Rome: The Crucible

(Excerpted from a Forum article, 1989.)

By Ross Collins

Perhaps its serenity begins with its ironies. Roman history can be traced to two glorious periods, antiquity and Renaissance, the emperor and the pope. The empire. Five centuries of grandeur, A.D., built on five centuries of democracy, B.C. One thousand years, the greatest city in the ancient world.

But Today, of the haughty antiquity, what remains is the Roman Forum, mostly naked columns and mutters of ruins; the Coliseum, a ruined shrine to sports fans; a few surviving monuments, and lots of rubble strewn about the city--houses of ancient rich and powerful people. Broken stones guarded by old fences and stray cats.

Ten squalid centuries passed, another thousand years, and the popes now reigned. Hoping to recapture Rome's pride and old glory, Pope Julius II (1503-1513) began ST. Peter's Basilica, the world's greatest Christian church, to somehow explain a religion founded by a poor carpenter's son. Here is the work of Michelangelo... Raphael... Botticelli... names that four centuries later are nearly as familiar as our own, all the pope's employees.

Democracy to empire to theocracy. Pride to trash to triumph. Agony to ecstasy. Rome is an ironic icon. The Romans gave us our language, Latin based. It assured the persistence of our western Christianity by making it the official religion of the realm in 313.

The contemporary traffic of cars and humans and the summer heat make Rome a difficult city for travelers, but this ancient symbol of the best in human greatness and the worst in human misery seems to outgrow our petulant complaints.

How much time does it take a tourist to see a city of 300 palaces, 280 churches, and scores of ancient ruins, all of it marbled through a congestion of niggling streets and traffic?

Weeks, if you want to see everything. More time than you have, probably. For tourists on a tight time budget, the way to begin is on a bus tour of the city's highlights, then on foot and by taxi and subway to the most famous spots: the Coliseum, the Roman Forum and the Vatican.

The Coliseum and Forum are adjacent, and there is a subway stop just across the street.

Although we've all seen pictures of the Coliseum, it still looks bigger than you'd imagine, at least from the outside. A walk under the grim arches on the first floor is free. You have to pay to climb. The corridors underneath the arena, now ruined and open to light, are closed to tourists, but even from above, you wonder how gladiators kept from getting lost in the labyrinth.

In fact, nothing about the Coliseum looks easy--the worn stone, broken and gray, the slivers of sunlight casting into the gloom of so many symmetrical arches sternly perfect, the muffled echo of footsteps on cold rock wall. Here, for centuries, the Romans came to watch beings die or slighter: tigers, lions, elephants, gladiators, Christians. A step back through the entry, and even the souvenir vendor in front looks a little more cheerful.

Walk about two blocks up the hill to find the entrance to the ruins of the Forum, but keep your fists on your billfold--kids from about six up seem to line both sides in a gauntlet, modern gladiator-ettes seeking an easy mark to pickpocket. The Forum offers a panorama of what once was the center of the world's greatest political power, but you'll have to pay several dollars to descend to the ruins.

It's worth the price. Here, lining the "Sacra Via," (Sacred Way), stand the columns and ruins of the cradle of democracy, the crown of empire. The Curia, forerunner of modern parliaments, met here. The Rostra is here. The Temple of Saturn is here. Cicero spoke here. Marcus Aurelius harangued. Caesar was cremated, on March 19, 44 B.C.

Looking past the columns and ruins, you can glimpse the dome showing the power of another age of Rome, St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. The Vatican is a tiny city-state which issues its own stamps. It is patrolled by uniformed Swiss guards, but otherwise you wouldn't know you're leaving secular Rome.

The Vatican for tourists is defined by three attractions: the basilica, the museums, and about a dozen souvenir shops offering all sorts of trinkets blessed by the pope, who apparently has to make a lira or two just like any other church leader. You can see the pope outside at his 11 a.m. Wednesday audience, but you must arrive at least an hour early to establish your place in the crowd, and be prepared to sit through 10-minute homilies in five languages.

The basilica itself is nothing less than walloping. You've seen St. Paul's in London? Notre Dame in Paris? Modest by comparison and they'll prove it to you--the sizes of the smaller churches are inscribed on the floor. In fact, St. Peter's is nearly two football fields long inside. All sorts of famous are works from the Renaissance or before peek from alcoves, including Michelangelo's Pieta, behind glass to deter hammer-swinging maniacs.

What isn't in St. Peter's is in the Vatican museums, several floors of brilliant Renaissance rooms and paintings. The visit ends in a climax of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's most famous ceiling paintings recently have been cleaned, and scaffolding still covers about one-fifth of the ceiling. The rest seems to glow in the dingy illumination of the surprisingly small church.

The Coliseum and Forum can be done in a day, and the Vatican in another day, if you're a brisk looker. Pick up a guidebook before you go, or find books in the library. A small Engish-Italian dictionary is also valuable, as Romans outside the hotels and tourist shops don't seem to speak much English.

You will find it nearly impossible to see even the most famous Roman sites in fewer than three days, but guided tours of Roman and surrounding areas are offered by private bus lines. Ask at your hotel. Tourists who want to strike out on their own and save money will find the Roman subway most efficient at about 50 cents a ride. Buy your tickets at newsstands or tobacco shops.

Wine is inexpensive by American standards, as are coffee and espresso. Don't be surprised if the cup is only half-ful--that's customary.

Do try the orange juice in the morning. It's a festive red.

For more information, the midwestern Italian Tourist Office is in Chicago: 500 Michigan Ave. N., Chicago, Il 60611 (312) 644-0990 or 644-0991.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>