Reading the Ruins of Rome

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
The Roman Forum in 2008, looking east toward the Arch of Titus, with the remains of the Temple of Saturn (right), the Temple of Castor and Pollux (center, with three columns), and the Temple of Vespasian (foreground); the Palatine Hill rises to the right

The ancient Roman Forum is one of the most frustrating tourist sites in the world. This is the spot where some of the most famous events in Western history took place and some of the most consequential decisions were made. It is where the Roman Senate debated how to respond to the threat of Hannibal, where Marcus Tullius Cicero denounced would-be tyrants and radical revolutionaries, where Julius Caesar’s body was cremated after his assassination in 44 BC, and where Mark Antony delivered the original version of “Friends, Romans, countrymen.” Yet what you now see has almost nothing to do with any of that.

The imposing “senate house,” preserved to more or less its full height thanks to its conversion into a church in the seventh century AD, has no connection with the place in which Cicero held forth in the first century BC; it was completely rebuilt almost five hundred years later. The elegant circular temple of the goddess Vesta (where the Vestal Virgins kept the sacred flame of the city permanently alight) owes more to Mussolini’s “restorers” in the 1930s than to any ancient Roman builders or architects. The ground surface is largely a confusing mass of rubble and masonry, interspersed with equally confusing holes left by archaeologists digging down in search of the structures, shrines, and burials that formed the first layers of human occupation in the city of Rome, as far back as the eighth century BC. Even the trained eye finds it hard to work out how any of this fits together, or what the place would have looked like at any particular period of antiquity. Most visitors walk through the Forum baffled. Cicero would not have recognized it.

What is left of the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill, which rises above the Forum, is hardly less frustrating for the modern visitor—and endlessly debated among specialists. For centuries after the end of the Republic, this vast complex of buildings was the hub of Rome’s empire, the main residence of its emperor, and luxuriously equipped to match. Contemporary poets—whose talent for exaggeration probably did not extend to outright invention—described the precious colored marbles imported from all over the Mediterranean lining its walls, the hundreds of columns (enough to support the whole world if Atlas should decide to take a break), and the enormous height of the building, which dwarfed even the pyramids of Egypt.

Not now. All that decoration has long since been looted, leaving for the most part rough brick walls more reminiscent of a factory or warehouse than of a palace. But even more…

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