By the time I was a freshman in college I had all but pIaced a grand vacation out of my mind. When I learned that I could take an independent study in Ireland for three weeks for my history degree, I instantly jumped at the opportunity. To go on that trip, I spent a summer shoveling rocks in a cement plant and saving every penny I could. At nineteen years old, I stepped on a commercial airline for the first time to fly across an ocean and visit another country. It was during that experience I really understood what it meant to take a foreign excursion. Those trips where people visit twenty countries in twenty days does not count as an international adventure. Hopping off a boat to drink at a bar in a port, buy some imitation souvenir and get back on the boat doesn’t count. I’m describing the type of travel that involves days of walking, planning, eating, and immersion. Wandering side-streets in unfamiliar cities and learning new ways to communicate through language barriers. Navigating public transportation and discovering hidden historical treasures. That trip to the land of the Celts called to me from a past life and it was then I began to see past my Hoosier bubble, and change the way I looked at the rest of the world.
Not much has changed about society at all in two thousand years. It’s the type of revelation you just can’t pick up on from a cruise ship. It’s a concept most of us understand, but choose to ignore.
There is something to be said for having a conversation with a stranger in a bar. There is even more to be said for discussing philosophies of life with a stranger, in a strange bar in a strange country. Being a child in the midwest, it was hard to imagine the way other cultures might perceive Americans. After all, I was told we were blessed to live in the most amazing country on Earth. No other culture could promise the delivery of your life’s hopes the way the U.S. of A. could. Combined with my religious upbringing, true to midwestern form, I had been armed with the tools that would lead me to victory over life, and there was no way to fail. Trust in God, salute your flag, and the world will be yours. It appeared Europe was as far away as an alternate reality. It wasn’t long until an inebriated evening in a pub in Donegal brought on a discussion with a long-haired man in a Motorhead t-shirt that made me realize there is much more to life than the mid-western model.
I truly believe each culture starts off with good intentions. Having read enough world history to understand the basics of organizing a dominating society, it is easy to see that sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemption. And so, the cycle of civilization repeats itself every so often. Each new empire derives its basis from whatever came before it. Roaming around parts of the world where people have lived for thousands of years makes it easy to identify the pattern. A society is built, it grows and stretches as far is it can, its leaders become enamored with their own power, the people grow tired, they try to regain their public strength, a government falls, and a group organizes to start over. Each time believing they can do it in such a way they will avoid the problems of the past.
It was thirteen years between my trip to Ireland and my next flight across the pond. We were fortunate enough, thanks to the altruism of my in-laws, to visit Paris for a week. A rich, historical tour through one of the world’s greatest cities. It is a collection of art, sculpture, food and theater. Pristine monuments and outstanding works of architecture are littered around the city just waiting to be admired for their grandiose stamp on modern civilization. Full of culture, Paris is a wonderful way to see many different forms of societal evolution in a small amount of time. A buffet, if you will, of global history.
It is not altogether different from Washington, D.C. Since the United States and France endured individual revolutions around the same time, the similarities are striking. Both promote unity, brotherhood and the importance of the individual role in a society. Each capital is adorned with statues dedicated to their revolutionary founders, museums filled with collections of knowledge from around the world. And each of these modern cities is predicated on a model that came centuries before them. The U.S. might have the longest active constitution in the modern world, but it wasn’t exactly a new concept.
This year, Alia and I were able to spend the week between Christmas and the new year wandering the streets of Rome. This was a big opportunity to see things most people only read about in text books. Standing in the mouth of the Basilica of Maxentius makes one wonder how 2,000 years of world influence can be reduced to such a small chapter. If Paris and D.C. are the sampling of modern cultural beginnings, Rome was a four course dinner. It wasn’t built in a day, and five days wasn’t nearly enough to see it all. Around every corner, there was something old. Not “old” as in something your grandmother used to own. Old as in these buildings were constructed before Jesus was barely mentioned by Josephus.
That, first and foremost, is a mind-bender. In church, the history of the Roman Empire and Christianity itself seemed like an intangible story. A record of events that happened so long ago they were beyond conceptual. We read about grand palaces, we have Hollywood interpretations of structures and are fortunate enough to be able to use the internet to search for photos that might give us an inclination of what that ancient world looked like. I can assure you, none of those things do any justice to the monuments of our past. Being able to physically touch a two-thousand year old structure is far more moving than any image conjured by the imagination.
Many in Italy have tried to recover that nostalgic image through modern architecture. The Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) is unquestionably the best example of this attempt. It is the largest monument in all of Rome, inaugurated in 1911 and finished in 1925. Its sculptures are stunning, and the building sticks out from any high point in the city because it is covered in white marble. The same way structural exteriors were decorated two millennia before it. Mussolini heralded its completion by using it as a point to restore unity under his fascist regime. He wanted to use the monument to instill pride in Roman history, and inspire his people to return to a time which better suited his intentions. In other words, he wanted to make Italy great again. Curiously enough, to construct the building, medieval neighborhoods were destroyed and a large portion of Capitoline Hill, once regarded as indestructible by the citizens of the city, was also torn apart to make room. Ancient ruins still lay buried under medieval structures, which are covered with modern thoroughfares, which were needed to make room for automobiles.
[Mussolini] wanted to use the [The Altare della Patria] to instill pride in Roman history, and inspire his people to return to a time which better suited his intentions. In other words, he wanted to make Italy great again.
Being the imaginative kid I was, I always wondered what it would be like to dig in my backyard and discover some ruins of an ancient and mysterious civilization. As if rural Indiana possessed some hidden secrets in its clay base. In Rome, anyone can be that person. The city is built in layers, a testament to the fact that every society is built on the foundations of those that came before them. One of the best places to take in that sentiment, is at the Basilica di San Clemente, just east of the Colosseum. The first Church of Saint Clement was built on the ruins of an old temple to Mithras, which was constructed in the first century. A newer, updated version of Saint Clement stands on the ruins of its predecessor. In about an hour, one can walk through the complete history of an empire. Tourists are permitted to purchase a ticket, and tour the ruins, which include the temple to Mithras as well as an ancient, adjacent brick house. Complete with access to a natural spring, which still exists. A far cry from the ever growing sections of planned housing found across the U.S.
Narrow, cobblestone streets keep secrets from hundreds of patrons that pass along them, as well as the mysteries of their ancient beginnings beneath. Never intended to host automobiles, the streets are usually full of people walking from place to place. Though, they have to dodge the occasional compact car, or scooter. The neighborhoods are still the same as they were at the beginning of the 15th century. More apartment buildings have been added in, and onto existing structures to make room for a growing population. It made me laugh to think of the number of people I hear complain about the relative distance from the side of their house in their cul-de-sac to the side of their neighbor’s home. As if twenty feet between two, two-thousand square foot dwellings is an encroachment on privacy. A two-bedroom apartment in Rome is likely to house a family of six, and be smaller than the average American garage.
The Colosseum is something to behold. In my mind, I’d always imagined the building towering over approaching spectators. Somehow it seemed to me that it would be big, but within reason, given the time it was constructed. Hollywood has glorified it several times, much like Circus Maximus. Unless you’re standing in front of either, you can’t appreciate the overwhelming size of these arenas. It was built to house 60,000 spectators, as many as Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The acoustics were perfect, every seat was a great vantage point. It even included luxury suites. Lucas Oil doesn’t have two stories of structure underneath it to house wild animals and gladiator armor. And, as soon as the Colts threaten to leave Indy, it will be torn down, rather than re-purposed as many ancient structures were before.
The first time I stood in the front seats of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at time trials, I was holding my dad’s hand. When the first car came around, speeding at roughly 200 mph, I clenched his hand tighter as my bones rattled from the inside. My eyes felt wide with fascination. Standing on the hill where the bleachers used to be at Circus Maximus, I imagined there were plenty of kids who went to see the chariot races who would’ve felt the same way. I tried to picture what it was like to watch chariots thunder down the 2,037 ft. straightaways before skidding around the ends. It was the first and largest stadium in all of the Roman Empire. It could hold 150,000 spectators, though Pliny the Elder claimed later it could host almost 250,000. For comparison, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway holds 235,000 people in the infield. A modern spectacle for certain, but nothing compared to the ingenuity employed at the Circus Maximus arena when it was constructed over 500 years before Christ. It included an underground entrance for chariots, drainage system for the track, an obelisk imported from Egypt and an awning to protect spectators from the hot Italian sun. It was used for religious celebrations and festivals as well. Seeing the construction of the stage at one end in preparation for the New Year celebration, it appeared we only worship a different kind of deity now.
It would be easy to go on, listing site after site that caused me to stop and stare in awe. The solid concrete dome that tops the Pantheon, the spiral tower which housed Mausoleum of Hadrian, Not just at the pure size of the construction, but considering the number of people, planning, mining, food, construction equipment and money it took to complete such masterpieces. We attend sporting events like football and racing, we go on date nights to plays and musicals, we shop in markets and malls, and we gripe about our politics. We may think that we have come a long way from our “primal” ancestors, but I don’t think building things cheaper and faster makes us superior. Not much has changed about society at all in two thousand years. It’s the type of revelation you just can’t pick up on from a cruise ship. It’s a concept most of us understand, but choose to ignore. This trip ultimately brought me to terms with just how young, and very naive, American society really is.