When you live in a city like Rome, you can never get enough history. It’s all around you. Stop in a tabacchi to get some bus passes and you might be next to the grounds where they burned Christians in the 17th century. Walk back from the market and you’ll pass a 2,000-year-old wall.
I can never know enough about Rome. And I never think I know enough. I took my oldest sister on a tour of the Roman Forum once. Iron was a predominant material during the Roman Empire, from gladiator weapons to gates. My sister asked me when iron was invented.
I said, “Um, the Iron Age.”
So it’s why I took a tour of the Forum for probably my fifth time. If you go, you must take a tour. This is one sight where guidebooks don’t do it justice. At first blush, it looks like a pile of rubble with a few structures appearing on their last legs. That’s all true. Then again, This neighborhood is 2,700 years old.
Its importance, though, can’t be overstated nor visited too many times. It was the economic and commercial pulse of the greatest civilization in man’s history. To walk among its ruins is to walk in the footsteps of emperors and gladiators.
You’re also walking in the footsteps of thieves, murderers and vestal virgins but even my old Washington Park had its bad apples.
I met my old meetup group, Rome Explorers, where the lovely Laura and Esther, the group’s organizers, were waiting for us outside the Colosseo subway stop. The Colosseum isn’t worth photographing now. It’s undergoing a major renovation and scaffolding covers the entire outer wall that faces the major artery, Via dei Fori Imperiali. Today the Colosseum looks like a giant beehive inside a giant spider web.
The sun had finally returned and so had the tourists. Fori Imperiali is closed to traffic on Sundays and the boulevard was packed with tourists, all carrying guidebooks and guidebooks. I heard English, German, Japanese and a Scandinavian tongue I can never decipher. A new street performer has emerged in Rome. East Indians dress in gold robes and sit in a lotus position, seemingly hovering in thin air three feet above a hat for euros. Sometimes a partner will sit on the ground, holding them up by balancing them on a short round stick and showing no signs of strain. I never give money to street performers. But I looked all around one performer, couldn’t find any strings attached or mirrors and gave him one euro. He raised one eye from his obviously fake meditation and nodded toward me.
I didn’t feel at all silly joining a tour group among dozens of other tour groups. This is the Roman Forum, one of the most important archaeological sites on Earth. Also, back was Maximilian, our excellent guide from the Aventino who always adds insight into path-beaten historical sites you can’t find in Lonely Planet.
It was a small group, maybe eight people. There was a United Nations consultant who’s lived here a few months, a tourist from Sicily, a young Roman waiter who wanted to improve his English and a Roman woman who was just curious. It’s surprising how many Romans have never toured the Forum. Like New Yorkers and the Empire State Building, some international tourist sites get taken for granted by locals. Also, who wants to fight the tourists? I don’t. However, I’ve traveled enough to generate a healthy philosophy about tourist traps.
Some places are touristy for a reason.
The Roman Forum is one of them.
This was probably my fifth tour of the Forum and I learn something new every trip. For instance, I didn’t know 400,000 people would march through the Arch of Constantine, which stands next to the Colosseum, in eight hours to celebrate another military triumph. Nor did I know the standing emperor would ride through the arch with a mineral called minium, which when pulverized looks like blood, on his face to represent the blood of the victims.
Maximilian, or Max as he’s called, certainly helps with the imagery and he didn’t bring a drop of wine.
I often forget that the Colosseum which dominates Rome like Sports Authority Field dominates Denver, was built well after the Roman Empire was in full throttle. Until the Colosseum was built from 69-79 A.D., it was a massive lake which Emperor Nero called his own. Also, a river ran by it. Before constructing the Colosseum, the river was diverted to the Circus Maximus. Yes, the Ancient Romans not only moved heaven and earth but water, too.
Max also refuted a myth commonly believed about Ancient Rome. Not everyone was lounging around eating grapes and going to orgies and wild feasts. Like any capitalistic society, Ancient Rome’s massive wealth was only matched by its immense poverty. Slavery was legal. Others were taxed into desperation. Gangs roamed Rome’s streets, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the empire. Max said gangs wore brass knuckles and were absolute pyromaniacs. They set fires all over the city. When firefighters came, the gangs would punch them out with the iron-clad fists.
Families threw their excrement out into the street because they didn’t bother looking for a public toilet. Turns out, shit was an early form of modern-day briquettes. Gangs would set them on fire and then hide behind the smoke. Then they’d beat the firemen who came to help. Let’s see the Crips try that.
Max is a big defender of Nero who he said got a bad rap for burning Rome. He said Nero was moving massive amounts of marble into his own home which can still be seen. It’s a tower of giant arches that overlooks the Forum and now looks like the blueprint of a massive five-star hotel. However, Max admits Nero had a huge ego. As emperor, he loved to sing. One time, the cleaning chief, Vespasian, fell asleep during one of Nero’s songs. Vespasian was sentenced to Judea where he was ordered to put down a revolt.
The Forum is dotted with little landmarks that made it seem like a normal business center. Well, almost normal. When you first enter the Forum, there’s the remains of a butcher shop just past the Arch of Titus. Also, one of the best preserved landmarks is a brothel. In a pit about eight feet down are the archways leading into three small rooms, just big enough for a bed, a nightstand and a bucket of fresh whipped cream. (Oops! Sorry. That’s not right. I just had a luscious gelato with fresh cream the other night and I’ve been feeling erotic ever since.)
An interesting note about Ancient Rome’s prostitutes: Because legend has it that the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were raised by a she-wolf, prostitutes would call out to customers by making wolf sounds in the streets. Max didn’t catch my joke about how that sounded like my Internet date from hell.
Max makes tours of the most over-beaten paths seem like you’ve never read about them before. He’s a former archaeologist who has done some digging in the Forum. He also has a library of more than 100 books of Ancient Rome. He says he still has many more to read.
I asked him what wound up ending the Roman Empire in the 5th century. I told him I thought it grew too big. It stretched from what is now the United Kingdom to Persia. It simply imploded. Actually, he said civil war destroyed it. All through its history, Rome’s leaders had bitter rivals. Julius Caesar was knifed 28 times in the back by his own son, Brutus. Why? He was acting like a dictator. He was but he also expanded the empire like no military leader before or after.
But Brutus was merely repeating history. In 500 B.C., a man named Tarquinius was the king of Rome. He was a cruel dictator and a man named Brutus killed him. The latter day Brutus took it upon himself to repeat history.
What killed the empire were rivals Maxentius and Constantine. Maxentius, crowned in what is now England, had the Brits, French and Celts, all members of the Empire, on his side. Constantine had the rest of the Italian peninsula and Africans. The fighting wound up crippling Rome which was then overrun by every tribe and army that wanted revenge from Roman routes in the past. But Constantine did one thing that has had a lasting effect to this day.
He picked Catholicism as the one Christian religion he’d accept.
The Roman government had full authority to the point where even good deeds were dealt with harshly if they weren’t done under the eye of the Roman Senate. Roman Christians dedicated 34 churches in the name of a church deacon named St. Lawrence who fed the city’s poor. His reward?
He was burned alive in the middle of the Forum for bypassing Roman authority which, on occasion, would throw the poor some crusts of bread.
I’m enthralled by capital punishment. Not that I believe in it but it’s shocking the mass executions civilizations performed. Ancient Rome had its own philosophy. Crucifixion is one of the cruelest forms of execution. You’re pounded into stakes and held up on a cross until your body slowly caves in and you suffocate to death. The process takes about 24 hours. Some victims had their legs broken to speed up the process — if they had a smart lawyer.
But the Romans used crucifixions as religions symbols. Ancient Romans believed the only way you can reach heaven is if you’re connected to mother earth when you die. The cross hoisted from the ground represents mother earth.
This is why no one in Rome was ever hanged. Because they weren’t connected to the ground, it was believed that hanging victims haunt the city. This belief led a pack of plebians working in the city’s sewers to commit mass suicide by hanging themselves.
We finished the tour near where Nero had his dining room. It’s a pit but you can still see the six-meter pillars that held up the roof. They were covered with timber and at the time from 54-68 A.D., Nero could sit and dine on fruit — or Christians — while looking out to the mountains. The Colosseum, six years later, blocked the view.
Nero wasn’t around to see it. The Senate, who had it in for the guy, organized a plot to kill him. When Nero, crazed with meningitis, saw Praetorian guards were no longer protecting his palace, he took a knife and cut open his stomach. Obviously insane and drunk on his own greatness, not to mention literary achievements, his last words were, “What a poet dies with me.”
Another common way to die was by the hand of their sons. Caesar wasn’t the only one. Ancient Roman fathers ran their families like dictatorships. Roman sons, possibly influenced by the gang activity in the streets, would often reach their limit and cut their fathers’ throats.
“Normally, they don’t kill their mothers,” Masimillion said, “because normally their mothers cook very well.”
The deterrent obviously wasn’t much of one. If caught, the son was thrown in a big burlap bag with four beasts carrying heavy symbolism: snake (the underground), a rooster (arrogance), a dog (savagery) and a monkey (a human being turned bad). Then they’d all be thrown into a lake.
I walked back as the temperature threatened to top 60 degrees for the first time in 2014. Along the way I walked past Caesar Augustus’ statue in front of the Temple of Minerva. It looked like his fingers were still tinged with blood.