Notes for Visitors to Rome

(For Sarah.)

Rome is a beautiful city to visit and be a tourist, but it is also a place that can show you how to be.

It was a city-state of bloodthirsty and oppressive militarists, slaves and the exploited, and the worst parts of humanity. But, it was also genuinely one of the first places where people tried to govern themselves with equality and fairness, creating a “public thing” that existed to serve all its citizens. That did not last, but the success of that idea and the hope that it could exist lived on, even when twisted and completely corrupt. The original beautiful idea is all that really survives intact.

Living in the slowly disintegrating and corrupt Roman Empire, Jesus of Nazareth created a faith that said something new: everyone could be good and loved in the world, by one God. This other egalitarian idea was successful, spreading and growing so well because it had the infrastructure of the Romans. A powerful church was created through the direct, shameless reuse of Roman imperial signs, symbols, and language. After conquering much of the West, the purity and justice of the original Christian idea did not endure however— the luxurious gold-plated basilicas make it pretty obvious that the church’s goals moved far away from an egalitarian spirituality. But again, the hopes of that original faith are still in the world, surviving because the church grew through Rome. Maybe the ideology of “public things” that the Romans maintained nostalgically (even when their empire was anything but that) formed the basis for the political success of Christianity, and it’s corruption.

The city has been the stage for some of the most grandiose and ambitious people the world has ever produced, but all they left are words, dust, and ruins. The emperors and corrupt popes were the ultimate winners, with limitless access to beauty, adulation, power and money, but they were compromised and hollowed out, and all their works came to nothing. Everything they made is rubble, junk, layers of ruins or faded or ridiculous rotted opulence. This is a lesson.

The city shows you what’s really important and what isn’t, and says: find good words and visions and ideas, because they will be unsullied long after time grinds everything else into ashes. It is an irregular maze, with pockets and landmarks that can you can deposit ideas in as you find your way through. And the palimpsest of layers of history requires subtlety to see and feel. Every place says: things are not what they seem, go deep, figure out why people made this and what it meant over time. And let that feed your imagination and your mind, and push you to make something of your own.

The plain facts, dates, and names cannot convey this feeling, however. You need to hear the words and thoughts people had. So, here are some places for you, with words and quotes, to be read and thought of on the spot. They are not in the order that might make sense for visiting, but instead arranged to tell the overall story.

(Note that while the quotations are as accurate as I could determine, the interpretations and framing are based on sometimes hazy ideas from old classes or books, and I may have some wires crossed or facts not entirely checked out.)

Capitoline Museum

Starting at the founding of the city. Go into the museum and find the remains of the first temple of Jupiter, the only such large stone structure built during that time (or many years after) in the area. It was built either as a Greek temple, or in imitation. Other inhabitants around this Capitoline hill, who had only ever erected shacks and small earthen buildings, must have been stunned to see a huge temple rise in this place. Greeks did settle in Latium (the region around Rome), and it’s possible they founded the city of Rome.

Horace wrote (much later, in the years of Octavian’s brutal remaking of the 700 year-old Republic into the Empire) a suitable epitaph for this incarnation of Rome (Agamemnon was one of the kings on the same losing side of the Trojan war as the Greeks who settled in Latium):

Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even. Many brave men lived before Agamemnon— but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept, unknown, because they lack a sacred poet. Pale Death with impartial tread beats at the poor man’s cottage door and at the palaces.

(The very word “palace” originates in the Latin he used, from the name of the nearby Palatine hill, home of the rich and imperial.)

Because Rome became a thing of the powerful few, it suffered the fate of all mortals, its death only prolonged by nostalgia for its better beginnings.

Temple of the Vestals, Roman Forum

Vestals were brutally oppressed and their public lives were an exploitation of a twisted spirituality for the purposes of the rulers of the city, but they did have a measure of direct public power, the only women in Rome that did. They occasionally would intervene in a public lawsuit on one side or another, and had a sort of pardoning ability.

Incantation for the selection of a new Vestal, begun by Numa Pompilius, said before the Temple he built in the Forum for 700 years to nervous young women:

I take you, _______, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people. From now, you are of the purest women of Rome.

The Vicus Tuscus, Roman Forum

Running southwest out of the Forum between the Basilica Julia and the Temple of Castor and Pollux towards the Forum Boarium (ancient site of food markets) is the street Vicus Tuscus.

Curculio, or The Forgery, by Titus Maccius Plautus, set in Rome, 200 BCE, the earliest surviving Roman writing. Phædromus is a plebeian desperately in love with a slave girl, Planesium. She is being held captive by Cappadox in Rome. Phædromus sends Curculio, to somehow borrow the money to free her, and the first place they go is the Roman Forum, where Phædromus asks Curculio to wait while he asks a friend for help. He knows Rome well and goes over what he will say to Phædromus, laying out parts of the Forum you can see today.

But until Phædromus comes out of doors, I’ll point out in what place you may easily meet with each person, that he mayn’t lose his labour through too much trouble, if any one wishes to meet either a rascal or one without rascality, or an honest man or a dishonest one, this is the spot I will tell you. 

He who desires to meet with a perjured fellow, let him go into the courts of law [The Comitium is near the Curia, where trials were carried on before the Prætor]; he who wants a liar and a braggart, near the rites of Cloacina [Venus is supposed to have been called by this name, from her statue having been once found in the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer of Rome, which runs right through the Forum].

The rich and erring husbands seek you at the magisterial halls of the Basilica Julia [on the right looking towards the Colosseum]. There, too, will be the worn-out harlots, and those who are wont to haggle for them. Contributors to picnic dinners [food was sold by the poor in pieces, by weight, to the merchants for them to resell] you’ll find in the fish-market [out of sight further down the Vicus Tuscus, the Velabrum].

In the lower part of the Forum good men and opulent do walk; in the middle, near the canal [a waterway ran from the north edge of the forum to a small pool by where the Colosseum is now], there are the mere puffers-off. Beyond the lake of Curtius are impudent, talkative, and malevolent fellows, who boldly, without reason, utter calumnies about another, and who, themselves, have sufficient that might with truth be said against them. There, at the old shops [older shops were the property of the state, and were let out to the bankers and money-lenders], are these who lend and those who borrow at interest. Behind the Temple of Castor, along the Nova via there are those to whom unguardedly you may be lending to your cost.

There, in the Etrurian street [otherwise known as the Vicus Tuscus], are those men who hold themselves on sale. In the Velabrum [the greater and the less “Velabrum” lay between the Palatine and the Capitoline Hills, where fruits and other commodities were sold in booths, or under awnings, from which (“vela”) the streets probably derived their name] you’ll find either baker, or butcher, or soothsayer; either those who sell retail themselves, or supply to others things to be sold by retail. Rich sinning husbands you’ll find at the house of Oppian Leucadia [a woman whose family was known for continuous parties, who lived on the Palatine].”

Temple of Gaius Julius Caesar, Roman Forum

Caesar was more of a creation of his time than a driving figure. He mostly followed the political winds, taking advantage of a hollowed-out Republic. Find the stump of crumbling stone under the awning, usually with flowers from modern fans of tyranny (people who have aggressively missed the obvious lesson that is staring them in the face).

Writing about his frustrated desire to be celebrated by the city in a triumph, too soon for some of the politicians of the time:

It is the custom of the immortal gods to grant temporary prosperity and a fairly long period of impunity to those whom they plan to punish for their crimes, so that they may feel it all the more keenly as a result of the change in their fortunes.

Plutarch, writing about Caesar, recounts how he pursued becoming ruler in a cowardly, dishonest, and effective way:

…there was added to these causes of offense Caesar’s insult to the tribunes. It was, namely, the festival of the Lupercalia. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. These ceremonies Caesar was witnessing, seated upon the rostra on a golden throne, arrayed in triumphal attire. And Antony was one of the runners in the sacred race; for he was consul. Accordingly, after he had dashed into the forum and the crowd had made way for him, he carried a diadem, round which a wreath of laurel was tied, and held it out to Caesar. Then there was applause, not loud, but slight and preconcerted. But when Caesar pushed away the diadem, all the people applauded; and when Antony offered it again, few, and when Caesar declined it again, all, applauded. The experiment having thus failed, Caesar rose from his seat, after ordering the wreath to be carried up to the Capitol; but then his statues were seen to have been decked with royal diadems. So two of the tribunes, Flavius and Maryllus, went up to them and pulled off the diadems, and after discovering those who had first hailed Caesar as king, led them off to prison. Moreover, the people followed the tribunes with applause and called them Brutuses, because Brutus was the man who put an end to the royal succession and brought the power into the hands of the senate and people instead of a sole ruler.

Cicero’s house, Palatine

Almost at the very moment it was being swept away, the ideas of the Republic had their most eloquent advocate in Cicero.

Supposedly Cicero’s house was approximately mid-way along the Velabrum, on the edge of the Palatine. He wrote in The Republic:

There in fact a true law—namely, reason—which is in accordance with nature, applies to all people, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands this law summons people to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it restrains them from doing wrong. Its commands and prohibitions always influence good people, but are without effect upon the bad. To invalidate this law by human legislation is never morally right, nor is it permissible ever to restrict its operation, and to annul it wholly is impossible. Neither the Senate nor the people can absolve us from our obligation to obey this law, and it requires no Sextus Aelius [the Roman consul first to lay down Rome’s laws in writing for all in the Twelve Tables] to expound and interpret it. It will not lay down one rule at Rome and another at Athens, nor will it be one rule to-day and another tomorrow. But there will be one law, eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times upon all peoples; and there will be, as it were, one common master and ruler of people, namely God, who is the author of this law, it interpreter, and its sponsor. The person who will not obey it will abandon his better self, and, in denying the true nature of a person, will thereby suffer the severest of penalties, though they might have escaped all the other consequences which people call punishments.

He was unprepared for and ineffective against the tide of authoritarianism that ultimately killed him.

Cicero wrote about Caesar, just before Caesar had himself declared dictator for life:

Do not blame Caesar, blame the people of Rome who have so enthusiastically acclaimed and adored him and rejoiced in their loss of freedom and danced in his path and gave him triumphal processions. Blame the people who hail him when he speaks in the Forum of the ‘new, wonderful good society’ which shall now be Rome, interpreted to mean ‘more money, more ease, more security, more living fatly at the expense of the industrious.’ For out of such an ungoverned populace one is usually chosen as a leader, someone bold and unscrupulous who curries favor with the people by giving them other men’s property. To such a man the protection of public office is given, and continually renewed. He emerges as a tyrant over the very people who raised him to power.

The Rostrum, Roman Forum

Shakespeare set Marc Anthony’s interesting eulogy here in Julius Caesar, a speech that reflects a Renaissance admiration for the rotten and brutal politics of the time. An excerpt from Act III, which can be read to good effect on the spot:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.

You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

The death of Caesar is the final nail in the coffin for the Republic, the end of a time when there were still some doubts about whether the internal conflicts of Rome could be held together (as Cicero and others wanted) or would cause the city-state to fly apart. Caesar was stopped but made sure to provide in his will a successor to his project of destroying the Republic, Octavian, who completely fulfilled his hopes.

House of Augustus, Palatine

It is deeply perverse, or maybe some kind of unintentional prediction of his future, that Octavian would say these words as he set in place the Roman Empire, recreate himself as Augustus, and in so doing start the clock on the end of Rome as a power:

We write our names in the sand: and then the waves roll in and wash them away. The greatest impediments to changes we want to make in our selves lie not in the visible world of conscious intent, but in the murky realm of the unconscious mind.

Edward Gibbon sums up his deeds:

The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed, can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him, at the age of nineteen, to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside. With the same hand, and probably with the same temper, he signed the proscription of Cicero, and the pardon of Cinna. His virtues, and even his vices, were artificial; and according to the various dictates of his interest, he was at first the enemy, and at last the father, of the Roman world.

Rome’s survival and existence came from being an egalitarian project for its first few hundred years. Those who gained fantastic wealth and power from the success of that idea then destroyed it, knowingly and deliberately.

Piazza di Campidoglio

Marcus Aurelius is the man on the horse in the center of the piazza, given a place of honor at center of the seat of Roman power, in ancient times and now. He was a later Roman emperor, born to deal with an empire reaching its limits, and writes eloquently how to mentally do such a thing.

It is time to realize that you are a member of the Universe, that you are born of Nature itself, and to know that a limit has been set to your time. Use every moment wisely, to perceive your inner refulgence, or ’twill be gone and nevermore within your reach.

Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been. We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. It can only ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out. The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. It’s silly to try to escape other peoples’ faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own. Leave other peoples’ mistakes where they lie. A wise person has everything they need within their own body.

The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.

Basilica di San Clemente

This place is a mind-bending intersection of Roman imperial, early Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance. A Medieval church is built on top of a Roman Mithrum, where frescoes show a story of a Roman noble woman becoming a Christian, and then a Renaissance-era church is built on top of that. Christopher Dawson writes in Religion and World History about the time:

The Christians came into inevitable conflict with the government and with public opinion. To the man in the street, the Christian was an anti-social atheist who would take no part in the public feasts and the games, which played such a large part in city life. To the authorities he was a passive rebel, who would neither take his share of municipal offices nor pay loyal homage to the Emperor. Hence the rise of persecution, and the driving of the Christians into an underground existence, as a proscribed sect.

The Church grew under the shadow of the executioner’s rods and axes, and every Christian lived in the peril of physical torture and death. The thought of martyrdom colored the whole outlook of early Christianity. But it was not only a fear, it was also an ideal and a hope. For the martyr was the complete Christian, he was the champion and hero of the new society and its conflict with the old, and even the Christians who failed in the moment of the trial – the lapsi – looked on the martyrs as their saviors and protectors.

Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati

Up the street from the Colesseum is an overlooked treasure, a church that has parts of the story origin of Christian power, with many parts that are from early Christian and medieval-era.

As the empire was collapsing in the west, the late Roman Emperor Constantine, perhaps for political reasons during a period of chaos and competing faiths, surprised the Roman world by embracing Christianity. He was converted by “a vision of a burning cross in the sky” just before a battle against rivals for control of the remains of the western empire. The Christian bishop of Rome at the time was Sylvester, but this was long before that meant anything other than some local influence over Christian believers. After his conversion, Constantine asked him which churches he would like to build, so that Constantine could practice his new faith (these became San Giovanni in Laterano, old San Pietro, San Sebastiano, others). Constantine gained influence over the burgeoning Christian population, and Sylvester gained status and resources as a Christian leader among many competitors with powerful friends.

Constantine appointed Sylvester Pontifex Maximus for Rome, the spiritual leader of the city, a title created near the city’s founding by Numa in 700 BCE and previously held by Augustus and almost all other emperors (including Constantine), in about 300 CE. Later, a story (probably made up by later popes) was spread that Constantine had been cured of leprosy by Sylvester, baptized by him and that Constantine had thus cemented him as the first pope.

The “Byzantine” (read “late Roman Empire) era frescos in the Cappella San Silvestro in this church show this exact story. The church is enclosed by a fortress-like wall so that it’s secure during a time when Rome was a dangerous town to be in.

Constantine later abandoned Rome and moved the capital of the Empire to “Byzantium” (again this is another name for the late Empire used by scholars, contemporaries would have said Roman Empire) then renamed it Constantinople, in 330 CE.

After years of raids by northern European tribes like Gauls and Goths, Gauls finally captured Rome in 476 CE. Odoacer, a Gaul military leader, wrote to the then eastern Roman emperor Zeno in Constantinople a letter that accompanied the Roman imperial diadem and insignia (it was treason for anyone but the emperor of Rome to wear it):

One emperor is enough for the empire.

Odacer ends the Empire (and emperors) by wanting no part of being a god-politician, just interested in controlling the city and the region and leaving the god part to others.

Later, Goth King Theodoric takes control, writing to the Roman Emperor Anastasius in Constantinople in 498 CE, after having defeated and massacred almost 80,000 Roman soldiers (and Odoacer), and assuming control of all of southern Italy as a Christian crusader:

It behoves us, most clement Emperor, to seek for peace, since there are no causes for anger between us. Peace by which the nations profit; Peace the fair mother of all liberal arts, the softener of manners, the replenisher of the generations of mankind. Peace ought certainly to be an object of desire to every kingdom. Therefore, most pious of princes, it accords with your power and your glory that we who have already profited by your affection personally should seek concord with your Empire. You are the fairest ornament of all realms; you are the healthful defense of the whole world, to which all other rulers rightfully look up with reverence, because they know that there is in you something which is unlike all others: we above all, who by Divine help learned in your Republic the art of governing Romans with equity. Our royalty is an imitation of yours, modeled on your good purpose, a copy of the only Empire; and in so far as we follow you do we excel all other nations.

Theodoric is smoothly sticking the knife in old Roman spirituality by informing the Emperor that his idea of “Divine” has been supplanted by the Christian god, and given Theodoric control of Rome. He would go on to help establish the organized Catholic Church and Roman Papacy as authority, as a way to contribute to his own legitimacy as ruler in medieval Italy.

Piazza Vaticano

The basis for this place and all it’s opulence is a just a short bible verse. Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian faith, says in Matthew 16:18-19:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Later popes and scholars forged other documents and made up histories to justify why the bishop of Rome leads the Catholic Church, but really this verse is the only undisputed rationale. The symbol of the Vatican is the papal miter with two keys for this reason.

Paulus Orosius (a Roman-era historian) writing in 400 CE about Jesus’ apostle Peter in Rome, about 40 CE:

Claudius, the fourth Emperor from Augustus, having obtained the kingdom, governed 14 years—at the beginning of his reign Peter, the Apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, came to Rome. Simon Peter, after having governed the Church at Antioch, came to Rome in the second year of Claudius… He was the leader of the faithful for 25 years—when in the 14th year of Nero he was persecuted by Nero, and crowned with martyrdom. He would not be crucified in the way of Jesus as he felt himself unworthy, and so died on a cross planted upside down, a spectacle in the circus of Nero, and buried nearby.

There is some evidence for the site of his crucifixion and burial (for all to see, on the edge of a Roman-era Circus for games and other spectacles) actually being right under the crypt of this basilica.

Whether it was cause or effect, making Rome the center of power allowed the church to appropriate much of the structure of the Empire for its own organizational purposes, allowing to to survive after many other faiths and Christian sects were stamped out.

Much later, Pope Leo III, now establishing and growing the political power of the pope as the Vicar (again, a title brazenly appropriated from the Empire) of the church, asserted the role of the Catholic church in legitimizing rulers through a neat trick played on an unwitting King Charlemagne (having newly conquered France and much of Germany, Austria, and northern Italy, but not yet having asserted himself as King).

Leo writes with satisfaction about his surprise crowning of Charlemagne in 800 CE, on a giant porphyry disc that is embedded in the floor of what was then the new Basilica di San Pietro, just inside the entrance:

On the day of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, all were again gathered in the aforesaid basilica of the blessed Peter the Apostle. And then the gracious and venerable pontiff with his own hands crowned him Charles with a very precious crown. Then all the faithful people of Rome, seeing the defense that he gave and the love that he bore for the holy Roman Church and her Vicar, by the will of God and of the blessed Peter, the keeper of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, cried with one accord in a loud voice: “To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peace-giving Emperor, life and victory.” While he was invoking diverse saints before the holy confession of the blessed Peter the Apostle, it was proclaimed three times and he was constituted by all to be Emperor of the Romans.

Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

(At the sculpture of the “Risen Christ”, by Michelangelo, left of the apse.)

We take it for granted now, but the idea that people could have their own, unique experiences, rather than being a tool of religion or power, had one of its first expressions in Rome during the Renaissance era. Artists could make things because of their subtly unique experience and identity, rather than being craftspeople doing decoration, in service of political or religious goals.

Erwin Panofsky in Meaning in the Visual Arts says Medieval-era Italian artists tended towards abstraction and crudeness because a spirituality beyond this world was un-depictable, a mystery, and their individuality was unimportant, that the goal is for

…the subject as well as the object to be submerged in a higher unity.

But though Renaissance artists worked to show their own experience in their work. It seems simple and obvious now, but it was entirely new then.

Michelangelo Buonarotti was a devout Christian, but he believed less in the mysteries of faith or a world beyond, and more in the beauty in the existing, physical world and his own experience of it. He found inspiration in classical (Greek and Roman) art, and worked to revive the naturalistic in his work. And he pursued this through more than just reviving old techniques. He (and other Renaissance era artists) sharpened the contrast between mortal and divine. Panofsky continues:

…whereas classical antiquity did not as yet permit the explicit formulation of this contrast, now individuals would assert themselves against our surroundings, their group, or other things as something independent and equal of value.

Michelangelo, creator of the sculpture in this church was such a new kind of individual. He pursued creating his own vision and his works have an incandescent identity that is impossible to miss or confuse with the work of anyone else– look around the church and see for yourself. He exists as a person we know because of this new mode of being an artist (unlike so many other creators of incandescent art that came before him, whose identities are lost forever). He does sound lonely when he describes his desire for immortal work, though (writing as an older man, after the passing of one of his patrons):

The promises of this world are, for the most part, vain phantoms, and, to confide in ones self and become something of worth and beauty is the safest course. And beauty depends on purpose. It is in the elements best suited to their purpose that beauty shines forth most strongly.

The Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Hundreds of years later, Rome is the setting (and gives its name to) Romantic poetry. Two poems by Shelley, a young writer whose imagination was fired by the city:


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that collossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Go thou to Rome,—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;
And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who planned
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transformed to marble; and beneath,
A field is spread, on which a newer band
Have pitched in Heaven’s smile their camp of death,
Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguished breath.
Here pause: these graves are all too young as yet
To have outgrown the sorrow which consigned
Its charge to each; and if the seal is set,
Here, on one fountain of a mourning mind,
Break it not thou! too surely shalt thou find
Thine own well full, if thou returnest home,
Of tears and gall. From the world’s bitter wind
Seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb.
What Adonais is, why fear we to become?
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!—Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.

I hope that the city is inspiring to you too, to find what’s true and beautiful, and know it for yourself, in your own way.

React + Webpack + SCSS + Fetch dev boilerplate

I could not for the life of me find a good example of boilerplate for React with Webpack and loading external data from some kind of API, so I put together the parts with Babel 6, SCSS, hot reloading, and Fetch. (it’s only suitable for local development, though build pieces are started). I hope you find it useful and don’t have to waste a lot of time like I did!



Years ago, late at night in the hospital I had told mom how much I regretted how estranged she and I had been for so long, how miserable it had made me and how pointless it seemed, now that she might lose her life or at least large parts of it. I am not sure how much she heard me. She sighed, but said nothing. After a moment she said “and here I am, asking God for help, just like everyone else,” with a blank expression that changed into a lopsided frown. 

The next morning I woke up in the cramped sleeping chair, very groggy. Mom was snoring.

A vitals-taker was in the room. I had chatted with her last night, or probably days ago. I told her I couldn’t feel my legs

“We harvested them for other patients,” she said without looking up.

Then her head turned quickly as my mother’s body bent at the waist, slowly raising her head and shoulders up to look at me and moan “AND NOW I WANT YOUR BRAIN, BEN…!”

(This was funny because she was awaiting surgery to remove a brain tumor. Despite a great deal of trouble and pain between us, I am still grateful for this one moment where we truly understood each other.)


The day will come when all the screens are part of some exploitative apparatus, but for now: let the kids binge on their screens
There are some dark joys in a world that reacts to every touch, and games and messages are as comforting as a rerun when nothing else is on
Such an orderly universe prolongs innocence, and puts off experiencing the cold indifference of the world, for a little while


Mel walks back as slowly as he can
Rod checks his phone rhythmically
Sal’s cart pulls violently to the left
Richard cannot picture her hand
Harold frowns as his gaze drifts around a screen
Lucy decides that this will be the last one
Hannah holds a piece of paper above her head
Melissa smokes in the dark
Bill trips over his words as he looks up
Carl locks the door and looks in the mirror
Julie smiles at the blood on her sleeve
Emma peels a rotten banana
Frank refuses to look at the exit




Cesare Angelotti, escaped political prisoner
Mario Cavaradossi, a painter
Floria Tosca, a singer, Mario’s girlfriend
Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police
Spoletta, a spy

Rome, June 1800. Napoleon, an army general and ruler of France, is invading Rome. Mario, Tosca, and Cesare want Napoleon to win. The Baron Scarpia is fighting against Napoleon.


Cesare Angelotti, loyal to Napoleon, escapes from jail and rushes into a church to hide. Mario Cavaradossi is there, working on a painting. Mario hides his friend Cesare in the back of the church. Mario’s girlfriend Tosca comes in, and wonders if the sneaking around means Mario has a new girlfriend. Mario tells her he loves only her. As she leaves, they hear the alarm go up: the secret police are hunting for Cesare. Mario and Cesare run away to Mario’s house.

Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police, arrives at the church looking for Cesare. Tosca comes back looking for Mario. The Baron thinks Tosca knows something, and he tells her Mario is in love with Cesare’s sister, to make her jealous. Tosca is angry and runs off to find Mario. The Baron’s spy Spoleta follows her.


Spoletta brings Mario to the Baron’s palace, and sends him to jail in the castle. He sends for Tosca and tells her he will hurt Mario if she doesn’t tell him where Cesare is hiding. She tells him, and Cesare is killed.

Now the Baron tells Tosca that he will kill Mario unless she agrees to be his girlfriend. Tosca says she will, if the Baron will let Mario go. The Baron promises to only pretend to execute Mario, for show, then let him go. She makes him write down his promise. As soon as he is done writing, Tosca kills him with a knife she hid in her clothes! She takes the promise he wrote.


Tosca sneaks into Mario’s castle jail cell. She tells him about the pretend execution, shows him the letter, and says that soon they will both be free together. When soldiers come, she hides, sure that they will only pretend to kill him. But the Baron betrayed Tosca; when they fire their guns, the bullets are real and Mario is dead! Spoletta rushes in to arrest her for murder. She cries out and tries to escape, leaping from the castle wall. Tosca dies.