Footprints in the Forum: The British School at Rome, by Frances Breen

As I stood at the bottom of the steps gazing up at the imposing building I began to regret bringing so many pairs of shoes. The sunshine glanced off the portico and columns above as I began the steep climb, bumping my heavy suitcase on each step. Reaching the front door I took a much-needed deep breath, squared my shoulders and pressed the doorbell.

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The British School at Rome (BSR) was established in 1901 to facilitate research in archaeology and Italian studies. Each year the BSR holds an undergraduate summer school to give second year students of classics, art history and archaeology the opportunity to learn about the history, topography and culture of ancient Rome. Spread over twelve days the programme gives an intensive view of the monuments, sites and museums of the city. I’d read about the BSR while studying on the A276 course Classical Latin: the language of Ancient Rome and after encouragement from my wonderful tutor, decided to apply for the summer school. Being a mature student and studying with the Open University, I was somewhat different from the usual applicant, but put my reservations aside and took a chance.

If you are in any doubt about applying, I heartily encourage you to do so. The short essay gave me scope to explain why I wanted to attend and how passionate I am about Roman history, and while it remains a mystery as to what exactly my tutor (thanks again!) put in my academic reference – it resulted in an email offering me a place and the chance of a lifetime.

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After unpacking and settling in the students and staff met in the courtyard for afternoon tea – the BSR is quintessentially British by name and by nature! – followed by an introductory lecture setting out the programme for the next twelve days. The course is incredibly intense and requires quite a lot of physical exertion, and the weather in early September in Rome can be unforgiving. Led commendably by Dr Robert Coates-Stephens and Dr Ed Bisham, we quickly fell into a routine. Each evening there was a lecture detailing the theme for the following day – ‘Tiber’, ‘Cities of the Dead and Living’, ‘Panis et Circenses’ (Bread and Circuses) for example – leaving immediately after breakfast at around 8.15am. This was to be no gentle guided tour.

It is impossible to put into words quite how much ground we covered and the incredible sights we saw. One of the remarkable points about the summer school is the access that being a student at the BSR affords; we were given special permits to sites that people don’t normally get to see, including the Curia Julia in the Forum. In imagining the secrets the building has borne witness to, the feet that trod its mosaic floors, the speeches and intrigue that took place – I found tears rolling down my face. There was so much information that I still have yet to process it all – we learned about Mithraeums, walked the Appian Way, experienced rush hour on the Roman subway, listened to a lecture from an Italian archaeologist, wore hard hats a-plenty, marvelled and dreamed.

 

Other highlights included the amphorae mound of Monte Testaccio, the houses of Livia and Augustus where the painted colours and patterns on the walls remain luminous, a daytrip to Ostia Antica and a visit to Nero’s ‘golden palace’ Domus Aurea – where we emerged blinking in the bright sunshine from the subterranean wonders. Even a trip to Tivoli to see the remains of Hadrian’s villa and gardens – cut short by what can only be described as a biblical deluge of rain – became an experience we bonded over. The steep streets turned into rivers, and after huddling with sixteen others under a garage archway (Vespa included) we waded through ankle-deep water to the other side of town. I have never been as drenched in my life, but by the evening we were dry, fed and laughing at an unforgettable experience. A word of thanks to my fellow students: I was incredibly nervous that they might think I was old or weird, but each one was welcoming, friendly and interested, and I have made some friends for life – without them it would not have been such an amazing adventure.

The last day came all too quickly and as well as visiting other sites we returned to the Forum Romanum. I stood on the worn pavement where Cicero, Julius Caesar, Augustus had walked and looked down at my shoes, caked in the dust and grime of Rome, streaked where the dye had run in Tivoli and faded by the sun. My footprints would forever mingle with those of the past, and Rome’s imprint would be forever on my heart.

Frances Breen


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