I was watching NASCAR at a bar the other day. Normally, I would never watch NASCAR, but it was what was on the T.V.. I thought about how great it would be if NASCAR made a rule change and installed traffic lights on the course. The lights would randomly change from Red to Green, no Yellows. There would be no pattern to the changing; drivers would not be able to time it. For every Red light that a driver runs, he shall be assessed a 500 dollar fine after the race and 10 seconds shall be added to his final driving time. I would like to see just one race in my lifetime with this rule. Perhaps it would make the sport appear more practical, as if the traffic lights would make NASCAR jump off the track and into the living room, saying: “Hey Kids – If you ever find yourself driving really fast, and you have to stop for traffic lights, here’s how its done”. No one ever runs from the cops on a circular race track!
Sitting in construction traffic today, and for the first time, I am not annoyed. It isn’t because I have nowhere to be (I rarely do), but because the construction reminds me of mankind and the ability to make things, to create. I think of Rome, and I imagine a thousand years from now, a historian or an archaeologist or some other science minded professor talking about the very road I am sitting on. He says to his colleagues or his students: “These roads took people all over the continents; they went under oceans and over mountains. The earth was moved to make way for them.” And the colleagues and students all nod their heads in understanding. They are not building a road; they are building what will eventually become history and I am glad to be a part of that.
I look back at Rome and am glad to know what’s happening there. It is 2:30 here, and I am restless and afraid of the bed. But in Rome, it is noon. The sun is out, the Campo De Fiori has been busy all morning. The shop keepers are imagining that in only an hours time, they will pack their stands. Not because they are eager to leave…but because that’s the way it is. The restaurants will break their heldbackedness, and spill all the way out into the plaza. Where once stood the bright red and yellow tents of the fruit stand, will come the striped umbrellas. They are smaller. In some cases – one for each table. The pigeons will forget their morning quest for fruit guts and croissant crumbs and begin the hunt for discarded pasta and left over pizza. They are probably meat eaters by now.
A few kilometers outside the city walls lies one of Rome’s greatest hidden spots: the catacombs. One of the greatest misconceptions about the catacombs is in the word “hidden”, not “secret”. The contemporary idea about the catacombs is that they were places for Christians to hide during the persecutions, an idea which many are trying to put down, our tour guides and Robert Hughes included. On the trip out there, the guide opened the tour with a “sit down and pay attention” lecture. With slides prepared and everything. This lecture began with a fierce monologue on what people think the catacombs are and why it would have been impossible for them to stay secret. “I mean seriously,” she said “there were over 80 catacombs, some using as much as five acres of surface area. They weren’t a secret.” There were also massive stone shafts built into the grassy surface to allow for ventilation and lighting. She explained further that “while sometimes the catacombs were used for worship meetings, they were in no way secret and if the pagans did find Christians worshipping…”*and here she made the gesture of slitting her own throat*
The truth is more like Robert Hughes describes: “…since the pagan authorities would have known where all the tunnels were: nobody could have hidden down there.” (175). Rather the catacombs were a convenient way for the pagan authorities to get the dead Christians removed from the cities and buried outside the walls. They’re nothing more than massive burial sites. As our tour guide said of the Catacombs of San Calisto: “There’s more than sixteen miles of tunnels, on five levels, going as deep as 30 meters underground. Buried here were more than half a million bodies.” The first few numbers are impressive, but when they tell you how many bodies were housed here, in hopes of being resurrected, it dazes you for a second. When you hear a number that large, the first thing you sort of expect is that you know one or two of them. But then you remember that these are bodies stored up from centuries of time, and haven’t been used since at least the 500s.
Now, they’ve been stripped and are mostly fallen apart. As you walk through them, you can see the original dirt (of which there is a respectable amount) but for the most part it is replacement bricks. All the graves are empty, the bones having been either move into the city center, or a few unfortunate skeletons that were stolen for the black market. A small amount of marble remains, most notably a few fragments from the sarcophagi of martyrs and popes and even few martyred popes. The most impressive of all the remaining fragments are the paintings on the walls and roofs. Early Christian symbols, like fish and loaves, the sharing of communion and probably my favorite: one of the first known representations of the Cross. I’m not religious in anyway, but I thought it was neat that this single image that people put so much meaning behind today, wasn’t even the first image of the faith or an important one for at least 300 years after Christ’s death. Oh religion, you silly goose.
In chapter four of Rome, Robert Hughes describes the beginning of Christianity and its eventual hold of the entire city itself. In a contemporary context, it’s easy to let the long history of Papal power overshadow the period beforehand, a time when Christianity was far from dominant. Hughes says that “Christians, few but growing in number, led little-noticed lives in the forest of sects and cults that the decay of ‘official’ Roman religion produced” (137). It’s difficult to imagine the city of Rome, now littered with churches, to be anything but a Christian city. It’s hard to ignore the presence of Madonna and Child representations that appear in paintings and on buildings all over the city. But the truth is that the span of history is so immense, it takes us back so far, that it challenges what we’re able to wrap our minds around. Rome is so ancient, that it forces us to reevaluate the things we all take for granted. The world as we know it is constantly rearranging its order. Like Rome, the states in power will not be in power forever; it’s inevitable. It’s a continual flow of power, and we have the benefit of watching Rome’s 2800 year existence to help us make our decisions. Not just about religious tolerance, but basic human rights. Our political and economic situations need to be reevaluated, our educational policies are failing huge amounts of our students. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to accept change. But it might help us to understand that history is built on change, empires can rise and fall because of change. Things can’t ever get better if we don’t embrace the change.
In Hughes’ third chapter, he mentions that “Imperial Rome gave birth to what must be, bar none, the greatest piece of narrative sculpture from the ancient world” (112). It is Trajan’s column. At one hundred feet high, it is the ancestor of the comic book. Wrapped around it, in stone carving, is a graphic reproduction of Emperor Trajan’s military exploits. It is also one of the most revealing sources in trying to understand the battle methods and equipment of the ancient Roman Empire. But it’s also a testament to creative storytelling. It is, without a doubt, the predecessor of text-image based creative non-fiction, a genre that one could argue is making a strong impact today. While obviously they didn’t have the film technology that we do, it’s fascinating to think that our modern cultures have clear roots in the past, on so many different levels. The old cliché saying that “history repeats itself” is true for so many different reasons. While we may continue to go to war with insane motives, we also continue to like a good story. A picture story, no less.
In the second chapter of Robert Hughes’ Rome, he discusses Rome’s fascination with marble. “The show material was marble,” he says, “the best available.” He paints a glorious description of color, even in describing the whiteness of the Luna marble. But beyond that, Hughes describes “Pink from the Greek island of Chios, greeny blue from Euboea and yellows from North Africa.” It’s a wonderful array, and marble, thankfully, doesn’t lose its color over time. It’s one of the beautiful feelings to walk up the marble staircase, or turn a corner in a museum and find a marble sculpture standing there, in nearly the same form as it has always been. While fingers and noses may chip off, the texture of the stone never changes. And unlike the oldest paintings, which have inevitably frayed with time, the ancient statues still remain. Standing in the same room as a Bernini (which from the Roman Perspective, is rather young), it is difficult to wrap my mind around the idea that such a force of genius was responsible for the molding of the stone that now sits in front of me. Bernini touched that same stone. But the marble goes back much further, and it still preserved in the form of the ancient statues: busts of emperors, popes, their wives and sisters. There are busts with eccentric hairdo’s and creepy mustaches, and people in all sorts of odd poses. It’s the culturally relevant equivalent to seeing Michael Jordan’s rookie jersey, or maybe a copy of Seventeen magazine. But instead, it is an original, three dimensional piece of art, sculpted from marble, studied by thousands upon thousands of those before me; all the way back to the moment it was pulled out of the mountain.