Ancient History & Civilisation

The Capital of the World

A city – a free city – was where a man could be most fully a man. The Romans took this for granted. To have civitas – citizenship – was to be civilised, an assumption still embedded in English to this day. Life was worthless without those frameworks that only an independent city could provide. A citizen defined himself by the fellowship of others, in shared joys and sorrows, ambitions and fears, festivals, elections, and disciplines of war. Like a shrine alive with the presence of a god, the fabric of a city was rendered sacred by the communal life that it sheltered. A cityscape, to its citizens, was therefore a hallowed thing. It bore witness to the heritage that had made its people what they were. It enabled the spirit of a state to be known.

Foreign powers, when they first came into contact with Rome, would often find themselves reassured by this thought. Compared to the beautiful cities of the Greek world, Rome appeared a backward and ramshackle place. Courtiers in Macedon would snigger in a superior manner every time they heard the city described.5 Much good it did them. Yet, even as the world learned to kowtow to the Republic, there remained a whiff of the provincial about Rome. Spasmodic attempts were made to spruce her up, but to little effect. Even some Romans themselves, as they grew familiar with the harmonious, well-planned cities of the Greeks, might occasionally feel a touch of embarrassment. ‘When the Capuans compare Rome, with her hills and deep valleys, her attics teetering over the streets, her hopeless roads, her cramped back-alleys, against their own city of Capua, neatly laid out on a suitable flat site, they will jeer at us and look down their noses,’6 they worried. Yet still, when all was said and done, Rome was a free city, and Capua was not.

Naturally, no Roman ever really forgot this. He might sometimes moan about his city, but he never ceased to glory in her name. It appeared self-evident to him that Rome, mistress of the world, had been blessed by the gods, and preordained to rule. Scholars learnedly pointed out that the location of the city avoided extremes of heat, which sapped the spirit, and cold, which chilled the brain; it was therefore a simple fact of geography that ‘the best place of all to live, occupying as it does the happy medium, and perfectly placed in the centre of the world, is where the Roman people have their city’.7 Not that a temperate climate was the only advantage that the gods had thoughtfully provided the Roman people. There were hills that could be easily defended; a river to provide access to the sea; springs and fresh breezes to keep the valleys healthy. Reading Roman authors praise their city,8 one would never guess that to have built across seven hills was a contravention of the Romans’ own principles of town-planning, that the Tiber was prone to violent flooding, and that the valleys of Rome were rife with malaria.9 The love which Romans felt for their city was of the kind that can see only virtues in a beloved’s glaring faults.

This idealised vision of Rome was the constant shadow of the squalid reality. It helped to generate a baffling compound of paradoxes and magnitudes, in which nothing was ever quite as it seemed. For all the ‘smoke and wealth and din’10 of their city, the Romans never ceased to fantasise about the primitive idyll that they liked to imagine had once existed on the banks of the Tiber. As Rome heaved and buckled with the strains of her expansion, the bare bones of an ancient city state, sometimes blurred, sometimes pronounced, might be glimpsed protruding through the cramped modern metropolis. In Rome memories were guarded closely. The present was engaged in a perpetual compromise with the past, restless motion with a reverence for tradition, hard-headedness with a devotion to myth. The more crowded and corrupted their city grew, the more the Romans longed for reassurance that Rome remained Rome still.

So it was that smoke from sacrifices to the gods continued to rise above the seven hills, just as it had done back in far-off times, when trees ‘of every kind’ had completely covered one of the hills, the Aventine.11 Forests had long since vanished from Rome, and if the city’s altars still sent smoke wreathing into the sky, then so too did a countless multitude of hearth-fires, furnaces and workshops. Long before the city itself could be seen, a distant haze of brown would forewarn the traveller that he was nearing the great city. Nor was smog the only sign. Nearby towns with celebrated names, rivals of the Republic back in the archaic past, now stood deserted, shrunk to a few scattered inns, emptied by Rome’s gravitational pull.

As the traveller continued onwards, however, he would find the roadside lined with more recent settlements. Unable to accommodate a burgeoning population, Rome was starting to burst at the seams. Shanty-towns stretched along all the great trunk-roads. The dead were sheltered here as well, and the necropolises that stretched towards the coast and the south, along the great Appian Way, were notorious for muggers and cut-rate whores. All the same, not every tomb had been left to crumble. As the traveller approached Rome’s gates he might occasionally find the stench from the city ameliorated by myrrh or cassia, the perfumes of death, borne to him on the breeze from a cypress-shaded tomb. Such a moment, the sense of a communion with the past, was a common one in Rome. Yet just as the stillness of a cemetery sheltered violence and prostitution, so not even the most hallowed and timeless of spots were immune to defacement. Admonitory notices were always being posted on tombs, prohibiting electioneering slogans, but still the graffiti would appear. In Rome, seat of the Republic, politics was a contagion. Only in conquered cities were elections an irrelevance. Rome, having neutered political life in other societies, was now supreme as the world’s theatre of ambitions and dreams.

Not even the graffiti-ravaged tombs, however, could prepare a traveller for the bedlam beyond the city gates. The streets of Rome had never had any kind of planning imposed upon them. That would have taken a design-minded despot, and Roman magistrates rarely had more than a single year in office at a time. As a result, the city had grown chaotically, at the whim of unmanageable impulses and needs. Stray off one of Rome’s two grand thoroughfares, the via Sacra and the via Nova, and a visitor would soon be adding to the hopeless congestion. ‘A contractor hurries by, all hot and sweaty, with his mules and porters, stone and timber twists on the rope of a giant crane, funeral mourners compete for space with well-built carts, there scurries a mad dog, here a sow who’s been wallowing in mud.’12 Caught up on this swirl, a traveller was almost bound to end up lost.

Even citizens found their city confusing. The only way to negotiate it was to memorise notable landmarks: a fig-tree, perhaps, or a market’s colonnade, or, best of all, a temple large enough to loom above the maze of narrow streets. Fortunately, Rome was a devout city, and temples abounded. The Romans’ reverence for the past meant that ancient structures were hardly ever demolished, not even when the open spaces in which they might once have stood had long since vanished under brick. Temples loomed over slums or meat markets, they sheltered veiled statues whose very identities might have been forgotten, and yet no one ever thought to demolish them. These fragments of an archaic past preserved in stone, fossils from the earliest days of the city, provided the Romans with a desperately needed sense of bearing. Eternal, like the gods whose spirits pervaded them, they stood like anchors dropped in a storm.

Meanwhile, on all sides, amid a din of hammering, rumbling wagon wheels and crashing rubble, the city was endlessly being rebuilt, torn down and rebuilt again. Developers were always looking for ways to squeeze in extra space, and squeeze out extra profit.Shanties sprouted like weeds from the rubble left by fires. Despite the best efforts of responsible magistrates to keep streets clear, they were always filling with market stalls or squatters’ shacks. Most profitably of all, in a city long constricted by her ancient walls, developers had begun to aim for the sky. Apartment blocks were springing up everywhere. Throughout the second and first centuries BC landlords would compete with one another to raise them ever higher, a development frowned on by the law, since tenements were notoriously jerry-built and rickety. In general, however, safety regulations were too weakly imposed to inhibit the splendid opportunities for profiteering that a high-rise slum presented. Over six storeys or more, tenants could be crammed into tiny, thin-walled rooms, until invariably the building would collapse, only to be flung up again even higher than before.

In Latin these apartment blocks were known as insulae, or ‘islands’ – a suggestive word, reflecting the way in which they stood apart from the sea of life down on the streets. Here was where alienation bred by the vastness of the city was most distressingly felt. To those dossing in the insulae, rootlessness was more than just a metaphor. Even on the ground floors the insulae usually lacked drains or fresh water. Yet sewers and aqueducts were precisely what the Romans would boast about when they wanted to laud their city, comparing the practical value of their public works with the useless extravagances of the Greeks. The Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s monstrous central drain, had provided the city with its gut since before the foundation of the Republic itself. The aqueducts, built with plunder from the East, were an equally spectacular demonstration of the Romans’ commitment to communal living. Stretching for up to thirty-five miles, they brought cool mountain water into the heart of the city. Even Greeks might on occasion admit to being impressed. ‘The aqueducts convey such volumes that the water flows like rivers,’ wrote one geographer. ‘There is barely a house in Rome which doesn’t have a cistern, a service-pipe or a gushing fountain.’13 Evidently, the slums had not been on his tour.

In truth, nothing better illustrated the ambiguities of Rome than the fact that she was at once both the cleanest and the filthiest of cities. Ordure as well as water flowed through her streets. If the noblest and most enduring virtues of the Republic found their expression in the murmuring of a public fountain, then its horrors were exemplified by filth. Citizens who dropped out of the obstacle race that was every Roman’s life risked having shit – literally – dumped on their heads. Plebs sordida, they were called – ‘the great unwashed’. Periodically, waste from the insulae would be wheeled out in barrows to fertilise gardens beyond the city walls, but there was always too much of it, urine sloshing over the rims of fullers’ jars, mounds of excrement submerging the streets. In death, the poor themselves would be subsumed into waste. Not for them the dignity of a tomb beside the Appian Way. Instead their carcasses would be tossed with all the other refuse into giant pits beyond the easternmost city gate, the Esquiline. Travellers approaching Rome by this route would see bones littering the sides of the road. It was a cursed and dreadful spot, the haunt of witches, who were said to strip flesh from the corpses and summon the naked spectres of the dead from their mass graves. In Rome the indignities of failure could outlive life itself.

Degradation on such a scale was something new in the world. The suffering of the urban poor was all the more terrible because, by depriving them of the solaces of community, it denied them everything that made a Roman what he was. The loneliness of life on the top floor of an apartment block represented the antithesis of all that a citizen most prized. To be cut off from the rituals and rhythms of society was to sink to the level of a barbarian. To its own citizens, as to its enemies, the Republic was unyielding. It gave upon those who gave up on it. And after abandoning them, in the end, it had them swept out with the trash.

It was no wonder that life in Rome should have been a desperate struggle to avoid such a fate. Community was cherished wherever it was found. The potential anonymity of big-city life was not all-conquering. Vast and formless though the metropolis appeared, there were patterns of order defying its chaos. Temples were not the only repositories of the divine. Crossroads, too, were believed to be charged with spiritual energy. Shadowy gods, the Lares, watched over the intersection of all the city’s high streets. These streets, the vici, were so significant as a focus for community life that the Romans used the same word to describe an entire urban quarter. Every January, at the festival of the Compitalia, inhabitants of a vicus would hold a great public feast. Woollen dolls would be hung beside the shrine of the Lares, one for every free man and woman in the quarter, and a ball for every slave. This relative egalitarianism was reflected in the trade associations that were also centred on the vicus, and were open to everyone: citizen, freedman and slave alike. It was in these associations, the collegia, rather than on the broader stage of the city, that most citizens sought to win that universal goal of a Roman – prestige. In a vicus a citizen could know his fellows, sit down to supper with them, join in festivities throughout the year, and live confident that mourners would attend his funeral. In a patchwork of communities across the metropolis, the intimacies of traditional small-town life still endured.

None of which calmed the suspicions of outsiders. Walk down a main street, and the snarl of narrow back alleys twisting off it might appear dark with menace, the air heavy with the stench of unwashed bodies, and trade. To refined nostrils, both were equally noxious. Fears that the collegia served as covers for organised crime combined readily with the upper classes’ instinctive contempt for anyone obliged to earn his keep. The very idea of paid work inspired paroxysms of snobbery. It affronted all the homespun peasant values in which wealthy moralists, lounging comfortably in their villas, affected to believe. Their scorn for ‘the mob’ was unvarying. It embraced not only the wretches starving on the streets or crammed into insulae, but also traders, shopkeepers and craftsmen. ‘Necessity’, it was assumed, ‘made every poor man dishonest.’14 Such contempt – unsurprisingly – was much resented by those who were its object.* Plebs was a word never spoken by a nobleman without a curling of the lip, but the plebs themselves took a certain pride in it. A description once spat as an insult had become a badge of identity, and in Rome such badges were always highly prized.

Like other fundamentals of Roman life, divisions of class and status were deep rooted in the myths of the city’s very origin. On the far side of Rome’s southernmost valley stretched the Aventine Hill. This was where immigrants would invariably end up, the port of disembarkation possessed by all great cities, an area where new arrivals congregate by instinct, drawn to one another’s company and shared confusion. Facing the Aventine rose a second hill. There were no shanty-towns to be found on the Palatine. Hills in Rome tended to be exclusive. Above the valleys the air was fresher, less pestilential – and therefore cost more to breathe. Of all Rome’s seven hills, however, the Palatine was the most exclusive by far. Here the city’s elite chose to cluster. Only the very, very rich could afford the prices. Yet, incongruously, there on the world’s most expensive real estate stood a shepherd’s hut made of reeds. The reeds might dry and fall away, but they would always be replaced, so that the hut never seemed to alter. It was the ultimate triumph of Roman conservationism – the childhood home of Romulus, Rome’s first king, and Remus, his twin.

According to the legend, both brothers had decided to found a city, but they could not agree where, nor what name it should have. Romulus had stood on the Palatine, Remus on the Aventine, both of them waiting for a sign from the gods. Remus had seen six vultures flying overhead, but Romulus had seen twelve. Taking this as incontrovertible proof of divine backing, Romulus had promptly fortified the Palatine and named the new city after himself. Remus, in a fury of jealousy and resentment, had ended up murdered by his brother in a brawl. This had irrevocably fixed the two hills’ destinies. From that moment on, the Palatine would be for winners, the Aventine for losers. Success and failure, prestige and shame – there, expressed in the very geography of the city, were the twin poles around which Roman life revolved.

For just as a valley stretched wide between the hills of Romulus and Remus, so too did the social chasm between the senator in his villa and the cobbler in his shack. There were no subtle gradations of wealth in Rome, nothing that could approximate to a modern middle class. In that sense the Palatine and the Aventine were indeed true insulae, islands apart. Yet the valley that separated the two hills also joined them, by virtue of a symbolism almost as ancient as Romulus himself. Chariots had been racing round the Circus Maximus since the time of the kings. Stretching the entire length of the valley, the Circus was easily Rome’s largest public space. Framed on one side by ragged shacks, on the other by graceful villas, this was where the city came together in festival. Up to two hundred thousand citizens might gather there. It was this capacity, still unrivalled by any other sports arena to this day, which made its gaze both so feared and so desired. There was no truer mirror held up to greatness than that provided by the audience at the Circus. Here was where a citizen could be most publicly defined, whether by cheers of acclamation or by jeering and boos. Every senator who looked down at the Circus from his villa was reminded of this. So too was every cobbler who looked down from his shack. For all the gulf that yawned between them, the ideal of a shared community still held firm for millionaire and pauper alike. Both were citizens of the same republic. Neither Palatine nor Aventine was entirely an island after all.

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