End of a Journey

I convinced myself that I wouldn't do that 'dumb American' trick while in London. The one where I look left for traffic. But of course I did, multiple times.

Surprisingly, despite the language similarity, London is the most foreign of the cities I have visited on this trip. True, it's easy to ask for directions. And I can insist on student discount with confidence, not to mention in grammatically correct sentences. Perhaps what's foreign isn't the landscape, but rather my own role, that of a tourist. I didn't know anything about London, and in fact, I walked past Big Ben the first day (and took a picture of it!) without ever realizing what it was. Nothing about London itself quite connected for me as I wandered its patchwork of old and new.

In the end, everything was too expensive. Even getting into heaven costs money these days; St. Paul's Cathedral charged an exorbitant 9£ ($18!), while its frosted-glass door proclaimed that "This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of Heaven" which seemed to be a return to the times when the church sold indulgences (or did we ever leave that time?). I decided I was satisfied standing on its threshold looking into heaven.

I stumbled across two new places that I loved (and they didn't charge me--although I did make donations). I went to the British Museum because I thought the Magna Carta was there, and stumbled across the Rosetta Stone instead! Eventually, I did find the Magna Carta at the British Library, along with pages from Da Vinci's notebook, and other "Treasures" which siphoned five hours of my time without my knowledge.

So, 6 Starbucks, 10 pictures sneaked in at Westminster Abbey, half of a Rosetta Stone, and a changing of the guards later, I still feel like a stranger. But maybe that's a good thing since familiarity breeds complacency as I discovered upon my return to Seattle. Being in Rome and Paris, every step was an adventure, a challenge to decipher the signs and customs, pulling me out of constant comtemplation. But back in Seattle, I slip back into my old ways, although the trip has taught me to open my eyes occasionally and see the reds of the fall leaves that I have missed the last three years.


Finding the Sandman

À Paris, 28
       I wore a lime green tank top and shorts. I escaped Seattle (whose weather you’re no doubt familiar with) and into the cold and wet of Paris. The cities are both cold and wet, except that they are different types of colds and wets. Paris is unpredictable. The sun dominates the morning, deceiving the unseasoned traveler into wearing tank tops, and shorts. But some time midday the sky decides it cannot hold the water any longer. And it lets it spill. Like a true Seattlelite, I let it soak my skin. It will save me a trip to the pool later. Parisians can’t hold their water, it’s a fact. They huddle like ants, in twos, threes, under the two inches of awning in front of McDonalds. I walk into the sea. Fully clothed.
       I went to the Eiffel Tower in a lavender tank top and shorts, of course. There are only so many things that can be washed by hand. Again, the rain comes. I think it’s my shorts that does it. There, you see me. No, I did not put my thumb on the lens. That’s the rain like a lace held over a bride’s face. Zoom in—I have a hint of a smile, a reminder of home. And really, I think my tank top looks better with polka dots. My crazy hair (when is it not crazy?) would make Einstein proud.

A Roma, 24
       It is too dark to see. The train rumbles too much, threatening to jump off the tracks. The light overhead bathes the cabin in an eerie, cold blue. I work as if by candlelight. The Roman Forum, Caesar, Cicero, the Republic. My legs dangling over the bunk to maximize workspace, but to no avail. The (nice) French family has taken over this cabin. Lights off at nine. But I need to see, and read and write. Ne parlons pas anglais. I had planned to work a little, watch the countryside transform before my eyes, sip a little tea as the train coasted leisurely. But one problem: no light. Oh, and no tea. And not leisurely.
       I stumbled into this gated city. Up escalators, out doors, into taxi. But I have been back, and there are no escalators. Do these escalators exist only in my mind? The city wrings water from the blue skies and deposits the drops on me. At night, I hang out to dry.

A Forum Romanum, 60
       I am sure that I am still awake. Pinch me, please, just to be sure. This afternoon, I told my restless muscles and pain-dulled bones that they need rest, but they don’t listen anymore. I remember talking, gesturing, walking, tripping. I remember people nodding, thinking, then nodding off. I was at the Roman Forum in a light blue tank top and shorts. I blended into the sky, then dropped back down, mid-conversation. I nodded my way into it, as per protocol, I think. In the background, oversized Italian policemen (with their tiny car) are arresting a subdued Indian man. It’s funny, they are dressed as tourists, with Nike checks on an orange so bright it competes with the Roman sun.
       I had no camera, for sprinters do not carry such clumsy things. (Yes, I sprinted to the Forum). We run, here, there, following the wind and the shadows of the sun. But I shall show you a picture from my mind, so that you can see the funniness of the disproportionality.
       What do you mean you can’t see clearly?
       Curious, the figures are blurry, the edges melded together.
              Sun slanting, bathing
              Tired, worn arches of history,
              All out of focus.

tw, #24


Navigating Roma

Why have you
come here?

Why do you
not bring change?

The Roman
can tell
a stranger

from across
the stall

or grocery store

The stranger
knows not
of customs

of sale or trade.

He arrives
on a foreign plane
and fresh
from the bancomat on the corner.

The Roman
knows how
to deter
a stranger.

The essentials,

all hidden.

Behind impenetrable glass counters
by a Roman.

To deter
the stranger.

Romans hate
a stranger.

He arrives
at the mercato
with only
€50 bills.

He leaves
with nothing.
No sale.

Romans love change
and spurn

the stranger
who has none.

But the fool
who brings none
will create

his own

To the chagrin
of the Roman.

The modern city

to reveal
ancient wounds beneath.

More Forums

columns unearthed

bits and pieces
of Nero
of Constantine
in cold marble.

All to attract
more strangers

for the Roman
to hate.

Inspired by Anne Carson's "The Fall of Rome: A Traveler's Guide" (tw #21)


Finding Home

I marvel at the majesty of the mighty Forum Romanum,
The red and green marble of the brick-faced Curia
Much brighter and cooler than the figures in the book,
For it once felt the warmth of Caesar’s and Cicero’s touch.

I marvel at the hidden grandeur of the Medici palaces,
The gardens of marble statues that capture life itself,
And vibrant winking frescoes inked with golden dyes,
All concealed by the rough-hewn stones of modesty.

I marvel at the gondoliers in watery Venezia,
The iridescent spray from the boat teases the sun
And the cool, soft, salty canals caress my hand
As I resist the urge to slip into its embrace.

I return to the fresh scent of strawberries in il Campo,
The jars of nutty brown Nutella piled high in the gelateria,
The putt-putt-putt of vespas threatening to run me over,
And the tarnished green Bruno who watches over my slumber.

tw #25


The Gelato Quest

       The Italians are serious about their gelato, and in the interest of cultural immersion, Lisa sent the class on a gelato quest in Florence. Which gelateria is the best—Perché No or Vivoli?
       Except there was a glitch: Vivoli was closed that week, so on my assignment page, I crossed out Vivoli and penciled in ‘choice.’ Then I set off to find Perché No using the four hours of Italian that I had accumulated. The quest provided no obvious starting point, so I wandered through the shade of Via del Corso, hoping to simply stumble across it. After a few minutes, I realized that my plan was foolish, so I picked a random deserted shop to my right and entered, hoping that no one would witness the embarrassing misuse of Italian to come.
       I hesitantly walked to the shadowy back corner of the store, past vibrant ties that seemed to fade as I moved forward. Dov’è Perché No? I asked the cravatier, a balding man with an aureole of curls. His blank stare was my only response. Perhaps I should have tried a different deserted shop. Dov’è…I tried again, this time showing him the page in my hand. But he sent his palm flying to my face, screaming a silent stop! I fear that I might have interrupted his work, perhaps Florentines are like Romans? His eyes scanned the question, twice, as a smile crept onto his face.
       He exclaimed oh, Vivoli! and rocketed out of his chair. Then the smile transformed to puzzlement, but why have you crossed it out? It is the best gelato in Florence! I tried to convey, in a jumble of English and Italian, that I was not looking for Vivoli, but the man would not have it. You must go try it, he insisted, pulling my arm all the way to the door, as the ties brightened once more.
       I tried one last time, no, Perché No?
       Yes, why not? he repeated, pushing me out.
       I headed in the general direction of his finger, and eventually found my way to Perché No, but the gelato was surprisingly unexceptional. Weeks later, on my return to Florence, I tried Vivoli and the gelato was so deliciously sweet and creamy that I went back that night, and again the next morning.

tw #24


A Public Service Announcement

They are everywhere. I have been fighting them for years, starting four years back when I first realized the dangers of these fiends. Perhaps that makes me an expert, perhaps not, but every day, before I rise, my resolute chant is always the same: they must not get me. I have tried to warn the world of their dangers, on how to avoid their sweet lure, but few believe and even fewer practice vigilance. But I will continue to fight for my sake, and for others. Please, I implore, be vigilant and do not allow them to fool you. I share with you a few of my close encounters so that you might learn, and judge for yourself the dangers these beasts present.

I. Parco Savello
I scour my surroundings, in a new city, with new scents and sounds that mask their characteristic songs and clicks. There, one hidden behind the tangled green leaves of the orange tree, whose fruits were shed many months ago. And there, one above the ledge, gazing out at the smoky Roman air that blurs the Altar of the Nation. I duck, I weave, I crunch over grey rockbeds, to throw them off my scent. Duck, weave, repeat. For now, I have succeeded, but the danger is eminent. Today, a good day: my maneuvers have allowed me to escape them unscathed.

II. Ara Pacis Augustae
I stand by the alien encased in a blood-red box, relaxed, distracted by the musical splashing of the fountain, a sweet G Major tune almost ruining all. From my left, the first one attacks in a flash! But years of practice pay off as I veer left, dodging the first, only to find a second waiting for me! I duck again, but too slow this time! I analyze the damage: only a graze, as far as I can tell, but the full effect will take a few days to reveal itself. They have become wily, working in collusion to outsmart and outmaneuver me. For now, I am annoyed, frustrated, how did I not see this coming? This new strategy changes everything, my cloaking strategy needs three steps, duck, weave, duck, repeat. Today’s mishap opens my eyes to their new strategies, and I too must develop new avenues of evasion.

III. Vatican
En route to the St. Peter’s basilica and square, Lisa decides on a detour. Gather around, stand there, she asks. I analyze the surroundings, damn, this is the worst situation. We are in open ground—far ahead is the foreboding grey of the Vatican, and in the distance behind us is the brick layered cake of Castel Sant’Angelo. The closest buildings are a distant hundred meter sprint away, two nondescript grey blocks that flank Via della Conciliazione. My senses sharpen, visual acuity improves, as I scan the surroundings despite the flashes of glare that twinkle on and off, on and off. I persist, keeping my eyes open at all costs, ignoring the prickling sweat, the dance of motorists and pedestrians, the exhaust particles tickling my throat, all threatening to break my concentration. A new situation calls for quick thinking; I use the only resource available—I disappear behind the creamy mocha of Matt(hew)’s shirt. A second later, I scan again, duck, weave, duck, mocha. But my success is questionable, did it get me?

They must not get me. They come in all shapes and colors, but always with a single eye, and occasionally emitting a blinding white light. If you see one, duck, weave, duck, no matter how strong the lure.

cw #6


The Sum of Reals Equals a Non-Real?

How do we perceive and remember reality? Is reality the recording of life by the flow of ions in our brains, each separated as a neat package? Or do these singular realities mix, to become reshaped into something new, a hallucination?

Tonight, Rome is stripped of its tourists, its erratic white taxis and heat, leaving behind trees napping under the moonlight and the wanderer alone to explore. The Forum is covered by a blanket of darkness, the ancient marble and bricks relaxed after a tense day under the glare of sunlight. As I walk by Julius Caesar, he points to the distance, where a strange shape catches my eye—I am at a loss for what its proper name is, but I recognize it immediately as the missing curl from violin faces. Naturally, I gravitate towards the sight; my eyes follow the strings downwards—six people are being strapped into harnesses, a few have instruments in their hands but in the darkness, it is difficult to see who has what. Taking their lead, I too allow the tension out of my shoulders, and focus on the murmur of the leaves and the air sweetened by the specks of history trapped within its whorls. Breath in, breath out, my rhythm slows. A note is struck, and the mobile rises, dangling precariously from a cartoonish orange crane, a sight visualized but unprocessed by my brain—both halves protesting against the impossibility and impracticality, attempting to reconcile it with the visual input. The barely perceptible harmony of Mozart filters through my mind, blending with the wind, the birds, and the whistling ruins. The conductor, recognizable not by her baton, but by her Queen of Hearts costume, motions for the start of a song. Her quartet jumps to readiness, as if moved by invisible strings. I take off my glasses in preparation for my final escape. I take one more deep breath, chin on rail, and slip into the past. The strings disappear, as the orbs of vivid blue and red float in the night, a sight that is no less strange than the previous one. I put my eyes back on and walk away; ten steps out, I turn around, to check if the mobile is still there. It is.

I look on my camera for proof of the night, but no proof exists. The pictures are nothing more than streaks of color against a dark canvas. Does the lack of evidence disprove the reality of my jaunts; was it indeed a manifestation of my imagination? Or simply a recreation born from pieces already present? Did the other thousands of Romans have the same dream I did? A peek out the window shows that the streets and the Campo are deserted; people who were emptied into the streets just a few hours earlier have returned to their magical clown cars.

Was last night only a dream?

cw, #4


Permanent Imagery

“Beauty is a weapon of mass destruction,” said Joseph Connors.

Beauty: the word has different meanings for everyone, and even for the same person, its meaning shifts with new perspectives and experiences. For me, beauty is found in simplicity, efficiency, and strength—properties that speak to my values and connect to my experiences. Beauty is an unexpected sight that causes me to reconsider my assumed paradigms, something that makes me think about the world from a different vantage point.

By this standard, something beautiful does not need to induce awe or be aesthetically pleasing, and in fact, according to Harriet Rubin, author of Dante in Love, Connors “meant that encounters with beauty unsettle a person.” By this standard, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione is one of the most beautiful sights of Rome.

Before the class enters, the anticipation is built. It is not a joke, warns Shawn, act as you would in any other church. Lisa and Shawn go so far as to make entrance optional, but that, of course makes me more curious to see what’s inside. I scowl a bit at their warning--I prefer to judge for myself first, without moral context, without the expectation of another’s social paradigm. But in this case, all words would be overwritten by the power of the experience to come.

I walk under the doorway of the Coemeterium, and even the long warning we just got could not prepare me for the sight. The bones are not in the room, they are the room; not just a few reconstructed skeletons, but bits and pieces from hundreds of Capuchin monks arranged decoratively, artistically even. The bones do not form a passive display; instead, I am thrust into their midst, with no escape except to close my eyes. When I open them, I take a few shallow breaths and settle for writing a description in my journal, averting my eyes for another moment. Finally, I look again, at the pelvises and vertebrae used to decorate the ceiling in flower motifs, complete with elaborate borders. Stacks of skulls line the archway around a painting that is the focal point of the room. On the left and right walls, are bundles of femurs which form arches, under which lie clothed skeletons of two Capuchin monks.

The sickly scent of death intermingled with syrupy incense irritate my trachea, but the discomfort is easily ignored by the signals racing through my mind. I forcefully turn down the volume of the thoughts flooding my synapses, as I continue to the next rooms, past the lamps hanging overhead, comprised entirely of more bones. I squeeze through four more rooms, arms tucked, walking carefully, not to avoid touching the sides physically, but withdrawing myself from the reality of death. At the end of the slow walk, a plaque reads:
“Quello che voi siete noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo voi sarete.”
(What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be)

There is no way out except back the way I have come, so I turn, forced to take second look. Somehow, the initial shock has dissipated and perhaps by design, my suppressed thoughts about life, death, and religion continue unabated. When I exit the church, I stand, numbed by the assault of thoughts that the display has induced, scribbling madly into my journal, allowing it to relieve my mind of its burden. Why am I appalled? Whose moral system have I accepted without knowing? What happens to the body after death? The soul? Is there a soul and can it be proven? Was that an acceptable use of human remains? Acceptable by whose standard? Where do these moral structures come from? And so on… Moments later, my classmates join me, and they too are unnaturally subdued, all forced to consider ideas usually left untouched. We each throw a bit of ourselves, and of our reactions into the conversation, as if testing the waters. Soon, it becomes a heated discussion: we exchange, ponder, and argue all the way to the Borghese Gallery--the meaning of life, the existence of soul, and implications and purpose of religion, our voices echo in the small bus #116, and mingle playfully with the trees along our path. I smile.

Beauty: the ability to force a reconsideration of everything we believe.

cw #5


Sounds of Seattle, Songs of Roma

I walk back from a Tazza d'Oro, a coffee shop by the Pantheon, en route to the Forno (bakery) to pick up some bianca (salted pizza base, as far as I can tell). This is all part of my Italian class, to go try a granita di caffe con panna; it's very dull and torturous homework to be sure.

I listen to the landscape this time, unlike the many times before. Rome is somehow quieter, yet at the same time more boisterous than Seattle. Then I think, what does Seattle sound like? There's the rumble of Metro buses...but beyond that, I have never bothered to listen. The ambient noise of the cars, of the chiming churches, of the mad dash to class has always been something to tune out rather than focus on. I always run, headphones in ear, past the pitter-patter of rain against the leaves, the VW honking at the jaywalkers, and the wind making chimes of every tree. For now, I will have to wait to hear the music of Seattle.

Rome's orchestra varies by the day and hour. During the weekday, the clanging of vendors at Campo de' Fiori begins just before eight. Today, there is the added clamor of a scaffolding being erected on a building in the far corner. The drone of the occasional vespa like the clash of cymbals to accent the harmony. The fruttivendolo yelling into her phone as she takes my two euros for the fragola; she speaks louder to compensate for the rustling of the paper bag she is packaging for me.

By 2 pm, the afternoon song begins--this time, the clang of the merchants as they disassemble their tents; a few resolute ones remain unmovable under the scorching midday sun. The relative quiet is broken as the garbage trucks rumble to life, the vroo-oo-m of the engines broken by the sound of cascading glass. Every hour or so, the many churches sound their discordant voices, and sometimes, even on the half hour. By nightfall, the noise of the crowd becomes constant, growing louder and louder, accented by a few loud chortles, and accompanied by the guitar dude, violin/a capella boy, or sax man. Tonight, there is the added synchrony of intermittent clapping--roommates engaged in some sort of primal game. And sometimes, special guests make an appearance: fire dancers twirling to a disbelieving crowd, to the beat of anonymous hip hop music and the bass from the nearby bar. By 2 am, the rumble of garbage trucks and broken glass sounds again, followed by a few hours of blissful silence until the discordant music begins anew. The only exception to the cycle is Sunday, when everything, including the Campo is eerily quiet--no sounds, no people, no nothing, just an empty square in shameful disuse.


The Colors of Venezia

Venice is unbelievable, as if one of my crazy notions of an alternate world has come to fruition. Of course, everyone has heard that Venice has canals and not streets, but it's quite a difference between knowing that such an oddity exists and actually traipsing through the giant maze that is Venice. I bought a map, marked with useful notes from the hotel clerk--where to find the best gelato, and so on. But it was useless; the scale was never quite right and the streets never connected in the optimistically neat way they appeared on paper. And so, I wandered, meandered, lost my way and then found it again. Although to be fair, I never knew where I was going, so was I really lost?

Then there was San Marco, and the hordes of pigeons: plump, fluffy miscreants who owned all of the pavement, the airspace, and every ledge of every building. It reminded me of second grade when my teacher put jelly beans in a jar and had us guess how many there were. 273 then, exactly 1292 now. The strategy is the same--take a small area, count how many there are, multiply by the number of areas that fit into the whole, give or take a prime number to give the appearance of randomness. It was insanity.

I took a tour to the other islands around Venice as well. To Murano, known for its glass making. To Burano, full of vibrantly colored houses--hot pinks and burning oranges that clashed horribly, yet lived side by side in harmony. And to Torcello, for its...one church, and the one house that I stumbled across, with two peacocks and a turkey in the back yard.

I never quite knew what to think of Venice. Do I like it? Dislike it? It exists purely to challenge my conceptions of normal words like 'bus' or 'street.' And there were the giant hot pink alligators, for no rhyme or reason at all.


Brunelleschi's Dome

In Florence, I felt the urge to climb up another tall building and settled for the Dome at the Duomo Complex in Florence. 463 twisting, turning stairs to the top! Plus, it is a true engineering marvel designed by Brunelleschi, the first dome of its sort since the Pantheon in Rome.

The dome is on top of the church Santa Maria del Fiore, the main building of which was started in 1296, but the structural part of the dome was not completed until 1446. The church was the largest of its time, seating 30,000 people, which was roughly a third the population of Florence. Although the church was complete by the late 1300, various efforts to build the dome were unsuccessful until Filippo Brunelleschi was commissioned by the Silk Merchants Guild (of which the Medici were members) to complete it. Brunelleschi, known to be a temperamental artist, had stormed off to Rome ten years prior when he did not receive solo commission for the baptistery doors at the same complex. In Rome, he became inspired by classical art and architecture, and was particularly intrigued by the Pantheon, which prompted Brunelleschi to devise his own method to construct a dome, involving inner and outer shells. The painting on the inside of the dome was commissioned by Cosimo I de Medici, and is a depiction of the Last Judgement.

The view at the top was amazing, and because I decided to go just before closing, there were hardly any people there. I kept thinking that I was going up the wrong stairs (there were a fair few dead ends) because it was so deserted. The climb was disorienting because it was like climbing through the attic of a house under a sloped roof. This effect has been used historically, by Trajan (a Roman emperor) whose column contained a tight, narrow, and dark staircase intended to disorient climbers, who would emerge to a statue of himself framed by blinding sunlight at the top. The same idea seemed to have been applied here and I certainly felt surprised to arrive at the top when I did. But the view was spectacular, all of Florence laid out before me, somehow distant yet close at the same time, with only the curves of the dome to connect me to the ground. The untamed building of Florence were transformed into neatly bound neighborhoods with a single step. And the silence, so absolute, both in the mind and space.

(view towards Santa Croce)


writing, writing, writing

Apparently, we are supposed to be doing creative writing. But what makes writing creative? Is it the act of reconstructing truth? Re-shaping one's memory to tell a story? And if so, does that altered memory become truth? How would one know? What is its purpose? To entertain? Or to enlighten and evoke thought? Or to challenge truth and its perceived existence?

Rome is amazingly beautiful and incredibly hot; my skin has been covered in a film of sweat since I've arrived. It is grand in a completely different manner than Paris or Seattle. When I first came, it was the dirtiness of the city that struck me, but now, that dirtiness becomes Rome and makes the history more genuine--the sweat and grime accumulated over the ages as direct proof of the power struggles and betrayals. My favorite part is simply wandering the city, and the contemplation new sights induce. Seeing how Romans and Italians viewed the world and how they operate today forces me to reconsider my own lens through which I see the world. Standing in front of the Curia Julia (the Senate House of the Roman Republic) comparing and contrasting the Roman and American governments is more vivid, and more intriguing, than reading a book, and makes the intangible reality of the past easier to invoke. The marble is colder, the purple-tinged sunsets more beautiful, and the freshness of the fruits more apparent.

Perhaps what makes me such an lamentable creative writer is my fascination with and adherence to truth. Is creative writing not an act of escaping reality? An attempt to reshape the past in one's desired perfection--an act that scars my very soul.


Evolution of the Roman Forum

Today, the Roman Forum stands as a reminder of the events past, as proof that the drama and betrayal that shaped the course of Rome’s history were not Shakespearean plays written to amuse, but real actions by real men. Rome’s history is rife with corruption, manipulation, and bloodshed; that history is in part defined by the men who used and defied social and political customs to impose their vision upon the city. Their quest for power was without bounds and their search for uncompromised control was intimately intertwined with the evolving face of the Forum. Amongst the many men who controlled Rome, none more effectively exploited the space and symbolism of the Forum than Gaius Julius Caesar, who began a legacy of change to mark Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire.

The space where the Roman Forum stood was a swampy valley perennially flooded by the Tiber River. Prior to the 6th Century BC, the space was used as a meeting ground, where the separate tribes residing on Rome’s Seven Hills congregated for religious and possibly other activities. The hillsides leading into the valley were used as burial grounds by the tribes, and the valley itself for grazing cattle. In 625 BC, over a century after the city of Rome was founded, the first of three Estruscan kings, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, began building the Cloaca Maxima (“the great drain”) which drained the water from the low-lying area into the Tiber River, an engineering marvel that is still in use in modern Rome. Over the next few decades, public life began migrating into the valley: the Forum was paved, a school was built, and rows of shops were erected to house merchants selling fruit, meat, and other goods, along with bankers and silversmiths. In addition, the first Curia was thought to have been built during the reign of the third king, Tullus Hostilius, where 100 heads of households met to advise the king. This original Forum was built according to religious specifications, with the long edges of the rectangular space facing north-south.

As the population increased, most merchants were moved to specialized Fora, each established specifically for selling cattle, fish, or other products. By the 4th Century BC, only the monetary enterprises still remained in the original Roman Forum. In 509 BC, Rome exiled its last king and established a nominal republic; during the era of the Roman Republic, the Forum rose to prominence as the major legal, political and religious center of Rome. In due course, Julius Caesar’s hand would be seen in shaping the function and look of the Roman Forum, a legacy that would be continued by his successor, Augustus, after his death.
(map of the Forum during Augustus' time)

Under the Republic, the government consisted of various elected magistrates, a Senate of 300 ex-magistrates, and eventually a Plebeian Council, plus other lesser known and less active components. Symbolically, the most prominent building was the Curia, which housed the Senate. Through much of the Republic, the Curia built during the era of the monarchy was used although knowledge about this earlier Curia is scarce, especially on its design. It was located in the northwest corner of the Forum, and was burnt down during the public cremation of Clodius in 52 BC. Caesar redesigned and rebuilt the meeting place, calling it the Curia Julia (left) after his own family, and he shifted the directionality of the building away from the strict north-south orientation. What remains in the Forum today is not Caesar’s Curia Julia; the original was destroyed in the fire of 283 AD, but was rebuilt and restored by various emperors, and eventually turned into a church in 630 AD. Although its original doors have been looted, along with other valuable building materials, the structure has survived surprisingly well. The current building (right) is modest with the original colored marble floor still in place, providing a rare glimpse into the vibrant Roman life.

Outside the Curia would have been an open space, called the Comitium, used for meetings of the various Comitia, the most prominent of which was the Tribal Assembly responsible for passing laws recommended to it by the Senate. The space began as an open square, was converted into an amphitheatre during the Republic, and ominously diminished in size throughout the Empire.

Also important to Roman political life was oratory, and Caesar himself spent many years perfecting this skill both as a prosecutor and a student. The Rostra was the speaker’s platform (“prow”) and was originally located next to the Comitium; the speeches were directed at the Assembly in the adjacent Comitium, or in later times, at the Forum and the Roman populace in general. The front of the platform, which faced the Forum was flat with holes to mount the prows taken from ships Rome captured during naval battles. During Caesar’s reign, the Rostra was moved to a more central location directly facing the Forum, where it still stands today (right). It was here that Mark Antony gave the stirring speech during the Caesar's funeral which so touched his audience that they cremated Caesar’s body on the spot. And during the Empire, a time when few dissidents dared to make incriminating speeches, the Rostra was used for mostly ceremonial purposes, for example when Augustus adopted Tiberius as his son and successor.

Another important place to practice and show off one’s oratorical skills was in the courts, held at scattered locations throughout the Forum. Caesar saw an opportunity to unite these courts, as well as attach his name to a lavish building, and built the Basilica Julia (left), again named after his family. The building was rectangular, two storied, and exactly aligned with the new axis of the Forum. The large open space in the center (right) was divided by curtains into four courts, which attracted enormous crowds. In Roman times, going to the courts was a leisurely and fun activity; one could enjoy great oratory and play games on the basilica steps when speeches became too long-winded. The courts were also a place where young men like Caesar and Cicero rose to prominence for their oratorical and rhetoric skills. The marble faced Basilica Julia would have been seen as a gift to the people, something like the mayor building an entertainment complex with his own money. The purchase no doubt further improved Caesar’s image and idol status with the public. Today, the only remains of the basilica are the rows of foundations that once held the columns.

Politically, the Curia, Comitium, Rostra, and courts represented the foundation of governmental power during the Republic. Caesar had a profound influence on all of these structures and their relations and uses, symbolic of his control over all aspects of government and public perception prior to his assassination. He dismissed regular meetings of the Senate, which was reconvened only at his bidding to confirm his decrees and selections for offices and governmental positions. Caesar increased the number of Senators by 300, as well as the number of quaestors, aediles, and praetors, in order to install men who supported his goals. He acquired the title Perpetual Dictator in 46 BC, and although he feigned disinterest in becoming a monarch, he controlled all aspects of Roman government.

However, the coerced backing of the Senate was not enough for Julius Caesar, for he sought to bridge the gap between mortal and god. Religion was central to all aspects of Roman life, with decisions and actions of both the people and the government guided by ritualistic beliefs. The Romans worshipped a pantheon of gods, each believed to have a very specific realm of control. Much of the eastern end of the Forum was dedicated to religious needs, in addition to temples to various gods scattered throughout the Forum. The most important religious structure in the Forum was the Temple of Vesta, dedicated to the goddess of the hearth. Inside, a fire was always lit, to represent the perpetuity of the Roman empire. The cult of the “sacred fire” was one of the longest-surviving; evidence suggests the maintenance of such a fire was one of the collaborative undertakings amongst the tribes prior to Rome’s founding. On the other end of time, images of the Temple of Vesta appeared on Roman coins even after Rome’s official conversion to Christianity by Constantine. The temple was frequently rebuilt due to fires, but it was always circular in shape, with the doors pointing exactly east (left). Little of the original building survives today, and all that stands is a reconstruction of three of its columns (right).

Religion in Rome was both a matter of the state and of individual citizens. For example, while all Romans kept a fire lit and made food contributions to Vesta, the upkeep of the Temple of Vesta was a responsibility of the Vestal Virgins, who were selected by the Pontifex Maximus, the highest religious official of Rome. The Virgins were girls from wealthy Patrician families selected for their purity and beauty who entered the House of Vestals between the ages of six and ten, and remained in service for thirty years, although many chose to serve longer. The House of Vestals was luxurious and marble-faced, and complete with courtyards, gardens, and the most lavish of decorations (right). The House’s immense size also suggests that it was used as a safety deposit for patrons including Caesar who placed his will in the keep of the Virgins. The Virgins also held enormous power and political clout, and their role in society was nothing short of royalty. They could commute death sentences of the convicted, and it was the Virgins who intervened when Caesar was condemned to death for refusing to marry Sulla’s daughter. In return for their special rights and status, these women followed the strictest of requirements and were subject to severe punishments if duties were not satisfactorily completed. They were required to take a vow of chastity, and were condemned to death by being buried alive if the vow was broken. Their responsibilities included the important task of maintaining the fire in the Temple of Vesta, and guarding the seven emblems of the power and eternity of Rome--mysterious objects kept secret by the Virgins and Pontifex Maximus. All tasks that the Virgins performed were obsessed with purification: the only water they were allowed to use for any purpose (including extinguishing the Temple when it caught on fire) came from a very specific spring near Rome’s southeast gate; they made salt cakes which used flour from the “very first ears of ripened grain, which had been picked on the odd-numbered days in the second week of May by the three Senior Vestals” (Grant 68). There was an annual Festival of Vesta, in which the purification ritual required married women to jump on bales of burning straw mixed with the ashes and blood of calves torn the corpses of thirty-one pregnant cows on April 15. The cult of Vesta was only one of many in Roman society with apparently strange rituals, and soon, imperial cults would come into fashion starting with Caesar's.

The use of religion for power would have been familiar territory for Caesar, who was elected the Pontifex Maximus in 63 BC, and knew exactly the type of arbitrary power a high religious official commanded. Caesar’s father was of the gens Julia, a family that claimed descent from the goddess Venus, a point Caesar emphasized frequently during his career, and he later built a temple to Venus in his own Forum of Caesar. By promoting the idea that he was of divine blood, it became acceptable to market himself as more than a mere mortal. By the end of his reign, statues of himself were made to be placed in various temples, and he stepped away from the usual practices of the day by placing his own image on a coin. Prior to Caesar, only the dead were honored in such a manner. After his death, the three men vying for control, Augustus, Mark Antony, and Lepidus, deified Caesar and commissioned the Temple of Divine Julius Caesar (left) on the spot where his body had been cremated by the mob, and appointed priests to oversee his cult. The Temple was strategically placed in close proximity to the Temple of Vestal and in the religious bloc of the Forum, as if to confirm that he was indeed a god. Caesar's deification set a precedence for Emperors to come, who would all be deified while still alive.

Caesar's rise to power stemmed from his ability to use the social and political machinery of Rome, through control of politics and exploitation of religion. His family lacked the wealth needed to propel him to the consulship, the highest office of the Republic, but Caesar's combination of talents and carefully considered alliances enabled him to achieve more power than any man before him. Power in Rome came from many interconnected sources. Familial ties were crucial—coming from a ‘noble’ family (one with many consuls in the ancestry) gave important political ties and usually the financial means to provide lavish entertainment for the public or to bribe Senators. Family ties through marriage were also used to gain political or financial ground, a method Caesar used numerous times. Military prowess was also important in Roman culture, and in fact, all consuls except Cicero had some type of military leadership before achieving the high office; not only did military wins provide popular support, they also offered means to immediate wealth from the conquered region, in addition to sustained revenue from taxes and slaves. Caesar’s vast success came from using all of the usual avenues to power in synchrony, and all with great skill. His rise was marked by good decisions and the ability to make the correct alliances at every turn. But unlike many who preceded him, Caesar also achieved power by seeking popular support through his social policy and religious influence. As previously mentioned, he redesigned the Forum, with numerous lavish additions, remodels, and a completely new layout. He relieved Rome’s resource problems and appeased his former legions by resettling the homeless along with the soldiers in provincial colonies by giving them land. Within Rome, Caesar provided for his populace with elaborate and long Triumphs to celebrate his victories. A Triumph consisted of a ceremonial parade featuring the triumphant general framed by the spoils of his campaign, followed by days of partying, banquets, and festivities, all funded by the loot of the campaign. One such event was said to have lasted forty days, complete with a giraffe hunt and gladiatorial duels, all in the shade of a silk awning that stretched over the entire Forum. In addition, Caesar fashioned himself as ‘The Father of his Country,’ and asked all citizens to swear allegiance to him as one would a father, which forged a seemingly personal relation with all citizens, and ultimately cemented his acceptability as a god.

Despite his early death at the hands of suspicious Senators, Caesar was able to shape the Roman Forum and consequently immortalize himself and his family's name. The function of the Forum throughout the centuries defined how it looked and who visited the site. It changed from the bustling market during the era of the monarchs, to the central governmental, religious, and social center of the Republic, and finally became a showcase for ever more elaborate statues, inscriptions, and temples during the Roman Empire. The Forum was the heart of Rome, whether its function was practical or not. Sadly, the demise of Rome as the capitol and the decline of the Roman Empire, along with the rise of Christianity led to the deterioration of the Forum. Useful building materials were scavenged by the rising powers of the Renaissance for new construction projects, and by the 1600s, the area where the Roman Forum once stood was known as Campo Vaccino, as depicted by Claude Lorrain (right). The once ornate statues and richly painted building were looted, burned, or simply covered by floods and destroyed by earthquakes. Yet, even though the Forum today is only a mere vestige of its original greatness, it is possible to see its power and meaning for the Ancient Romans.

My interest and intrigue in the Forum lies in its role in the Roman Republican, and the precedence that system set for governments to come. In my research, I was greatly interested in how the US government past and present mirrors the Romans', as well as the contrast between the two systems (although not addressed in this paper). Reading about the Roman Forum, about the power Caesar accumulated through so many means allows and forces me to consider the means to power in today’s society, and brings into question what I hold as ethical means and ends. There was one flaw in my research: I was presented with snapshots of time, and portraits of characters, whose vibrant and devious personalities were reduced to two dimensional facades. When I first stumbled into the Forum while exploring the neighborhood around my temporary apartment, I gasped loudly enough to startle the tourists around me. Here it was: the building I had read about, where so much of Roman policy had been shaped, simply standing before me in its three dimensional splendor. At first, I was surprised by the Curia's large size, somehow at odds with the inch tall versions in my books, but as I saw the rest of the Forum, it became clear that whatever conception I had of the grandeur and size of the Forum did not even come close to the actual Forum. While what stands in the Forum today does is a shadow of what was there two millennia ago, I can feel the essence of ambition of the past Romans—the bright sparks of purpose, realized in the remains of graceful and grand structures of the Forum, now defaced by time, nature, and the common man. And while it is debatable whether that ambition has led to better or worse, standing in the site where so much history has been overlaid makes it possible to connect to the past.

*A word on the graphics: all drawings are imaginative reconstructions from Grant's The Roman Forum; all pictures are my own.

(model of Ancient Rome)


Works Cited:

Ammerman, Albert. "On the Origins of the Forum Romanum." American Journal of Archaeology 94 (1990): 627-645.
Claridge, Amanda. Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Grant, Michael. Julius Caesar. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1969.
Grant, Michael. The Roman Forum. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970.
Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of a City. Penguin Books, 1985.
Lanciani, Rodolfo. The Roman Forum. Leipzig: Frank & Co., 1910.
Macadam, Alta. Blue Guide Rome. London: Somerset Books Company, 2006.
Nahmad, Ezra. The Roman Forum. Florence: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982.


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