Nov. 6th: Santa Sabina, Baths of Caracalla, Mausoleum of Santa Costanza, Catacombs

The day began with blood. I hiked up a mile from the bus stop to the gardens where we students convene feeling a sharp sting in my foot. Overlooking one of the most beautiful vistas of the Eternal city, and making an accidental figural allusion to the much-celebrated ancient statue motif of “Boy Extracting A Thorn From His Foot” I tugged off my right sock and shoe and removed a shard of glass from my flesh which had somehow managed to sneak its way in. Ouchy doesn’t even begin to cover it.

My pain was mitigated entirely by a lovely presentation delivered by the even more lovely (smart, kind and single too) Bridget-Kate Sixkiller McNulty. Drawing on her Catholic background, she took us on a tour of one of the oldest Christian spaces in the world– a tour which, from start to finish, was immaculately conceived. The jewel of BK’s presentation was undoubtedly her creative and sapient interpretation of Biblical scenes on the wooden back doors of the Church which, to everyone’s blustered amazement, were the originals, in situ. Up next was Teddy, docked to cover what had been Roger B. Ulrich, Ph.D.’s own final oral report topic back in the days before iPhones, when Presidents were still rosy-cheeked and honest, and the visual effects of Star Wars still impressed people.

The phrase “greatest mind of our generation” is thrown around a lot these days, so I, who am so characteristically hyperallergic to all things trendy, won’t use it. But I confess there were ample opportunities to deploy such a string of glorified adjectives as would rival the soaring sycophantry of Lucan when I beheld of much-anticipated presentation of the Baths of Caracalla by our own Edward Henderson.

For the Baths alone, infinite praise would be insufficient. Boasting some of the most extravagant brickwork and covering titanic spans, it pushes the imagination to the point of bursting to envision what awesome feelings must have obtained in the quaking heart of a Roman patronizing the Baths, standing beneath one of the legendary crossvaults. I’ve referred before the the poem ‘On Wenlock Edge’ by A.E. Housman, which now I will give in full:

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble

His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger

When Uricon the city stood:

'Tis the old wind in the old anger,

But then it threshed another wood.

Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman

At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:

To-day the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

Indeed, this poem has been the anthem of the entire FSP! But its splendor and symphony was for the first time awakened on full blast as I was led by that deft explorer of immaculate manners, fleet-footed Edward Henderson, slayer of history papers, the greatest archaeologist at Troy (would someone please kindly show H. Schliemann the door?). I craned my neck up as high as it would go, and it stayed there, my gaze drifting between the grandiose, indelible brick-red of the the walls and the violent blue of the late-morning Italian sky. I was seized by the distinct sentiment that this endless moment was the summation–nay, the consummation–of my entire career in classics.

I saw myself as a ratty thirteen year old, conjugating Latin verbs ad nauseum on notebook paper. Fourteen, reading Morford and Lendardon’s Classical Mythology cover to cover. Fifteen, taking the Texas State Junior Classical League Convention exam on Greek Life and Literature. Sixteen, reciting the opening lines of the Aeneid for a class assignment under the direction of my hero, Byron Browne. Seventeen, producing new, modernist translations of the love poetry of Catullus. Eighteen, walking home with a hardcover copy of the Oxford Guide to Classical Literature (a steal at a dollar in a used bookstore). Nineteen, gaping in awe at the complete Loeb Library in the lounge of the Dartmouth Classics Department. Twenty, reading Plato with Professor Riesbeck in his office. And now I am twenty-one, and I have stood in the Baths of Caracalla with Edward Henderson, and something–I know not what–ended and began.

After a wait that may have exceeded the reign of Antoninus Pius, the bus arrived at the bus stop. This day’s round of presentations was completed by Brett’s dextrous discourse on the tomb of Caecilia Metella, enigmatic in both its proportions and its dedication. Like the Eumachia building in Pompeii, the tomb stand out and one of very few monuments honoring a woman from ancient Rome, although, just as in the case of the Eumachia building, the dedicatory inscription does cite an affiliated male. Feast on the puzzling abundance of gendered power dynamics, ye critically-minded of the earth! The tomb towered above us in the style of a circular Augustan Mausoleum, inspiring memories of similar structures, such as the tomb of Plancus at the end of an arduous climb up a hill in the sleepy town of Gaeta, or the massive, magnificent mausoleum of Augustus himself.

I would love to be put to my final rest in such an edifice of eternity and everlasting power, but will settle for having my priceless remains taxidermized and wheeled into every board and faculty meeting (a la Jeremy Bentham) of the Edward Henderson Memorial Department for Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at Dartmouth College. There will be an endowed chair in the Department name for me, and another, named for my cat, a Maine Coon by the name of “Puss Wilberforce.”

TTFN,

Aaron Pellowski

Photos:

View of St. Peter's from the Aventine hill.

The gardens near Santa Sabina are an excellent place to enjoy your morning cornetto (or croissant).

Apse of Santa Sabina in the morning light.

Interior of the church of Santa Sabina.

Light shining through the alabaster window panes creates an ethereal effect within the church.

Bridget-Kate walks us through the different Biblical scenes portrayed on the original 5th century cedar doors in the narthex.

Cara jots down some notes at the Baths of Caracalla

Nymphaeum in the Baths of Caracalla.

This site requires a lot of head tilting to observe its massive features.

A peak into the frigidarium of the bath complex.

Colorful mosaics galore.

Lucas proposes an idea about the second level in the palaestra. Teddy is unconvinced.

Brett is all set, but Lucas and Prof. Ulrich look like they need a pair of sunglasses.

The presenter of the hour, with his trusty ol' pipe.

Aaron Optimus Maximus: “These sunglasses are FSP spolia.”

View of the Villa of Maxentius from outside the gates.

Church of San Nicola on the Via Appia.

The Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, aka part II of Brett's oral report.

Well, at least Jiyoung is smiling.

And then we were locked in. Scary at first, until the guard appeared from around the corner to let us out.

 

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