Updated: Oct 18
Rome is, in some respects, overwhelming.
Monuments bigger than you can imagine (at least in the handmade department); history more vast and significant for who we are and what our world looks like; rulers more cruel and more mad than even today's batch of wannabe despots. If I were a bucket list kind of traveler, it would have been beyond belief being there.
Remember Jadis the Terrible, the ice-cold queen and witch who had cast Narnia under her spell for a hundred years before Lucy Pevensie wandered in and the restoration of Aslan's world was begun? The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis---it isn't a long read but a satisfying one. Well, Rome reminded me of that evil gal. Not that the city is evil in a Revelation of St John sense, but that it seems to know that it has unmeasured importance in the world, even after millennia have sped past: a degree of pride that I am happy to walk away from.
But I loved the bike-ride south of the more prime tourist areas (Palatine, Forum, Coliseum), and far away from St Peter's grand region. We pedaled past crumbling mansions built to demonstrate the substantial egos of long forgotten men of wealth and prestige. Past mausoleums erected to commemorate a name associated with another name, part of some distinguished family with the same name who evidently knew a Caesar, back in the day. Southward on the Via Appia (a long, straight Roman road constructed mainly to move troops quickly to deal with tribes who just refused to knuckle under). Remember Spartacus of Slave Revolt fame? It is along this very road that thousands of his fellows were hanged on crosses, row upon row, milia passuum after milia passuum, to discourage other members of the under-classes from repeating any such nonsense. And on we rolled past aqueducts---pieces of those
straight water channels supported way up there on tall arches, designed cleverly to ferry water from distant springs and lakes to slake the thirst and clean the bodies of Rome's million or so inhabitants. History whose remnants I was in the middle of.
One stop on this string of ancient pearls of history and the one thing I endured the endless pedaling and inevitable mishaps (!) to visit, was one of the CATACOMB sites. For me this was the high point of traveling to that grand city on the Tiber: getting to occupy the same air space as Believers of the first few centuries A.D. There were, I think, about 30 English speakers straggling along after our guide, down stairs and more stairs. Darkness made less dark by a faithful light bulb maybe every 50 feet along the narrow passage. And niches, endless rows of them lining the walls: long openings to accommodate the bodies of adults, smaller ones for the babies that died. A larger room here and there, for quietly fervent meetings. Maybe a chapel to celebrate the Eucharist. Nearly two thousand year old frescoes with Christian symbols/themes that were, at the moment of their application, fresh ways of expressing the inexpressible.
Places many spade-fulls of earth down below the sunny surface, where a small but vibrant and incredibly-multiplying community held onto hope in the face of almost certain death at the hands of their rulers. For me it was moving beyond desciption, as I say, to be there if only for an hour. Next day it would be Pompeii, about which more anon.