It’s been six months since I started these podcasts, with full episodes every Tuesday—at least so far—and shorter mini pods on occasional Thursdays, like today. So let me take this half-anniversary to remind myself what it is that I’m trying to accomplish.
My most general goal is to elevate and add interest to the usual experiences of tourists in Rome. I was clueless on my first visit to Rome, so I’m a veteran practitioner of mindless travel. I have sometimes even enjoyed it. But Rome has much more to offer than restaurants, and the city only comes alive as you get to know it better. This is completely unsurprising! It more pleasant to watch March Madness if you know the rules of a basketball game, and I fell in love with the Marriage of Figaro only after reading the libretto a couple of times. Many pleasures are enhanced if we know something, and they far outstrip any bliss that ignorance might bring! And since there is so much to do in the Eternal City, it only makes sense to Get Ready for Rome before you visit. Be honest: once you get to Rome, you won’t start reading about Bernini’s contributions to St. Peter’s Basilica in your hotel. Even if you did, it would keep you from boning up on Hadrian, and he too needs some time. It’s infinitely better to learn ahead of time, especially with a subject as complex and important as Rome. Besides, it’s exciting.
So that’s my general idea. It’s not a bad start, but it’s too vague. It says nothing about what we should learn or why we should learn it. Guidebooks imply the most familiar answer: learn a lot of names and dates. This helps, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my well-thumbed copy of the guidebook by Georgina Masson, but when the facts are disconnected from each other, from the modern world, and from what we really care about, they deaden rather than inspire. No one sits down to read a guidebook.
It took me a while before it really sank in, but Rome is a very special city. More than any other single city, it has a claim to be the capital of Western Civilization. It was once the capital of a pagan aristocracy, and—to simplify—its ideas of human excellence stressed duty to the city. It did all it could to raise young Romans to be good citizens perhaps even more than to be good human beings. Or, it encouraged the thought that there was no way to be a good human being without first becoming a good Roman citizen. Surely this helped the ancient Romans acquire an empire the European Union might well envy. Its territory was on three continents and extended from Wales to the Jerusalem, and from Morocco to the Black Sea.
Then, by way of an astounding metamorphosis, guided especially by the emperors Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, it became Christian and, after a couple of centuries, came to be ruled by a papal monarchy. Its ideas on human excellence changed: they came to stress the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and as Rome’s beautiful apse mosaics suggest, Rome’s subjects were now taught to aim their efforts at living in the heavenly fatherland, the City of God, without the same regard for the worldly fatherland that had characterized the pagan Romans of the previous centuries.
And then, 1500 years later, thanks to the French Enlightenment and the efforts of Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Cavour, the papal monarchy was overthrown by force, on September 20, 1870, and the principles of modern liberal democracy finally arrived in Rome. Then the rights of the individual were brought onto center stage, while duties—whether to God or to the sovereign republic of Rome—faded into second or third place.
Now this is all too simple, and it needs to be tested against all sorts of facts. It’s only a summary! But it begins to show how Roman monuments and artworks are related to one another and to fundamental human questions. They embody the soul of Rome, or the souls of three different Romes, and they disclose a dialogue, debate, or shouting match among three different cities—an ancient pagan aristocracy, a Medieval Christian monarchy, and a modern secular democracy—and keeping this debate near the center of things has the advantage of bringing front and center a group of questions that are as exciting as they are important.
I admit it: I won’t address these issues systematically, one after the other, and I won’t be proving any one of these “three Romes” to be the superior of the other. This is too much to ask, at least of me. But neither will I stifle this dialogue by assuming that our modern, secular, democratic principles are in every respect superior to their predecessors and in a position to condemn the past. I’ll be trying in these podcasts to see whether we learn anything useful by looking at ourselves from the perspectives of the past: My goal is not to condemn the Rome of the Caesars or the Rome of the Popes for not having been more like us.
I’ll be happy if, faced with the stifling heap of guidebook factoids on Rome, I can excavate some stimulating questions and use them to present a connected narrative about the city. Reading or listening to such a narrative is more pleasant and useful than studying a guidebook’s names and dates, so it makes it easier to get ready for Rome. It also makes it possible for those who choose to travel to Rome by podcast, without the cost and inconveniences of leaving their living rooms. To help in this regard, I have a website at Get for Rome dot Com: it’s a work in progress, but I think its photos, diagrams, and links will already be helpful to some. It also includes text versions of the podcasts.
Beyond this, American universities have been reducing or dropping the study of Western Civilization for decades, partly on the grounds that it either does not exist, is narrow and limiting, or, owing to its great injustices, should not have existed in the first place. These are serious charges with crucial implications, and yet they are often accepted before they are examined. Rome’s exciting complexity makes it a good place to start considering whether Western Civilization is a useful concept and how to assess it.
I hope this helps explain what I’m up to in these podcasts. If you ever have comments, questions, or suggestions, you can reach me by email at Wayne at Get Ready for Rome dot Com.
And if you complain that I underestimate the importance of dining well in Rome, I answer that a good meal requires good conversation. If I don’t help you choose your restaurant, perhaps I can help you enjoy it more!