My list of what I want to see in Rome is now much longer than it was before I arrived.
It was impossible for me to fully realize Rome in absentia in much the same way I could not have understood the American desert southwest before regarding it face to face. I had seen pictures and Roadrunner cartoons featuring the buttes and canyons of the big square US states. But not until I stood flatfooted on the high desert plain and saw mountain ranges hundreds and hundreds of miles away as clearly as houses across the street, could I begin to comprehend the vastness and the immense privacy of that awesomely desolate place.
So too was my experience of Rome.
I have seen pictures and paintings of the Coliseum so often in my life that, like Devil’s Tower to the characters in Close Encounters, I could probably have reproduced il Colosseo in some detail before I ever actually climbed into the stands of that most storied stadium. But, as I made my way onto the Palatine – the hill on which the city began – I found myself experiencing the oddly familiar surroundings of this eternally famous place in a wholly unexpected way.
It is inexplicable to me that such a wonder as Rome could have sprung up in a time when most people were living under hides stretched over sticks. I can see how those who are so disposed, could easily make a case for the intervention of some extraterrestrial or interdimensional intelligence intervening to alter the course of humankind forever by creating the anomaly that is Rome. In context, the achievement, is as alien and unexpected as such an outlandish explanation might suggest.
Dazed, I wandered through rubble still so monumental in its ruin as to impress and amaze a man who had actually flown across the world in less than a day for a glimpse.
My day on the Palatine and in the Forum was too long without food or water. Unlike most of Rome, there was not a cafe on every corner. In these places of ancient sanctuary the very stones are accorded protected and endangered status and are unblemished by Cafe Romulus or any such blasphemy. So, by the time we’d made our way through Severus’ palace, Domitian’s Stadium, Augustus’ living room, Trajan’s Market, Saturn’s temple and the Basilica of Constantine, I was in a kind of dehydrated, creatively hallucinatory state. Since Xanadu had already been written – the poem not the musical – I turned my unfettered thoughts to the improbability of the city around me.
We took refuge at a cafe in the Piazza Novona. I sat sipping limone te and contemplating the plashing waters of the Fontana dei Quatro Fiumi– calling it the Fountain of Four Rivers is like singing Puccini in English, just not the same in translation somehow.
Hundreds milled about me. Some idiot woman was desecrating the site singing whiney-American-lady-pop-music. I tried to avoid eye contact with any of a roaming band of mimes for fear they would endeavor to “entertain” me. I wondered at the place. I tried to imagine the cheering multitudes and the thundering hooves of the horses orbiting the circus of the hippodrome that had once stood where I now sat dipping indescribably good bread into drinkably fresh olive oil.
Suddenly, I saw it.
I understood Rome. Perhaps it was just that it was nearly five in the evening and I had yet to have lunch. Or maybe it was a little belated jet lag. Possibly it was just a little too much science fantasy and SimCity over the years. But I don’t think so.
Rome is a trap for the smartest animals in the world.
I hate to use the world trap because it sounds so negative, but there it is. Unlike the more innocent creatures of the wilderness, a cage or a pit wouldn’t hold us for long. Many simpler creatures in fact simply stay, never thinking to leave. But people are tricky. You have to make them want to say, fight to stay, work to stay.
First, you have to get them there. Well, they say all roads lead to Rome, but that’s not quite true. The fact was all the roads started in Rome, so they had the effect of leading there, but really served as much as an enticement as mere transportation. The roads of Rome were among the greatest, if not the greatest, technological achievement of their day. They were the equivalent of today’s telecommunication in their effect on the world they connected for the first time. Christianity owes as much to Roman roads and the common language of Greek as to the words of Jesus himself. Without the Greek lingua franca and Roman roads to carry those words, Christianity might be a small middle eastern Jewish sect.
Okay, so now the Roman roads have led the “prey” into the city. How do they keep them there?
Like any seduction, Rome is at once attractive and illusive. For thousands of years there’s been so much to see and to do in Rome, but it has been and remains, very hard to stay. So our trap draws people in, “captivates” them and then makes remaining in the delicious snare a personal achievement that one might work a lifetime to maintain.
That’s a pretty brilliant trap.
The Pyramids are great – new and old world. The Parthenon and its environs are the seat of philosophy and forms of governance that we are still debating and perfecting without, as yet, much improving – though women are allowed to vote now and we have dispensed with the whole hideous slavery aspect of ancient democracy. But no place represents the same kind of achievement as that of Rome. There are cities/traps modeled after it, but there’s no debate about the source of their form. We’re still building coliseums and filling them with gladiators. Many new roads surround us. Our prey arrive in cars and ships and planes. People pour in and then work themselves literally to death in order, not only to stay but, to pay for the care and maintenance of the trap.
I don’t think that it was aliens or that the Roman’s ever thought about the building of Rome in such terms, but the effect is undeniable.
I try to imagine the world then — not as myself, who will not walk on the grass in front of my own house or go outside if it can be avoided, but — as a noble savage. It was a green and abundant world unspoiled by the civilization for which Rome is the ultimate blueprint. My savage self might spend his days wondering through this simple world, tasked only with my survival, plucking olives from the trees, making fires for warmth and cooking, living out a brief but uncomplicated life as free as the birds of the air or the other creatures in the forest. Or I could go to this violent, foul smelling crowded heap of stones and waste called Rome. There I could fight and claw for enough shiny metal to buy the very fruits and flesh I might have plucked or hunted for myself for free so that I might live out my short and dark life surrounded by and in the company and close proximity of the most vicious and dangerous creatures on the planet.
Intended or not, that’s a pretty awesome, impressive and fearsome achievement.
And then Cafe Navona brought my lunch. A perfect, pizza caprese, a bottle of still water and te caldo and I was ensnared, as content and as captivated as the other simple savages who’d come before me, charmed by the most beautiful and successful trap in the world.