Today's Roman Empire is recognized as mankind's most successful and advanced civilization to date. (Sorry, Egyptians!) And the city of Rome -- center of government, culture, trade, learning and the thriving Christian persecution industry -- offers out-of-town visitors the opportunity to see and experience all this great society has to offer. But to make the most of your Roman holiday, there are a few things you should know before you go.
When to go: Because of Rome's popularity as a tourist destination, most attractions stay open year-round. The Forum, Circus Maximus, the Aqueduct, the famed Roman baths, as well as perennial favorites such as gladiatorial combat and crucifixions (to name just a few!) are places and activities enjoyed regardless of season, by citizens and visitors alike. If you plan to visit during peak periods, like the Ides of March (observed in the spring) and Saturnalia (winter), remember: Reveling Roman crowds can be both unwieldy and unruly; always carry a short sword or mace to guarantee yourself a space. Tip: For the dissolute and debauched traveler, the biggest and best orgies take place during the warm Roman summer and fill up quickly; make reservations far in advance or you may find yourself all undressed with nowhere to go.
Getting there: The cliché is true -- all roads do lead to Rome. Simply hop on any established footpath or chariotway in the vast Empire and before long you'll arrive in the City Center. For tourists traveling from undiscovered, unconquered lands outside the Empire, arrival by ship is not advised, as the invincible Roman fleet will very likely commandeer your craft, your crew and you. Instead, take one of the many scenic, heavily forested, unmarked overland routes; for those reluctant to undertake such a long journey on foot, I recommend advancing on Rome by horse-, camel- or, for the truly adventurous, elephantback.
Packing: A common mistake made by travelers to Rome is overpacking -- taking a change of toga for every day of the week; lugging formal, casual and walking sandals; even carrying a laurel wreath for some unforeseen heraldry or bacchanal. A better strategy is to keep it simple, to travel light. You'll find that by setting out barefoot and with only the sackcloth tunic on your back, getting around is not only less burdensome, it's more spontaneous. Plus, wearing such untailored "frocks populi" brings one closer to the true Roman experience. Still, for those who just have to take everything but the kitchen washbasin yet wish to avoid the headache/backache of schlepping it around, think about packing a slave or two, too.
Language: You'll find Latin spoken throughout Rome, though it's quite rare to find anyone who can conjugate the verbs correctly.
Money: Converting foreign currency into coins of the Roman realm can be easily done by visiting any of the countless money changers located in back alleys and temples all over town. The service fee from these usurers ranges from 90 to 100 percent, so shop around for the best rate.
Eating out: There's no shortage of fantastic banquet halls in Rome, with cuisine ranging from Goth to Visigoth, from Phoenician to Nouveau Assyrian. Be sure to try traditional Roman fare, too, usually consisting of four courses -- Caesar salad, Caesar appetizer, Caesar entrée and Caesar dessert. But whatever you eat, remember: There's no tipping required for good service, and poor service should be acknowledged with a few smart lashes to the server's back or buttocks. Tip: For travelers on a really tight budget, look for one of the many "All you can eat, all you can throw up, all you can eat again" feast tables/vomitoriums throughout the city.
Tourist traps: Most Roman tourist traps are literally traps laid to ensnare tourists for the purpose of robbing. As you move about the city and countryside, be on the lookout for and avoid deep pits covered with a thin layer of twigs and leaves; "spontaneous" avalanches that suddenly block narrow mountain passes; coarse rope nets falling from rooftops or trees; et cetera. Tip: Should you spot a tourist trap, alert the authorities to it by loudly calling "IX-I-I" in the direction of the nearest Roman legion.
Off the beaten path: Circus Maximus is an exceptional attraction but can be expensive, time-consuming and exhausting. Instead, attend Circus Minimus, a charmingly understated venue headlined by a pair of eunuchs expertly juggling their own testicles. If you have a whole day to fill, tour the Augean Stables, site of Hercules' Sixth Feat as well as the birthplace of Rex, the horse that Emperor Caligula appointed senator. Lastly, Rome's bordellos are rightfully world famous but, sadly, most have become highly commercialized. For a more authentic experience, try Vesta's Virgins, a modest establishment near the southernmost Centurion encampment. Their exquisitely trained courtesans make it easy to understand why, after his first stopover there, Julius Caesar exclaimed, "Veni, veni, veni."
CONTACT BOB WOODIWISS: bwoodiwiss(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here the last issue of each month. His book, Keys to Uncomfortable Living, a collection of humorous and satirical essays, is in bookstores now.