~ The Center of the World ~

A Walk Through the Backstreets of the City

We are walking around Rome with the young man in the yellow-orange tunic who has just disembarked. Looking through the papers that he had to sign, we’ve discovered that his name is Aulus Cocceius Hilarus. After delivering the olive oil and the routine formalities, he has an errand to run for his sister before heading back to Ocriculum. As you can easily imagine, anyone who comes to Rome is almost always asked by friends and relatives to buy something that’s hard to find in the provinces. Rome has everything.

Hilarus has to find some spices and a perfume, so he heads off on his trek through the city streets on the lookout for, to start with, a taberna unguentaria, or perfume shop. A custodian at the entrance to the horrea had given him directions to a neighborhood where he’ll find a wide selection and reasonable prices.

Like all visitors to the city, Hilarus follows the main streets to avoid getting lost in the labyrinth of alleyways that he doesn’t know very well. The first thing that strikes him is the number of people out on the streets. In Ocriculum you never see such crowds except on holidays. But here it’s a normal part of everyday life. There are so many people that he spends more time trying to avoid running into someone than he does looking at the sights of the city around him. The main street is starting to get so crowded that he can’t even see its stone-block pavement. Thousands of faces pass before his eyes, most of them slaves but also well-dressed lawyers on their way to the Forum with their clients and women with their husbands or escorted by a slave out for a round of shopping.

This crowd on the street is a two-story affair, like a building: the ground floor is occupied by ordinary people, while the upper level is occupied by VIPs, who pass by stretched out on their litters. And there are a lot of them going by in both directions, almost like gondolas on the Grand Canal in Venice. When two litters pass each other, their occupants observe one another at a distance, and then at the moment of passage they turn the other way. Some even pull the curtain closed—an obvious sign of their superiority.

Hilarus is forced to step to the side to let a litter pass; the slave that precedes it, acting as a path breaker through the crowd, pushes aside anyone who doesn’t get out of the way. To keep from getting run over, the young man steps up onto the sidewalk under the portico and takes advantage of his raised position to take a look at the person in the litter: a double-chinned matron wrapped in expensive clothes and looking bored. He views her passage much the way a modern pedestrian might view the billboard on the side of a passing bus.

Hilarus decides to continue on under the porticoes, which flank almost all the main streets of Rome. They are supported by brick columns and pillars covered by a coat of plaster that has a red strip running along the bottom, the same strip that runs along the base of all the buildings. The columns themselves are quite dirty, covered in handprints and graffiti, the flaking plaster exposing the brickwork. His gaze falls on a line of graffiti: “Lovers are like bees; their lives are sweet as honey.” He smiles; it’s funny to see this romantic sentiment in such a chaotic place. He leans his shoulder against the column and decides to take a minute to observe the human river flowing by him on the street.

The Postman Always Rings Twice … If He Comes!

He sees a postman go by. He’s a tabellarius by the name of Primus and he’s desperately trying to find the right address. In imperial Rome there are no numbers on the buildings. So how does he go about finding the right place to deliver the mail? We see that he’s carrying a small wax tablet, a sort of ancient GPS, with directions based on the various monuments in the area. To get a sense of what’s written on it we can refer to a postman’s itinerary immortalized by Martial in his Epigrams (I, LXX):

Go, my book, and pay my respects for me: you are ordered to go, dutiful volume, to the splendid halls of Proculus. Do you ask the way? I will tell you. You will go along by the temple of Castor, near that of ancient Vesta, and that goddess’s virgin home. Thence you will pass to the majestic Palatine edifice on the sacred hill, where glitters many a statue of the supreme ruler of the empire. And let not the ray-adorned mass of the Colossus detain you, a work which is proud of surpassing that of Rhodes. But turn aside by the way where the temple of the wine-bibbing Bacchus rises, and where the couch of Cybele stands adorned with. pictures of the Corybantes. Immediately on the left is the dwelling with its splendid facade, and the halls of the lofty mansion which you are to approach.

These directions start out from the Forum, the “zero point” of Rome, where the temple of Castor and Pollux is located. They lead past the brilliant white temple of the Vestal Virgins and up the Via Sacra (which still exists today) to the enormous statue of Nero with its crown decorated with rays of sunlight (which supposedly rivals the Colossus of Rhodes; later it will be moved by Hadrian close to the Colosseum, giving the stadium its name). They go around other temples and monuments that no longer exist but were then situated on the Palatine near the Arch of Titus, finally leading to their destination.

Like today’s taxi drivers, the tabellarii of Roman times probably knew the city very well, so they didn’t really need such long and detailed explanations. Nevertheless, Martial shows us that even then the city’s major monuments and temples were the “lighthouses” that people used to orient themselves, whether they were tabellarii or just ordinary citizens.

Who Are These People on the Streets?

Hilarus’s gaze falls first and foremost on the people who are moving slowly or standing still, as they’re easier to observe. Here comes a street vendor offering loaves of bread to prospective customers, swinging his basket back and forth in the crowd. Then a snake charmer passes, surrounded by a group of onlookers, one of whom is a wide-eyed little boy. The boy doesn’t know that the snake’s teeth have been pulled, nor does he know that the charmer’s secret is not in the music but in the clump of colorful feathers attached to the end of the musical instrument that the charmer waves back and forth in front of the snake, distracting it.

The charmer’s tune is gradually drowned out by the gravelly voice of a street cook who is carrying some smoking-hot sausages on a couple of hotplates. He is a perfect forerunner of the hot dog vendors that you see today on the streets of New York.

Now comes the grocer’s delivery boy, a bundle on his shoulder. He’s making his round of deliveries and knows he’ll have to climb a lot of stairs. The Roman insulae don’t have elevators. Lucky for him, the wealthy live on the lower floors, so only rarely will he have to go all the way up to the top floor. But the number of trips and the number of steps he’ll have to climb is so great that by the end of the day he’ll be exhausted.

Among the people off to the side of the street, Hilarus notices a man who is standing guard outside a shop and another who is probably a street poet waiting for some customers—those who would pay for a simple composition to court the object of their affections or flatter the powerful man they are on their way to supplicate. Street poets like this one, always anxious to make a little cash, will also write letters for the illiterate, who are actually not nearly as numerous in Roman society as they will be in the Middle Ages and subsequent eras, all the way to the Industrial Age.

Another representative of the arts makes his way slowly through the crowd. He is an actor who is talking with an impresario lying languidly on a litter. Actors are looked down on in Roman society; they’re barely one step up from prostitutes. But this actor is an exception; even the impresario has stopped his litter in order to listen to him. The actor’s name is Numerius Quinctius and he is extremely popular, a sort of George Clooney of the age. From his name we understand that he is a freed slave of the important Quincti family. Both he and his wife are freed slaves; her name is, naturally, Primilla Quinctia: it is a Roman tradition that freed slaves take the surname of their former masters.

All these men and women, from Primus the postman to the actor and his wife, lived during the era of Trajan, as we know from writings on daily life by Martial and others and from the testimony of tombstones. The same is true for the person that Hilarus hears talking behind him. He turns around and sees two men sitting in a popina. They are old friends:

Julius, you’re the dearest of all my friends, if promises made, if old oaths sworn long ago still have value, your sixtieth year is approaching, the days you have left to live are not many. You’re wrong to put off what perhaps one day will be denied you: your past is all that belongs to you. What awaits you is a chain of pain and fatigue. All joys are fleeting, they don’t stay with you. Hold on to them, the joys, with your hands, both of them, and even when they are held so tight they can often fall from your heart. Believe me, the wise man does not say: “I shall live.” To live tomorrow is to live too late: you must live today.…

Hilarus smiles. In this city of so many opportunities, a similar philosophy of life guides the behavior of hundreds of thousands of people. In the age of Trajan it is the mentality of the majority of Romans throughout the empire. We will have occasion to come back to this idea: for the Romans, today is everything. After death there is nothing more.

Heading Down an Alleyway

Hilarus resumes his walking. When he comes to a big statue of Mater Matuta, the goddess of the morning, whose gaze dominates the street, he turns down a narrow alleyway. All of a sudden the sunlight vanishes, and it’s cooler. Indeed, the light doesn’t penetrate here and it seems to Hilarus that the houses are going to crush him any minute now; they’re so close together. Often the backstreets of Rome are not straight, and this one is no exception. It bends right and then left, according to the way the buildings are fitted together.

The pavement is packed earth, with rivulets of foul-smelling water. At times the stench is so strong it’s unbearable, especially when he passes a pile of accumulated garbage, which forces him to hold his nose. Hilarus encounters small groups of people or lone men and women from all levels of society. Although the street itself is shabby, it is part of the daily route of poor people, rich people, and slaves. To be sure, a litter would have a tough time getting through here, if for no other reason than the assault on the master’s nostrils. This too is Rome.

The alleyway opens onto a street. Finally! It’s a bit wider, with shops lined up on either side. The air is breathable, and Hilarus is hit by the pleasant smell of grilled fish. There’s a nice aroma, coming from above. He stops and looks up: some white smoke is wafting upward from a second-floor window. Higher up, beyond the smoke, is an impressive scene. The insulae are really tall buildings. Between one building and the next there are networks of cables and ropes, many of them hung with tunics and various items of clothing put out to dry by Roman housekeepers.

He looks intently at the walls of the buildings. The lower parts are made of solid brick, but the higher the floor, the shoddier the material, as revealed by the plaster facing, also of very poor quality, that has peeled, flaked, and fallen off over the years. Like a drawing in an anatomy book, the skin covering the body of the buildings has been removed, revealing its skeleton and muscles. Above the bricks, the walls are made of a shoddy clay-based paste applied to a grid of thatched branches and crushed stone. You can see the wood beams very clearly, making evident the dimensions of the various floors and rooms. It’s as though we were looking at the medieval houses of Normandy, with their skeleton of beams on which the hammer blows of the carpenters are still visible.

The windows have no glass panes—too costly. They open and close with wooden shutters, like the doors on a cabinet. In a lot of cases you can see what look like closets hanging on the outside walls of the house. Actually, these are small covered balconies (a classic violation of the building code, we’d call it today), which make it possible to enlarge a miniscule apartment by adding on a small block of airspace. This is where the braziers used for cooking are installed, with windows or grates for ventilation. Other, smaller closets, elegantly decorated, are used as masks to protect windows. In this way, the inhabitants can look out at the street without being seen.

These buildings are not all the same. Some are lower, while others thrust upward, thanks to little superstructures like towers, or extra stories built in different periods. These upper “frontiers” of housing aren’t made of brick or clay, but of tile and wood. The walls are topped by overhanging cornices, with a long series of little clay vaults between one flat tile and the next. This is the realm of the poorest of the poor. When seen from below, Rome is a series of superimposed cities, every level stratified with different materials, different people, and different mentalities. The rich live on the lowest level and as you go up the poverty rises. It’s like putting together in the same building the life of ease of a wealthy neighborhood and the misery of the poorest slum.

Shopping on the Backstreets of Ancient Rome

Hilarus continues his walk down the street, passing by a series of stores and shops stocked with all kinds of goods. There is an endless line of them. How to find the perfume shop? There are so many people that stopping each time to see what’s on display is a chore. It’s like being in a Middle Eastern souk. So he does exactly what we do when we’re in a hurry—he looks at the signs.

Indeed, every shop has its own sign. They are smaller than ours today, about the size of a suitcase, and usually they are fixed on the wall above the entrance, but many are hung like flags, pointing out into the street so they can be seen by people approaching from either end. These signs are made of wood, marble, or terra-cotta panels. They are almost always carved in relief, and, in the absence of neon lighting, they are painted in gaudy colors.

Hilarus reviews the signs on the various shops. Here we have five pigs’ legs all in a row, identical to our cured hams. Evidently it’s a butcher shop.

Next to it, a sign with a goat. Here they sell dairy products: cheeses and milk. On the walls you can see little hanging baskets with ricotta cheeses wrapped in fig leaves.

A little farther on, three straw-bottom amphoras indicate a winery.

And then there’s a sign for a tavern, at the intersection with a side street: you can read the menu on display, just like today in the restaurants of historic city centers. The sign reads: ABEMUS IN CENA: PULLUM, PISCEM, PERNAM, PAONEM, BENATORES (“For dinner we have: chicken, fish, ham, peacock, game”). Well, if there’s peacock on the menu it’s a very refined cuisine. The owner has also added a symbol of warm hospitality: a heart.

Beyond the tavern is a fabric shop. Hilarus can see some cushions hanging from one corner and prized fabrics hanging like towels from bronze rods attached to the ceiling. A man is examining a set of samples in the hands of the proprietor while his wife is sitting on a bench waiting.

Then he comes to the shop of a jeweler with glass paste necklaces and an assortment of rings. The proprietor is talking with a customer about the price of a nice gold bracelet in the form of a snake. There are other jewelry shops nearby; evidently they’re grouped together for security reasons.

After passing some other stores, he comes to a wine shop with the proprietor sitting at the counter and a lot of amphoras lined up behind him. But the counter is unusual: it’s so high it almost seems like a balcony. His curiosity piqued, Hilarus stops to take a look. He’s never seen wine sold this way. The proprietor is a wine distributor. A customer goes up to the counter carrying his own amphora, asks for a certain type of wine, and pays in advance. Then he puts the open amphora in a niche and holds it upright with his hands. The proprietor pours the desired wine into a funnel-shaped sink that is built into the niche. This way the customer gets a quick fill-up and goes on his way. There are at least three pairs of niches, perhaps for different wines.

In a nearby shop a butcher is pounding a piece of meat with powerful cutting blows. In our time, butchers prepare different cuts of meat on a countertop, but this one sets the pieces to be cut on a sort of strange stool, made from a wood log supported by three legs. In some countries, such as Egypt, it’s possible to see the same scene today, as if time has stood still. All around the butcher, the quartered pieces and some accompanying flies are hanging from hooks and nails. His wife is sitting in the back of the shop, with her hair rolled up in a triple turn of false braids to create a chignon. Her elegance and serenity are striking compared to the violence of her husband. But actually her job is much different than his; she’s in charge of the bookkeeping and she’s checking the credits and debits in the book of accounts.

Finally, Hilarus spies the perfumer’s shop. On the sign we read his name: Sextus Aparronius Justinus. And as soon as Hilarus steps inside the doorway he is overwhelmed by sweet fragrances. The perfumer comes over to him with a smile: “May I help you?”

Rome, Already a City of the Arts in the Age of Empire

Hilarus had to sniff a lot of terra-cotta jars before he found the right fragrance for his sister. He got a few extra jars of it; not too many, because in this era perfumes don’t last very long and their scent decays rapidly.

As you might imagine, there were some women in the shop; some men came in, too, to purchase some personal items. If you think cosmetics use by men is a modern trend, you’re mistaken. Back in the Roman era lots of men were in the habit of anointing themselves with perfumes and creams. And it wasn’t unusual for a man’s toilette to last quite a long time. Professor Romolo Augusto Staccioli has observed that many men “competed with one another in showing off their use of the most extravagant fragrances and spent hours in the barber shop having themselves perfumed.” He goes on to inform us that at banquets and in public places, such as at the circus or the amphitheater, there was a generous distribution of scented substances, sometimes even sprayed on the seats, to cover the smell of blood and death coming from the arena where gladiators, condemned criminals, and animals had been killed.

When Hilarus paid for the perfume, our sestertius changed hands once again. But it didn’t remain in the shop of the perfumer Sextus Aparronius Justinus for very long. Shortly after Hilarus’s exit an elegant, wealthy Roman comes in, his affluence transmitted by his stature and appearance: tall, robust, white hair, black eyebrows, blue eyes, and a forthright, confident gaze. His prominent, aquiline nose accentuates the nobility of his countenance. He is accompanied by his slaves and clientes, or people who have come to ask for favors. He receives many requests a day; he is a prominent citizen.

He thanks the perfumer for his purchase and, looking at our sestertius, which he has been given as change, reveals to us his philosophy of life: homo sine pecunia est imago mortis—a man without money is the image of death. It is a phrase that is frighteningly real in Roman society, where the only thing that counts is social status and people are judged according to the rank their wealth has allowed them to attain.

Then, with the same elegance with which he entered, he picks up his perfume in its dove-shaped glass container, makes his way out the door with his retinue of slaves and “clients,” and climbs into his litter. Direction: the Portico of Octavia, where he is going to meet his wife and surprise her with a gift of perfume.

The Portico of Octavia is an isolated place, removed from the crowded streets, an ideal place to go for a peaceful stroll. With its many bronze Greek statues, it’s a veritable museum. Incidentally, by Trajan’s time ancient Rome is already a center of art, with its own museums and many dedicated visitors.

This is but one of the many faces of Rome. At the time it would have been considered the ancient counterpart of New York for its tall buildings, Amsterdam for its red-light districts, Calcutta for its neighborhoods of destitute poor, Rio de Janeiro for its festivals and enormous stadiums (the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, equivalents of the Maracanã), but also Paris for its great museums. No city today brings together all of these characteristics.

To be sure, it might seem odd to think of ancient Rome as a center of the arts. What objects of ancient art can be put on display in a place that is itself part of the ancient world?

First and foremost, the art of Greece.

Initially, Rome was a “cold” city, with no artistic masterpieces to speak of. Everything changed with the onset of expansion and the wars of conquest, especially the Punic Wars. As underlined by Lionel Casson, after the conquest of Syracuse a lot of Greek statues and paintings were taken to Rome by General Marcellus and distributed in various points of the city. It was like opening a dam. For the next 150 years, as Rome expanded its empire to the territories of Greece and what is now Turkey, large numbers of masterpieces of every kind were brought to the city: hundreds of bronze statues at a time, works of the greatest sculptors of the past.

On the occasion of the conquest of the Greek city of Ambracia, for example, 285 bronze statues and more than 230 marble ones were brought to Rome. After his victory over King Perseus, Aemilius Paulus brought back so many masterpieces that his victory parade lasted an entire day. Then came Corinth.

Picture these Greek cities with their shrines and temples totally plundered. Witnesses from the time spoke of empty foundations, with holes where statues had once been anchored to the floor. Throughout the course of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance that was the price of defeat. Everyone knew it.

Today we would call it looting. To this day many countries are still confronting the issues of these spoils of war. How does a country decide to give back what by now has become part of its own cultural heritage? Italy has been very sensible in this regard. It has returned the immense obelisk of Axum to Ethiopia, a fragment of the friezes of the Parthenon to Greece, and even a Roman (!) statue of Venus to Libya, to cite just a few of the examples that have made the news. This is an approach that we hope will continue to be adopted around the world as a remedy for the plundering, thefts and “illegitimate appropriations” of the past.

The City’s Museums

Two thousand years ago these concepts were unknown. An enormous number of ships, therefore, had transported to Rome a true treasure trove of art, plundering the Greek world. Sea voyages were highly risky in those times, and storms at sea constituted a sort of “anti-seacraft” battery that sunk many of the transport ships. The statues that sometimes re-emerge today from the bottom of the Mediterranean, like the Riace bronzes, for example, are often from the classical period. And who knows how many more are still down there, buried under a layer of fine sand or at a depth too deep to be salvaged. We trust that future archaeological techniques will be able to identify them, recover them, and bring them to museums where they can be admired.

In the Roman era these works were displayed in temples and public places, but during the republic there was a kind of mania among wealthy Romans for collecting art works in their private homes. The villas of powerful families had special rooms and spaces used exclusively for the display of paintings and statues—true private museums.

We know that Cicero was one of these collectors. And Verres, the governor of Sicily whom Cicero took to court for his opprobrious thefts (winning the case), was capable of obtaining works of art through extortion (like the famous Eros of Thespiea by Praxiteles, separated from its owner for a paltry sum) or by confiscating them or, even worse, by paying hoodlums to steal them.

With the advent of the empire things changed. Greek art was returned to public places thanks to Julius Caesar and Augustus, who inspired all the subsequent empires to do the same over the next two hundred years. Rome became an open-air museum.

The most famous pieces on display were masterworks by Praxiteles, Polyclitus, Lysippus, Myron, Apelles, Zeuxis, and Scopas. They would have been admired in the main “museums” of the city, actually places where people gathered for a variety of reasons: for the pleasure of taking a stroll, as in the Portico of Octavia (where they could admire Praxiteles’ Eros of Thespiae or the twenty-five bronze statues by Lysippus of Alexander’s Squadron), or for sporting events, as at the Circus Maximus (where one could view Myron’s Hercules). Those who attended religious rituals might find themselves in the company of great masterpieces: the famous paintings of Apelles, for example, were in the Temple of Diana and the Temple of Divine Julius (Caesar). Even people who went to the baths passed by immortal works such as the statue of Apoxyomenos by Lysippus at the baths of Agrippa. Finally, lots of other artworks were conserved on the Capitoline (Praxiteles’ Kairos and Tyche, and Lysippus’s Hercules, etc.)

This brief list, which does not include theaters and other gathering places, shows us that Rome was not just the administrative, economic, and military capital of the empire, but that it had also become the world capital of art. It is saddening to think of how many of its masterpieces would be destroyed over the years by natural disasters, like the big fire that occurred during Nero’s reign, or because of the simple need to recycle the bronze for other purposes, as happened during the Middle Ages.

Rome was not only home to art museums; there were also objects and collections on view that could be defined as archaeological-historical and naturalistic. We could admire the sword of Julius Caesar in the Temple of Mars Ultor (later stolen, as often happens in many modern museums). In the Temple of Jupiter, we could see the dagger that killed Nero, and in another temple, the skin of a huge snake killed by legionnaires in proconsular Africa (Tunisia) during the first Punic War. Moving on to the Capitoline Hill, we could admire a spectacular block of crystal weighing a hundred pounds.

These collections alone (to which we could add others of jewelry and precious stones—Caesar alone had six different collections put on display in the Temple of Venus Genetrix) allow us to see that the Romans took pleasure in nurturing the mind with culture, something that is often overlooked when we restrict our view of ancient Rome to the pleasures of banquets and the killing of gladiators in the Colosseum.

Looking for Love in Ancient Rome

Rome—just like any other city, ancient or modern—has its public face, made up of monuments, temples and shrines, and landmarks. But what of the private lives that unfold all around them? All of the locations we are visiting also have a place, naturally, in a different sort of geography of the city; for example, the geography of courtship. The walls and silent blueprints of the buildings discovered by archaeologists in Rome can’t tell us the best place in ancient Rome to look at the sunset, or where to go to meet eligible women or men. The Latin poets, on the other hand, are good sources for that kind of thing. Especially Ovid, who in his Ars Amatoria points out the best places to go looking for love!

According to him, the capital of the empire is full of beautiful women.

Your Rome’s as many girls as Gargara’s sheaves,

as Methymna’s grapes, as fishes in the sea,

as birds in the hidden branches, stars in the sky:

Venus, Aeneas’s mother, haunts his city …

If it’s young girls you want, thousands will please you.

You’ll be forced to be unsure of your desires:

if you delight greatly in older wiser years,

here too, believe me, there’s an even greater crowd.

Ovid’s encouraging words seem to indicate a certain availability of Roman women, especially mature ones. We’ll never know for sure how much any of this corresponds to reality. But the striking thing is the precision of his “geographical” advice. Ovid suggests, in fact, to go searching under the Portico of Pompey, and also under those of Livia and Apollo, where works of art could be found. Art and quiet are much loved by women in a chaotic city like Rome. Caesar’s Forum, next to the Temple of Venus, near the fountain, is another perfect place, to hear Ovid tell it. To this list he also adds a temple of an Egyptian cult, the Temple of Isis. Why? According to Ovid, because it was frequented by women who went there above all to pray for fertility. Quite a cynical choice for a Latin lover …

And then there’s the theater. The poet considers the theaters true “hunting preserves” for prowling swain.

But hunt for them, especially, at the tiered theatre:

that place is the most fruitful for your needs.

There you’ll find one to love, or one you can play with,

one to be with just once, or one you might wish to keep.

Ovid could certainly never be accused of feminism; nor could most of society in the ancient world. In Ovid’s view, women went to the theater in large numbers, theaters being one of the social spaces in ancient Rome. He claims that they certainly went there to view performances but also to be looked at.

As ants return home often in long processions,

carrying their favorite food in their mouths …

so our fashionable ladies crowd to the famous shows:

my choice is often constrained by such richness.

They come to see, they come to be seen as well:

the place is fatal to chaste modesty.

But the circus, where one goes for chariot races, is perhaps the place that offers the most opportunities for finding romance, because there’s a crowd, there’s confusion, you don’t have to transmit messages back and forth with your eyes as at the theater. You can even sit right next to a woman or man, and things are much more direct.

At this point, Ovid gives a series of suggestions on how to land a woman at the Circus Maximus. Today we may laugh at their artifice, but they are valuable and interesting because they describe for us the concerns and habits of people in a bygone world. Here is a brief list compiled from his work.

•  Take advantage of the most highly promoted races, with the most famous horses. The Circus is jammed and this offers a series of advantages and opportunities. And there’s no need to rely on nods or secret hand signals.

•  It’s essential to be quick to sit next to the woman you want to court.

•  Sit as close to her as possible, taking advantage of the narrow seats, and try to make physical contact; it helps the approach.

•  Find an excuse to start up a conversation (the words of the arena’s announcer always provide some excellent prompts).

•  Figure out which stable or horse the girl is rooting for so you can second her and rejoice with her.

•  Be a very attentive cavalier: plump up her cushion, cool her with makeshift fans when it’s hot, procure a wooden stool to put under her feet, or be careful that the person sitting behind her doesn’t press their knees against her back.

•  Find a thousand excuses to manage to caress her or touch her in some way. For example, use your fingers to shake the lap of her dress to remove any dust (real or imagined) raised by the chariots.

•  With the excuse of not wanting to dirty the edge of her tunic or let her mantle drag on the ground, lift up one side of it. If the girl doesn’t object you’ll have a chance to look at her legs!

In other words, any excuse will do, or, as Ovid himself points out, “the little things are all it takes to win over light hearts.”

Naturally, we’ll take it upon ourselves to add, courtship works only when the other party wants to be courted: the man merely appears to be the hunter; in reality it’s the woman who lets herself be captured and who captures in turn.

Free Bread for (Just About) Everybody

Our coin has changed hands. Now it’s in the purse of a man, one of the clientes of the dominus. He received it as a sportula, a donation from his powerful lord. The dominus hands something out, whether food or money, to his clientes every morning.

Let’s follow this man on the streets of Rome. He looks to be about twenty-five. His name is Marcus; we hear a barber call him by that name as he passes the shop.

Now he’s walking along the wall on the side of the Balbus Theater. Of the three large theaters in Rome, this is the smallest, with a capacity of 7,700 people. But for the Romans it’s a little jewel because it’s the most beautifully decorated. Everyone will tell you about, for example, the six little columns of onyx, black and shiny, that can be seen on the inside, true masterpieces of nature. And of sculpture, given the fragility of the stone.

But this man is not the least bit interested in the theater; he keeps on walking at a fast pace. We notice that he’s carrying an empty sack in one hand. What is it for? And where is he going? Let’s try to find out.

On the corner at the end of the street, a beggar sprawled on the ground raises his hand as Marcus passes. The beggar hasn’t chosen that spot by chance. He had to fight to get it because it’s a strategic point for begging. Actually, we hadn’t noticed until now, but the street is lined with beggars, sitting on the ground and leaning against the walls. Desperate people, some of them seem to be nothing more than a pile of rags. Among them are women with small children. Their faces are dirty and their cheeks hollow. These people are hungry. But the man doesn’t even deign to look at them. There are always so many of them when he comes here; he can’t help all of them.

Having gone through the entrance, he comes into a large square, where a small crowd has gathered. There must be more than a hundred people, all of them carrying a sack like his. They’re all lined up single file, as if they are outside the box office for some big event. Indeed, the head of the line is under the portico of a large building. We don’t know what’s inside.

Our man gets in line too. We try to figure out who the people are in front of him. But they’re all so different; they don’t seem to have anything in common, apart from the empty sack. There are old men and young men, blond and dark-haired, curly-haired and straight, skinny and fat … a real sample of the male inhabitants of Rome. All right, they do have something in common—they are all men. So perhaps this has to do with some administrative procedure from which women are excluded. Many of the men are holding cards made out of wood or lead.

Let’s review what we’ve seen: an empty sack, everyone in line, a card, and a lot of diverse men outside.… That’s it: this must be the place where the free distribution of grain is held, the so-called frumentatio! Indeed, not much time passes before we see an old man coming down the stairs with some difficulty, carrying a full sack, with the help of his nephew. Every so often some grains spill out of a hole in the cloth, unleashing a furious fight among the poor as soon as the two men emerge onto the street.

How to Satisfy (Just About) Everybody’s Needs

This is one of Rome’s many surprises. Every month there is a free distribution of about five modii of grain, seventy-five to eighty pounds (a modius is about fifteen to sixteen pounds). But not everyone has the right to receive the dole. One has to be listed on the official registry of recipients, which excludes women and children. The requirements are simple: you have to be a citizen of Rome residing in Rome. At that point you are part of the accipientes, the beneficiaries of these free distributions. You get a card made of wood or lead on which are inscribed not only your name but also the number of the arch where the grain will be distributed and the established day. It’s an effective system for dividing up the army of people, 200,000 strong, who have a right to these free distributions. Every day, in fact, 150 men show up in front of each arch.

These numbers make your head spin, and they require an extraordinarily efficient administrative and organizational structure. This structure is the annona, or food administration board, which guarantees the citizens of Rome the satisfaction of one of their primary needs: their daily supply of bread. At its head is a prefect (praefectus annonae) who supervises the whole operation: he is a proper minister of grain. It’s not an easy job. He not only has to distribute the grain, he first has to procure it from throughout the empire, organize its shipment to Rome, and store it in special warehouses from which it will be distributed.

This is how it all started, in the early centuries of the republic. The grain was supplied by the regions near Rome and shipped to the city. In the beginning the distributions were not free, but, a little like what happens today with oil, there were strategic reserves set up in the city to be used in case of famine or to lower the retail price of bread whenever it got too high.

At first, the grain was sold at a subsidized price, much lower than the market price, and finally in 58 BC, with the approval of the Lex Claudia Frumentaria, it was decided that grain would be distributed for free to all citizens of Rome (especially to the less well-off), except for members of the Senate who, being for the most part big landowners, certainly didn’t need it, and the members of the equestrian order, the very wealthy entrepreneurs of the time. This meant that each year Rome distributed grain to three hundred thousand people (later reduced to two hundred thousand).

The line of people moves forward, albeit slowly. The men of the annona are very well-organized. In the meantime the men in line chat, laugh, or try to mooch a free dinner (this is one of the preferred activities on the streets of Rome). We instead make a few calculations, which lead us to ask a question. If the number of people fed is two hundred thousand, that amounts to eighty-four thousand tons of grain per year. Where do they come by all that grain? On our way here, coming down the Tiber, we didn’t notice any immense fields of grain around Rome. Or in the rest of Italy.

The “Oil Wells” of the Roman Empire

The answer is simple: they bring it in from the areas of the empire that produce it in large quantities, such as Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, North Africa, and above all, Egypt. Together these areas manage to provide much more grain than required, up to two hundred thousand tons per year.

In particular, North Africa and Egypt are the breadbaskets of the empire. The historian Flavius Josephus, who lived in the age of Trajan, claimed that Africa alone (that is, present-day Tunisia) would have been able to feed Rome for eight months if necessary, and Egypt four. Taken together, in other words, they could satisfy Rome’s grain demand for an entire year. And this helps us understand their strategic importance for Rome.

They are, in effect, Rome’s “Saudi Arabia.” In the absence of industrial technologies and machines, bread is the indispensable fuel that powered the minds and muscles of the empire, from administrators to artisans to soldiers. (Interestingly, a loaf of bread in the days of the empire provided up to twice the calories of our modern equivalents.)

To continue with the oil analogy, the Roman era, like today, had its “tankers”: large ships for the transport of grain that set sail on the Mediterranean as soon as weather conditions permitted. (Because of the threat of storms at sea, navigation was interrupted every year from November to the beginning of March.)

When, with the onset of spring, the sails of these big ships appear on the horizon, the news travels immediately to Rome and spreads among its inhabitants, who burst into celebration. With year-round access to fresh food in our supermarkets, it’s hard for us to fully appreciate this aspect of Roman life.

And the Roman era also has its “supertankers”: they are immense ships, supersized for antiquity, with a capacity to transport enormous quantities of grain. We may meet up with some of them during our journey through the empire. They are so huge that when they get to Italy they can’t tie up at the docks; they have to anchor offshore and transship their precious cargo onto smaller vessels.

The sacks of grain arrive first at the port of Trajan, next to Ostia, then travel up the Tiber against the current, on ships suited to fluvial navigation (naves caudicariae), pulled by bulls or slaves. These boats carry the grain to a series of docks, right under the Aventine, where the grain is unloaded and stored in gigantic warehouses (horrea), some of which are several stories tall. Inside them are stored all the foodstuffs, not only grain, to be distributed to the populace. Everything is overseen with great care by thehorreari.

But how do the Romans convince the provinces to “give” two hundred thousand tons of grain each year to the inhabitants of Rome? Simple: this is one of the taxes that the provinces have to pay. And they pay it in goods rather than money. They are direct taxes generally or rents for public or imperial agricultural land.

The interesting fact, as revealed by Professor Elio Lo Cascio of Frederick II University in Naples, is that this is the way a considerable part of the city’s population is fed (not everyone: slaves, freed slaves, and foreigners are excluded). When all is said and done, the system satisfies the basic needs of a head of family and, perhaps, another family member (his wife or a child), allowing them to use their own money to purchase other necessary items or more food. In this way, one of the wheels of the economy is kept turning. And it’s not a small wheel, seeing that Rome is the biggest city in the empire and in all of antiquity.

So now it’s finally our turn. Marcus shows his card to an employee of the annona, sitting at a table. The atmosphere is very relaxed. As he’s copying down the information he chats with his colleagues who are distributing the grain, telling them about his brother-in-law’s faux pas last night at dinner. Everybody laughs. But when it comes time to actually hand over the grain, silence fills the room, and the man in charge of the delivery measures out with precision the modii to be supplied. The modius is a wood or iron bucket that hold about fifteen or sixteen pounds of grain. To guarantee that nobody in the administration cheats by using buckets that are just a little smaller, the bucket has an iron cross on the top. Anyone who wants to can measure the arms of the cross and verify that the bucket is the right size.

There is something almost artistic about this ritual. Every time the slave pours the grain into the modius, right up to the brim. Naturally, a small mound is created that the man in charge has to level off, removing the excess grain with a sort of T-shaped shovel, called a rutellum. His rotating movements recall those of a pastry chef spreading the icing on the cake or perhaps the moves of someone making a crêpe, spreading the batter on the hot griddle.

In just a few minutes Marcus’s sack is full and he is on his way, saying farewell to everyone. For this month his bread is guaranteed.

The Praetorian

The next morning, Marcus enters a shop; he needs a new tunic and is trying some on for size. They look like so many T-shirts that go down to his knees. They are produced in a series of workshops where workers and slaves are employed—somewhere between the shop of a real craftsman and a semi-industrial factory. Marcus tries several of them with the help of the shop owner, always willing to adjust the fabric where it bulges. He chooses a simple one, without colored strips or decorations, similar to the clothes worn by most of the inhabitants of Rome. It’s made of raw flax and when he pulls it over his head he can feel it scratching his skin. It will take a while for it to soften. He pays 15 sesterces for it (about $40) and leaves, heading down the street illuminated by a beam of morning sun. Our sestertius has changed hands again. Now it’s deep in the darkness of the shop’s cash box, mixed in with a lot of other coins, each with its own history, each with a lot of stories and curiosities to be told that nobody will ever know.

It’s not long, however, before our sestertius is back on its journey, thanks to another customer who has come to purchase some subligaria, Roman underwear that look like soft loincloths that loop around the waist and pass between the legs.

The next morning, the sestertius is in the hand of its new owner, who is turning it nervously. The man’s name is Caius Proculeius Rufus. His family hails from Spain, from Asturica Augusta (present-day Astorga), to be exact. Having finished a training period, he is about to start his new job. He’s dressed like a soldier, but he is not a legionnaire who will be sent to defend the far-flung corners of the empire. On the contrary, he is part of the corps that must defend its heart. He is a praetorian. And today is his first day of service in the emperor’s palace, on the Palatine.

The praetorians are not universally loved, and certainly not by their comrades-in-arms the legionnaires, who guard the frontiers. The reason is simple. They do not serve in some forgotten backwater of the empire, but in the world’s liveliest and most entertaining city, Rome. They do not risk getting killed every day by some raving barbarian. They don’t suffer the cold, in a foreign land, far from home. Yet their salaries are higher than those of the legionnaires (who receive barely 100 sesterces per month, around $225). Their period of service is shorter (sixteen years rather than twenty-five), they get greater benefits on leaving the service, have more opportunities for promotion, and if a new emperor comes to power (and has to ingratiate himself with this “elite personal guard”) they receive attractive cash bonuses. There is plenty of reason for their battle-scarred colleagues to look upon the praetorians with disdain and jealousy, if not downright hatred. And the same goes for the populace, which does not love them, even if they respect them for their power. In reality, the praetorians are very powerful on the political level, first and foremost because they are often involved in the intrigues that accompany an emperor’s fall from power or his successor’s rise to the throne.

This doesn’t mean that they are never involved in combat. When the emperor goes on a campaign, the praetorians go with him. But not all of them. Of the ten cohorts stationed in Rome, a small portion stays behind to guard the imperial palaces and properties. Our new praetorian belongs to this last group.

The man reported for duty at dawn and his colleagues made him wait in a small service room, at the guard post, where he is pacing back and forth nervously. He has to wait for the change of shift before he can go in. The rules here are followed to the letter.

He hears some approaching footsteps. The door opens and, standing tall against the sunlight, a praetorian in full uniform presents himself. He is our man’s direct superior. This praetorian has just commanded the change of the guard and his sparkling helmet, with gold decorations and a mane of bright white ostrich feathers, make him seem even taller. Actually, the praetorians resemble modern Italy’s cuirassiers—the elite guard of the President of the Republic: tall, with a uniform that is strikingly elegant. Their colors are as pure as the driven snow: their tunics are white, not red like those of the legionnaires, and so is their subarmalis vestis—those large, flat dangling strips that form a kind of skirt on the statues of Roman condottieri. Actually, they are the end pieces of a short-sleeved, padded, leather battle vest to be worn under their armor, which sticks out at the bottom with that skirt. The padding protects the praetorians’ bodies from being chafed by the metal of their armor, and the vest blunts the effects of blows received in battle.

In short, the praetorians’ white uniform symbolizes purity. Naturally the weapons they use are old favorites: a gladius, a dagger, a lance, and a shield emblazoned with their symbol, a scorpion. Why the scorpion? Given their reputation for courtly intrigue, the choice of a poisonous animal seems ill-advised. In reality, it is meant to recall the important reorganization of the praetorian guard implemented by Tiberius, in the month of June, under the constellation of Scorpio.

After the obligatory formal presentations, the superior removes all his parade armor, hangs it in a cabinet in the guard post, and accompanies the freshly enlisted recruit on his first tour of the emperor’s palace.

Thanks to this new keeper of the sestertius we are now able to explore the palace of the Roman emperors. It really is the place where the most powerful men of antiquity lived and reigned: the Roman-era equivalent of the White House. As we follow them, we wonder about the place where the palace is located: why of all the hills of Rome did they choose to put it on the Palatine?

The Palatine, Where It All Started

The Palatine is certainly one of the most important hills in the history of Rome. We’ve all heard of it. Why is it so important?

According to the legend, Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf in a cave right here on the Palatine. And it was also on this hill that Romulus is said to have founded Rome in 753 BCE, subsequently killing Remus. But apart from the legend, one fact is certain. Archaeologists have discovered holes that were dug here for the poles that supported some incredibly ancient cabins. The Palatine has been inhabited from as early as the eighth century BCE. Certainly not by Romulus and Remus, but by people of the Iron Age.

They chose to live on this hill because from the top (and from the top of the nearby Aventine Hill) they could dominate the only traversable point of the Tiber, a ford near Tiber Island. A strategic position, therefore, for the economy as well. The first market areas of Rome, as we have seen, grew up at the foot of the Palatine and Capitoline Hills: the Boarian Forum for livestock and the Olitorian Forum for vegetables.

So the Romans were not wrong to imagine that the place where Rome was founded, the place where their power originated, was on the Palatine Hill. But they imagined it in a mythical way. Before Romulus and Remus, as the story goes, the hill was inhabited by some Greeks who were supposed to have met Hercules and, later, Aeneas. On this hill, then, as chance would have it, were the most noble ingredients for the birth of Rome.

When the city began to grow, the hill was home to the people who mattered—the patrician families, the senators. They had sumptuous houses with mosaics, frescoes, colonnades, and internal gardens. Almost all of the most famous inhabitants of Rome lived here, from Cicero to Catullus to Marc Antony, and many, many others.

And one day, here on this hill, the future Augustus was born. When he became an adult he decided to live here. It’s incredible, but two thousand years later the house of Augustus and that of his wife, Livia, adjacent to it, are still visible and open to the public. Inside, you can still see the frescoes with their vivid colors—fiery reds, deep blues, and bright greens. It is astonishing to think about all the times Augustus must have gazed with his own eyes at these very same frescoes, absorbed in who knows what thoughts.

And you can still see his “cubicle,” a small room with painstakingly restored pictures and decorations. This is where Augustus meditated, wrote, and relaxed. Its simplicity surprises us: the most powerful man in the empire did not surround himself with luxury. His simplicity was certainly a lesson for everyone in the Roman era.

But Augustus’s successors were not equally modest. Over the span of a century the Palatine changed its face radically, to the point that it became one gigantic, grandiose royal palace that was home to a long series of emperors.

Still today, if you walk up the side of the Roman Forum, leaving behind you the throngs of tourists, you find yourself suddenly immersed in the silence of the greenery among the imposing ruins of the emperors’ palaces. It’s lovely to sit here and read, or simply to stop and think. You are sitting in one of the central places of history. This is the birthplace of our way of thinking, of living; the birthplace of our modern world.

The Palace of the Roman Emperors

The two praetorians are standing in front of a huge building, full of multicolored marble, columns, and statues. It’s about the size of a cathedral. Yet it’s only the beginning of the imperial palace.

This extraordinary structure was built by the emperor Domitian toward the end of the first century CE (Tiberius had already begun construction but on a smaller project). Domitian’s architect, Rabirius, came up with a winning idea: divide the palace in two: a public area, where the emperor worked, and a private area, where he lived and rested. Both parts, obviously, were overflowing with luxury.

For our visit we’ll follow the two soldiers who have just slipped under a colonnade. The first stop is a praetorian guard post, a room identified today as the larario (a room dedicated to the cult of the household divinities, the lari), but actually a sort of small barracks whose back wall is covered with lances and swords ready for use. It’s a completely furnished armory. This is the room that controls the entrance to the palace.

The two soldiers each put on a toga. It’s obligatory attire in the palace, just like a jacket and tie are worn in the presidential palace, the Senate, or the Parliament today. Then the superior opens a door and invites the new recruit to enter first. He does it with a smile because he knows the effect it will have on the young soldier, just twenty years old. The youngster goes through the doorway and is struck dumb. He’s just entered the Royal Hall, the great throne room where the emperor holds audiences. His gaze wanders through the expanse of the awesome space, the same sensation we might feel today on entering Saint Peter’s Basilica for the first time. It’s a breathtakingly tall space, all lined with precious marble.

To the side, all around him, the young praetorian runs his eyes up and down a beautiful series of columns faced with pavonazzetto marble (characterized by irregular veins of dark red, with blue and yellow tints), and walls covered with polychrome marbles. All around are niches with statues in black basalt. He immediately recognizes two of the figures, Hercules and Apollo (they will be rediscovered in the eighteenth century and are now on display in the Museum of Archaeology in Parma). It is a solemn space, emitting a breathtaking grandiosity. Instinctively, the young man lifts his gaze upward. A second series of columns runs all around the perimeter with arches faced in multicolored marble panels. And higher still is a series of large windows through which wide beams of sunlight stream silently down to rest on the pavement.

The ceiling, which is probably more than seventy feet high, is coffered and supported by an orderly forest of trusses. From down here on the floor it’s hard to tell, but it seems to be made of gilded wood and it is an amazing masterwork, sculpted by the most skilled artisans of the age.

The lad moves further into the room. He is stunned. This room is nearly 130 feet long and almost 100 feet wide. Now he’s looking down at the floor: it is a huge checkerboard made of marble squares, as big as dining-room tables, each of which has a green or pink disc in the center, or a square of red marble. It seems almost like the formation of a legion made of marble.

The young praetorian has come to a halt on an island of light created by one of the windows. His body seems to be wrapped in a luminous aura that stands out against the semidarkness of the niches all around him. In front of him is a semicircular apse with a marble platform. On the top sits the throne of Emperor Trajan. So here is where the most powerful man in the world sits and commands. It is here that he dispenses justice. The young man is petrified.

The throne has not been used for a while because Trajan is far away from here, busy with the wars against the Parthians, Rome’s Asiatic enemies. But when he is in Rome it is in this very room that he holds his audiences and meets with ambassadors. If Rome is the heart of the empire, this is the heart of Rome, and therefore of everything. Chills run down our spines when we think of how much history has taken place here, how many decisions were made right here. Decisions that are now the subject matter of our history books.

This great hall is not only an architectural masterpiece; it is an instrument of politics. It was made to look like this so as to transmit, on first glance, the power and wealth of the empire. For almost three hundred years, awestruck by the dimensions and the sumptuousness of the spaces, foreign delegations will be received here by emperors. The two soldiers continue on their tour.

A door opens and a large courtyard appears, surrounded by columns of antique yellow marble. A large square pool nearly fills the entire surface area of the courtyard. In the center of it a fountain gushes and all around it there emerges, at the water line, a marble labyrinth in the shape of an octagon, for aquatic special effects.

Naturally, during the tour the superior explains to the new praetorian his duties, the palace rules, the changes of the guard, and so forth, but the lad is distracted. Beyond the pool more doors open up. It’s the emperor’s dining room, identical to the great hall in form, marbles, and decorations, but a bit smaller. This triclinium room, also called the Coenatio Iovis, changes temperature according to the seasons. Under the polychrome marble floor there are empty spaces where hot air is forced through in winter, like at the baths. In the summer, on the other hand, the room is cooled by two nymphaea or grotto-like niches with fountains and water spouts that open out onto the room on both sides. Trajan eats stretched out inside a large semicircular niche set on a raised platform.

The young praetorian’s visit continues in the private area where the emperor lives. This second part of the palace (Domus Augustiana), which forms a single block with the part we have just visited (Domus Flavia), develops on two stories, exploiting a depression of the Palatine. The floor of the lower level is forty feet below the floor of the upper level, or about four stories of a normal building. It is a truly immense living area.

The two praetorians cross rooms with extraordinarily high ceilings, where the only sound is the reverberation of their own footsteps. In other, smaller rooms, all they can hear is the sound of water spouting from small fountains. Along their itinerary they are surrounded by an endless collection of busts, marbles, and Greek statues. It may be one of the most beautiful exhibitions of ancient art ever seen. But we’ll never be able to see it … it has all been plundered over the centuries. The masterpieces encountered by the two praetorians, from frescoes to sculpture, are too numerous to count, but we do make note of a couple. Most surprising is a large pool surrounded by an elegant colonnade. At the center there is an island with a small temple dedicated to Minerva. This idea will be copied by Hadrian in his fabulous villa in Tivoli.

The two praetorians discover the second wonder upon opening a large door: suddenly they are in a small Eden. It’s a garden, 500 feet long and 150 feet wide. Looking down on it from above, the young praetorian sees trees, aromatic bushes, geometric flowerbeds, and then fountains and works of art. But also birds, turtle doves and peacocks. Running all around the perimeter is a two-story colonnade. It’s easy to imagine the emperor taking a stroll here, or meditating, or delighting in the company of a personal friend.

Some slaves are silently working in the garden. Even though the emperor and empress are not in residence, everything is kept in order and cleaned on a daily basis in case the imperial couple should return without warning. They even put fresh flowers in the vases on the tables in the various rooms every day.

The young soldier has seen very few members of the house staff going through the rooms. Where are the servants? His superior shows him a descending staircase. In no time they have descended to the “technical” sector of the palace. It’s a network of tunnels used by slaves, servants with tools and equipment, carts, and so on, but also by praetorians—all so as not to disturb the upper floors. (Again, Hadrian will use the same system in his villa in Tivoli.)

The absence of the imperial couple has made it possible to conduct this relaxed visit of the palace and grounds. If they had been present, with all their guards and commitments, our visit would have followed a much different pace. The two praetorians have even been granted free access to the emperor’s baths, whose water is supplied by a branch of the Claudius aqueduct.

Their last stop is spectacular. As the sun is setting, the two soldiers come out onto a balcony that overlooks the Circus Maximus.

When Trajan stands on this balcony, with all of Rome around him and the red disk of the sun bowing before him, it must truly seem like he has the whole world at his feet.

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