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”
Sunday Nature Call, Uke 23: What the Romans Left Us; or, The Emperor’s New Clothes
Rescued by a Søndags tur one more time, thank you Norway. I was certain that I would have scored some new birds with a week in Rome but no such luck. My last day in Italy held out for a morning stroll through a sea-side grassland reserve: hopes were high. Alas, my epicurean adventures the day before kept me prostrate and near the lavatory Friday morning. When in Rome?
New birds:2, Journey to date: 73 (I double-checked the spreadsheet, 73 is correct)
Rødvingetrost (Turdus iliacus)
Varsler (Lanius excubitor)
What the Romas Left Us; or, The Emperor’s New Clothes
It is easy for people to ask what was the neatest-most impressive-coolest-
significant…thing you saw in Rome, or name the major city of your choosing. Around the dinner table after our Latin holiday I asked the gang what was something unsual or unexpected that really would stick with you. My better half noted that everywhere you walked there was some amazing old building or church, that you just couldn’t get away from the history. The boys noted in turn that observations commensurate to their ages. I said I will always remember the street cleaners that didn’t clean. The little machines prowled the cobble block streets regularly but appeared to move around more trash than they picked up.
The Romans left a civilization in full. Rome was cluttered with the detritus of ancient urban life. The streets were bathed in horse urine. The alleys had the sick, rats, and other discards of life. Walls were adorned with paint but also graffiti. Leather sandals protected feet, canvas awnings protected heads, and wool tunics protected the rest.
A day’s worth of weather over the course of 1,500 years has left us with the lithic bones of the Romans. Thunderstorms erased the equine traces. Rats, roaches, and deluges cleared the old squatters to make way for the new. The paint that laid claim to a vibrancy of life weathered away, limestone, marble and bare brick remain. Leather, canvas, and wool turned to dust and became soil that became new life that died and continued the cycle.
What the Romas left us was enough of the civilization to appreciate it but not much that condemns our temporal existence. In that respect they really are dead. Will our posterity think so neutrally of us? I regret not.
It would be a rich problem to complain of a trip to Rome. There’s an expression in Norwegian to that affect but I can’t recall it (hint-hint faithful readers for a helpful comment :). I enjoyed my time in the Eternal City, the Colosseum was spectacular. But as an environmentalist and non-recovering litter-picker-upper, Rome made my head spin.
While Meghan looked up and marveled at the buildings and architecture that spanned two millennia, my eyes kept returning to the un-mortared joints of the cobbled streets, in place of the cement was a seemingly permanent array of cigarette butts, small plastic spoons from gelato sales, and other plastic waste ground into the gaps. Yes, Trevi Fountain was nice.
I was ready to be amazed by the ruins and monuments of Rome, and I was. The guided Vatican Tour was a 4+ hours and grueling but incredible. Walking the Forum grounds was surreal and a privilege. And resting in the easy morning light of the Pantheon with my family was the best. Yes, I was impressed as predicted.
However, I was not ready to see what the current residents and guests have done to the place. The smell of engine exhaust was a constant an unwelcome companion. The roar or din of traffic was the soundtrack for the journey. My eyes were scarred from the sight of garbage strewn about and a green Tiber River. The environment made me feel uneasy and left a bad taste in my mouth.
I shutter to think about how they will speak of us in another thousand years. I have visited beaches in the lovely Oslo Fjord where the sand and gravel appear equally mixed with plastic particles, some large, some small, all on their way to becoming smaller but never going away.
Near my Iowa home is a nuclear power plant. Its deadly waste may outlive humanity, “temporary” storage on the grounds is common. People complain about nuclear waste and wonder why there is no permanent storage. Seems like logic should have necessitated building the storage before creating the predictable waste. A moot point.
Short-term and long-term futures are at hand. Too many of our modern day emperors and their democratic shadows have robbed themselves in ideologies that defy science or even their own rhetoric. Donald Trump claims that Global Warming is nonsense yet tried to build a seawall to protect his golf course from just that effect. Norwegians bemoan the fouling of the ocean with trash and yet continue to pump petroleum that gets turned into little gelato spoons and all things plastic. Governor Branstad says Iowa water quality is a source of pride, his Secretary of Agriculture (and land stewardship) claims voluntary efforts are working and the water is getting better. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued a warning to boaters and swimmers: expect a record year for toxic bluegreen algae.
Quotes of beatitudes abound, “‘Leave no trace,’ ‘First, do no harm,’ ‘Treat your Mother well,'” etc. We need expressions that dig more sharply at our modern ego-centrism. My submission: Do you want to visit this place in 1,500 years to be impressed?
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.