the all new Roman Forum

When you go to the Roman Forum, you go for one thing: ancient Roman history. You line up outside, put your ancient history face on, and prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by all things antique. I may well sneakily indulge my secret love of tacky history crap by stealing the occasional glance at the makeshift stalls nearby, but otherwise we’re all together on this one – ancient history please.

The thing is, however, that’s not necessarily what you’re getting in the Forum. Very few of the buildings and monuments are from the classical era: the Shrine of Juturna (in its current form) dates ‘back’ to the 1950s. That might be an extreme example (although not ridiculously so – similar examples can be found) but the number of buildings dating back to the heady days of Roman domination can’t extend to much more than 5 or 6.* We’ve reached the crux of things; does it matter? In his book the Roman Forum,** David Watkins thinks not. His basic argument is that the interesting thing about the Forum is the interplay between the ages. The use of the Forum has been adapted to the needs of every epoch since the fall of the ancient Romans, with churches built on the foundations of temples and so on. Watkins goes as far as to describe the views of a nineteenth century archaeologist (who believed that building the 16th and 17th century Farnese Gardens on the site was a “sin”) as “astonishing”. Part of me agrees that the Forum’s continued life is a cause for celebration, but at the same time, I can easily empathise with that earlier archaeologist. Watkins’ background is in architecture and the history of classical archaeology, but for the amateur historians/ lay classicists (such as myself) who visit the Forum for the world of Caesar and co, well frankly, we want the old stuff.

And yet, last weekend was the first time I’ve visited the Forum since moving to Rome. Knowing the rather later provenance of the buildings there in no way impaired my enjoyment. As I stood by the Rostra (built 1904), it was very easy to imagine Mark Antony orating over the body of Caesar; standing next to the nineteenth century Arch of Titus, one could easily envisage triumphing emperors making their way down the Sacra Via. On an earlier visit to the Circus Maximus, a site with no modern development, I got none of that. I was standing in an oval hole in the ground.

It seems then, that what I want (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) is a shrine to history -somewhere that will pander to my own vision. If what I’m seeing is genuinely ancient, all the better, but otherwise I’ll settle for verisimilitude. I labour under the sweet illusion that anybody reads this blog, and assuming that anybody who does so is similarly interested in the topic, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Does it matter that the Forum isn’t exclusively ancient? Why do you visit historical sites?

*The Tablinarium, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Arch of Septimius Severus and a few columns from the Temples of Vespasian and of Castor and Pollux.

**As most of my books are still in England, I don’t have many with me. I have relied almost exclusively on Watkins’ book for the facts in this post.

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