Probably the most amazing artefact of the ancient world I have seen, the Pantheon in Rome, started life as a Roman temple to all the gods around 27 BC. When it became a Christian church in 609 AD it was already as mature a building as a medieval church would be to us today. It is still splendid, 2000 years old and going strong. I first saw it when I was in my mid-teens and it’s one of those places in the world (like Mono Lake and Yosemite Valley) always guaranteed to awe me no matter how many times I visit.
It is an amazing leveller for me. It’s easy to imagine those ancient people were primitive, that our technology and culture is superior. No amount of words and explanation can dispel that intuition. Wandering modern Rome and seeing those piles of rubble scattered among the buildings, that prejudice can rule ones perceptions. The Romans can seem a distant, alien race responsible only for ruins. But a visit to a building like the Pantheon can be a solution.
The building is marvellous; massive, elegant, wonderfully engineered. Just the roof alone is remarkable. It is not some inferior predecessor of the domes of the Renaissance. It is perfectly made from poured concrete. Yes, by ancient Roman builders. It’s not just a crude mud-and-straw affair either. It is made from graded layers, includes hidden chambers to reduce the weight and includes other techniques that are clearly the product of an experienced and educated civil engineer.
The Pantheon still holds the record for the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The rest of the building also announces the sophistication of the people behind it. The enormous columns supporting the portico are made of granite which was imported from Egypt. The proportions of the structure are both symbolic and mathematically perfectly matched.
Once I had visited the Pantheon, spent time in awe of the achievement of men dead for two millennia, every ruin I saw in Rome was different for me. No longer the rubble of ancient primitives, I now saw every wall as a soaring building of perfect proportions, every pillar stump as a minutely engineered architectural masterpiece. Rome as it was – a city of Pantheons – represented a pinnacle of achievement for the human race, in any era.
There’s a global lesson for me here. No matter how tempting it is to judge a community by its failures, the true measure comes from finding and appreciating its successes. That doesn’t mean ignoring the failures; they too inform and educate. But without an empathy for the successes of a community, criticism of its failures is hollow.