The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Rome


roman ruins

Rome, reportedly, is on the verge of collapse.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and thousands of years later, the city of 2.8 million remains home to some of the world’s most remarkable fountains, museums, and churches. But it’s also “dirty and disorganized,” reports Reuters. Untamed grass and graffiti can be spotted on city streets and buildings, while a rat infestation reportedly plagues the city center. A bed and breakfast owner says some of the city’s 10.61 million tourists last year complained “the metros never arrive on time, the stations are full of pickpockets, the streets are full of rubbish,” she says. “Instead of getting better, the situation is getting worse.” In fact, the city “is on the verge of collapse,” says the Chamber of Commerce president. “It is unacceptable that a major city which calls itself developed can find itself in such a state of decay.”

But the best example of disorder is perhaps Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the largest in Italy, which has been partially closed since a fire May 7.

Rebecca and I visiting Rome on our honeymoon was serendipity. I wanted to take her to London, her “anywhere in the world” choice and a passion from her history studies. The travel site helpfully informed us we could stay a day longer and still come out cheaper if we split the trip between London and Rome. Well, OK, if we must, we must.

To be sure, Rome very much fit in with the theme of the trip. While there were many places we were excited about see in London, for Rebecca, there was no question about what was the top of the list: the Tower of London. There was incredible appeal to the idea of being where so much history had unfolded, of walking halls walked by people she had read about time and time and time again, of seeing the things they had seen.

Rebecca and I met working at a history museum; for Huntsville, a relatively old building. Dating back 150 years. The Tower of London dates back 1,000 years. History.

So for me, there was immense appeal to the idea of taking Rebecca to London, letting her walk through a building a thousand years old, and then flying to a city that was older than that when the first stone of the tower was laid. To begin the trip seeing ancient history, and then to see history that was already ancient long before the first place was new.

This is one of the pictures I was excited about being able to take. I've long known what the Coliseum looks like; I've seen countless pictures. But until I went, I had no sense of the context, what it was like to walk down the street to the Coliseum. The mix of ancient and modern was fascinating.

This is one of the pictures I was excited about being able to take. I’ve long known what the Coliseum looks like; I’ve seen countless pictures. But until I went, I had no sense of the context, what it was like to walk down the street to the Coliseum. The mix of ancient and modern was fascinating.

I was captivated by the idea of it. I was curious what it would be like to go to a contemporary city building on foundations thousands of years old. Not just to see ruins, but to see modern life among the history.

I left with no answer to that, really. I saw a lot of history in Rome. Amazing, humbling amounts of history. And I saw the modern metropolis built on that foundation. But it wasn’t just a city that was thousands of years old.

It was Rome.

Walking through the city, the legacy upon which it is built is inescapable. But it’s not just a legacy of long history, it’s a legacy of greatness. Of empire. Of primacy.

You see the ruins of the greatness of ancient Rome, and you see the relics of attempts, time and time again, to recapture that greatness, to restore that glory. From emperors to popes to fascists, the way to show you should be taken seriously is to reflect, restore, recreate its history, to call back to a time when all of western civilization took Rome seriously. The city is an endless cycle, on centuries-long centers, of using the past to show strength in the present. Of attempting to claim the destiny of The Eternal City.

An endless cycle of Rome striving to be, once again, Rome.

My experience there in March was not as bad as that article describes, but it did seem a city on the low side of that cycle. Still beautiful, still exotic, still a feast for the senses. But a bit more relaxed than ambitious, with more inertia and drive. I readily acknowledge we were in more touristy areas, and were there mainly on the weekend, but the main industry I saw was the selling of selfie sticks. (Or, in the rain, umbrellas. I’m convinced that if I were to invent an umbrella that converted to a selfie stick, I could own that city.)

But there was also a sense it didn’t matter. Time in Rome means a different thing. Rome may be complacent today, but in 50 years, or a century or two, it will be glorious again. A long time to you or me, but a blink of the eye to Rome.

Perhaps Rome is on the verge of collapse. Rome has collapsed before. Rome will collapse again.

And, in between, other cities come and go.

Rome remains.

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