From week to week, my topics jump from Ancient Rome, to Christian Rome, to Modern Rome. This rapid leaping across the centuries may lead to a sort of “historical vertigo,” so why don’t I just march through Rome in chronological order?
The demands of preparing full episodes to release on Tuesday have reduced the frequency with which I can record short podcasts on Thursday. But since I don’t want to abandon this practice altogether, here is an attempt to keep the practice alive. In this minipod I think out loud about how I have chosen to organize my podcasts.
My approach runs the risk of inducing a sort of historical vertigo not only in you but in me as well. Rather than marching my way through history, starting with Rome’s legendary birth in 753 BC and proceeding neatly though the subsequent stages of Rome’s long life, I’m jumping every week from Ancient to Christian to Modern sites and topics. Thus, for example, I’m asking you to think about the burial monument of Augustus in one week, and then moving on in the subsequent weeks to the art in a villa built by Scipione Borghese and then to Mussolini, before returning to the Rome of Augustus. To ask this kind of topic-jumping of you, I must live with it myself, and I admit that it’s not always easy. No sooner do I review the world-changing rivalry between Marc Antony and Octavian, for example, than I must reinvestigate the rise of Fascism in modern Italy.
It may seem a bit crazy to start with an overview of Rome, from the beginning to the present, and try in some sense to cover everything at once. After all, we are speaking of a period of well over two thousand years and one that has seen many changes. It would be easier just to start at the beginning and march onward in historical order. I have both a reason and an excuse for attempting an overview and mixing my topics as I do. The excuse is that the sites of Rome are not positioned there in historical order: there is not one part of the city reserved for ancient sites, another for Christian, and another for modern sites: they are sprinkled all throughout the city and turn up unexpectedly as we walk Rome’s tangled streets. Medieval churches have ancient temples as their neighbors, and signs of modern Rome are everywhere. The visitor to Rome must always be ready for everything.
The Vittoriano, popularly called “the wedding cake,” Rome’s most eye-catching monument to Modern Italy. (Photo by Charlie Wheeler)
So in speaking of Rome, I do what Rome itself does, mix things up and jump quickly from ancient to modern and back again. That’s my excuse. But my reason for doing this is to be able to show contrasts and continuities in the sites I put next to one another. I jump around, but I’m trying to jump in a particular way. Alternating discussions of the Colosseum with discussions of St. Peter’s and the monument to Victor Emmanuel II helps, I hope, to show how different are the societies that built them. The Colosseum represents the antithesis of Christian mercy and charity; St. Peter’s is filled with art that honors not valiant generals but martyrs who suffer evils willingly; and the Vittoriano honors a nation and a people, while scrupulously avoiding any hint of their Christian heritage. Jumping from one such monument to the next helps to show that the West in general is not a single civilization or undiversified point of view but contains within it moral, political, and theological controversies that have sparked wars as well as profound debate.
Something similar is true also in jumping from the Mausoleum of Augustus to Mussolini’s treatment of the piazza surrounding the Mausoleum. Though separated from Augustus by two millennia, Mussolini had political reasons for wanting to bridge this gap and associate himself with the great emperor. A strictly chronological approach would make it harder to stand the two men and their empires side by side and see how different they were, in spite of Mussolini’s claims.
Pluto and Proserpina: Commissioned by the pope’s nephew, this Bernini statue would never have been placed in St. Peter’s, which was being filled with Bernini’s art at the same time. (Wikimedia Commons)
Some of our jumps are to show differences within a period rather than between Ancient and Christian or Christian and Modern. Juxtaposing St. Peter’s with the Borghese helped to show how varied were the subjects of Bernini’s art during the Counterreformation, even when sponsored by the same papal family. Bernini sometimes celebrated service to the Christian faith or the Catholic Church, but he had in earlier moments represented erotic and violent scenes from Ovid.
More than a few of Rome’s most important sites are vertigo inducing even by themselves, for they have at different times lived very different lives of great importance. Castel Sant’Angelo is greatest example of this, as we will see soon, but consider now the Pantheon. We have to call it an ancient site, and if we were to take it up in chronological order, we would have to assign it the second century of the Roman Empire, for it was Hadrian who gave it its most distinctive architectural features. But it is helpful not to assign it to a single historical period. The inscription on the beam or architrave that lies on top of its front columns claims that it was built by Marcus Agrippa, whom you may remember as having been of vital assistance to Augustus a century and a half before Hadrian. As the St. Peter’s we see is the second such basilica, so the Pantheon we see is the second such temple, and in visiting it, we should wonder about the differences between the first and the second Pantheons. Then, four centuries after it was built, the second Pantheon became a Christian church. It was the first Roman temple to be so converted, and it remains a church today. A thousand-plus years after this conversion to a church, two of the Pantheon’s large interior niches were taken over to house the tombs of the first two kings of united Italy, so they turn the Pantheon into an important modern monument as well, or at least they try to. The Pantheon is thus an ancient pagan temple that was built differently on two different occasions by two emperors; it is also a venerable basilica of Roman Catholicism; and it is a unifying symbol of the kings of modern Italy. It’s best when visiting the Pantheon not to neglect these and other aspects of its long life, a life that’s been too eventful to be pinned to a particular decade or century.
Tomb of Victor Emmanuel II (Photo by Wknight94, CC BY-SA 3.0)
In short, Rome compels us to hop from one historical moment to another not only as we move between sites but even when we visit a single complex site, such as the Pantheon. As it turns out, many of the monuments of Rome belong to more than one century, and—although it does risk inducing some historical vertigo—I think it’s better in the long run to try to view Rome all at once, as it were, rather than proceeding in detailed chronological order. The simple labels Ancient, Christian, and Modern help to get this synoptic approach started, even if it takes time to fill in many details. In time, the vertigo fades away, and in its place we gradually acquire a useful framework with which to approach Western Civilization in general. Equipped like this, we are less likely to grasp at crude similarities, as Mussolini did in likening himself to Augustus, and also less likely to condemn the whole history of the West as the sorry product of likeminded dead white males.