THE FORUM ROMANUM
Perhaps you’ve been there before, or just wanted to go. You know, “Et tu, Brute?” That was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Don’t we learn most about ourselves and our history through Shakespeare and the Bible? That is what Orson Wells thought, but he also thought we were being invaded by Martians. At least for one evening. One reading. I am talking here about the Romans. And they gathered in open spaces often used for markets. A “forum,” in Latin.
The Forum Romanum was such an open space in ancient Rome. Still is, kind of. Our imaginations can move there quite quickly. As all those ancient Roman roads and aquatic aqueducts did! Roads and aqueducts. Two of Rome’s great engineering achievements. The third? Sewers. In Rome’s case, the “Cloaca Maxima.” The Big Sewer. And right there in the middle of the Forum Romanum. How about that for draining the swamp!
And you thought Rome was constructed on Seven Hills! Here are their names, just in case. In Latin, a hill is referred to as a “collis.” Here they are, spelled out in English: Capitoline Hill, Palatine Hill, Quirinal Hill, Viminal Hill, Esquiline Hill, Caelian Hill, and Aventine Hill. And just for more fun, here are some of the historical activities that occurred on some of those hills. But not the Vatican. St. Peter’s Basilica is on the other side of the Tiber River on its own hill.
The Capitoline Hill gave Washington D.C. the word “Capitol.” We use it for our national legislative houses and reproduce the architectural style of its temples once dedicated to Saturn and Jupiter. In early Rome, Tarpeia, a temple vestal virgin, betrayed Rome, allowing the Sabine tribe to attack the Romans encamped on the Capitoline Hill. The Sabines succeeded, but flung Tarpeia off the high cliff at the hill’s edge, for some strange
reason. That cliff is now known as the Tarpeian Rock. Hence the phrase of which the powerful may learn to be wary, “The Tarpeian rock lies close to the Capitol.” Political Peril.
And 80 feet down the face of that rock cliff lay an unsecured, open valley. The battlefield. No man’s land. And the Sabines were unable to conquer it. God is reached by climbing high places, and militarily, that is the ground to hold. So why, now, do I speak of low spaces? God is really everywhere.
There was an open sewer running through the valley that lay at the base of that mountain. The Romans eventually covered it over, as that now famous sewer of which I previously noted. They needed building space. But why down there? Back to the Sabine tribe leering over from the heights of that Capitoline Hill.
Rome, claimed the Roman historian Livy in 27 B.C. (he of the 142-volume “Early History of Rome” of which only 35 volumes survive) was established by a wandering Trojan (Aeneas) after the fall of Troy. Aeneas was the son of Venus, the Goddess who, for unwritten reasons, seemed to be fine with the fall of Troy and the sufferings of her son, Aeneas. Regardless, it is good to have a Godly point to start from. We here in the United States have George Washington. And we built him the tallest obelisk in the world, 555 feet high. But the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, has one too, in Fairview, Kentucky. But it is only 351 feet high. Back to Rome and the low places.
From the line of Aeneas sprung Romulus and Remus. More Godly hanky panky with an Earth woman, I believe. But this time involving Mars. My, we must be an attractive race. Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf on an island in the Tiber River where Romulus killed Remus, founding Rome on the Palatine Hill. Would it have been called “Reme,” if the other brother had won?
Now for the famous abduction of Sabine women by the young men of Rome. That is what had gotten the Sabines so riled up in the first place. The Romans were under the direction of Romulus, who was desperately seeking to augment his population, it was said. Convenient reasoning. War, obviously, was the response, and the Sabine counterattacked the Romans encamped on the Capitoline Hill.
But these tribes must have had more in common than just looking for women. For the surprising result of the fighting was unification. The joining of the Sabine and Roman tribes into a single Latin-speaking population. The Sabines on the Capitoline Hill, which they had won in battle, and the Romans across the way on the Palatine Hill. And where did they meet to resolve their disagreements and administer their new nation? In the same marshy valley between the hills in which they had fought, and which their sewage now sought.
They eventually cleared out the vegetation, drained the soils, and enlarged the area covering the giant waste-fouled stream running through it. Then they started building. First for the Etruscan Kings who came to rule Rome from the North. From them is the origin of the regional name, Tuscany. Then for the workings of the Roman Republic right up to Caesar’s stabbing on March 18, 44 B.C. “Beware the Ides of March.” Shakespeare again. And then finally, for all those hundreds of years, for a great number of Emperors who all wanted to be gods.
According to Livy, the Gauls invaded in 387 B.C., clobbering the place. Let’s date Rome’s final collapse to the reign of the Germanic usurper, Odovacar, in 476 A.D. Within this space, you get a 1,000-year reign of time. Ruled from within the former swamp that became a Forum for the flow of people, ideas, and waste that ruled the Western World with such power.
A lot of history, a lot of Caesars, and a lot of monuments to Roman leaders. The temples of Caesar and Vesta, the Arches of Septimius Severus and Titus, the remaining columns of the Temples of Saturn, Castor, and Pollux. And just outside, the Arch of Constantine and the mighty Colosseum.
Start at the Colosseum and walk through the Arch. Then walk into 1,000 years of power and world history. I did, and can still imagine it.
Walk into the Forum Romanum with me.