As the Romans do

Backpacking through Termini Station and out onto the chaotic cobblestone streets of Rome, clutching my husband’s hand, I can feel the rain streaking down my face. Nope, definitely not tears of joy.

All I can think is, we have finally made it to the Eternal City, the birthplace of my mythological muse and the basis for my novel, and the rain makes it feel like home (the PNW).

It is our last destination on a bar crawl-style tour across France and Italy, but it is the one I have looked forward to most of all. I’m a small town girl myself who finds city life too fast and often ugly. But the beauty of Rome is the cling of ancient ruins to a mecca with all its modern creature comforts and crazy traffic, and the juxtaposition of the two is one of the strangest and most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed.

 On our first night we find a local hole-in-the-wall and eat porchetta and drink Peronis, Italian beers. I am here to experience Roman culture and lifestyle as much as to understand what Rome used to be, to catch a glimpse of a past long since dead but never forgotten.

When I step into the Pantheon, it feels so open. The wind spirals through its open dome and flutters through my hair as if ushering me in, and it’s as close to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had. Here is where the dead history comes to life — the geometric marble floor unchanged for centuries, the stone shrines to pagan gods encircling us, and a sunspot shining through the oculus. We have been into many cathedrals on this trip, but this is the  biggest and oldest and most sacred to me. It is so hushed and peaceful.

 

At galleries I hunt for my huntress, and for the famous Roman She-Wolf. I have already found depictions of Diana, with her bow and hounds, in Florence. Some of them are partials or replicas. I look into Diana’s alabaster eyes and wonder who carved them, wonder if they hoped as much as I do that the version I’ve crafted of her is satisfactory enough. Only then does it become clear that these manifestations of her were really worshipped, that there were entire cults dedicated to her.

 

The Colosseum is the biggest attraction, but it does not leave as much of an impression on me as Palatine Hill. Supposedly Romulus lived here. Its mythological significance features in my novel, and even more prominently in its sequel.

Here, though the structures of huts and temples crumble, the landscape itself is breathtaking. Olive trees and purple flowers grow wild and rabbits grow big and fat. Here wealthy Romans once overlooked their city, turned this earth, burned their hearthfires. I can’t fathom exactly what their lives must have been like, but this place feels magical, like something out of my dreams. In some ways it feels like my own writing come to life — especially the rabbit who has clearly become used to the presence of humans, munching happily away at clover, just like the one Dianna and Aimes released into the wild at the end of my book.

 

On our last night, we picnic by candlelight on our balcony in the midst of a thunderstorm. In the distance, St. Peter’s basilica glows bright as the crescent moon. I take in the surreal paradox of Rome, and think about how its mythical origins have survived for so long, how they are taking shape in my fictional world even now. I am so grateful.

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