The Forum of Rome is one of the world’s most legendary spots. For example, take the HBO series Rome: Early in the first episode we follow a Jewish mercenary leading a white horse through crowded streets. As he rounds a corner the music swells and a vast vision opens up before our eyes: The Roman Forum. The sunlight falls on a vast array of Classical buildings, bustling crowds in homespun wool, Senators in red-bordered togas, the beating heart of a city at the center of the world’s largest empire.
Fast forward a couple of millennia. Weary tourists buy a ticket for a few Euros, step through a turnstile, and descend a hill to emerge in a narrow, flat valley. They see two triumphal arches, some random standing columns, and carven pieces of marble strewn about like a giant’s discarded playthings. This is it?
The Roman Forum looms large in the stories of the birth of “Western civilization.” It was here that Roman generals, returning from successful wars, had their Triumphs: loud, chaotic parades where the defeated kings and queens were led in chains before the Roman people. The route of the Triumph followed the Sacred Way to the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest which adorned the Capitoline Hill.
The Sacred Way? It’s that path of cracked stones beneath your feet, too narrow for all but the smallest automobiles.
What about The Rostrum? That famous platform where the body of Julius Caesar lay after his assassination, his toga drawn back to show the bloody wounds? Where Marc Antony made his famous funeral speech?
Oh, it’s that kind of low wall over there. It’s being restored, sorry about the scaffolding.
We like to travel as a way of experiencing the things that we have read about, learned from, or admired. Not only ancient buildings and curios in museums, but cultures, cuisines, and ways of life. I have never been disappointed in a visit to the Forum, but it has taught me that when you travel, you are well advised to accept things on their own terms. We have become accustomed to outside, gaudy versions of reality – Epcot Center style displays that simplify and sometimes stereotype what they want to glorify. (And, just to be clear, I actually do like Epcot Center.) I wonder if this trend contributes to the stereotype of “Tourists Abroad” as loud, somewhat brash beings who just can’t understand why they have to wait in line to see an old pile of rocks and can’t get ice in their Coca-Cola.
The antidote to the “ugly American” syndrome is a sense of adventure, flexibility, and genuine interest in the lives and cultures of the places we visit. Certainly let’s revel in the grandiose architecture of the Roman Empire, and that culture’s pervasive influence on those that came later. But sometimes, the paving stones trod by the Caesars just make a great place for an espresso, a sandwich, and a little sunshine.
If You Go
The entrance to the Roman Forum is along Via dei Fori Imperiali in the heart of Rome’s “Centro Historico” (historical center). The Colosseum is adjacent to it, but is entered separately. A ticket purchased at either venue is good for two consecutive days and allows entry to both sites.
A word of advice: The ticket line at the Colosseum is usually very long, up to three hours on busy days. I have never seen more than ten people in line to get the exact same tickets at the entrance to the Roman Forum, so go there first and get your ticket (€16) . I personally think these two sites deserve an entire day to themselves, but if you can’t dedicate that much time then start in the Forum and eventually work your way south-east (going slightly uphill and moving away from the Capitoline Hill). As you come up the rise you will get an awesome view of the Colosseum, and after a brief photography break, head back and to your left to exit the Forum and access the plaza surrounding the Colosseum. Stroll right past that ticket line to the turnstiles, and enjoy the awesome experience of the late afternoon sun setting through the archways of the Colosseum. Then … food.