Rome Excursion: Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Colosseum, and the Forum

Machiavelli took great interest in Roman history and modeled much of his work on the Roman Empire.  As I walked through Rome, specifically the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Colosseum, and Forum, I am finally able to understand why Rome had such a great impact on Machiavelli.

The first site we visited in Rome was the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, where martyrs, 16 popes, and many early Christians were buried.  The Christian belief in bodily resurrection led them to reject the Roman custom of cremation.  For this reason, and also the fact that early Christians were persecuted, they built the miles and miles of catacombs underground outside the city of Rome.   As I walked through the chilling hallways, I was very interested in the frescoes painted on the walls of the larger burial rooms, also known as cubicles.  The image of the man with a lamb around his shoulder symbolizes Christ who lays down his life for the sheep, where the sheep represents the people.  This image of Christ as the Good Shepherd was a very important symbol in early Christian art.

good shepherd

Another element that stuck out to me was the distinction of the family rooms compared to the “less important” burial places that lined the walls.  Reputation was the first thing that came to my mind.  Even in a place of burial, where the audience is comprised of dead people and the visitors of the catacombs, reputation is still being shown through the grandiose of their burial place.

To relate it back to Machiavelli’s Discourses, while Machiavelli was highly critical of Christianity, I believe he viewed religion, whether it is Christianity or Roman paganism, as simply a tool for a ruler to bring order to their kingdom.  In Book I, Chapter 11 of the Discourses, Machiavelli states “how useful religion was in controlling the armies, in giving courage to the plebeians, in keeping men good, and in shaming the wicked.”

Continuing on to the Colosseum, the roman theater was much more than a place to watch gladiators fight to the death.  I thought the rigid seating arrangement presented a perception of unity among the noble citizens and plebeians.  Admission into the Colosseum was free for all citizens, making it seem like all citizens are equal.  However, each citizen had a ticket that took them to the section that corresponded with their place in the social ladder.  The nobles sat close to the stage at the bottom and the plebeians and women essentially sat in the “nose bleed” seats.   In the Discourses, Machiavelli states that “the desires of free peoples are rarely harmful to liberty, because they arise either from oppression or from the suspicion that they will be oppressed.”  Therefore, giving all people access into the Colosseum and entertaining serves as a way to distract and control the public.

While it is somewhat obvious, the utter size of the Colosseum is truly amazing.  I could see how enemies of Rome would see the Colosseum as intimidating.  Once again, it goes back to the reputation of the state.  By erecting such a large building, it shows power of the Roman state as well as the power of Vespasian himself.

As the tour guide warned, it was very difficult to imagine what the Forum looked like before the years and years of damage leveled it to the ruins they are now.  In its glory days, the Forum was the center hub for economic, social, and political activities.  While some buildings were in shambles are hardly recognizable, the Curia, shown in the picture below, was where the Roman Senate met and it was also where the Roman civil service worked.  Machiavelli mentions the Roman Senate in The Discourses many times, indicating that while there were often disturbances in the republic, they rarely exiled, killed, fined, or condemned people.  He also indicates that a republic cannot be disorganized when so many examples of “exceptional ability occur.”


That leads me into the other memorable structure in the Forum, The Arch of Titus.  The triumphal arch, erected by Domitian, commemorated the victories of Titus in the Jewish War in Judea.  The reliefs seen on the Arch of Titus served as propaganda, showing that Rome was powerful and victorious, thus presenting a strong reputation.

arch of titus

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