When in Rome

Recently I visited Rome because, well, among other things I’m a huge fan of Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurilius.
Flick through his book, Meditations, and you’ll see that life in Rome, back in Marcus’s day, wasn’t that different from our own. OK, so he ran an empire of about 3.5 million square miles, dominating about 20 per cent of the world’s population, but he was just as perplexed and amused by peoples’ behaviour as you and I. That’s why I always take him with me on the tube. Whenever someone farts, pushes, or snorts next to me, I bury my nose in Marcus’s fragrant musings in the hope I’ll feel better.
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Here’s my current favourite, ‘Everything we hear is an opinion. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth’.
I couldn’t agree more. Right now my truth is I’m getting on a bit. I’d very much like that to be a question of perspective. Ergo not the truth.
I went to a party a few weeks ago where the music was so loud dancing was the only available activity. So I obliged, though after a while it dawned on me. When I dance there’s no longer any undercurrent of sexual potential. No one’s looking at me. Dancing isn’t sex with clothes on. It’s me flailing my limbs about for no one’s benefit but my own.
In fact walking through the park, I was surprised when a man gazed in my direction only to realise that he was looking at my new Specialized Sirrus Sports Hybrid 2013 bike. I can’t blame him. The green trim does contrast nicely with the grey.
So, knowing all that, I did what all people entering middle-age do. I went to visit Marcus’s home turf, Rome.
I figured that by connecting his past with my present I might arrive at a more complex, multi-faceted sense of truth. One that might somehow reverberate off all those wrecked stone pillars and ruined porticos. One that says it isn’t so much the facade, but what’s behind it.
We started at the Coliseum, where we paid about ten quid for a tour in full expectation of drama and excitement; hungry lions, screaming Christians and ladies who paid gladiators for sexual favours. But no, a young Italian woman reeled off a list of facts – the number of exits, seating capacity and what the tickets looked like – come on.
The next day we tried the Forum. This time, without a tour guide. It was spectacular. Triumphal arches, proud pillars, a warren of ancient apartment buildings built into a hillside. But there were no signs telling you anything about it. Not a map or a leaflet in sight.
We were clueless.
Until we spied a young Canadian guide surrounded by a group of very hot tourists sweating in shorts and jolly hats. They were scrabbling over a group of rocks under the shade of a dead tree. Honestly, the Italians really aren’t that bothered about putting on a show. In London you’d have an interactive 3D experience. In Dubai, marble seats and air con. Here – rocks.
We edged closer and cocked our ears, hiding behind frozen bottles of water. You can buy them for three times the usual price from some Indian gentlemen outside the gates. I stuck mine down my T-shirt; my own air-con.
After a minute or so, we discovered that he was a facts and figures man too, reeling off a list of dates of no interest to anyone but some imaginary schoolmarm. Though eventually he did reveal that Caesar was stabbed, not on the steps of the Forum as everyone believed, but in a theatre near the Pantheon about a mile away. At last, a fact that was worth something. Poor Caesar, not only was he murdered, no one had bothered to remember where.
Our guide then went on to impart more facts about the local real estate. Pointing out a couple of pillars made out of purple marble called Porphyry from a rare Egyptian quarry, worth £17,000 per square centimeter.
Egypt. He mentioned Egypt. We held our breath collectively, waiting for some juicy gossip about Queen Cleopatra and her dalliance with Caesar and Anthony. Sexual politics, incest and fratricide. Nope, seems no guide will stoop to human intrigue, just stale facts.
He pointed out the foundation of the House of the Vestal Virgins. Did you know that if they had sex during their 30-year residency they were buried alive? No? Neither did he.
But then I remembered why I gave up history at school. The people who teach it have no interest in the human condition. When it comes to emotions, intrigue or relationships, they’re just not interested. Perhaps that’s why history is destined to repeat itself?  They like to remember what happened, but not why.
My best advice is, if you go to Rome, is read up on it before you go and take a leaf out of Marcus Aurelius’s book:
‘Let not your mind run on what you lack but what you have already.’


In the meantime here are a few more musings from Marcus (121 – 180AD):
Virtue and wickedness exist, not as emotions and thoughts, but as actions.
Why would one want the applause of fools?
Remember that sometimes to change your mind is just as astute as to be able to discern the right course without advice.
Before each action think: shall I have no reason to repent it afterwards?
When wronged, step back to consider whether you are not sometimes guilty of the same thing.
A person cannot anywhere retire better than into their own soul.
You consist of three things only, your body, your life, your mind; only the last is subject wholly to your control. All else is mere smoke.
Do every act of your life as if it were your last.

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