Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Roman Forum

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to the Roman Forum. I hadn't really read up on it, and all I knew was that it was composed of a bunch of old ruins by the Coliseum.

Talk about impressive. Seriously.

The first thing that struck me about the Roman Forum was that it was huge. I walked through a victory arch and down some stairs to the main level of the forum. As I stood at the base of several columns - all that remains from a once-grand building - it struck me that I was literally walking in the footsteps of the Caesars.

Suddenly, all the marble busts of Roman leaders from 2,000 years ago meant a whole lot more to me. Scenes from the movie Gladiator flashed through my mind, and I walked over to the foundation of another building where a bunch of tourists were sitting and joined them, just looking around and taking it all in.

The forum was the center of all activity in ancient Rome, encompassing religion, commercial, legal and political centers. It was the very seat of go
vernment of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. When I'd thought of Rome, I pictured gladiators, a Caesar or two, the Coliseum and legionnaires. I imagined everyone clad in togas or armor. To stand at the epicenter of that empire's power was something special.

The forum today is only a suggestion of the vast complex it once was. In order to get a feel for what it was like at its apogee, I bought a book called, "Rome: Past and Present," by R.A. Staccioli at a nearby souvenir shop. The book gives a good overview of the history of the city, but the best part is the artist's renderings of what the city once looked like, presented as overlays to photos of the sites as they appear in modern times.

By using that book, I was able to see that the the group of columns I had seen were once part of the Temple of Saturn. Vast expanses of broken buildings that now look like unimpressive red rubble with an occasional trio of marble columns were once the temples of Divus Julius and Castor and Pollux. I wasn't sure who all those people and gods were, but reading the book gave me a good idea of why they were important.

The thing that struck me, more than anything else, about visiting the Roman Forum was simply the feeling of walking on the same stones that the feet of millions of people going back to ancient times have traversed. Nothing in the United States can compare to the wealth of history and culture that is just an everyday sight in the Italian capital. While we have Native American ruins and artifacts that are just as old, they don't share the same fame and glamor on the world stage that the Roman ruins do.

Walking out of the ruins, I rejoined modern Rome. The buzz of an army of Vespas swept past me as the sound of honking horns added to the cacophony of the traffic that is ever-present wherever cars are allowed in Rome. Crossing the street, I looked down on the other side and saw a pair of enormous bronze heads. Even lying on their sides, they were taller than any person. I thought it was a perfect metaphor for Rome. It's well past its prime, but still unmistakably impressive.

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