We are used to thinking of most Roman emperors after Augustus, with the exception (thanks to Robert Graves’s sympathetic novels) of Claudius, as beastly degenerates—the proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is not true, but one can understand why so many have imagined it was.
The most prominent offenders were those two reliable crazies Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, known as Caligula (12–41 C.E.), and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (37–68 C.E.), or Nero. Caligula got his pet name from the legions—the word roughly translates to “Bootikins”—by wearing tiny versions of the legionaries’ combat boots, caligae, as a child, when he was the mascot of the Rhine armies, shortly after the death of his much-adored father, Germanicus, in 19 C.E. The one thing everyone knows about him is that he was quite mad and excessively fond of his horse Incitatus (a name which meant, roughly, “Go-Go”). Not only did he give this animal a marble stable, an ivory stall, purple blankets, slaves, and a jeweled collar, but he actually appointed it consul. Or so the story goes. There is, however, no evidence that he made any such promotion. Consul Go-Go may just have been palace gossip of a somewhat recherché sort. Suetonius, our only ancient source on this, merely writes, “It is said that he even planned to award Incitatus a consulship”—and planning something is not the same as doing it. The consul-horse story is likely no more than a variation on one of the twisted jokes Caligula was fond of making, as appears from other examples. One can imagine him losing his temper with the unfortunate Senate and calling its members dumber than his horse.
Can anything be said for Caligula? Probably not much, although the Roman gladiators and their owner-managers were doubtless grateful for his obsessional interest in arena fighting. However, he did make distinct contributions to public works. Realizing that the water supplies of Rome’s seven aqueducts were not enough for a growing city, he ordained the construction of two more, the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus, though he did not live long enough to see either completed; they were finished by his successor, Claudius. He began a project which (until Claudius finished it) kept thirty thousand men busy for eleven years, leveling and tunneling a mountain to drain the Fucine Lake, in central Italy—a Roman equivalent to the appalling labors to which Stalin’s political slaves would be condemned in digging the White Sea Canal.
The least popular of Caligula’s additions to Rome would have been the Tullianum, or Mamertine Prison, the oldest in the city, at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. Here, notable captives were incarcerated; this was where Saint Peter supposedly languished in chains (the chains themselves are holy relics, preserved along with Michelangelo’s sublime figure of the horned and glaring Moses, gripping the tablets of the Law, in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, not far away); in this sad little round room with its domed ceiling,Jugurtha, once king of Numidia, died of starvation in 104 C.E., and the Gallic warrior Vercingetorix, Caesar’s chief enemy in Gaul, was beheaded in 46 C.E.
Without question, however, Caligula’s most popular contribution to the architecture of Rome was on the Ager Vaticanus, an enormous circus or racecourse known as the Circus of Gaius and Nero. Almost all of it lies underneath the Basilica and Piazza of Saint Peter, for a simple and logical reason: this was the circus where Nero put Christians to death in the spectacular persecution that followed the fires of 64 C.E., for which the members of that sect were blamed. Early Christian tradition also held that it was the site of Saint Peter’s martyrdom. Both Caligula and Nero were obsessive enthusiasts for chariot racing, and they competed with the professionals on this track.
The much later Emperor Elagabalus, who reigned from 218 to 222 C.E., drove in Vaticano, too, except that his chariot was drawn not by horses but by a team of four elephants, which does not suggest lightning speed, especially since his ponderous équipe kept knocking over tombs on the way. Elagabalus lives in legend as the demented homosexual transvestite who once arranged for his guests to be smothered in rose petals, dropped through trapdoors in the ceiling of his palace. His sexuality made Caligula’s seem almost routine, although the two were not dissimilar; Elagabalus surrounded himself with actors, dancers, and charioteers, all seeking to outdo one another in perversity. He was at least bisexual enough to have three wives: Julia Paula (who lasted one year), Aquilia Severa (a vestal virgin, whom he married, divorced, and married again, each time for a year), and Annia Faustina, a relative of the late, great Marcus Aurelius, whom he seems to have espoused for the sake of prestige. She, too, lasted a year.
To make quite sure that he had something for everyone, Elagabalus also caused annoyance to religious conservatives by bringing his own god with him from the East, the black stone of Emesa, itself an object of reverence, representing Baal. Having been proclaimed emperor in 218 by rebellious legions of Eastern troops, he was persuaded by his grandmother—a fearsome old harpy who dominated him completely and, in effect, ran the palace with his mother—to adopt his cousin Severus Alexander as his son and Caesar in 221. Perhaps inevitably, this lad’s presence sent Elagabalus into shrieking fits of jealousy: the Western imperial troops liked Severus better than the emperor. Elagabalus planned to have him killed, but the soldiers killed him instead, with his mother. Thus perished the only emperor who gave Caligula some competition as the most dissolute in Roman history.
The personal behavior of both Caligula and Nero fluctuated, according to the rather meager reports it left—mainly in the writings of Suetonius—between the eccentrically aesthetic and the utterly mad, the indulgent and the insanely cruel. Caligula is said to have raped his sister Drusilla, and to have made a habit of public incest with her and two other sisters at banquets, while (one imagines) the less-than-enthusiastic guests stared in glum silence at their roast peacock. He could also be more public in his entertainments. It was Caligula who habitually condemned criminals ad bestias (to be devoured by wild beasts in the arena), or had them forced into narrow cages where they were sawn in half—“merely for criticizing his shows [or] failing to swear by his Genius.” What made life under Caligula especially difficult was that he expected to be applauded, not just by his courtiers but by the whole Roman public, as a great tragic-comic and sporting personality. Gladiator, singer, dancer, chariot racer, actor: there was nothing he did not excel at. Perhaps there is a touch of Caligula in every showbiz star, but Caligula himself was all Caligula, and nobody who outdid him in performance was likely to live long. Besides, he was no fool in literary matters. He might rave and shout, but he knew all his references. The emperor had a captive audience, and he knew it. To imagine a more modern, though hardly more threatening equivalent, one should perhaps think of Adolf Hitler singing at Bayreuth, with a member of the Gestapo posted behind each seat in the theater.
But some of his efforts at self-dramatization (and they were many) defy any attempt at rational explanation. Suetonius relates how, while on campaign in Gaul, facing the English Channel, Caligula had had his men drawn up in battle array, backed by various engines of war—ballistae and the like—pointing at the distant coast of England. He then boarded a trireme and put to sea, for a short distance. Then his warship turned round and brought him back to shore, where he clambered up on its high poop and shouted the order, “Gather sea-shells!” Nonplussed but obedient to their commander-in-chief, his troops did so, filling their helmets and tunics with what Caligula termed “plunder from the sea, owed to the Capitol and the Palace.” He then promised every man in his army a bonus of four solidi or gold pieces, though there is no record that this was actually given out. The seashells were dispatched back to Rome as “booty.” As Caligula’s most recent biographer has written with some understatement, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill.”
It may be that this bizarre incident was nothing more than training maneuvers; but this was winter, the weather and the seas were adverse, and even if Caligula (who was terrified of the sea and could not swim) had not realized it, any of his captains could have enlightened him about the impossibility of launching an invasion of Britain at that time of the year. No matter: he planned an ovation for himself for having invaded Britain, and he even chose some sturdy Gauls to grow their hair long, dye it red, and act like conquered soldiers, which in a general way they were. But it was not enough for Caligula to be fêted and admired as a hero, the conqueror of Germany and Britain. He was determined to be worshipped as a living god. Now, it was true that previous emperors had been seen, and within limits revered, as divine. Virgil included Octavian/Augustus as one of the “gods among us,” and it was common in the Greek East of the Empire to pay divine honors to members of the imperial family. But divine homage to living emperors was far less usual in Rome itself than in the external empire, the definition of divinity itself could be rather fuzzy, and in any case some emperors found it excessive, even embarrassing: Tiberius, for instance, refused to allow a temple to be dedicated to himself and Livia in 25 C.E. Dead emperors could be worshipped as gods and have temples dedicated to their cult, but Caligula was the first (though not the last) to take this a step or two further. According to Suetonius, he decided to live as Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline. It was said that he planned to have Phidias’ renowned sculpture of Olympian Zeus transferred there as his cult image, presumably given a new head, but was somehow dissuaded; he then had a full-length statue of himself, life-sized, made in gold. Every day the slaves dressed it in a different outfit of clothes from Caligula’s extensive wardrobe.
All in all, perhaps the most surprising thing about Caligula’s short and demented reign—he died in 41 C.E. at twenty-eight, assassinated by the officers of his own guard, having ruled Rome for not quite four years—was that he managed to last as long as he did. What happened to the seashells is unrecorded.
His successor was a man widely regarded as the family idiot, humiliated and condescended to by his nephew Caligula: Tiberius Claudius Drusus (10 B.C.E.–54 C.E.), known to history simply as Claudius, the last male member of the Julio-Claudian line. But he was popular with the Roman public, and with the army as well; certainly he was much better respected and liked than the repulsive Caligula. Nothing, one might have supposed, prepared him for the imperium. He was lame; he drooled and twitched when excited; and some chroniclers, notably Suetonius and Tacitus, treated him as a ridiculous figure, inept and stammering. Some of his traits were consistent with Tourette’s syndrome, but this is not easily judged. Moreover, his sexual tastes, compared with those of most Roman emperors, seemed downright eccentric, almost perverse: according to Suetonius, he had no interest in men, only in women. Unfortunately, he had a way of marrying the wrong ones: first a lumpish horse of a creature named Urgulanilla, then a termagant called Aelia Paetina, then his cousin Valeria Messalina, a money-crazed nymphomaniac who, according to the often unreliable testimony of Tacitus, once competed with a prostitute to see which of them could take on the most sexual partners in a night; and finally Agrippina, a descendant of Augustus and the mother of Nero. From childhood on, Claudius was mercilessly bullied and deprecated as a fool by his mother, Antonia, and his grandmother Livia, and this seems to have set a pattern of domination by scheming women which infected his entire married career.
Claudius was fifty years old when Caligula was murdered. In the general confusion that followed the assassination, he ran into hiding behind a door curtain in the palace. One of the Praetorian Guardsmen, Gratus by name, spotted his feet beneath the curtain and pulled him out. Claudius, thinking his last moment had come, clasped the soldier’s knees and started begging for mercy—but, to his mingled terror and relief, the soldier bore him off to the palace guards’ quarters, where he was acclaimed as the new emperor. He was the first emperor to be proclaimed by the Praetorian Guard rather than the Senate; obviously, the Senate had little choice in the matter.
This may not have been a very auspicious start to his reign, but Claudius proved to be a surprisingly good ruler—much better, certainly, than either his crazed predecessor, Caligula, or his predecessor, the mediocre Tiberius, who, after a promising start, with wide military experience on the German frontier, ended his reign as an elderly, cruel debauchee on the island of Capri while leaving the effective control of Rome to his Praetorian captain Sejanus. Claudius, of whom less had been expected, did much more. He considerably enlarged and strengthened the Empire by planting coloniae, fortified settlements, in remote zones; such places as Colchester in Britain and Cologne in Germany were originally Claudian settlements. To Claudius belongs the distinction of leading the successful conquest of Britain, which began in 43 C.E. Having captured the British general Caractacus, he spared his life and treated him with unusual clemency. Caractacus was allowed to live out his natural life on land given to him by the Roman state, instead of being garrotted in prison, the usual fate of those who dared lead a resistance against Rome. This, one need not doubt, did wonders for the colonial relationship between the British and their conquerors.
Claudius was a gifted administrator with (as it must have seemed to citizens who had grown used to the arbitrary habits of Caligula) an intense regard for the minutiae of the law. He presided at public trials, viewing his presence there as both a duty and a pleasure, although some of his edicts make strange reading today; one of them, according to Suetonius, promoted unrestrained farting at table as a health measure. In particular, he was committed to programs of public works—the building of aqueducts, the draining of the Fucine Lake. (The latter almost proved a disaster; because of miscalculation by the engineers, the lake waters came rushing out too soon and backed up in a too-narrow sluice, nearly drowning Claudius and his party, for whom a great banquet had been prepared on the bank of the channel.) The Fucine drainage scheme, underwritten by a syndicate of businessmen in return for ownership of the reclaimed land, kept thirty thousand men at work for eleven years, but is said to have eventually returned a profit. Probably the most important of these works was Claudius’ creation of a deep-water harbor at Ostia, complete with a tall lighthouse; this transformed Rome’s access to Mediterranean trade, especially during the winter storm season.
His main contribution to popular entertainment was his unbridled enthusiasm for arena fights. Claudius—according to Suetonius, our only source on this—was unusually bloodthirsty, even by Roman standards. If an accused man was to be tortured to extract testimony, Claudius liked to watch. Sometimes, when he had spent the whole morning watching gladiator fights and wild-beast shows, “he would dismiss the audience, keep his seat, and not only watch the regular combats but extemporize others between the stage carpenters … as a punishment for the failure of any mechanical device.” Nothing survives of Claudius’ work as a historian—which is a considerable loss, since he wrote many books about Roman, Etruscan, and even Carthaginian history from sources which were extant two thousand years ago but have now disappeared.
He was gluttonous, and this led to his death. His favorite dish was mushrooms, and at a family banquet his last wife, Agrippina, served him a dish of funghi porcini laced with poison. This killed him, conveniently preparing for the succession of Agrippina’s son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as Nero.
Nobody could say that Nero lacked the advantages of education as well as birth.
Coming from Spain, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (d. 65 C.E.) was Nero’s tutor, and a stupendously voluble writer; his surviving prose works alone run to over a thousand closely printed pages. He took great pride in his Stoicism, but no Stoic was ever longer-winded or more self-infatuated. He could argue both sides of a case—when Claudius died, it was Seneca who composed the eulogy delivered on him by Nero, his successor, but also Seneca who wrote a satire on the departed emperor, the Apocolocyntosis orPumpkinificationof Claudius, who was imagined as turning into a dim-witted, sententious vegetable god. Seneca was a hypocrite almost without equal in the ancient world. He sang praises of moderation: “To be a slave to self is the most grievous kind of slavery; yet its fetters may easily be struck off.… Man needs but little, and that not for long.” Fine words, which, unhappily, bear little relation to the real facts of Seneca’s life: he was a mercilessly greedy usurer. Few can have mourned him when, on direct orders from Nero, he committed suicide by opening his veins in a hot bath.
Nero’s most notorious act of vandalism was (supposedly) burning much of the city of Rome.
It is not sure that, as legend durably insists, he fiddled while doing so. Though he was a keen amateur musician, his preference was for giving long vocal recitatives, generally of a tragic kind, some of whose titles—though, perhaps mercifully, not their libretti—have been preserved: among these were Canace in Childbirth, Hercules Distraught, and Orestes the Matricide. In these he would wear the masks of heroes, gods, or goddesses modeled either on his own face or on the features of a current mistress.
Nevertheless, the image of Nero fiddling away while the flames leapt upward has entered the English language (and most others) and is unlikely to vanish soon. Even without the accusations of arson, Nero’s treatment of others—including his own family—was, to put it mildly, defective. The list of his victims was long, and it included his mother, Agrippina, with whom he was alleged to commit frequent incest. He had no hesitation in ordering the murder of anyone who displeased him, however trivial or fictional the offense. Not even his wives were exempt: his Empress Octavia, daughter of Claudius and Messalina, died in exile on the desert island of Pandateria in 62 C.E., thus freeing Nero to marry, deify, and then kick to death (in pregnancy) his second spouse, Poppaea, merely because she had dared to complain that he came home late from the races. He had his aunt Domitia Lepida murdered with an overdose of laxative. In all, as Suetonius remarked, “There was no family relationship which Nero did not criminally abuse.” He made every effort to mock real family relations by parodying them: thus his obsessive relation with his catamite Sporus, whom he castrated and then married. “The world,” remarked Suetonius acidly, “would have been a happier place if Nero’s father Domitius had married that sort of wife.”
It is said that for his own amusement he launched an attack on several granaries near the future site of his Golden House, knocked down their walls with siege engines, and then had his troops set the contents ablaze. Naturally, he found a public reason for this—slum clearance. The old buildings were decrepit, and he was only finishing off a fire hazard. However, there is no evidence that Nero was personally responsible for the fires that broke out and spread during demolition. They could have been, and probably were, entirely an accident. If Rome was anything like eighteenth-century London—and it was, being overcrowded and a firetrap, filled with tinderbox insulae, blocks of flats, which would go up at a breath and were unprotected by water pumps or safety ordinances—then living in it must have been a constant menace, especially since the reliance on open braziers in cold weather must have filled their rooms with carbon monoxide and further reduced the level of sleepers’ consciousness.
Whatever their origin, these fires soon joined up in one continuous blaze, lasted for six days and seven nights, and destroyed not only the rickety insulae of Rome’s public housing but also numerous mansions and temples dating back as far as the wars against Carthage and Gaul. It started on June 18, 64 C.E., the exact anniversary of the burning of Rome by its Gallic invaders in 390 B.C.E. It did enormous damage, not only to the residential quarters of the Aventine and Palatine hills but also to the Forum itself, most of whose monuments it destroyed. Nero is said to have reveled in watching the fires, and it was rumored that, to celebrate what he called “the beauty of the flames,” he donned the costume of a tragedian and proceeded to sing, from start to finish, a lengthy dramatic piece about the burning of Troy entitled The Fall of Ilium. This may perhaps have been heartless, but it is hard to think what actions of a practical sort Nero could have taken to extinguish the flames. What could he have done, flouncing around in his fancy dress, except get in the way of the hard-pressed firemen? And what person, emperor or commoner, would fail to get the best vantage point from which to view the irresistible spectacle of a city fire?
This tale is of course the origin of the much-worn saying. According to Tacitus, the fire broke out among the shops of the Circus Maximus and ran through the level portions of the city, which contained no masonry walls to interrupt its spread. It outstripped the puny efforts to control the flames, “so completely was the city at its mercy owing to the narrow winding lanes and irregular streets which characterized old Rome.” When the blaze took hold in earnest, Nero was not in Rome, but in Antium (modern Anzio), south of the city. Nothing, it seemed, could contain the flames, but Nero, hurrying back to Rome, threw open the Campus Martius, the public structures of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and had emergency shelters erected in them. But the effect of such well-meant measures was less than it might have been, because by now the plebs of Rome were convinced of the rumor that their emperor, the deified firebug, was to blame for the destruction of so much of the city.
Aftter this veritable orgy of site clearance, Nero’s own idea of a suitable new building was the Domus Aurea or Golden House, a legendary structure of antiquity of which so little remains that one can only form the haziest idea of its splendors. There had been a huge palace linking the Palatine and Esquiline hills, and when it burned down, Nero had it rebuilt with a statue of himself 120 feet high in the entrance hall (for comparison’s sake, Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor is roughly 150 feet from toes to crown). Behind it, a pillared arcade ran for a mile, flanked, said Suetonius, “by buildings made to resemble cities,” and artificial woodlands in which every kind of domestic and wild animal sauntered and grazed at its ease. Inside, the walls of the Golden House earned its name by being both gilded and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and precious stones. Nero’s dining rooms had ceilings of ivory fretwork which, on command, released gusts of perfume or rose petals onto the reclining guests. The main dining room, where Nero held his feasts, was circular, and its entire roof, fretwork and all, revolved in a stately harmony with the sky, day and night. “He believed,” wrote Suetonius of Nero, “that fortunes were made to be squandered, and whoever could account for every penny he spent seemed to him a stingy miser.” Nero’s own comment on the Golden House, once it was finished, was merely that now, at long last, he could begin to live like a human being.
Little enough is left of the Domus Aurea, and much of that remains to be excavated. The enormous Baths of Trajan had been built on top of Nero’s palace. Unfortunately, most of its valuable décor—the colored marble veneers, the gilded panels, and of course the carved ivory—was stripped and looted as soon as the palace was abandoned; all that remained was the painted plaster on the walls of secondary rooms. But this fascinated the artists who, in the sixteenth century, burrowed down through the baths into the remains of the palace to study them, and it became the basis of whole arrays of playful décor known as grotteschi, “grotesques,” because they had been found in “grottoes.” These would influence European design and décor, especially through the work of Englishmen like theAdam brothers, for two centuries. The foremost exponent of decorations based on the remains of the Golden House was Raphael, who admired and copied them and was followed not only by other artists, but by a horde of intrepid sightseers who braved the subterranean dark with torches, and sometimes left their names scratched on the moldering walls—among them, Casanova and the Marquis de Sade. Raphael would use grotteschi for his decoration of the Loggetta in the Vatican (c. 1519), and they gave him a limitless fund of invention and caprice—even though, as the art historians Mary Beard and John Henderson mischievously noted, the subsequent popes were parading about in what were, in effect, copies of Nero’s servants’ quarters.
Under the original ceilings and beside the Domus Aurea’s scented pools, Nero would give himself up (wrote Suetonius) to “every kind of obscenity.” These included dressing in the skins of wild animals, and attacking the genitals of men and women who stood helplessly bound to stakes in the imperial gardens. Presumably, it is not possible for one man to practice all the known or imaginable sexual perversions; but Nero clearly had as impressive a repertoire of them as any Roman. And he famously compounded them by fastening the blame for Rome’s misfortunes on one particular group. This was the tiny sect known as the Christians, whom Nero persecuted with quite demented severity after the fire.
It had not taken long for the responsibility for the Great Fire that had consumed so much of the city to be assigned, by the plebeians, to the emperor himself. For that reason alone, Nero had to find someone else, another group, to divert the blame for it; and that was the Christians. The historian Tacitus explained why: these Christians were already “hated for their abominations,” not only in Judaea but also in Rome, “where all things horrible or shameful from all parts of the world collect and become popular.” Those who confessed, on interrogation, to being Christian were convicted “in great numbers”—“not so much of guilt for the conflagrations as of hatred of the human race” and then “mockery was added to their deaths”:
They were covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn to death by dogs, or they were nailed to crosses and, when daylight failed, were set on fire and burned to provide light at night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was providing circus games, mingling with the populace in the dress of a charioteer.… Hence, though [the Christians] were deserving of the most extreme punishment, a feeling of pity arose as people felt they were being sacrificed not for the public good but because of the savagery of one man.
As indeed they were. The first representation in art of Christ crucified is a derisive graffito from somewhere on the Palatine Hill, near the Circus Maximus. It shows a crudely scratched figure with a donkey’s head, hanging on a schematic crucifix, with a man raising his arms in homage and adoration. A scrawled caption says, “Alexamenos worships his god.” The donkey, in popular Roman lore, was an utterly despised animal, lower than a pig. The graffito is no older than the second century C.E.—which suggests how very slowly the story of Christ’s crucifixion seeped into popular awareness. “It is now generally accepted,” writes an authoritative scholar of the subject, “that there are no securely datable Christian archaeological remains before the second century or aboutA.D.200.”
“The blood of martyrs,” a famous saying went, “is the seed of the Church.” This was indisputably true. How did Christianity manage to detach itself from the peculiar tangle of competing creeds that jostled one another in the fourth-century Roman world? There were mystery cults of varying degrees of eccentricity, drama, and peculiarity. There was Mithraism, a powerful import from the Middle East, which had a strong following among the Roman military. Rome harbored a large minority population of émigré Jews, who of course stood by the tenets of their faith and practiced its rituals. Deified emperors received various forms of devotion. There were cults of Isis, Dionysius, Hermes, Serapis, and the patron of doctors, Asclepius, the human healer transmuted into a god. Often, when the cult of a spring goddess or a fertility god had been established for years, it was merely renamed and began a new votive life. The Christian belief that a god was likely to punish disobedient humans was not, on the whole, a feature of pagan religion. The weight of guilt or sin did not bear heavily on the worshippers. The pagan moral world was in this respect, as in others, a universe away from the spiritual environment of Judaism and Christianity, so largely animated by guilt and the desire for expiation and forgiveness.
But the greatest difference was in ideas of past and future. Roman religion presented its faithful with only the haziest conception of an afterlife. Its dreams of felicity were focused on a long-past Golden Age; perhaps this could be recaptured, but it was certain that the present was a descent from it. Christianity, however, had no powerful notions of lost happiness in an earlier life. What mattered most to the Christian was happiness or anguish after death, both eternal, both irrevocable. With the help of Jesus, the Christian soul had charge of its fate to a degree not imagined by classical religion. Hence the power of Christianity. Now the Christian and pagan paths were about to cross, with totally unforeseeable results.
A visit to the decaying remains of the Golden House of Nero can be disappointing, and there is unlikely to be much to see in another fifty or a hundred years. The most complete Roman building to survive from antiquity, however, was constructed somewhat later, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. This is the enormous concrete-and-stone masterpiece of engineering that is the Pantheon.
It was built to replace the original Pantheon, built and dedicated in 27 B.C.E., in the aftermath of Octavian’s victory at Actium by Marcus Agrippa during his third consulship. This building burned down, along with others next to it, in a huge fire in 80 C.E. Hadrian had it rebuilt, in its present form, in about 125 C.E. Rather confusingly, it bears on its pediment the legend M · AGRIPPA · L · F · COS · TERTIUM · FECIT, which stands for “Marcus Agrippa, Lucii filius, consul tertium fecit,” meaning, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, made this.” But he did not make it—Hadrian did. Agrippa was long dead (12 B.C.E.) by the time the Pantheon was finished.
The Greek word pantheion means “temple of all the gods,” which makes the building polytheistic. Cassius Dio, a Greco-Roman senator writing some seventy-five years after the present Pantheon was built, opined, “It has this name … because its vaulted roof resembles the heavens.”
In the audacity and thoroughness of its engineering, in the grand harmony of its proportions, and in the eloquent weight of history with which it is imbued, the Pantheon is certainly the greatest of all surviving structures of ancient Rome. The Colosseum exceeds it in mass and size, but it is the form of the Pantheon that elicits one’s amazement: that huge dome, opened at the top by an oculus which seems not merely to show but to admit the sky, is a landmark in the history of construction and, one might add, of architectural metaphor. Even today, almost two millennia after it was finished, the alert visitor is likely to be struck less by its great age than by its inexhaustible newness. This is truly Roman architecture, not Greek. Greek building was a matter of straight posts and straight lintels. The Roman genius was to conceive and build three-dimensional curved structures, of which the Pantheon’s dome is the sublime archetype. This could not be done, at least not on a larger scale, in hewn stone. A plastic, moldable substance was needed, and the Romans found it in concrete, whose use was unknown to Greek architecture.
Roman concrete was a structural ceramic which set hard, not from the action of heat (as pottery does in a kiln) but from the chemical interaction of hydrated (slurried or water-saturated) ingredients. Concrete consists of an aggregate (small pieces of hard stone) mixed with a semi-liquid mortar of hydraulic cement, made from a mixture of water, lime, and a crushed volcanic-ash deposit known to the Romans as pozzolana. This thick liquid is then tamped into a mold, known as a “form.” It may be reinforced with metal rods to increase its tensile strength, although this was not the Roman practice. Chemical changes in the mass as it dries make it set into a hard, impervious block, whose shape is that of the negative space inside the form. The mold is dismantled and removed; the concrete block remains.
Ancient Roman builders would mix their ingredients, wet lime and volcanic ash, in a barrow, spread this over the rock fragments of the aggregate, and then pound it together well, using a hefty wooden compactor known in English as a “beetle.” The less the water, the better the amalgamation of mortar and aggregate, the stronger the result—and it is amazing what Roman builders could do by hand, without mechanical compactors, rotary mixers, or any of today’s motorized tools. Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture(c. 25 B.C.E.) recommended a ratio of one part of lime to three of pozzolana for buildings, and one to two for underwater work. Pozzolana concrete behaved like Portland cement. It also had the extraordinarily useful merit of drying under seawater, which made it invaluable for maritime structures; the Emperor Claudius had a harbor mole built at Ostia by the simple expedient of using a whole large ship as a form, filling it with pozzolana, lime, and water, and then sinking it, so that it set into a (literally shipshape) block.
With concrete, the Romans could build aqueducts, arches, domes, and roads; it opened up means of rapid transport, storage, and defense that had not existed in earlier masonry cultures. Concrete built hundreds of bridges, which gave the Roman army swift access to the most remote parts of the Empire. The stuff of power and discipline, it was ugly and always would be—the brief mid-twentieth-century vogue for béton brut produced some of the most hideous, grime-attracting surfaces in all architecture, as a visit to London’s Festival Hall will confirm. But it could be rendered with stucco or faced with thin sheets of stone, and it was very strong and cheap, allowing the construction of very large structures. And size—raw, powerful size—had great appeal to the Romans in building their empire, as it would to the Americans in building theirs, two thousand years later.
The Pantheon is circular, and it rests on a ring beam of concrete four and a half meters deep and more than ten meters wide. The drum walls are six meters thick, and solid: the only light for the interior comes from the great oculus in the dome above. The dome of the Pantheon was constructed from concrete elements shaped by wooden formwork. It was not necessary to do this in one continuous pour. What was essential was a complete control of the dimensions of the formwork, which produced the stepped coffering within the dome; of the angling of the elements, which gave a perfect circular shape to the oculus (8.92 meters in diameter, the edge originally ringed with bronze); and of the varying density of the concrete mix. This last was crucial, because the dome, in the interest of structural stability, had to be lighter at the top than at the bottom; its thickness increases from 1.2 meters around the oculus to 6.4 meters at the bottom, where the base of the dome meets the drum. Moreover, the integrity of the structure depended on using a lighter aggregate at the top—pumice stone and tufa—than the brick and travertine at the base. The builders took care to add the concrete in small batches and tamp it very thoroughly to expel air bubbles and water before adding the next batch. In sum, the construction of this five-thousand-ton dome was a marvel of architectural forethought—what we would call “systems planning” today—and an architectural historian might well long for a sight of the wooden formwork, scaffolding, and shuttering that its construction must have entailed.
The statistics, bare as they are, remain. With a diameter of 43.3 meters, its dome is the world’s largest in unreinforced concrete, surpassing the diameter of Saint Peter’s cupola by just seventy-eight centimeters. There are larger domes on earth, but they are segmental and reinforced with steel, like the hundred-meter dome of the 1960 Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome. No modern architect would dare to attempt another Pantheon using the same structural principles—nobody would insure it. But the Pantheon has stood for nearly two thousand years and shows no prospect of collapse.
It has, however, endured some damage. Originally, the great dome was sheathed in gilded bronze, all of which was plundered by the Christian (Byzantine) Emperor Constans II in 655 C.E. Pope Gregory III replaced it, more prosaically, with lead sheets a century later. It had long been believed that the Barberini Pope Urban VIII, patron of Bernini, had the bronze beams of its portico removed, melted down, and recycled into the baldacchino of Saint Peter’s and cannons for the Castel Sant’Angelo. Alas, some historians now doubt this story.
Imperial Rome also gave birth to what must be, bar none, the greatest piece of narrative sculpture from the ancient world. It stands in the remains of the Forum Traiani, Trajan’s Forum, rising up as one of the chief landmarks of the city. Much of the sculpture of Trajan’s enormous forum was destroyed in Christian times, either burned for lime or taken away to embellish other buildings. Thus several reliefs on the Arch of Constantine (315–16 C.E.), showing battles between Romans and Dacians, were taken from the Forum, altered by inserting portrait heads of Constantine and Licinius, and installed on the arch.
Trajan’s Column, on the other hand, is virtually intact. However, it is still impossible to “read” as a continuous story, because of its form: a continuous stone frieze, seven hundred feet long, carved in low relief and wrapped in a spiral around a hundred-foot high vertical cylinder. It is a huge ancestor of the comic strip. Other monuments to this great emperor have disappeared; there was, for instance, in the middle of the Forum of Trajan, a magnificent equestrian statue of the emperor, offered to him by the Senate but later destroyed in one of the barbarian invasions of Rome (or perhaps by the Catholics).
But the column still stands, well preserved. Yet, although it is an astonishingly ambitious piece of propaganda, there is no vantage point from which it has ever been possible to see more than segments of the whole design, and of course (for a spectator at ground level) the detail toward the top tends to vanish in the recession of its perspective, although the artist or artists who designed it made an effort to counteract this by gradually increasing the height of the figures from 0.6 meters at the base to 0.9 at the top. It represents that frustration with narrative sequence which would not be conquered until the invention of the movie camera.
It is carved from seventeen drums of Luna marble. Each drum is about ten feet in diameter and hollow inside, to accommodate a cramped spiral staircase of 185 steps, so that (with difficulty) one can climb to the top; the stair is lit by forty-three small slit windows, which are virtually invisible from the outside. Even though the drums were cut separately, the matching of the figures, and the lack of damage at the joints, make it look like one seamless cylinder.
The sculptors were Roman artisans, many of whom must have been Greek slaves: the scenes are full of figures that descend from Hellenistic prototypes, and Greek-trained sculptors were usually preferred to Roman craftsmen. How many carvers worked on this enormous project is of course unknown, but there must have been many.
Dedicated in 113 C.E., it commemorates Trajan’s campaigns in the Dacian Wars on the Danube frontier in 101–2 and 105–6 C.E. For anyone with good binoculars, a sustaining interest in Roman military history, and a crick-proof neck, this is a mesmerizing document, if “document” is the right word for something so big, stony, and solid. Nothing tells us so much about the Roman army at work—not just killing and capturing barbarians, but marching, bridging, foraging for supplies, maintaining weapons, building camps, listening to the speeches of its commanders, and bearing its standards. Every detail of uniform, armor, and weaponry is correct. So is the depiction of barbarian arms, which are prominently shown as military trophies on the column’s rectangular base as well as in the scenes of conflict along the band. Throughout the narrative helix of twenty-six hundred figures there are some sixty Trajans, speaking to the troops, receiving envoys, conferring with his generals, offering sacrifices to the gods. One may also notice a large river-god, the personification of the Danube, blessing the Roman army as it crosses. The dexterity with which this story is unrolled is still as amazing as the clarity of detail with which it is set forth in the stone.
Unfortunately, the bronze statue of Trajan himself which used to stand atop the column was removed and melted down in Christian times, to be replaced in 1588 by one of Saint Peter, who had nothing to do with the Dacian Wars. If you look closely at the base, you can make out another relic of Christianization over the door to the column’s interior—the outline of the roof of what was once a tiny church, San Nicola de Columna, recorded in the early eleventh century but demolished by the sixteenth. The main feature of the interior, a gold urn containing Trajan’s ashes, was inevitably looted long ago.
Of the phrases that have survived into English from classical Latin, certainly one of the best known stands for social irresponsibility, fatuous hedonism: the public’s desire for “bread and circuses.” It comes from a satire by Juvenal, launched against the “mob” of his fellow Romans of the first century C.E. Juvenal had seen mob violence directed against Tiberius’ right-hand man Sejanus, through his many public effigies:
The ropes are heaved, down come the statues,
Axes demolish their chariot-wheels, the unoffending
Legs of their horses are broken. And now the fire
Roars up in the furnace, now flames hiss under the bellows:
The head of the people’s darling glows red-hot, great Sejanus
Crackles and melts. That face only yesterday ranked
Second in all the world. Now it’s so much scrap-metal,
To be turned into jugs and basins, frying-pans, chamber-pots.
Hang wreaths on your doors, lead a big white sacrificial
Bull to the Capitol! They’re dragging Sejanus along
By a hook, in public. Everyone cheers.…
They follow fortune as always, detest the victims.
If a little Etruscan luck has rubbed off on Sejanus,
If the doddering Emperor
Had been struck down out of the blue, this identical rabble
Would now be proclaiming that carcase an equal successor
To Augustus. But nowadays, with no vote to sell, their motto
Is “Couldn’t care less.” Time was when their plebiscite elected
Generals, Heads of State, commanders of legions; but now
They’ve pulled in their horns; only two things concern them:
Bread and the Games.
“Duas tantum res anxius optat,/panem et circenses”—the public which once cared passionately about serious matters of power and public welfare, such as consulships and the army, now merely longs for two things, bread and circuses. One might suppose this was a poet’s license, but it was closer to fact. The Caesars had discovered one of the better aids to governing a large, potentially unruly state, once the capacity for power inherent in citizenship of a republic had been collapsed into the single power of the dictator: keep the citizens diverted, at state expense. The immense political power of amusement, and the social anesthesia it fosters, was something that no one had fully acknowledged before. The Romans would use it to spectacular effect.
To wit, the Caesars underwrote leisure, the blank tablet on which amusement is written. First, they created more public leisure than any state had ever imagined giving its citizens, or ever would. This became addictive. The Roman year was divided into days on which ordinary business could be done (dies fasti) and days on which it could not, for fear of offending the gods (dies nefasti). As the number of leisure days or dies nefasti grew, so the number of dies fasti had to shrink. Earlier on, in the time of the Republic, Rome had holidays on which ludi or games were held in honor of various gods; the Ludi Romani, lasting two weeks, began in 366 B.C.E., and these were joined over the next couple of centuries by the Ludi Plebei, the Ludi Florales (in homage to the goddess Flora), and various others. In all, there were fifty-nine such holidays. But then, on top of these, one must add the thirty-four days of games instituted on various pretexts by Sulla, and the forty-five feriae publicae or general feast days, such as the Lupercalia in February (celebrating Romulus and Remus’ nurture by the lupa or she-wolf), the Volcanalia in August, and the riotously entertaining Saturnalia in December. Then there were the various days that Roman emperors designated to honor themselves, or were awarded by an obsequious Senate. All in all, by the reign of Emperor Claudius, Rome had 159 public holidays a year—three a week!—most of which were accompanied by games and shows paid for with public money. And reckoning in the irregular feast days that emperors were apt to decree on the slenderest pretexts, one might not be far off the mark in saying that imperial Rome had one holiday for every day of work.
This may seem an absurd disproportion to modern eyes, and indeed it is, but it kept the plebs in line and had two major side effects. It meant that Rome was perennially short of useful, productive free labor, and this shortfall had to be made up by slaves, the only ones who did not share in the unremitting fun of the festivals; the dependence on slave labor meant that Rome would always lag in certain areas of technology and invention. Second, it meant that the food, handed out by the emperor’s minions, was an essential accompaniment to the pacifying distraction of the circus games, since a man and his household must eat whether they work or not. The mob is volatile. A populace that is both hungry and bored is a powder keg, and the successors of Augustus wanted no such risk. At any time there were probably 150,000 people in Rome living on “public assistance,” meaning free food and games. To give them a common cause of anger might be politically risky.
In the short run, the addiction to state-sponsored amusement was very effective. “The height of political wisdom,” the second-century commentator Marcus Cornelius Fronto called it. “The success of government depends on amusements as much as on serious things. Neglect of serious matters entails the greater detriment, of amusements the greater unpopularity. The handouts of money are less eagerly desired than the shows.”
What were these shows? Basically, they were of three kinds: horse races, theater, and, most popular of all, gladiatorial combat.
The horse races were run in “circuses,” racetracks specially designed for them. Rome had three principal circuses: the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Gaii (“of Gaius,” named after the emperor nicknamed Caligula, who had it built on the site of what is now the Vatican), and, grandest of all, as its name implies, the Circus Maximus. All have since been buried beneath the structures of a later Rome. The form of the circuses never changed, though their sizes did. Two long straightaways formed a rectangle with a half-circle at one end. The strip between them was called the spina, or backbone. The public sat on long tiers of raked seats, parallel to the spina and facing it across the track. The Circus Maximus could hold some 250,000 spectators, though estimates vary; it was a gigantic structure, six hundred meters long by two hundred wide, or over a kilometer and a half per lap, of which there were normally seven per race. With a gross area of about forty-five thousand square meters, it had twelve times the area of the Colosseum.
Each driven by a single charioteer, the chariots would thunder around this track. The chariots, the horses, and their drivers were kept in their carceres, or starting pens, until the signal was given; then the doors would spring open, and the race would be on. The starting pens were made of tufa, and the posts marking the turning points were of wood. The Emperor Claudius improved on this by having the pens reconstructed from marble and the turning posts from gilded bronze, which gave an even grander aspect to the races. Some chariots were bigae, or two-horse rigs; others, trigae, three-horse; quadrigae (four-horse), and so on up; the most common and popular type of racer was drawn by four horses, but eight-horse chariots were not unknown.
The charioteers commonly began as slaves, and won their freedom through skill and ruthless success on the track. Driving to win in the circus was the most effective way for a fearless, illiterate athlete to rise above the mob and become a hero: a charioteer who consistently won was a star, he had the mob on his side and, besieged by groupies, was enormously rewarded, both in prestige and in cash. Nothing essential would change between the day of the Roman chariot hero and that of the modern stock-car racing star, except of course that two thousand years ago the charioteer did not get to endorse products and had to live on his prize money alone. But this could be enormous. Undoubtedly, the most successful charioteer in history was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, originally from Lusitanian Spain, who competed in more than 4,200 races over a twenty-four-year career and retired in 150 C.E., having reached his early forties and won or placed 2,900 times, amassing 35 million sesterces. Unsurprisingly, no other drivers had the skill, the stamina, or the blind luck to equal this barely credible record. Some did very well: the charioteer Scorpus, for instance, won or placed 2,048 times. But by far the more common fate of the charioteer was to end up in his early twenties dead or a crippled pauper, crushed under the wheels of his opponents.
Theatrical shows were popular with the Roman mob, but their drawing power could hardly compare to that of the circus; the three principal theaters of Rome (the Theater of Pompey, the Theater of Marcellus, the Theater of Balbus) probably had a combined seating capacity of fifty thousand—huge by modern standards, but nothing like the capacity of the Circus Maximus. The shows they put on tended to be gross, melodramatic, and simpleminded—in the same vein, one might say, as most of the produce on American television today. There was no Roman equivalent to Sophocles or Aristophanes. As Barry Cunliffe points out, “Creative theater in the Greek sense was already dead. Plautus and Terence represent not the beginnings of a new Roman approach to drama and comedy, but the end of the Greek-inspired tradition.”
But they were only theater, not reality. The headiest stuff of Roman spectacle, barbaric and frightful and (to us) incomprehensible as it was, were the munera, the spectacle of men slaughtering other men in gladiatorial combat in an arena built for that specific purpose. Virtuously, we recoil from the very thought of these dreadful entertainments. We cannot imagine (we say) queuing up to see them. They represent an idea of the value of human life so totally opposed to our own—or what we would like to claim as our own—as to extinguish all comparison between ourselves and the ancient Romans. We good and gentle people do not have such sadistic voyeurism simmering beneath our skins—so we would prefer to think.
But if the existence and popularity of the munera are an indication, it is that civilized men (and women, too) can and will do almost anything, however strange and terrible, if they see others doing it and are persuaded of its normality, necessity, and entertainment value. Moreover, Romans took the munera as a lavish gift from the Caesars to themselves. A succession of autocrats, starting with Augustus himself and continuing onward through Pompey and Julius Caesar, treated them as the greatest imperial show of all, and hence a great public gift. In his Res gestae, list of the things he had done for the state, Augustus recounted, “I gave a gladiatorial show three times in my own name, and five times in the names of my sons or grandsons; at these shows about 10,000 fought.… Twenty-six times I provided for the people … hunting spectacles of African wild beasts in the circus or in the Forum or in the amphitheaters; in these exhibitions about 3,500 animals were killed.” Not to have attended such bloody extravaganzas, not to immerse oneself in the entertainment, would be a sign of base ingratitude. Not that the emperor up in his pulvinar (royal box) would have noticed; but your fellow Romans well might, and treat you with derision and contempt for it.
The Romans attributed ancient origins to the munera. Many thought they had begun with the foundation of the city, when such duels had supposedly been fought in honor of the god Consus, one of the primitive forms of Neptune. Probably the first “games” of this kind, albeit on a modest scale, were fought between gladiators in the Forum Boarium (cattle market) in Rome. They soon became extremely popular, and were rapidly enlarged: at the funeral games of the pontifex maximus Publius Licinius Crassus Dives in 183B.C.E., sixty pairs of gladiators fought to the death. A variant on these man-to-man combats was the man-to-beast encounter in which criminals suffered the particular humiliation of damnatio ad bestias, condemned to destruction by wild animals. The first example of this practice is supposed to have happened the year after the consul Aemilius Paullus’ military victory at Pydna in 168 B.C.E. over the Macedonian King Perseus, when Paullus had his deserters crushed to death by his war elephants.
Amphitheaters appeared wherever cities grew. By the second century C.E., seventy-two were to be found in Gaul, twenty-eight along the towns of Rome’s Northern frontier, nineteen in Britannia—a total of some 186 sites throughout the Roman world. By far the largest, and the best known, of these was the Colosseum in Rome.
The Colosseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater, the largest example of a type of building peculiar to imperial Rome, used for spectacles and gladiatorial contests in which thousand of men and beasts struggled and died for the entertainment of a mass audience.
The earliest of these amphitheaters dated from 53 B.C.E., and stood in the Forum Boarium, where early “games” had been held in honor of Decius Brutus Scaeva some two centuries before—a link to the gloomy and chthonic ceremonies of Etruscan death. Little is known about either its architecture or the gladiatorial shows it staged. It was presently replaced by the Amphitheatrum Castrense, a three-story oval structure built not far from the present site of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, a broad oval in plan, with a long axis of eighty-eight meters. At first the Castrense was the only amphitheater in Rome.
But this building, though impressive in size, was completely dwarfed by the arena, which came to be known to all and sundry as the Colosseum. The name does not mean “gigantic building”—it means “the place of the Colossus,” a necessary distinction, because the “colossus” in question was an actual statue. It was a portrait of the Emperor Nero, cast in bronze by the Greek sculptor Zenodorus, nude and some 120 Roman feet high (according to Suetonius), which stood at the entrance to Nero’s prodigy of extravagance theDomus Aurea or Golden House, on the side of the Velian Hill. This monster of imperial narcissism hardly outlived its subject. After Nero died, his eventual successor, the Emperor Vespasian, who understandably did not want to be overshadowed by the largest effigy of another monarch in the Roman world, had his artists and engineers convert it into an image of Sol, the sun god, by equipping it with a radiant head-dress, something like the Statue of Liberty’s, with seven rays, each twenty-three Roman feet long. In 128C.E., the Emperor Hadrian had the whole thing moved to a site just northwest of the Colosseum—a square in the street surface, seven meters on a side, marks the spot. Hadrian was no stranger to huge engineering projects—this was, after all, the man who built thePantheon and his own magnificent villa at Tivoli—but the transfer of Nero’s statue was one of his largest. The statue was moved standing up vertically, hauled by twenty-four elephants. This was done around 128 C.E., but after Hadrian died, in 138 C.E., a successor, the deranged, dissolute Commodus, had the head of the Colossus removed and replaced by a portrait of himself, glaring across the city. (There was a strong relation between the arena of the Colosseum and the fantasies of Commodus, who identified with Hercules and was obsessed with being a gladiator. He had been known, among other proofs of skill, to ride around the arena lopping off the heads of terrified ostriches, like some madman in a park decapitating tulips with swings of his walking stick.)
In due course, the attributes of Commodus were stripped from the Colossus, and it became Sol once more. The frequent rituals held to venerate it gradually petered out, and by the end of the eighth century, it was no longer being mentioned, so presumably it had been demolished and melted down for its bronze. It left behind it a famous cliché. The English monk and chronicler (672–735) known as the Venerable Bede, who had never actually been to Italy, wrote, “Quamdiu stabit Coliseus stabit et Roma; quando cadet Coliseus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus”—“As long as the Colossus stands, Rome will stand; when it falls, Rome will fall, too; when Rome falls, so will the world.” This was echoed by many a later English writer, most memorably by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, transferring the supposedly eternal endurance of the statue to the arena itself:
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls—the World.” From our own land
Thus spake the pilgrims o’er this mighty wall
In Saxon times.…
This enormous oval arena stood on a portion—though only a small one—of the site of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Its design, like that of the Golden House itself, was accomplished after the Great Fire. It may be that Nero’s architects, of whom little is known beyond their names, meant to produce a cavea, or internal space, with some eighty regular arched openings, framed by engaged Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. It had begun as an ornamental lake, which had been turned into a series of fountains and grottoes, ringed by the Velian, Oppian, and Caelian hills. The idea was to build the largest and most beautiful of all amphitheaters, but it was too grand and time-consuming a project to be carried out by any single emperor. The floor plan was an ellipse, the long axis eighty-six meters long, the short fifty-four meters.
Vespasian (reigned 69–79 C.E.) pushed its construction to the top tier of the second arcade of the outer wall before his death in 79. The Emperor Titus added the third and fourth stories of seating. Domitian (reigned 81–96 C.E.) is said to have completed the topmost story of the amphitheater ad clipea—as far up as the emblematic gilded bronze shields that ringed the top story of its exterior. It must have been a formidably impressive sight when finished, although a series of lightning bolts and earthquake tremors damaged it over the years. It was struck by lightning in 217, shaken by the earthquakes of 442 and 470, and seriously attacked by demolishers who were after the massive stonework and marble facings of which the Colosseum was built, material which was later recycled into other buildings of Rome. In the sixteenth century, for instance, the steps of Saint Peter’s were built of stone quarried from the Colosseum.
By then, the wreck looked much as it does today, an enormous array of ring corridors. Through these radiated vomitoria, or radial corridors through which the audience streamed in and out to take up or vacate their places on the raked seating for the show. Underneath them were the gladiators’ cells, the cages for the wild beasts whose deaths were such a popular part of the Colosseum “games,” and the elaborate, ponderous stage machinery. Although none of the seating survives, it is clear that the arena itself was an ellipse, floored with heavy planks of wood which were strewn with sand for traction and could be removed for “special effects.” What these effects were remains, to some extent, obscure.
The auditorium could hold as many as fifty thousand, and perhaps even seventy-five thousand people, and one has to imagine this mass audience stomping, hollering, and baying for blood; the “games” were the most barbarous form of orgiastic release ever devised, and their addictive power was immense.
All fighters were trained in a ludus gladiatorius, or gladiators’ school, generally attached to an amphitheater. Each school was organized and run by an entrepreneur known as a lanista, sometimes an ex-gladiator himself, a tough and ruthless man who trained up his fighters from the bottom of the heap: from the endlessly replenished supply of prisoners-of-war and condemned thieves and murderers, from slaves, and even from paid volunteers, down on their luck and desperate for cash. Perhaps one gladiator in five was a free man. Gladiatorial fighting in what was called the hoplomachia (a Greek term meaning “heavily armed struggle”) did at least create the possibility of freedom and reward for a really successful thug, if he won enough fights in the arena. Generally, the gladiator, once downed, would be doomed to die; a dreadful figure symbolically costumed as Charon, ferryman of the dead, or Hermes Psychopompos, carrier of souls, would step forward with a heavy wooden mallet and smash in his forehead. But if the gladiator had killed enough, and the audience and emperor approved with the thumbs-up signal, he might be awarded the rudis, or wooden sword, symbol of his favor and manumission. Then he would be allowed to live and be laden with treasure—silver salvers, gold baubles.
One of Cicero’s letters to Atticus mentions that in Capua alone there lived five thousand gladiators, and it was from the gladiators’ school in Capua in 73 B.C.E. that the Thracian hero Spartacus arose to lead the most dangerous and nearly successful slave revolt in Roman history.
It was necessary, for the sake of dramatic variety, to keep the audience on its toes by having various types or classes of gladiator. One kind fought with sword and full-length shield; another, with a shorter dagger and a round leather buckler. The retiarii, their weapons chosen in homage to the god Neptune, carried nets in which they strove to entangle their opponents, and razor-pronged tridents with which to impale them. The custom was to make them fight murmillones—netless but wielding swords, identified by fish on their helmets.
It was considered especially piquant to send different kinds of opponents out onto the sands of the arena. One learns, for instance, of “a bold array of dwarves—they give and suffer wounds, and threaten death—with such tiny fists!” Women, untrained in a gladiatorial school, would be sent out to hack and bash awkwardly at one another on the sands, or be pitted against dwarves—a certain crowd-pleaser.
One also sometimes reads of naval battles fought in arenas specially flooded for the occasion, but if this happened at all it must have been very uncommon. The only well-attested event of that kind in Rome took place in a stagnum, an artificial pond, somewhere to the south of what is now Trastevere, where (at the command of Augustus) there was a scaled-down restaging of the Battle of Salamis, involving thirty full-sized biremes and triremes. But although it caused much loss of life, the wretched crews cannot have had much room to maneuver: the pond was only half a kilometer long.
Since the gangs of gladiators were privately owned and hired, they were quite often deployed outside the arena or the training school in street violence fomented by the political ambitions and enmities of their rich masters—becoming, in effect, private armies.
Then there were the fights between man and beast, or beast and beast, known as venationes. The former were simulated hunts—except that the animals had no way out, no caves or forests to escape into. They were kept penned and caged below the floor of the amphitheaters and released to come charging up ramps to face the bestiarii or animal killers. Outstanding gladiators might win themselves considerable prestige, though not nearly as much as heroic chariot-racers—but a bestiarius had none and was regarded as somewhere between a butcher and a common criminal, as indeed he usually was. These entertainments were first presented early in the second century B.C.E. The Roman Empire in Africa furnished its arenas with what seemed, at first, to be an inexhaustible supply of wild animals, captured by intrepid hunters on African deserts and savannas and then shipped back, caged and alive, to be tormented to a pitch of fury and then done to death in the various arenas. Among them were elephants, lions, panthers, tigers, and—unlikely though it may sound—hippopotami, which somehow survived the sea voyage in their cages. (Despite its placid, portly, and waddling appearance, the hippo if enraged is quite fast on its feet and can easily kill a man.) As a result of their use in the arenas, North African elephants became extinct in Roman times. During the opening slaughters of the Colosseum, in 80 C.E., at the behest of the Emperor Titus, some five thousand beasts were killed in a single day, either by human butchers or by other animals.
But not every Roman approved of the munera. Some were disgusted by them and emphatically said so. One such person was Seneca, who described in his Moral Epistles how he went to a midday show in the arena and found, “It is pure murder. The men have no protective covering. Their entire bodies are exposed to the blows, and no blow is ever struck in vain.… In the morning men are thrown to the lions and the bears, at noon they are thrown to their spectators. The spectators call for the slayer to be thrown to those who in turn will slay him, and they detain the victor for another butchering. The outcome for the combatants is death.… And when the show stops for intermission, ‘Let’s have men killed meanwhile! Let’s not have nothing going on!’ ” Cicero attended avenatio and came away feeling distinctly let down. “I … saw nothing new in it. The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and the crowd were greatly impressed, but manifested no pleasure. Indeed, the result was a certain compassion, and a kind of feeling that that huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.”
The origins of these games must lie in more formalized human sacrifice, and are lost in antiquity; presumably, they descend from the gloomy funeral customs of the Etruscans—the assumption being that bloodshed reconciles the dead with the living.
There can be no doubt that the Roman public was debased by the gladiatorial shows. How could they not have been? Was any counter supplied by the State? None whatever; but at least the Caesars gave their subjects another, somewhat less murderous source of pleasure: the public baths. These structures did little but good. For most citizens of Rome, private bathrooms were nearly unknown: they were too costly to heat, and their water supply was at best irregular. Public baths, however, were the great amenity of Roman city life. They began to make their full appearance in the second century B.C.E., and in 33 B.C.E., when Agrippa had a census made of the public baths with paid admission in Rome, there were already 170; by Pliny’s time, the total was closer to a thousand, many of which were presumably tacky if not outright filthy. But the great imperial bath complexes, whose construction probably began late in the first century B.C.E. and continued into the third century B.C.E., were entirely another matter: huge, splendid, and overwhelmingly popular. Their role as a point of contact between imperial largesse and the desires of the Roman public can hardly be overestimated. The thermae were not a mere amenity, but a central element of civilized life in Rome and throughout its empire. One finds, for instance, an edict of Caracalla from 215 C.E., banishing as possible subversives all Egyptians living in Alexandria except “pig dealers, river boatmen, and the men who bring down reeds for heating the baths.”
The first of the baths was created by Agrippa in about 25 B.C.E., near the Pantheon. It had a laconium, a dry sweat-bath, and was heavily adorned with works of art, including pictures (both encaustics and frescoes) which were recessed into the walls of even the hottest rooms.
The second great bath complex was the thermae built in 62 C.E. by Nero, struck by lightning and burned, and at last finished in 64—just in time for the catastrophic fire that swept through Rome in that year, which it survived. It occupied a site between the northwest corner of the Pantheon and the Stadium of Domitian, now Piazza Navona, and although it has almost entirely disappeared, two gray granite columns from it were used, in the seventeenth century, to repair the porch of the Pantheon, and other spoliawere cannibalized for later palaces; another column and a piece of cornice were dug out from beneath the piazza outside San Luigi dei Francesi and set up in Via di Sant’ Eustachio as late as 1950. None of these fragments give any idea of the scale of the Baths of Nero, whose plan was about 190 by 120 meters.
The third major Roman bath was that of Titus, dedicated in 80 C.E., the same year as the Colosseum, and also built on part of the site of the Golden House of Nero, of which little remains except the brick cores of some columns of its porch, facing the Colosseum.
The fourth, built after 104 C.E. on a huge rectangular section of the burned-out ruins of the Golden House of Nero, 250 meters wide by 210 deep, was the Baths of Trajan. The fifth was officially known as the Baths of Antoninus, although everyone calls them theBaths of Caracalla. They were completed early in the third century C.E., and they are vast, covering eleven hectares. The sixth, the Baths of Diocletian (c. 306), was even bigger, with an area of thirteen hectares. Today its site and vestiges contain a large church, an oratory, and one of the greatest collections of antique art in Italy, the National Museum of Rome. Because of the administrative and fiscal chaos into which so much of the administration of Italian museums has fallen, whole tracts of this notionally sublime collection are closed to the public—for instance, none of the Ludovisi collection, except the Ludovisi Throne itself, is open to view. But it is still extraordinarily rich, not only in sculpture, but also in ancient Roman painting, in which it nearly rivals the unsurpassable collections of the Naples Museum.
The parts of the imperial baths that are still standing have always afforded inspiration to architects—including, especially, those of the past century. Roman thermae supplied the models for those mighty expressions of the mystique of early-twentieth-century American travel, Grand Central Station, and the former Pennsylvania Station (1902–11), by McKim, Mead & White—with its waiting room modeled on the Baths of Caracalla but enlarged by a quarter—demolished in 1963, when, in one of the worst outrages ever inflicted on Manhattan, it made room for the squalid warren that has replaced it. The Baths of Caracalla also furnished the prototype for another nineteenth-century masterpiece in New York—the cool, august spaces of the entrance hall of Richard Morris Hunt’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the influence of these ancient thermae extended well into the twentieth century, and will continue to be felt in the future by any architect who values mass and volume above mere transparency.
A Beaux-Arts architect like Hunt tried to get back to the magisterially pristine form of the Roman baths. Sixty years later, another genius of American design, Louis I. Kahn, was inspired by their state as ruins. The various baths, including those of Caracalla and Diocletian, had been built of concrete and brick, then sumptuously clad in limestone and colored marble. All this surface and carved detail was stripped away after the death of the Empire, and the brick set in to crumble, leaving only the rudiments of architecture behind it: mass, space, light. These were the rudiments Kahn set himself to capture in new structures, and his search for them began in his experience of Roman ruins, particularly the thermae, with their giant vaults made possible only by that Roman invention, the poured concrete arch, which generated the vault (if extended) and the dome (if rotated)—so un-Greek, so prototypically modern.
Whatever the architectural differences of individual buildings, the process of bathing—and the divisions of space and use that it implied—hardly varied. Naturally, all the functions of the bath palace had to be grouped under one roof, a huge quadrilateral, with shops and exercise and massage rooms along its outer sides, and the bathing facilities within. The rituals of the Roman bath were, so to speak, processional. On entering, one shed one’s clothes in the dressing room or apodyterium, stowed them in a locker, and then headed for the tepidarium or warm hall, which had on one side the frigidarium or cold plunge-bath, and on the other the steam room, the caledarium. Next to that was the hot-air sweating room, the sudatorium. The necessary heat for this system, which was enormous, came from furnaces stoked with firewood or reeds. One could lose a lot of weight in such places, sweating out one’s surplus fluids. Seneca described (vividly, though perhaps with some exaggeration) what it was like to live over a bathhouse. The grunting and groaning were enough to make him queasy:
When the stronger fellows are exercising and swinging heavy leaden weights in their hands … I hear their groans; and whenever they release their pent-up breath, I hear their hissing and jarring breathing.… Add to this the arrest of a brawler or a thief, and the fellow who always likes to hear his own voice in the bath, and those who jump into the pool with a mighty splash as they strike the water.… Imagine the hair plucker keeping up a constant chatter in his thin and strident voice…[and] the varied cries of the sausage dealer and confectioner and all the peddlers of the cook shops.…
The thermae were not only for bathing. The larger ones, in Rome, were likely to contain libraries and galleries. Some were so richly endowed with sculpture, both copies and original pieces in marble and bronze, that they were almost museums in their own right: the Laocoön, considered by eighteenth-century connoisseurs to be the very quintessence of achievement in classical sculpture, was allegedly disinterred in the ruins of a bathhouse. Probably the presence of such works of art did much to appease the objections of conservative Romans who felt that the athletic prowess celebrated by bath culture was anti-intellectual. The baths rightly inspired civic pride. “With so many indispensable structures for so many aqueducts,” remarked Frontinus, “compare, if you will, the idle pyramids or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks.” This was not empty boasting, even though it is unclear why Frontinus should have regarded Greek architecture as useless. Certainly, to a Roman the pyramids of Egypt, those prodigies of stonework with no function beyond the burial of a single man, must have seemed “idle”—the extravagances of religions other than one’s own do tend to look that way. But a Roman took great pride in his city’s baths. Their size and magnificence did not overpower him—rather the reverse, for they reminded him that he was the reason for the state. In form and meaning, they were the very quintessence of public architecture.
The Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (reigned 284–305), or Diocletian, did much more than build the immense baths in Rome that bear his name.
He was a straightforward soldier from Dalmatia, with little formal education, not even Roman by ancestry (his original name, Diocles, was Greek), and of the humblest birth. This was a prime factor in his control of the army, and in the army’s loyalty to him. The social gap between army officers and enlisted men now yawned; it was not just an inconvenience, as the social distance between an officer earl and Tommy Atkins might have been in the British army, but an ever-present danger to the coherence of the Roman forces. The more the army had to fill its ranks with “barbarians” rather than true Romani, as it did, the less patriotic ardor it could expect from the men who fought for Rome. At least the line soldiers, knowing that their emperor began as a low-class outsider like themselves, were more likely to stick with him.
He was very pious, devoted to the Roman gods, and this must have caused family stresses when both his wife, Prisca, and his daughter, Valeria, converted, as it was said, to Christianity. He was also imbued with an extreme arrogance, which he regarded as a necessity of power. Augustus had begun the tradition of the Principate, by which the emperor was always “primus inter pares,” “first among equals”; he had loathed being addressed as dominus, “lord,” although in practice his power was absolute. Later emperors observed this formula, with varying degrees of conviction.
The earlier Emperor Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus, 9–79 C.E.), for example, had viewed the fantasy of the Divine Emperor with a most commendable skepticism, but he was the only emperor to do so. He was a sound, fair, hard-boiled military man, who had won honors under Claudius for his role in the conquest of southern Britain in 43 C.E., and in 66 had commanded three legions in the Jewish War. He loathed pretension and effeminacy, qualities which had not been in short supply under previous emperors. When a dandified young officer, smelling heavily of scent, came to thank Vespasian for his promotion, the emperor brusquely remarked that he would rather he smelled of garlic, and busted him back to the ranks. He also had an ironic sense of humor, and no patience with the mumbo-jumbo of deification—a fact commemorated in his famous deathbed remark, as he was expiring of a fever in 79 C.E., “Vae, puto deus fio,”—“Oh, no! I think I am becoming a god!”
Diocletian was not going to be anything but a god. He completed the evolution of the Principate to the Dominate—undisguised, ceremonious, and absolute monarchy; Oriental monarchy, as many thought. The subject, approaching the presence of the emperor, had to prostrate himself and, when he spoke, address him as dominus et magister—“lord and master.” As we have seen, there had been moves in this direction made by previous emperors. To be treated as a god on earth—that had been expected by Caligula, Domitian, and Commodus. By the time Diocletian became emperor, there was nothing unfamiliar or freakish about emperor worship, and it meshed perfectly with the great third-century jurist Ulpian’s declaration “The emperor is above the laws.” Diocletian may have regarded this as entirely benign, a corollary of his belief that, as emperor, he was the pater patriae, father of the Roman people. But once you have tasted godhood it is not so easy to de-deify yourself.
However, he was earthbound enough to recognize that the sheer size and complexity of the Roman Empire, and the slow communication this size meant, demanded changes in the administration of its government. He therefore introduced the Tetrarchy, or Rule by Four. It actually began as a diarchy, rule by two. In 285, he designated his lieutenant Maximianus as “Caesar” and put him in charge of the Western half of the Empire, while he kept the East. (Diocletian was worshipped as the earthly incarnation of Jupiter, and now Maximianus became, for religious purposes, Hercules.) In 293, Diocletian appointed two more Caesars: Constantius, father of the future Constantine the Great, who was to rule Britain and Gaul in the West, and Galerius, who got the Balkans in the East. But he had to be sure that ambitious sub-Caesars did not become too powerful, so he split the provinces: divide and rule. There would henceforth be six dioceses in the East and six in the West, divided into about a hundred provinces, each with its own governor. The roster, in its essential features, would last for centuries—it was the basis of most subsequent national divisions.
Inflation was a huge, intractable problem, which Diocletian lacked the economic ingenuity to control. He tried, and failed, to fix prices by issuing edicts limiting both wages and the sale price of every sort of commodity and service. An army modius of ground millet, for instance, would cost 100 denarii; a pound of best-quality pork leg, 20 denarii; oysters, a denarius each; and so on. An arithmetic teacher was to earn 75 denarii per month; a carpenter, 50 per day; a scribe, “for second-quality writing,” 20 denarii per hundred lines; a lawyer, 1,000 denarii for pleading a case; and a checkroom attendant in a bathhouse, 2 denarii per person. None of this worked; it merely produced a runaway black market.
The Empire’s coinage, meanwhile, became so debased as to be almost worthless. Nobody trusted it. There was not enough gold and silver bullion in the Empire to reinstate the currency, and eventually Diocletian was forced to accept tax payments, and to pay his soldiers, in kind rather than in cash. Nevertheless, there were imperial headquarters to be built for the tetrarchs: in the East, at Nicomedia, Antioch, and Thessalonica; in the Balkans, at Sirmium; and in the North, at Milan, Trier, and York.
One might have thought all this would have distracted the god Diocletian from such matters as a small, peripheral Jewish religion, but far from it. For the first two decades of his reign, Diocletian paid no attention to the Christians; but toward 303, he began to worry about the infiltration of their faith into high places, mainly through the conversion of governors’ wives and daughters. It worried him—understandably, in view of his own immense egotism and his piety toward the old gods—that such families were moving away from the imperial cult, especially since some of the more intelligent members of the army high command were becoming Christians, too. This canker had better be excised; even the oracle of Apollo at Didyma, near Miletus, urged the emperor to attack the Church. The result was a fierce renewal of persecution of Christians, designed to force them to accept the imperial cult and worship Diocletian as a god—which, of course, few of them would do. It is not known how many were killed in the “Great Persecution” of 303–13; severe as it was, Christian writers like Lactantius were bound to exaggerate it and to demonize Diocletian, “inventor of wicked deeds and the contriver of evils … ruining everything.” (One should, perhaps, remember that Lactantius had a bit of an ax to grind. He had been summoned from Africa to teach Latin rhetoric in Nicomedia—an extremely important academic post, given that Nicomedia was scheduled to become one of the new Romes. Then, during the Great Persecution, Diocletian fired him. To lose such a job was a very severe blow that demanded literary revenge, which Lactantius certainly exacted with a bloodcurdling text, On the Deaths of the Persecutors.)
There is a temptation—fostered, of course, by pious impulses—to suppose that Christianity had somehow “triumphed” over Roman paganism by the fourth century, completely changing the religious horizon of Rome. Nothing could be further from the truth.
With the establishment of the Tetrarchy, no emperor spent any length of time in Rome. Once the caput mundi, it was no longer an effective center of power; its monopoly of power was gone. Perhaps because of this, its pagan institutions continued to flourish. The building of its huge defensive bulwark against barbarian invasion, the Aurelian Walls (309–12 and 402–3), with their fifteen-meter height and their 380 towers, created what Richard Krautheimer called “the greatest monument of late antique Rome.” Any list of the pagan enterprises of Rome in the thirty years before the arrival of its first Christian emperor, Constantine, would need to include the Baths of Diocletian, the Senate House on the Forum Romanum (rebuilt after fire in 283), the Basilica Julia (rebuilt after the same fire), the colossal hall of the Basilica Nova (with its three huge barrel-vaulted niches, built by Maxentius in his six-year reign, 306–12), the apsed hall of the Temple of Venus and Cupid, and much more. Fora, temples, sanctuaries, shrines were constantly being repaired and rebuilt. Through the fourth century, Rome seemed to visitors “an essentially classical, secular and pagan city.” The fourth-century gazetteers listed, among its contents, twenty-eight libraries, eleven fora, ten basilicas, eleven public baths, nine circuses and theaters, thirty-six triumphal arches, and forty-six brothels. Even after Constantine’s death, the persistence of pagan memory was strong. There may have been a “new Rome” and Constantine would of course change the city, but not so huge a change that it suddenly rendered old Rome itself irrelevant. Cities didn’t die at the stroke of a pen. The persistence of pagan memory was too strong for that. Rome remained a stronghold of enlightened paganism, drawn from Gnostic and Neoplatonic philosophies, strengthened by some of the greatest art and literature the world had ever seen, and supported by powerful and conservative local aristocrats. In those decades, to be conservative was to be anti-Christian—indeed, to regard Christianity itself as an intrusive lowbrow sect, not worth a civilized person’s attention except as an example of the kind of folly that was coming out of North Africa. If anyone had suggested to such a Roman that, at some future date, this little sect would be larger, richer, and more powerful than any number of Roman Empires, he would have thought the proposal lunatic. And the struggle over that transfer of power would be fierce.
For what could then have been more powerful than Rome? Or richer? The Tetrarchy may have disbanded the central power, but the more wars Rome won, the more its empire expanded, the richer it got: this was inevitable. And the richer it got, the more luxurious its life became. Not everyone’s life, obviously; but for the top 5 percent, life took on a character of manic overindulgence and extravagance, unpleasantly reminiscent of the life of the American super-rich today. “Frangitur ipsa suis Roma superba bonis,” wroteSextus Propertius: “Proud Rome is now brought low by her wealth.” Pliny the Elder, writing as early as the first century C.E., estimated that at the “lowest reckoning” the expensive imports from India, China, and the Arabian peninsula “drain our empire of 100,000,000 sesterces every year—that is what our luxuries and womenfolk cost us.” Granted, Roman writers (just like American ones two thousand years later) were fond of invoking the good old days of the early Republic, when men were men, life was simple, and morality stricter. Why did frugality prevail in olden times? Because, Tacitus explained, we were once all citizens of one city. “Even when we were masters of Italy alone, we did not have the temptations of today. Victories in foreign wars taught us to devour the substance of others, victories in civil wars, our own.” Inveighing against recent luxury and decadence, Seneca pulled out all the stops:
We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles from Alexandria are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, if they are not covered all over with an elaborate coating variegated to look like painting; if our vaulted ceilings are not concealed in glass; if our swimming pools—into which we lower our bodies after they have been drained weak by copious sweating—are not lined with Thasian marble, once a rare sight in a temple, or if the water does not flow from silver spigots.… We have become so luxurious that we will tread upon nothing but precious stones.
In the view of the historian Livy, writing around the same time, the appetite for debilitating luxury came to Rome from its conquests in the East, and was brought back by the military:
It was through the army serving in Asia that the beginnings of foreign luxury were introduced into the city. These men brought into Rome, for the first time, bronze couches, costly coverlets, tapestries, and other fabrics, and—what was at the time considered gorgeous furniture—pedestal tables and silver salvers. Banquets were made more attractive by the presence of girls who played on the harp.… The cook, whom the ancients regarded and treated as the lowest menial, was rising in value, and what had been a servile office came to be looked upon as a fine art.
What did these Romans eat and drink? The answer is a little disappointing, if your expectations of Roman food are based on the legendary blowouts recorded in Petronius’ Satyricon and other accounts of high living. We read of Trimalchio, a former slave grown immensely rich through speculation, entertaining guests in his house in Campania. They are shown a bronze donkey—Corinthian bronze, the most expensive kind—with panniers on its sides, one full of white and the other of black olives. There are silver dishes “laden with dormice sprinkled with honey and poppyseed…[and] sausages smoking-hot on a silver gridiron, with damsons and pomegranates sliced up …” Each dish is engraved with Trimalchio’s name and its own weight, so that all the guests know what it is worth. The pièce de résistance is a basket full of straw, with a carved wooden peahen sitting atop it, her wings spread. Two slaves set it down; trumpeters play a fanfare; the slaves rummage in the straw, finding egg after egg. Trimalchio exclaims: “My friends, I ordered peahens’ eggs to be set under a hen, and by Jove I am afraid they are half-hatched already; but let us try whether we can still suck them.” Each guest is given a silver spoon “weighing at least half a pound,” and they start on the eggs, which turn out to be made of “rich pastry.” Within, hidden in the yolk, the narrator finds a fine, plump figpecker, a great delicacy then, as now.
This kind of gastro-pornography is what springs to mind when most people today think of Roman food, but it has little to do with what the vast majority of Romans actually ate. Their daily fodder was much more likely to be polenta (a corn porridge, either hot and gloppy or, when congealed, refried in slices), beans, and bitter herbs, with meat (preferably pork) as a rarity, and eggs and an occasional chicken. Most working-class Romans subsisted largely on pulses and bread. A lot of cheese was eaten, and there cannot have been much difference between the pecorinos or sheep’s-milk cheeses consumed today and those of Roman times. Vegetables, of course, made an appearance, in such forms as a delicious preparation of young zucchini known as scapece, which is still served in some Roman restaurants. There would also be fish, though without refrigeration it cannot often have been fresh. The very rich were able to maintain fishponds—there are even horror stories about slaves being fed to their enormous eels. The universal stimulant of appetite was garum, a decoction of rotting fish guts, which seems to have resembled a very smelly and salty ancestor of Worcestershire sauce. Roman households consumed it rather as lower-class Americans today consume tomato ketchup, putting it on everything. We tend to assume that garum merely stank of rotten fish, but it must have had a more subtle taste than that.
The potato, the tomato, and all other imports from the undiscovered New World were, of course, unknown. So was sugarcane. When a Roman cook wanted to sweeten a dish, he did it with honey.
Another outlet for Roman wealth and decadence during this time was art. Just as today, the prices of fashionable “fine” art were fantastically inflated: ancient Rome, it seems, had its equivalents to the hysterical, grotesque pricing of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. The orator Lucius Crassus paid an incredible 100,000 sesterces for two silver goblets engraved by Mentor, a famed Greek silversmith, “but he confessed that for shame he had never dared use them.” Corinthian bronzes were so prized for their workmanship that they cost whole family fortunes. Pliny reported that one ivory table changed hands at 1.3 million sesterces—“the price of a large estate, supposing someone preferred to devote so large a sum to the purchase of landed property.”
Still another was jewelry. The display of precious stones by some Roman matrons was grotesquely excessive, and the matrons themselves were monsters of vulgarity, just like today’s. Here was Lollia Paulina, third wife of the Emperor Caligula, whose beauty equaled her vulgarity, “at an ordinary betrothal banquet covered with emeralds and pearls interlaced with each other and shining all over her head, hair, ears, neck, and fingers, their total value amounting to 40,000,000 sesterces, and she herself ready at a moment’s notice to show the bills of sale in proof of ownership.” By the Tiber as under the lights of Broadway, diamonds really were a girl’s best friend. The spread of empire inevitably brought with it an increased supply of luxury goods and precious baubles: emeralds from Egypt and the Urals, sapphires from Sri Lanka, amethysts and diamonds from India. The finest Chinese silk traded for gigantic prices: a pound of silk for a pound of gold was not unknown. Perhaps the favorite Roman jewel was the pearl (margarita), yielded by all Rome’s oceans. Naturally, the abundance of precious and semi-precious materials helped create a large class of luxury craftworkers. More relics of their industry would, no doubt, have come down to us if Rome had not so frequently been sacked.
The most spectacularly ostentatious piece of art-stuffed real estate in Roman antiquity—surpassing even the Golden House of Nero—was a villa built for the Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli, twenty miles northeast of Rome. To call it “Hadrian’s Villa” seems a complete understatement, since its site was about the same size as central Las Vegas, some three hundred hectares, twice the area of Pompeii. Like some abandoned Mayan city, Tikal perhaps, it has only been partially excavated, despite the enormous number of statues and other works of art removed (looted) from it over the last few centuries and dispersed to museums in London, Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Saint Petersburg, not to mention Rome itself and, of course, unlisted private collections. Some historians of antiquity think that only 10–20 percent of the full constructed area of the “villa” has been dug up and disclosed, which would make it the biggest unstudied ancient site in Italy or the Roman world.
One particular kind of ancient statue is associated with the villa—the naked, idealized likeness of Hadrian’s lover Antinous, the Greek homosexual pinup par excellence, whose fetching body and pouting Elvis mouth proliferated all over the Empire after he drowned in the Nile in 130 C.E. But the contents of the villa reflect a general culture of intense imitation in which one version after another of Greatest Sculptural Hits was turned out to imperial order by craftsmen whose sole task was to create a cultural dreamscape: a wondrous Greece re-created in (or just outside) Rome. The idea of “heroic invention,” which is the basis of modern worship of the new, did not exist in classical times, and would have been regarded as a zany aberration, not as a sign of excellence. One of the results has been that Roman copies, or (relatively) free variants, of Greek originals have become almost all we know of the original art of Greece; with the exception of a few indisputably Greek-made masterpieces, such as the Parthenon Marbles, Greece is now largely Roman. And because so many “Greek” masterpieces were either made by Greeks in Rome for Roman clients, or made by Romans in Rome, or completed in Rome by local craftsmen after the original block had been roughed out in Greece, the problem of saying anything certain about the origins and nature of classical art objects is usually insoluble. But one thing seems fairly certain. In its quality of sculpture, ancient Rome could never rival ancient Athens. Phidias had many Roman imitators, but there was no Roman Phidias. Most Roman sculpture is, at best, faithfully descriptive—one thinks of the realistic funerary portraits of slightly grim-looking citizens, tight with virtue. Great sculpture, like the panels celebrating Augustus on the Ara Pacis, is very much the exception, and when it occurs one may fairly suppose the authorship of Greek or at least Greek-trained carvers. Virgil was right: the great art of Rome was not sculpting, but ruling.