Pilot’s log: Saturday, July 4, 2020

Origin:Naples International Airport (LIRN), Naples, Italy
Destination:Rome Leonardo da Vinci Airport (LIRF), Fiumicino, Italy
Distance:170 miles

Good morning. For any U.S. citizens traveling with us, happy Independence Day! On this date, Americans celebrate the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Congress actually voted to break with Great Britain on July 2; the final wording of the much-edited Declaration of Independence was what was approved on July 4. The Declaration was first read publicly in Philadelphia on July 8, and most Congressmen did not sign it until a ceremony on Aug. 2. But it’s July 4 that we consider our nation’s birthday, so happy 244th birthday, America!

And here we are, in Italy! What can we do here to celebrate American Independence Day? Well, it turns out there’s quite a strong connection between this land we’ll fly over today and the creation of the then-brand-new United States of America. And we’re not talking about how the American continents (both North and South) got their names from an early Italian merchant and explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. No: instead, we’re thinking about how the colonial-era American leaders who first declared independence from Great Britain, and then created a new Constitution and system of government, were greatly influenced by the ideals of Ancient Rome. And here we are!

Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to both North and South America

How did Ancient Rome contribute so much inspiration to the new United States of America? Well, the time of the American Revolution was also the Age of Enlightenment, and educated people would have been well versed in the classic texts of ancient Rome and Greece. The literature that has come down to us from classical times is many things, including a storehouse of ideas about how to organize and manage a society for the greatest benefit of all citizens. At the time of the enlightenment, many of these ideas were fueling political thought across Europe. The old ways were changing: France, long ruled by a monarchy by divine right, was on the verge of its own revolt against entrenched powers at the same the American Revolution was brewing.

French cries of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” spurred on the Americans, and behind it all were ideals that first took root in the times of ancient Rome and Greece. It’s a great example of how the past can influence the present to create a new future. So in today’s flight, we’ll see a lot of the Italian countryside and cityscape as it appears today. But this is a very old landscape – one that’s been inhabited and worked by people for thousands of years now. We’ll be flying over sites where a lot of history has taken place, but it didn’t just all get filed away in an archive somewhere. It’s history that was a big part of the classical education of many of our nation’s founders, and we hope to show you some of those connections today, many of which are still with us today.

A statue of George Washington in a Roman toga, an 1840 statue by Horatio Greenough in the National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.

For example: look at a U.S. $1 bill. The back contains several phrases not in English but in Latin, the now-dead language of Ancient Rome. Specifically, the bill shows both sides of the “Great Seal of the United States,” created by the Founders in 1782, while the American Revolution was still underway. (It wouldn’t officially end until the Treaty of Paris in 1783.) The Founders sprinkled the new nation’s seal with Latin phrases, some taken from idealistic writers from Ancient Greece and Rome that educated people of the time would have recognized. “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of Many, One,” was an idea found in the Greek writings of Heraclitus and Pythagoras about the role about family bonds as the foundation of the state, but some scholars believe it came blending instructions found in an an ancient herb and cheese spread recipe! Two additional mottos appear: Annuit cœptis says that Providence has “approved of (our) undertakings.” Novus ordo seclorum, taken freely from Roman poet Virgil, is Latin for “a new order of the ages.” To further link the new American Republic to the ideals of Ancient Rome, the date “1776” is rendered in Roman numerals: MDCCLXXVI. Get the idea?

We start our journey in Naples, just 100 miles south of Rome. We’ll first fly around Mount Vesuvius, famous as the volcano that buried the Roman city of Pompeii in the year 79 A.D. We’ll then fly up Italy’s western coast over an area called Latina, then a seaport called Anzio that played a key role in more recent history: the Allied liberation of Italy in World War II. Then we’ll head inland along the course of the Tiber River until we reach the fabled seven hills of Rome, capital of the Ancient Roman Empire, home to Vatican and headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church for nearly 1,700 years, and one of the world’s great cities today.

Today’s $1 bill is filled with Latin phrases, evidence of Roman aspirations

Flying into Naples, we learned it’s where pizza got its start. But the city has history deeper than any deep dish: it extends back 2,800 years, making it one of the planet’s longest continually inhabited urban areas. Although now part of Italy, Naples was first developed by the Greeks, who made it an important port and trading city during the first millennium B.C. As Rome’s power grew to the north, Naples became a colony; the Romans admired the city’s Greek culture and ideas, such as those about democracy in government, and copied many for their own use. In fact, as Ancient Greece faded and the Roman strength grew, Naples was a key link between them, allowing Rome to build on Greek ideas that otherwise might have been forgotten. After the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, Naples came under a succession of rulers, including our friends the Hapsburgs in Vienna. As Medieval times gave way to the Enlightenment, Naples prospered: by the 17th century it was Europe’s second biggest city, until a bubonic plague outbreak in 1656 killed half the city’s population. Today it’s Italy’s third largest city and the capital and cultural center of the “heel and toe” of the boot-like Italian peninsula.

A painting showing the effects of the 1656 plague outbreak on Naples

At 4,560 feet, Mount Vesuvius isn’t as tall as many peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. But as an active volcano, it looms large in history due to an eruption nearly 2,000 years ago that buried the nearby Roman city of Pompeii and several other communities. It was just another sunny summer afternoon (no one knows the exact date) in Pompeii when Vesuvius blew its stack at 1 p.m., creating a huge ash cloud 20 miles high that darkened the skies, and causing rapid floods of superheated mud to race off the mountain. When the two-day eruption was done, Pompeii had disappeared. No one knows how many people lost their lives in the eruption, which remains one of Europe’s greatest natural disasters. But the end of Pompeii is not the end of Pompeii’s story.

Mount Vesuvius blows its top in 79 A.D.

Get interested in Ancient Rome, and you’ll find there’s a great deal that we actually don’t know. Yes, we have texts and artifacts. But for centuries, scholars had very little to go on to reconstruct or understand daily life in any detail. But with the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 1700s, scholars now had a well-preserved Roman city seemingly frozen in time to provide a wealth of information about Roman life at its peak. This helped generate renewed interest in Ancient Rome among educated people, including the American Founders, in the decades leading up the American Revolution. One sign of that was the blockbuster publication during this time of the six-volume ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire’ during this era. Pompeii continues to be excavated today as one of the world’s most important sources of information about urban life in Ancient Rome.

The excavated ruins of Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius in the distance

Heading north, we fly over a province known in ancient times as “Latium.” As you might guess, this area gave the world an early version of Latin, a language that was adopted by the Ancient Romans and which became the direct ancestor of many of today’s languages. As Rome’s power spread, it encountered many influences and other languages: the Etruscan and Celtic tongues to the north, and Greek to the south. No one knows exactly how Latin, with its alphabet taken partly from ancient Phoenician and partly from Greek, came to be Rome’s favored tongue. But somehow the language spoken in this obscure rural area would go on to win the linguistic lottery, influencing global communications today and into the future. Strangely, the actual town of “Latina” didn’t exist until it was created in the 1930s as a development project by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Troops and equipment come ashore on the U.S. Fifth Army Beachhead near Anzio, January 22, 1944

Back on the coast, we’re now at Anzio, a port with a good harbor that played a key role in more recent history. During World War II, Allied troops were slowly making their way up the Italian peninsula, trying to drive the Axis forces of Germany and Italy. In early 1944, the two sides met in this area, causing the “Battle of Anzio.” The area saw intense fighting by land, sea, and air forces, but eventually the Allies prevailed and went on to occupy Rome by the spring of 1944. It would still be another year before Hitler’s forces in Germany could be completely defeated, but the occupation of Rome and the later ouster of Mussolini was a sign the Allies had the upper hand.

Okay, you may have heard the phrase “all roads lead to Rome.” Well, today we’re flying there, but consider: in ancient times, all roads literally DID lead to Rome, as Emperor Caesar Augustus erected a monument called the Miliarium Aureum (golden milestone) in Rome’s center, from which all distances in the empire would be measured. It’s not clear if that was really ever the case, but nevertheless good roads were one reason Rome could maintain central control over an ever-growing empire. Roman roads were built for the long haul. They set new standards for engineering, making use of drainage and embankments and multiple layers of compacted material to make their roads last. And so they did: all over Europe, Roman roads still exist, in many cases forming the basis for modern highways. One element of Roman roads that had a worldwide impact was the distance between two wheels of a Roman military chariot. This standard distance, which works out to a modern distance of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, endures today as standard gauge for railroad tracks in use all over the world.

Julius Caesar proclaimed himself Roman emperor in 27 A.D., causing debates about liberty and tyranny that inspired the U.S. founders

Ancient Rome can be divided into three main eras. First came the early days, starting in 753 B.C., when Rome was a modest settlement ruled by a series of kings. Then came the big break: in 509 B.C., the nobility overthrew the monarchy, and instead the Romans tried something new. They established a system of government in which a group of elders, eventually called the “Senate,” would choose leaders to run the government and the military for limited terms. The entire Senate would debate policy, and would go on to establish a set of laws applying to all citizens. Although there were different levels of citizenship (including slaves), no king or absolute ruler presided. This “Roman Republic” lasted for nearly 500 years, worked well: during this time Rome came to dominate much of the Mediterranean basin and a good part of Europe. Can you see how this formed a blueprint for America’s founders when it was time to set up the government for their new nation? Back in Rome, disagreements led to civil war and unrest within the Republic. This eventually led to military leader Julius Caesar proclaiming himself supreme leader in 31 B.C. Thus began Rome’s third phase, the “Roman Empire,” in which a series of emperors ruled with authority over the Senate and all other institutions. This new way brought even more success to Rome: in the two centuries that followed, the Roman Empire reached its greatest height, stretching from Britain to Egypt.

The greatest flowering of Roman thought, as found in the great classical texts that have survived, comes from the two centuries of civil war that marked the transition from the Roman Republic (the second era) to the Roman Empire (the third). During this time, some of the greatest Roman speeches were made debating the merits of representative government, an individual’s duty to the nation, the role of the military in society, and the ideals of citizenship. More than 1,700 years later, speeches and writings on these topics by figures such as Cicero, Cato the Younger, and Seneca the Elder were taught in the New World, at Harvard College in Massachusetts, the College of William & Mary, and other schools. And they were eagerly read (in Latin) by the future lawyers, doctors, landowners and military leaders who would go on to create a nation based on what they saw as mix timeless ideals and plain common sense.

Cicero Monument at Palace of Justice, Rome

Begin looking, and you’ll find endless connections between Ancient Rome and the founding fathers. Cicero, in his passionate defense of liberty against tyranny, was a lifelong role model for John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson cited Cicero as a model while drafting the Declaration of Independence. In writing about the decision to declare independence, John Adams said he had “crossed the Rubicon,” a reference to Caesar’s no-turning-back decision to lead his army to Rome and be named emperor. The story of Roman orator Cato’s battle for liberty, and the sacrifice of his life for it, was turned into a play that toured the pre-Revolutionary colonies to great acclaim, and was even used to rally the troops of George Washington during the low point of their Valley Forge winter encampment. Patrick Henry’s proclamation of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” is inspired by a line from Cato in the play: “It is not now time to talk of aught, but chains or conquest, liberty or death.” Washington modeled himself on Cinncinnatus, the ideal Roman citizen/farmer, a man of property who nevertheless devoted his life to the state and the common welfare. Late in life, Jefferson would write to Adams, saying he’d given up newspapers in favor of Tacitus and Thucydides. And perhaps most remarkably, Boston physician and revolutionary Joseph Warren wore a flowing Roman toga in the presence of menacing British troops in 1775 while delivering a speech about the recent Boston Massacre. He died later that year at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” by John Trumbull

All that the founders admired happened right here, on the ground, in the city below us. Although none of the founders ever got to visit Rome in person, if they did, they’d see many of the same sights we’re flying over today. One key area is the Roman Forum, the open area and marketplace during the Republic where citizens and slaves alike would gather to transact business and exchange gossip. Long buried by silt from centuries of flooding, the remains of the Forum today form a spectacular outdoor museum where visitors can walk in the footsteps of our Roman predecessors. However, several iconic Roman structures actually date from after the golden age of Roman oratory on liberty and citizenship. The famous Colosseum, an enormous multi-tiered stadium that could seat up to 50,000, was built between 70 and 80 A.D., or a century after Julius Caesar declared himself Emperor. The Parthenon, an enormous domed temple dedicated to all gods in pagan Rome, was erected a century later. It still stands completely intact, although over the centuries, the city blocks around it have been built and rebuilt so much that today the Parthenon seems to be sitting in a hole.

The awe-inspiring (and extensive) ruins of the Roman Colosseum in central Rome

Eventually, the Empire proved unmanageable for one leader, and so was split in two: the western half based in Rome, and the eastern half centered in Constantinople, now Istanbul. The Western half collapsed in 476, but not before Rome adopted the new faith of Christianity, which allowed Rome to go on as the center of the Roman Catholic Church, which it continues to be even today. At Constantinople, the eastern half of the Roman Empire endured for nearly 1,000 years, all the way to 1453, giving rise to “Eastern Orthodox” Christianity still observed in many parts of the world such especially Greece, the Balkans, and Russia.

Which brings us to the Vatican. In the twilight of the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine made the new faith of Christianity the state religion in 313 A.D. This made Rome headquarters of the Christian church, a role it continued to fill even after the empire collapsed in 476 A.D. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church occupied an area called the Vatican, where an enormous complex was built, highlighted by St. Peter’s Cathedral. Presided over for centuries by Popes (with a few interruptions), the Vatican came to be governed by the church as its own city-state, an independent nation inside Rome. Along the way, the Vatican accumulated such treasures as the Sistine Chapel, decorated by the remarkable ceiling frescos of Michelangelo. Today the Vatican continues to function as the administrative center and spiritual focus for the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Michelangelo’s interior of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican

And now we’re landing at Rome’s main airport, and how fitting that it be named after one of the most famous early aviation pioneers: Italian inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci. Four hundred years before Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first take-off at Kitty Hawk, da Vinci made detailed sketches of a helicopter and other flying machines, all of them powered by humans flapping wings. Da Vinci, a man of the Enlightenment, was fascinated by birds and made extensive studies of their movement and anatomy in the hope of achieving the ageless dream of human flight. Although none of his designs was built in his lifetime, da Vinci’s design for a glider was the basis of 19th century experiments by German inventor Otto Lilienthal, another believer in human-powered flight. You have to wonder what da Vinci would make of our C-47 soaring over Rome, or coming in for a landing at an airport bearing his name!

So happy 4th of July to all! We hope exploring the links between Ancient Rome and modern America has enriched your understanding of how our nation got where it is today. As we hit our 244th birthday, it’s worth noting that the United States has the longest-running continual government of any country today. However, compared to ancient Rome’s record of 2,200 years, we’re just getting started. So see you next time when we continue our journey by heading east to check out some pyramid-shaped objects that we’ve heard about somewhere in a place called Egypt.

Resources to learn more about today’s flight:

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