Rome, sweet Rome. City of steepled ruins and soaring hills. Capital of the world’s first superpower, its greatest empire, its finest coffee (not a Starbucks in sight) and its worst television stations. Though a bustling modern civitas, it remains a place suffused with the grandeur of its own classical history, which saw the Roman state grow from a pastoral hilltop settlement into the supreme Mediterranean power before slowly collapsing again. You can learn a lot about the city through its most famous relics…
Where wolf? There wolf
Studded with vast, semi-derelict archaeological sites, Rome can sometimes feel like an open-air museum that has been deserted by its staff. At its heart, however, is one museum that’s in no danger of neglect: the mighty Capitoline. Straddling two sides of the Michelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio, the world’s first public museum is a slick, superbly thorough trove of antiquities from the city’s past. Its most famous exhibit harks right back to the mythological birth of Rome in the 8th-Century BC. The Capitoline Wolf is a bronze sculpture of the she-wolf said to have raised Romulus and Remus, the human twins riven by sibling rivalry.
Keen to found a new city but in disagreement over its location, the two decided to settle the matter by augury, but were unable even to agree on how to interpret the signs from the gods. Peeved, Romulus butchered Remus and set up Rome where he saw fit. Whether this actually happened is beside the point: the image of the wolf retains a hold on the Roman psyche, cropping up again and again in other works throughout the museum, and the theme of fraternal conflict would become a trope in the city’s politics and literature alike. Sceptics can follow some scholars in taking the wolf as a symbol for a voluptuous woman – after all, Roman prostitutes were named lupe after she-wolves.
Rome is where the heart is
Once it had asserted itself as a local kingdom, Rome entered its next great phase upon becoming a republic in 509 BC. The bust of the man who created it, Lucius Junius Brutus, glowers over an adjoining gallery like the Demon Headmaster in a toga. Having overthrown the last King of Rome, the tyrannical Tarquin the Proud, Brutus famously swore never to let Rome fall under the rule of a despot again. He established the rule of consuls – elected magistrates who ruled the republic in pairs so as to prevent power from falling into one man’s hands. This office would last in one form or another for over a millennium. The bronze sculpture believed to be of Brutus (we can’t be sure) is made terrifyingly lifelike by a striking paint job on the eyes – in all likelihood the artist used his death mask as a model.
Indeed, the Capitoline seems to harbour intimidating effigies of great Roman reformers around every corner. In a tranquil courtyard nearby, the Colossus of Constantine lies in pieces. The giant marble statue of Rome’s first Christian emperor, who gave his name to Constantinople and expanded the empire’s reach in the early 4th Century, once stood proud in a basilica on the corner of the Forum Romanum. At some point in the early Middle Ages, it was pillaged, perhaps for bronze parts; what was left of the hapless Constantine was recovered and preserved at Michelangelo’s instigation. Close inspection of the hairline on the bust reveals traces of earlier designs: it appears that the Colossus began life as another emperor, and was re-sculpted in Constantine’s image when he came to power. A stronger metaphor for the continuity that underlies Rome’s perpetual self-renewal you’d be hard pressed to find.
But before reaching the museum’s exit, you’re presented with one last tribute to the sheer endurance of the city’s history. The vaulted Tabularium, where the state archives were once kept, offers a sweeping panoramic view of the ancient Roman Forum. What was once the centre of Rome’s public life – a marketplace, law court and political rallying spot all in one – lives on as a playground for archaeology fans, replete with crumbling colonnades and beautifully preserved arches. The jumble of remains from all kinds of historical periods stands nonchalantly against a backdrop of church towers, as if daring the elements to do their work. In the distance, the jagged tip of the Colosseum (the classical world’s Wembley Stadium) juts out over the skyline, casually reminding the viewer that one of the Seven Wonders of the World is just down the road. It’s enough to take your breath for a minute.
Alex’s tour guide in Rome was provided by Through Eternity Tours.