Rachel Rodriguez: Italia as Text 2022

Rachel Rodriguez is a sophomore at Florida International University. She is majoring in digital journalism with a pre-law certificate. Passionate about media studies, she aims to go to law school to represent cases relating to media and First Amendment rights. When not studying or working, she enjoys singing and listening to music on her vinyl record player.

Rome as Text

A view of the Roman forum by Rachel Rodriguez

Civilization of Contradictions

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU in Rome, Italy, 18, May, 2022.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Rome: an ancient civilization that has pioneered many of the beliefs and practices we continue to this very day. Even though it continues to stand as the capital of Italy, it pales in comparison to the true might and power of what used to be a multicultural empire, spanning across the Mediterranean. 

But it was also a civilization with many contradictions. 

In human history, there will never be such a case in which a perfect society exists. There is always bound to be a moment of great violence, oppression, and yes, contradiction. Afterall, to be human is to be constantly changing and growing: nothing lasts forever and nothing stays the same. 

Yet, Rome is a very interesting scenario. Within the ruins that lay below the city, these contradictions remain as a reminder of a once prosperous and mighty empire the world has ever seen. Thus, the city retains a history of duality (that of an imperial dynasty and the traditions of Catholicism) which continue to illuminate the principles of the modern age. 

Beginning with ancient Rome as an empire, their society was much more progressive than what we think of when studying ancient traditions. For instance, visiting Hadrian’s Villa really brings this in mind as he was an openly bisexual emperor of Rome who encouraged the open discussion of learning different cultures. 

A spot for solitude at Hadrian’s Villa by Rachel Rodriguez

In fact, within the ruins of his villa, he had two libraries: one in Latin and one in Greek, displaying the multicultural attitudes of the time under Emperor Hadrian. There was even a section to encourage discussions of philosophy to stimulate intellectual enlightenment, known as the “sala filosofi.” Finally, after his male lover died, he deified him despite being married to a wife who had no objections to this affair. 

It’s incredible to imagine how openly progressive Rome was when it came to sexuality in comparison to today’s view as movements for equality and inclusion continue throughout the world. Objectively, equality was probably more achievable in the empire compared to other civilizations at the time. 

A big indicator of this was with slavery. In the United States, slavery was racially motivated and it was very hard to escape out of it legally. However, in Rome, a republic that the United States took inspiration from, slavery applied to any race. A slave could own property, obtain wealth, and even buy their freedom. Even gender equality was a little better in Rome as women could also own property and divorce their husbands. 

However, Rome was not all sunshine and roses. As an empire, one thing that many Romans enjoyed was violence and conquering. This is made a reminder through victory arches, which showcase the triumphs of important political figures and emperors. At the time, an essential requirement for the title of emperor was to win battles or conquests. A great example of such is the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the victory in the first Jewish-Roman war due to the work of him and his father, Emperor Vespasian. The arch showcases the sacking of Jerusalem, the religious home of the Jewish people and displays the pillaging of sacred treasures and relics.

While a win for the Romans at the time, for centuries it stood as a reminder to the persecution of the Jewish people who had their homeland stolen from them and their sacred relics taken as trophies for an empire that grew larger by the day. The Piazza de Popolo is probably the greatest example for the display of these trophies as statues from Egypt, Greece, and other areas that were bested by Rome still remain on display as a reminder of might of the empire and to remember who is in control militaristically. 

The Colosseum by Rachel Rodriguez

Furthermore, the Colosseum is another great example of the Romans’ love for violence. If a prisoner were to be executed for theft, they would be trapped in the arena with a savage animal or even a gladiator as the crowd cheers over the bloodshed. Contradictions are also buried here as despite the empire’s progressive view on gender and equality, the colosseum was built by slave labor. 

Additionally, only noble men would have access to the front row. The highest part of the arena was reserved for the poor and women of any class! Thus, even if a woman were a noble, she had to sit with a lower class due to still being considered a second-class citizen. The only women who did have a front row seat were vestal virgins, a holy sect devoted to keeping the flame of Rome alive. 

However, despite this dark side of history, the Colosseum also remains as an engineering marvel for the ages as Roman architecture and technology allowed for methods that would be forgotten after the fall of the empire, leading to centuries of human history having to catch up. Other techniques, such as groin vaults, would continue to influence architectural support even in the modern age! 

Perhaps Rome’s hedonistic nature and violence led to the downfall of the empire as all things must come to an end. Statues that were placed in piazzas as trophies of conquest only survive today due to being conquered by Christianity. The pantheon, which stood as a temple to Roman deities is now devoted to the Catholics that Romans tried to execute. It is a chain of conquest and violence that is written all throughout the city. 

Painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ found at the Roman Forum by Rachel Rodriguez

Speaking of Christianity, the rise of Catholicism during the Roman empire can be seen as the antithesis for the spirit of the empire at the time. While Romans were pagan and much more hedonistic in belief, Jesus Christ and his followers were monotheistic and focused on living a life of purity and virtue in order to approach the afterlife. Thus, the life that is lived on Earth is in preparation for the life that is met after death, which is something that the Romans didn’t really give too much precedence about especially with the lack of hell – only an underworld existed. 

But the biggest contention between Christians and Romans was the belief in only one God, which goes against the polytheistic pantheon of the empire. Thus, many Christians were executed for their beliefs. When Constantine made Christianity legal, however, in the year 313 A.D, suddenly, the persecuted became the ones with the power. 

Mosaic of Jesus Christ surrounded by winged victory in the Basilica di Santa Prassede by Rachel Rodriguez

Going on the pilgrim walk in Rome really accentuates this idea. The churches in Rome that remain as important structures for one of the biggest religions in the world tell the story of how Christianity gained massive influence. From the church of San Giovanni being the first legal church of Rome paid for by the government, to the Church of St. Paul Outside of the Walls, the splendor and glory of the heavens is displayed inside with gold, frescos, and yes, some of the greatest works of art ever seen, especially those made by Bernini. 

A gilded room of Heaven within Santa Maria Maggiore by Rachel Rodriguez

However, Catholicism has faced a similar history to Rome as the religion over the centuries is rife with contradiction. The hierarchy starting with the Pope having the most authority, the common people have very little power in terms of directing their own faith. This has led to many schisms, most notably seen during the establishment of the Lutheran church due to massive corruption amongst those with church authority. Despite having Judaism as a foundation that set the Old Testament, which continues to be used in Christianity, the Catholic church has created conquests such as the Inquisition and the Crusades, which led to the deaths and persecution of many people who were not Catholic. 

Thus, can we really say that Catholic Rome and Ancient Rome are really two different civilizations if they both are full of contradictions? The way I see it, the former has taken inspiration from the later, whether they like to admit it or not. 

Only ruins remain to remind us of the history and hubris of man: the mighty can fall and another power can take its place. After all, when you placate the people with bread and circuses, there isn’t much an emperor can do to protect his kingdom if his subjects become ignorant and complacent. 

Thinking of the current state of America, it makes me wonder if we are to suffer the same fate as Rome. Perhaps we should look more closely at the ruins of Rome and learn from the mistakes of the past. If we continue to allow ourselves to be blinded by our own splendor, perhaps it is only a matter of time before we too collapse.

Pompeii as Text

An overlook of Pompeii by Rachel Rodriguez

A City of Ghosts

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Pompeii, Italy, 18, May, 2022.

Back in the year 2013, the biggest and most iconic song of the time was “Pompeii” by Bastille. Ever since I heard it as the ripe age of 10, I have always wanted to visit the fallen city. After all: “if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?”

Flash forward to the current day: 2022, the year I got to visit Pompeii in person and the year my dreams became reality.

The city itself holds a silent reminder of a past that is long gone like many ruins, but is more meaningful as the knowledge of the tragedy of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption quite literally makes it a “ghost town” so to speak.

An empty home by Rachel Rodriguez

But much like the song from Bastille, Pompeii truly was a city that is very reminiscent of the way we currently live in our own cities today. Even though the ash and pumice caused the deaths of 2,000 people, the ironic twist of fate is the fact that because of the eruption, the city has been preserved for centuries, thus giving us a look at what the real Roman lifestyle was like.

For instance, groves in the stone in front of houses were indicative of wooden sliding doors. Stepping stones that remind me of crosswalks allowed for pedestrian travel while also providing a specific gap measurement for carts to pass through with the right kind of wheel. They had pedestrian zones blocked off to prevent carts from entering the forum. Most impressively, however, were the bits of marble imbedded in the stone of sidewalks that would provide illumination during the night.

Tell me, doesn’t it remind you of the marvels we have and enjoy today in our modern age? Truly, it feels as though nothing has changed at all despite the thousands of years that stand between Pompeii and us.

But the history of Pompeii goes much further than just the advancement of technology. The city was founded as a Greek colony before the Romans were able to conquer it, creating a trading hub that was known throughout the entire empire. Sitting near the sea and protected by mountains, Pompeii was held at an ideal location that allowed for the influx of wealth and splendor that marks the might of the Roman empire.

The ever looming Mount Vesuvius by Rachel Rodriguez

Until one fateful day: the 24th of August, 79 A.D.

This was the date in which Mount Vesuvius had its first eruption. According to our tour guide, Antonio, the impact was almost equivalent to that of a nuclear bomb. Suddenly, all of the achievement and power of the Roman empire’s biggest trading hub turned to dust in what felt like a blink of an eye.

Of course, when we read about Pompeii today, it almost seems otherworldly. Imagery of the day turning to night, ash and hellfire create a scalding rain. The fury of the gods manifesting to show the true power of nature. In a way, this description captures the horror that was witnessed during this disaster.

But, by that same token, we’ve also become a little desensitized to the actual horror Pompeiians felt at that moment.

For me, it was interesting to walk through the city that is frozen in time. A relic that had no chance to look presentable in the eyes of history. Knowing that they had similar advancements back then that we now enjoy today was a marvel. But my mindset changed when I was taking a photo of a body.

The body that caught me by surprise by Rachel Rodriguez

Most would probably feel nothing when it comes to taking a photo of one of the preserved bodies found in Pompeii as a reminder of the experience. I wanted to do the same, until a thought hit me: that used to be a living, breathing person. A person who lived in a city, had a family, ate, breathed, laughed, cried, and everything else in between. A person who also endured a horrible death through suffocation from the toxic gas, perhaps feeling a searing pain as pumice and ash dug into their skin as it fell from the sky.

A person who, perhaps was just like me and was only unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire of a cruel twist of fate.

This changed my perspective of Pompeii. The city is not just a remnant of time for us to learn from. But it is also a literal ghost town. A reminder that, no matter how hard we try, death is always around the corner, and we should do everything we can to enjoy the life we live as we scramble to survive.

I believe this is why I also appreciated the Villa of Mysteries a lot more. Serving as a home to a family devoted to the Cult of Dionysus, a sex cult emerged in the villa. But most spectacular is the original fresco almost completely unmarred by the damage from Mount Vesuvius.

Fresco of the female metamorphosis by Rachel Rodriguez

The fresco depicts the initiation of a young woman into this cult. The meaning behind it stood out to me the most, however, because it tells the story of how a young girl goes through a metamorphosis to become a woman by facing the parts of herself that she is afraid of and must learn to accept. As a young woman who is still growing and learning, I related to this fresco a lot. It reminds me that I am at a point in my life where growth is still happening, and that there are experiences that I may want to hide away from, but must face if I am to go forward.

And this is what made Pompeii so much more impactful to me. The relatability of it all. Take away the distance of 2,700 years and you find yourself thinking “wow, that could’ve been me, or my family, or my friends – even my dog!” Truly, it is a sight that strips the soul raw from the body and forces you to gaze at the very essence of what it truly means to appreciate life to the fullest.

So, I ask again: “does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?” Well, if I close my eyes and can give only one answer:

Yes, it does.

Author: rachelrenae603

Rachel Rodriguez is a student at Florida International University. She is majoring in digital journalism with a certificate in pre-law. After earning her bachelor's degree, she has aspirations to go to law school. Rachel enjoys singing, reading, cooking, and travelling.

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