AN EFFORT TO BE HONEST WITH ANTIQUITY

My visit to the Roman Forum when the Genius Loci verified to my ignorance and the intelligence of my companions the well-conjectured site of the Temple of Jupiter Stator was not the first nor yet the second visit I had paid the place. There had been intermediate mornings when I met two friends there, indefinitely more instructed, with whom I sauntered from point to point, preying upon their knowledge for my emotion concerning each. Information is an excellent thing - in others; and but for these friends I should not now be able to say that this mouldering heap of brickwork, rather than that, was Julius Caesar's house; or just where it was that Antony made his oration over the waxen effigy which served him for Caesar's body. They helped me realize how the business life and largely the social life of Rome centred in the Forum, but spared me so much detail that my fancy could play about among its vanished edifices without inconvenience from the clutter of shops and courts and monuments which were ultimately to hem it in and finally to stifle it. They knew their Forum so well that they could not only gratify any curiosity I had, but could supply me with curiosity when I had none. For the moment I was aware that this spot or that, though it looked so improbable, was the scene of deeds which will reverberate forever; they taught me to be tolerant of what I had too lightly supposed fables as serious traditions closely verging on facts. I learned to believe again that the wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, because she had her den no great way off on the Palatine, and that Romulus himself had really lived, since he had died and was buried in the Forum, where they showed me his tomb, or as much of it as I could imagine in the sullen little cellar so called. They also showed me the rostrum where the Roman orators addressed the mass-meetings of the republican times, and they showed me the lake, or the puddle left of it, into which Curtius (or one of three heroes of the name) leaped at an earlier day as a specific for the pestilence which the medical science of the period had failed to control. In our stroll about the place we were joined by one of the several cats living in the Forum, which offered us collectively its acquaintance, as if wishing to make us feel at home. It joined us and it quitted us from time to time, as the whim took it, but it did not abandon us wholly till we showed a disposition to believe in that lake of Curtius, so called after those three public-spirited heroes, the first being a foreigner. Then the cat, which had more than once stretched itself as if bored, turned from us in contempt and went and lay down in a sunny corner near the tomb of Romulus, and fell asleep.

It is quite possible that my reader does not know, as lately I did not, that the Roman Forum is but one of several forums connected with it by ways long centuries since buried fathoms deep and built upon many stories high. But I am now able to assure him that in the whole region between the Roman Forum and the Forum of Trajan, which were formerly opened into each other by the removal of a hill as tall as the top of Trajan's Column, you pass over other forums hidden beneath your feet or wheels. You cannot be stayed there, however, by the wonders which archaeology will yet reveal in them (for archaeology has its relentless eye upon every inch of the ground above them), but you will certainly pause at the Forum of Trajan, where archaeology, as it is in Commendatore Boni, has had its way already. In fact, until his work in the Roman Forum is finished, the Forum of Trajan must remain his greatest achievement, and the sculptured column of the great emperor must serve equally as the archaeologist's monument. I do not remember why in the old time I should have kept coming to look at that column and study the sculptured history of Trajan's campaigns, toiling around it to its top. I think one could then get close to its base, as now one cannot, what with the deepening of the Forum to its antique level and the enclosure of the whole space with an iron rail. The area below is free only to a large company of those cats which seem to have their dwelling among all the ruins and restorations of ancient Rome. People come to feed the Trajan cats with the fish sold near by for the purpose, and one morning, in pausing to view his column from the respectful distance I had to keep, I counted no less than thirteen of his cats in his forum. They were of every age and color, but much more respectable in appearance than the cats of the Pantheon, which have no such sunny expanse as that forum for their quarters, but only a very damp corner beside the temple, and seem to have suffered in their looks and health from the situation. It was afterward with dismay that I realized the fatal number of the Trajan cats coming to their breakfast that morning so unconscious of evil omen in the figure; but as there are probably no statistics of mortality among the cats of Rome, I shall never know whether any of the thirteen has rendered up one of their hundred and seventeen lives.

However, if I allowed myself to go on about the cats of Rome, either ancient or modern, there would be no end. For instance, in a statuary's shop in the Via Sistina there is a large yellow cat, which I one day saw dressing the hair of the statuary's boy. It performed this office with a very motherly anxiety, seated on the top of a high rotary table where ordinarily the statuary worked at his carving, and pausing from time to time, as it licked the boy's thick, black locks, to get the effect of its labors. On other days or at other hours it slept under the table-top, unvexed by the hammering that went on over its head. Even in Rome, where cats are so abundant, it was a notable cat.