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The Roman Forum

By David Watkin (Profile Books, hardback 2009; paperback June 2011)

‘Archaeology often brings to light relics—mysterious foundations, tumbled blocks, a charred sacrificial pit, the decaying stumps of dead houses—fascinating to the scholar but a stunning bore to the simple visitor.’ So wrote Dilys Powell in The Villa Ariadne. Archaeologists can be monomaniacs and their interests are often distressingly narrow. So it was with some anticipation that I took up David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, whose contentions are very clear: ‘Archaeologists have eliminated much evidence of the fascinating post-antique life of the Forum,’ and their labours have made ‘visiting parts of the Forum about as attractive as looking into the hole made in New York on 9/11.’ Ouch! These accusations run like leitmotifs throughout the book, together with the curious conspiracy theory that guidebooks are complicit; that there are things they ‘do not want us to see’.

If one works night and day to produce guidebooks, it is difficult not to get on the defensive. The Portico of the Dii Consentes doesn’t ‘turn out’ to be a modern reconstruction. Pay attention to your Blue Guide! It clearly says that it dates from 1858. There is no plot to keep visitors in the dark about the churches of San Lorenzo in Miranda or Santi Luca e Martina. They are just never, ever open. But for Watkin, everything was better in the time of Piranesi. Piranesi, he tells us, with the authority of one who knew him in a former life, recorded the Forum ‘at the last time when it was still a place of poetry, capable of inspiring great painters, writers and thinkers.’ Glum stuff, but the threnody does begin to strike a chord and the aimiable style in which the bad news is delivered soon reels you in. Watkin laments the fact that the Forum has been turned inside out: its surviving churches open away from it, no longer into it; it has been severed from the life of the city and turned into a visitors’ theme park. Up until a very few years ago, entry was free and one could use the Forum as a thoroughfare; Romans going about their daily business could loiter and linger in it. Now you have to queue to be admitted through a turnstile, custodians are bossy and offhand, and no one who is not a tourist (or an archaeologist) ever goes there. The magnificent ‘challenge of the relationship between ancient and modern’ has been obscured.

Despite the underlying crotchetiness, the book is immensely enjoyable. Watkin’s love for the Forum, his breadth of knowledge, and his wistfulness about what might have been (in a Peter Pan world) are ingenuous, impressive and infectious—a beguiling combination. The chapter on the despoliation of the Forum’s monuments in the service of the new St Peter’s is a superb read. No visitor should ever again imagine that the mere march of time had anything to do with it. What Watkin cannot admit, though, is that if archaeologists hadn’t got their hands on the Forum when they did (in the late 19th century), the urban planners certainly would have. And the challenging relationship between ancient and modern would now be as desperate a tussle there as it is at Largo Argentina.

Nevertheless, if you’re travelling to Rome—either for the first or the fiftieth time—I recommend that you get this book. Not only will it add whole layers of meaning to your visit, but it will also force to you answer the following testing questions: if archaeologists are to be banished, who will take their place (and who will pay for it)? What is the point of a desert like the Forum in the centre of a busy and increasingly cramped-feeling capital city? And whose opinion was nearer to the mark: Palladio’s, for whom the Forum offered ‘not the spectacle of ancient glory but rather the possibility of recreating it’; or Pevsner’s, for whom the Forum belongs ‘to the civilisation of Antiquity, not to what we usually mean when we speak of European civilisation’? Watkin loves the Baroque churches that were built over the ancient ruins in the 17th century. But did their architects believe they were ‘recreating’, or did they believe they were moving forward into a ‘modern’ era?

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) has extensive coverage of the Forum, with a map of the site and detailed notes on all its monuments, past, present and conjectural.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Whispering City: Rome and its Histories

R.J.B. Bosworth, Yale University Press, 2011

I first arrived in Rome in January 1966 when I was eighteen. I had had a long journey by train from London but I have never forgotten the emotional impact as my taxi sped by the Forum. All the hours I had spent trying to construe the speeches of Cicero and the odes of Horace gained meaning and since then I have never been able completely to separate ancient texts from the places they were created.

I still know of no other city where the histories and myths intermingle quite so powerfully as they do in Rome, for any period of its past one chooses. Even the traditional founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, were heirs to the myth of Aeneas. What Bosworth achieves in this sophisticated and penetrating history is to show how the Roman pasts have pervaded the political and religious life of the city since 1800. The revolutionary French, the austere and embittered popes, the leaders of the new secular government after 1870, Mussolini with his bombast of a rediscovered empire, none of these could never escape from or fail to manipulate some precedent. Every leader sought to find the ‘right’ Roman past—republican, imperial, Christian or nationalist—to use for political resonance whatever the cost. Mussolini blindly destroyed large parts of medieval Rome to claw out the imperial ruins that lay buried beneath it.

What I loved about this book was Bosworth’s acute sensitivity to every nuance of Rome’s past. Symbols were refashioned to meet each contemporary need, however transient it might prove. I warmed to the story of how, during the ‘revolution’ of 1848–49, the cross on St Peter’s was, in the absence of the fugitive pope, painted in republican colours, while in the 1948 elections, the Italian communists linked Giuseppe (Joseph) Garibaldi, to another Josef, Stalin. (The Church responded with ‘At the urn, God sees you but Stalin does not’.) And I never knew that the last surviving ship of the papal navy was a paddle-boat called the Immaculate Conception.

The perpetual game-playing between popes, outraged at the loss of their patrimony in 1870, and city rulers achieved high levels of drama. When in 1889 the Roman government launched a grand unveiling of the statue of Giordano Bruno, burned by the Inquisition in 1600, Pope Leo XIII retaliated by spending the day prostrate before a statue of St Peter. When the Fascists commemorated the anniversary of the March on Rome on 28th October, Pope Pius XI countered with the institution of a new feast day, of Christ the King, for the last Sunday of October. In the great public ceremonies, blackshirts offered no competition to a pope clothed, as Pius was on one occasion, ‘in a huge silver mantle interwoven with gold’. Whatever Il Duce’s ambitions, no one knelt when Mussolini passed by. They did in their thousands when the pope did. Well might Pius XII reassert Rome’s primacy as the universal Christian centre of civilisation when the Fascist regime collapsed ignominiously in 1943. One of his successes was to secure the placing of figleaves on the virile genitalia of Fascist heroic statuary during the Holy Year of 1950.

Assiduously researched and always absorbing, this book should have an appeal far beyond lovers of Rome. Anyone sensitive to history is aware of how easily the past becomes mythical and /or fugitive. Sniff the air in Rome and, above the traffic fumes, you can sense the currents of nostalgia merging, separating, remingling, swirling around the ruins of past and present. Bosworth shows how even the most determined rewriters of history, Mussolini prominent among them, were out-manoeuvred by the insistent presence of alternative myths which subverted their proclamations of the revival of an ‘eternal city’. Rome is indeed ‘eternal’ but primarily, perhaps, in its ability to eternally manipulate its past.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World. His Holy Bones Holy Dust, a study of the medieval cult of relics, is reviewed here.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor

Paul Stephenson, Quercus 2009. Paperback August 2011. ISBN: 978-1-84916-002-5

In Istanbul, on the north side of Divan Yolu, the street that follows the course of the Mese or ‘Central Way’ of old Constantinople, stands a decayed porphyry stump known as Çemberlitaş, the ‘Hooped Column’. In its heyday it would have been much more splendid, for it was, according to Blue Guide Istanbul (6th ed. 2011), ‘erected by Constantine to commemorate the dedication of the city as capital of the Roman Empire on 11th May 330. It stood at the centre of the Forum of Constantine, a colonnaded oval portico adorned with statues of pagan deities, Roman emperors and Christian saints, and thought to have been the inspiration for what Bernini later built in front of St Peter’s in Rome.’ What is also interesting about the column is the statue that would have crowned it, a colossal likeness of Constantine as Sol Invictus, the Unconquered and Unconquerable Sun, with the orb of the world in his hand and a crown of brazen sunrays glittering on his head.

In his Hymn to God the Father, John Donne makes use of a popular metaphysical pun:

…swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now…

The transference of pagan sun of the heavens to Christian son of God, victorious over death, is something that happened long before Donne’s time. And Constantine’s adoption of the sun/son cult and his public portrayal of himself as brazen victor were significant and deliberate—at least Paul Stephenson thinks so. But why? Was it because he was sincere in his Christian faith? Or was it simple political expediency? Biographies have been written that seek to prove both these theses. Stephenson’s argument is slightly different. Constantine’s devotion to Christ is not what turned Christianity into the majority faith of the Eastern Empire. He is neither the hero that the partisan Christian historian Eusebius sought to portray (4th century) nor the villain that the apostased Catholic convert Edward Gibbon depicts (18th century), with sour scorn, as using ‘the altars of the church as a convenient footstool to the throne of the empire’.

Instead, Stephenson focuses on something else: the army. Constantine grew up in an age when emperors were raised high and then capriciously felled by their barracksmen. The military had enormous power, which, in the right hands, could be cleverly channelled. For Stephenson, Constantine used the army as the driving force and ‘chief instrument of his political will’, aggressively adopting the Victor persona, something which the army accepted wholeheartedly because of what Stephenson calls the ‘established Roman theology of victory’. After the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius and sent him to his death in the Tiber waters, floundering helplessly in his heavy armour, the bringer of that victory was Christ. We need not trouble ourselves with how, with whether Constantine really did have a vision of a Cross. The fact is that from then on it was Christ and not Zeus or Sol who became the emperor’s patron deity and it was under Christ’s banner that the imperial legions fought.

Constantine’s mother had been a Christian but the world into which her son was born was a pagan one. Christ, like any other god, was a divine being to be flattered and appeased. Constantine’s devotion to his god was not that of a pious Christian as we would understand the term today. Nor was it simply a cyncial political stunt. The truth falls somewhere in between, and Constantine’s reign is, Stephenson thinks, ‘a case study in the interaction of faith and power.’

Readable and convincing, the book presents a portrait of a great soldier and propagandist, a man who believed his earthly power and success were due to the intervention of the god of the Christians. Thus it was that he adopted that cult as his personal totem. He certainly never heard or believed that the meek were blessed and would inherit the earth.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London, Venice


Entertaining anthologies of writing–extracts from novels, letter, diaries, poems, histories, guide books–about or set in the destination.  Lively introductions to each excerpt make them a pleasure to browse, a mine of fascinating insights to enjoy at home or to supplement a guide book on site.


Comments on Blue Guide Rome


The most comprehensive guide to the eternal city, repository of many of the most famous works of art in the world.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from here»


Is this Roman? If so, what date? See comment “lapidary fragment”.

A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended

Ostia is spectacular, the picturesque remains of a working port town cover an enormous area of red-brick and marble ruins on the banks of the (now scarcely visible) river Tiber. It gives much more of a feel for life in the Roman empire than yet another nutty emperor’s palace. (Not that some of those aren’t pretty spectacular too.)

Wandering along the deserted streets with weeds growing through the flagstones, sand blowing over the mosaics, and long grasses and wild flowers in the ruins, often shaded by umbrella pines, one also gets a sense of the “Romantic” that drew the 18th and 19th century travellers to Italy to write bad poetry about the fall of empires etc etc.

To get there from Rome you take the train (or is it a metro – it doesn’t spend much time underground?) from the railway station variously described as Pyramide (on the outside of the station building), Porta Ostiense (on the map), or Porta San Paolo (within the trains themselves). We found it easy and clean, takes about 20 minutes and the regular €1 metro (ATAC) ticket or Rome pass seems to work.  (And see recommendation 10 on the Blue Guides’ list of things to do in Rome.)

(Note that Ostia is covered in both the new Blue Guide Central Italy as well as in Blue Guide Rome.  More extensively it appears in the former.)

Comments on Blue Guide Concise Rome

The first in the new Blue Guide Concise city series: small format and good value, ideal for on-site use. Blue Guide Concise Rome builds on Blue Guides' exhaustive coverage of Italy and its cities.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from here»


Reading list for Rome

Unlike the Blue Guides to Florence and Venice, Blue Guide Rome does not include a list of recommended reading. Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome is due out Dec 2010, a sister volume to the Blue Guide Literary Companion Venice, to be joined by London in Spring 2011.


The Global Eye
Florence: Forged in Fire
European rail changes for 2020
An Artist of the World
Food guide for River Café
SPQR and expressions of Rome
The Seuso Treasure: a new display
Life in Color
Hungary Food Companion
Baroque-era spinach patties
Perfect paprika chicken
A spring recipe from 1891
Master of Leonardo
News from Florence
Gellért 100
Unsung Hero
The Corvina Library
Modernists and Mavericks
Dracula: An International Perspective
Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits
Leonardo's Leicester Codex
A tale of two Camparis
Best restaurants in Brescia
Budapest Art Nouveau
Transylvanian Book Festival
Flawless ... and 100 years old
Extreme dairy farming in Sauris
Islamic Art in Florence
The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last
The Wonders of Pontormo
Builders of Budapest
Crowded Times
Good news from Florence
The Heartwarming Middle Ages
Waves of Art Nouveau
Bookshops in Budapest
Budapest at the Biennale
Living with Leonardo
The Zeugma Mosaics Saga
News from Syracuse
Raphael in Bergamo
Titian in Brescia
Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest
Heroism on the Danube
The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest
Dürer in Milan
Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse
Charles I: King and Collector
Fleming and Honour Remembered
Pictures from Lake Maggiore
A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest
Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania
What’s on in Florence
Art Within Limits
A Time in Rome
Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'
Season’s Greetings
Christmas with the Gonzaga
Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum
Collectors in Florence
European rail changes 2018
A people who changed history
Return to 'A Room with a View'
Italian island food
The Scythians at the British Museum
Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook
Ferragamo's Return
Silence of the looms
Grammar and Grace
The Seuso Saga
Giuliano da Sangallo
The Black Fields of Kula
Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored
Venice before Easter
Selectivity at the Uffizi
Guide to the Via Francigena
What Ariosto could see
News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte
More than just the David
The formidable Empress Matilda
Life, Art and Kenneth Clark
Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine
Remarkable Manuscripts
Abstract Expressionism at the RA
Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old...
Transylvania Launched
Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?
A Treasure in Cagli
The Transylvanian Book Festival
Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava...
Roman Brixia
The new Museo degli Innocenti
Wine guide wins prize
Jesters at the Court of the Medici
Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics
The Roman Forum Reconstructed
Bernini's Beloved
Blue Guide Paris on Amazon
The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum
Sabbioneta, Cryptic City
Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum
Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania
St Francis in Florence
To Austria’s Lake District by rail
Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome
Five major London museums
Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital
Whither Tate Britain?
The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca
Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love
The Middle Ages on the Road
Hellenistic bronzes in Florence
Europe by rail - an introduction
Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns
Michelin starred Paris
A Michelangelo discovery?
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation
The Venus de Milo fights back
Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello
Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan
Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass
Which? ranks Blue Guides #2
Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film
Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic
The Aventine and Turner in Rome
Artwork of the Month: December
Rendez-vous with Art
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age
Giovanni Battista Moroni
London The Information Capital
Changes to European rail services for 2015
Comments on Blue Guide London
Egypt, Greece, & Rome
The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism
Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the...
The first collectors of 'Primitives'
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
Artwork of the Month: October. The Arch of Constantine
Sorting out the Uffizi
Waging war with a view
Dull London? Surely a mistake
Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great...
Italian Venice: A History
A tale of three museums
All Aboard the Cheese Train
National Gallery London to allow photography
Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from...
Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand...
Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow
Holiday reading
Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc
Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet
Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi
David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of...
Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere
Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala
Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane
News from Florence
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation
Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii
Travelling around Britain in style
In praise of plague cakes
Princesses from the Trabzon Empire
Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver
Uffizi selfies come to Budapest
Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi
Rome: seasonal stations
Sustainable living in Bolzano
Artwork of the month: March. Murillo's Flower Girl
Tastes change
Francesco Laurana's serene beauty
Being Mithridates
Florence and Buda: two cities of learning
Thoughts on Rome
Copyrighting Heritage
Food is the new Florence
A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey
The Honey Of Hybla
So what is the Turkish Van?
The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Smoothly off the buffers
Under Another Sky
'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain
Comments on Smoothly from Harrow
Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back
Comments on Blue Guide Venice
Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary
Tying the Knot in Urfa
Venice and the Politcs of Washing
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Turin restored and rejuvenated
A palatial art museum in Trieste
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
The wonderful Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Pope Benedict: an unorthodox farewell
Obscure St Valentine and his famous Feast Day
Burano in February
The St Agnes lambs
Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration
Cathedral picks: Exeter
The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?
The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo
Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”
In praise of Venice’s water transport system
The Red Rooms at the Uffizi
The Blue Rooms at the Uffizi
A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome
Pour l’honneur de la France
An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum
How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge
A compelling reason to visit Trapani province
St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
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The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
Comments on Blue Guide Sicily
Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
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The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
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A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
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