The Underworld of the Eternal City
She moves swiftly down the unpaved narrow streets, wending her way through the crowd. Her face is covered with a veil so she won’t be recognized. She’s elegant and refined, a woman of gracious ways. Her hands have long, tapered fingers with shiny, manicured nails. Hands that have never worked. So she is truly out of place here in the Suburra, the lowlife neighborhood of Rome, where there is no silk or marble, only hunger and poverty.
Agile as a cat, she tries to avoid contact with people but it’s not easy. She passes by toothless butchers with ox quarters slung over their shoulders, little matrons, fat and fussy, talking in loud voices, slaves with their heads shaved, emaciated men with the fetid smell typical of poor personal hygiene, scurrying children. She even has to be careful about where she puts her feet. Rivulets of raw sewage form puddles in the alleyway where clouds of flies come to drink, the naked feet of the passersby futilely trying to shoo them away.
Off to her right she hears a female voice, shrill and agitated: there’s a screaming match going on behind that door. She doesn’t have time to look inside because the flapping wings of a chicken cause her to turn her head in the opposite direction, where she spies a shop with a pile of wooden cages full of hens emitting the unmistakable stench of a chicken coop.
The woman rushes ahead quickly, as though she wants to be in that alley as short a time as possible, and she walks by an old man sitting on a chair, who raises his head, sensing, more than the caress of her tunic as it touches his knee, the fresh smell of her wake as she passes by. The man’s eyes, one of which is white, search futilely for that “fairy.” His healthy eye barely glimpses the edge of a veil, fluttering in the air as it vanishes around the corner.
Here we are: this is the place. “After turning the corner, keep going down the hill, but before you get to the bottom you’ll come to a sacred shrine: it’s a miniature temple attached to the wall. Opposite it you’ll see a small entrance with some stairs going down; you’ll find her there,” her old midwife had told her.
The young woman hesitates. The entrance is very small and dark. The stairs descend into the darkness. She looks around: all she can see are the high walls of tall, rundown buildings built to house the poor. The plaster is chipped and flaking, pockmarked with the signs of dampness and stained with dirt and filth; the wooden shutters on the windows are splintered and warped; the balconies look like they’re about to cave in—there are ropes hanging down from them. “But how can people live like this?” she asks herself. And then, “What am I doing here?” The answer is right in front of her: in that pitch-black entryway. Her eyes meet those of an old woman, her tunic worn and wrinkled, looking out through a window with a maternal smile. The old woman gestures with her head for her to come in, as though she understands why our young woman has come here and wants to reassure her. Who knows how many she has seen arrive at her door.
The woman takes a deep breath and goes in. Almost immediately she’s overwhelmed by the acrid smell of something cooking or burning, but she can’t identify what. All she’s able to perceive is a hell-like atmosphere that confirms that this is indeed the place she was looking for. Her heart is beating so hard she can almost hear it in the silence of the semidarkness. She takes another few steps in. A woman’s face appears suddenly in the darkness. She’s so scared she jumps.
It’s the conjure woman.
The Conjure Woman And Her Magic Spell
She looks like a woman of the people, fat, corpulent, streaks of gray and white running through her unkempt hair. Penetrating black eyes, and above all, a gaze that is determined and secure. “Have you got everything?” The young woman hands her a rolled-up bundle of cloth. She reaches out as though to take it and then grabs her hands, pulling them to herself. “You want him dead?” Her eyes are devouring those of the young woman, who responds with a fearful nod.
The conjure woman already knows that she’s supposed to cast a spell so that the man who is now married to the young woman, on the decision of her parents, will vanish from her life. He is a violent type who beats her regularly. For some time now, she has found comfort in the company of another man. A passionate love has blossomed between them. Now she has decided to turn to magic for a solution.…
The conjure woman unfolds the cloth bundle, which holds hairs from the man’s scalp and fingernail clippings that the woman has managed to procure in their house. She starts preparing the ritual: she’ll have to make a statuette from clay mixed with these “portions” of the man who is to be struck.
Naturally, she wants to be paid in advance. The young woman pulls out a small leather purse and hands it over to the hag. She opens it and shakes out its contents. The old woman smiles; it really is a lot of money. She turns her back and hides the money in a small crib hanging from some ribbons tied to hooks in the ceiling. Inside there’s a baby girl, sleeping. The conjure woman sends the crib gently swaying. She’s probably thirty-five or forty, but her flabby body and shabby appearance make her seem much older.
The place where she lives is dark and dank. What light there is comes mostly from a lit fireplace. Hanging inside it from a hook is a pot holding a strange bubbling brew, filling the air with the acrid odor that the young woman had smelled as she was entering. It must be one of the philters or potions that the hag is preparing for one of her clients.
This kind of stewpot, called a caccabus, is a typical instrument used by those women—witches, if you will—who cook up herbal cures or, as necessary, hexes and jinxes as described by Virgil, among others. Throughout the passing years, the caccabus will continue to be part of the image of the witch. The image is a composite of all of these elements: the stereotypical witch is an old or aging woman who has lost her youthful charm (or better, who is downright ugly), is not rich, wears humble clothing, lives in a hovel rather than a palace, and makes poisons. Here’s where it all begins: with certain women from the popular classes who in all eras and epochs (not only in ancient Rome) have devoted themselves to witchcraft and curses, exploiting the credulity of the common people, their weaknesses, and above all, their suffering.
That’s why the bags of sesterces, drachmas, florins, shillings, or euros that have fallen into their hands over the centuries and millennia constitute one of the most wicked and least punished forms of thievery. Even in Trajan’s Rome.
The statue is ready. It has all the features of a man, even the genitals. The old woman etches his body—the not-yet-hardened clay—with magic formulas that probably only she is able to decipher. Then, after a series of chants and incantations invoking the evil spirits, the statue is placed head down (a symbolic position) inside a lead cylinder, which in turn, is inserted into two larger cylinders, creating a “matryoshka doll” of malediction that is sealed with wax. The conjure woman uses a knife to engrave the outside with the sacred figures and evil formulas. Then, her face dripping with sweat, she raises the container on high, clawing it with her pointed fingernails. She chants some more spells and finally offers it to the young woman. “Go,” she says. “You know where to put it.” The young woman takes the container; it’s about the size of a large jelly jar but a lot heavier because of the lead. She wraps it in a cloth that she holds to her side and leaves without looking at the sorceress. Out on the street the light is different from when she arrived. Even though on Rome’s narrow alleyways the sunlight never reaches the ground, the young woman realizes that the sun has now dropped down behind the rooftops. Who knows how long she was inside with the conjure woman.
Now she’s got to hurry on her way.
The Fountain of Anna Perenna
The next day the woman, using the excuse of going to visit a relative, leaves the city in the company of her elderly midwife. They set out on the Via Flaminia. Almost immediately, on the right side of the road, they come to two large mounds of yellow sand, completely covered with woods. These hills will survive into the modern era and eventually become the Parioli neighborhood of present-day Rome. Today it is a densely developed urban area, but a piece of that forest still exists. It can still be seen, intact, in the city center—one of the many islands of green in the Eternal City. The trees, which today’s drivers and pedestrians barely notice, are actually the direct descendants of the trees that, in Roman times, were part of a sacred wood.
The two women turn down a well-beaten dirt road that veers off from the Flaminia and runs into an internal valley of these hills. The sacred wood is all around them. A place of great beauty, whose peaceful silence is interrupted only by birdsong. Quite a difference from the noisy chaos of Rome. Along the sloping sides of the narrow valley, up among the trees, there are grottos dedicated to the nymphs. These groves of trees are like temples for the Romans. Cutting down trees or gathering firewood is forbidden in these woods. And even in unprotected areas, cutting down trees is frowned upon. The Romans believe that the bark of oak trees, for example, is home to nymphs and hamadryads, who are closely connected to the life of the planet. Before a tree is cut down a priest is called in to conduct a ritual that will drive them away.
In the middle of the valley, where it widens out into a clearing, is a natural spring. A large brick structure has been built around it, with a central tub and lateral branches where the faithful fill their pails with the holy water.
This sacred spring is dedicated to a divinity with a special and potentially misleading name: Anna Perenna. Not a person (as the name “Anna” might lead one to believe), Anna Perenna is the divinity who oversees the cycle of the year and its continual renewal. Not coincidentally, one of the phrases most frequently used by Roman well-wishers is Annarè perennereque commode, which translates roughly as “Have a good year from top to bottom,” a wish especially popular on New Year’s Day.
And when was New Year’s Day for the Romans? In the imperial age it was the first of January, while in the Republican era it was on the (famous) ides of March, that is, March 15. Thousands of people come to celebrate it here around the sacred fountain of Anna Perenna. And, as described by the ancients, the scene was really impressive.
Roman New Year: An Ancient Woodstock
Try to imagine it: a long column of men and women streaming out of the city of Rome and coming out here to feast, sing, and enjoy themselves. The banquet tables are set up along the Via Flaminia, but almost everyone is lying or sitting on the grass as if at a colossal picnic. They sing, they dance, and they get drunk (some of the toasts, or drinking games, are impossible: a cup of wine for every year that you still want to live). All very much like one of our New Year’s Eve parties. If anything, it’s even more raucous: a kind of ancient Oktoberfest.
Actually, it’s even more than that. As Ovid tells it, the feast is very playful and clearly erotic. People drink and have sex. Ovid recounts that the women, having let their hair down, sing songs with explicit sexual allusions. In effect, the feast has all the features of an initiation rite and a lot of the women use the occasion to lose their virginity. In a sort of Woodstock atmosphere, couples lie together on the grass or take shelter under improvised tents made of tree branches, bamboo, and togas. Some fragments of wood, rediscovered by archaeologists inside the main basin of the fountain, are thought to be surviving parts of these improvised love tents.
The fountain was rediscovered during the construction of an underground parking garage, and the archaeological dig conducted by Professor Marina Piranomonte of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome uncovered a lot of objects that had been thrown into the water as offerings. Numerous eggs, for example (symbols of fecundity and fertility), and pinecones (symbols of fertility but also of chastity). The archaeologists’ curiosity was especially piqued by a series of objects that have no connection at all to the Anna Perenna cult but are related to magic rituals and hexes.
The digs uncovered a splendid caccabus, and at least five hundred coins, which the Romans were as fond of throwing into important or sacred places as they are today. And as is the case in modern times, the coins are seldom of big denominations: most of them are asses, the equivalent of a quarter of a sestertius (about fifty of today’s euro cents).
Some seventy oil lamps were uncovered and, oddly enough, almost all of them were new. Why, in markedly different eras, did people carry all the way out here, beyond the city walls, so many new oil lamps—just to throw them into the fountain? According to both Ovid and Apuleius, the rites of the ancient conjure women were almost always nocturnal, so the oil lamps were an essential element for both the women and their customers. And they had to be new. So it is very likely that the ones that have been rediscovered were connected to some magic rites or incantations rather than to the cult of Anna Perenna. The hexes still conserved on the lead linings of six of the lamps provide further evidence that this is the case.
The question of the hexes (defixiones) is interesting because about twenty of them have been discovered in the fountain’s main basin. They are in the form of little “pages” of laminated lead. Lead is malleable and rustproof, which is why it was preferred over other materials. Once it’s beaten into a thin sheet, it can be engraved with magic curses against some person; then it is folded up and stuck inside a tomb, a well, a stream, or a fountain (like the one dedicated to Anna Perenna). Such places are believed to be in direct contact with the river of the afterlife or with the divinities of the netherworld, who will then put the curse into effect. It is both strange and even slightly exhilarating that amid the hexes and magic letters (characteres), written especially to heighten the effect, the name of the target is repeated over and over; or the person is described in precise detail (he lives here, works in this or that occupation, etc.). And all this so that the evil spirits wouldn’t go after the wrong person and hurt an innocent victim. Pretty much like the instructions given to a hit man.
But who were the targets of these curses? In one of the rediscovered defixiones, for example, there is an etching of a human figure and then his name, Sura, and his occupation, a referee or perhaps a judge. The gods of the netherworld are implored to tear out his eyes, first the right one and then the left, because, as the inscription says, he was born of a cursed womb (Qui natus est da vulva maledicta).
Roman Voodoo Statues
But the most extraordinary aspect of the discovery of the Anna Perenna fountain was the emergence of seven small intact human figures used for magic rituals, similar to the famous hexes; the equivalent of voodoo dolls. Exactly the kind of ritual we saw the conjure woman performing.
Laboratory studies have suggested that these statuettes were made from flour and milk. One of them was made from wax. It is still possible to make out the eyes, the mouth, the breasts or the penis, depending on the gender. In at least one case, the feet were broken off intentionally. These extremely delicate statues have survived because, after being thrown into the fountain, they settled onto the bottom of the basin, where they gradually sank into a layer of clay that was entirely devoid of oxygen, preventing bacteria from acting on them and causing their decay over the centuries.
All of their containers are made of lead and there are always three of them, one inside the other: the repetition of the number 3 certainly had magical significance. The spinal column of the statuettes is formed by a bone, embossed with Latin letters in at least one case. And this corresponds to what was recommended in the famous Greek magic scrolls where these rituals are described.
But by examining these statuettes we can discover traces of other rituals as well. One in particular has some magic letters engraved all over its body and a deep hole in its head: it’s not hard to imagine the effect it was intended to provoke in the victim.
The most surprising statuette is the one of a person wrapped in the coils of a giant crested snake that is biting him in the face. Assisting the “grip” of the snake is a thin sheet of metal that embraces the victim. As though that weren’t enough, another sheet of metal with curses inscribed on it is nailed on top of the statue; one of the nails pierces its belly button and the other its feet. They probably have some symbolic meaning attached to them.
There must have been untold numbers of Romans who engaged in these practices. That much is suggested by the fact that the containers were manufactured serially. So interested parties bought them separately and took them to the conjure women. In other words, there was a flourishing market in these objects and lots of money was spent on them.
On examining the closure of one of these containers, sealed with a resin around its cork, researchers found fingerprints. The object was taken to the technicians of the police forensics team, and it was discovered that the hand that closed the lid was small, so it must have been the hand of a very young person or of a woman—a sort of confirmation of what the ancients have told us about the practices of their conjure women.
Consignment to the Deities of the Netherworld
The young woman and the old midwife approach the fountain. They take a look around; there’s nobody there. Her hands moving swiftly and deftly, the midwife unrolls a cloth bundle, grabs the cylindrical container, and hurls it into the air, high above the fountain. The cylinder vanishes from sight and an instant later comes the sound of its plunge into the water. The two women turn to each other and smile.
The fountain of Anna Perenna will continue to be the focal point of the cult of fertility, a source of good omens, and the setting for New Year’s celebrations for a long time to come, at least until the third century CE. Then this religious tradition will gradually wither away until the fourth or fifth century, when the cult will be more and more “contaminated” by obscure rituals with containers and curses rooted in superstition. This decline in the tradition was accelerated by the closing of the fountain (as part of the prohibition of pagan cults ordered by the Emperor Theodosius in 391), but it is also a reflection of the widespread degeneration of the values of Roman society, by now on the verge of collapse. Less than a hundred years later, in fact, the empire would cease to exist.
This doesn’t mean that the launch of the lead cylinder with its little statue inside would not have been possible during the era when New Year’s celebrations were held here. It is all still quite possible and plausible. Our story has merely advanced the calendar a little.
Now the two women take their leave of the fountain. Their mission is accomplished. On the bottom of the fountain’s main basin, surrounded by eggs and pinecones, there is now a dark capsule containing a request for someone’s death. The man to be struck down is now peacefully riding his horse, on a business trip, completely unaware of the danger.
But for the two women it’s only a question of time. They are sure of it. And tonight, taking advantage of her husband’s absence, she will go again to meet her lover.
The Colors of the Night
Rays of moonlight shine through the latticework of the window, projecting onto the floor its elegant arabesque decorations. The designs are like dark vines of ivy moving through the house, climbing onto the bed, elongating themselves on the pillows, and wrapping around the bodies of the woman and her lover.
After a long, tender embrace, the man gets up and walks across the small room. The moonlight seems to be playing with his muscles, darting across his shoulders and buttocks, sculpting them in light with his every step. When he reaches the other side of the room, he steps out onto a large terrace and leans with both of his hands on the wooden railing. His chest heaves like a bellows. On this hot summer night there doesn’t seem to be enough air even to breathe.
A few seconds later, he senses the light step of the woman and the touch of her body. Luckily, this terrace, attached to a palace at the top of the Quirinal hill, is always cooled by a light breeze. They stay like that, silently embracing, admiring the grandeur of the spectacle that stretches out before them. The couple, in fact, is gazing out on one of the most beautiful views in the history of civilization: the city of Rome at the height of its beauty and power.
Tonight, with a full moon shining, the Eternal City seems to have no limits. Its buildings stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see, then vanish in the darkness. The nearest buildings are in full view. They are some of the city’s gigantic insulae, similar to our condominiums, their walls covered with white plaster and their roofs with clay tiles. We can get a good view of their windows, the shutters open wide because of the heat, but also the outline of their balconies, many of them decorated with flowerpots as is often done in our modern cities. We can also see some balconies enclosed by latticework similar to those seen today in India. They look almost like armoires hanging from the walls of the buildings.
On the inside, behind the windows, all we can see is darkness where people are asleep. But here and there the light of an oil lamp reveals some scenes of everyday life that continue well into the night. These points of light emanating from oil lamps and torches throughout the city transform it into a veritable galaxy of life hovering in the night sky.
The silence is striking. By day, this city of more than a million inhabitants is enveloped by all sorts of noise; at night it’s very different. In certain alleyways and small piazzas the silence is well-nigh absolute, broken only by the thin stream of water flowing in a public fountain, a dog barking in the distance, or the blustering exchanges of drunken brawlers carousing through the neighborhood.
To be sure, the night is also the time when goods are delivered to stores, shops, and public baths, and the sound of wagons, the outbursts of profanity uttered by their drivers, by those who are denied the right of way at intersections, or by those whose goods haven’t been delivered on time, flash through the streets and neighborhoods like lightning. But compared to the daytime, Rome by night recovers all of its charm—it’s the same charm that one can feel today on a nighttime stroll along the city streets.
From up here on the Quirinal hill (so named for a temple dedicated to Quirinus, a pre-Roman deity), we can make out in the milky glow of the moonlight the dark masses of some of the seven hills upon which Rome was built, but also the familiar silhouette of the Colosseum.
The couple whispers words of love, leaning their heads against one another. Their gaze is fixed on the gigantic amphitheater that stands out against the brightening dawn. The white mass of its marble, with its torches and lamps hanging from the vaults of its arches, is like a magnet for their eyes as they remain absorbed in their sweet dalliance. What they don’t know is that just beyond it, where their eyes are following some lights on the horizon, something is happening that will allow us to undertake an extraordinary journey, reaching the most faraway corners of the Roman Empire and its most glorious parts as well. It is taking shape in a frightening place, a real inferno located in the vicinity of the Colosseum: the Roman mint.
The Sestertius Is Born
The heat is oppressive. Outside it’s tough to breathe, but in here it feels like we’ve entered a furnace. The colors of the place only add to the sensation. The light from the oil lamps seems to envelope everything, tingeing the rooms with an orange-yellow hue. Our attention is drawn to a long wall on the other side of a heavy studded door. There are a lot of spots where the plaster has fallen off and dark shadows flitter over the mottled surface of the wall, appearing and disappearing, as if engaged in a frenetic dance. They are the luminous echo of something that is happening in this great space.
We go through the door. The sound of heavy blows pummels the air and penetrates deep into our ears. Mighty blows, with metallic reverberations. We turn around and before our eyes a scene out of Dante’s Inferno opens up: half-naked, sweat-soaked men are gathered together in small groups. Above their heads we can see heavy sledgehammers rising up, only to plummet down with a mighty clang. This is the birthplace of the sesterces that circulate throughout the empire. And that’s not all. At certain times of the year silver coins (denarii), gold coins (aurei), and then all of the minor coins in bronze (dupondii) and copper (asses and semisses) are also made here.
In accordance with a rigid monetary system established by Augustus, which laid the foundation for commerce in the Roman Empire, one aureus (gold coin) equals:
25 denarii (silver coin)
100 sesterces (bronze coin)
200 dupondii (bronze coin)
400 asses (copper coin)
800 semisses (copper coin)
We approach one of the groups of men. These are the workers in the mint and something about them strikes us: they are slaves. They belong to a so-called familia monetalis. They are under constant surveillance. Depending on the time of year, they handle silver and even gold. It is an operation that requires enormous attention on the part of the guards. At the end of their shift they are subjected to a painstaking search, one by one, in order to prevent theft. Their sandals are brushed, their hair and mouths are examined, and so forth. Even the floor is made out of grates to collect any fragments that might have fallen.
Today they are coining sesterces, and we can see how they are made. The first step is to make bronze bars. In a nearby room, there are some small foundries where the metals are melted down in an unimaginable heat. Using two pairs of long pincers, the smith takes the crucible from the oven and empties it into a fireclay mold. The bronze is now a dense searing-hot liquid that disappears into the mold. A cloud of smoke billows out of the entrance hole, and the smith squints, his eyes inflamed by this ceaseless labor. His face is red, maybe even redder than his hair. He’ll have to wait until the bronze cools down. In the meantime another slave opens some other blocks of already cooled clay and extracts the raw bars of bronze.
These will then be chiseled into slices, just like slicing salami. Each slice will become a sestertius. Naturally, it will have to be shaped to make it perfectly round (which is why in slang it’s called a tondello or a “round”). Practically speaking, it is now a raw coin, still without any images or inscriptions.
It will be weighed carefully. This is a fundamental detail because a coin’s value is not based on what it represents but on how much it weighs (this might be obvious for gold but the same is true for the bronze sestertius, the silver denarius, and so on).
Finally, it will be heated and taken to the men who imprint it with the face of the emperor on one side and all the inscriptions and figures on the other (heads and tails, in other words).
And now we are standing right next to these men. They are all irritable and worn out from the exhausting shifts and the abuse of the guards, who behave like real tyrants every time someone makes a mistake.
One of the slaves comes over to us, using a pair of tongs to hold the hot round, which he lays down on a small round anvil. Not just anywhere but right in the center, where the die is; the sculpted figure of the emperor. When the die is struck with the hammer, it will impress the face on one side of the future coin. And on the other side? Simple, the same technique. While the slave holds the future coin in the center of the anvil, a second slave places a metal cylinder on top of it with another die, the one for the “back side,” as they say. At this point everything is ready for the hammer blow. A third slave raises a massive sledgehammer.
The three men look each other in the eye for a fraction of a second. The slave with the hammer, a huge red-haired Celt, rips the air with a tremendous blow. The other two close their eyes. The Syrian, especially, grimaces so intensely that his black eyes drown amid the wrinkles on his face. The African’s face, meanwhile, is creased by a line of gritted white teeth.
The hammer blow is so powerful that the grated floor trembles. For a second, everyone turns to look, even the guard watching over the next group. Such a strong blow is not common. The Syrian’s ears are ringing and his hands are tingling. But he thanks the gods that the giant did not miss his target; otherwise his hands would have been crushed. The African doesn’t say a word. The red-haired Celt has a satisfied look on his face. Suddenly, an act that is so routine in this environment has become the center of attention. Everyone is staring at the coin. It’s the die master who comes over to pick it up with his tongs. He’s a heavyset man with a snarly beard. He examines it. The hammer blow was perfect. The face of the emperor is well positioned in the center of the coin. The inscriptions are legible. There’s just one defect: the coin has a crack along one side. It’s nobody’s fault. The die is “tired,” as they say. It has stamped too many sesterces, and maybe it’s broken. The man takes a last look at the coin and throws it into the strongbox of newly minted sesterces. Then he yells at the three slaves to get back to work immediately. They instinctively take a last glance at the coin as it lands on the pile of its look-alikes and start hammering again. This time the blows are not so powerful.
Freshly cast bronze is the color of gold. And the coin with the crack in it shines as though it were alive. On its surface are reflected, as in an old mirror, the figures of the slaves as they go on hammering out new coins.
This is the sestertius that is going to take us on our voyage through the Roman Empire. Nobody here at the mint can imagine it, but it’s going to be an incredible journey.