The Roman Forum

Peter Jones enjoys an account of the vicissitudes of one of antiquity’s most important sites

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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: David Watkin
Publisher: Profile
Price (RRP): £15.99

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A visit to a famous ancient site, however stimulating, can be accompanied by frustration: how did this chaos of pillars, bases, post-holes and stones add up to anything, let alone serve a purpose?

Of nowhere is this truer than the Roman forum, the major political hub of the Roman world for a thousand years from 700 BC. Hardly any other site of similar importance is a greater mess. No wonder travel guides have turned to comparisons with the contemporary world (such as “a kind of Roman Smithfield”) to describe a place used for everything from politics, business and elite housing to religion, law and gladiatorial fights.

David Watkin, emeritus professor of the history of architecture at Cambridge, tackles the problem brilliantly by taking as his starting point the magnificent 18th-century engravings of the site made by that greatest of engravers Piranesi, when the forum’s romantic and evocative ruins, many half buried in centuries of detritus, were still a living part of the city, interspersed with churches, houses and cows.

After discussing what we know of the forum in antiquity, Watkin first describes what Piranesi showed and did not show of the ancient site, and then turns his attention to the later buildings that the engraver depicts, the churches in particular. At this point, Watkin gets out his machine gun and trains it on those he holds most responsible for the despoliation of the forum: the archaeologists who, with pickaxe and dynamite, began to excavate deeper and wider, in order to uncover the secrets of the original forum – in the process destroying centuries of architectural history, especially ecclesiastical.

The story culminates with Mussolini in 1925. Determined that “Rome must appear in all its splendour: immense, ordered and powerful as it was at the time of the first empire, that of Augustus”, Mussolini drove his (ironically named) Via dei Fori Imperiali right through 84 per cent of the forums of the emperors Nerva and Trajan, destroying in the process 40,000 square metres of some of the most historic parts of ancient, medieval and Renaissance Rome.

With verve, authority and no little humour, Watkin tells the detailed and complex story of this great but mutilated landmark and reactions to it (“dirty cowfield… obscenely defiled by wild beats… half-gorged by the facade of a hideous Renaissance church”: William Howells, 1866). It is an almost impossible task, superbly done.

The moral of his tale, however, is debatable. Watkin argues that a few ugly ninth-century BC post-holes are not worth the destruction of what is aesthetically pleasing; we should leave well alone and let modern classical architects give us our sense of the ‘classical’ – surely a very risky business, given their efforts so far. At least archaeologists have a noble end, knowledge and understanding, in view. The argument surely is about developing non-invasive technology (MRI scans are already used) to do the job of the spade. What price key-hole archaeology?  

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Peter Jones’s Vote for Caesar (Orion) is now out in paperback