Mirrors of Rome

'H ER very ruin shows how great Rome was.' For a thousand years men have rung the changes on this theme, with words, with pencil, with brush or burin, or with the camera. Through the dark centuries while the old order crumbled and the Roman peace was but a memory, these mighty ruins have remained the outward and visible signs of that underlying spiritual continuity of religion, of language, and of law, by which Rome bridged the gap between the ancient and the modern world and built a new civilization based upon the old. The changing yet continuous panorama of history is everywhere apparent in the varied fortunes of these monuments and what men have seen in them. In themselves they form a commentary upon time.

We know the monuments of ancient Rome from their surviving ruins, from descriptions, and from pictorial recording over many centuries. Those that remain are their own best records, though even here descriptions and portraits left by artists who knew them in different aspects may explain or amplify. By far the most numerous of such memorabilia are coins, on which the buildings are conventionalized, to be sure, but dated. Sometimes, too, there are reliefs, showing in their backgrounds buildings either real or fanciful, but suggesting, in any case, how the men of ancient Rome visualized the city in its prime. These reliefs, despite arbitrary proportions and perspective, have something of the opulent quality which marked the civilization of Rome's world empire. Less beautiful, but unique as a record of ancient days, is the famous Marble Plan, or Forma Urbis, whose fragments still show, in rough ground plan, the structures in various sections of the city early in the third century A.D., but make no attempt to represent their actual appearance. Its closest parallels in written records are the Notitia and the Curiosum, fourth-century catalogues of the city's buildings based on an earlier original now lost.

Coins and broken fragments and ruined brick and stone may suggest a cheerless picture of Rome over the ages. But they have always as background a natural beauty of sunshine and soft air and wide-arched sky as unchanging as the interpretations of her monuments are mutable; as much a 'marvel' of Rome today as in the years of her ancient glory. The city's 'golden air' mists the pages of Henry James; to Gilbert Chesterton there was no city 'in which the sky seemed so significant as in Rome'. And more than fifteen centuries ago the Gallo-Roman Rutilius Namatianus, saying farewell to 'that dear scene', had felt that 'a fairer tract of sky and a serene expanse marks the clear summits of the Seven Hills. There 'tis lasting sunshine: the very daylight which Rome makes for herself seems purer than all else.'

Rutilius Namatianus, last of the classical Latin poets, said his farewell to Rome in A.D. 416, only six years after her first capture in eight centuries by a foreign foe. This sack by the Goths under Alaric in 410 was followed by the Vandals' raid under Genseric in 455. The traditional 'Fall of Rome' in 476 simply marked the deposition of the last Western emperor by the Teuton condottiere Odoacer. There was no sudden, formal break with the Eastern emperor at Constantinople, or New Rome. Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, who revered the ancient city and her civilization, tried to establish an Italian state which should carry on the Roman tradition. After his death in 526, however, the Eastern emperor Justinian slowly reconquered Italy at great cost. Rome was captured and recaptured five times in eighteen years and her far-reaching aqueducts were cut by besieging forces. Soon after the middle of the sixth century the city, ravaged and exhausted, finally came under the control of the Eastern emperor, to be administered for almost two centuries and a half by the Exarch of Ravenna as part of the eastern or Byzantine empire.

During these troubled centuries the popes or bishops of Rome, into whose care more and more responsibilities fell as civic agencies lapsed, gradually gained in authority. It was, indeed, largely the genius of Pope Gregory the Great ( 590-604) which made it possible for Rome to recover from the disastrous Gothic wars. The popes and the city they represented grew restive presently under Byzantine rule, which tended to subordinate both the Church and the ancient capital of the West. Leo III turned to the Frankish king, Charlemagne, as the strongest orthodox counterforce and crowned him Roman Emperor on Christmas Day of the year 800. From this recognition of the Germanic kings of France instead of the Byzantine emperors as the protectors of Rome, grew the medieval Holy Roman Empire, and as a far-off result of strife between the emperors and the popes, the later claims of French and Hapsburg rulers to interfere in Italian affairs.

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