Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Roman Ruins

“Ruin” is a frightening word. You ruin a cake by dropping it on the floor; you ruin a career when you’re caught accepting bribes. To ruin is not simply to destroy; it is to destroy something crafted or built with human effort. But for all the negative connotation, I have spent the past two weeks elated to wander through the streets of Rome surrounded by the ruins of a once great empire.
The New Forum
            It is only a short tram ride from my apartment to Piazza Venezia, the historic hub of the city. On my first day out to the Forum, I was so overwhelmed at the ancient spectacle that I burst out, “These buildings are older than Jesus Christ!” Like every other tourist who ambles through the modern remains of ancient Rome, my attention flew to the magnificence of the ruins – not to the fact that they are ruins, vestiges of an empire that was once magnificent. We tend to perceive the Forum, the Colosseum, and other such sites as testaments to human greatness, rather than human failure.
Stores in Ostia Antica
Today our class took a tram, a bus, and a train to get to the ruins of the ancient Roman harbor city that is Ostia Antica. Ostia is evidence of Rome’s vast economic power at the height of the empire – roads and river access allowed traders to take goods from the port to the city, standardized containers for corn facilitated transportation and trade, slaves provided a labor force, and extensive warehouses allowed for the storage of goods. As I marveled at beautiful mosaic advertisements still intact, it occurred to me to wonder: Why was this – or the city of Rome itself, for that matter – allowed to become a ruin?
Mosaic depicting standard unit of corn in Ostia
The question bothered me again as I entered the Colosseum for the first time this evening. How could all of this have lain crumbling for centuries, regardless of the Fall of Rome? I am no expert on ancient Rome or its demise, but the question is more rhetorical than literal. The fact is that empires fall. I do not imagine that in the second century BCE anyone anticipated the fall of what was then world’s great hegemonic power.  But as we have learned in class these past weeks, Immanuel Wallerstein, the political scientist behind World Systems Theory, has said that systems that seem stable do eventually change. The international system certainly changed for the Roman Empire – it now lies in ancient edifices that constitute one of the world’s great tourist attractions and historical sites.
At the Colosseum
After pondering this, it might seem discouraging to spend so much time among the vestiges of a failed empire. But Rome was not always a failure – it thrived for hundreds of years. Rather, I now think of the ruins in light of the inevitability of change. Present day Italy has risen up around the ruins of Caesar’s Forum, the old mingling with the new: I have crossed busy roads near the Colosseum dodging Vespas and crowds of tourists, one foot in ancient Rome and the other in modern Roma. The two cities exist in the same place and at the same time. There is human failure evident here, but failure is at some point inevitable. Without failure, there is no change, and without change, there is no potential for greatness. As our time in Rome comes to a close, I am beginning to appreciate the city for illustrating that so elegantly.

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