Included below is a collection of photographs from my last visit to Rome, in February 2008. They were taken on my old Canon EOS 350D. If you prefer to scroll straight to these, I won’t be in any way insulted – indeed, I fully sympathise. There is a hell of a lot to read in this life!
There was a time when Rome – the city itself and its once vast empire – were the be all and end all. My childhood fascination with ancient history stemmed as much from sword and sandal epics as it did from the history I learned from school and my parents. There is a point in every child’s life when they first learn about Pompeii and are overwhelmed by this incredibly fortuitous insight into history. In many cases, they soon let it go, just as children will grow out of being fascinated with dinosaurs. I, however, never really let it go.
My love affair with the Roman Empire as an historical subject actually began rather late. As a child and a school student, Classical Greece always seemed more attractive and interesting. Perhaps it was the more archaic lure of Agamemnon’s death mask, the prominence of the Parthenon as a recognisable monument, or the incredible story of that paradigmatic marathon runner – whatever the case, it was Greece that grabbed my attention. As a child who played a lot of fantasy role-playing from the age of nine onwards, I was also strongly drawn to Greek mythology. The story of Homer’s Odyssey opened a door to a world where men and gods and mythical beasts still co-existed, and this fantastic, largely illusory past, this time of legends and heroes, was more appealing to my fantasy genre inclinations. The Roman Empire, by comparison, was so terribly modern; it was the developed world of ancient times, and, indeed, hardly that ancient. They were also, more often than not, portrayed as the bad guys in cinema, and it was difficult to sympathise with their perceived brutality and mercilessness.
Despite my keen interest in Greek history, I wasn’t especially interested in studying classical Greek. This was partly because my high school’s head classics teacher was a predatory paedophile, but mainly because I was already doing two modern languages, French and German.
In ancient history classes I tended to switch off a little with Rome. It was too vast and complicated, unlike the neat spectrum of the Aegean and the coast of Asia Minor. The Persian Wars were such an epic tale of victory against unbelievable odds, and so admirable for being a co-operative effort amongst people willing to forget their differences in the face of an overwhelming common enemy, that little else came close to tweaking my romantic fascination. That is, until I discovered Tacitus at the age of seventeen. It was the sheer brilliance of Tacitus’s writings, particularly in his Annals of Ancient Rome that properly got my attention and gave me a newer and deeper understanding of the Roman Empire. The complexity of his observations and characters, the subtlety of his descriptions, and his at times, scathing wit, opened a view on the Roman world that was too alluring to ignore.
It is worth making a brief digression to note just how much chance was involved in me or anyone encountering Tacitus’ Annals. Tacitus, who has been called by some the greatest writer of the ancient world, unsurpassed until Dante, barely made it through at all. The first six books of his Annals survived on just a single manuscript, written, in all likelihood, around AD 850 in Germany at the Benedictine monastery of Fulda, which was probably copied from a third or fourth century edition. The manuscript was transferred at some point to the monastery of Corvey in Saxony where it remained without further reproductions until it was stolen in 1508 and sold to Pope Leo X. It was re-published in its first printed edition in 1515.
Books 11 to 16 (books 7 to 10, covering the reigns of Caligula and Claudius have been lost forever) and Tactitus’ Historiae, were also preserved on a single manuscript, likely written in the second quarter of the eleventh century at the since destroyed monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. This manuscript (M. II, or Second Medicean) had a rather interesting life. Some time in the late fourteenth century, it wound up in the hands of no less than Boccaccio, who donated it to the monastery of S. Spirito in Florence. By 1437, it was in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, and it was shortly after this that the first new editions began to appear. Had either of these manuscripts been lost or destroyed as so many other ancient manuscripts were, then there would be no Annals and our understanding of that most pivotal Julio-Claudian period in Roman history would be unimaginably poor by comparison. That anyone can read Tacitus at all these days is really down to some incredibly good luck – one shudders to think what other Latin masters have vanished altogether.
So it was that Tacitus opened the door, and for my Higher School Certificate, in which I focussed entirely on Ancient History, Modern History, English and Visual Art, I wrote about his Annals with a loving keenness. Once I began to study in earnest at the University of Sydney, I took units each semester in both Ancient and Modern History. Realising that my sympathies had shifted from classical Greece to Rome, I took only Roman subjects each semester, focussing on Roman religion and ceremony, Roman imperialism, Roman law, the early Republic and the transition from Republic to Principate under Augustus. I learned a great deal about Roman history from the foundation of the city in the eighth-century BC, to the end of the first century AD, but little beyond that, and, ultimately, it was the question of what happened next to which my attention shifted.
In my final year of high school, I had turned once to the end of our textbook and lit upon a map of the Roman Empire at the accession of Justinian (AD 527-565). All that remained on the map was the “Eastern Roman Empire”, with a line drawn down the middle of the Mediterranean marking its western boundary, and not including Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain or Carthage and the other north African provinces west of Cyrene. What!? The Eastern Roman Empire? Justinian? And neither Rome nor Italy included in its ambit?! How could this be?
Of course, I might have answered these questions simply by reading the textbook, but considering that, at the time, I had only advanced as far as the reign of Nero in the first-century AD, the idea of catching up to this time, five hundred years later, was just too daunting. What on earth had happened in the meantime? I had never imagined the Roman Empire to have lasted quite so long, and yet, in what form had it lasted? When I flipped the pages showing a map from AD 565, after Justinian’s reconquest, I was even more baffled. Did they really mean to suggest that, in the second quarter of the sixth century, the East Roman Empire had reconquered Italy, Carthage and southern Spain? What had happened in the west? It all seemed too extraordinary and I realised that I knew nothing whatsoever of this time. To me “Byzantine” was merely an adjective meaning unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic.
Despite two years of studying Roman history at university, I still hadn’t satisfied this old curiosity. Thus, when I looked at the available subjects for ancient history in my third undergraduate year and saw a course called “The World Turned Upside Down”, covering the period from roughly AD 200 to 800 and spanning the entire academic year, run by Drs Peter Brennan and Lynette Olson, I leapt at the chance. It was during this incredible lecture series that my true obsession with Roman history began. Inspired initially by Peter Brown’s primer The World of Late Antiquity, I could not get enough of this later period with all its incredible complexity and diversity. Not only was the history of the transformation of the Roman Empire, economically, culturally, militarily and religiously, fascinating, but in finally coming to understand the so-called Dark Ages which followed, I was at last able to join the dots historically in the West.
In 1995 I graduated from my undergraduate degree, took a year off, and travelled across Europe for five and a half months with my then girlfriend. It was during this trip that I first got to see Roman ruins and a far greater array of artefacts than the meagre offerings available in Australia. My trip had largely been planned around visiting a lot of prominent ancient sites, though there were also many more that I discovered along the way. When I finally reached Rome after a couple of months on the road, I felt an especially great sense of having achieved something I’d always wanted to achieve. For years I’d tried to imagine what this city was like, sifting through the abundant clichés, and finally, here I was. Initially I was not greatly taken with the place. It took a few days for my eyes to adjust to its shapes and colours. There seemed too few green spaces, not enough trees and an excessively red and ochre palette, but once I grew accustomed to its spectrum, I came to love the colours of the city and its buildings. Most of all, however, I was mesmerised by the sheer number of prominent ruins and standing monuments, which seemed to rear up from the past in the city’s many holes. We stayed for twelve days and, though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the beginning of a long and curious relationship with the city.
After Rome, we headed south to Naples to see Pompeii and Herculaneum, and by the time we left Italy on a stormy ferry ride to Greece, I knew that I could not walk away from studying history. Upon returning to Australia, it was fascinating to reflect that through every country we had visited, from Britain to Turkey, we never actually left the boundaries of the former Roman Empire. For the first time in my life, I got some sense of the true scale of the Roman achievement. The ubiquity of their structures and ruins, in or under nigh every single European city or town, was mindboggling.
In 1997, I began an honours year in Australian literature, but my heart wasn’t really in it. During that year, I also took the honours preparation course for history and became keenly obsessed with the twelfth-century renaissance. I found myself tossing up the possibilities of working in the Middle Ages or the late Roman Empire, but, in the end, I chose the Roman Empire.
My now burning obsession with finding out what happened in the late period found a focal point in a thesis on a barbarian generalissimo called Ricimer, who rather badly co-ordinated Roman military policy and raised and deposed emperors in the 450s and 460s, shortly before the deposition of the last western Emperor in AD 476 – the ironically named ten year old Romulus Augustulus. During that year, I became so possessed by the story of how, over seventy-odd years, the Western Roman Empire slowly delegated itself out of existence, that I didn’t want to put it aside once I was done. That year I fell in love with someone whose ambition was to do a PhD in medieval history and to do it at the University of Cambridge and, once this idea entered my head, I began working keenly towards the same goal. The idea of doing a PhD had never previously occurred to me, yet suddenly it became the only thing I could imagine myself doing, despite never having studied Latin.
To cut an already too long story short, sure enough I got a scholarship to study a PhD at Sydney University and then, later that year, was offered a scholarship to do my PhD at St John’s College, Cambridge. In September 1999, after a year spent swatting hard on German, Latin and French, I moved to Cambridge. I had originally planned to write a thesis on “Nostalgia, Pessimism and Optimism in the Late and Post-Roman West,” but after a few meetings with my excellent supervisor, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, she quite rightly pointed out how broad, difficult and unquantifiable these concepts were, and directed my attention to a little-studied history of Rome written in the eighth century by a chap called Paul the Deacon. I was to spend the next three years translating and researching the Historia Romana and its context.
Though many will tell you writing a PhD will send you crazy, this was the happiest time of my life – so far. Once I discovered Ryan Air’s ludicrously cheap flights around Europe, I began a period of unprecedented travel, flying to the continent frequently, in some cases, every month for up to two weeks at a time. I tried to make each trip have an historical or cultural focus – visiting ruins, archaeological sites, museums and galleries, but I also partied harder than I had in years and indulged in the many pleasures of modern Europe.
When I first returned to Rome in February 2000, I did so with two good friends – both scholars of Italian history – and some ecstasy, which we popped before visiting the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. I know it’s not the sort of thing I ought to recommend, but can I just say that seeing the Sistine Chapel on ecstasy whilst listening to the choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony was a life-changing experience.
It was this trip that really made me fall in love with the city of Rome. Wandering the streets, fired up and talking nineteen to the dozen with two people who shared my obsessive enthusiasm about history and ideas, remains one of the greatest pleasures I have experienced. I learned a lot, not only about the city’s Roman past, but also about the medieval and Renaissance period. And it was here that I realised the true potential of my time at Cambridge. It was not merely an amazing place of learning, with its inspiring lecturers and brilliant graduate student community, but it was just forty minutes from Stanstead Airport, the home of Ryan Air in the UK. I liked to joke and call Britain “Airstrip One,” its rather utilitarian name in George Orwell’s 1984. It was that trip to Rome which kick-started my European travel-mania that was to bring so many more amazing experiences.
For the next three years, in between study and research and way too many parties, I toured many ancient sites around the Mediterranean and northern and southern Europe. I re-visited Greece and Turkey, spent a lot of time in France and Italy, and explored Eastern Europe for the first time. I visited Rome on another two occasions and gradually began to feel a familiarity with its various locales.
In the final year of my PhD, I slowed down considerably, needing to save money and to write the bulk of my doctoral thesis. Looking ahead, with very little real idea of what I wanted to do with my future, I applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome and was pleasantly surprised when my application was successful, granting me a four-month stint there from January to May 2003. Once I knew I was leaving in January, I made it my goal to have the PhD written and submitted before the year was out.
With just four months to the finish line, I fell into a strange routine of working all night until 0700 AM, sleeping roughly four hours, getting up to eat breakfast in front of Bargain Hunt, then heading for the library. I would begin work slowly, finding, reading and photocopying texts, then heading home around five to go running and prepare dinner. At around eight or nine I would sit at my desk to write and always seemed to hit my full stride around midnight. I kept this up until the damned thing was finished, firing off a group e-mail to old friends entitled Printer at the Gates of Dawn, as the sun rose on the St John’s college library and my thesis spilled hotly from the laser printer. I include below not the e-mail, but perhaps the most amusing response from a Cambridge colleague:
Congratulations Ben. And it sounds like a performance worth of Enkidu, and possibly also Gilgamesh. Collect your magnum opus from the binders; take it to the Board of Graduate Studies, and then go out and get absolultely cunted. It’s what Paul the Deacon would have done – if there had been a house doubles night at the Eagle of a Saturday Evening.
It was a great relief to get it finished, and sure enough, I did go out and get absolutely cunted – so much so that I woke up drunk, four hours late for an appointment with the binders to hand in a revised text with some minor corrections, having slept through three alarms. I went out that night and begged some marijuana off some guys rolling up outside a pub, then went home and packed my life into boxes. The next morning, I flew to Rome.
When I finally did arrive at the British School at Rome, I was totally and utterly exhausted. I was shown to my room by the old porter, Reno, whose Italian was rather gruff and difficult to follow. It didn’t help that whilst I had managed to acquire a basic reading knowledge of Italian, my spoken efforts very wanting indeed. I felt a terrible sense of being lost and out of my depth, but once I entered my room for the first time and saw the bed, I lay down and went almost immediately to sleep. Over the next two days I slept almost fifteen hours a day, only emerging from my room to eat meals down in the dining hall. It was during these meals, however, that I became acquainted both with some of the school’s residents, and a group of seventeen Australian students, who happened to be staying there throughout January for a course in Renaissance and Baroque Rome.
Over the following four weeks I joined this group’s excursions and visited many amazing off-limits sites around the city. It was a wonderful way to learn about aspects of Rome I’d not been aware of previously and a privilege to have two good lecturers in Renaissance and Baroque art on hand to explain both the history, context and significance of much art and architecture in the city. I did my best where possible to pay my way with insights from earlier periods in the city’s history.
That four months in Rome was a very curious time. Once I’d recovered from the exhausting effort to finish my PhD, I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to do further research and made no effort to further the next project I had outlined – namely a translation and commentary on Jordanes’ sixth-century Historia Romana as part of a comparative study with Paul the Deacon’s later work of the same name. I found it almost impossible to get motivated on this front and far preferred the more active education of wandering the streets, visiting museums and galleries, familiarising myself with Roman life and culture and spending a hell of a lot of time thinking. I made good friends with three students from the Australian group, especially a bloke called Dominic, and we had some great times exploring the more Bohemian locales around Trastevere, meeting odd characters and puffing on the occasional joint. To wander through Rome at night a little toasty can, if done in the right spirit, be an epic experience. I often detoured past the Pantheon, or via other prominent monuments, just to see them and soak up their atmosphere.
In this way, I truly came to love Rome and developed a life-long attachment to the place. Almost every day I went running in the Villa Borghese gardens, across and down to the top of the Spanish Steps, before turning around to head back towards the plaza overlooking Piazza del Popolo. I often set out walking very early, wearing sandals in the chill morning air, taking photos with my first digital camera, which I bought en route to Venice after a return visit to Cambridge. Some days I just hung around watching people, drinking coffee and eating gelato. I regularly visited Della Palma, the gelato shop just up from the Pantheon, and tried forty-three of their different flavours – the honey and sesame being my favourite. I took every possible opportunity to walk into the Pantheon, especially when it was raining. On such occasions the open oculus in the centre of the vast, domed, second-century ceiling allows rain to fall far below on the marble floor. The acoustics in this great, circular stone and concrete chamber amplify not only the shuffling feet, but also the sound of splashing.
Most days I wandered down the Corso once the road had been closed to private vehicles after peak hour traffic. I was gratuitous in visiting some places repeatedly – the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum, the Campidoglio, the Capitoline hill, the Palatine – just because I could. I’d been given a pass from the Italian cultural ministry that allowed me into any state-owned museum or gallery free of charge and I used it often.
In April another group of students arrived, this time from various universities in the UK, to take a course called “The City of Rome.” This focussed primarily on the Roman period, and being right up my alley, I again joined their excursions. Thanks to a significant number of previously arranged permessos, the group was able to visit many off-limits places – newly dug archaeological sites, locked basements at the old Roman street level, the ancient pavement of the Campus Martius with Augustus’ horologium in ankle-deep water, the inside of the Aqua Virginae – things deemed too precious, obscure or plain dangerous to be open to the public. The course was a deeply satisfying experience that taught me a great deal about life in Roman times. It only served to increase my wonder and fascination at the precocious modernity of Roman civilization.
When it came time to leave Rome, I felt a terrible sense of loss. It was not merely for having to leave the city, but was made more acute by an awareness that the long run of funded academic indulgence had come to an end. I was also suffering homesickness both for Cambridge and Australia, and confusion about where I was headed in my relationship with my girlfriend who was back in England at the time. I no longer knew where home really was, but knew that Rome would forever remain one of the places I called home. After a somewhat lacklustre four more months back in Cambridge, I returned to Australia in September, having abandoned all hope of finding a lectureship in my field.
To skip ahead somewhat, I last visited Rome in February of 2008. In 2006 I had moved back to England and this trip to Rome was actually the last hurrah of that two-year stay. When I walked up the stairs from the metro and stepped out into the street, I was immediately overcome with emotion. There before me was that characteristic Roman style and palette. There in my nostrils was that dry winter air, full of scooter exhaust and desiccated leaves. I stood on the pavement and tears filled my eyes. I had been away five years and the immediacy with which my memories came flooding back was shocking and left me unseated. I had to sit down a moment on a bench to regain my composure. As I sat there, I kept asking myself – how could I ever make this work? To be able to live in or regularly visit all the places to which I am attached? Or was I simply destined to spend the rest of my life feeling torn, with never a clear sense of belonging?
I spent five days in Rome on that trip and dedicated my time to indulging my nostalgia and taking countless photographs. It was an odd visit, coloured by the fact that I knew that within a week of returning, I would be flying back to Sydney and abandoning my mission of trying to make a new and permanent life in England. The photos I took on that occasion have since come to colour my memories of Rome, as some of the old detail falls away and the My Photos screensaver throws up these images. I’m not sure when I shall make it back to Rome, but feel almost wary of returning again as a tourist. I don’t know that I could achieve much more than wallowing in an active and exciting nostalgia, and feel more inclined to go out into the world and find new memories and experiences. Either way, I doubt I shall ever stop loving the city of Rome and its history.
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