This short podcast reviews our goals and announces the beginning of our second season on April 21. The subject will be Rome, Constantine, and the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

Show Notes

You may be surprised to learn that I’m now getting ready to restart my podcast series, Get Ready for Rome, for you have not heard from me since November 11, when I suspended my podcasts after fourteen months of weekly publishing. Nor did I announce a date for when I might get started again. I merely said that I had other responsibilities to attend to, and opportunities to pursue, so I’d be taking a break. Now, I’ve taken this break, and this old man’s fancy has again turned to the Eternal City, so I’m now resuming the efforts that lie behind Get Ready for Rome. I’ll call this new series Season Two, and it will get started in three weeks, on April 21st. As for today, I’ll just remind you of what these podcasts are all about and what point we’d reached when we began our break.

I enjoy rethinking my decade of living and teaching in Rome, and my simplest aspiration is to use my long experience to help travelers and students get more out of their visits to this great city. Beyond this, I want to learn more about what the West or Western Civilization is, and since Rome has in several different ways been crucial for what we mean by this civilization, it’s a great place to get started. It’s not the whole story, but there are many cultural roads that lead both to and from the Eternal City.

Regarding my simplest goal, helping travelers, I don’t mean to imply that people don’t have a wonderful time just wandering among Rome’s meandering streets and alleys and eating long lunches. They do, and I too hope to do so again this year. But a fraction of travelers want more, so they read guidebooks and hire guides as well as search for restaurants. This is wonderful, but getting ready before a visit is also crucial. Even if you are in Rome for a week, that’s not much time to learn about Michelangelo, the general layout of the city and its hills, Marcus Aurelius, the Pantheon, Garibaldi, the Borghese Gallery, and much, much more. I’ve often listened to guides while on-site in Rome, and while some are excellent, circumstances require them to rattle off names and dates so rapidly that it’s difficult to grasp and remember the main points, and since we are likely to be tired and distracted from being on our feet in a hot and crowded place, the experience sometimes delivers more punishment than enlightenment. Complicating the challenge is that time seems to go much faster in Rome than elsewhere, so we inevitably see less than our plans had projected. So, my first claim is really very simple: if you learn a few things before you go, you will better appreciate what you see, and what a guide may tell you, and you will also remember it better, especially if your preparations help you build a framework that will organize and support the particular observations you make during your visit.

My simplest reason for publishing these podcasts is to help in this regard. They offer a foundation on which to build during a visit to the city. If you don’t catch them before you go, perhaps they might help you organize your thoughts even after you return.

But Rome is important and fascinating even if you never leave home, and my larger aspiration has less to do with visiting specific sites in Rome than with using the city as a help in thinking more clearly about Western Civilization in general. What is it? What are its component parts? Is it even a useful concept? Why has it faded as a subject of study in American universities, and is this a good thing?

I haven’t yet taken up these questions directly, but I’ve raised them often and will continue to do so. Rome’s connection with Western Civilization is so long and so intimate that it makes good sense, when thinking about Rome, to open at least one eye to the broad contours of the larger civilization that might include Rome and show its relationship to ancient Greece, Biblical Jerusalem, and the modern liberal democracies of the West today. To be blunt about it, at least provisionally, a good look at Rome shows how complex and diverse Western Civilization really is. Like Rome, it has been pagan, Christian, and secular; monarchical, republican, and imperial; powerful and weak, invading and invaded; beautiful and filled with aspiration, impoverished and degenerate. Even its best moments have been radically different one from another, as we see by glancing at the ancient Roman Republic, the empire under the so-called Five Good Emperors, the High Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. To get to know Rome is to get to know a vast swath of the human experience and to be introduced to a fascinating and heated debate over questions of monumental importance.

The Pantheon, which honored the pagan deities and an emperor. Charlie photo.

It might seem odd that I have these mixed aspirations in mind, some related to specific sites, others tied to very big questions, but I think they help each other out. By looking carefully at specific statues, monuments, and works of art, we anchor the big questions in concrete reality; and by keeping the big questions in mind, the specific sites we visit in Rome acquire far greater importance. When visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s good to see there the work of such great artists and architects as Bramante, Michelangelo, Bernini, da Cortona, and Canova and to ponder their different contributions. But St. Peter’s was designed and decorated to convey at least one main message. So was the Pantheon, and so was the huge Wedding Cake monument to Victor Emmanuel II. These messages contradict one another, and each summons us to a different view of what kind of world we live in and what this means for the lives we should live. I can’t think of more fascinating and crucial questions than these: they are not dead or merely historical questions, and they invite us to rethink our own answers to them. If the world view conveyed by St. Peter’s is now appreciated as something once impressive but now faded, or if Catholic triumphalism is even attacked and ridiculed, what world view has replaced it, and what justifications support it?

St. Peter’s. which venerates a saint and honors the Roman Catholic Church (Blake photo)

As noted long ago, my big questions lead me to begin with this big picture: Rome is not a single eternal city; it is better understood as threemortal cities. One was ancient and pagan, and it came to rule a vast empire. Another was Medieval and Christian: its religious influence was vast, but its military might was almost nil. The third Rome is modern and secular, and it’s the capital of a modern liberal democracy belonging to the European Union. I’ve followed Giuseppe Mazzini in calling these three Romes the Rome of the Caesars, the Rome of the Popes, and the Rome of the People. Things are of course much more complicated than this, but this is a good place to start. These three Romes help to organize the barrage of art and architecture we encounter on visiting the city, and they introduce the different spirits or souls that have animated Rome and its art at different times.

The Vittoriano, celebrating Modern Italy and its first king

If we start with three Romes, then there are two revolutionary periods that separate them. The first occurred when Rome ceased to be the capital city of a pagan empire in the fourth century: Christianity spread throughout the entire Roman Empire and led to a Rome governed by popes, not Caesars. After 1,500 years of Papal Rome, a second revolution saw the New Italian Nation seize Rome from the popes and make it the capital of a modern secular democracy. Popes still exist, as Caesars do not, but they no longer rule Rome, and the Church no longer enjoys its old privileges in Italian society. The name “Rome” is still going strong, but it’s not the same city.

Raphael, “School of Athens,” in the Stanza della Segnatura (Charlie Photo)

When I resume this series on April 21, I’ll be taking up the first of these two revolutionary periods, which might be labeled “the Christianization of Rome and its Empire.” This is the main unfinished business that that was on the floor when I began my break last fall, for we were then making our way through the Rafael Rooms in the Vatican Museums. We had finished discussing the greatest of these four rooms, the Stanza della Segnatura, with its “School of Athens,” and we were in the middle of an introduction to the Hall of Constantine, the largest of the rooms. Saints Peter and Paul had much to do with the spread of Christianity in the West, as did the doctrines of the new faith, but the most dramatic change came almost 300 years after the crucifixion of Christ, when the emperor Constantine first legalized and then promoted Christianity as the religion of the entire Roman Empire. How and why did he do this, and what else should we know about this remarkable man?

These, then are the topics I’ll be taking up when I resume podcasting on April 21. If you want to remind yourself of what we’ve already discussed, see episodes 46 and 47 on the Sala of Constantine and 21 on the Arch of Constantine. I’ll review some of this material and go a step further.

“Vision of the Cross,” School of Raphael, Sala di Costantino, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, we will return in three short weeks to what I’m tentatively calling Rome’s first revolution in world views, the Christianization of Rome beginning with Constantine, but, for the sake of a more general review today, let me briefly reemphasize the importance of the second of Rome’s two greatest revolutionary moments, which is called the Risorgimento. In addition to discussing its heroes and key monuments in past podcasts, I have tried to underscore it in these two minor ways: I began this podcast series on September 20, 2020, for September 20 is the date on which the Italian army blasted a hole in the great walls of Rome and forced the troops loyal to Pope Pius the Ninth to surrender. This surrender occurred in 1870, so it will soon be 152 years since the Roman Catholic Church was driven from control of Rome, and a limited monarchy headed by King Victor Emmanuel II began to rule the city.

A second way I’ve tried to help us all remember the importance of the Risorgimento is by the music I’ve chosen to begin and end each episode. They begin with an orchestral moment in the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Nabucco; and they conclude with a choral moment from the same opera. “Nabucco” is shorthand for Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, and the oppressor of the Hebrews. The Chorus conveys the longing of the enslaved Hebrews for their native land, by Verdi’s beautiful opera was widely interpreted politically, as a moving reference to the frustrated longing of the Italian people, who were then ruled by Austria in the North, the papacy in the center, and the Bourbon Dynasty in the South. About 20 years after the first performance of the opera, the Risorgimento united Italy for the first time in 1,500 years.

I don’t want to overdo it with these little reminders, but in choosing April 21 as the date to start podcasting again, I call attention to the Birthday of Rome, the Natale di Roma. That’s right, the fact that Romulus never really existed does not keep assorted devotees of Ancient Rome from pretending to believe that April 21, 753 BC was the day he plowed a large circular trench and declared that it marked the boundaries of a new city that would take its name from his. Mussolini was one of those who made a big deal of this anniversary, but it’s now a private group, the Gruppo Storico Romano, that organizes the festivities. According to their Facebook Page, these will again—post-COVID—be concentrated in the area around the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum, so if you happen to be in Rome, be sure to take a peek at the celebrations. The Gruppo Storico has been busy lately, as the recent Ides of March prompted them to reenact the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Roman Forum.

So when this podcast series begins again, it will do so on Rome’s Birthday: you might take a moment to remember the key events in the legendary life of Romulus. Machiavelli enjoyed doing so, for they helped him argue that political legitimacy and success are rooted in violence and deception.

That’s it for now. I’ll be back on the 21st of April, when I’ll return not to Romulus and the original founding of Rome but to Constantine and the re-founding of the Roman Empire under Christian auspices.

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