I had a conversation with a guy at my hostel about people who ponder for a long time at historical sights. He thought these people are “full of shit.” Although he enjoys going to historical sights and recognizes the significance of them, he sees no reason to spend a long time thinking about them, and he thinks that people who do so are being pretentious.
I used to believe that, but now I think that it requires a lot of mental effort to take in historical sights the right way. When looking at a centuries-old structure, our instinct – or mine, at least – is to think “that’s cool” or “that’s pretty.” We admire the craftmanship, then we get bored and want to move on. It takes more thought to realize that what we’re looking at once meant a lot to people, and to figure out how.
When I went inside the Coliseum six years ago, I admired the magnificence of it for a few minutes before I got bored and wanted to leave. When I visited it last Wednesday, I forced myself to consider that it was the site of millions of human experiences over centuries – experiences that ranged from that of a Roman senator and his family enjoying good food and entertainment in reserved seats in the front row, to that of a criminal whose last moments of life were spent being attacked by an exotic animal in front of a bloodthirsty crowd of forty thousand people. I wondered what people were thinking when they walked into such a beautiful, perfectly-proportioned building to watch people and animals die.
Wednesday was my “ancient Rome” day. After going to the Coliseum, I went to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Unfortunately, so little remains of the buildings that it’s hard to imagine what they originally looked like. I just got a sense of an area that was neglected and pilfered for a thousand years. I would like to think that the fact that the forum area was not built over, at least, means that medieval Romans showed it some respect, but it seems more likely that it was too difficult to remove the ruins so that new buildings could be put there.
One building in the forum is still intact, however – the Roman senate building, which was converted to a church after the empire fell.
The only other ancient building in Rome that is still in use – the Pantheon – also survived because it was converted into a church. It makes you wish there had been a greater need for churches in the dark ages so that more of the Roman buildings could be saved. Of all the ancient Roman buildings I’ve seen, the Pantheon is the best reminder of the brilliance of Roman engineering. It still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome, although its almost two thousand years old. The dome is so large that it was visible in Rome’s skyline from every viewpoint I visited – an honor shared by only a few other churches and the reviled Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II (popularly called the “wedding cake building”) that you can see jostling its way into the picture above. I sat down inside for a while to watch the sunshine from the oculus at the top of the dome make its progress across the ceiling.
After consulting the Wikitravel article on Rome, I decided to visit all of the four basilicas that pilgrims to Rome were expected to visit – St. Peter’s (which I had already visited), San Giovanni, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. They were all as spectacular as you would expect major churches in Rome to be. My favorite of them was St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was originally founded by the emperor Constantine over the burial place of St. Paul. It has a beautiful facade with a colorful mosaic, surrounded by a courtyard. It’s on the outskirts of Rome, so there aren’t as many tourists inside.
On Friday I took a train to Ostia Antica, which was once the port of Ancient Rome, but is now over a mile from the shore due to silt from the Tiber building up over the centuries. Ostia is astonishingly well-preserved for an ancient city that wasn’t buried in ashes. Some of the buildings have exteriors that are fully preserved, making it easier to imagine what the town was once like. I spent an hour reading at the town’s theater, where high schoolers from various countries were goofing around.
By the time I left Ostia, I was tired of wandering around ancient ruins and imagining what they originally looked like. I was also tired of visiting churches. I thought I was giving myself a big treat when I booked ten nights at a hostel in Rome, but by the seventh or eighth day there I wished I could move on. The density of historical sites in Rome makes it one of the greatest cities in the world, but also makes it crowded and touristy. I missed the feeling I got in Istanbul, Athens, and Palermo, of being a guest in the city, instead of being just one of a horde of tourists, as I felt in Rome.
I also didn’t like my hostel much. It was obnoxiously crowded and loud, especially on weekends, and you had to leave from 11-5 every day so they could clean. These characteristics made it hard for me to make close friends like I did in other hostels. It also seemed to attract a different crowd from the other hostels I’ve stayed in. The guests weren’t the backpacker type; more the American college student studying abroad taking a quick trip around Europe and partying it up type.
I spent my last day in Rome reading in the Villa Borghese park. The day I left, I got up really early to go to St. Peter’s before it got crowded. Then, I went to the train station and boarded a train for Florence.