As a schoolboy I was fascinated by the Greeks and Romans, their history and literature. Classical Studies was one of the few subjects at which I did reasonably well at O Level. Reading Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic reignited my interest in ancient Rome. Sarah and I had long wanted to visit the 'Eternal City' and decided that we would do so for a 25th anniversary treat.
Among the highlights of our brief stay were visits to the Forum and Palitine Hill, centre of old Roman political life, the Colosseum and the wonderfully preserved Pantheon. Rome really is a beautiful city. Its classical heritage is etched on every Baroque building, replete with Corinthian columns and elaborate architectural detail.
It is often said that while Rome conquered Greece militarily, that Greece conquered Rome culturally. I could add to that by observing that while Rome conquered Britain militarily, it seems that English speaking pop music has now conquered Rome culturally. While Sarah and I were eating pizza in the Pantheon piazza we were serenaded by an electric guitar player filling the air with the sounds of Hey Jude by the Beatles, One and With or Without You by U2, and various other well known English language songs. It was Stereophonics and Oasis at our hotel. Didn't know whether to feel proud or slightly sad that about the reverse cultural imperialism that we witnessed. What would old Cato have thought, I wonder? On hearing of this affront to Roman dominance would he have pronounced the earth-shattering words in the Forum, 'Cwmavon must fall!' and sent his legions to flatten the place?
We visited St Peter's Basillica on the Monday evening. You can't but be impressed by the architectural grandeur of the place and almost overwhelmed by its artistic splendor. Shining marble, rich paintings, almost life-like sculptures of various popes and biblical figures. But it's a far cry from the Christianity of the New Testament; a simple, mariganlised people who preached a crucified Saviour. If church architecture is expressive of theology, then Rome's buildings proclaim a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross, Her proud Basilicas project power and bid us, 'Behold my works, ye mighty and despair!' Church buildings should be simple, unadorned meeting places where the people of God gather to hear nothing but 'Jesus Christ and him crucified'. A meeting house is a place for hearing the word proclaimed rather than enticing the eye to see the invisible realities of the gospel. It should not draw attention to the achievements of the church, but house a congregation who are directed by the preached word to 'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'
Some quirky things. On Tuesday, our whole day in Rome, we were hindered in our journey from the hotel where we were staying to the city centre because the Metro drivers were on strike. That meant all the would-be Metro passengers had to squeeze onto overcrowded buses. A fellow-traveler got so irate at the failure of the bus doors to open at his stop that he yanked them apart, breaking them. The driver promptly threw us off the bus, leaving us to make our way as best we could. We got there in the end. When visiting the Pantheon, we bumped into an ex member of staff at the school where I'm a governor. How strange is that? The only trouble with Rome (apart from striking Metro drivers) is the hordes of selfie-snapping tourists cluttering up the place. Like, er, us.
Anyway, we really enjoyed it. A very special holiday. Venice next.