Bitter yet unspoken warfare is reaching a climax in Rome between rival armies fighting for control over a vulnerable target the flocks of foreign tourists pouring into Rome. Feelings are running high, and at stake are livelihoods and the name of Rome itself.

The clash is between licensed and unlicensed tour guides, both proffering often-conflicting versions of what the past of Rome was all about. But the deepest mutual, if less academic, resentment is over money. The licence-holders see their opponents as intruders doing them out of their income by hijacking audiences rightly theirs, won through hard exams. The so-called pirates for their part consider the situation as a legitimate free-for-all, since they claim ostracism by the legal bodies, and argue they too have the right to turn a penny. If people prefer us to the officials, whats wrong with that? they ask.

The other week, plain-clothed police mingled with crowds around the Colosseum and Forum, doling out stiff fines of e300 to e600 to guides bereft of official badges.

But what happens? asked Gianluca Cioccolino, head of CAST, a main agency of the official guides. The illegal guides go before justices of the peace claiming they are with non-profit cultural associations or are doing favours for tourists who approach them, and in 60-70 per cent of cases theyre let off. Italian laws are very permissive.

Cioccolinos members are also up against European Union legislation allowing licensed European Blue Badge guides to operate throughout the community. They face far simpler exams than our lot and there are 150 in Rome already, he said.

But do the pirates exist because there are too many tourists for the licensed ones to cope with?

No, answered Cioccolino. We have 1,500 members and 700-900 of them are out of work. They work only for proper tourist agencies whose requirements are never for more than 500-600.

But if the illegal guides tout for custom, why cant the official ones do the same? Theyre precluded from it professionally, its not done. Anyway, they would get into rows best avoided, said Cioccolino.

At the Colosseum there was no sign or notice indicating even the existence of authorised guides. The opposition was swarming around, accosting tourists almost bodily. A woman with a loudhailer: You can take a snap of the centurions there for e5 a time. With me though, you can take three pictures a time. Ive a special deal with them. A bevy of girls wore official-looking numbered passes: Colosseum Tour. Information they were offering tours for e10 admittance plus e8 for a guide.

Theyre official?

Yes, the girl claimed.

However if you were in the know you could hire an official guide (even an audio guide) for the Colosseum from a glass-fronted kiosk where there was no queue. The cost was 10 for entry to the monument and 10 for the guide 2 more.

To the despair of the licensed people, there is also a host of other agencies and associations tussling for notice on the internet.

Mario Bernadi, from The Grand Tour, one of the many agencies advertised on the internet, and presumably one of the competitors of CAST, had a rather different tale to tell:

Its a kind of mafia. The licensed ones are often supported by politicians they are not as good as they say they are they dont tell the right stories and they ask for a lot of money. Thats why Im fighting themIve got students and art-historians on hand who know their stuff and are far better.

Bernardi also related a happening in a Rome pub three years ago. A Roman marketing expert and local university lecturer offered to obtain an official guide-pass for a resident English friend of this writer if he promised to vote for the Partito Democratico di Sinistra in imminent city council elections.

Under the proper rules a legitimate pass or patentino is issued only to candidates who get through a tough, and sometimes abstruse test. In a recent exam one of 48 questions was:

The Certamen Capitolium was: a) an athletic contest? b) a financial pledge? c) a temple? (Answer: a).

Another question: The church of S. Maria Egiziaca is to be found: a) in the temple of Hercules the Conqueror? b) the temple wrongly known as the Temple of Vesta? c) in the temple of Portunus? (Answer: c).

A guide who has passed such a test said her now fellow-guides were aware that such questions were designed to preserve the official guide-centres as virtual closed-shops. An Irish guide later commented in private with a wry smile: Im sure I could even get through the written test. But I bet if they saw my face at the oral and realised I wasnt Italian, Id be finished.