Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Entry #27

August 10th, 2009 by Wordsman


Matthew stopped.  He closed his eyes.  Inside his head, the Forum came alive.

“What are you doing?” Jack asked.  “Are you tired again or something?”

“No,” Matthew replied.  He could barely hear his friend over the mixed sounds of conversations and lively debate, bartering and negotiating, threats and outright attacks.  He was not able to recreate it perfectly, having forgotten some of his Latin from college, but the sheer size of the crowd in his mind meant that a few scattered words here and there were enough.  “I’m simply taking it all in.”

“Well, do you think you could find somewhere else to do it?” Jack pressed.  “People are going to bump into you.”

“Isn’t that the whole point of the Forum?” Matthew said, chuckling slightly.

“You’re starting to weird me out a little, man,” Jack said, his voice unusually anxious.  “Normally you would be telling me all about who built this building, and when, and why, and then who tore it down to get the materials to build this one over here, and so on.”

Matthew paused in the middle of his conversation with an Egyptian merchant who was telling him the latest news from Alexandria and opened his eyes.  “And what about you?” he asked curiously.  “Shouldn’t you be spouting some wild nonsense about impossible conspiracies or the ghosts of the past?”

Jack shook his head.  “I don’t know this place,” he replied.  “I liked the Colosseum better.”

Matthew grimaced.  To be in Rome and not know the Forum . . . “The Forum is just as interesting as the Colosseum,” he countered.  To those who really appreciated history, of course, it was much more so, but he didn’t want to push the issue too much with his friend.  “It just takes a little more imagination.”

“Ah, my imagination’s not that good,” Jack said.

Matthew raised an eyebrow.  “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.  “After all that garbage about restless spirits that you made up in the Colosseum, you’re trying to tell me that you don’t have a good imagination?”

Jack shrugged.  “That wasn’t imagination.”

Sadly, Matthew knew that his friend was telling the truth.  Jack didn’t make all these things up.  He got them from movies like Spartacus and Gladiator.  He got them from TV shows.  He got them from trashy novels.  He absorbed it all, like a sponge, and then, again like a sponge, he regurgitated it in such an unfamiliar way that the original source was often unrecognizable.

Matthew sighed.  His return to the mental Forum would have to wait.  Some things were too important to be left unexplained.

“The reason I’m not telling you about the buildings,” he began, “is that the Forum isn’t about buildings.  Sure, there’s the Rostra, the Regia, the temples, the house of the Vestals, but those aren’t what really define it.  The Forum is all about people.  This was the heart of the greatest city in the known world.  It was a conflux for people of many different walks of life, classes, and races.  Senators and beggars, masters and slaves, Africans, Jews, maybe even Britons.”

“So what did they do here?” Jack asked.

“They talked.  They interacted.  They spread gossip.  They traded.  They fought.  They rioted.  Ambitious politicians would stand here and give speeches, trying to discover the secrets to controlling the terrible power of the Roman mob.  A few lucky ones succeeded, though often not for long.  There’s an old saying, ‘Vox populi, vox dei’—the voice of the people is the voice of God.  Well, in ancient Europe, this was where that voice could be heard.  It was capricious and difficult to understand, but if you could learn to speak it, you just might be able to make yourself master of Rome.

“But it’s not really about the demagogues, either.  The Forum was the place of ordinary people.  They came to get the latest news and to chat with their friends, to watch and listen to the glorious chaos that was the city of Rome.  And now that’s what I’m going to go back to doing, if you’ll excuse me.”

He started to close his eyes, but he could see that his friend still looked puzzled.  “Tell you what,” Matthew said.  “If you can’t imagine it, then just try to strike up conversations with random people.  That’ll give you a better feel for the Forum than me explaining the history of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.”

“If you say so,” Jack said, shrugging.

Matthew returned to his Forum, but unfortunately he was no longer able to fully enjoy his conversation with the Alexandrian merchant.  His mind was too focused on the present to truly get into the fantasy.  He had realized only too late the potential danger of telling Jack to start conversations with whoever he happened to find, and thus a quarter of his brain . . . and then half . . . and then nearly two-thirds was focused on keeping track of what his friend was saying, just in case they were suddenly going to have to run again.

For a while Jack managed to avoid trouble.  At least he stayed in roughly the same place, so Matthew didn’t have to follow him and could therefore keep his eyes closed.  The things he said were not particularly intelligent—he asked people to speak because he wanted to hear the voice of God and suggested that they start a riot and march on the Colosseum to demand justice—but as long as the people he talked to kept ignoring him, it didn’t really matter.

But then he heard an unfamiliar female voice saying: “Really? You’re going to get everyone here to rise up in protest?  How?”

Followed by Jack: “Well, in the old days, politicians would give these great speeches to sway the hearts of the crowd.”

“Alright,” Matthew said, irritated.  “I think that’s gone far enough.”  He opened his eyes.

And then, off in the distance, he saw the gray-clad figure.

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