of the benefits of university study.

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