NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

33—Travailing Across the Centuries

L'elezione degli Stati Uniti had top billing today on Channel 3 here in Rome. As I heard it, Meetch McCohnell and i Rehpublicahni hanno conquisto la sinistra (the left) in a—(the word is the same in both languages—"debacle" per il presidente. . . .

Two days ago, I was walking around the tomb of the Emperor Caesar Augustus.
In the immediate area are apartments with window-box gardens, a lovely cafe with folks enjoying beautiful lunches and wine with the background music of a guitarist singing "Cahn-tahreh...." Tourists wander about with bags of souvenirs, through a quiet back lane, along a major street congested with traffic, many stopping in off the street for a quick prayer or picture at a 16th century cathedral.

I draw no conclusions about this. Empires rise and fall. People somehow survive.

Photograph by Stevi Carroll

However, in watching a 48-lecture series on the History of Ancient Rome, I found this theory of "the fall" disputed by Professor Garrett Fagan of Penn State who contended that the empire did not fall, it merely changed in order to adapt to changing times. It seemed to me this could just be opposite sides of the came Roman coin.

At the moment, thoughts of empire are too big for conclusions. For one thing, I'm sick with some some sort of respiratory thing that is threatening to turn itself into a bad cough. A fever earlier this morning sent me in and out of harrowing dreams like Alice in Wonderland.

It's after six-thirty in the evening, and I haven't seen the light of day. However, I am bonding with my dungeon (more pics soon).

Things can always be worse. As my friend Charlie noted in a Facebook comment regarding one of my stories:

.... reminds me of waking up in Cambodia with lizards all over my room. Remember - the root word of 'travel' is travail' ---
■Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from travailler to torment, labor, journey, from Vulgar Latin *trepaliare to torture, from Late Latin trepalium instrument of torture, from Latin tripalis having three stakes, from tri- + palus stake — more at POLE

Speaking of travail—

It doesn't get much worse than being buried under a volcanic lava flow. Yesterday I walked up Mt. Vesuvius, then went to Pompeii. It's definitely disconcerting to watch steam rising from the crater of this still active volcano that is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Still, three million people live in its projected lava flow. Bizarrely, as I understand it, the most expensive properties are higher up the mountain. All this seems like folly. On the other hand, I am living on a coastline just waiting for a 9 earthquake followed by a tsunami of mythic proportion.

More details on the Vesuvius/Pompeii outing to follow, but let me set the stage: The trip itself was on a tour with our guide Antonella handling all arrangements—telling us when to pee and where the toilets were at our "comfort stop" between here and Pompeii. She advised us on the best souvenirs at the Monte Cassino (her fave being some sort of lemon liqueur)," got our tickets for the mountain, arranged lunch, and bought our tickets for the ruins, entertained us with stories and information to fill a good part of the three-hour bus trip from Rome to the Naples area.

Hey, did you know:

1. The Margherita Pizza was created in 1899 and named for the wife of Umberto, second king of Italy following the unification of the country in 1871. When the royal couple came to Naples to escape the plague, chef Raffaelle Esposito created the pizza using the colors of the Italian flag: tomatoes for red, mozzarella for white, basil for green. The queen wrote a thank-you note to the chef who then named the pizza after her.

Antonella, our tour guide
 and Nicola our guide at Pompeii
2. As a young man, Benedict went to Rome to study but was so bummed out by the corruption that he moved from the city and in 526 A.D. built a house for his followers that eventually included St. Thomas Aquinas. The house grew into the magnificent Monte Cassino Monastery high on a hill. The Lottery building at our "comfort stop" blocked the view. The current monastery is a reconstruction, as Allied forces mistakenly it bombed to smithereens during WWII, thinking it a German stronghold after a communications specialist translated the word for abbott as battalion. Destruction of the monastery is generally considered the worst aesthetic disaster of WWII.

But now getting back to the subject of the main disaster:

As we stood before the fragments that once formed the temple to Venus in Pompeii, our guide Nicola
Temple to Venus
pointed out that the Greek temples withstood the big earthquakes of ancient times while this Roman temple to Venus did not. Why? Because the Romans used cheap materials.

Nicola has been a guide in Pompeii for forty-five years, following in his father's footsteps. He is a small man, wiry and only a few inches over five feet, much the same size of the people inhabiting the city of Pompeii when Vesuvius blew on August 24, 79 A.D.

What were you doing on the morning of last August 24? In 79 Pompeiians were going about their day, some working at their jobs, others loving or fornicating, eating or wandering the streets, pausing to chat by fountains when all of a sudden Vesuvius blew.
Two bodies exhibited in the Stabian Thermal Baths
Plaster body forms with bones encased within
Pompeians were slight people
as seen by the doors and casts of their bodies.

. The precursor to the massive eruption had been an earthquake seventeen years before. But no one expected the eruption—21 miles high, ejecting 1.5 million tons of volcanic debris per second—a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima bombing.
The eruption went on for several days.

It's unclear how many fled the lava. Those lost to it, suffocated. The ash formed casts the shape of their bodies around their skeletons. Their bones are encased in the plaster; two of the casts are encased in glass—in the hallway of what in 79 A.D. was the men's bath house.

I debated whether or not to take these pictures. On tours, you have to keep moving. I didn't have time to memorize the expressions or reflect on who these people might have been. I snapped the pictures, remembering the mummy named Ester at Mesa Verde Natiaonal Park and the belief of Native Americans that displaying it was disrespectful. Ester has since been withdrawn from display. Perhaps it's just a rationalization that I want to think about who these Pompeians were, as it seemed so many visitors were just snapping pictures as if these people were artifacts.

In fact, they were people—encased in flowing lava while going about the daily business of being themselves. They hadn't believed the lava would reach them. They hadn't even been expecting the explosion. Who were these people? We will see something of their lives in the excavated remains of their city in following blogs. But who were they as individuals?

What mattered to them?

My interest is not macabre, and I hope it doesn't seem so. I live on the Oregon coast in an 9 earthquake zone with a subduction zone off shore that will one day cause a tsunami that could sweep away life as I know it. And perhaps me with it.

Such tsunamis have occurred regularly about every 300 years, the last one having happened in 1700. As with the next eruption of Vesuvius, it's not a question of if but when.

How does a person think about living on the edge of such disasters? Move somewhere safe and get run over by a bus?

What did these Pompeians do for a living? How well did they love? Were they on balance more brave, than foolish? The lava went elsewhere first, so why didn't they flee the city when they could? Was it faith or folly? How hot did it get before they breathed their last? What were their last thoughts? Had I lived back then, would we have been friends?
If they were living today and running for office, would I have voted for them in this last election? Were they more interested in empire or people?

Next: Join me on the climb up Mt. Vesuvius.

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