I’ve been writing about spiritual destinations for many years, but there was one huge gap in my travels: Italy. Bob and I finally made a trip there, in part to do research for a new book and in part because, well, it’s Italy. And it has a lot of holy sites.
We spent a week in Rome and another week split between Assisi and Florence. We traveled through time as well as distance, exploring the Roman Empire, the early centuries of Christianity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. We ate too much, walked our legs off, got lost in labyrinthine streets, amazed ourselves by figuring out the bus system in Rome, marveled at stunning works of art, and toured so many churches that even I got a little tired of seeing the Virgin Mary.
Let me say this: why in the world did we wait so long to make our first trip to Italy?!
I think most of us with a passion for history have some periods that just fascinate us more than others. For me, ancient Rome is in my top five–so I was in history nerd heaven in Rome.
And let me use all my wordsmithing skills to describe the first site we toured in the city: the Coliseum is freakin’ huge.
The amphitheater was built between 72 and 80 A.D. Even as a ruin it dominates the heart of the city. It’s so big that the thousands of tourists milling around inside it seem like ants.
It’s also a bit creepy, because the Roman emperors staged free shows here that entertained the populace with blood and gore on an almost unimaginable scale. In the morning there’d be fights with wild animals captured from foreign lands, at midday criminals would be publicly executed, and in the evening the gladiators would put on a show that often ended with someone getting killed. And the Romans loved all of it. For the emperors, it was a way of showing their power and keeping the populace distracted from other matters, like political revolt.
I can’t say that I liked the Coliseum—but I was fascinated by it. It’s one of those places where history pulses just underneath the surface of ordinary reality. And it fits in nicely with this new book I’m working on, which is about places that help us come to terms with mortality.
What does the Coliseum have to teach us about death? Maybe that one way people live out their fears is to see them played out on a stage, with someone else meeting their end instead of them.
It takes imagination to look at ruins, I realize–in one sense they’re just tumbled stones. But for me, seeing the Roman Forum was one of the highlights of our trip to Italy.
Located just a short distance from the Coliseum, the remains of the governmental center of the Roman Empire require some imagination to make them come to life. But with even a little background, what stories they tell!
The most poignant tale is connected to the picture below, which shows the remains of the Temple to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. This was Rome’s most sacred spot. Inside was a fire that had to be constantly tended. If it went out, it was thought that the empire would fall.
The guardians of the fire were the Vestal Virgins, a half dozen women who were chosen when they were between the ages of 6 and 10. They were to remain chaste for 30 years, after which they could marry (though few did). They enjoyed honored status in Rome and were even allowed to attend games at the Coliseum, the only women allowed to do so.
But if they failed in their duties or broke their vow of chastity, the punishment was brutal. Some were burned alive; others were entombed in a crypt with a loaf of bread and a lamp, both of which, of course, didn’t last long.
But most of them kept their vows for three decades, tending the fire in this temple. And today only the columns stand in mute witness to their service to their goddess and to Rome.
Above is the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the Roman victory over the province of Judea in 70 A.D. After the war, 50,000 Jewish slaves were brought back to Rome. They were forced to build both this arch and the Coliseum, which was partially financed with the treasures looted from the Jerusalem Temple.
There’s a reason why I’m kneeling to touch the ground in this picture–this is the Appian Way, one of the most famous routes in the world. And for anyone who loves both history and roads, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The Appian Way was the lifeline of the Roman Empire, “the queen of the long roads,” in the words of the first-century Roman poet Statius. It extended for more than 300 miles, stretching from the Roman Forum to the port city of Brindisi.
Kneeling there, I thought of the people who once walked these same stones, from Julius Caesar to the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Today it’s still an active thoroughfare. Some of the cobblestones have been modernized, but they’ve also kept stretches of the original block.
Because it was once forbidden to bury the dead inside the city of Rome, wealthy people built tombs and mausoleums along the sides of the Appian Way, so that all who walked past would be reminded of the dead within.
The best time to walk it is Sunday, when vehicle traffic is prohibited. People ride bikes and stroll with their kids. And I think at least some of them realize how many years of history are beneath their feet.