If you are lucky enough to travel to Rome today you are greeted with the almost paradoxical world of ancient and modern, squished together into labyrinthine alley-ways, suddenly giving way to plaza-scapes filled with fountains monuments and flocks of tourists. The intoxicating and sometime stifling combination of modern buildings, pizzerias and ice-cream shops bustling round the base of monuments like the Pantheon makes for an experience of a city quite unlike anything else I have found in my limited experience. It makes for a heady mix for any visitor, never mind one that has such a love for large doses of ancient archaeology closely followed by pizza and cheap wine.
Contrary to the path I have been leading you on, however, I will not be divulging my best travel tips on the eternal city. Although I may end up including some at the end (just to show off my dubious expertise on the subject). Instead, I wanted to think about what it must have been like to be a new arrival in a city that wasn’t matched again in size of population until Victorian London, containing what Athenaeus described as “the populace of the world” (1.20b-c)
The Romans, renowned for their meticulous planning of settlements, laying out of building and thought-through engineering projects, had a dirty secret. A quite big and bustling, dirty secret at that. The city of Rome itself. Unlike the clear grid of settlements in provinces, of the careful planned layout of colonia, which were usually laid out in approximately the same fashion, with the Cardo in place as the main north–south-oriented street. Rome the city was a vast, organic sprawl, strutted and ballasted by big public works and aqueducts. Cicero, the authority on pretty much everything, even noted the poor design of Rome’s streets (2.96). Fires usually resulted in re-organisation attempts, in part to make things safer (health and safety improvements!) but also allowed an emperor to make a more personal mark on the city by re-building and redeveloping areas that had conveniently become clear of obstructions. Nero did just that (having put his non-existent fiddle/lyre down after watching Rome burn) and started a huge re-building process which included his Golden Palace and a giant golden statue of himself. This didn’t do much to sure-up his reputation with the senate. But Nero did also institute regulations on street width and buildings in order to try and prevent fires from spreading with such abandon across the city. However, this just lead to complaints. Fire-prone though the streets were, so packed in together, the rest of the time they provided much needed shade from the blistering Roman summer sun. The wider streets = more sunlight and rising temperatures. Nero just couldn’t win!
In the provinces of the Empire the roads allowed the flow of goods, soldiers, trade and travellers. In Britain, famous roads including Watling Street that traversed the province. For all the Romans the roads that lead into settlements were marked by the fact that they were lined with monuments to the dead, as the deceased where not permitted to be buried within the confines of the settlement. Because of this family graves and numerous inscriptions that lined these roads give us glimpses of the lives of Romans beyond those mentioned in the historical texts (covered in an excellent documentary by the utterly brilliant Mary Beard. Highly recommend). The well-known Via Appia (The Appian Way) ‘the queen of roads’ is the greatest of these, people were commemorated by their relatives with honorific epitaphs. This is the first significant thing you would encounter as the ancient traveller, making their way closer to the city itself.
Once you had wended your way past the tombs and reached the city roads likely became far less friendly. While it was true that carts were banned from the streets during daylight, in an attempt to ease the congestion, this did not mean that the streets were an easy place to be. The insulae that formed the ‘tower blocks’ of Rome stand as testament to the need for the city to grow upwards, having run out of space below. Shops formed the ground floor space of the buildings that lined the roads, meaning that in order to make progress you had to get around all of the hubbub and clamour that accompanied the trade. There were no street signs, maps or aid, other than personal knowledge of the city and/or a guide who knew where to go. As you wandered the way would be punctuated with public fountains fed by the aqueducts. This provided the water that sustained the city and her population and were even administered separately, the upkeep of the aqueducts falling to the office of curator aquarum. There were some strict laws about the use of the water and the aqueducts too. It was illegal for instance to tap your own outlet into the aqueduct in order to have your own supply and some aqueducts where the water purity was more questionable, were used to irrigate and maintain the green spaces and gardens of the city.
At cross-roads and intersections you may notice the Lares which still exist in modern Rome as saints or Madonnas. These Lares were effectively protection and good-omen bringer for anything from a household to an area, and were an important aspect of every-day Roman life. The ones in charge of the protection of an area of the city were housed in special shrines and even had their own cult officials. If you were a plebian, the Lares likely were a significant part of your everyday routine as well as spiritual life.
Just as now. large public buildings would have provided a landmark of navigating the city as well as being a huge part of how Rome functioned as a city that was home to so many people. The Circus Maximus, Form and Colloseum would all eventually form this central part of Rome and remain iconic of how we think of the Romans up to the present day. As the Senator Grachus glibly observes in Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator:’ “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Colloseum.” As with any city the fabric of the buildings and the way resident’s interacted with is gave the city it’s atmosphere. While it wouldn’t be true to directly compare Rome as it is today with it’s ancient past (The ancient Romans aren’t just ‘us’ in togas), the city has always likely had a steady influx of foreigners. So maybe, when you did get lost your comfort would be that you were not the first and certainly not the last to do so, modern or ancient.
But what about out A-Z map? Surely at some point someone thought to map the eternal city. After all, Rome had mapped much of the empire with astonishing accuracy. Well, there sort of was one. Sort of. The thing of which I speak is the Severan Marble Plan, or Forma Urbis Romae.
Carved in the beginning of the 3rd century AD/CE, the large marble plan of the city depicted in detail the ground plan of ALL architectural features. The map (measuring ca. 18.10 x 13 meters or ca. 60 x 43 feet) was incised onto marble slabs that hung on a wall of a grand room (aula) in the Templum Pacis in Rome. Time, and the need for marble as a building material, gradually destroyed the Plan. Today, only 1,186 pieces, or 10-15%, of this gargantuan city map exist.
So not an A-Z, more of a show-off piece of Roman ostentation. It’s one of the what-ifs of Roman archaeology… had the Marble plan survived in a more complete form we would have effectively an accurate map, not just of the streets, but of the base of buildings. Instead archaeologists are left with a puzzle that only has a few pieces left, rather than an irritating one or two missing.
One thing that I haven’t covered so far, and something that I’m sure would be an important part of the experience of the ancient newbie to the city is sounds and smells. We can only imagine the racket that must have resulted from the everyday goings on, or what it sounded like to be outside the Colosseum or Circus Maximus when something interesting or dramatic happened. I’m not sure I could even sum-up what it might have smelled like. But I think what I am going to term ‘organic’ smells may have had a significant part. Even with the Cloca Maxima many Romans emptied waste into cesspools and urine was routinely collected from public loos to be used as the key chemical ingredient in tanning and laundering (get those pesky stains out that toga and get it back to being whiter than white…). Heat all that up in an Italian summer and the result, to our modern or unaccustomed noses must have been quite… pungent.
So, where does that leave us. You, traveller in ancient Rome have followed all the advice and the roads that led you to the city. Now, if you’ve arrived free and a citizen you should loose no time in finding a business niche and making some money. Rome, like many modern cities would not have been a kind place to the destitute. Try not to catch anything contagious and start any fires and I’m sure you’d get along swimmingly (very swimmingly if you lived near the Tiber which did regularly flood). If you have arrived a slave, pray to your gods for a kind owner and hopefully you’ll be freed and even could end up with a successful business venture out of it like our friend Eurysaces the Baker. The city of Romulus awaits, just be prepared to get lost.
Watch the highly recommended ‘Meet the Romans’ documentary with the utterly amazing Mary Beard here:
Athenaeus, The Deipnosophistae, Vol I. Loeb Classical Library edition (1927).
Cicero, De Re Publica, De Legibus, The Loeb Classical Library, (1928), Translated by Clinton Walker Keyes. T.E. Page, E. Capps, W.H.D. Rouse (eds)