As my other half can attest to, visiting Rome was about the closest to a religious experience as you will ever find me. My relationship with history is long-running. You can probably thank Asterix for getting me interested in the ancient world, not to forget being exposed to The Life of Brian at any early age. Put together, they both explain a lot about me, really.
My knowledge of Rome is weirdly off, though. I can talk with some limited authority on the mid- to late-Republican era, and a fair slice of the early Empire. There’s plenty I don’t know, of course, but the broad strokes are all there. Once I get post-AD476 and the historical footnote of Romulus Augustulus, I’ve got nothing (*). Little surprise, then, that as my wife and I wandered a modern city looking at ancient monuments, I expressed dismay when finding that certain buildings may have been destroyed or repurposed, say, 1,500 years beforehand.
All that said, it was slightly eerie how well I could navigate the city by ancient landmarks. The Plain of Mars, say, no longer existed, but I could place the Temple of Castor and Pollux in relation to other sites, knew where to go to find my Imperial Fora, and found our way to the Pantheon with relative ease. Although, when I got to that amazing building, I promptly looked confused at the amount of Christian regalia. The site had been occupied for centuries past its original purpose after all, and I shouldn’t have been that surprised that Rome, of all places, had a wee bit of a Catholic bent but still – the Pantheon? They do realise the name refers back to multiple Gods and all, right?
Now, a Rome-related aside: I have recently learned (or more accurately: reminded myself) that I can be an unwitting arse when it comes to my knowledge of certain topics. I see no reason to be shy about my enthusiasm for Stuff, but I could be better at knowing my time and place. To wit: I recently attended an all-day workshop for my job, which was filled to the brim with corporate speak. While giving a presentation, one of the senior managers mentioned his love of Roman history and used it as a bridge into how people always make the mistakes of the past, blah blah. This perked me up immeasurably, as the shared interest gave me an all-too-brief humanising insight into a man who, a few months before, had been helping to make my peers redundant. ‘At least he’d have gotten my Cicero reference,’ I thought. Anyhow, I bailed him up during the morning tea that followed and, over half a muffin, started rambling about what particular era of Imperial Rome the company’s current state related to the most. Perhaps we were Nerva, providing a bridge to the certainty of the future after the chaos of the past. Or even Vespasian, forging a new dynasty and a period of stability following the mistakes of Vitellius and Otho. Within about twenty seconds – the length of time it took this senior manager to say, in a slightly strangled fashion, ‘which one was he then?’ – it became abundantly clear that he knew sweet bugger-all about Rome and was just trying to make a point. Yet, rather than stopping, I charged on with a potted history of the Year of the Four Emperors until, eyes filled with panic, he managed to attract the attention of someone else and pretend he had a very important conversation to take part in on the other side of the room.
One part of me – and I think, rightly so – says ‘screw him, that’ll teach him to mention Ancient Rome in passing without knowing enough about the turbulent events that followed the demise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty’. Another part of me realises that’s far too combative an angle to take and I should keep myself in my box more often. It’s something which I’m oddly sensitive to; I like knowing things, and I like sharing that knowledge with others. But, there’s nothing quite so distancing as being an insufferable know-it-all. Just look at Hadrian, for example! He… oh wait, never mind.
(*) = this isn’t unique to Rome, by the way. I like to think of myself as having a keen interest in Byzantine history but if I’m honest with myself I only really keep track of the 10th-12th centuries – Alexius (Alexii?) ad infinitum and all that. My knowledge of the Middle East drops off somewhere around late antiquity and picks up again in the twentieth centuries, some sections of the Ottoman Empire’s workings notwithstanding. I am, to be honest with myself, an over-informed generalist in such matters.