It is a city, it is a dream, it is a memory of seemingly unlimited and unending power. It is history itself. It defines the word “empire.” The Eternal City. Roma. Rome.
One of the guidebooks claims that one can turn any corner in Rome and run into “something beautiful and unexpected that was placed there centuries ago, apparently in the most casual fashion.” This is not hyperbole, it is literally true.
The legend is that if you throw a coin into the Trevi fountain, in the heart of the city, you will someday return. The fact that the bottom of the fountain is each day covered anew with coins demonstrates that visitors hope to come back to this place that represents so much of civilization’s past. Only the New World countries have a history that was not directly shaped by the people of this city. But even most of the inhabitants of the Americas came from countries, which, themselves, bore the indelible stamp of the Roman Empire, which, for centuries, ruled most of the then-known world.
Early Rome was a republic ruled over by Gaius Julius Caesar, who was assassinated in 44 B.C.E. After ten years of civil war and political chaos his heir, who came to be known as Caesar Augustus, established the monarchy, which brought in the Empire, two hundred years of prosperity and the Pax Romana (Roman Peace.) Rome ruled supreme over most of what we now know as Europe and it was said that a Roman citizen could travel anywhere without being in danger — no one would dare harm him. Because of this, people from the outlying provinces converged on the city to become politicians, military personnel and artisans – but mostly to become simply Roman citizens. Rome quickly became the center of art, culture and economy in the entire Mediterranean world. Although the empire crumbled centuries ago, the mystique of Rome has hardly diminished today. Built on the famous seven hills, the city has lived up to the legend that “all roads lead to Rome.” As the guidebooks claim, it is impossible to turn a corner without encountering a building or ruin or monument, which is like a living postcard.
Then, of course, there is Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum, which houses in its complex interior the Sistine Chapel. Although it is clearly a separate entity and not part of the city life, that alone would attract thousands of visitors no matter where it was located. Michelangelo’s Pieta, the famous statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus, right inside the entrance to St. Peter’s, is one of the thousands of works of art in the city that make it hard to believe that these eternal masterpieces are really there, in flesh and blood so to speak, for ordinary people to see, if not touch.
Besides the Vatican, three of the most-visited landmarks in the city are the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain and the ruins of the Forum.
Take a walk down the Corso, one of the busiest streets in the city, past dozens of clothing and art shops, follow the crowd to what feels like the very heart of Rome and you will come across the magnificent statuary of the Trevi Fountain. Bernini began the work, it was continued by Pietro de Cortona and finished a hundred years later, by Nicola Salvi. The fountain depicts Neptune as the King of the Sea looking down on his subjects from a chariot pulled by galloping and plummeting sea horses.
At 85 feet high and 65 feet wide, Trevi is the largest of the many fountains of Rome. Most of these fountains were built to mark the terminus of the aqueducts, which carried pure water to Rome. Today the fountain has modern pumps and the water is oxidized to keep it fresh.
Although some of today’s Romans will outwardly scorn the Trevi because it was made famous by an American movie (Three Coins in the Fountain) most are proud of it, as can be attested to by the groups of school children gathered around teachers lecturing at the base of the fountain on any spring day.
Perhaps even more famous and familiar a site to people all over the world is the Coliseum. This magnificent ruin has been reproduced so often and in so many different media that it is startling to come upon it while strolling down the Via Imperiali, the wide avenue that cuts through the city and takes one to most of the major attractions. Suddenly there it is, just as you have seen it hundreds of times. In spite of its ruined condition there is a strange thrill in standing where so many fought and died – where the lives of Christians and gladiators were saved or snuffed out at the whim of an emperor or an audience.
During the day there are always many tourists waiting to get inside the Coliseum and use the audio tour equipment. But come back at night and it is possible to feel the ghosts of those who witnessed, or experienced, either glory or violent death, strolling the ruined aisles.
Between the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain, on the Via Imperiali, it is impossible to walk by what is left of the Roman Forum without going onto the “grounds” and invoking the memories of the feet that walked there so long ago and the events that took place which still impact many cultures.
The Forum, if not the geographic center of Rome, was the center of art, religion, politics and economics. In other words, all of the things that made Rome was it was. It held this position from at least 7 BCE to 4 CE.
The hills of Roman – most notably the Palantine and the Capitoline-surround the small valley that contains the remains of the Forum. The Senate met there and all important public meetings were held there. Because of this it was once crowded with innumerable statues and monuments honoring public officials. Temples and basilica honoring the gods were everywhere.
Quite naturally, the importance of the Forum as the symbolic, and actual, seat of Roman power meant that when there were political fights this is where they took place and as a result many buildings and monuments were damaged over the years. It was not until the 20th century that full and systematic excavation of the area took place and it is now possible to view enough of the ancient structures, whether original or restored, to appreciate the glory that once was the Roman Forum.
These are only a few of the sights to be taken in around the Rome. We have not spoken of the lovely Spanish Steps, the perfect architecture of the Pantheon, the Church of the Holy Cross with the tombs of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Donatello, Macchievelli, Dante, Marconi, Fermi and Galileo and on and on. Churches not even mentioned in guidebooks contain amazing frescoes and, of course, everywhere is the work of Michelangelo.
It would be impossible to see everything in one trip, so if you go to Rome be sure to throw a coin into the Trevi, thereby assuring your return. The Eternal City will be waiting for you.