On March 14, 2015, I boarded an Italo train from Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence towards Tiburtina Station in Rome. Although my plane from Zurich had landed in Rome one week earlier, I still hadn’t gotten around to seeing any of the city besides Termini Station because my trip itinerary called for an immediate journey to Florence upon arrival.
But now, following a seven-day stay with the Pessucci family during which I learned enough Italian to more or less hold a conversation, I marched on to Rome with my guitar and a carry-on bag filled mostly with dirty clothes.
The educational aspect of this trip would now begin.
I was to participate in a week-long study abroad course sponsored by this university, aptly titled “Are we Rome?” which would examine cultural similarities between Ancient Rome and contemporary society in the United States.
The Italo train trip lasted about an hour and twenty minutes. Once in Rome, I helplessly asked around to see if anyone knew how to get to Quattro Venti Station, which was close to the Villa Maria Hotel where the other students and I would be staying.
After more inept inquiries, I made my way towards the general area of the hotel, where the program director, professor Genevieve Gessert, stumbled upon me. She led me to the Villa Maria.
My journey into Rome had reached its end.
And what can I say about the week that ensued?
The first few days were miserable. It rained for two days, when we stood in the Forum and the Colosseum. The class required us to participate in guided tours of major landmarks and ruins and write short essays about what we’d seen that day.
We also delivered mini-presentations about predetermined topics at a given location. I gave mine on the famous orator and philosopher Cicero beneath the rain in the Forum on the first day.
It wasn’t until midway through the third day the rain granted us a reprieve.
Our days were spent amidst ruins that were often 100 times older than us. Our nights were spent in Trastevere, which was just through the arches and down the hill by the old wall that ran alongside the Villa Maria, and when we were feeling ambitious, in Campo di Fiore, which usually necessitated taking a cab.
And so emerged the juxtaposition: The Colosseum and The Drunken Ship, where everyone seemed to be from the U.S., The Arch of Constantine and the G.D.J. Bar in Trastevere. The sunlit streets of Ostia Antica, where an entire ancient Roman city miraculously survived, and the moonlit promenades by Campo di Fiore, which was filled with drunkards, madmen, booze and cigarette smoke. The chaotic, contemporary, postmodern world somehow stood right beside the stately, idealized, classical one. And we, the vacant youth from across the Atlantic who wanted nothing more than to prove to ourselves that we were alive, somehow managed to experience both. Perhaps I’ll never know why.
I met some of my role models there carved in busts and statues of marble and bronze.
There was Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king of Rome, whose Meditations I read over winter break, and whom I can always remember for having said to himself with urgency: “Do not act as if you are going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
There was Augustus, the glorious successor to Julius Caesar, who “Found Rome brick, and left it marble,”And Caesar himself, who dared to march on the city of his birth rather than allow it to be torn to pieces in the midst of political strife.
The streets and the city of Rome will forever be haunted by glorious ghosts of the past, or at least, for as long as their millenary stones stand stoically amid the ever-changing metropolis.
Its past and its mythical origins, going back to Virgil’s masterful rendition of Aeneas’ epic voyage from the smoldering ruins of Troy, will serve as a reminder the human race is cut out for far greater things than most can imagine.
In Book VI of the Aeneid, Aeneas descends into the underworld, setting the stage for Dante to do the same untold centuries later with Virgil as his guide. There, he is given a glimpse as to his future, and the future of the illustrious Roman race, who is destined to rule the world. The god Apollo says to him, “Sic itur ad astra.” “Thus you will go to the stars.”
Aeneas. Romulus. Caesar. Virgil. Augustus. Aurelius. These names are but a few vestiges of one of the most impressive civilizations the world has ever seen.
Long after having left this world, they resonate through the ages. That they are still known to us today demonstrates what an immense potential we all share – that if we are bold enough, like Aeneas, perhaps we too may ascend to the heavens.
Ideals, grandeur and universal truths are around us always. What remains is for them to be made concrete.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.