By Professor Erik Walters
I laugh at her. I laugh with her. I cry because of her. I cry for her. She makes me proud. She embarrasses me. We have an imperfect relationship. We have a love-hate relationship. We have a dysfunctional relationship. We have a human relationship. The more I learn about her and from her, the more I understand myself.
I love her for reasons similar to Giotto: “Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.” Delusions lurk behind illusions. Goethe exclaimed, “Yes, I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life… Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome”. The longer one lives in Rome, the more one understands her. Mark Twain observed, “From the dome of St. Peter’s one can see every notable object in Rome… He can see a panorama that is varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe.” The more one looks at Rome, the more one sees her. Nathaniel Hawthorne opined, “How is it possible to say an unkind or irreverent word of Rome? The city of all time, and of the world!” More than a few have uttered unkind words.
“You remember, O judges, that on that day the Tiber was filled with the corpses of the citizens, that the sewers were choked up; that blood was wiped up out of the forum with sponges.” Cicero, human history’s most famous lawyer, delivered those lines during the murder trial of a client, who was facing capital punishment for fabricated allegations. Cicero won the case and launched his career, which eventually would pit him against Julius Caesar and witness the death of a republic, the birth of an empire, and the metamorphosis of human civilization.
For all of Rome’s breathtaking beauty, her noble spirit pollutes as much as inspires. Cicero did not exaggerate. The sewers to which he referred, and which continue to function 2,500 years after their construction, have swallowed countless corpses of politicians and entrepreneurs, ecclesiastical and papal prelates, and everyone in between before vomiting their more or less digested contents into the Tiber. Her first emperor, Caesar Augustus, declared, “I came to Rome a city of stone, and I have left her a city of marble.” She is beautiful, noble, and inspiring. She is seductive and captivating. She is mysterious. She is ugly, heartless, and punishing. She is forgivable and forgiving. She smells. She is human.
Rome is the unique prism for critically thinking about art, architecture, economics, politics, religion, philosophy, science, social phenomena, and the liberal arts in general not merely in the West. This lens peers not only into the past. It mirrors the current global milieu. It foresees the future. Rome reflects the human condition more than any other city in the world, for better and for worse. The more one understands Rome, the more one understands oneself.