Hail from the Eternal City
Of all the cities in all the world, Rome is known as the Eternal City. Its character is distinct. Its landscape is powerful. Its legacy is enduring. Rome, Italy, is the locale for the writing of this blog. Hail from the Eternal City! Perhaps the biggest surprise in coming to Rome is that the Eternal City is invites you to explore its legacy of history, but it offers you a strange mixture of old and new. If offers you a paradox of sacred and ordinary, of clean and dirty, of marble and homelessness, and of Italian and non-Italian.
Earning this unique name was not an easy one. By AD 19, the Latin poet Tibullus coined the phrase, “the Eternal City,” as he described how a village founded by destitute brothers nursing from a wild she-wolf led to the establishment a city that would last 1,000 years. Aeternae Urbis, the ancients would call this place. This nickname finds validation tonight as a dog barks into the darkness. The sounds of its citizens gather to chat well after midnight. The wailing police sirens reach through windows a half-mile away. To many visitors here, this place doesn’t sleep. Both dogs and night life leave their marks on the sidewalk to greet the citizens of the next morning.
“The Eternal City” is also appropriately named because of its undying influence on Western civilization, with its fingerprint on democracy, literature, architecture, and other formative inspirations. Its monuments stand as a testimony to an era of contemporary influence. Yet, few stop to wonder at the smaller monuments of its heroes in every plaza. Finally, the name sticks because its glory is perpetuated as an independent, odd, and charming urban culture on a peninsula otherwise known for its vineyards and its art. Some might even joke that the length of its lines and the time requirements to complete its street repairs give justification for the title, “the Eternal City.”
This combination of glorious and inglorious makes Rome, well, Rome. It has always been this way. In his Annals of Imperial Rome about AD 115, the Italian historian Tacitus remarked, “All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.” In his Italian prime ministry about AD 2015, Matteo Renzi stated, “If we were a normal country, we wouldn’t have Rome.”
The paradox of Rome extends also into its population. Surrounding the Vatican City, Roman Catholicism is deeply entrenched in its landscape and much of the lifestyle of its citizens. This is particularly true this Holy Week in Rome, as Palm branches donned churches last Sunday and pilgrims from across the continent find their way into its churches this Good Friday. Yet, the population of Bangladeshi and Moroccans who sell tourist trinkets or who run small refreshment bars seem to outnumber the Italians in sections of the city. Romanian gypsies will populate the steps of churches in search of alms as tourists arrive this summer. Italian and other, Catholic and other, merge into one population.
For the historical theologian that I am, no city is both more rewarding and more frustrating. The Aurelian Wall stands around the city with its chiseled stone gates marking the entrance of Peter and Paul, while graffiti skirts the perimeter of the wall. A Renaissance piece of art fills a church wall, but tourists take a picture of themselves before the art rather than a picture of the art itself. Locals daily sell goods in the Campo de’ Fiori, but few realize that the hooded, twenty-foot statue of Bruno looms over their transactions as a reminder that he was burned on that spot.
The paradoxes that are Rome seem to be as eternal and the moniker of the place itself, “the Eternal City.” Yet, these paradoxes make Rome what it is: a great place to visit the best of the old and an overwhelming place to encounter the unexpected new.