Some 1,896 years have passed: it is now 2013. The tomb of Rufus and Domitia reveals that they were married and had children. Their DNA has come down through the centuries, mixing with that of others. And today, perhaps, part of it is in one of you who are reading this.
All the protagonists of our story are now dust. The horses who accompanied us are also dust; the wooden ships and wagons that took us across the empire have broken up and disintegrated. The city of Rome that we walked through is buried under the new city. The empire itself, history’s first great globalization, has vanished.
But a part of this ancient past suddenly returns.
A young woman is kneeling on the ground. She has a brush with which she is delicately dusting the soil, grain by grain. She’s an archaeologist. For her it’s a passion more than an occupation. Otherwise she wouldn’t put up with the miserable pay, the dust, the sore knees and aching back from always being in an uncomfortable position, digging in the dirt.
The object that she is uncovering is a tomb from the turn of the second century CE. The skeleton that is emerging from the ground belongs to a mature man; you can tell from his worn teeth, from the sutures on the cranium by now so well healed that they are almost invisible, from the worn joints of his arms and legs and the chinks in the sides of his vertebrae, evidence of a badly worn back.
The skull that emerges from the ground has an open jaw, as though it were screaming. Actually, it’s a sign that the body has decomposed in an empty environment (the sarcophagus), allowing the jawbone to “fall.” Over the centuries, soil has entered the tomb and the wood has gradually disintegrated, leaving only some rusted nails.
Brushing next to the head, the young woman notices something. It’s a green object. The brush strokes slowly remove centuries of sediment, freeing the object from the clutches of the terrain. It’s a coin. After photographing it and transcribing some data, she takes the coin in hand. It is an extraordinary emotion: we feel as though we have made contact with a world that no longer exists, that we have opened a window onto the past.
This coin is our sestertius. It’s completely covered by a green patina, caused by oxidation, but in otherwise perfect condition. The young woman turns it in her fingers; she recognizes the face of Trajan. In that moment, even if she doesn’t know it, she has set in motion once again the mechanism of exchange that brought this coin to the four corners of the empire. In a certain sense she has brought it back to life. After all the people that we have seen in the Roman era, the story now continues with other people, in the modern one.
She shows the coin to her colleagues on the dig, each of whom holds it for a while before passing it on to another person. Then, in the laboratory, it’s handled by an expert who tries to figure out the date it was coined. And finally it is placed in storage. But not for long. Given its excellent state of conservation, the decision is made to display it in a major museum in Rome. And so, a little while later, it is behind glass, and in the light again.
Despite its beauty, however, only a few people, the ones with a true passion, really stop to look at it. Most visitors observe it distractedly or pass by it without noticing. Nobody knows its story and nobody has even the slightest idea of its incredible journey, its odyssey across the empire. That coin, like all the others around it in the glass case, has been handled by dozens of people, and their stories have been, so to speak, crystallized in it, transforming it into a small time capsule.
We have tried to gather those stories and listen to them, learning from each one something about how the world was at the beginning of the second century CE. In turn they have taken us on a journey through the most surprising and modern realm of antiquity: the Roman Empire.