I’ve been fortunate to spend the past week strolling around the open-air museum that is Rome. In between visits with my wife’s raucous and Dionysian family, we wandered through the Forum, Colosseum, and endless kilometers of Rome’s tiny alleyways that always seemed to contain at least one ancient structure.
Being obsessed with metaphor, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ways in which I could use Rome as a metaphor for larger processes and truths.
The city is one big lesson in impermanence. If we were looking for a physical example of how everything in this world turns to dust, Rome would be it. The city that served as the imperial capital and center of civilization in Europe for centuries now exists as an object of curiosity and a backdrop for tourist photos.
Could Nero have ever envisioned that the only thing that would physically remain of his grand ambition would be a few dozen crumbling structures? At the height of the empire, would the average Roman citizen have thought that his home would one day be buried under meters of earth?
Rome reminds us that everything in this universe arises, stays for a time, and disintegrates.
And yet, destruction always provides the basis for the creation of something new. This is why the Hindu god Shiva is depicted with a drum that brings each moment into being in one hand, and a flame that extinguishes it in the other. Destruction and creation are one and the same process.
The architecture, politics, and language that Rome inspired still exist today in modified forms. The elements necessary for the formation of life were forged in the bellies of exploding stars. The seeds of many trees can only germinate after intense fires. The five mass extinctions of the past may have been bad for dinosaurs and trilobites, but we wouldn’t be here without them.
We can see this at work in every other aspects of life. It was interesting for me to see Giulia’s old family photos, often taken decades apart, but displayed together. The children in one photo became grandparents in the next. Each generation flourished for a time, then faded away.
Despite our best efforts, we can only postpone destruction, never eliminate it. We become attached to our bodies and physical image, and invest countless hours and dollars into maintaining it the way we want it. We become attached to our personalities, investing energy into protecting and defending it against others’ misperceptions.
But no matter what we do or say, our families, friendships, and bodies share the same fate as the Roman ruins. You might think that advances in building technology would allow our steel-based civilization to leave a more lasting mark on the earth than our concrete Roman ancestors. But if humans disappeared tomorrow, it would be a mere 10,000 years before nature would reclaim even something as mighty as Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
The universe puts on magnificent displays of color, passion, and joy… but for a limited time only (which makes it all the more important to be aware and grateful for the fact the life we have).
And here’s Gabriel enjoying one of those famous Roman baths: