No matter how keenly I wanted to commit every marvel in the Forum to memory, the flood of impressions was too much. I could only select one here, one there: The decorative carving on a lone column;
the bold red, green, yellow, and purple design of the inlaid floor of the Curia Julia;
the magnificently coffered vault of the sumptuous triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus.
Awash in ruins, it was difficult to find my way. Stopping on the Via Sacra to get my bearings, I scanned the bony terrain. Just past the Forum, on Capitoline hill, was a great vertical brick wall, the side of an enormous building. There on a small high-up balcony was the outline of a white-gowned bride and black-suited groom. How had they come to be so lucky on their wedding day? Standing there together they looked down on the mystery and beauty of all Rome. Later, I learned that the balcony belonged to Rome’s City Hall where officials perform civil marriages for Romans and foreigners alike.
At the foot of the hill, a massive structure, the Arch of Septimius Severus, framed my view. I made my way up over the uneven pavement and through its opening. Feeling small and insignificant, I stood quietly in the shade under its enormous vault and listened for the wheels of chariots and the thud of patrician and plebeian feet passing by.
Turning round, I saw the Forum spread out below me. There was much to see, so I walked in the opposite direction along the via Sacra towards the Colosseum. After a while, on the right, I could only faintly see, but vividly imagine the round Temple of Vesta and the fifty-room palace of the Vestal Virgins, the Atrium Vestae. Roses grew in the central courtyard and still visible was a row of crumbling statues of some of the more famous virgins.
The vestal virgins held a sacred and honored position in Roman society. Taken from their parents before puberty, the Vestals took an oath of chastity and committed to thirty years of service: Ten learning, ten serving, and ten teaching. They were powerful women with several important obligations. These included tending the sacred fire of Vestal, the goddess of hearth and home; fetching water from the sacred spring; preparing ceremonial foods for rituals; caring for sacred objects such as palladiums, and holding safe the wills and testaments of powerful men. They were the exception among women as they held the same rights as Roman men – the right to own property, make a will, and vote.
Looking across to the roses, I imagined I saw a Vestal Virgin, her hair worn in six folds across her head as Roman brides would. Dressed in her long headdress with sleeveless outer robe pinned with a brooch, she was on her way to a public ceremony. A two-wheeled carriage carried her. A lictor, or guard, protected her. Before him he held the fasces, denoting her position and prestige, and moved ahead clearing the way for her passage, not unlike a modern-day female head-of-state traveling with her entourage.
Helped by the mid-day sun throwing an amazing blast of heat off the stones, marble, and cement all around me, I snapped back to the present and continued to walk towards the Constantine Arch. Just outside the forum, the shade of trees invited me to hurry. Below them a diamond-shaped lawn spread itself out to meet the road circling the Colosseum. It felt good to feel grass, not stones, under my feet. On the lawn, not one, but three sets of brides and grooms posed for photographs. Oblivious to the crowds, heat, and other couples, motherly assistants smoothed skirts, straightened trains, and adjusted veils. Grooms anxiously shifted from one foot to the other. Photographers gave instructions. On command, the newly wedded pairs held hands, fixed their gazes, and smiled brightly just in time for the flash.
Once a photo shoot ended, the couple would disappear into a waiting car. As one car pulled away a new one would pull in and another couple would emerge. This must go on all afternoon, I thought. But, enough! It was time for me to go, too. As I hailed a taxi I thought how sublime to go where Roman senators and emperors walked, where vestal virgins tended the sacred flame, and where modern brides snapped memories. How splendid this continuity of vital humanity!
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum