NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Friday, November 14, 2014

38—How Are the Markets Doing?

The Foro Romano or Roman Forum is one of the top tourist attractions in the world.
Foro Romano: What's left of the market square
At it's center was the market, sort of an outdoor Saturday market kind of arrangement, except it was not limited to Saturday. And the forum must have a happenin’ place in mid March 44 B.C. when, following Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony brought the bloody corpse there for all to see and reflect upon. It’s interesting beyond all the dramatic portrayals of the conspiracy to imagine what you would have thought. 

We all remember what we were doing when Kennedy was shot or the Towers fell. The Romans of that day undoubtedly remembered where they were when Caesar got stabbed. Without Lupo Blitzeri to give a blow-by-blow analysis of unfolding events, people must have gathered together trying to get the latest. 

But imagine yourself standing there with the wine and grain you just bought when Mark Antony arrives with Caesar’s corpse for all to see, bloody with the multiple stabbings. He then leaps to speaker’s platform just past the market square and reveals to the crowd that the leader who had appeared such a threat to the people by accepting the role of dictator had willed his fortune to the people. 


I eavesdropped on a stylin’ middle-aged guide telling the story—an American woman with a hearty mezzosoprano voice and a gift for punching up the Shakespeare’s tragedy into a CNN-type report with the oops ending.
A slender dark-haired Italian guide draped with her fashion scarf and striding along in leather boots with those lethal toe points mentioned the assassination of "Caesar, the dictator" and moved on.

In the end, Caesar’s greatest gift to Rome was probably his chosen heir—Octavian aka Caesar Augustus, who only nineteen at his ascension would, over the next 41 years lead Rome from Republic to Empire. But also during his reign, he became an architect of peace with his famous Pax Roma. I visited the Ara Pacis museum where there is a replica with bits of the temple he built to the goddess of peace.

Ara Pacis
It must have been a stunning sight. All marble and peaceful, small compared to the majorly huge everything in Rome. And no statue of the goddess. You walk into the replica of the Ara Pacis (Ahra Pah-chees) and it’s quiet, as it must have been in Augustus’ day. The friezes inside and out are of fruits and flowers and people and figures representing peace and prosperity. There’s a narrow walk around a large marble altar. There is inside a presence. Perhaps like whatever it is that I believe exists in most people but remains unexpressed as we bustle about our many markets and fight our wars, both personal and national: an understanding that stuff and guns are not the way.

In front of the temple was an obelisk designed to tell people the time and day by the sun. On September 23, Augustus’ birthday, the obelisk cast a shadow from itself into the entrance. I like to imagine what the discussions with his design team might have been like.

Augustus is buried across the street. Surrounding the massive brick cylindrical tomb are those cypress trees for which
Tuscany especially is famous. I had a communal moment with one lining the street on the street leading to what’s left of Nero’s wretchedly vulgar palace. The branches are soft. I had expected something prickly from the upright posture of the tree. While the branches don’t leave a residue, there is something about them that makes your hand feel soft as if you just sprinkled your hand with power. Except there’s nothing there. I thought perhaps these gentle trees were embracing the man who brought peace and empire together in the same sentence.

Although, empires and marble temples don’t come cheap. And there was that decree of his that all the world should be taxed, thus sending Joseph and Mary up from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register. While I have no documentation for this, I am pretty sure registration didn’t require a picture ID. 

But back to the marketplace. For must of us, the would be pretty much like today’s Saturday markets. You would go there to hang out, pick up some pork or beef, maybe a few copper coins worth of grain and vegetables. Or a nice copper or a ceramic vessel for carrying your water. 

There would be discussion of social justice issues, perhaps. The basilica or offices of the judiciary were adjacent to the market. On the other side, temples to Castor and Pollux or Saturn may have inspired spiritual discussion. And politics. There would surely be a discussion of politics, for there was the Curia or senate building right past the market square. And next to it the rostra, so named as it was decorated with rostra or those fancy hood ornaments on the boats used by Antony and Cleopartra when they were so disastrously defeated by Octavian in the Battle of Actium.

Ruins in foreground formerly the basilica, or the hall
of justice. Senate or curia, square building to right.

Now there was a couple who were champions in the escapades of seduction, debauchery, and betrayal. No cypress trees around their tombs, by Jove.

The rostra was the site of many contentious debates, for which Cicero became famous. But there weren’t just the famous who influence public thought, but also the rich. It was quite a system. Rich guys had followings of people who would go to their houses each day to ask for favors. With favors granted, the rich accumulated a posse of the indebted that followed them around town.

The rostra
At election time, this rostra is where the people and posses gathered for the debates. It was a perilous time. Some candidates under threat of being killed wouldn’t leave home. There was one story of a guy dragged from the stage by opponents. 

I have wondered if there was talk among the masses of military build up as a way to peace. I mean at either end of the forum are grand arches proclaiming through images the glories of conquest. With illiteracy rampant, the stories of conquest were told in marble reliefs of the vanquished being led back to Rome with booty galore (by this I mean stuff, not the heroine of Hercules going after the belt of the Amazon lady’s belt).

Back in Oregon, I’ve watching a series of DVDs on empires before Alexander. I’m not by any means an expert on history. Chronologies like linear thinking aren’t as much fun as the stories. But one thing I noticed in learning about the perpetual wars of ancient peoples is that they put up with the hardships brought on by the decisions of their leaders. Why? Because the leaders always brought back stuff from the conquered. The people, it seems, enjoyed the stuff. 

As time passed and Rome grew from Republic to Empire, the markets got bigger. Seriously bigger, from that little square to major architectural constructs. And people, then as now, trade was all about globalization. Check out this map of the territory once under control of Rome and imagine the stuff brought into the markets from these places.
Ruins of the Emperor Trajan's market.
Notice how far below the street the ruins are.

What are the markets doing today?
What happened to all the stuff?
Well, there’s certainly stuff all around. But not a lot of peace.

What will the ruins look like in another 2,000 years?

No comments:

Post a Comment