The Gates of Rome; or, Walls are for the fearful
“Now Jericho was straitly shut up because of the children of Israel: none went out, and none came in.”
My upbringing was in an open society. The Midwest of America is home to grid-pattern cities and small towns. Highways and byways meander along rivers and ancient bison traces to connect them all. The streets have sidewalks, I could walk in front of the homes of the poor and affluent. Material wealth or lack-there-of was easily evident from the street. Some homes had fences, usually short and decorative. A high fence aroused suspicion, a compound suggested deviance.
My first contemplative exposure to gates, fences, and cordoned communities was near Atlanta, as a man. I was the guest of a wedding party at a guarded and gated community, home to the local rich and famous as well as a PGA hosting golf-course. With our permission slip we drove into the suspiciously normal looking streets but we were now inside the wall. Further, there was another, secondarily walled neighborhood. The manicured lawns and flowers did little to make me feel welcome.
I have since seen and read about walled and gated communities across America. I find they are a phenomena of the South and the Desert Southwest. My analysis is that the walls are manifestations of fear, mostly perceived of “others.” The “others” of course being fellow American citizens. The South and Desert Southwest have the highest rates of social inequality, that is, the gap between “the haves” and “have nots” in America. I don’t like gated communities. From my Midwestern, Yankee, Union, and Scandinavian background they seem un-America. They exist in opposition to our motto, “E pluribus unum.”
The monuments of Rome tell a fraction of the city’s ancient history. The lavish villas, monuments, and art are the remnants of the most upper levels of society. For the remaining 99% of society their traces are harder to find, even harder to celebrate. The normal residents and citizens of Rome get remembered in their frozen horror at Pompeii but seldom elsewhere.
For all the glories of Rome, Republic and Empire, it was a society founded on inequality. Rome relied on inequality to feed its growth and to build up the wealth of the most powerful of the powerful. Limited franchisement, slavery, colonization, hereditary privilege, normalized violence, and a fetish for “order” combined to make what must have been a rather fearful existence for all persons, free or otherwise encumbered.
I noticed the remnants of that fear in Rome with so many walls and so many hardened entrances. Our first hotel was like a mini-compound. A massive steel door slid open on tracks to allow our driver entrance, four small apartments opened to a courtyard. Louvered shutters and doors of steel covered our openings, locked in I felt like we were impenetrable.
In the city center we stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood. The pattern was narrow streets mixed with apartments and small shops. Barred windows were the norm for the street level apartments. We needed a key to gain entry to the outer door to use a different key for our inner apartment door. The double key was not so strange, its how we live in Norway, but the bars were.
The Vatican has famous walls. For that matter so does Paris, Dresden, Beijing, and countless other cities around the world. Do walls come with time for civilizations? Like a long-lived home that gets decorated, remodeled, and embellished to the hilt, are walls just something we always wanted but couldn’t afford at the time of construction. Is America still that young?
Inside the walls of Rome there are additional gates. A few are monumental and for celebratory use only. Most gates guard an entrance, some with famous guards. The conspicuous Swiss Guard man the gates to the Bishop of Rome. A polished soldier protects the president. Less polished soldiers guard parliament. Armed or not, polished or plain, guards are not welcome mats.
There have always been walls, even in the equitable Midwest, but they took other forms. Most commonly was the form of a detached suburb, the lack of sidewalk or distance from town substituting for the wall. I have to look no further than the greater Hunter’s Ridge et al. developments of north Marion for an example.
I regret that in the last generation, actual gated communities and “private” developments have proliferated in the Midwest. Are they benign indicators of changing tastes or troubling signs of growing inequality?
“And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.”
“When the walls come tumblin’ down
When the walls come crumblin’ crumblin’
When the walls come tumblin’ tumblin’ down
Yeah yeah yeah” (John Mellencamp, “Crumblin’ Down)
Note: all photos filtered through “Instant”