Friday, November 26, 2010

A Pilgrimage to Rome

On November 6, 2010, Ellie and I flew to Rome to begin a long planned vacation.  Our travel companions were Paul and Kendra Moloney, Ellie's brother and sister-in-law.  Also on the tour was a church group from a little town outside of Austin, Texas.  They were mostly Mexican-Americans and were a delightful group.  We couldn't have had more pleasant traveling companions.  The tour was set up in such a way so we would all stay at the same hotel and could visit the various sights and places of interest as a group or go off on our own.  We chose not to go with the group on a tour of the Vatican as Ellie and Paul and Kendra had been before and felt that we didn't need a guided tour.  We went by ourselves.  But we did go with the group to Assisi (the only time we went outside Rome), and we took a night-time tour of Rome with the group.  We also went to two restaurants with the group.  At the first restaurant, a guitarist played popular Italian songs during the meal.  At the second restaurant, there were two male tenors and a female soprano and a mezzo soprano.  They were opera singers and had remarkable voices.  I had never heard opera live before; I had only heard it on television.  I was blown away by the quality of their voices and wished I understood the language.  But you really don't have to understand the language to appreciate how good they are when you hear it live.  I enjoyed eating in the restaurants.  They typically serve three course meals but serve smaller portions than we have in our restaurants.  I think they eat healthier than we do.  I noticed very few overweight women or men in Rome.  The smaller portions did not bother me as I don't have the appetite I used to when I was younger.

This was not Ellie's first visit; she had made three previous trips but it was my first and our first visit together. Ellie had not been there since 1973,so she was anxious to go back; and I was anxious to see it for the first time.  As she has for the last thirty seven years, Ellie was to be my guiding light for this visit to this most glorious city.  These writings that I am leaving for posterity or for whoever cares to read them, will be based on readings that I have done either in books or magazines, or newspapers, or periodicals, or some other printed material.  But in this case, the printed material that I have relied on are travel guides. "Rick Steves' Travel Guide to Rome" was helpful. The two travel books that provided the most detailed information were "Insight Guides to Italy," published in 1989, by APA Publications and "Fodor's Exploring Rome" (third edition), published in 1996, by Fodor's Travel Publications, Inc. Though not recent publications, these two travel guides provided a wealth of information concerning the history, the culture and the art and historic treasures that make Rome and all of Italy such a fascinating tourist destination.

First, let me provide some history.  From 509 BC to 50 BC Rome was a Republic ruled by a Senate chosen from the upper classes.  During the last years of the Republic there were conflicts between the wealthy classes and the middle classes (plebeians) and Rome was in danger of slipping into civil war.  It was at that point that Julius Caesar, a popular General who had returned to Rome after having defeated an army in what is now France but was then called Gaul, seized power and made himself a virtual dictator.  He restored order but was murdered in 44 BC by a band of assassins including his adopted son Brutus, who wished to restore the Republic.  He was succeeded in power by his grand nephew Octavian who took the title "Augustus" and became the first of the emperors who would rule Rome for the next 500 years.  It would be impossible to describe in detail the sights and points of interest in Rome without writing a book.  In Rome there are more than 700 churches, many of them remarkable for their beauty and structural design.  There  are also other points of interest as well, the Colosseum, the remains of the Forum, the Baths of Diocletian and many other places of interest.  I will instead focus on a brief history of Rome and on a few interesting facts. I will begin by discussing the Colosseum. 

The Colosseum took about ten years to build.    It was started in 70 AD and completed in 80 AD.  The work was done mostly by slaves brought to Rome from Judea.  In 70 AD, the Jewish people of Judea rebelled against Roman rule.  The rebellion was crushed and the Jewish temple was destroyed.  The Jewish people scattered throughout the world. and approximately 50,000 were brought in chains to Rome to be held in bondage.  In 81 AD, upon completion of the Colosseum, a one hundred day festival was decreed to celebrate its' opening.  There was no admission.  Any Roman citizen could attend at no cost.  During this inaugural festival, approximately 2,000 gladiators and 9000 animals were slain.  Workers squirted perfume around the Colosseum to mask the stench of blood.  A typical day's entertainment might begin with women gladiators fighting each other, followed by midget gladiators fighting, then followed by the main event, male gladiators fighting wild animals or fighting other gladiators.  The blood lust of the Roman mob knew no boundaries.  It was not just the lower classes that thrilled to the spilling of blood, but the middle and upper classes as well.  As Rome went into decline, the bloodletting finally ended and the Colosseum severely damaged by earthquakes, became a decaying relic of a once great Empire. 

Constantine became Emperor of Rome when he defeated the Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.  Constantine's mother and sister were Christians and after his victory, Constantine converted to Christianity.  In 313 AD, he issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity.  Thus 313 AD is one of the seminal dates in World history.

I will not attempt to describe the magnificence of the basilicas and churches of Rome .  Words are inadequate; you have to see them.  I could not help but thinking when I was within the walls of these awe inspiring monuments to the glory of God, were they in fact monuments to the glory of God, or were they monuments to the earthly glory of the Catholic Church and to the Popes who built them.  Father Peter Curran has built fourteen humble churches in Brazil in his thirty years of missionary work there.  What would Jesus think of these magnificent churches in Rome as compared with the simple little churches built by Father Peter in Brazil ?

During the reign of Constantine, he divided the Empire into two parts.  In 324 AD, he removed the seat of power to Byzantium, present day Turkey, and ruled from there.  He built a great city, Constantinople, which is present day Istanbul.  The City of Rome continued to be the capital of the Western Roman Empire, but its' greatness was diminished.  The Eastern Roman Empire lasted until 1453, when it was invaded and defeated by the Ottoman Turks.  The Western Roman Empire did not last as long.  In 410 AD, the Visigoths, a Germanic Tribe sacked Rome but they did not stay.  They came back in 476 AD, defeated the Roman army and occupied the city.  That was the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Without doing more reading and research, I cannot offer a definitive opinion as to what caused the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  However there is one thing that appears clear to me.  I am of the opinion that the strength and viability of a nation is dependant upon the virtue of its' people.  If the virtue of the people collectively, is diminished, then the nation will be weakened.  It seems to me that virtue of the Roman people became so diminished that Rome was greatly weakened and ultimately collapsed caused as much from internal causes as from pressure from without.  What lessons should we in the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, draw from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire ?  Will we continue to be a strong and prosperous nation ?  Or will we become a nation of crumbling monuments and faded dreams ?

Friday, October 29, 2010

On the Road with Uncle Bob

A trip to Gettysburg inspired by Bruce Catton's book "The Final Fury"

The battle of Gettysburg, fought on July 1st, 2nd and 3rd 1863, was an epic three-day struggle between two opposing armies that resulted in a victory by the Union forces, led by General George Gordon Meade, over the Confederate forces, lead by General Robert E. Lee. At the end of the third day, there were 51,000 casualties - men listed as killed, wounded, missing or captured - on both sides: 28,000 Confederate casualties; 23,000 Union casualties. This was the battle that turned the tide in the Civil War.

Most Americans today probably do not understand that General Lee had no illusions that the Confederate armies could win the war against the Union forces. He and most of the leaders of the Confederacy understood that the North had too many resources and the Confederacy too few. Lee's objective was to beat the Union army in one great battle somewhere in Pennsylvania. Such a victory by Lee's army would leave the way open for Lee and his army to march on Washington and Baltimore. If he could capture those two cities, or even capture one and threaten the other, it was quite possible that the northern states, already disheartened after having suffered several crushing defeats, would sue for peace and recognize the right of the southern states to secede from the Union.

Such an outcome was not guaranteed, however. The Union forces, under Grant, had won victories in the West and were threatening Vicksburg on the Mississippi River at the moment Lee crossed his army into Pennsylvania. But Lee felt that this was the South's best chance for a successful outcome.

The genesis of this trip to Gettysburg was a conversation Uncle Bob (Bob Kearney) and I had over the summer. I mentioned I had been to the Gettysburg battlefield three times and he expressed an interest in seeing it for himself. So, on a Friday in early October (October 8, 2010), we set off. This was not a vacation as such, but an educational pilgrimage.  I was to be the mentor and Uncle Bob my student.

The trip down was uneventful, about a seven hour drive.  We arrived about 5:30 PM.  My Chief of Staff (Ellie) had booked us into a Quality Inn about 24 miles outside Gettysburg.  Just as "an army marches on its' stomach" (a quote from Napoleon), so too do pilgrims.  So the first order of business was to get a meal.  Since even pilgrims have to unwind on occasion, drinks were ordered.  I ordered a Jameson on the rocks with a Sam Adams chaser.  I like Sam Adams perhaps because of my love of history.  I like Jameson perhaps because of my Mother's Irish heritage.  Or perhaps I just like the taste of alcohol.  Uncle Bob is a man of more exotic tastes.  Straight whiskey and beer wouldn't do for him.  He ordered a Southern Comfort Manhattan with sweet vermouth and a twist of lemon over dirty ice.  His second drink was a vodka Manhattan straight up with green olives.  Drinking with Bob makes me feel so inferior.  While we waited for the meal we made our plans for the following day and discussed other topics as well, though my memory is somewhat hazy regarding the details of the conversation. 

The meal, by the way, was delicious.  The evening ended with Uncle Bob guiding me to our room where I promptly went to bed and slept like an innocent babe.  Bob, who had not had as much to drink, did not sleep well.  This just confirms my theory that sinners are not always punished in this world and virtue is not always rewarded.  Such is life.

The next morning we began our tour of the battlefield.  First we went along the length of Seminary Ridge.  That was the position occupied by the Confederates on July 1st and held for the next two days.  Opposite the Confederate army, approximately eight tenths of a mile away and running parallel to it, was Cemetery Ridge, occupied by the Union army.  Both ridges were low, not very elevated, and ran north to south.  At the northern end of Cemetery Ridge was Cemetery Hill and Culps Hill, both held by Union  forces.  At the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, was Little Round Top, wooded on three sides but rocky and bare on the top and bare and steep on the western side, which was the side facing the Confederate army.  Union forces occupied Little Round Top, which was the left flank or the southern extreme end of the Union position. 

It is not the purpose of this report to go into the details of the battle, but I will focus on the final Confederate assault on the Union position referred to by historians as "Picketts Charge."  On July 3rd, late in the afternoon after a heavy cannonade by about 140 Confederate guns, between 12 and 15 thousand Confederate soldiers stepped out of the woods along Seminary Ridge, forming a line approximately a mile in width, and proceeded to walk in good order across open fields the eight tenths of a mile distance toward the Union position on Cemetery Ridge.  The cannon fell silent as the Confederate brigades, lined up in double and triple ranks, moved forward, walking upright in a steady and unhurried pace in plain sight of the Union forces.  As the Confederates moved closer to the Union lines, Union cannons began to fire a lethal barrage of shot and canister that tore great holes in their ranks.  Still they came forward in a remarkable display of courage and determination perhaps unequaled in modern warfare.  There was nowhere to hide; there was nowhere to seek cover.  As they came within a hundred yards of the Union position, they broke into a run as they charged the Union line with bayonets fixed.  For a brief moment a hundred or more Confederate soldiers breached the center of the Union line but they were soon surrounded and killed, wounded, or captured.  The Confederate assault had been repulsed and, with it, Lee's chance for a great victory had been lost. 

The next day, July 4th, both sides held their positions, waiting for the other side to attack.  Both sides had suffered terrible losses and neither side felt strong enough to attack the other.  The night of July 4th, Lee gathered together his battered army and began the long retreat back to Virginia. 

The war would drag on for two more years before Lee would finally surrender at Appomattox Court House.  In all, more than 600,000 Americans, North and South, would lose their lives in the costliest war in U.S. history. 

Though there were other peripheral issues, the war was, in essence, a struggle over slavery; specifically the extension of slavery into the unsettled territories.  As President Barack Obama has succinctly put it, slavery is our Nation's "original sin."  In order to create our new Nation, the Founding Fathers agreed to accept the existence of slavery as an institution in the states where it then existed.  It was a necessary compromise, they felt, in order for a united government to be formed among the thirteen original states.  In this they were undoubtedly correct.  But in accepting something that was evil in its essence, the framers of our Constitution put off on a future generation a day of reckoning when the debt incurred by this compromise would become due.  Slavery ended with the end of the Civil War, but segregation continued for another hundred years.  We have made progress as a society, especially in the last forty years.  But we have more to do. 

We are still paying off the debt that we as a Nation incurred as a result of our acceptance of slavery in our Constitution.  Let us hope that someday that debt might be repaid in full.