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  • Rome and the Ruin of Memory
  • Alain M. Gowing

I'd like to thank the Association for the kind—and very welcome—invitation to deliver this keynote address.1 When Rebecca first contacted me, I was of course immediately intrigued by the topic, commemoration in antiquity, but equally so by the suggestion that the choice of topic seems to have been influenced by the fact that the University of Alberta is celebrating its Centenary, an event that naturally invites us to reflect on the past—and on why we should reflect on the past. Thus there seems to be a happy confluence of interest in what memory meant to Greeks and Romans … and similarly in what it means to us.

My own work on memory in Roman culture has only created for me many more questions than it has answered. One direction it has prompted me to pursue further is the connection in the Roman mind between buildings or monuments and memory. I am by no means an archaeologist or material culturist, but among other things, many years of teaching Roman topography in Rome have made me acutely aware of the importance of understanding physical context. Thus in my current project I have turned more explicitly to the city of Rome and what it meant to Romans, but especially as we encounter Rome in Livy and Tacitus. The question I have posed to myself is a simple one: under what circumstances and to what ends do these historians identify, evoke, or otherwise deem important a particular space or structure in the city? In this talk, however, I want to think a bit more expansively about Rome and in particular about the value of its ruins to appreciating memory; in order to flesh this out, I turn to Livy and his take on Rome and ruins. In the process the connection between [End Page 451] the two parts of this talk hopefully will become apparent. So let me begin with Rome.

Rome, I don't have to tell this audience, is an endlessly fascinating and amazing place. I can think of no city better suited to serve as a sort of memory laboratory, a place to think about memory in all of its aspects. As many have realized, none more famously than Sigmund Freud, Rome itself is like a palimpsest, with the new superimposed on the old. Almost everywhere in the city one is confronted by an almost bewildering conglomeration of buildings, ancient, medieval, baroque, fascist, modern. Rome's buildings and spaces instantiate—not figuratively but physically—the memory of centuries of Roman history.

For many, in fact, these buildings are Rome, have come to symbolize the very essence of Rome. Thus when I show you a picture of the Colosseum (fig. 1), the Pantheon (fig. 2), or the Roman Forum (fig. 3), not a single person in this room does not know what they are looking at, and that is not simply because we are classicists. These are universal icons, whose meaning transcends profession, class, and nationality. Their preservation has without doubt ensured that some portion of the memory of ancient Rome remains alive for millions of people. It does not matter that many may be oblivious to the culture that produced them or cannot deliver lectures on their artistic, historical, or cultural significance; it is enough that in their age and architectural magnificence, these structures still evoke in every viewer a sense of awe and admiration and a connection with the past.

For those of us who have traveled to or lived in Rome, and especially so for classicists, these monuments doubtless do more than function as preservers of a memory of ancient Rome. They also, I suspect, have become incorporated into the fabric of our personal memories. I certainly remember with great vividness the day I first saw the Colosseum, or walked in the Roman Forum, or entered the Pantheon. I have countless personal memories attached to those moments: of students I have brought there for their first visits, of friends and family, or of particular memorable moments: snow drifting through the oculus of the Pantheon, being asked by Dutch tourists to lecture them on the beauties of...


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