A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The idea that Rome would endure forever was born in antiquity. The poet Claudian, writing four centuries after the emperor Augustus, doubted that there would "ever be a limit to the empire of Rome, for luxury and its attendant vices, and pride with sequent hate have brought to ruin all kingdoms else."
The notion of Rome as an eternal city has persisted through time thanks to its abundance of durable ancient buildings and its equally durable reputation as the center of Western Christendom. The simple fact is that Rome has endured for so long and exerted such a powerful influence on history that it has become difficult to conceive of a world without it. "As long as the Colosseum stands, Rome also stands; when the Colosseum falls, Rome also will fall; when Rome falls, the world also will fall," wrote the Venerable Bede, an early eighth-century English Benedictine monk.
Today, Rome's city planners are commemorating their ancient city by creating the grandest archaeological park in the world. Excavations underway since April 1998 are exposing 150,000 square feet of the forums built by the emperors Nerva, Trajan, and Augustus, formerly covered by the Via dell'Impero, built in 1932 as a parade ground for Mussolini's black-shirted legions. The newly exposed forums will be a fitting archaeological centerpiece for Rome's blockbuster celebration of the year 2000, proclaimed a jubilee year by the pope. Celebrated every 50 years, jubilee years derive from an ancient Jewish custom of freeing slaves and forgiving debts. Conservative estimates put the number of pilgrims and tourists about to flood Rome at 24 million, three times the annual number of visitors in recent years.
In addition to the forums, archaeological projects include the restoration and reopening of a wing of the Domus Aurea (the emperor Nero's extravagant palace, closed since 1983) and the Museo Nazionale Romano (the national museum of Roman art, closed since 1985); the drilling of Rome's most deeply buried layers in search of traces of the earliest city; and the restoration of the Colosseum, the Round Temple in the Forum Boarium (the ancient cattle market near the Roman Forum), and the Ponte Fabricio (a Roman bridge spanning the Tiber still in use).
Andrew L. Slayman is a former senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.