The Marquette U. history department is very pleased to welcome this post by our new colleague Sarah Bond, a historian who fills our position in Late Antique, Early Medieval history. She was recently in the catacombs in Rome.
In 401, St. Augustine wrote a letter in reply to a man named Januarius who had written to Augustine with questions concerning proper Christian liturgy. Augustine responded with an anecdote, commenting that his mother had been similarly conflicted over liturgy after her move to Milan, having been confused over the proper fasting days. She inquired whether she should do as the Romans did and fast on Saturdays, or rather follow the example of the Milanese, who did not observe Saturday as a day of fasting. Wondering about the issue himself, Augustine consulted with the venerable St. Ambrose. The bishop responded simply that “When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here [in Milan] I do not.
You should observe the custom of the church where you are.” Though modified and often plucked out of context, Ambrose’s sage words have lived on as a persistent proverb given to many a visitor to Rome: “When in Rome, do as the Romans!”
As Ambrose hinted at, Romans have their own ways, their own attitudes, and their own landscape that visitors and foreigners have to adjust to. Reading tourist accounts of the city, one finds that while many fell in love with the majesty and antiquity of the city, others appear taken aback by the crowds, the heat, and the sheer commercialism. Whereas Goethe seemed entranced by Rome’s history, alternately, in a letter in 1906, James Joyce would write: “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to traveler’s his grandmother’s corpse.”
On the face of things, it could appear that the city thrives on tourism and the selling of the image that is Rome [cue HBO music]; however, that is only one way to experience Rome. Touring the city as a Roman means engaging with both the ‘Centro’ (the downtown) and the periphery of the city, and appreciating the layered narrative that can speak to visitors—if they are ready to listen—and transport them through a long timeline of history.
Although I can’t comment upon every feature in the city, one site that captures the melting-pot nature of Rome is the church of St. Clemente. Within sight of the Coliseum, this church is often overlooked in favor of larger churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore, and of course, St. Peter’s Basilica. Yet the church has a charm all its own, one that lays predominantly in its continual use as a place of worship.
Following the fire of Nero in 64 CE, a Roman senator named Titus Flavius Clemens built his house upon the site, and, sources say, allowed Christians to worship within it. In the second century CE, a portion of the basement was even used as a mithraeum, a place of worship for the cult of Mithras. You can enter into the lower level today and see the reconstructed mithraeum. Later, this level was filled in and, in the fourth century, a basilica dedicated to Pope Clemens I was established. The basilica was later renovated in the tenth and eleventh centuries, before an entirely new basilica was built in the late eleventh and early twelfth century following the sacking of Rome by Norman invaders.
Wall paintings, mosaic, and sculpture abound in this space. There are even inscribed examples of the transition from Latin to vernacular Italian in the middle ages. It is a timeline of Rome’s progression and, as such, the church itself personifies what Rome is and why people continue to be drawn to it (Hint: it is not just the gelato.)
Undeniably, Rome’s allure lies in its place as a visual representation of the dynamism of humanity, i.e., our change over time (almost 2800 years of it, to be exact). As such, it holds a special fascination in its ability to display what we are capable of creating…and destroying. It is rare that a city communicate so much about assimilation, religion, human emotion, struggle, and triumph—all in one place. It is perhaps this that led Lord Byron to remark, “When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.” We have and always will see ourselves in Rome, but it takes a trip to the city to really understand what being a Roman is all about.
Sarah Bond specializes in Ancient and Late Antique History. She hails from the mountains of Virginia, where she attended the University of Virginia and received a B.A. in Classics and History, with an Archaeology minor. From there, she went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her PhD in History (2011), and then on to a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. She is excited to come to Marquette and will be teaching the survey in Western Civilization in the Fall.