Mae Camacho: Italia as Text 2022

Roma as Text

“Sweet Devotion”

Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

Looking into Ancient Rome was a brutal introduction to the city’s past. From the texts and clues left behind, I can tell how transparent ancient Romans were about their lifestyle and the beliefs they used to build the city from the ground up. The way ancient Romans lived could be described as an extreme. They built a freestanding stadium of a size never seen before just to gather in the thousands and watch fights that would be illegal to host today, and they did so with technology such as elevators and giant sails that the rest of the ancient world could hardly imagine. They built the pantheon to honor several gods in one huge and undiscriminating space designed to make worshippers feel tiny. The oculus at the top, a hole in the roof from which rain and light flow in, appears as a giant eye, like some God peering down and watching your every move. A smaller but similarly dramatic detail would be the story of the Vestal Virgins, worshippers of the hearth goddess Vesta, who dedicated their lives to preserving a large sacred fire within their temple at the Roman forum. These priestesses were considered higher class citizens than other women for cultivating this flame because it was symbolic for the security and longevity of the empire. It was forbidden to spill their blood, and if the fire were ever to die, it had to be relit using the sun’s rays. These are just some details that reflect the ancient Roman lifestyle built around grandiosity, discipline, and a strong sense of devotion. Every legend told and every tradition held- down to the unprecedented and promiscuous way Romans treated sex- seems to show incredible drama. Among many examples, the tale of Brutus, a man who had his own sons beheaded after discovering they were conspiring against the republic, is one that very clearly depicts the level of allegiance that was expected from all Romans. This devotion, to the republic and the gods they worshipped, is one extreme end of a spectrum justified by logic rather than morals. I see the birth and rise of Christianity as a natural reaction to the radical nature of a people that acted on human nature without fearing judgement. Romans had same sex lovers and killed for entertainment so that the Catholic Church could respond by tearing into that promiscuity and introducing a prudent lifestyle justified by morals. In a way, the birth and story of Jesus Christ marked the end of one extreme through the introduction of another, more “righteous” one. If the Romans had introduced their own tragic story of Jesus’ devotion to humanity and if they had guilted citizens into following in his perfect example, would the world be as conservative and as scared of human nature as it now, or is it inevitable that every action comes with an equal, opposite reaction?

Pompeii as Text

“What You Are Now, We Once Were”

Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

This city frozen in time is one of many ancient relics left behind by the Roman Empire. One huge difference is that this city was preserved by the sudden eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, which covered the entire city of Pompeii in ash and pumice rocks. Underneath, not only intact buildings and art pieces, but human bodies remained encapsulated by the volcanic residue, left untouched for the greater majority of 1,700 years before archeologists found it. It’s weird to walk the streets where the buildings are mostly intact and while you’re being told very human details of the things left behind- I don’t like feeling like I’m in someone else’s bones. But as I tried to immerse myself into the Pompeiian mentality anyway, the new reality was fun to imagine. I can’t infer much of the ancient society for obvious reasons except that they seemed as promiscuous as they did in Rome. Prostitutes would associate themselves with the she-wolf and carve penises into the ground that lead to their brothels. They would howl and beckon those that passed by at night, cementing their association. Near the outside of the city, the Villa of the Mysteries housed a primarily female cult that worshipped Dionysus, where the walls show well preserved and life sized portraits of a woman being initiated. The whole panoramic scene reads like a show dance as well as a story, and in one scene an initiate is whipped by another woman with black wings, presumably being corrected. It reminds me of how different womanhood can be interpreted, and how for many women the phrase “beauty is pain” is a reality. What is abhorrent to one is a rite to another as we fill very limited spaces in between male dominated roles. Often, the bubble a woman can grow inside is limited by the narrative created around her, but within the narrative there are never-ending shows of strength, in association to wolves and in cults secluding our practices.

It feels like the city was meant to be temporary. The uncensored ruins show the chaos and consistencies of urban life preserved until the next eruption. The bodies serve to remind us how quickly it can all be taken away, and how death comes not in moments of silence and saying goodbye, but while we are in the middle of taking life in, stepping into womanhood or serving wine to neighbors.

Tivoli as Text

“Ancient Safe Space”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Tivoli

Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

A major aspect of Roman life was the lax sense of sexuality. Ancient Romans had gay lovers centuries before it was even a known lifestyle but while true homosexual feelings were still looked down upon. This didn’t stop the emperor Hadrian from falling in love and then expressing a lifelong adoration for his sex slave, the greek Antinous. Their story is truly one for dramatic romance novels. Although it would’ve been Hadrian’s fall from grace to expose his relationship, the emperor would take Antinous on tours around the region and to political parties, obviously wanting to share his life with the young man. In addition to greek/foreign slaves being considered below Romans, Hadrian was married and had previous male lovers, but the closeness of the two never went unnoticed or unremarked. This prompted him to build a grand and lavish villa out in the countryside where he and Antinous would often travel out to alone, and where he had collections of books, trees, and artwork. The climax of their story is quite jarring, as Hadrian pronounces Antinous to have drowned after falling into the Nile river. It is speculated that while walking alongside, Hadrian had fallen into the river first, and in attempt to save him Antinous went after his lover. Roman soldiers were able to carry Hadrian out, but Antinous would not resurface alive. In his grief, Hadrian had hundreds of statues of his sweetheart commissioned, and went as far as to declare the young man a god. In between being accepting and rejecting Antinous as a god, there is no denying that the emperor’s grand gestures were born out of real love.

The dramatic story of Hadrian and Antinous, of how seclusive yet passionate their lives together were, is not far from how many in the queer community live today. Homosexuality went decades being treated as a mental illness, a sin, and a mistake. Today, although widely accepted and tolerated, is it still considered a tough conversation to have. Many would rather have gay couples stay out of sight and out of mind, insisting that anything more would be forcing a lifestyle. The last time I was in Italy, the pulse nightclub was shot up in Orlando, marking it the biggest mass shooting in the U.S. at the time. 49 queers and allies were shot dead for embracing their sexuality in a safe space, and as a result the community was reminded of how secluded they have to live in order to stay safe. Villa Adriana served similarly as an ancient precursor to safe spaces for queer love (ironically raided after the birth of Christianity). Although legally tolerated and several centuries in the future, today’s society could not handle even casual gay lovers in the way Ancient Rome did. It is imperative to preserve the story of Hadrian and Antinous and several other similar stories by continuing to push for acceptance beyond what was offered to history’s most famous gay lovers. 

Author: maeteor

I make art sometimes, write always, and occasionally enjoy it

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