I’ve been to Rome – again! In March 2016, the Roman Archaeology Conference was held in Rome, and I was tempted. Over the years I have been to a number of th annual conferences held by that paragon of archaeological societies, the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, but two years ago they decided that in every other year, they would hold the conference abroad. They began in Frankfurt which I attended, and even wrote two splendid articles, one on the Glauberg Iron age hillfort, and the other on Waldgirmes, the intended capital of Roman Germany, destroyed after the defeat of the Romans in AD 9; but they are not yet published because we never publish any article until it has been approved by the sources, and I have not been able to get approval: you can find my drafts on the web at www.travellingthepast.com . But Rome tempted me, and I decided to would make the journey: it turned out to be a very good trip – and I saw a lot of Rome
The conference took place in one of Italy’s foremost universities, La Sapienza. This is Rome’s oldest – and largest – university, founded in 1303. But in the 1930s, Italy’s dynamic leader Mussolini decided to give them new premises, so a fine new campus was built just outside the city walls – a masterpiece by his favourite fascist architect Marcello Piacentini, so the conference was held amidst Fascist splendour. There is a lot of Mussolini in Rome; indeed having seen the university, I perhaps noticed him rather more than before. There is a tendency to write off or condemn all his works on the grounds that he was a bad man who must therefore have produced bad architecture; but this is not necessarily so. Lots of great art is produced by very unpleasant people, so it is an interesting exercise in aesthetics to look at Mussolini’s Rome and to ask oneself: is it really all that bad?
The conference was held in the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy which also houses the Museum of Classical Art, a collection of literally thousands of plaster casts which occupy the whole of the basement. There were lots of naked ladies lined up for inspection, so it is possible to compare and contrast the differing versions of the famous Greek originals and ask oneself: what was the original really like?
The conference itself was, like most academic conferences these days, good in parts. There were, as always, too many lectures by postdoctoral students, read inaudibly and too fast: why doesn’t anyone tell doctoral students that the magic formula for lectures is 100 words per minute: if you have a 20 minute slot, and you read the lecture, it should not be not be more than two 2000 words long. And why don’t those who supervise doctoral theses offer to endure a run through of the proposed lecture with the student so they can advise on how to lecture? (Slow down, dear, and do pronounce the ends of your words properly . . . )
But there were some very good lectures, the best being an outstanding session organised by David Breeze and confederates on Emperors and Frontiers, a series of consecutive lectures running through how each of the emperors dealt with the northern provinces. The outstanding lecture was the first, by Erik Graafstal of Utrecht Museum, in which he argued that it took two or three years to mount a major military expedition, and that the preparations for the invasion of Roman Britain in AD 43 began three years earlier, so the person who decided that British barbarians should be brought into Roman civilisation was not Clau-Clau-Claudius but the much disparaged Caligula, who made his horse consul, and also decided to civilise Britain. I also enjoy the talk by amphitheatre supremo David Bomgardner on the amphitheatre at Pompeii. which according to an inscription was built by two Roman colonists shortly after Pompeii had been conquered by Rome in the Social War. But he argued that what they really did was to divide up the amphitheatre with the front rows being reserved for the colonists so that the conquered native inhabitants had to sit in the back rows “beyond the pale”.
On to some of the Sites I visited in Rome