November 23, 2004
It is probably proof of my modest imagination that I can't really relate to ancient ruins. Lord knows I've tried. Why do you go to Rome after all, except to pay homage to the roots of Western Civilization? To praise Caesar, so to speak.
But I've come to the same conclusions about ruins as I have about jungles: what you see and feel is what you bring with you, otherwise it's just another pile of bricks and cut stones. "Poets really make places," a wise person once said.*
The Roman Forum was once the Times Square of the ancient Roman Republic. It lost popularity and fell into ruin, then was used as a stone quarry by unsentimental house builders prior to the 19th century. The Triumphal Arch of Septimus Severus (above) remains intact but the rest leaves much to the imagination.
Irish writer James Joyce had this to say about it in 1906:
I didn't give a hoot about Caesar when I took Latin in high school
For me, it was a pleasant site on a cool afternoon in late November, full of engaging shapes and textures. One of our tour members screamed at the tour guide because she hadn't warned us that it was a long uphill walk to get here and his wife had heart trouble and a bum hip. But he settled down and the tour guide yammered on while Jim and I took pictures and video -- none of which amounted to much, because it is, after all, a pile of bricks and cut stones, with a few broken columns thrown in. The skyline (which I posted here) is more dramatic because it shows the layer upon layer, century upon century of buildings that comprise Rome today.
That's where the ruins are most interesting. I didn't give a hoot about Caesar when I took Latin in high school and I am still no fan of triumphal empires, even if they did have running water and flush toilets. But when you're driving along the streets of very modern Rome -- full of "smart" cars and motorcycles and lined with fashion boutiques -- and you suddenly see the Colosseum or a set of massive white columns, your breath is taken away.
It's an aesthetic experience: city as montage. But it's also the sudden three-dimensional leap into a world you've only seen on book pages or TV screens. And it jumps you, not into the world of Caesar, but into the world of your school days, when you had to sit at your desk, memorize, and answer the multiple choice questions. Suddenly, pow, you are there. No, not in ancient Rome but back in an outsized version of your own childhood.