One of my favorite places in Spain is Mérida. If you have never heard of Mérida, then this illustrates my point: it is one of Spain’s lesser-known gems, which means that it is not overly crowded nor overly expensive. But it is an extraordinary place. Very few cities in the world can compare with Mérida for the breadth and quality of its Roman ruins. The city was one of the capitals of Hispania (Roman Spain) and had all of the comforts of provincial Roman life.
Most of the major sites in Mérida can be visited on a combination ticket, which you can purchase for 15 euros. I recently had a chance to visit Mérida and to experience anew the impressive monuments. The two stars are the amphitheater and theater. They are both enormous and well-preserved—especially the latter—and give you a good sense of what it would have been like to be a Roman having a day of entertainment. Ironically, the architectural monuments may have more lasting value than what the Romans actually consumed inside—gory violence and farcical comedies.
There are several ruins to be seen right in the center of town, free of charge. One of these is the so-called Temple of Diana, which was actually dedicated to the emperor. It is especially interesting because of the Renaissance house that has been incorporated into the remaining pillars (which you can see in the background). Nearby is the old Roman forum, where some fragments and columns still stand.
Apart from its many monuments, Mérida has an excellent museum of ancient Rome. The building itself is lovely—made of brick, with a high ceiling help up by Roman-style arches, and skylights that illuminate the space. There are artifacts of all kind inside: statues, pillars, mosaics, gravestones, pottery, jewelry, coins, and more. On the ground floor you can see a preserved section of a Roman road, and marvel at their extraordinary engineering. And in the museum’s basement still more artifacts are displayed, which were uncovered during construction.
Fairly close-by to the museum is the Casa del Mitreo, the excavation of a Roman villa. Whoever lived here must have been extremely wealthy, since there are three separate patios and many interiors are richly decorated. The Romans had taste. Another interesting site is below the Church of Santa Eulalia, were still more ruins have been uncovered. Probably there are rooms, walls, pillars, and shards of pottery under every inch of the place.
But some of the most beautiful ruins are located well outside of the city center. One is the Acueducto de los Milagros, a towering aqueduct dominating a grassy field. And it really is miraculous that something so seemingly delicate could survive two thousand years, exposed to the elements. Only slightly less impressive is the Acueducto de San Lázaro, which is near the old Circus Romano.
On the other side of town is the Roman bridge, which is connected to the Moorish fortress overlooking the Guadiana River. It is amazingly long—almost a kilometer in length, making it the longest surviving bridge from antiquity. And this is not the only Roman bridge in Mérida: there is another one near the Acueducto de los Milagros.
But perhaps the most impressive feat of Roman technology is the Embalse de Proserpina, a Roman dam. The Romans were extremely skilled hydraulic engineers, you see, and created their own reservoir to feed the town. The dam a lot more complicated than what meets the eye. There are deep chambers underground that the Romans used to divert the water into pipes, which eventually directed the water to the Aqueducto de los Milagros, which in turn brought it right into the center of the city.
As I hope you can see, Mérida has many sites for such a small and relatively obscure city. But this is how it always is in Spain: in every corner of the country, treasures await.
Writing my series of posts on Rome, back in 2016, was an educational experience for me. It was the first time that I tried to break up a single city into multiple installments, and the first time that I tried to be as brief and as useful as possible (a practice I have since abandoned). Nevertheless the posts’ photographs and formatting were a little rough compared to my later posts. To rectify this, I have given these original posts a makeover. You can see the results below:
If you want to catch a glimpse of Catalonia’s Roman heritage, no city is better suited than Tarragona—or, as the Romans called it, Tarraco. The capital of its eponymous province, the city of Tarragona is nevertheless much smaller than Barcelona, with a population of about 130,000. It is easily accessible from that mecca of Catalonia, about an hour away by commuter train, and thus well-suited for day trips. Tarragona is also worth visiting on its own—especially if you’re looking for a place less infested by tourists. Like Barcelona, it is situated on the Mediterranean coast, in a section the Catalans call the Costa Daurada, or “golden coast.”
Roman remains are scattered throughout the city, especially in the old city center. This part of town is also called the “high part” by the inhabitants, for the obvious reason that it is situated high on a hill overlooking the sea to one side and the land on the other. You can reach this point by ascending the Via de l’Imperi Roma, a fine tiled walkway, sheltered with trees, that goes along the remains of the old Roman wall (which was likely built atop another, older wall, perhaps Phoenician). For a small price the visitor can climb up these walls and walk their length, giving one an excellent view of the city as well as the surrounding valley on the inland side.
Going along this way, the walker curves around back towards the city and the sea. I passed the Archaeology Museum, which unfortunately was closed at the time. Nevertheless, outside the building there are some ruins to explore, notably a staircase that leads up into the shell of the old Praetorium Tower. This tower has been repaired, rebuilt, and repurposed many times throughout its long life: as a castle, a barracks, and finally a prison. According to the informational plaque, it was used for this last function as recently as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when it was filled far beyond capacity with political and military prisoners, many of whom were executed. Nowadays, the tower is a ruined shell; before it, on a tall pillar, stands the statue of a Roman dignitary, who seems to be gazing despairingly at the sea beyond.
Nearby, like a stone scar in the middle of the city, is yet another ruin. Like so many ancient remains, weather and time (not to mention the people who used these old ruins as stone quarries) have taken their toll on this site. All I could discern were doorways and what could have been rows of seats. A plaque informed me that this was a section of the old circus maximus, the stands where crowds cheered as chariots sped by. Further down, closer to the sea, a larger section of the old racing ground has been preserved. Apart from walls, doorways, and seating, there is a tower affixed to the structure—whose purpose I admit I do not know, but which looks to my eyes like a later addition.
But the most impressive ruin in Tarragona is still further towards the water. This is the amphitheater, which sits like a man-made crater in the hill above the beach. Few sights in Catalonia are more picturesque than this one: the tan stone, symmetrical and bare, seeming to float above the sea. Built in the early 2nd century, the amphitheater was approximately the same size as the one in Mérida, big enough for 15,000 spectators. And like all amphitheaters in Rome, what these spectators viewed was gore: fights to the death between slaves. During the reign of Valerian (253 – 260), the Christian bishop Fructuosus was, along with his two deacons, burned alive in this very amphitheater during one of the many waves of persecutions against the Christians.
The Roman remains within Tarragona have been subject to the pressure of an expanding city. Their rocks have been quarried and their structures used as foundations. But outside the city, some ruins have fared rather better. The most famous of these is the so-called Pont del Diable, or Devil’s Bridge. More prosaically, this is Les Ferreres Aqueduct. This was built during the time of Augustus to transport water to the city of Tarraco. Today it sits, peaceful and pristine, in a wooded area about 4 km north of the city.
I could have gotten there easily enough by bus. But I like walking and so I decided to go by foot. Google Maps has a bad habit of routing pedestrians with the most direct route, without considering whether it’s really walkable. So the path took me along the highway N-240 (which links Tarragona and Bilbao), which is indeed quite direct. The problem was that the sidewalk dwindled and eventually disappeared, leaving me wandering in the tight space between the guardrail and the grass. Eventually I decided that this was possibly unsafe and certainly unpleasant, so I turned into Sant Pere i Sant Paul, a suburb of Tarragona. Once I crossed through this sleepy hamlet (and stopped for coffee), I entered some dirt paths that led through a pine forest.
Amid these natural surroundings the aqueduct mysteriously materializes, traversing a wide valley between two hills. It has hardly aged a day. The tan rock bears the same color as the sandy soil underneath, and indeed of much of the stone of this region. It is not as tall or as graceful as the aqueduct of Segovia, which has three levels of arches rather than Ferreres’s two. Nevertheless, one cannot walk across the top of the aqueduct in Segovia, as one can here. There is no ticket booth nor any tourist apparatus of any kind. One simply walks up and across, enjoying the view of the surrounding forest. Admittedly the constant whooshing of the nearby highway traffic does lessen the enchanting sensation of having discovered a forgotten ruin. Even so, the aqueduct is one of the jewels of Tarragona.
This exhausts my knowledge of Tarragona’s famous Roman ruins. But Tarragona has still more to offer.
The most beautiful building in the city is Tarragona’s Cathedral. The building sits ensconced in the historic center, up on the hill, surrounded by attractive narrow streets and old buildings. A flight of stairs leads you up to its façade. This is most notable for its row of saints, apostles, and prophets in robs who flank the main doorway. In the central doorjamb stands the Virgin, holding Christ; and below her is a bas-relief of Adam and Eve. Once inside, I was able to hear the cathedral’s magnificent organ resonating throughout the space, since it was in the process of being tuned. This did not sound exactly beautiful, I admit, but it is a pleasure to hear even a single note on a real church organ.
What first attracted my attention was the main altar. Luckily the visitor can walk right up to it, which is usually not the case. It is a wonderful gothic creation in polychromed alabaster, depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary in 18 separate reliefs. Once more, the Virgin and Child stand in the center, while above two golden angels raise their weapons in righteous fury. The cathedral also has a lovely cloister, spacious and filled with green. When I visited a painter had set up an easel in one corner and was at work. From the painter’s spot you could also see the cathedral’s distinctive octagonal tower, which is doubtless why he chose it. I particularly enjoyed the small vents in the walls around above the cloister windows, each one carved into a different pattern.
Attached to the cloister is the Dioecian Museum, which houses several religious paintings and tapestries. I was also surprised to find that one door led into an archaeological excavation. A temple dedicated to the cult of Augustus has been uncovered under the cathedral. Humans like to build their temples over one another, it seems, perhaps for the sake of continuity during a period of dogmatic change. Many churches in Spain have been built over mosques, which themselves had been built over Visigothic churches. And so history flows on.
Once you descend the hill on which the old town sits, you can come to the city’s central road: the Rambla Nova. In the center is a spacious walkway where, when I visited, a Christmas market had been set up. Here you can also see the Monument als castellers, which is a metal statue depicting Catalonia’s famous tradition of making human pyramids. This tradition, by the way, is one of two in Catalonia to be designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The other is the Patum of Berga, a festival celebrated in the city of Berga during Corpus Christi, in which people dress up in giant monster costumes and dance.
At the end of the Nova Rambla is the Balcó del Mediterrani, a lookout point that sits high up above the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Dotting the seascape were the shapes of ships, large shipping frigates at anchor in the harbor. I wonder, do the sailors sleep on board or do they take a little boat to shore? The life of a sailor is a great mystery to me. Someone who assuredly did sleep many nights at sea is Roger de Llúria, a Catalan who was one of the greatest naval commanders of the medieval period, and whose statue stands in the center of the lookout point.
From here there is no direct way to get down to Tarragona’s beach, the Platja del Miracle. But it is worth the walk if you want to see the sun set below the dockyard, turning the skyline red and turning every building and person into a black silhouette. You may even enjoy a swim.
This wraps up my series on Catalonia. Of course with my measly three trips there I have inevitably left out much of the region’s treasures. Even so, I am tremendously impressed with Catalonia. It is a place replete with national and cultural beauty, rich with history, and still striving towards the future.
Mérida has a long and noble history. Founded in the year 25 C.E. as a Roman Colony, during the reign of Octavius, the city was the starting point of the Vía de la Plata (the Silver Way)—a major Roman road running from south to north—and the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania. The city is an hour’s drive west of Cáceres. As usual, we were taking a Blablacar. Our driver was a young man from Seville—laid back, sociable, patient with our Spanish—and the drive proceeded very pleasantly.
The drive became doubly pleasant when a rainbow appeared to our left. It was interesting to see how the rainbow seemed to move across the landscape with us as we drove. I have this deep-rooted idea from watching cartoons as a child that a rainbow is a stationary object (how else could Leprechauns bury their pots of gold at the end?). But of course that’s not true; rainbows are optical illusions caused by the refraction of light through water droplets in the air, and thus appear at a different locations to each individual viewer. I suppose I’ll have to play the lottery if I want a pot of gold.
Soon we had arrived. Our bags tucked away, we began to explore the city. By now it was already rather late; all the monuments were closed, and the sun would be setting in an hour. With few options, we decided that we would stroll along the Guadiana River. The Guadiana is the bigger of the two rivers (the other is the Albarregas) that run through the city. The forth largest river in Spain, further west it forms part of the border with Portugal.
(By the way, the prefix Guad- can be found in several other Spanish place names, such as the Guadalquivir, the river that runs through Seville and Córdoba; the Guadarrama, a mountain range near Madrid; and Guadalajara, an old city in Castilla La Mancha. This prefix is a Castillianization of Arabic.)
A park ran along the riverside, green and splendid. Stray cats hid among the bushes, and teenagers sat and chatted on the benches. The river was calm and clear; the overhanging trees were reflected on its surface in the waning daylight. We walked until we reached a bridge, and then climbed a stairwell hoping to cross the river. But once we got to the top, we both gasped.
Half the town was gathered in the square, under the walls of the old Moorish fortress. The people were having an Easter Parade.
The most immediately noticeable thing—for an American, at least—is that it looks like a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, the Spaniards created their costumes first, and thus it is absurd to associate them with American racism. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy.
The unease passed quickly, however, and soon I was wholly absorbed in the spectacle. Rows and rows of hooded figures were lined up, some in red, some in white, each of them carrying a stalk of wheat. Among these were dozens of children, who carried little bags full of candy with them; as they walked by, they handed each passerby a treat. Behind the hooded figures was the float. On a large platform a life-sized figure of Jesus was seated on a donkey for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Floats such as this—typical of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain—are carried on the shoulders of a team of men, who huddle underneath, hidden under a veil. It must be heavy. As I watched, the float slowly lurched into motion, step by slow step, plodding like a giant through the town.
Behind the float was the marching band of brass instruments and drums. The music was very simple, and very loud. The snare drums beat out a slow, methodical march rhythm. Over this, the band played a somber sequence of minor chords—a sour, out of tune, tremendously tragic sound that conveyed a sense of overwhelming loss. Sometimes a trumpeter would play a call-and-response with the rest of the horns, squeezing out a strangled series of shrill notes, to be answered by the violent blare of the other players. If you think I didn’t liked it, you’re mistaken; it was music with pathos.
We stood and watched the Holy Week procession for over an hour. I feel privileged to have seen it. Unlike any American tradition, the Semana Santa traditions in Spain give the overwhelming impression of authentic age—as if they have been celebrated the same way for centuries. One feels that one is looking into the depths of history. In stark contrast to the commercial holidays I am accustomed to, the parade had a gravity and solemnity that was deeply moving.
But now it was dark, and we were hungry and tired. After a quick bite we went to sleep.
The next day was Monday. This was to be our only day full in Mérida, so we had lots to see. As I mentioned, Mérida was an important city in Hispania (Rome’s name for Spain). Consequently, some of the finest Roman ruins in Spain, and perhaps anywhere in the world outside Italy, can be found here.
Visitors to the Roman ruins of Mérida have the option to buy combination tickets, which include six sites. This is what we did. Then we went to the two jewels of the city: the Theater and the Amphitheater, located right in the center of town.
The visit took us to the amphitheater first. This is a like a smaller version of Rome’s Colosseum—though it was still a massive construction, big enough for 15,000 spectators. Many of the entranceways into the area are still perfectly useable, the Roman arches still holding strong. Other parts of the building are in various states of decay, allowing me to see the different layers of materials used in the building. One thing I learned—and I’m mildly ashamed I didn’t know this before—was that the Romans had bricks. Indeed, the bricks looked so neat and pristine, their color still bright red, that I found it hard to believe that they were original.
The years had been hardest on the seats; most of them are reduced to rubble. Apart from that, however, the preservation is astonishing. Our visit took us through a long tunnel, the main entrance. On either side of the walkway, cardboard cutouts of gladiators are standing guard; beside these are captions of information, explaining the typical armaments of the different types of gladiators. I had thought there were only two or three types of gladiators, but apparently there were a dozen or more, each with their own distinct weaponry. Some had tridents and nets, some had rectangular shields and short swords, and some had small circular shields, heavy helmets, and daggers.
On a stone in front of the box seats reserved for government officials is a faded inscription: AUGUST. PONT. MAXIM. TRIBUNIC POTESTATE XVI. (I myself couldn’t read it, but there was an informational plaque nearby.) From this we learn that this amphitheater was built during the reign of Caesar Augustus, around the year 8 BCE to be precise. To put that in context, the Colosseum was built about eighty years later, in 75 CE.
I tried in vain to imagine what it would be like to fight for my life in front of hundreds of cheering people, and gave up. It is a chilling thought to realize that this splendid architectural marvel was built so that the exploited citizenry and overfed nobles could watch slaves kill each other. It is yet another proof that great art can be produced for nefarious ends.
After our fill of pictures we went to the next stop, the Roman theater. It was even more impressive than the amphitheater we had just passed through: it was gorgeous.
The theater holds about 6,000 people. First built in around 15 BCE, and majorly renovated about 200 years later, it consists of a semi-circular stadium of seats surrounds a central stage. At first glance the seats looked to be in much better condition than the seats in the neighboring amphitheater; but this was an illusion created by stone-colored plastic coverings. (Plays are still performed here so they need working seats.) In the middle is a semi-circular open space, and beyond that, on a raised platform, a larger rectangular space: this was where the magic happened. But the real attraction was the structure behind the stage.
On each side, resting upon two levels of ten elegant Corinthian columns, was a wonderful façade that served as a backdrop for the ancient theater productions. This is called the scaenae frons, a normal fixture of Roman theaters. It had three doors, one in the center and one on each side, that allowed the actors to enter and exit the stage. The columns themselves were lovely, carved from delicately textured gray and white marble. Standing in the nooks of these columns were Roman statues (the originals are on display at Mérida’s Museum of Roman Art; these are replicas) of gods and heroes, with flowing robes and ornate armor.
I feel a powerful sense of helplessness in moments like this, when faced with something so beautiful and so historic. What am I supposed to do? I take pictures, I wander around, I sit, I stand, I stroll, I do my best to examine and appreciate. I feel a sense of awe at the age and splendor of the place, but what am I supposed to do with this feeling? I wish that the experience would humble me, will put things in perspective, and thus ennoble me; but of course the person who walks out of the monument is still the same petty, neurotic person who walked in.
I hoped to visit the city’s Museum of Roman Art next, but here I realized that I had planned my trip poorly: we were there on the only day the museum is closed, Monday. So we left to go find some more Roman ruins.
Luckily, Roman ruins were not in short supply. In just ten minutes we came upon the so-called Temple of Diana. This is something of a misnomer, as the temple was actually dedicated to Augustus. In any case it is an impressive sight; a marble lintel sat atop several towering columns. Behind the remains of the temple is affixed an old Renaissance-style house. Apparently, some rich knight decided that it would be nice to live next to the old ruins. The house was elegant enough, but the final effect of the house and the temple was somewhat incongruous. If memory serves, the government considered knocking the house down; but finally decided that it was important enough to merit preservation.
Next we went to the Alcázaba. As its name suggests, this is an old Moorish fortress; it stands next to the Roman bridge, so as to guard the old entrance to the city, and apparently was built over the remains of an older, Roman fortress. This fortress came in handy to the Moors, as they faced several uprisings. The walls are tall and thick, and could have easily withstood all but the most organized attacks.
The entrance fee was included in our combination tickets, so we walked right in. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see inside the walls. I imagine that the place was previously full of military barracks and other martial necessities, made out of non-durable materials like wood, which have since disappeared. The only exception to this was the stone cistern. This was a square building that stands in the center of the fortress. There is nothing inside except a long ramp that leads deep underground. At the bottom is a pool of clear, blue rainwater where, surprisingly enough, some fish make their home. But what do they eat?
Adjacent to the fortress is the Roman Bridge. This bridge is quite similar to the Roman bridges I had seen in Salamanca and Córdoba: a stone road built over a series of arches, not more than fifty feet over the water. But the bridge of Mérida does have the distinction of being considerably longer; indeed, it is the longest surviving bridge from ancient Rome. The bridge stretches well over 790 m, or 2,500 ft—a stupefying achievement of engineering. The Romans knew what they were doing.
GF and I walked to the other side of the river, and towards the other major bridge of Mérida, the Puente Lusitania. This is an attractive, modern bridge, designed by the architect Santiago Calatraba. The form of the Puente Lusitania is dominated by a big, great fin, like the back of a whale. Its completion in 1991 finally allowed the city to close the Roman Bridge to vehicular traffic. In other words, the only bridge linking both halves of Mérida until 1991 was a bridge built by the Romans.
(The only other bridge across the Guadiana is the railroad bridge, a triangulated structure of cast iron beams riveted together, designed by an Englishman named William Finch in the nineteenth century. The three bridges of Mérida, taken together, are a lovely study in contrasts.)
Our next stop was the Circus Maximus. This was on the other side of town; we had to walk about half an hour, all the way through the city center and through a tunnel under a highway to get there. Again, our tickets included this visit, so we walked right in.
In truth, there wasn’t much to see. It is a dilapidated stone wall (previously, rows of seating), that surrounds an oval-shaped grass field. The only impressive thing about the monument was its size: it’s huge. This was, of course, because chariot races cannot be carried out in closets. We walked around the grassy field for a few minutes, while I tried in vain to imagine what a chariot race would look and feel like, the horses stampeding in a confused heap, the wheels rattling, the whips cracking, the men shouting, the crowd screaming.
Outside the Circus Maximus were the remains of an old Roman aqueduct, the Acueducto de San Lázaro, one of the three Roman aqueducts of Mérida. Compared with the extraordinary aqueduct of Segovia, this one was rather short—only about 20 to 30 feet. It did go on for quite a ways, however, eventually extending over the other river of Mérida, the Albarregas.
We followed the aqueduct for a while, across the river and into a park, until the aqueduct disappeared over a hill. Then, we broke off for our next destination, the last site included in our tickets: the Casa del Mitreo.
This is an archaeological site that consists of the remains of an entire Roman housing complex. Understandably, you can’t go in; the visitor walks around a platform raised above the ruins, allowing you to peek inside the rooms from above. The complex was quite large; either it was one very rich family, or several families of more humble means. I don’t know, because all the information panels were written in very small font, in Spanish, and there was a crying kid nearby that kept breaking my focus. Oh well.
Most notable were the impressive floor mosaics, beautifully preserved. My favorite was a floor that had three concentric patterns: an outer pattern of criss-crosses, a middle pattern of rectangles, and an inner pattern of an intricate labyrinth. Floor tilling hasn’t advanced much in the last two thousand years, it seems.
The sun was setting now, and both of us were exhausted. We had been on our feet all day, crisscrossing all over town. But we had one final thing see: the Acueducto de los Milagros, or Aqueduct of the Miracles. This meant yet another walk through town, which we dutifully made, painful and blistered as my feet now were. It was worth it.
This aqueduct is massive, about 25 m, or 80 ft tall, standing on three rows of arches. It is partly in ruins now, scarred by the tooth of time, but this only lent it a special majesty. The sun was setting, shinning directly onto the aqueduct, making its brick construction glow a rusty red. All around was a park, where families were talking and laughing. GF and I sat on a bench, resting our aching limbs, staring up at the towering ruin. It was so impressive and so lovely that soon I felt myself full of energy again, ready to drag myself through a dozen more Roman monuments.
Soon the sun was setting. We limped back into town, and were again greeted with a surprise: they were having another Easter Parade. This time the crowd was gathered in front of the doors of a church. Just as we got there, the procession started to exit the building, walking with slow steps to the beat of another doleful march. We watched it go for a while, and then went to feast on beer and cheap sandwiches. Our trip was over. We would be going to Lisbon early next morning, but that’s for another post.
I’m not sure I’ve had a better day in Spain, and that’s saying something. Do visit Mérida. It is an extraordinary place.
(I have broken up my original post into two separate posts, for ease of navigation. You can find part two here.)
The train ride on the Hudson Line, from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, must be one of the most scenic in the United States. The ride has both natural and artificial beauties along the way. The Hudson Valley itself is magnificent, with the palisades across the shimmering waters; and this is doubly true in autumn, when the trees turn their fiery hues. Occasionally you pass a sail boat or a freight barge in the river, or a team of rowers diligently practicing in the Bronx. The train also takes you under the High Bridge, the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and the Bear Mountain Bridge, three engineering feats. A careful rider can even catch a glimpse of Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s old home. (Irving was very annoyed when they built the railroad right next to his house.)
Among all this, the most striking landmarks along the way are, for me, the ruins. Specifically, two ruins: the Yonkers Power Plant and Bannerman Castle.
Ruins have a power to fascinate that is difficult to account for logically. They are the same structures that exist, in unruined form, all over the place. The difference between a ruin and a proper structure, architecturally speaking, is pure defect: the ruins have lost their integrity and utility. And yet ruins have been captivating the artistic imagination since at least the Romantic era. Their battered and broken forms have provided inspiration for Shelley’s poems, Byron’s travel sketches, and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. It was the ruins of Rome that shaped the Renaissance in Italy, and those same ruins that inspired Edward Gibbon to memorialize Rome’s decline and fall.
What is it about ruins that is so compelling? There are many answers. One is that ruins allow us to visualize time. We see how time’s tooth rusts metal, cracks foundations, and crumbles stone. We see what rots away and what petrifies in place. Ruins also allow us catch a glimpse of a world without humans, the world we would leave behind if we all mysteriously disappeared. We can see the natural world slowly reclaiming buildings and walls, as plants and animals invade the empty space. Perhaps we feel what Shelley felt when contemplating the fate of Ozymandias: that humanity’s urge for immortality is futile and vain, since everything eventually decays.
For all of these reasons, and still others, ruins have an undeniable power—as attested by the many photographers, amateur and professional, who go out of their way to document them. This is my little contribution.
The Yonkers Power Plant
The Hudson Valley has been many things since its water began to carve a channel through the earth: wilderness, scenic escape, suburbia.
One hundred years ago, the valley was an artery of industrialization, dotted with factories and warehouses, noisy with barges and freight trains. The Hudson Valley was also one of the great centers of brick production, its soil baked and sold far and wide, which is why so many of its old buildings are brick. But we are long past the industrial age, and these buildings no longer house factories or store goods. Nowadays they house fine restaurants, cafés, or even libraries, such as the Irvington Public Library, which is in the old Lord and Burnham factory building.
The most impressive of these old factory buildings is still in use: the Domino Sugar Refinery, in Yonkers. Originally built in 1893, this refinery still produces three million pounds of sugar per day. It is one of Domino’s three major refineries, the last major sugar refinery in the Northeast, and a major source of employment within Yonkers. With an old, hulking brick building standing aside newer metal conveyer belts, this refinery is the sister of the more famous one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which closed in 2004 and was mostly demolished in 2014, except for some buildings given landmark status.
But the grandest ruin of the industrial age sits a few miles north. This is the Yonkers Power Plant, which stands on the river side of the local Glenwood train station. With its smokestacks scolding the sky hundreds of feet in the air, the plant is hard to miss. I often saw it on my commute to the city and wondered, what is it doing here? Why was there such a massive building rotting, empty and neglected, by the side of the tracks?
The answer comes down to power. When the trains began running in the 1840s—connecting faraway places and disturbing Washington Irving’s peace—they were running on steam. By the early 1900s, the railroad was prepared to switch to electricity, using the newly designed third rail. The problem was that, at the time, the municipal electrical grid was not powerful or dependable enough to supply the power. Thus the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, which owned the Hudson Line back then, built their own power plants. The Yonkers Power Plant was situated along the river for several reasons: to be close to the tracks, to take advantage of the water to cool the machinery, and to make it easy to supply the plant with coal, which was delivered by ship.
The power plant was built by the architectural firm, Reed and Stem, who also collaborated on Grand Central Station. (Charles A. Reed was related by marriage to the president of the New York Central railroad, which doubtless helped him get commissions.) The plant opened in 1907, and ran on coal, which was brought by barge to the boiler room below. The steam generated by the boiler was used to power several massive turbines on the floor above. This power, generated in alternating current, was changed into direct current for the trains by rotary converters. (These rotary converters, by the way, are the only heavy machinery still in the factory; the rest was sold for scrap metal.)
By the 1930, it no longer made financial sense for the railroads to be in the power business, so in 1936 the plant was sold to Edison Light and Electric (a subsidiary of Con Edison) and converted to run on oil. This was not a long term solution either, since the plant’s relatively small size (relative to more modern power plants, that is) made it inadequate to New York’s massive power needs. So in 1963, the plant was closed. It was eventually sold to a private owner, who mostly let nature and teenagers have their way. The plant acquired the name “Gates of Hell,” for supposedly being the place where gangs held ritual inductions. Over the years, it became overgrown and covered in graffiti (some of it quite good). Meanwhile, proposals to transform the plant into apartments did not pan out.
(By the way, I am mainly relying on the excellent website, Hudson Valley Ruins, for this information. Their page on the power plant also has many great pictures.)
Most recently, the power plant was purchased by an entrepreneur named Lela Goren, who announced a plan to convert the plant into an arts exhibition center. The building will be renovated in two phases, which will cost $150 million all together, and finished sometime in the next decade. Work began in 2013. The grounds have already been substantially cleared of rubbish and debris, and the walls are being stabilized. I am pleased to learn, from this NY Times article, that Goren plans on keeping much of the industrial aesthetic, even the graffiti.
On a sunny summer afternoon I visited the plant for myself. I stepped off the train at Glenwood Station and craned my neck upward at the redbrick wreck. Despite the work the Goren Group had already done, the place is still visibly a ruin. All the windows are smashed; ivy climbs up iron beams; and an eerie silence pervades the building.
Glenwood is a local station, and few people use it. Aside from the old plant, Glenwood’s main attraction is the Hudson River Museum, which focuses on the river’s ecology. That day, I was the only person standing on the platform. A fence surrounds the old plant, covered in “Do Not Enter” and “No Trespassing” signs, assuring the prospective intruder that video cameras are surveilling the property. Even so, standing there alone on the platform, with nobody else in sight, it was difficult to resist climbing into the ruin. I would not even have had to climb the fence, since a stepladder was helpfully leaned up against it. The ruin still has its visitors.
But I’m no daredevil, so I contented myself with patrolling its perimeter. Yet through the gaping windows I could glimpse the cavernous interior space, which many have compared to a cathedral nave. Indeed, compared with a gothic cathedral, the power plant is an exceedingly light, airy structure, with thin walls and plentiful windows. The towering brick façade, combined with the thin steel girders of the building’s innards, make it seem as if an elephant body is being suspended from chicken bones.
The plant consists of two buildings, the main plant and a substation next door. The substation is where the rotary converters transformed the current from alternating to direct, so the trains could use it; from there the current was sent to the rail tracks. An attractive metal footbridge connects the two buildings. Outside, a metal tower still stands, rusted and overgrown, which I believe used to hold the wires. On the southern side of the station there’s a little park. From here you can see how the station juts out into the Hudson. This must have been to enable the use of the Hudson’s water in the boilers; and, indeed, the boiler room still floods during high tide, I believe.
I can see why Lela Goren saw potential in the plant, since its location is as attractive as the building itself. Across the river you have an excellent view of the Hudson Palisades. Looking northwards, you can see the Hudson Valley all the way up to the Tappan Zee. Looking south, Manhattan comes into view, a silhouette behind the George Washington Bridge.
From this vantage point, with the city in the distance, the river ferrying boats along its glimmering waves, it is difficult to believe that this wonderful brick building was made to simply to supply electricity to trains. It was truly a different time. At its peak, the Yonkers Power Plant could generation 30,000 kilowatts, or 30 megawatts. To put this in perspective, the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Croton, the Robert Moses Power Dam in Niagara Falls, and the Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens can all generate over 2,000 megawatts. We have come a long way. But unfortunately for us, not one of those is even one-tenth as beautiful as the Yonkers Power Station.
It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.
I was stressed, sweaty, tired, and running a little late. Today was my day to visit the Vatican. I needed to get to the ticket office on time, or risk losing my entry to that sacred place. The only problem was that—because I did not trust myself with navigating Rome’s metro, especially not when so much was at stake—I had opted to walk; and this meant over an hour of trekking, at full speed, on a humid sunny day, as I followed my phone—which occasionally froze and required me to restart the map program—through the unfamiliar city.
Nothing could stop me or slow me down: not the lure of food, not the heat of the sun, not the ambling tourists that crowded the sidewalks. The only thing that could halt my steps was, as it turned out, Trajan’s Column.
I had first seen this monument in art history class; even now I can vividly remember how awed and impressed I was at the craftsmanship displayed by the Romans in this work. The column, I should explain, was made to celebrate the military victories of Trajan. It stands 30 meters (98 feet) tall, and even higher if you include the pedestal. Twisting along this length, covering the entire surface, is a series of bas reliefs depicting Trajan’s military campaigns. The detail is fine and exquisite: hundreds and hundreds of figures, legionaries, barbarians, and beasts of burden, in all varieties of poses and positions, marching and fighting up and down the column. We see Trajan laying siege, crossing rivers, celebrating victory; trumpeters blowing their horns, animals being led to the sacrifice, barbarians being tortured and trampled underfoot.
I must immediately admit, however, that all this detail was mostly invisible to me. You see, the column now sits in a parking lot—quite forlornly, I think—and it is not possible to get close enough to really appreciate the bas relief. It would be better if there were some sort of scaffold surrounding the column. As it stands now, the tourist must gape up from a distance.
There is a platform on the top, which can be reached by climbing up the steps inside the column (though this is off limits to the visitor). Originally the work was topped with a statue of an eagle, later replaced by a statue of Trajan himself. During the Renaissance, this imperial statue was, in turn, later replaced by a statue of St. Peter. Nowadays the Fords and Hondas that surround the column add an extra contemporary flavor. Thus time and changing fashions conspire to render the old glory of the Roman emperor obsolete and ridiculous. And yet, even now, there is no way to look upon Trajan’s Column without imagining that same emperor standing on the top, looking proudly out at his city and his empire, the ruler and conqueror of all within view and beyond the horizon in every direction.
I turned a corner, and there it was: the Pantheon. I was not even looking for it; I had been searching for the Trevi Fountain. Only in Rome can you unintentionally stumble upon one of the most famous buildings in the world.
The exterior of the building is striking enough. In front is a portico, supported by eight Corinthian columns. Sticking out behind this portico is a somewhat bulbous mass, a circular structure made of plain, drab concrete. The surface is discolored from centuries of rain, leaving ugly water stains, and is now cheerlessly grey, even in the bright summer sun of Rome. But contained within this somewhat unpromising exterior is one of the most beautiful spaces in history.
The Pantheon’s name, which means “all the gods,” reveals its original function as a temple. (Though there is some doubt about whether all the Olympian gods were actually worshipped there.) It was built during the reign of Hadrian, in about 120 CE, and is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome. Indeed, it seems hardly fitting to include the Pantheon in my post on “ruins,” since it is a fully functioning building.
The building was mobbed when I arrived. A line extended out the door; the surrounding area was packed with people; and inside there was hardly an inch of elbow room. This is unsurprising, considering that the ancient temple is right in the center of Rome, free to visit, and one of the most famous edifices in the world.
Since the beginning of the medieval period, the Pantheon has been used as a Christian church. It was this re-consecration and repurposing that saved the building from oblivion. (The official name is the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs.) There is an altar at the far end of the building; and statues of Mary and various Saints stand guard around the perimeter of the building. The final effect is somewhat like standing in the Mezquita in Cordova: the Christian trapping look out of place in building whose architectural language is so different from a usual church.
The real highlight of the Pantheon is its ceiling. Even today, there is no unreinforced concrete dome larger than the Pantheon’s. It is a magnificent architectural feat. To me it scarcely seems believable that the Romans, without computers or calculators or even protractors, could have designed and executed something so geometrically precise. The coffering is so clean and regular that it looks digital.
In the center of this dome is an oculus, or opening, that lets sunlight pour into the building. A bright, yellow spot of the sun’s rays illuminates the interior like a searchlight, traveling around the space as the sun moves in the sky. On the floor below this opening are drains, so that the building doesn’t flood in the rain.
I sat down on one of the pews facing the altar, and stared up at the magnificent ceiling, suspended so enchantingly above me. This temple had been built for many gods, and had been re-dedicated to One; but as I sat there, it was easy to see what that the Pantheon was really consecrating: the force of human genius.
The architecture of Rome speaks the language of power. It has been imitated around the world, in ancient and modern times, to symbolize dominance and military might.
You can see this in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Porte Saint-Denise in the same city; you can see this in Madrid, with the Puerta de Alcalá; you can see this in London, with the Wellington Arch; you can see this in New York City, with the Washington Square Arch; and you can see this most clearly, perhaps, in Berlin, with the Reichstag Building and its neoclassical portico, the towering Berlin Victory Column inspired by Trajan’s Column, and the Brandenburg Gate, one of so many triumphal arches to be inspired by Roman examples.
One of the earlier and most influential of these Roman arches is that of Titus, located just outside the Roman Forum, on the famous Via Sacra. Built in the first century CE, it has only one arch. The inside of this arch is coffered with floral motifs. On the inner walls, on both sides, are reliefs commemorating the victories of Titus, the emperor Domitian’s older brother. I remembered from my art history class that this arch is notable for having one of the earliest depictions of a Menorah, which is pictured in the frieze celebrating Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem.
Larger and grander is the arch of Septimius Severus, which is in the Roman Forum itself. This was completed in 203 CE, and dedicated to the military victories of Septimus Severus and his sons against the Parthians. It has three arches—a large one in the center, and two smaller ones flanking it—and its façades are covered with reliefs depicting military campaigns. One of Septimius Severus’s sons, Caracalla, eventually had his brother Geta assassinated; and Geta’s name and image were removed from all monuments.
The largest of the three triumphal arches is the Arch of Constantine, completed in 315. This arch is situated between the Coliseum and the Roman Forum; originally it spanned the Via triumphalis, the road that generals and emperors traveled when they entered the city in triumph. It is an interesting stylistic jumble, since it was built out of spolia, or the remains of earlier pieces, which leads to juxtapositions of artistic periods. I cannot help but seeing this gesture—appropriating Rome’s glorious past—as a sign of the empire’s decadence. Indeed, Constantine’s arch, while the largest, was also the last triumphal arch built in Rome.
The Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum are included on the same ticket. This is important to know, since it makes buying your ticket much more convenient. Most people buy their tickets at the Colosseum ticket office, which can mean quite a long wait on line. You might have better luck doing as I did, and buying your tickets at the Palatine Hill ticket office, on Via San Gregorio 30. There wasn’t a single person ahead of me; in three minutes I had my tickets and was strolling around the Palatine Hill. And this was on a Saturday.
The Palatine Hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome; and of these seven it is the most central. According to legend, this hill was where the she-wolf, Lupa, nurtured the abandoned Romulus and Remus, and where Romulus, after killing his brother in a fit of pique, decided to found the city that bears his name. The less-mythological origins of this hill are also interesting: archaeologists have discovered settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, the remains of which you can see displayed in the Palatine Museum. Both in fable and in fact, then, the Palatine Hill is at the heart of Rome’s history.
As you stroll up the hill, a jumble of sun-baked brick strikes your eye. Arches tower over arches, in a rolling, chaotic mass of rusty red. I could not guess what any of these skeletal structures had been used for. I was first reminded of the abandoned Yonkers Power Plant, near my home in Sleepy Hollow, a similarly empty pile of brick. Yet that ruin, far younger, is somewhat ghoulish; it still echoes with the sounds of departed life. These bones of Rome had been washed by the rain of a thousand seasons, and bleached by the sun of a thousand summers. They were dead and sterile; they seemed to be part of the landscape, growing from the soil, rather than anything put there by people.
But of course people did build these structures—very powerful people. These ruins are, most of them, the remains of palace complexes of erstwhile emperors; the biggest of these is the Flavian Palace (Domus Flavia), which owes its ultimate form to Septimius Severus, but there are also temples and aristocratic houses from the Republican period. Another notable structure is the one known as the Stadium of Domitian, which looks like a hippodrome for chariot races, except that it is obviously too small to fulfill that purpose. This has led to some speculation as to its function; the most popular theory is that it was the emperor’s private gardens.
Because there were so many different buildings, from different eras, jutting up against one another and superimposed on top of one another, it was difficult for me to get a sense of what it used to look like by walking around the ruins. Instead, I was given a sense of time, of lost time; a feel for the lapsed years that disappeared into an unknown past. So many generations had come and gone on this hill, dismantling, repurposing, renovating, and expanding the work of their predecessors. These were people like me, with their own ambitions and ideologies, their own perspectives; and some were the most powerful men of their time. And now look what is left.
Aside from its ruins, the Palatine Hill is worth visiting simply for the view. Standing atop of the hill, surrounded by the remains of an ancient empire, you can see modern Rome stretch out before you. St. Peter’s stands proudly in the distance; to one side is the Circus Maximus; and standing above the enormous retaining walls, which extended the hill’s scope to accommodate the ever-growing imperial palace, you can see the whole Roman Forum.
The only thing, besides the burning Roman sun, that detracted from my visit were the art installations set up around the site. Take, for example, Mark Lulic’s piece, The Death of the Monument. This is just a large sign that says “Death of the Monument” in bright red letters. Now, in my opinion this piece obviously has no aesthetic merit, since it looks like an unimaginative advertisement. Its only purpose, then, can be conceptual. And as one might expect, accompanying this work is an explanatory caption, written in pretentious art jargon. I will quote an example:
Persuasive and seducing like in the best mass communication marketing tradition, the admonition transforms into an illogical presence of the artwork, which is a monumental negation of itself. The visual impact conveyed through a specialized and unconscious mechanism acquires instinctively a conceptual form, leading us to raise some questions: doesn’t the death of the monument coincide with its birth?
And so on in the same vein.
I find this disturbing on many levels. First, I am against any work of art that lacks both aesthetic and intellectual interest, and requires a condescending and badly written plaque in order to explain the art to the viewer. Good art should never need to be explained, only experienced. This is putting aside the sacrilege of putting such mediocre art in the middle of the Palatine Hill, turning a profound historical visit into a trip to a mediocre art gallery. The artist’s bad taste has been compounded by the bad taste of whoever let him install his art here. And this piece is only one example of many that pollute the Palatine Hill. Such art is a depressing index of our current cultural moment.
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) sits in a valley underneath the Palatine Hill. This forum was, for many hundreds of years, the heart of Rome; it was a center of commerce, trade, worship, and political power. Now it is center of tourism.
Looking down from that hill, you can see the Forum in its entirety. What you see is a jumble of columns with no roof to support, domes hanging over open air, fragmentary walls slowly crumbling to dust, the foundations of demolished buildings, and doorways leading nowhere; you see arches celebrating long-dead emperors, fountains sacred to long-dead heroes, temples dedicated to long-dead gods: the ruins of an entire civilization.
It would take many thousands of words to describe all of these ruins individually. I will only mention a few in passing. The Temple of Castor and Pollux, built around 500 BCE, is now little more than three towering Corinthian columns supporting the smallest bit of roof. The Temple of Saturn, built about the same time, is somewhat more complete, still possessing all of its front portico; in the old temple building, now long-gone, the Romans used to keep the official scales for weighing precious metals. The old Palace of the Vestal Virgins—where virgins lived a life of solitude, tending a sacred flame—has been lost; but several statues of the blessed women still grace the forum.
Perhaps the most impressive ruin, at least for sheer size, is the Basilica of Maxentius. This was completed during the reign of Constantine. Now only three of the basilica’s three concrete barrel vaults, coffered to save weight, remain standing. Rising to 39 meters (130 feet), it was the largest building in the Roman Forum; even now it is so large that it looks scarcely out of place amid the modern city. How on earth Romans managed to construct a building so large, with little internal support, is beyond my feeble understanding and imagination.
The most complete building in the Roman Forum might be Santa Maria Antiqua. Built in the 5th century, this is the oldest Christian monument in the forum, and one of the most important examples of early Christian art. The reason it has been so well-preserved is because an earthquake buried the church in the 9th century, and it stayed sealed under the rocks for over 1,000 years, until finally it was re-opened in the 20th century. This makes the church something of an unintentional time-capsule. What was revealed, upon its re-discovery, was a wonderful assortment of frescoes, their vivid colors preserved by the sterile air. These frescoes are especially valuable, since they provide a window into the pre-iconoclastic period of Christian art.
For my part, although I am ignorant as to their scholarly importance, I could not but be moved by these ancient, decaying portraits of angels and saints. In the dim light and dusky air, amid the faded ink and chipped plaster, the serene eyes of the first Christians stared back at me from across centuries—a triumphant victory, however temporary, against Time’s sharp tooth.
Finally it was time to visit the last ruin. Blinking in the hot sun, overwhelmed by all I had seen—far too much to take in for one day—I walked away from the forum and towards the most famous building in Rome. I still remember seeing the Colosseum in pictures in my sixth grade history class. I remember learning about the gladiators, the battles between wild animals and condemned prisoners, the executions of Christians, the mock-naval battles. Now I was finally here.
Purists will insist on calling it the Flavian Amphitheater. This was its original name, which it took from the name of the dynasty who built it. Construction began in 72 under Vespasian, and was completed in 80 by Titus; then Domitian, also a Flavian emperor, could not resist making a few modifications of his own. It is known as the Colosseum—or so the theory goes—because of the colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby. (This statue was 30 meters, or 100 feet, tall. Now no trace of it remains, save its base. How something like that disappears is not easy to fathom.)
The Colosseum is the biggest amphitheater ever built. It could hold somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Its tall outer walls reach a height of 48 meters (157 feet). Elliptical rather than perfectly circular, it is 189 meters (615 feet) long and 156 meters (510 feet) wide; its perimeter stretches to about 550 meters (1,800 feet).
But these numbers seem pale and lifeless compared to the experience of seeing it with your own eyes. It is a mammoth structure. As you stand on the hillside facing its outer walls, the building fills up your entire field of vision. Its walls tower above you, dwarfing the hundreds of people scurrying about its edges. Circumambulating the building takes five long minutes. The tall outer wall only extends about halfway round the structure; where it has collapsed, you can see the rows of interior arches that supported the many rows of seats inside. The entire area around the Colosseum is packed with tourists, tour guides, and vendors. Selfie sticks jut out left and right; groups pose for photo after photo; aggressive guides try to sell you their services.
Even though I had a ticket, I had to wait a few minutes on a long line. The security was pretty tight; everyone had to scuttle through a pair of overworked metal detectors. When you are finally inside, the most striking thing is the place’s familiarity. I had already seen so many photos of the amphitheater that every curve of its outline was already known to me. This happens with every iconic monument. It takes an act of will to see the place as it really is, rather than as a cultural symbol. I tried to blink away my preconceptions, to see the Colosseum afresh, as a hunk of stones laden with history; but so many notions had already molded my reaction that I felt strangely disconnected.
There is nothing especially beautiful about the Colosseum’s interior. Every part of the building is the same shade of brown; and its partially collapsed state makes it seem like a rolling mass of dun-colored stones in some lonely desert. The building is so filled with windows and arches that it is practically transparent; what remains today are just the building’s bones, its vital organs having long been reduced to dust. Today there are two levels available to visitors, though in the past there must have been at least four (and many more rows of seats). As I walked in the covered corridors that circumscribe the amphitheater, I was reminded when I was in Madrid’s bull ring, Las Ventas: and in that moment I could dimly imagine how it must have felt to be a Roman bustling through a crowd, trying to find his seat, so he could watch a bloody spectacle.
Beautiful or not, the building is grand and impressive. Merely as a feat of engineering, it is enough to inspire awe. Putting aside its massive size and its thoughtful organization, allowing visitors quick exit and entry, the Colosseum also boasted a system, called the hypogeum, of trap-doors and hidden chambers that allowed gladiators and animals to enter the ring from many different spots. What remains of this elaborate system can be seen in the amphitheater’s arena.
The now-absent floor of the Colosseum was made of wood and covered with sand. The hypogeum was below this, which consisted of walls, cages, and tunnels, two levels deep. Complex pulleys, and even hydraulic equipment, were used to haul men and animals onto the stage. Animals as big as elephants could be introduced this way. Tunnels also connected the Colosseum with nearby stables and gladiator barracks, allowing the “performers” to enter into the arena unseen by the crowd. Before this hypogeum was built, the arena could be flooded with water to have mock-naval battles.
The ultimate irony of the Colosseum is, of course, that something so grand and inspiring, the result of so much knowledge and work, could be used for such barbarous purposes. Slaves condemned to kill other slaves, exotic animals brought to be butchered, prisoners mauled by lions en masse. This is only another example of the sad human truth, that our greatest gifts and capabilities, our art and our technology, can be employed in the service of the darkest side of our nature. This is why we must educate our ends as well as means.
Edward Gibbon decided to write his magisterial history of Rome’s decline and fall after seeing her ruins. Upon witnessing these remains of a long-dead empire, the contemporary visitor cannot help but ask the same question as did Gibbon: how did such a powerful civilization collapse and fail? How is it possible that the people who built the Pantheon and who decorated Trajan’s column could vanish?
History teaches few lessons more clearly than this: that all human order requires constant reinforcement, or it will fall into disorder. Gibbon said much the same thing when he reminded us that “all that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.” Rome’s progress from the proud conqueror who erected arches celebrating her victories, to the aging empire of Constantine that looked backward to Rome’s glory days, to the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410; her progress from the glorious marble statues you can see in the Palatine Hill Museum, to the sad faces that stare back at you from the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua; her progress from the engineers who could create the concrete dome of the Pantheon, to the middle ages when the secret of making concrete had been lost: What does all this mean for us? Are we staring into our past, or our future?
And yet, did Rome really fall? Here I am, writing in a Latinized language, in a European country whose laws and institutions were influenced by Rome’s, and whose language, Spanish, grew directly out of Rome’s. Here I am in Spain, one of the many countries of the European Union, an effort to unite the continent largely inspired by Rome’s example. Order, when neglected, may fall into disorder; and perhaps it always does. But the ideal of order persists: it persists in the memories of men and women, it persists in books and the spoken word, and it persists in monumental ruins—in broken columns, crumbling amphitheaters, and cracked foundations—that serve as a beacon for future generations.