Saturday, August 27, 2016

Roma Amor

It's taken me a while to get around to writing this, partly because Rome was a lot to process and partly because I had to play the role of the responsible adult more than usual this week, which took all of my energy.

Before I start: in case you have not already heard, on Wednesday a 6,2 magnitude earthquake struck Central Italy. The town closest to the epicenter, Amatrice, has been all but destroyed and the death toll, last time I checked, is over 280. Thousands more have been displaced. Here is a link with ways to help.


I landed in Rome on 19. August 2016, the two-thousand-and-second anniversary of Augustus Caesar's death. I hadn't planned it that way, had picked this weekend because it was when flights were cheapest, but--although I do not believe in fate--it does hint at the tenor the weekend would take.

Rome. What does one think of, when one thinks of Rome? For me it has always been the Roman Republic, the Roman Principate, the Roman Empire. Marble arches and columns, aqueducts, togas, war, blood, iron. Cypresses. Piranesi's carceri d'invenzione. I am a stereotype of the Grand Tour jerk who travels to better themself and goes to Rome to touch eternity, with barely a thought spared to the modern city and its more recent history. If this is reprehensible, then I am reprehensible.

Because I've been in Germany for--wow, five months now, I did wonder several times about the lack of reference to fascism in the city landscape. Where are the memorials? The monuments? In Berlin one does not have to seek them out, one sees them everywhere. Not so in Rome. But I wasn't there to see Mussolini. I was there for Augustus.

I'm struggling to figure out how to present my weekend in Rome. The visit had a strong enough emotional charge that I could go full melodramatic/pretentious. It was also a really fun vacation with lots of sun and gelato and practicing my Italian. An itinerary is probably the most straightforward format, but the narrative of the weekend is not fully linear. But Rome is a palimpsest and if I throw together a bunch of approaches, from various angles, perhaps that is after all the most honest way to approach it.


The basic itinerary:

Here is a photo of the ticket stubs and maps I accumulated. One of the first things I did after landing at Fiumicino was go to the tourist info point and purchase my 72-hour Roma Pass, which is a darn good deal: access to all public transportation (except to/from airports), two free museums/sites, reduced price on everything visited thereafter. If you're an EU citizen under the age of 25 you get the reduced price anyway (or free if you're under 18) but for the rest of us, definitely a good deal. Then I got my train ticket and went to the hostel. At the transfer from train to bus I got turned around in the station and asked directions from an Italian soldier carrying a machine gun. To be fair, I had just seen a pair of French tourists do the same thing. Still intimidating.

After checking in at the hostel, the first thing I did was walk along the Tevere (Tiber, but in italiano e' tevere) to the Museo dell'Ara Pacis. I've written before here about why Augustus is important to me (and if you've forgotten/are a new reader, there will be plenty of that later in the post) but the Ara Pacis is particularly special because in an archaeology class I took my first quarter of freshman year, my final project was about Augustan Rome using the Ara Pacis as a jumping off point.

Some historical background: the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, was built by the Senate to celebrate Augustus's return from victories in Spain and Gaul. It features carvings with a procession of notable Romans, including my favorite three (Augustus, obviously, and also Agrippa and Livia); plant motifs with palms and swans to represent Apollo, Augustus's patron god; and of course Lupa with Romulus and Remus. It is the most perfect thing I have ever seen.

After writing an essay in the guest book (not really, it was just a very large paragraph [and in Italian, I'm proud to say]) and getting kicked out (it was closing time and I'd been there for almost two hours), I walked around the Mausoleum of Augustus right next door and then went along Via del Corso, looking at famous sites--the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, eccetera--before eating dinner (spaghetti pomodoro). At this point it was dark, which shocked me because in northern Germany it doesn't get dark until very late. Flux doesn't even kick in until around 2030.

But it's Rome. The city was still very much awake and I wandered around for another few hours, seeing more famous sites under the stars. The Fontana di Trevi is a lot larger than I expected and the marble is stunning. I couldn't quite believe it was real.

A quote from Rilke was dancing around the edges of my thought, and I couldn't remember it verbatim, but here it is:
"Waters infinitely full of life move along the ancient aqueducts into the great city and dance in the many city squares over white basins of stone and spread out in large, spacious pools and murmur by day and lift up their murmuring to the night, which is vast here and starry and soft with winds." (source)

The next day I got up early and went straight to the Musei Capitolini. Well, not quite straight, because I stopped at Coop, an Italian grocery chain whose name I vaguely remembered from learning about it in middle school, in order to purchase the fizzy citrus soda and bio crackers that were destined to become both my breakfast and lunch.

I spent three hours in the museums and wondered what I'd have to do to be allowed to live there. I am an utter pleb when it comes to art appreciation, because my criteria for enjoying art is 1) do I like how it looks 2) does it make me feel or think something 3) is anyone I know in it. By "anyone I know" I mean historical figures about whom I know something. For Rome, that means Julius, Augustus, Livia, Agrippa, Tiberius (sort of, his treatment of his mother makes me not so okay with him), Hadrian, Antinous, Marcus Aurelius. For mythology, I get the most excited about Athena/Minerva, Apollo, and Artemis/Diana. The museums had plenty of depictions of my favorites, so I was happy.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius
This did mean, though, that by the time I got to the Forum/Palatine area I had missed the last turno accompagno for the Casa di Augusto/Casa di Livia. I didn't realize that you need a tour to get access and went in anyway, which royally (imperially?) upended my itinerary but about which I can't really be upset. When I realized my mistake, I considered staying with my original plan for about half an hour.

Then, as I wiped tears from my eyes at the short film A Elegia di Augusto playing in the Palatine Museum, I thought--when Octavian met Livia they were both married and both Livia and Scribonia (Octavian's then-wife) were pregnant. He broke up both marriages in order to be with her. You cannot be serious in saying that twelve euro is the wall at which you will stop.

So I threw out plans to visit the monuments to Garibaldi and the Napoleonic Museum and decided that, well, I'd go back the next day in time for the tours.

I visited the Museo Etrusco next, which is a bit out of the way but astonishingly well-curated and informative. Got dinner to go and ate it on the bench in front of the Ara Pacis.

I decided to walk around the Ara Pacis, just to see the carvings again, and ended up having a breakdown. It's private so I won't say much more about it, and if you know me in real life please don't bring it up, but I did break down. The Res Gestae is inscribed on the wall below the museum (it's on a slope) below the face of the Ara Pacis that has the procession with Augustus, and I spent a lot of time there.

The enormity of what Octavian/Augustus achieved hit really hard. I've been very slowly making my way through a German biography of Augustus and one of the comments in it is that Octavian's decision to accept the responsibility of being Julius's heir is one of the few instances when an individual choice, more than prevailing historical forces, changed the course of the world. He was nineteen years old.

After my breakdown I felt perfectly, blissfully happy and at peace. I crossed the river and wandered around a bit and the Castel Sant'Angelo was open for the night (some special program, I'm not sure) so of course I went in, because fortresses. I went up to the top and looked out over the city at night and somewhere there was a fireworks show. It was beautiful.

The next day, bright and early, I got my new Forum/Palatinate/Colosseum ticket but eyed the line for the Colosseum and thought I'd take my chances later. Instead I went to the Pantheon, which is marvelous, bought some souvenirs from little shops, and wandered around the Altare della Patria, or the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele, il primo re d'Italia. Gorgeous architecture.

I went to the Forum/Palatine early and saw the A Elegia video again, and cried again, and then was twenty minutes early to the meeting point for the Casa di Augusto/Casa di Livia tours. These were as expected wonderful. I got the turno accompagno which is "accompanied" not guided, and I think the guided tours get you access to more areas, but I saw what I came to see.

Inside Casa di Livia

After that, I braved the line for the Colosseum and got in in about forty minutes, which really isn't too bad. The deep intense personal part of the trip was over, and so I just enjoyed walking around the Colosseum and taking group photos for other people. I spent a little time reflecting at the Circus Maximus, looking onto the Palatine Hill, then bussed to the train station. I bought tomatoes for my flatmates and took the train to Fiumicino, and sat on the floor writing postcards (which I need to address and mail soon if I want them to get to the US before I do) and then--back to Germany.

A good weekend.


Bad travel advice/travel advice for people who are bad at traveling.

1) Who needs lunch when you have citrus soda and crackers? Not this kid, apparently.

2) Right after making an inconvenient change of plans, do something nice like ask to take group photos.

3) Visit sites that have deep personal meaning alone so no one can see you break down.

4) If you want to practice a language just keep talking until the person you're talking to switches.

5) If you bring a hat, use it.


California has a Mediterranean climate. I've been aware of this for decades but it surprised me how at home I felt in Rome, just because of the weather. Northern German summers are quite different from what I am used to and although I love the clouds in Germany, these perfect blue skies made me smile. I was also surprised that walking around the Forum/Palatine it even smelled like home. The trees smelled just the same as hiking around in California--or perhaps I have just been away for too long and they simply smell closer to California than the trees in Germany?

View towards the Colosseum

I enjoy being able to communicate with people in their language. Back in the day I was actually pretty darn good at Italian and though I no longer have any idea what to do with passato remoto or congiuntivo and I almost forgot that the word "dunque" exists, I could communicate at the basic level of asking for directions, buying things, and so on. I'd like to keep up my Italian. I'm going to try to get B2 certification in German when I go back to school (and need to email my German prof to ask how one makes that happen) and I'm planning to learn Spanish and my Mandarin is in bad need of repair...but I'd like to keep up my Italian. We'll see how that works out. I'll come up with a plan; if there's one thing I can't stop myself from doing, it's making plans.


I am glad that I ended up going alone. This visit was not just a "trip," not a "weekend getaway." Because I was alone I could experience Rome entirely on my own terms and on my own terms, it became a pilgrimage. This sounds stupid, but it is honestly the way I have been thinking about it. And if I had someone else there it could not have been as deeply personally meaningful as it was.

"In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction..." (source)

The Ara Pacis on the night of 20. August 2016, 2002 years and one day after Augustus died. The most perfect thing I have seen. This is what winning looks like. This is victory. This is careful planning and opportunism and tapping directly into the wishes and longings of the people and giving them exactly what they want in exactly the way most beneficial to you. And yet when you say Caesar most people think Julius--but Augustus, Augustus is the one who made Rome into Rome. Without Octavian, without Augustus, would there have been a Rome? Imagine Marc Antony at the helm of the Republic, imagine Cleopatra as its queen. I happen to like Cleopatra (and am indifferent to Antony) but I truly do not believe they could have established the systems that Augustus did, could not have set Rome on its course towards empire.

I like to visit things multiple times, to see and then circle back. In Salzburg I visited the fortress twice. In Rome I visited the Ara Pacis and the Forum/Palatine twice. Repetition is a form of prayer.

I don't believe in gods, just as I don't believe in destiny. But I do believe that the right person can be at the right place in the right time--because Octavian was. And I believe that if your deeds are great enough and move the world deeply enough, you can asymptotically approach immortality, which is one aspect of divinity. Augustus and Livia are nowhere near as Romantic and dramatic of a couple as Antony and Cleopatra--you will see them less in art, in literature--but they were the ones who created more lasting change in the world. Gaius Octavius was a short, sickly guy who was afraid of cats and of storms, and got nervous enough around his wife that he would take notes to prepare for conversations with her, and he created the world that we know today.

Festina lente. Make haste slowly. Change takes time, and you cannot lose focus and you cannot lose patience. I believe that when Octavian accepted Julius's inheritance he dreamed that the Ara Pacis could exist. I believe that he knew his endgame. I am not so sure of mine, but I know that now, having been lucky enough to touch eternity, I want to create some more of it myself.

"I found Roma a city of bricks and I left it a city of marble."

Now go forth. It's your turn.

1 comment:

  1. I've read countless blog posts about Rome, about trips to Rome, monuments and museums in Rome, and about vacation in Rome. I've seen a lot of travel shows about Rome and never really thought too deeply about it. I think your post is the best I've encountered thus far, and that the amount of growth, wisdom, and introspection you achieved on this trip is truly admirable. Hopefully you can return to Rome soon