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Would Julius Caesar be weeping?

Last night I had the privilege to listen to Mary Beard thinking out loud about ‘What’s the point of Ancient Rome’. Her central argument was that the richness of the ancient history and archaeology makes us think about ourselves now. It’s not which Emperor Donald Trump resembles so much as look at how Roman slave quarters might compel us to reflect upon the conditions inflicted upon workers who produce our clothes and gadgets far from peering eyes. Mary was characteristically thought-provoking.

She set me thinking about my perambulations around Rome this week. Take the Largo Argentina where Julius Caesar, no less, was assassinated at the Curia Pompeia. It is not the ruins which cause tourists to pause or its association with Caesar, a story that lives with us still. It is the feral cats. Not as many now, they have the run of the overgrown excavations.

A cat overlooking the spot near the Curia Pompeia where Caesar perished

Every street in Trastevere has holes encircled by plastic red fencing. Pavements are simply degrading. Investment in the infrastructure has plainly declined. Worse, briefly there was a fad for yellow bikes, an experiment that came to nothing not because of Rome’s hills or its energized traffic. Bicycle hire which in many countries and great cities typifies an age working to reduce its carbon footprint has failed in Rome. Why? Because the machines were vandalized or stolen. In this small example we seem to be witnessing the degeneration of civic values in this great city. Would Caesar be weeping, saddened by Rome’s decline from the city of marble?

21st-century Trastevere street scene

But a speck of optimism. My perambulations took me to Termini train station where on a floor elevated above the locomotives are the LUISS EnLabs, an incubator. Started nearly 7 years ago, they are expanding. They are investing in another floor of labs and even more young Italians inventing start-ups. Why another floor? Because the ‘Beni Culturali’ will not permit them to occupy the old wide corridors from another age. Not letting the legislation crush creativity, they have made moveable booths and filled the wide corridor with them. Colourful, connected and comfortable, the booths are packed with aspiring entrepreneurs.

LUISS EnLabs booth

Now, can these tech businessmen and women of the future tackle the malaise of the present? Can these millennials and generation Z somehow get a grip on a city which has reduced Caesar’s end to an indifferent panel in a closed park guarded by cats?

Mary Beard was, of course, right. Ancient Rome lives on but, I wonder, if it can handle the 21st-century.

A heap of Trastevere bicycles

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