Faith Works 10-13-12
Of the ancient and the already
Rome occupies the center of the western imagination when it comes to monuments and history.
Egypt and Greece may each be older, and London or Paris have motivations more understandable to the modern mind, but "the glory that was Rome" overshadows our reflections on law, politics, culture, and of course religion.
There's an obvious connection to the "Roman" Catholic Church, based in the Vatican which is actually across the Tiber from the city of Rome proper; founded in 753 BC, that year being "ab urbe condita" or "from the founding of the city" and Rome's original benchmark, so our current year is 2765 AUC.
But the western Roman empire fell somewhere in the neighborhood of 476 AD (anno domini) which would have been 1229 AUC, except no one was really keeping track any more.
Which is not to say that no one lived in Rome anymore. Many did, but fewer, and the business and political heart of things shifted in a number of directions, most dramatically to Constantinople, which continued to practice some of the rituals of empire until it fell in 1453 to the forces of Islam (and later became known as Istanbul).
Back in Rome, the Forum, the heart of the Roman Empire, was largely abandoned, left to grow over with weeds and briars, and the remaining structures slowly crumbled, with pieces cannibalized for use in other architecture. Crumbling stumps, grassy open spaces that were once pavements across which the voices of Cicero and Caesar and Marc Anthony once echoed, and sacred precincts like the Temple of the Vestals were not hidden from sight, but open to grazing sheep.
It was a glorious ruin, with occupants who were interested less in conquest and commerce than in milking their goats and tending garden plots on the Capitoline Hill's slopes. And as a new widespread culture began to rise up from the roots of Roman understandings, in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, visitors (not to say tourists) came to look, and wonder on the scenes they'd imagined as schoolchildren reading their Livy and Ovid in distant classrooms.
Gibbon famously began to compose his historical masterwork "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" after wandering through the largely abandoned Forum; Respighi composed "The Pines of Rome" after a similar saunter. Artists from Piranesi to Canaletto to Turner drew inspiration from the tumbled pillars and crumbled arches of the scene.
You can visit the Roman Forum still today, and it's easy enough to find images online of how it looks, a bit forlorn; no sheep or goats, since they've been replaced by taxis and metal fencing and the stray plastic awning. No shepherds, but blowing plastic bags and the occasional billboard. None of that takes away from the background sense of awe and wonder which draws tourists to this otherwise unimpressive site in the heart of what is now, again, a vital modern city.
I've never been to Rome, but I took Latin in junior high and high school and college, and the texts and etchings and imaginings are all fixed clearly in my mind. Perhaps I'll go someday, and make that connection between a classroom in Ben Franklin Junior High, a worn textbook with a picture of Trajan's Column on the back, and the words "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres."
Where I have been, where I'll be today and tomorrow afternoon, is in Newark. And standing near the railroad crossing on Union Street, south of West Main, as a group will do this morning having walked there from the Newark Earthworks museum at the Great Circle just off Rt. 79, I think both of the Native Americans who built these monuments, but also of Rome.
The Forum is not much to look at now, but we bring to it a variety of understandings, largely based on the written texts and shared ideas that have been passed down from 2,000 years ago to this day. Union Street's landscape doesn't automatically summon up poetry and mythology and history, and it takes a bit more effort precisely because we don't have those narratives and volumes of Native written history.
But there are hints, and scraps, and oral tradition's whispered descriptions, plus a bit of scientific reconstruction. There is also the realization we get to share on today's hike, and tomorrow's Octagon Open House from noon to dusk out 33rd St., that these are places that were filled with activity and culture and contemplation, science and religion, and a great people's story was proclaimed under a watchful sky, for centuries. Almost the same stretch of time, in fact, that the Forum was most vitally in use.
Come, and listen. There are voices all around.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about how history has spoken to you at email@example.com, or @Knapsack on Twitter.