Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hanging Out in the Forum

When I was a student at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (ICCS) in Rome during the fall semester in 1985, one of my favorite haunts was the Roman Forum. At that time the entrance to the Forum was through a gate and down a ramp next to the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. I think visitors had to pay 12,000 lire (around $6) for admission, but I was lucky enough to have a card for free entrance to that site and many others. To say that I visited often would be an understatement.

I remember that one late afternoon in October I was sitting against the base of a column in the ruins of the Basilica Iulia working on a translation of Ovid's Ars Amatoria for class. As I was working, a family soon appeared and was looking around at what remained of the basilica. They were speaking English and I easily identified them as Americans. They noticed me and deciding that I, too, was American, and after exchanging greetings, they asked me about what they were looking at. I briefly offered a description and purpose for the basilica, and they must have been impressed. From their inquiries I told them that I was a student studying in Rome for the semester.

Discovering that I was somewhat knowledgeable, they asked me about the Forum in general. I noticed that they did not have a guide book or map, but had just wandered in wanting to take a look around. Feeling a bit cocky, I volunteered to give them a tour. I started off trying to include as much as I could remember about every little rock and stone there, but soon came to realize (through glazed expressions?) that I was providing too much information and was probably acting as if I was showing off. I made a mental adjustment and quickly moved to cover the highlights of the site. I remember that they were most impressed with the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Curia, the Temple of Vesta, and the Arch of Titus. Of course these monuments would be the most impressive because they are the best preserved and offer the most to see. I ended our tour at the Arch of Titus and showed them the exit towards the Colosseum. They offered to pay me, but feeling charitable (and still cocky, I imagine), I refused and wished them a happy visit.

I remember this encounter because it was one of the first times that I was able to use and pass on my knowledge of something that was very important and dear to me. Even at that time I was sure that I was going to be a Latin teacher and this was one of my very first lessons. My impromptu tour made me feel useful and gave me the opportunity to try out my teaching skills. Realizing that I had to make adjustments to my presentation to keep the interest of my audience was a skill that I would certainly have to use again in the future.

I also remember this encounter as an example of how some tourists approach their visit to sites. This family had decided to visit Rome and explore on their own. Of course they were visiting the Colosseum and St. Peter's, but I was impressed that they took the detour and descended into the Forum. The Colosseum (at that time) and St. Peter's were free and open to the public, but they made the effort to pay and visit something off the beaten track. I was surprised that they did so without any real notion of why they were there or what they were looking at. To stumble across someone willing and able to give them a tour was pure chance.

A visit to the Forum today is a different experience. Admission is free and the site, which used to have only the occasional visitor or group, now has hundreds of pairs of feet and eyes wander through every day. Excavations have enlarged the site as it grows toward the imperial fora, work continues to reveal the remains of structures at the base of the Palatine Hill, and the paved road leading up to the Capitoline has been removed, but the increase of visitors has caused curators to put up barriers which direct the flow of traffic to a meandering and very limiting path around the Forum, all in an effort (I suppose) to promote safety and protect the individual monuments.

Sad to say, the opportunity to lounge quietly among the ruins of Rome's glorious past is no longer available.

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