A young American and his girl were looking down into the Forum of Caesar, now excavated down to its foundations. There was not a blade of grass or a fallen column in sight.
You see, he told her, theyre getting ready to rebuild. He pointed over to the Mamertine prison. Look! There are new buildings already!
The pair passed a centurion in full regalia, who was snatching furtive puffs from a fag-end: Psst! You take picture! A Chinese painter was sitting on a stool: Psst! You want name in Chinese?
It was their start to a day of drama down in the forums, with everybody clamouring to hear about the assassination of Julius Caesar. One orator, standing before the altar of Caesar, described events magnificently: Then came Mark Anthony. He stood just where you are. It was his first go at public speaking and the crowd was angry, rhythmically chanting: Death to Brutus! Death to Cassius! Anthony was scared. Do you know what he did to calm them down?
For a mob of some 20 middle-aged Americans, every syllable spoken by their guide, a white-haired man with his hands in his pockets, went down like honey.
Well, he addressed each man by his name. That did it for a bit. Given Anthonys inexperience, how he knew their names was not explained. Then the senators came out to see what was happening. They didnt like it a bit and scuttled back, he explained. The senate is that kind of giant potting shed behind you. But the populace followed them, and started hammering on the doors. After an emergency session inside, the senators opened up and announced theyd voted to make Caesar a god. That pleased the crowd a lot and they were happy.
It must have slipped his memory that, at the time, the senate was a miserable mound of rubble after a fire. The killing of Caesar actually took place far off, in a makeshift venue within the theatre of Pompey, the skeleton of which still looms up behind Campo de Fiori.
Another guide with an accent like Henry Kissingers followed. Now I show you de grave of Caesar. You can file in der and zee it. They did, and afterwards an old man whispered a question. The mentor boomed back: Yes, der is an urn. Its under de rock.
At the senate itself, a breeze-blown blonde told a small sea of yellow hats who were peering inside: Notice the floor in multicoloured marble. Its definitely the original, she declared, not saying whether she meant the original floor of the legendary senate founded by a shadowy king of Rome, the floor of the many subsequent remakes, or the final rejig under the Emperor Diocletian (it is his). But then she moved to her main point. You see, the senators sat opposite each other. This is where the British got their parliament from. The hats commented: Wow! Gee! What do you know!
Elsewhere, another educator in a panama hat had already launched into a sonorous appraisal of the Roman world in general. He waved his arm around: Over there, in that corner, were the basilicas. No, not churches in those days but law courts. The trials that went on inside echo around Rome to this very day. The Romans have always had one vice: they love to talk and talk. And if they cant persuade you, theyll talk forever. He beamed at the laughs and continued: The forums were like brand names. They were all over the world. They were like McDonalds. As soon as you saw one, you knew exactly what you were going to get inside.
In the shade of a tree up against the house of the vestal virgins, a British estuary accent was telling her rapt charges of the strict rules the most gorgeous girls in Rome had to endure. Youd wonder, wouldnt you, why theyd ever go in for such a life. Well in Roman times, women were nothing, second-class citizens. But within those walls, they were privileged. They had their own chariots with drivers, the best seats in the Colosseum, and got a big dowry at the end of it all. They could marry when they were 30 but with women living only until 40 in those days, they faced a pretty bleak prospect.
Of course, if they were naughty with the boys, they were dropped into a pit on top of the Quirinal Hill and smothered in earth. If they survived six days, they could come back down here to work again. But it only happened six times in 600 years, so I suppose some didnt get caught! That produced a gale of merriment.
Another guide presented the arch of the Emperor Titus up on the hill as a wonderful keyhole through which to peek at everything. She pointed to the bas-relief showing the loot seized during Titus smashing of the Temple in Jerusalem the sacred candelabra, the silver trumpet. Its just like going through the holiday snaps at Christmas, isnt it?
Oddly though, no matter who was leading a tour, the Christians consistently came out badly. The kindest was the guide at the arch. Then came Christianity. But those were all pagan temples down there. So they had to be pulled down, didnt they? Other guides were less charitable. One with a loudhailer was saying: Then the Christians came. They took the pillars, the marble, the lot, from the temples. They built their churches for nothing. Thats why today, theres nothing left. A bald-headed group leader in his 50s remarked: It was all marble around here. Beautifully decorated. Then came the barbarians, the popes, the floods. All vanished. That is why today its a bomb site.