Today, the Senator's Palace resting upon the Record Office of two thousand years ago is the city hall of Rome. The Forum and the Palatine are venerable shrines, but empty of modern life save for tourists and workmen busy returning to the light more remnants of the ancient city. But on the Capitol the gold and purple city flag still flies above the Palace staircase when the council is in session and city officials constantly come and go in the clear sunlight of the square.
As the centre of Rome's civic life the Capitol still spans the centuries. No period has passed without leaving its traces on this hill; here, more than in most places even in this Eternal City, 'all moments of history confront us'. This little hill is itself a living monument to Time. From the stairway of the Senator's Palace, on June 16, 1946, the flag of the Roman Republic of 1849 welcomed the proclamation of the present Republic of Italy. But these two republics graze only the surface of time in Rome. Beneath the sixteenth-century façade of the Senator's Palace is hidden the nucleus remaining from the palace built for the Republic of 1143; that in its turn rests upon the great stones of the Tabularium, the work of a republic which had been dead almost a century before the birth of Christ. And on April 21, in the square around the ancient statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Romans still celebrate the birth of their city in 753 B.C.
Centuries have mellowed the stones of the Tabularium as they have softened Capitolium to Campidoglio. Under the Italian sun even ruins seem less austere and desolate and the past more near at hand than in greyer northern lands. On this pleasant hill, as hot afternoon turns to welcome evening, the 'Golden Capitol' glows again. The sunlight slanted through the cooling air gilds once more the horse of Marcus Aurelius and deepens into orange the honey-coloured walls of the Senator's Palace. Offices close and the hill grows quiet. Alone in the centre of the square, miraculously preserved in bronze through so many and such disastrous centuries, the emperor returns in eternal silence the salutes of legions that have been dust for eighteen hundred years.
The Capitol's northern summit, where Juno's temple stood in ancient times, had been crowned for centuries by Mary's church. When the south end of the hill lay in desolation, religion had kept this summit alive. Santa Maria in Aracoeli was an important church in the Middle Ages, so important that the city magistrates often met here as, in ancient days, the Senate had convened in pagan temples. The city held this church under its special protection and placed here its first municipal clock, transferred in the eighteenth century to the Capitol tower. Here, at Christmas time, is set up Rome's most famous Presepe or Nativity Group, with its richly jewelled Holy Child. And here the Roman children still come, between Christmas and Epiphany, to recite verses and 'sermons' in praise of the bambino Gesù.
This present church, where Gibbon mused on his History of the Decline and Fall, dates from the Middle Ages--probably the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. An older building which it replaced may have been built late in the sixth century. The flight of steps which leads up to the church today was a thank-offering to the Madonna for deliverance from the plague of 1348--the only public work done in Rome during the popes' exile in Avignon. The stairway which led in pagan times from the Forum, on the other side of the hill, up to Juno's temple, is immortalized in Ovid's phrase, 'Where high Moneta lifts her steps sublime'.
The ancient name of this church, Saint Mary in the Capitol, belongs to the time when Christianity was recently victorious over paganism, when the Queen of Heaven had not long before replaced the queen of the gods on her sacred hill. The present name of the church, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, or Saint Mary at the Altar of Heaven, which came into use about the thirteenth century, is explained by one of the most famous legends of Christian Rome. As the Mirabilia tells it, the Roman Senators were overcome by the virtues of Augustus, 'seeing him to be of so great beauty that none could look into his eyes, and of so great prosperity and peace that he had made all the world to render him tribute'. Therefore they 'said unto him: We desire to worship thee, because the godhead is in thee; for if it were not so, all things would not prosper with thee as they do. But he, being loth, demanded a delay, and called unto him the Sibyl of Tibur [the modern Tivoli], to whom he rehearsed all that the Senators had said. She begged for three days' space, in the which she kept a straight fast; and thus made answer to him after the third day: These things, sir emperor, shall surely come to pass:
Token of doom: the Earth shall drip with sweat;
From Heaven shall come the King for evermore,
And present in the flesh shall judge the world.
And the other verses that follow:
'And anon . . . the heaven was opened, and a great brightness lighted upon him; and he saw in heaven a virgin, passing fair, standing upon an altar, and holding a man-child in her arms, whereof he marvelled exceedingly; and he heard a voice from heaven . . . saying, This is the altar of the Son of God. The emperor straightway fell to the ground, and worshipped the Christ that should come. This vision he showed to the Senators, and they in likewise marvelled exceedingly. The vision took place in the chamber of the emperor . . . where now is the church of Saint Mary in the Capitol.' Tradition says that one of the many ancient columns in the church came from 'the chamber of Augustus'--a story derived from the phrase a cubiculo Augustorum, the title of a servant attached to the imperial bedchamber, which appears in the inscription on its base.
Here is the familiar medieval emphasis on the divine direction of history that had ordained the simultaneous birth of Christianity and the Roman Empire. Such a legend is a popular development of the pronouncement of the great pope, Leo I, in the fifth century: 'That the working of unspeakable grace might be spread abroad throughout the whole world, Divine Providence prepared the Roman Empire.'