While Italy is an absolute treasure trove of natural beauty and culture, this travel diary focuses on three important sites of the mighty Roman civilisation: the capital Rome, and the resort towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Romans to me have always been the most easily relatable of the Ancient civilisations. As precise as their legendary military formations could be, their times were marked by messiness and fallibility, by superstition and intrigue, by heroic conquests and ignominious defeats that have endlessness repeated through the ages that have followed them. They were the prototype of every soap opera, every mafia movie, every “oh-no-he-didn’t!” moment in House of Cards. While the Greeks seem almost God-like in the esotericism and purity of their pursuits, the Romans were, well, not that different from us.
Their biggest legacy to the world was probably their sheer organisational ability, as humdrum as it sounds. It resulted in the invention of many seemingly trivial things we would be utterly lost without – like a system of roadways or the calendar. In their heyday the Romans conquered and administered over a fifth of the world’s population. Even today the manhole covers in the city of Rome are embossed with the initials “S.P.Q.R” (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus) which translates to “The Roman Senate and People”.
Yet despite espousing Republican principles they were as susceptible as their modern equivalents to falling under the spell of megalomaniacs and creating personality cults around them (sound familiar?). Some of these rulers were worshipped like Gods, had temples built to them tended to by their very own personal High Priests, despite the fact they often gained their power by ruthless and violent means. Divorce, incest, patricide even the slaughter of innocent babies was considered fair game in the winner-takes-all race to the top. Sometimes these regimes of terrors lasted years. In the times of Tiberius (the very same who ordered the crucification of one Jesus Christ) being a professional informer was the most lucrative job in the City. You could basically get paid by the Emperor to give false testimony against someone he wanted to get rid of. Sham trials that would make Kafka blush condemned thousands to death or exile after which their estates were promptly confiscated to line the Imperial coffers.
Things weren’t all bad though. Despite the couple of thousand years that separate us, life in a Roman city was not all that much different from ours. They invented the concept of a shopping mall. Their cities had gymnasiums, pubs and taverns, theatres, spas, and the original sports stadium – the Amphitheatre. Their citizens grumbled about taxes just like us (some were a touch extreme, tax on urine collection anyone?!). And they loved a good time. The most common method used by the ruling classes to subdue a simmering revolt by the plebes? Just organise a massive street party to distract them. Ply them with alcohol, dazzle them with gladiatorial contests and exotic animals imported from the Far East! That their descendants would define the art of living luxuriously from a Lamborghini to an Armani would, I am sure, make them proud.
Italy Travel Diary Part 1: Rome
Rome …A city where layers and layers of history overlap so as to give a visitor wandering its undulating cobblestoned lanes the slightly disconcerting sense of walking back and forth through the centuries. I stayed close to the Piazza Navona. The vast asymmetric piazza is typical of Rome, framed by buildings painted in shades of ochre, apricot and sienna with their characteristic shuttered windows. The centrepiece is the jagged stony tumult of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – Fountain of the Four Rivers. Gods representing the Four Rivers (Nile, Danube, Ganges and Rio de la Plata) are depicted with rippling muscles and furious curls and a pink marble obelisk crests the tableau. I much prefer this Fountain to its more famous cousin the Fontana de Trevi which is perennially thronged by tourists hopefully tossing coins into its turquoise waters.
A short walk from here is one of my favourite spots in Rome, the Pantheon – the literal translation of which is “Temple of every God”. Its the oldest building in the world that has been in continuous use since its inception. The massive rotunda has a portico of Corinthian columns above which is the inscription:
It translates to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”
Marcus Agrippa was one of the few sympathetic characters during that turbulent period – a brave General refreshingly bereft of the scheming power-hungry bloodlust of his contemporaries and descendants. The building’s stark Roman exterior belies the hotchpotch of architectural styles and religious artefacts within – like I said it has been continuously used and renovated since it was first built. I first entered the Pantheon at dusk. A sepia haze hung over its vast marbled interior through which reverberated the echoes of a tenor busking in the square outside. Sculptures of Madonnas and saints with flowing robes and pious faces lurked in the shadowy niches all around. Above it all towered the massive dome – a remarkable feat of engineering and to this day the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
The two most prolific sites of ancient Rome are the Forum and the Colosseum. The latter unfortunately is a bit anti-climatic for anyone who has seen the Ridley Scott classic, Gladiator. The interior is in a state of crumbling disrepair and its takes a lot of squinting and creative angling to try and imagine its past glory. What struck me the most about the Colosseum was a) how it was situated smack dab on the side of a thoroughfare teeming with traffic with literally no demarkation of where 70 AD ends and the 21st century begins and b) how closely its basic design resembled a modern football stadium right down to the numbered gates and conveniently placed toilets!
The Forum was the beating heart of the city of Rome. Its a rectangular plain littered with remnants of temples, memorials, arches, basilicas and the Roman Senate. On one side of it is the Palatine Hill atop which are the palaces that once housed the Imperial Family. Next to the palaces are orchards of scented lemon trees littered with headless statues of Roman Emperors. Standing here you can get a panoramic view of the Forum framed by the Capitoline Hill at one end and the Colosseum at the other.
At one end of the Forum stand the towering columns of the Temple of Saturn and the warehouse-like brick building that used to be the infamous Senate where Caesar was assassinated. The main thoroughfare is called the Via Sacra where the Triumphs of returning military heroes would have marched amidst cheering crowds. One of the most haunting buildings is the House of the Vestal Virgins who were the priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of fire. It was their responsibility to ensure the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta burnt day and night.
Carefully tiptoeing around the remnants of mosaic stone floors on Palatine Hill I imagined myself walking in the footsteps of the mad Emperor Caligula. The one who made his favourite horse a Senator and built him an ivory manger, who had a penchant for crossdressing as the Goddess Venus and who once ordered his bemused troops to wage war against the sea god Neptune by wading in, brandishing their swords and hollering at the waves (no, really). I peered into the maze of brick chambers and corridors hoping to catch a glimpse of the ambitious Livia who had a penchant for poisoning anyone who knowingly or inadvertently posed a threat to her schemes and whose indomitable spirit must surely haunt these ruins even now..
Italy Travel Diary Part 2: Pompeii
The entrance to Pompeii is a bit anticlimactic. I imagined some sort of vantage point from where I could take in a panoramic view of the whole city before I started exploring. Instead I climbed down steps overgrown with grass towards the first building, the Roman Baths, which for some reason were situated outside the main City entrance. Roman Baths are known for a sequence of chambers – first the changing room, then cold water pools and then onto the the saunas and hot water baths which had an underground system of heating via wood furnaces. There were benches around what was presumably a unisex changing room with little pornographic murals drawn on the walls above. This was a little puzzling I would assume having to stare at these murals would add to the uncomfortable silence as you changed into towels surrounded by strangers or worse your neighbours! The murals are risqué even by today’s standards with one which looked like a lesbian couple cavorting with some sort of dildo-like apparatus!
Leaving the Baths I trudged up a sloping tunnel that used to be one of the main City gates. The first big site I came upon was the magnificent Basilica. It was not in fact a place of worship as the name’s modern connotation suggests but a mix between a Chambers of Commerce and the public Law Courts. It must have been quite a sight given the size of what remains of the gigantic brick pillars around its perimeter. At one end is a raised platform fronted by Corinthian columns. This is where the magistrates sat and meted out judgements and punishments.
Leaving the Basilica I turned right and headed onto the Forum which was, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the main public square. I walked through the Forum picturing myself passing by knots of men in togas and sandals standing around and gossiping about the latest Imperial scandal or the rising price of corn and once I reached the Temple of Jupiter at the far end I stood for a moment in silence. Because right there in the distance towering above me was the mighty Vesuvius – framed by a cornflower blue sky. It looked like a sleeping giant. Its presence was an uneasy and omnipresent reminder of that fateful night when it unleashed billowing clouds of ash which blotted out the sun and rained fire and brimstone down over the terrified people of Pompeii.
Amongst the buildings around the sides of the Forum are Municipal Offices and the Macellum which was the market place at the centre of which you can make out the remains of a circular gazebo-like structure where fish was scaled and sold. There is also the Granary which is now used to house various artefacts uncovered by the first few excavations – amphorae, vessels, furniture and those infamous plaster casts showing people and animals in their last moments. The contorted cast of a dog struggling to escape its chain, a small boy stretching out with his tiny fists curled up, and a person sitting with knees pulled up and folded hands probably praying as he or she crouched against a wall and awaited death.
Leaving the Forum I started rambling through the streets – and thats when I realised how big this city was. The streets often slope up and down and once you reach the crest of a little hill you see more streets winding away from you in all directions crammed wall-to-wall with houses, shops, temples, more baths, gymnasiums, thermopoliums. The last I found very curious. They were public houses for eating and drinking – i.e pubs! They had counters with round holes where stone vessels filled with hot food or drinks were kept not unlike modern deli counters.
I made my way to the famous Teatro Grande which is still in incredibly good shape. A perfect concentric semi-circle of stone steps rises above the stage with thoughtfully placed aisles to climb to whichever section your tickets were for. Behind the Theatre is a large open grassy courtyard surrounded by a colonnaded covered walkway. Apparently this is where people went in the intermissions to stroll around and chat with their friends and fellow theatregoers. There is a smaller more intimate Teatro Odeion nearby where perhaps the more avant garde, less mainstream plays got shown?
The Pompeii Amphitheatre is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre pre-dating the Colosseum in Rome. Next to it is a massive field. This was the Palestra Grande or Large Gymnasium where youth sports clubs held daily exercises, physical training and games. As I hurried back towards the exit, I finally got the vantage point I had hoped for at the start although it didn’t look over the ruins i.e. the “Scavi”. It was a flat grassy plateau scattered with haunting remnants of fallen columns that overlooked the twinkling lights of the modern city of Pompeii.
Italy Travel Diary Part 3: Ercolano
Ercolano is the local Italian name for the Roman ruins of Herculaneum. It is a much smaller site than Pompeii and curiously is entirely below the current street level enclosed in a sort of large sunken pit. Apparently the coastline has moved considerably further out in the 2000 odd years that have gone by as the first thing you notice is a moat along one side of the site which was in fact the actual beach front at the time Herculaneum was a bustling fishing village.
Overlooking the “beach” is a small public square at the centre of which is the marble statue of a hailing Roman Emperor facing an elaborately carved sarcophagus with two cherubs posing coyly atop it. On one corner of this square are the remnants of a temple with beautifully preserved marble friezes of a goddess and three gods. The gods have sharp features, rather odd upwardly curving pointy beards and rippling muscular bodies. One of them is striking a very diva-like pose, resting one arm on his hip, with his hip jutting backwards, holding a trident in the other hand and a fierce frown firmly in place.
This square is at a mezzanine level between the beach front and the main village streets which I climbed up a ramp to get to. The rest of the site was a sort of microcosm of what I had seen at Pompeii. The difference being the houses and shops were much better preserved in some cases even their second stories were intact. One house that stood out was the Casa de Salone Nero named after a large room inside which had its walls painted black. It was a large house with a lovely porticoed courtyard around which were two stories of rooms. The owner was apparently a “freedman” or a former slave who had earned his freedom. I felt oddly happy for this person who had clearly worked hard to make his way up in the world and proudly built this house for himself. He’d decorated the walls with colourful frescoes and the floors with geometrically patterned mosaic tiles. I could imagine him strolling in the courtyard in the evenings and stopping by the outer wall to chat with passing neighbours on the street.
Several houses had such courtyards some with remnants of little fountains, garden furniture and marble statues of animals. I imagined these in their heyday were scented with the tangy perfume of lemon and orange trees that are such a common feature in this part of the country. It is these little human touches, these glimpses into ordinary life preserved in Pompeii and Herculaneum that often leave a much more powerful impact than the most colossal monuments. Perhaps the thought of life being not that different a few thousand years ago gives us a tiny ray of hope that it might still prevail in a thousand years hence despite our best efforts to the contrary….