In 58 CE, two people from the Low Countries, Frisian leaders named Malorix and Verritus, arrived in Rome. While waiting for Nero, who “had other cares to occupy him” (as Tacitus writes, full of innuendo), the two men visited the Theater of Pompey and caused a stir because they did not know how to act properly. To ancient Frisians, the city of the seven hills must have been an impressive place, with people living in buildings with four floors, with temples reaching unto heaven itself, and with the palace of the emperor lived, a man who needed only a single word to mobilize an army. Visiting Rome must have been a life-changing experience.
I can sympathize with my ancestors, and not just because I must over the years have broken every rule of polite Roman behavior. It is also because Rome has been a life-changer for me as well. My first visit in 1982, although overshadowed by a PLO assault on the synagogue, felt like some kind of spiritual homecoming. I was here again in ’84, and – after my service in the army – I decided to study history and archaeology. Always, there was a longing to return to what Livy somewhere calls the urbs ipsa, the “city itself”. In fact, I have often returned, sometimes twice a year.
Rome is, like the objects of every other love affair, not perfect and Romans are not always nice. I also think that, once a love affair has lasted some time, you realize that under different circumstances, you might have met and loved someone else. Mutatis mutandis, I know I might have loved other civilizations, and I do not sympathize with those historians who focus on Greece and Rome only, ignoring Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia. I also think that western historians consistently understimate the contribution of Islam to the rise of European civilization.
I have acted accordingly, visiting other countries, trying to broaden my scope. There’s much that is fascinating in the Sahara. I wrote a book about Islam. The interaction between Persia and Greece is an interesting subject, and I put the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online. I have had the privilege to travel extensively.
Yet, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it is only now that I can compare several cities, that I realize how special Rome actually is. The only answer to the question which city I love most is the classic one from Roman Holiday, when the princess realizes that Rome has to her been a life-changing experience: “each city is in its own way unforgettable, and it would be difficult to… – Rome, by all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”