Ecce Romani!

Ecce Romani was the name of my first Latin textbook.   When they weren’t telling scintillating stories of Cornelia and Flavia reading under the tree at the country house and how happy Marcus and Sextus were playing ball (ie the Dick and Jane equivalents of the Latin textbook world), they told you things about ancient Rome too.   On the whole these sections were much more interesting, so needless to say I was happily looking forward to my day exploring the sights of ancient Rome.

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The Colosseum definitely steals the show so far as appearances go, but my first stop was the Roman Forum.  More history, and the line is a lot shorter for a ticket here!  I spent an inordinate amount of time wandering around the various buildings, sneaking close to tour groups to see if there was anything interesting said that I didn’t already know.  For any of those interested, it is kind of depressing how little one really needs to know in order to be a tour guide in Rome.

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Perhaps it doesn’t look like much, but this is one of my favorite spots in the Forum.   It  is the remains of the Temple of Caesar,  on the very spot where he was cremated and where Marc Anthony said his eulogy, and people still leave fresh flowers here for Caesar (this batch was left over from March 15, of course).   Mind the tradition of leaving flowers here can’t be more than 100 years old or so as this temple was buried for most of the past 2,000 years, but that’s not stopping them.

image5331Speaking of being buried, see that door in between the columns?   That’s where the ground level used to be up until a century and a half ago or so when they started digging- the Forum was in a valley that filled up with dirt and water over time when the Roman pumps went into decay.  For years and years no one thought there was anything to the field above the Forum except a few columns the shepard would eat lunch on while tending the flocks that grazed there.

That is one thing about Rome that few people think about by the way- the fact that frankly it was a tiny nondescript town for most of its recent history.   Sure it was big in the heyday of the Roman empire but most people left when the aqueducts were no longer maintained and the city had a population of no more than 20,000 for centuries, finally passing the one million mark again in the late eighteenth century.   In fact, I’ve been reading through Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad lately published in 1869 about his travels, and when he stops bitching about the church’s wealth he describes Rome as just a town there in tribute to the decay of the ancient Empire.

The reason I love this is because it is so delicious to imagine living in Rome in, say, A.D. 700 when the whole civilization is gone and there is nothing left but a few people living amongst the incredible ruins of a lost civilization.   I’m sure it would have been depressing overall, but somehow the thought hasn’t left me.

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Posing in the Curia, aka ancient Senate, with a statue of Titus.   The Curia is pretty well preserved actually because it was converted into a church once the pagans cleared out.

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A view towards the Forum from the top of the Palatine Hill, which fascinated me because it was something I remember doing twenty years ago.   This in particular is a close-up of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the ring of columns previously enclosing the space where the sacred flame was that symbolized the might of Rome.

By the way, to continue my previous thought, the last Vestal Virgin was a woman named Coelia Concordia, as the Emperor ordered the closing of the temple in the late fourth century once pretty much everyone was Christian.   Wouldn’t that be an interesting life story, to be a Vestal Virgin while Rome is collapsing and everyone else has been adopting this new religion instead?image5521

I loved the Palatine Hill too, by the way, not just for the view.  It used to be the site of several affluent villas and gardens and the gardens are still maintained, and this year it was an intoxicating combination of scents from the lilies, flowering trees, and everything else you can imagine this time of year (including more citrus!).

While the Roman Forum is up to its ears in history, though, I confess it was a little difficult to appreciate because so little of it is left- you really need to tax your imagination to think of what it was really like, and how Caesar and Brutus and all the Emperors of Rome had walked where you are.  When it came to the next place, though, luckily a lack of structure certainly wasn’t a problem-

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Mark Twain describes the Colosseum of the 18th century of being covered in grass and lizards sunning themselves.   Definitely not the case now with all the tourists, but I didn’t care.   Tourists are sometimes there for good reason, and the reason here is the Colosseum is just too cool.image561

Inside the Colosseum- to the left if you look close you can see a giant cross erected where the Emperor used to sit.  They didn’t actually kill Christians here by the way, that myth started up a few centuries later in the record as frankly the Christians weren’t fighters and hence particularly interesting to Romans wanting to see a good match.  Doesn’t stop the Pope from coming here every Good Friday to say Mass, however.

My other interesting note when it came to the inside of the Colosseum is I was always interested in seeing how big the thing was due to the rumor that they used to flood it and hold mock naval battles.  After inspection, however, I have personally concluded they didn’t.  It’s just not big enough for maneuvering ships, though for watching people and animals kill each other it’s just the right size.

The more I thought about it, actually, the more I couldn’t get over how similar the Colosseum was to any sports stadium I’ve been to elsewhere, except you’re not supposed to explicitly cheer for blood at our games with the exception of maybe ice hockey.  I concluded the reason we all like the Romans so much is because they reveal more about ourselves than we’d ever dare admit up front.

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