After Augustus had marblized Rome, during his long reign (31 BC–AD 14), the city must have looked like a cross between the Lower East Side of Manhattan, before the fire regulations, and a stately if garish Disneyland. Most of Rome’s two million inhabitants lived in 46,000 insulae, or tenements, parading the splendid public parts of the city in the day and retreating to their private squalor only for sleep.

A rich family in their domus (of which there were some 1,700) or owning the ground floor of an insula, could be connected (sometimes illicitly) to an aqueduct for water, have a lavatory attached to a sewer and enjoy hot-air heating, but most of Rome had to carry its water upstairs and bring its excrement down, or throw it into the street, often no wider than a man’s outstretched arms. (This was so commonplace that lawyers specialized in the detection and prosecution of such offenders.) Owners of apartment blocks rented the spaces giving on to the broader streets as shops (tabernae) and often subcontracted the management of the upper storeys, dangerous not only because these consisted of light wooden partitions, liable to collapse, but also because of the nature of their tenants – thieves, gangsters and prostitutes. No regulations inhibited the avarice and irresponsibility of the speculators and jerry builders who put up these buildings, often financed by magnates, senators and ‘new men’ like Cicero.

Indeed, that great moralist was a typical property-owner, earning 80,000 sesterces a year from tenements. In a letter about him to Atticus, we have the story:

Two of Cicero’s tenements had completely collapsed and the rest were in such imminent danger of doing likewise that not only had the tenants abandoned the place in terror of their lives but even the mice were leaving. Cicero, clearly, had had no repairs done. It was only when the two tenements had fallen down and the other inhabitants had fled, that is, when his income had been cut off, that he instructed the architect Chrysippus to effect the necessary repairs. Chrysippus, however, produced an estimate of costs. Cicero was appalled that he would have to spend good money in this way. He consulted one Vestorius, who combined the profession of banker with that of an instructor of building workers. He in some way enabled Cicero to turn his feared loss into an actual profit. The details of this remarkable manoeuvre Cicero, unfortunately, did not disclose.55

Cicero was, in his acquisition of villas (no less than eight, and four lodges), typical of his age; he borrowed the money, which was easy for a man of his repute.

Like the orator Hortensius, whose modest house Augustus bought (modest that is for an Emperor), Cicero lived in a chic enclave on the Palatine Hill, the Hampstead of Rome, near to Mark Antony, the dictator Sulla, Crassus and the rival demagogues Clodius (Caesar’s man) and Milo (his opponent). So did Chrysogonus, Rome’s first really rich freedman, who had made a fortune out of Sulla’s proscriptions, with his silver, his curtains, his ivory-clad tables, his statues, his jewels and his automatic cooker (purchased for the price of an entire estate) – not that automation in Ancient Rome was anything but an eccentric foible, domestics being both plentiful and skilled. We know from the execution of the entire household of 400 slaves of the prefect Pedanius Secundus, under (but not on account of) Nero, how many they could be, helping a rich man to near autonomy in his style of life and, from pastrycooks to firemen, providing him with every service.

The story of Crassus, who didn’t care how he made his money, offering to buy a house on fire, and putting it out only when the price had been agreed, is not apocryphal, and the poor were justifiably scared of perishing in a blaze from which they were not protected. The great fire of 50 BC, as damaging as Nero’s in AD 64, had been succeeded by others every few years and still no precautions were taken or town-planning considered. One politician made his career out of fire-fighting, using his own slaves. Quite simply the poor did not count and were not counted. (The figure of two million for the population of Rome is an intelligent guess, not official.) Rome had grown in 100 years to become the greatest power on earth but her city officials were too busy administering an Empire (more profitable) to attend to their own dirty backyard.

Finally Augustus decided to sort Rome out. He lectured the Senate by reading a dissertation on the maximum height of buildings; he organized public slaves, under aediles, into fire brigades; he set in motion an imperial concern with town-planning (which did not become effective until Nero, but he started it); he established, at last, a police force – vigiles – under a prefect (the unfortunate Pedanius, murdered by a slave or slaves unknown, was one such). He was justified in his boast of ‘finding Rome built of sun-dried bricks and leaving her clad in marble’. (In fact there never was one brick wall in Ancient Rome, nor are there any sun-dried bricks extant; bricks, like marble, were used for cladding and facing buildings which were made of concrete, a mixture of tufa, volcanic rock, travertine and broken bits and pieces from the mason’s yard.) Although personally permanently under-housed, to use a pretentious phrase from the 1980s – Augustus used to go and stay with Maecenas when he was ill – his public works were opulent and showy and his guide was the architect Vitruvius, who wrote ten books around the subject, including one on sundials and another on water mechanics. (Even he failed to design an efficient clock.) Vitruvius preached the grand concepts of harmony, dignity and utility but he was a practical man too; here he is on ‘Doors and Windows in Baths and Elsewhere’: ‘Also there will be natural seemliness if light is taken from the east for bedrooms and libraries; for baths and winter apartments from the wintry sunset; for picture galleries and the apartments which need a steady light, from the north, because that quarter of the heavens in neither illumined nor darkened by the sun’s course but is fixed unchangeable through the day.’

Basically Rome was built out of concrete (opus caementicum), poured into wooden slats as it is today, travertine, a creamy white stone, laid horizontally (laid vertically it collapsed) and tufa, which could not stand fire. Roads were paved with silex, a dark grey volcanic rock from the Alban Hills. For fine buildings these materials were coated with stucco and nine different marbles – yellow, orange and pink from Libya and Euboea, blood red, brilliant green, onyx and porphyry from the Nile. Like all conquerors – they werethe first – Romans decorated their capital with artefacts from the defeated; bought and looted. They worshipped, sometimes literally, statues from fifth-century-BC Athens and there is a catalogue of seventy-four great works of this period by sculptors of genius like Praxiteles. (Rome was full of antiques and fakes. The reproduction of famous statues by Greek artisans was an industry and the genuine article had to have been made ‘without wax’ (sine cera), hence our word ‘sincere’.)

Augustus built a forum, ‘narrow because he could not bring himself to evict the existing tenants’ (Suetonius), with temples for the avenging Mars, Jupiter and Apollo. These great buildings were not single-purpose affairs like our churches because worship of a cult was irregular, but they served as places of assembly, for the selection of juries and as archives and libraries. The temple of Saturn was the state treasury. The Curia, where the Senate met, was burnt at the funeral of Clodius in 52 BC, rebuilt by Caesar, then burnt down again and this time restored by Augustus. Therefore it often happened, during our period, that the Senate was convened in a temple.

Augustus encouraged his family, especially his wife, Livia, and his daughter, Julia – though he pulled down her country villa saying it was too grand – his rich friends and protégés to build and embellish. His nephew Marcellus built a theatre, much of which is still standing (near the nineteenth-century synagogue by the Tiber), designed to accommodate an audience of 17,000 but the first stone theatre had been put up by Pompey, who called himself ‘Magnus’ (the Great), at the age of twenty-two. Alas, the quality of the entertainment did not match the grandeur of the surroundings; it consisted mainly of the frothy plays of Plautus and vaudeville acts, variously obscene; Rome produced no great drama – for the stage. Agrippa, Augustus’ friend, ally and son-in-law, built the original Pantheon,56 possibly the most beautiful classical building in Rome, nominally for the gods, but of course the real motive for all these magnificent constructions was the greater glory of Rome and her rulers.

The public parts of the city glittered, the public baths and lavatories were clean, warm and well maintained by public slaves, often manumitted for their service. The aqueducts never lacked cool, clear water, more appetizing, Augustus often insisted, than the free wine. The ordinary Roman citizen, with access to libraries and the frequent distractions of the Games, could not feel deprived – until he went home . . . The luxury of private houses was hidden from his view; Augustus even had a (fireproof) wall built round the Forum, hiding the stinking suburb of Subura from the patrician gaze. Triumphal arches, thirty-six by the end, were a particularly Roman invention, adopted but barely adapted by the vain-glorious in succeeding centuries. Functional but massively adorned with bas-reliefs and sculptures, they marked the entrances of forums and bracketed important roads. One of the few still more or less intact, that of the Emperor Titus at the summit of the Via Sacra down which the Triumphs processed, is still awesome, especially to the pious Jew, whose law forbids him to pass under it but who must surely blench at the clear representation of the golden menorah (candlestick) and other treasures from Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem being carried into Rome by the cowed high priests.

The money, men and materials, the time and the effort, spent on Rome’s grandest construction, the Colosseum, properly the Flavian amphitheatre, is a monument to the persistence and consistency of Roman Emperors. Although strictly outside our scope, to omit it would make any description of public Rome lightweight and deficient, though its function, as grandiose space for watching the slaughter of men (never actually Christians) and beasts, was deplorable, and, indeed, deplored. Blocks of seventy cubic feet of stone, each weighing five tons, formed the base of its pillars and 50,000 wagonloads of travertine were transported between its inception under the Emperor Vespasian in AD 72 to its opening by his son Titus eight years later. It was not fully finished until the reign of Diocletian. The raising of the canopy, the velarium, to shield the 50,000 spectators from the sun was a performance as spectacular as the show in the arena below. A thousand sailors levered the canopy on 160 winches to the beating of drums, against which the action of the wind, which had to be calculated, the roar from the famished wild beasts in the caves and the excitement of the spectators in the crowded four-storey auditorium created a unique cacophony. In its first 100 days the Colosseum consumed 9,000 animals and 2,000 gladiators.

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