Happy Birthday, Rome!

21 April 2010

Marcus Aurelius

Today, 21 April, the founding of Rome is commemorated, and it may be nice to tell the story behind the photo of Marcus Aurelius‘ equestrian statue.

The real statue has been removed from the Piazza del Campidoglio in 1981 or so; I don’t know exactly, but when I visited the city for the first time in ’82, it was already gone. The old piece of art had become too vulnerable, needed repairs, and is now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. For many years, there was only an empty pedestal, but in 1997, a copy was ready, and so we went to the Capitol, to see what would happen. It was 21 April.

A white, plastic drapery covered the new statue, and the idea was that the mayors of several cities in the world called Rome would, together with mayor Francesco Rutelli, unveil the monument. However, the wind caught the drapery, and the emperor’s head was already visible when we arrived on the hill. Soon, an arm unveiled itself, and not much later, the horse started to shake off the cover from its head. Someone urged the people to leave, because the plastic drapery had to be reattached to the statue to allow the television cameras to have some nice footage. Many people protested. They had arrived early to see everything well, and were afraid to lose their front row positions.

At that moment, Mr Rutelli intervened. Clearly improvising his speech, he said that if the emperor himself decided to address his people, it was improper for lower officials to speak. He quoted from the Meditations, someone – perhaps the mayors, I could not see – took away the remaining piece of the plastic veil, and that was the end of the ceremony. I have some nice photos of the partly covered statue, but this one, with the backlighting, is one of my favorites.


Roman Holiday

24 December 2009

"Rome, by all means Rome"

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.”

Photos from Rome

14 December 2008
Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Today, I moved the entire photo section of ancient Rome. Even though it is not a fraction of what there is to be seen in the capital of the Mediterranean Empire, it was still thirty-one pages, and even though many were just small, it cost me one day:

Plus Delphi (in fact still to be written), and that’s it for today. Only 161 pages left…