The Roman Forum – Then and Now

Years ago I bought a book called “Then and Now.” It features images and brief histories of twenty ancient sites—the ruins of great civilizations. Facing the title page for each is a full color photo of the ruin as it looks today: with an overlay showing what the site looked like in its heyday.

Oh, I wish I’d studied that book before we visited the Roman Forum.

We did not book a tour, but instead rented an audio guide. (Big mistake!) When you don’t know your history, aren’t familiar with the lingo of architecture, and can’t find your way no matter how carefully you listen to the erudite voice in your ear—you’re in trouble.
My own fault. We bought our airline tickets months in advance, but those were busy months; I purchased a boatload of guidebooks but never got around to reading any of them.

What I missed: Rick Steves Pocket Rome provides an accessible, comprehensible walking tour. (Why didn’t I carry it along?) The Michelin Green Guide Rome goes into much more detail (but it’s a lot heavier), explaining that around 750 BC the site of the Forum was a marshy valley where the Latins and Sabines—farmers who lived on adjacent hillsides—sometimes met, sometimes fought, and eventually traded and worshiped together. With the arrival of the far more sophisticated Etruscans (think Tuscany), the flood-prone valley was drained into the Cloaca Maxima (Great Sewer) and local villages were reconstituted into a fortified city. Come 509 BC, and Rome’s wealthy, land-owning patricians overthrew their Etruscan king, took power into their own hands, and established a Republic. By warring with its neighbors, the city-state eventually grew to an empire, with every conquest gained more wealth and greater power. No surprise that jockeying for control of all this pitted politicians against one another, and collectively against their most illustrious General—Julius Caesar. Ultimately, Caesar named himself supreme ruler and ended the Republic. Conspiring politicians thought to regain control by assassinating him. Instead, they were outmaneuvered by his heir, Octavian, who declared himself Emperor Augustus. And so was launched 500 years of Empire.

The Roman Forum, just five acres of a former marshland, running east to west from the Colosseum to the Capitoline Hill, was the center of all this. Here over more than a thousand years rose ancient Rome’s most important public buildings, monuments and temples—each more elaborate, significant, and impressive than the next. Marble columns and piazzas, bronze roofs and doors, statuary beyond counting, all jammed together in a cacophony of architectural excess.

Today, when you walk down the dusty main street, Via Sacra, you are following the route of triumphal parades that celebrated the conquests of the Roman legions. Porters showing off chests of gold and jewels, then captives—exotic animals, prisoners in chains, the king of the defeated realm (who would be jeered and spat upon), and finally resplendent and standing in a four-horse chariot, the victorious general. Stand in the center of the Forum and you are likely occupying a paving stone once trod on by Caesar. Gaze on the Rostra (if you can figure out which ruined stone platform it is), and you are viewing the place from which Cicero gave his great orations, from which Marc Antony addressed the citizens of Rome.

The glory of this scene is quite difficult to imagine, because instead of being hemmed in by spectacular white marble buildings and statuary glittering in the sun, what you are actually seeing is: wide unkempt grassy expanses littered with shapeless stone rubble, numerous broken-down brick walls, a variety of pillars standing alone or in rows of two, three or more (sometimes topped with lintels). Beyond these, several notable structures include a grim brick building, its few windows covered with grating (the Curia), a squat hovel with a rounded balcony (Temple of Julius Caesar), a massive brick structure with three enormous arches (just a fraction of what remains of the Basilica of Constantine) then around the periphery at least four large Catholic Churches constructed from the remains of former pagan temples.

Unfortunately, the audio guide was unhelpful in sorting all this out. (The narrator often used obscure architectural terms (as though we would be able to recognize a “plinth”!)  We had difficulty finding our way to the starting point. One reason: Unbeknownst to the narrator of the guide, The Arch of Septimius Severus was blocked by a large construction fence; and so despite lovely photos and explanatory graphics on the fence, we were confused. The voice went on to describe the interior of the Curia (Senate building); however, the building was enclosed by yet another fence (an archeological project?) so we were further confused. From that point onward, our ability to comprehend what we were looking at was hit and miss.

I did love knowing that the fig tree, olive tree, and grape vine growing at the very center of the grassy expanse near Phocas’ Column, had been replanted to echo their iconic counterparts that flourished there, symbolically, in ancient times.

But the place and the story that impressed me most was the house of the Vestal Virgins, right next to the Temple of Vesta. These priestesses, keepers of the flame that ensured wellbeing of Rome, came from noble families and served for 30 years. They enjoyed great privileges, but would be punished severely if the flame was allowed to go out. Far worse, if it were discovered a Vestal had betrayed her vow of chastity, she would be given a lamp and a loaf of bread and sealed into a crypt (“buried alive”). The (supposedly) good news: upon retirement, at about age 40, a Vestal was given an enormous dowry and allowed to marry. Oh dear, I keep thinking. At that point? Why bother?

In retrospect, I wish we had arranged for a private guide—and done a lot more homework! But despite our confusion, I would not have skipped the Forum. It is, in the end, the most significant historical site in Rome. The great thing about seeing it: I was compelled upon arriving back home to actually read all that I been too busy to read before we left—and more. My takeaway from all this: history is far more interesting when you delve into the details, the stories of the people, the events, the incidents, the day-to-day, to learn not just what happened—but why. It’s somehow comforting to know that human nature hasn’t changed all that much over 2,000 years. Human folly is nothing new. And each one of us gets to choose what kind of person we will be as we play out our role in this ongoing pageant.