Home > 2011 Posts > May 1st, Via Dei Fori Imperiali

May 1st, Via Dei Fori Imperiali

It was May Fools Day in Rome a few years ago.

The sky was clear, the breeze was light, and the early afternoon sun warmed us to perfection. My wife and I were having lunch in the delightful rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Forum. Our table was in the best spot to take in the priceless vista of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, with the Imperial forums spread out to the south below us. For Archaeology Geeks, there is no better place for lunch on a sunny spring day in Rome.

The Roman Forum in HDR

But at the moment, we were being treated to a new element in the panorama. Perhaps a thousand people were marching in a May Day parade. Twenty years before, May Day had been the most important holiday in the old Soviet Union’s calendar. And KGB records show they spent a lot of money and effort trying to make it a big thing all over the world. “Workers of the world, unite!” and all that.

My favorite slogan from European radicals back then was (shouted): “We will have peace when the last militarist is hung with the entrails of the last priest!” Bader-Meinhof. Red Brigade. Carlos the Jackal. Ché. Those were the days! Good times… as they say on the Jersey Shore.

Silly us, until that afternoon, we’d thought the only Communists left on the planet were overpaid, aging hippies with iron-clad tenure at Stanford and the Ivy League schools — Oh, and UC Irvine. We knew for sure they weren’t in Beijing or Shanghai.

The Roman Forum

Wrong! Down below us on the Boulevard of the Imperial Forums, people were holding up huge, dark red, hammer and sickle banners from way back when. Liberally scattered through the crowd were placards with images of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and a few other fallen saints whose statues have long since been melted down for scrap all across Russia. And of course there were lots of Slogans du Jour in Italian, like Hang Berlusconi or Kill the Fascists!

Seeing this blast from the past, I remarked to my wife, “Damn! The KGB was good!”

And my wife commented that, “This is so interesting! It’s like watching political zombies in search of B r a a a a i n s. I thought that even the most rabid Maoists had bailed out years ago.”

At that point, a tall, fit-looking, dark-haired man sitting alone at the next table leaned over and said, amiably, “It helps to remember that in Italy, politics is at least as much a sport as it is about government.” He was a handsome priest from Ohio named Michael who worked at the Vatican. And I suspect that his role carried some responsibility because even though his suit was simple, the material and cut were among the best I’ve ever seen – a tailor’s work of art.

In any case, we struck up a pleasant, extended conversation while he waited for his guest. We asked him what he meant by politics as a sport. In response, he reminded us how some die-hard fans of a losing team can be: near-crazed supporters, who paint their faces and pick bar fights even when their team hasn’t had a winning season in decades. They keep hoping, “Maybe next year!” and telling each other, “It could happen!” Reality just beads up and rolls off them, so to speak.

Trajan's Forum and the Via Dei Fori Imperiali

“The good news,” Father Michael continued, “is that twenty years ago, it would have been half a million people down there.” And just then, his guest arrived, so Father Mike politely excused himself, wishing us well.

As my wife and I finished our lunch on this glorious day, we talked about the frightening power that pretty promises can have, no matter how many times the promisers are revealed to be power-hungry con artists or ruthless, fanatical Believers.

We agreed that it must be just the way some folks are. After all, right down there across the boulevard the story was the same, in that forum where Catalina and Caesar spoke more than 2,000 years ago.

And a republic fell.

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  1. April 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm
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