One can read books and look at site plans all day, but until one gets up-close and personal with the objects and spaces they study, it is hard to truly appreciate the complexity, size, and environment of the subject at hand. With funding from the Penn Museum, I was able to attend the Classical Summer School at the American Academy in Rome. The core mission of the program is to teach students about ancient Roman topography, architecture, culture, and archaeology through onsite visits over the course of six weeks. Basically, I was immersed in the world of ancient Rome, able to walk among the ancient ruins and to try to understand the physical nature of what it is I study.
A site like Paestum in southern Italy typifies the most common conceptions of ancient Graeco-Roman religion, with large Greek-style temples as the visual focal point of religious worship. The temples at Paestum are some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world and one is able to walk through them unhindered. Having only seen site plans of temples, I was truly amazed by the immensity of these structures. I was able to walk up the front stairs (which take some effort to climb) and enter the temples as a worshiper or holy official might have. It was instantly easy to see that such overwhelming structures were the home of a deity and, as a human, I indeed felt very humbled. Such immensity of structure would be constantly paralleled throughout Italy, such as the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome. Paestum also offered the chance to witness, in one place, the development of constructing and styling, large temples. Supporting a roof for these buildings offered the ancient Greeks a challenge, and one that was met with multiple strategies. Each affected the atmosphere of the space, one’s interaction with the divine, and the appearance of the structure (how squished should the column capitals look?).
This program also offered me the chance to experience the other side of ancient religion; that which was small, secluded, and secret. At Pompeii, I was able to visit the Villa of the Mysteries, which contains a room with wall paintings depicting a rite of initiation into what is known as a mystery cult. They were called such because one had to go through a series of steps or revelations before obtaining knowledge regarding the cult and its deity. Was this the room where such initiations took place? If so, its location inside a wealthy villa illuminates the notion that ancient religion occurred in a variety of places such as the homes of the elite, or in the case of the Mithraeums I visited at Ostia, it occurred in the backrooms of apartment buildings or in dank, deep, underground tunnels.
Lastly, I was able to witness the changing uses of religious space. One example might be the temple of Apollo at Alba Fucens, which was converted into a church. Or the attachment of early churches to pagan temples, such as the Temple of Romulus in the Forum being used as a narthex for the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The way old sacred spaces were integrated into and adapted for new ones highlights the continuity of sacred space. The space that was once sacred can remain sacred, even though a new deity is worshiped there.
In sum, attending the Classical Summer School allowed me to visit sacred spaces that would have been practically inaccessible to an individual tourist, such as Alba Fucens or the necropolis at Tarquinia. But it also allowed me to access spaces that are in general closed to the public or have very limited entry, such as the necropolis below St. Peter’s Basilica or the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome. The access to such sites was always accompanied by instruction by experts in the field, further enhancing the educational value. Furthermore, it was wonderful to live and study in a Roman apartment for such a period of time, and to experience the cuisine and culture of each place we visited. Ice cream will never be the same after eating such fantastic gelato.
Timothy Warnock is a graduate student in the Ancient History program.