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His exemplary success in conjuring up the liveliness of the Forum in antiquity — the urgent and pungent commerce, the exciteable polity, the male and female whores, the rights and facilities accorded to the Vestal Virgins (those ‘six unmarried ladies’ whose palace was, by the end of the late Republic, the sole remaining residential structure in the Forum), the rich yet probably unrecoverable life of all those half-forgotten streets — achieves the desired rhetorical effect, inviting the reader to contrast this state of affairs with the present Forum, currently populated with stones, pot-holes, fencing, dust and tourists.

All of which is, it turns out, nonsense, none the less so for being what virtually every educated person believes to be the case.

Why should pagan antiquity be regarded as intrinsically more interesting, perhaps even more meaningful and valid, than the Christian devotional practices that first coexisted with pagan forms of worship before eventually supplanting them?

Each of these questions is, after all, an issue of choice, not an inevitability, just as the decisions which have rendered the Forum a messy, confusing place are by no means necessary ones, and indeed could easily be reversed.

Prof Watkin’s most famous work, (1977, revised edition 2001) indicated a willingness to defend as a matter of present-day urgency the inherited architectural vocabulary of ancient Greece and Rome, while at the same time acknowledging timeless doctrinal truth as simultaneously fundamentally different from and confidently superior to the sort of claims that can be made in favour of style, or positivist assertions of ‘progress’. Thus Prof Mary Beard who, in her role as general editor of Profile Books’ ‘Wonders of the World’ series, commissioned Prof Watkin to write the present volume, again demonstrates the bracing disinclination to avoid controversy which has not only offended sensitive souls along the way, e.g.

here, but lent energy to her re-invention as a successful uber-blogger, achieved without damage to a career as a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and a classicist of formidable seriousness.

Why should evidence of an ongoing creative conversation with the classical past be artificially silenced?

Why should conservation and restoration always privilege the claims of archaeology over those of beauty, decorum, legibility, history or faith?Some conventions of guidebook propriety are retained.In the first chapter, Prof Watkin adumbrates the functions to which the Forum was set by classical Romans.For commissioning Prof Watkin, in any event, Prof Beard is to be warmly, to use the almost too predictable phrase, a triumph.Prof Watkin is similarly correct in his insistence that the Forum existed, in classical times as well as thereafter, in a perpetual state of flux, a long-term building site, replete with non-stop renovations, restorations and outright rebuildings — the fundamentally Roman Temple of Castor and Pollux, pictured above, was rebuilt on at least three occasions — these attempted rationalisations and reforumulations, seamlessly linking pagan and Christian periods, rendering ridiculous the notion that it could ever be returned, whatever archaeologists might wish to the contrary, to some notional moment of ultimate authenticity.

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