Teresa Stolarskyj

Reflections on culture and society

Roman ruins: redeemers of self and city

Ruins are an integral part of Rome’s mythos. A city that calls itself “eternal” must have stood trial over time, and must evolve and adapt. But the ruins are not just compelling reminders of longevity and the past, but rather provide a catalyst for redemption.

Grace can only be offered in the event of a fall; likewise, Rome requires wreckage to know redemption. Repeatedly through its history, Rome rises anew from ruins, its built spaces re-imagined and mythology reanimated, the literal and metaphorical loosening of brick and mortar freeing the constituent parts to rearrange, reincorporate, and realize a new reality. When laid low, Rome stubbornly rises from the ashes and reanimates, each time adding another layer of mystery and magic in its physical and spiritual veneer. Whether war, neglect, or acts of nature assault the city, Rome has triumphed time and again in defiant acts of re-creation.

The city’s very founding springs from ruin. Its first inhabitants were “rag-tag-and-bobtail,” free folk, slaves, and fugitives looking for “a fresh start.”[1] These were not high-born, educated, empowered people; they brought neither status nor wealth. These were people ruined by their prior choices or circumstances, but with the grit and meddle to try again. Hardship can beget strength and resourcefulness, just the qualities a new settlement needs. Idle folk, the gilded, and those unwilling to dirty their hands would not do well: the enterprising and determined would.

These first settlers recreated their lives from ruin, but finding women to join them required acts of destruction. While neighbouring settlements refused the Romans their daughters, they still curiously “flocked”[2] to see the new city at the invitation to a festival, naïve to the danger of their daughters who were shortly plucked from their flock. In the shadow of Roman hospitality and entertainment, “the show began,”[3] their abduction evoking the spectacle, violence, and ruination of gladiatorial games. The Sabine women thus became the first martyrs to Rome, their families laid low by treachery.

As the Sabine women settled into their new circumstances and became mothers themselves, they realized a new conflict, burdened as they were with disquiet between their husbands and still-aggrieved parents. Livy describes their being caught literally in a valley between these two warring factions, surely an emotional allegory as much as it may have happened in reality. Unwilling to risk further harm to either side – for while ruin can give way to redemption, annihilation cannot – the women, “with loosened hair and rent garments,”[4] interceded.

Their wild, dishevelled appearance speaks to an inner turmoil and the disarranging effects of violence. It also suggests an evolution in social graces and manners. No longer are these pretty and demure Sabine women: they have embraced a more “Roman” life that allows them to be powerful and outspoken, concerned with matters greater than their mere appearance. Their appearance likewise reflects the shambles of the relationship between factions of their families, who risk annihilation at one another’s hands.

The Sabine women hold back the warring sides, rising from their own ruin in a decisive display of their power, will, and might. From this action begins Roman civilization anew. Family bonds are mended, expanded, and enriched. Politics not only begets a peace agreement, but ends in the union of the two states, doubling the size of Rome, and generating new customs and cooperation.

Thus, the Sabine women, through their ruin and renewal, are foundational in establishing a diverse and peaceful settlement, and new families which straddle cultures. Although they were captured as guests of Rome, they initiate a spirit of welcoming newcomers to it.

Rome was founded out of ruins, first, of the lives of those seeking a second chance and finding redemption within the city’s walls, and then in the brutal but ultimately successful appropriation of the Sabine women. Their ability to adapt, to mend the broken, and to rise anew provide the bedrock upon which millennia of civilizations will fall and be re-built. Their determination and perseverance, and the creation of diverse communities for the benefit of Rome’s future, echoes through the ages.

Roman history is peppered with sacks, tyranny, violence, martyrdom, plagues, and pestilence. Yet Rome’s champions repeatedly found opportunities in wreckage, out of the grace and grandeur embedded it its bones, keeping the eternal flame alight, however low the wick has burned, and infusing it with the urgency of religious fervour. Camillus, following the sack by the Gauls in 390 BCE, insisted that Rome rebuild rather than relocate, his speech impacting deeply in its evangelical zeal.[5] He who had been exiled understood what it means not to have Rome, an idea seemingly too painful to bear.

Rome’s sense of inevitableness now evoked a spiritual quality which would be amplified at the advent of Christianity. When Rome was again laid low at the end of the fifth century CE, its evolving spiritual landscape gave rise to its redemption through the supposed holy relics of Saints Peter and Paul. Little did it matter whether the relics were “genuine or fictitious,” the new mythology drew pilgrims seeking their own grace and redemption. [6]  It seems that the martyrdom of these apostles was not just for the sake of the church, but for Rome itself, their sacrifice unexpectedly bringing new life and spiritual zeal to the city.

Rome’s fortunes would rise, then fall again by the 14th century, harmed by the absence of the Holy See during its period in Avignon. Petrarch petitions the Pope to restore Rome, invoking Camillus and insisting that “a wise man does not abandon his destroyed home, but rebuilds and restores it.”[7] A generic new home means nothing: it has no history, no emotional meaning, no depth of character. These qualities can only be acquired over time and through labours of love. The wisdom of ages is in Rome’s walls and buildings, and Petrarch sees this reinvention yet another new chapter in its history and its glory.

Indeed, to rebuild, to lovingly restore that which is broken into that which is again useful and alive, leads to a redoubled satisfaction, a deep pride of ownership and care. It also has the potential to offer greater protection from possible future harm, incorporating lessons of the past. For, rebuilding is not just bandaging a skinned knee; rather, it is the application of knee pads to ensure it is not skinned again. In its revival, Rome has an opportunity to incorporate precautions for its future, leaving it strengthened and improved.

Strengthening and improvement seemed to motivate Raphael in continuing Petrarch’s petition to recover the glory of Rome. Perhaps he also understood that rising anew from ruins is wholly different than trying to recover from annihilation, as it seems the Sabine women did in brokering peace among in-laws. Affronted as he was by modern building, Raphael saw the opportunity to elevate Rome from impending further ruin by restoring its history and revering work of the ancients, though gilding it with a more enlightened, deliberate, and Christian touch.

Raphael evoked Rome as the “universal homeland for all Christians” in his letter to Pope Leo X, though it is unclear whether he truly felt this or was simply attempting to secure funding. Regardless, he was successful, and like Christ rising from the tomb, Rome’s resurrection through architecture created a new body, a new form, for the city and its residents to inhabit. As Raphael and then Michelangelo reoriented the city away from the pagan past and toward the Christian future, literally in the case of the buildings of the Capitol, a new dawn gives rise to Rome’s grace and grandeur. Their additions, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, stand as testament to Rome’s glory to this day.

Perhaps the ultimate ruin and symbol of Roman redemption, however, is The Coliseum. It is the stuff of history, legend, and imagination, inspiring countless stories, poems and works of art. Its form of redemption is two-fold, in reclaiming the building from its bloody history, and in the catharsis which it inspires in individuals thereafter. In Shelley’s “The Coliseum” renewal and new life spring from that place which previously housed a spectacle of carnage and bloodshed. The gross inhumanity that transpired within its walls in ancient times led Byron to despair that those who met unfortunate ends in its pit were “butcher’d to make a Roman holiday.”[8] Yet in Shelley’s story, Helen and her blind father take a kind of holiday in the Coliseum, and there is nothing Byronic about it as she “travels” through her descriptions for the benefit of her father. Helen redeems this former place of depravity and death into one of tranquility and life, and kindness and love.

Previously a killing ground, the Coliseum is now a place of burgeoning life, with plants sprouting from its chinks and crevices and pigeons roosting, breaking down the structural boundaries of the built space and creating new potential for its use. The sound of water softens the space, eroding the stone beneath it ever so slowly as rainwater collected in its rifts runs out, evoking a baptismal font and symbolizing a spiritual cleansing and renewal.

That nature reclaims dead spaces and brings forth new life is no accident in this depiction, for renewal and absolution are the tale’s watchwords. The story takes place at noon on both Passover and the Resurrection. In this moment, the Judeo-Christian faiths run together, like the collected rainwater hearkening a soothing renewal and hope, combining their celebrations of shattered bondage. Passover marks freedom from slavery, and Easter, the trampling of death by Christ’s resurrection. Redemption rises from ruin.

The unusual figure of Brutus’ Devil, usually confined to traveling in shadows and night, also emerges at this hour, seeming to sense kindred “outsider” spirits. Why he is so named is not clear, though his name evokes the Roman Empire’s Judas-figure who betrayed Caesar. He exists on the fringes and seems to haunt the former earthly hell-scape as Judas, presumably, haunts the ethereal one. But in witnessing Helen and her father, Brutus’ better angels emerge. Their tender exchanges, mutual warmth, and the poetry that Helen’s descriptions of the scene evoke her father to speak is humbling. He leaves them substantial space for their exchange, and silently observes.

The Brutus Devil ultimately asks forgiveness for his earlier rash words, judging as he did the blind man and assuming he could see. The man’s very blindness is the grace that absolves the Brutus Devil from judgment he feels over his appearance, releasing him from a sense of self-consciousness shackling. The kindness of the pair rejoins him to society, and to his humanity. The father notes that, “you thought me one of those who are blind in spirit,”[9] but it was Brutus’ Devil who was so impoverished.

The father is animated by his experience, through Helen’s eyes, of the Coliseum, and is inspired to forgiveness. Shelly’s story is left unfinished but rings out on a note of the healing virtues of friendship and forgiveness, of grace extended in response to an insult, and of finding a collegial way forward. The Brutus Devil finds his spirit renewed, just as the Coliseum does: no longer lethal, now ruined and redeemed, it offer a meditative space where “the contemplation of the ruins of human power excites a sense of the awfulness and beauty.”[10] Its awful past has given way to its being awe-full, inspiring a reverence and fear of the full range of human possibility, for good and evil, for the great and the dastardly, and for the fleetingness of it all.

Helen’s father identifies Love (with a capital “L”) as “the religion of eternity,” [11] expressed without the politics and baggage of an old religious institution and demonstrated as the words are spoken. Eternal faith, declaimed on a pilgrimage to the greatest ruin of the Eternal City, is perhaps the tie that binds.

Through the ages, love motivates the redemption of ruins, the expression of grace in both physical space and between people; love restores, revitalizes, and heals. Love is evident in the Sabine women, so fierce it must have been to have mended warring factions. Love of Rome led Camillus to insist on rebuilding, absent as the city was from his life for a number of years. Love for the martyred apostles Saints Peter and Paul brought populations anew on pilgrimages seeking grace by the presence of relics. Petrarch and Raphael realized their love of the built environment and the potential for its restoration to inspire and heal others. And, love, expressed in and inspired by the Coliseum, redeems the bloody history of that great space.

Rome’s citizens, its physical spaces, its natural advantages, and its wisdom of ages combine to tell a powerful tale of rising from ruin, of redemption and reclamation, and of creating a luminous future. The eternal faith, love, along with the strength and grit of the Roman people to persevere in adversity and to rise from its hardships, are the keystones which inspire the Eternal City to repeatedly rise from its falls, and to inspire renewal and rejuvenation, acceptance and diversity, and reinvention. The determination and faith to keep its grace and grandeur alight mark the unique and transformative power of Rome.


Byron. Lord Byron: The Major Works. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vols. 1-6. Edited by Davide Womersley. 3rd ed. Penguin, 1994.

Livy. The Early History of Rome. Books I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundations. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Penguin Classics, 2002.

Petrarch. Rerum Familiarum Libri, I – VII. Translated by Aldo S. Bernardo. State University of New York Press, 1975.

Sanzio, Raphael. Letter to Pope Leo X. In Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks, editors and translators. Palladio’s Rome. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Coliseum.” In Zastrozzi: a romance, and, St. Irvyne, or, The Rosicrucian: a romance. Broadview Press, 2002 (Appendix B) Selected poems, TBA.


[1] Livy, The Early History of Rome. Books I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundations. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. (London:Penguin Classics, 2002), 40.

[2] Ibid, 41.

[3] Ibid, 41.

[4] Ibid,45.

[5] Livy, The History of Rome – Book V Selections. Handout provided in LS 810, 12.

[6] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vols. 1-6. Edited by Davide Womersley. 3rd ed. (London: Penguin, 1994),874.

[7] Petrarch, Rerum Familiarum Libri, I – VII. Translated by Aldo S. Bernardo. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1975), 320.

[8] Lord Byron, Lord Byron: The Major Works. (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 178.

[9] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Coliseum.” In Zastrozzi: a romance, and, St. Irvyne, or, The Rosicrucian: a romance. (Appendix B) (Broadview Press, 2002), 277.

[10] Ibid, 275.

[11] Ibid, 275.

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