UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Exploring the Eternal City

Laura Aitken-Burt

No one who has visited Rome could dispute that it is a beautiful city.  The fountains, piazzas, bridges, and domes create a stunningly romantic setting, which, combined with the fine wine and great food, make for the perfect getaway! But the thing that makes Rome so intriguing as a city is the fact that it is deeply permeated with such a vibrant history. You cannot walk down any street without glancing at something from its colourful past; be it a Roman arch, a Medieval basilica, or a Renaissance painting or sculpture adorning a building which itself is hundreds of years old.

As a classical archaeologist and ancient historian who had never visited Italy before, I was delighted to be accepted onto the Summer School at the British School at Rome this year. Not only did I finally get to explore the city that I have studied so intensively and dreamed of visiting, but additionally, going with the British School meant I gained access to some amazing sites not usually open to the public using the permits the School was able to obtain for us. Spending 12 days on an intensive archaeology course visiting many, many sites which I found so fascinating, this could quite easily turn into a book of my adventures and what I learnt and experienced! So I will have to restrict myself to the most memorable moments from my 3000 strong photo album of every exciting rock and column and museum object to discuss!

I was already excited when I arrived at the BSR, amazed that I was going to be staying in a place that looked so much like an ancient temple as I walked up the huge flight of steps to the columnar façade.  Since Rome is such a patchwork of monuments and ruins from different eras, the trip was organized along thematic chronological lines rather than simply by sites so that we saw the progression of the ancient city through time following a certain topic such as trade, triumphs, funerals or leisure. This way, we could understand, and differentiate between remains from different periods within large archaeological sites such as the forum and Palatine and trace the routes which the ancient Romans would have taken, now buried beneath the modern streets. With my brown journal and ink pen in hand, I set off on my adventure of discovery…

The forum was indeed an incredible site to walk around – Edward Gibbon came to the forum on his Grand Tour in the 18th century and was ‘lost in rapture’ as he ‘trod with a lofty step’ amongst the ruins that he determined to write his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I had exactly the same feeling as I stood under the rostra, knowing that this was where all the famous public figures of Rome’s history would have spoken to the crowded masses gathered below. My first impression was how big everything seemed – I could imagine the buildings when they were completed, faced in magnificent marble gleaming in the midday sun. The colonnades and façades must have been incredible! The sheer scale of the Curia with such a high ceiling was amazing too; especially knowing that it was on this spot that the senate once sat and deliberated the great questions of the empire. The three lone columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux were an equally incredible sight – they still stand proud and tall, their height towering over everyone below, willing them to remember the bygone era they represent. With our permit we were allowed to walk across the flagstones of the Forum of Caesar. It was an amazing feeling to know that it was upon these stones that Caesar would have walked, and stood on the podium of the temple of his ancestor Venus Genetrix, emulating the gods during his infamous rise to power.

For some who love ancient history, places such as the forum can seem sad as the fallen columns, broken sculptures and faded marble are but bare ruins, stripped of all the grandeur we imagine in them when we read of the past. But there are ways in Rome to get a sense of what such structures may have originally been like. I got this feeling when I walked into St. Peter’s basilica – the immensity of the place was what struck me most and the sheer amount of coloured marble and decoration on every surface. The incredible interplay of light beams shining through the celestial windows could only be matched by my sense of awe when I was spellbound by the light shining through the Pantheon’s oculus. Still remaining the largest unreinforced solid concrete dome in the world, the Pantheon is an incredible feat of engineering and knowing that it is almost two thousand years old simply adds to the enthralling effect of the dome and its circular opening to the sky. Looking at this, it was easier to envisage buildings like the Baths of Caracalla, which would have been decorated in such rich colours, but now lie bare to their brown brick faced concrete cores. In contrast, although the Vittorio Emmanuele monument in Palazzo Venezia is sometimes criticized as flamboyant and overdramatic, I think that its huge façade and multiple victory statues offer an impression of the scale and magnificence which the imperial forums behind it might once have created.

On this note, it seems appropriate to also praise the Via dei Fori Imperiale which has to be the best street I have ever walked down! Although this fascist construction cuts through the archaeology of the fora, it does offer an unparalleled view of the Colosseum which rises up in the distance, faded in the early morning dust and heat. The importance of this road for me, however, lies in the fact that it encourages those without an interest in ancient history to look at the forums they walk beside and discover more about the society which built the astounding amphitheatre that lies before them.

I was positively beaming with excitement at being able to visit the Colosseum and my sense of awe was heightened when we were allowed to enter the arena through the substructures, just like a gladiator would have done. As I walked through the dark archway into the blinding light, I felt as if I was walking with those victims and could feel a sense of the anxiety they must have endured as they walked towards their doom to the cheers and shouts of the crowd. All I could do was spin round in bewilderment as I saw the tiered seats rising so high on all sides. I felt equally close to those who would have observed such a scene when I noticed a slab of marble displayed in the small museum on site. It seemed insignificant, until I examined it closer, and saw the graffiti of two gladiators in a beast hunt scratched into the surface. It was immensely touching to trace the scene that had been etched into the marble wall by a hand just like mine after just having watched the contest take place.

The so called ‘Theatre of Macaenas’ was another permit-only site where I felt a momentary connection to real people of the past; Virgil was known to have dined here and probably recited his latest epic verses and it was here that Nero whiled away his day whilst Rome burnt around him. The surviving frescoes were amazing to see and although the colours were slightly faded by time they were no less detailed and intricate – you could even make out the individual brushstrokes of the painter’s hand. The ‘House of Livia’ was also amazing to step into, imagining Augustus looking at the same paintings my eyes now met. Even the simple things we did were incredible, such as eating our lunch on the grassy slopes of the Circus Maximus where I could vividly imagine the chariots careering round the corners of the track to the roar of the crowds and the spectacle of a triumphal procession making its way with new spoils of war to dedicate to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol.

One thing that makes history so unendingly fascinating to me is the ability to tread in the footsteps of people very much like yourself, but who lived in a society so completely different from our own. The same human emotions we all experience, from love, hope and happiness to fear, sacrifice and pain, resonate through the ages with every step you take and every monument to the past that you lay your eyes on. There is something everyone can learn from these places. Rome truly is an eternal city, continuing to live as a modern vibrant capital, just as it did thousands of years ago as the centre of the most magnificent empire the world has ever known. My messy notes and scrappy sketches are of little sense, but I wrote and drew in order to take that second look of appreciation which these monuments that have stood the test of time deserve.  I look back on my journal with a warm smile and a hope to return to this beautiful city before too long.

Laura Aitken-Burt is a third year undergraduate studying Classical Archaeology and Ancient
History at the University of Oxford. She has always been fascinated by the ancient world and
loves to recreate the past by looking at museum objects and visiting archaeological
sites. She hopes to encourage others to explore ancient societies by sharing her
enthusiasm.