The Roman Forum is fantastic. Eerie, elegant, a little bit scary… Despite being full of other tourists and located in the centre of Italy’s vibrant capital, it manages to convey an unexpected feeling of peace, timelessness and distance.
A large hill-spanning, ruin-filled park, the Roman Forum contains the majority of the remains of Ancient Rome. And it’s incredible… Huge, huge buildings, beautiful, two thousand year old, sculptures… Columns, bricks, concrete, arches. Creepily like the Tuscan Renaissance cities I visited last week, it is only by seeing the actuality of the Classical world that I have come to understand the aims and the influences of architectural fashion in the sixteenth century. Because rustication, marble detailing, huge columns supporting giant domes, arches, bridges, houses, basilicas, temples, whatever – Ancient Rome had them all and Ancient Rome had them big.
But what really struck me, being in these stunning, old, so old, structures (the Pantheon, half of the Colosseum are still VERY much intact) is the creepy awareness of society’s, civilisation’s, deeply ignored impermeability. Roman civilisation developed – in terms of technology, value attributed to cultural pursuits, organisation, street-planning, water-controlling and so on – almost as far as our own, and then collapsed. Yes, they did not have ways to store, convert and move energy (steam, electricity – which we only rolled out properly in the nineteenth century), but what else they lacked is harder to see. There were slaves – but there are slaves (illegally, granted) in many countries now… Many of the aspects of “modernity” we take for granted – efficient, well-maintained infrastructure, running water, aesthetic appreciation, the cult of celebrity, elections, literature, fine art, leisure, mass entertainment – were existent in fucking bucketloads. But it all fell apart, allegedly due to greed, expansionist foreign policy and a spiralling love of excess. It’ll happen to us. Soon, perhaps.
In two thousand years time, will an equivalent me of the future walk around the mangled ruins of Trafalgar Square, marvelling at how a society could get so far then just become dust?