Romes, Past and Present

15823Today, we have a guest post from Maya Maskarinec, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California and author of City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages. Where conventional narratives explain the rise of Christian Rome as resulting from an increasingly powerful papacy, Maskarinec's book looks outward, to examine how Rome interacted with the wider Mediterranean world in the Byzantine period. Here, she reflects on Rome and how it has been conceived by its denizens and by historians at different points in its millenia-long existence.

“For three hundred and sixty-four days of the year,” wrote Federico Fellini in his memoirs (published as Making a Film in 1980), “you can remain completely alienated from Rome as a city, living in her without seeing her, or worse, enduring her with aversion. But then, sunken in your discontent, inside a taxi stopped at a traffic light, all of a sudden, a street that you certainly already knew appears in a light or color you’ve never before seen; or perhaps it is a delicate breeze that makes you lift your eyes and spot soaring cornices and terraces against a sky whose blue takes your breath away.”

I suspect that this predicament of living in Rome was equally true, if not more so, in bygone centuries. Rome has never been an easy place to live. Seneca, living in the first century AD, complains about how noisy it is living above a bathhouse: “Now the pastry-man’s varied cries, and the sausage-seller, the confectioner, and all food vendors each hawking his wares with his own distinct cadence.” And this is not to speak of the frequent disasters that struck the city. Yet if for 364 days a year­ Romans were consumed by the unforgiving city, the hardship of their daily lives, and their uncertain and precarious futures, it is difficult to believe that there were not moments—with the rain streaming in through the oculus in the Pantheon, or poppies blooming on a Roman aqueduct—when they were amazed by their city.

Visitors—and historians—have always had an easier time seeing the charms of Rome. From atop of the Janiculum, the highest of Rome’s hills, still today, Rome appears majestically spread out across its hills, the Tiber snaking through the plain, the city brimming with cupolas and bell towers.


Fellini called Rome “a horizontal city, of water and of land, stretched out, and thus the ideal foundation for fantastical leaps. Intellectuals, artists, who live in a perpetual state of friction between two different dimensions—reality and fantasy—find here the fitting and liberating catalyst for their mental activities: with the comfort of an umbilical cord that keeps them firmly attached to the concrete.”

Historians too require some imagination for reconstructing the “Romes” of former times, but more than other intellectuals and artists, they are to remain tethered to reality. This is what makes Rome such a fruitful field of study. Despite the centuries of floods, fires, and other willful and accidental destruction, Rome still offers pieces of its different pasts. These can greet the visitor unexpectedly: for example, outside the walls, in the modern church of Santa Galla, built when the older medieval church of Santa Galla within the walls near the Tiber bend was cleared to make way for a new road, a Roman funerary monument with a medieval inscription serves as the church’s altar.

AltarAnd so Rome’s past continues to be repurposed by Romans and visitors alike, as a living city, and as the basis for new stories about its past.

The story of Rome in the Early Middle Ages has remained one of the more forgotten. This is in part because of the paucity of evidence, but even more so because this story does not fit neatly into a straightforward narrative of the rise of a papal Rome. The story of Rome in the Early Middle Ages is a story of Byzantine administrators and Roman ecclesiastics, but also of communities of immigrants and Romans, their names long forgotten, who patronized saints from abroad for the protection and support these saints offered. The evidence for this period is fragmentary, but the presence of these saints in Rome reflects their patrons’ Mediterranean horizons. Once in Rome the legends of these saints maintained the memory of the far-flung locations from which they were purported to originate, adding particular inflexion to the city. Moreover, these saints, just like their Roman counterparts, were in dialogue with the monumental Roman past into which they entered, imbuing it with new Christian meaning. Together these saints and their communities built a new Rome, which captivated visitors to the city, and which must have, at least every now and then, amazed Romans who lived in the city.

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