First published December 15, 2021 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and SCNow.com.
Rome is the most important city in World History or at least competitive with Babylon, Thebes/Memphis or Peking/Beijing. I have been there about 15 times.
Rome is the Eternal City, not only because it is very old, but because of its long- time stride over both the ancient and the modern worlds and its tremendous spiritual impact, both Pagan and Christian. Not many other cities can boast 3500 years of important history.
Settled first by local Italian tribes as a river trading post perched atop the Palatine from about 12,000 years ago, it became energized by immigrating Greeks and other Euro-Asians fleeing the fall of Troy in about 1200 BC, and/or the stuff of the Romulus (Rome’s namesake) and Remus myths, who eventually organized, sometimes roughly, their Etruscan, Latin and Sabinian neighbors into a cogent society. And eventually, first conquering Italy, then Macedonia and then Carthage, developed what we now call the Roman Empire, their most famous, enduring leadership, the Julian Family (Julius Caesar to Nero). The Roman Empire reached its geographic peak under Emperor Trajan in 117 AD. The Roman Empire was amazing for its time and amazing even today. We Americans do not understand the might and wealth of the Roman Empire: an area stretching from Portugal to the Arabian Sea and from Libya to Scotland containing about 32 modern countries, a population of about 80 million and at least two great cities, Constantinople and Rome. Modern empires have been larger, because of desolate land mass, modern transportation or modern technology (Great Britain, Mongol/Chinese, India, Brazil, Soviet Union and Russia), but none as impactful. In today’s money, the individual Roman leader and businessman, Marcus Linicious Crassus, would be a trillionaire (with a “t”). Roman architecture and engineering were masterful, much of it enduring for 2200 years; remember the Roman Colosseum is STILL the largest in the world. We Americans think 30 years is a long time for a road and two hundred years, is “really” old.
Though blunted by the Great Schism of 1054 and the latter rise of Protestantism, the Roman Catholic Church still presides over about 1.3 billion adherents headquartered in Vatican City and its magnificent St Peter’s Cathedral (from about 380 AD), inside the city limits of Rome. Some of you may be surprised that I have a Vatican Library VIP pass card and have sent daughter Stephanie and some other friends to special events in my place.
Modern Rome thus finds ancient Rome hard to ignore. Modern Rome is the Capital City of Italy. Italy was organized in fits and starts from the mid 1880’s as a Republic (interrupted by the World Wars) from the old Papal States and the French, with the central government now at the Plaza del Quirinale and commemorated by the nearby Victor Emmanuel II Monument. But Rome also contains two other sovereign nations, the Holy Vatican See and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. In addition, important international organizations reside there: the United Nations “Polo Romano” of which SC Florentine former Governor David Beasley oversees the World Food Programme (and Nobel Prize winner), the Treaties of the European Union, the European Olympic Committee, the NATO Defense College and several important international legal organizations.
I have long pondered how to best tour Rome. The city is built in circular Rings like many European cities with Roman origins and since traffic still often flows along circular roads, avoid driving, unless you’re me; in addition, its many plazas, parks and palaces make twists and turns normal. I suggest two techniques: one by theme and the other by geographic section. But first take a city bus tour, at night, to get oriented and see the magnificent architecture alit.
Let’s start central, on the Palatine. Visit the two facing museums for a great overview of both ancient and modern history and architecture including modern electronic videos showing computer reconstructed originals. As you stroll down hill, look back to see modern buildings abutting ancient buildings, even overlapping. On your left, choose to enter Nero’s palace, but not really much left to see; remember it is still considered the largest home under one single roof ever built (about one square mile) and also the most opulent. Off to your right are a variety of Forums including the Roman Forum with ruins of columns, some square space, temples and government buildings; additions by Julius Caesar and Claudius are nearby. Further downhill, Trajan’s and Constantine’s columns are spectacular. At the bottom of the hill looms the Colosseum and beyond, the Circus(es) – for the Circuses, think chariot races and mock naval battles - up against the river; St. Peter was executed nearby. A thoughtful tour could take up to two days and a modern tour of the Colosseum, recently strengthened and partially restored, might take a whole day, itself.
Move north to visit the Milvian Bridge (Constantine’s victory, under the Cross, in his civil war with Maxentius). Cross the Tiber, then float downriver (better, use public transportation) to the Vatican complex. Much of the Vatican is closed, but with some planning, and with some Catholic contacts, you can often tour the gardens, the museums, the library and sometimes the “under city.” St Peter’s Basilica and the Square are usually open and free. Plan at least one day. The Basilica is magnificent; notice the list of popes at the entrance includes the Avignon and “anti-popes.” Wander the Basilica’s halls, grottos and side chapels. Famous art includes the Michelangelo sculpture, Pieta, tombs of many popes, the Canova Lions, St. Peter’s Throne (modeled to mimic the throne of Solomon) and multiple Bernini sculptures including Constantine the Great. In the 1700’s the hundreds of oil paintings were replaced by mosaics for longevity including Raphael’s the Transfiguration and Giotto’s Navicellia. The entire Vatican complex holds about 70,000 pieces of art and artifact, only about a third are in the museums and public. With consent, you can sometimes descend the steps against the far wall, under the black throne, below the sunburst, and also the more central entrance to St. Peter’s tomb (his actual tomb is in the under city, far below, but really here) and some of the underground museum complex. Set aside a day for a tour of the Sistine Chapel; you can spend hours studying Michelangelo’s ceiling and museums. Public Papal audiences in the Square are fascinating and multilingual and private audiences with the Pope on Wednesdays, you can often manage. If you are a fan of the novelist Dan Brown, walk down from St Peters Plaza to the Church of the Angels along the river; if you are lucky, you can use the underground passage.
Move across the river and just explore the neighborhoods moving southward as you go. Scattered are famous plazas and the palaces and gardens of the wealthy families that built Christian Rome: the Spada, the Borghese, the Celimontana, the Pamphilij, the Sciarra, the Ada and the Medici. While exploring, keep in mind that Italian school girls often join hands in groups as they walk along. The Pantheon seems to loom out of nowhere to its 142 foot height with an incredible unsupported dome. The Pantheon was built about 10 BC (most of the columns were brought from Egypt by barge) on the estate of General Marcus Agrippa whose name remains on the building, eventually filled with Roman art and sculptures, then converted to a Catholic Church (St. Mary of the Martyrs) in 609 and filled with martyr relics from the catacombs and new Catholic art and sculpture; most of the pagan art was either destroyed or carted off to Constantinople. Curiously, Raphael’s tomb is here.
Important Roman Catholic churches are all across Rome, over 2000, almost one in each plaza or on every corner, my personal favorites are the Cathedral of Rome, the St. John’s Basilica (of the Lantern with the 28 steps of Martin Luther fame), Basilica St. Mary Maggiore and St. Paul Outside the Walls; most have important architecture, art works and artifacts – it would take years to properly tour each church. And finally, several Roman baths and other, multiple piazzas, the most famous being Navona, Popolo, The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. St. Paul was executed in the area of the Spanish Steps. Today along the Steps plaza you can buy Versace’s finest and next door drive away a Lamborghini (I once accosted a pick pocket in the plaza). Be sure to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, face away from the fountain and toss over your left shoulder, and then buy the excellent ice cream/glace next door.
Continue your travels southward and stroll the Apian Way on your way to Brindisi or your country estate. The catacomb tourist area soon looms, but it might be best to go by train or bus (the public transport in Rome is robust, but noisy - ignore strangers’ comments if you know Italian, and hold tight to your purse, or better yet, wear a money belt) – be careful at the catacombs, too, even though a solemn tour for Christians. Oh, and Pompeii is not far away.
I prefer the quiet neighborhoods along the outside of the Vatican walls for motels and restaurants, particularly the Prati district. By now you all know I love Italian food; Rome has about 12,000 restaurants - paradise. Most plazas have small cafes all around and the street vendors are usually very good as well. Start your main meal with a personal Margarita thin crust pizza. If asked to pick, I stay with the quiet neighborhood restaurants favoring del Toscano (higher priced than I like), da Corlone, Giovanni’s (very safe, train station), da Bruno, Bernini (the owner once spent about an hour with us), Sciascia il Caffe, Huo Quino, Amalfi, la Victtoria (off St Peter’s Plaza), il Sorpasso, Osteria dell’Angelo, Nerone, and the l’Archeologia (at the Catacombs). If you must go high end, let me recommend three, all perched atop fine hotels, La Pergola, Acquolina and Tordomatto – book these in advance. And of course, drink wine, whether from Italy or North Africa, it’s all very good, and yes the Romans often prefer slightly chilled wines, even the reds.
The Trevi Fountain coin toss….means you will return.