Rome is okay. The Coliseum is not as overwhelming as you might expect, though certainly impressive, especially for that time.
I found the long field beyond the Senate – which looks like a building site and did nothing for me – much more evocative as the site of the Circus Maximus, despite there being nothing much there now.
The Vatican was disappointing; I’ve seen more inspiring churches, especially in Spain. The food was okay. I liked the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Pantheon, both incredibly massive buildings saturated with a sense of menace.
What I mainly felt in Rome was a bittersweet sadness and intimations of mortality. The philosopher Schopenhauer, who did the Grand Tour in the late 18th century, remained unmoved by the Classical ruins, regarding them as simply further proof that everything decays and passes, including the mightiest of empires.
I perked up a bit in front of the Arch of Constantine, because I’d just been reading about it in John Julius Norwich’s history of Byzantium. It was erected shortly after he’d become supreme Augustus, following his defeat of his remaining rival Maxentius in 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. To celebrate the victory the Senate built this monumental arch for him next to the Coliseum. The inscription in translation reads:
To the emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine who being instinct with divinity and by the greatness of his spirit avenged the state in a just war on the tyrant and all his party.
The phrase instinctu divinitatis must have been chosen for its ambiguity, as although Constantine now openly protected the Christians he was wary of offending his pagan subjects too. He himself had made no final commitment to any one god, although what he set in motion resulted many centuries later with St Peter’s Basilica on the other side of the Tiber.
Apart from a few moments of interest like this, I found myself wandering around the Eternal City wondering what it means to say that something happened in the distant past, or even a minute ago, and whether there was any difference between their reality and mine. There is so much that just doesn’t make sense that the real explanation necessarily has to be incredible, even if the deity worshipped along the road at the Vatican is not involved in any of it.
We think we have it all so pinned down in books and other media but we know nothing about whatever it’s supposed to be. These stones are just a whisper of a trace left by something incomprehensible, like every thought we have with every second that passes. I have enough issues without trying to get my head around that one.