Monday, June 26, 2017

Porta San Paulo - Defending Rome, sort of, for 18 Centuries

This week's edition of History in a Place is centered here:

Quite a lot to take in really.  This is a view from 1747 when a man named Giuseppi Vasi published a book of views of Rome.  His focus was on places important to pilgrims and this was included because it was the road to the Basilica of San Paulo, better known as St. Paul's outside the Walls.  This is the traditional location of St. Paul's grave.

But so much more going on here.  How 'bout a modern view.

I could not exactly duplicate the perspective of the early engraving, at least not without being run over by multiple vehicles.  

The first thing that grabs your eye is of course the Pyramid.  This is by far the oldest thing in the picture, being the 1st Century BC tomb of Caius Cestius.  It was built in the days when all things Egyptian were quite the rage following the Roman conquest of Egypt.  From inscriptions it is known to have been completed when Agrippa - a friend of Cestius - was still alive.  (Agrippa, son in law of Augustus, died in 12 BC). It is also recorded that the Pyramid was completed in just 330 days, quite the remarkable feat by the inefficient standards of modern Rome!  As you can see in the early view, it was one of the existing structures built into the Aurelian Walls. Although it is impressive the Pyramid is not our main focus today so lets look a bit to the east...

Here we see the Porto San Paulo, looking a bit adrift with its adjacent walls chopped off by assorted mishaps and for the benefit of modern traffic. It is similar to the previous gate we visited along the Aurelian Way.  Note again the accumulated upgrades from the time of Aurelian onwards...the addition of rounded towers, the two stages of height, the double doorway blocked down to one.  It also has a courtyard behind it with two surviving gates out into the city.  

During the Gothic Wars a group of Isaurian soldiers, who had gone unpaid for too long, opened this gate to Totila and his Goths in AD 549.  This seems to have been part of a repeating pattern, another bunch of Isaurian's had opened the nearby Asinarian gate during another Goth incursian in 546.  Isaurians it seems, just can't be trusted as guards.

The Aurelian Walls served as deterrents in the long centuries that followed.  Saracen raiders, feuding locals, other European powers that took exception to Papal policy all came and went.  But the Porta San Paulo had one last battle to witness.

It was September 10th 1943.  Two days earlier Italy had agreed to an Armistice, effectively ditching Germany for the Allies.  At first it seemed as if Rome would be left alone, declared an open city.  But Hitler changed his mind, and German forces marched north towards the Eternal City.  

Confusing battles ensued with Italian forces fighting on one side or another or just trying to stay out of the way.  The Last Stand was here at the Porta San Paulo where a mixed force of Italian soldiers, Communist resistance fighters and poorly equipped citizens attempted to hold the ancient walls against modern artillery and flamethrowers.

Of course this ended badly, with 570 Italian dead and minimal inconvenience to the occupying German army.  To one side of the gate is a surviving section of wall.  The plaque reads:  TO THE RESISTANCE THAT HEROICALLY MARKS HERE ON 10 SEPTEMBER 1943 THE SECOND RESURGENCE.  

On the other side of the gate the wall was destroyed in a later bombing raid.  On the new wall is a marker remembering one of the fallen of 10 September.

Italian military monuments are few in number.  But at the Porta an Paulo you see numerous memorials.  Here is a plaque honoring the first Allied troops who entered Rome in 1944.  Alongside are other memorials that mention the "Tedesco Invasore" - the German Invaders.  And the Nazifascista, which hardly needs translating.

For all its reverence for the distant past, for all honor given to the accomplishments of the Roman Republic and Empire, Italy very much downplays its recent history.  I am sure there is a collective sense of guilt for being the birth place of the Fascist movement.  I'll close with one final view of the Porta San Paulo.

This was intended to be one of the centerpieces of Mussolini's new Rome.  From this gate went the road to Ostia, which was to be excavated as a display of Ancient Glory. Also on this road was the EUR Center, a sort of Fascist Disneyland of concrete.  The display below is right outside the Ostiense Station, a rail center specifically built for the arrival of Adolf Hitler on a state visit  in 1938. The road you see in front of you was once named Via Adolf Hitler.

The mute statues, chains binding them together, represent the victims of the Fascist plague that Italy helped unleash on the world.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Tax Free Lunch?

One of the difficulties Italy has in collecting taxes is that a lot of the economy is still on a cash basis.  When you for instance pay for several nights lodging with a big roll of Euros you do wonder if this income ever gets reported.  Oh, credit cards are accepted some places.  Restaurants for instance will usually take them.

On our last day in Rome I snapped a quick picture of this place on the Via Trastevere. I wonder if the credit card machine ( called a Point of Service) was really broken or not.  And I do like the inadvertant pun!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Finance Police on the Case!

I guess its not exactly a secret that Italians are, shall we say, less than diligent in paying their taxes.  People who actually understand the intricacies of the VAT tax estimate that in 2014 Italians "evaded" 27.5% of what they should have paid. That makes for a not insignificant 36.9 billion Euros.  And that is just for VAT, one of the many taxes that Italy has on the books. The actual, total scope of tax evasion?  Who knows. Lots is a fair statement.  And it takes a toll, our trips to Italy have been made a bit less enjoyable by trash in the streets and archaeological sites closed because the government is chronically underfunded.

I was a bit taken aback to find out that the Tax Police actually have squad cars!

But I was really surprised to find out that they in addition have an "air force" of 100 planes and helicopters and a "navy" of 600 vessels.

If that seems a bit over the top for the purpose of persuading people to take paying taxes seriously I suppose it is only fair to mention that this branch of what are called "militarized police" also have responsibility for many other functions including preventing drug trafficking.

Wikipedia of course has so  Much More.  The Guardia works to track down illegal art sales.  They fight credit card fraud.  They run mountain rescue stations.  They even have nominal duties to prevent illegal immigration.  I wonder if their ships and that of the Italian Navy ever fire shots across the bow as the latter is currently tasked with rounding up ramshackle refugee vessels off the coast of Libya and towing them back to Italy.

Here's the current commander of the Guardia Finanza.  Although the Italians are not notably proficient at either military or police matters they do have the best damn uniforms.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bernie and Donald have a Thrift Sale

In small town America there are certain things that are just givens.  You want to have a yard/garage sale?  Go ahead and put up some signs.  So there was considerable consternation last year when the city "decided" to enforce an ordinance regardings signs. No more putting them out on the curb where they would be seen.  They had to be in your yard and set back a ways.  And you could just forget about putting them up on one of the high traffic public corners that were known for being "the place" for yard sale signs.

The long standing ordinance no doubt was originally intended to prevent ugly commercial clutter, but for signs that were dutifully put up on Thursday night and taken down on Saturday afternoon this was overkill.  Signs were even confiscated by city workers!

This was before the election and some speculate that the Civic Powers that Be did not want to see too many political signs out there.

Well the election is over.  The signs are back in their traditional places.  Any lasting effects?  Well, just maybe.

A very odd juxtapositon of elements here.  A Trumpian phrase.  Bernie Sanders' unkempt hair and oversized glasses.  And...the twitter bird?

I suppose the basic message is one of bipartisanship.  Come to the Yuge Sale. Your money is good no matter your politics.  

Of course Bernie would probably charge you a higher sales tax!

Hmmm, I had not set out to do so but it seems this week will be about taxes.  Only reasonable as recently on the Appian Way we had a full week of the other Immutable - Death.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Baths of Caracalla - A Negative Review

Sigh.  Lets get this one over with.

As you can tell I love Roman sites.  It takes a lot for me to dislike one.  But the Baths of Caracalla worked hard to get this negative review.

As you go here and there in Rome you can see the Baths from afar.  They are huge. The location is near the beginning of the Appian Way, but on this "History in a Place" stroll we visited it on a walk that started out near the Circus Maximus.

Here's the complex up close:

You need to think of Roman Baths as being a sort of full service public entertainment complex.  You had your swimming pools, hot and cold baths but also libraries, gardens, an exercise area.  All built by the Emperor for the pleasure of his people.

Many of the best mosaics - and some really first rate statues - have been removed to various museums.  But of the plainer mosaics there are plenty. Below a team is stabilizing one of them.  Note also the wall decoration...few people realize that mosaics could be vertical as well as horizontal.

So what's my gripe with the Baths of Caracalla?  The above photos have just shown you all there is to see.  Its fine, but if you are into this sort of thing there are other, if smaller, baths that show you more.  The main reason we wanted to visit this one was to see the extensive network of underground service tunnels, drains, cisterns etc. Heck there is even Rome's largest Mithraeum down there.  So lets get out of that hot sun and see neat things!

A locked gate.  No notice that this part of the site was not open.  For that matter the officious guy at the ticket office who refused to honor the 3 site pass I had acquired (I had not been able to specify the exact time of our visit) rubbed me the wrong way too.

So my advice is take a look at the marvelous Baths of Caracalla from some nice vantage point.  The Palatine Hill or the Aurelian Wall gate of San Sebastiano give you a nice view.  
Wrapping up this week's "History in one place" visits:

1. Case Romane del Celio was very much worth the visit.  Strolling up that more or less original Roman Imperial street coming up from the Colosseum area was a nice lead in.  Opening hours are listed as 10 - 1 and 3 - 6.  Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

2. From Case Romane its just a short stroll past the Basilica and into the park where you can visit the obelisk.  We had the place to ourselves other than a shabby looking guy snoozing on a bench.  If you need a bathroom there is actually a decent looking public facility in the park.  It costs one euro but heck, in Rome the alternative is usually going to a cafe or bar and buying something.

3. We exited the Celimontana park next to the "little ship" on Via Navicella.  We should have stopped in at Basilica di Santo Stefano Rodondo which was right in front of us.  Its a fifth century church with some extremely over the top frescoes depicting every form of martyrdom you can imagine.  And a few you probably didn't.

4.As I said, skip the Baths of Caracalla.  But as we were strolling towards our next destination we did find something interesting and useful on Via Aventino.  At number 32 you will find....a buffet.  In Italy, where meals are supposed to take forever and you only get one course at a time!  It was a revelation and when you have places to get to having things go at your pace is welcome.  Food was quite good too.
I actually have at least four more weeks of "History in one place" features, but lets take a break next week.  Pot luck.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Celimontana Obelisk

With a dozen obelisks scattered around Rome - not counting a few modern examples - it can happen that you just stumble across one.  That's how I found the Celimontana Obelisk.

We had been visiting the delightful Casa Romane del Celio site and decided to walk over to the Baths of Caracalla.  When the gates of a pleasant garden appeared along my proposed route it was easy enough to nip on in.  The gate we entered was off of the Via di S. Paolo della Croce, and brought us into the gardens associated with the Villa Celimontana.  This is on the Caelian Hill, perhaps the least known of The Seven Hills.

The villa is much renovated and now serves as the headquarters of the Italian Geographic Society.  The associated gardens are a public space, and are a delicious quiet retreat from the nearby Tourist Chaos of central Rome.  And the best part was that we rounded a corner and saw this:

If you think this obelisk looks to be a bit of a hodge podge, you are correct.

The history of the obelisk follows some familiar routes.  It  erected by Ramses II, and was one of a pair that stood in front of the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis near modern day Cairo.  They were transported to Rome in Imperial times and were part of the Iseum, the Temple of Isis, that stood near the Pantheon.  This site was the source of numerous extant obelisks. 

At some point this one was moved to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill.  It was in any event there in the 14th Century.  It appears to have fallen down and/or been moved elsewhere.

Fast forward to circa 1582 when the Senators of Rome gave the Obelisk as a present to Duke Mattei to help decorate the grounds of his new villa on the Caelian Hill.  As a present it was a bit of a Dog's Breakfast, composing parts of several other unidentified obelisks mated to the upper section from Heliopolis.

The villa and grounds were not kept up all that well, and the obelisk again fell over. It's not all that surprising, the patched up bits of several structures must have been rather unstable.

A Spanish stateman named Manuel de Godoy lived in the manor in the early 19th century and undertook to restore the obelisk and to have it moved to a better location. In the process of reseating the obelisk a workman had his arm accidently pinned under the base and amputated.  Because they were not about to lift the obelisk up again it is still in there.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Case Romane del Celio

OK, this is a rather clunky name.  Perhaps that's why the "Roman Houses on the Caelian Hill" are a little known site.  You have to be actively looking for it.

Like many preserved Roman sites it is underneath a church.  In this case the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul on Clivo di Scauro. This by the way is an actual Roman street, little changed since the day when it was a sort of short cut from the Circus Maximus to the residential districts beyond the hill. 

John and Paul were brothers, and officials in the court of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great.  When the brief pagan revival came in the form of Julian the Apostate (361-363) the brothers were martyred.  Interest in the earlier structures beneath the current basilica led to excavations beginning in the 1880s.

What was uncovered was a maze of rooms, passageways, even a little street.  The site is very nicely preserved with wall paintings and mosaics intact. After the Empire again became Christian the house was donated to the church and the existing Basilica was constructed, starting in 410 AD.  The incorporation of existing structures was extensive and accounts for the remarkable preservation. 

Some first rate wall paintings are on display.    

Some of the subject matter is Christian, some is debatable, some is flat out pagan. This is not surprising given the nature of the site.  There are at least elements of Second and Third Century structures some of which predate the Christian occupants. By the way, that window looks out onto the street.  This is a part of the site was just built into the Basilica.

A shrine traditionally associated with the original place of worship.  I understand that this is called a "Confessio" and that the assorted Saints depicted might or might not represent John and Paul.

Nearby we find a reliquary, possibly for the remains of John and Paul.  

A view of multiple levels.  Dwelling places grand and humble, a street, some shops. There are also bathing facilities, a well and a nymphaeum. Roman archeology is complex.

Of course I had to peek into a store room where extra stuff found in the excavations is just sitting around.

I mentioned that excavations were mostly done in the 1880s.  The main investigator was a Father Germano who was rector of the Basilica directly above this site.  It looks as if the original lighting fixtures he put in are still there!  I see that there are still candles in them and that they have been recently used.  I assume this is for some sort of special occasion, in general your carefully conserved wall paintings would not be happy with prolonged exposure to smoke and soot!

The crazy looking artwork on the back wall is modern, part of an exhibition. Interesting work but I did not think it enhanced the archeology much.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Circus of Maxentius - And the Appian Way rolls on

Our party stop yesterday notwithstanding, the Appian Way has a somber feel to it.  It combines a sense of fallen glories of Rome with a succession of burial places.  Perhaps none is grander or sadder than the complex known as The Circus of Maxentius.

The Roman aristocracy liked to be ostentatious in both life and in death.  Grand palaces and villas.  Grand tombs to show the prominence of the family.  And for the Emperor it was all dialed up a notch.

Maxentius reigned from 306 - 312 AD.  He came to power via The Tetrarchy, one of history's least successful experiments in governance.  Feeling that the Empire had grown too large for one man to effectively run, Diocletian decided that it would be divided into East and West halves.  One Emperor for each.  One subsidiary ruler called a Caesar in East and West.  In theory the latter was the understudy for the former. When an Emperor died or as actually happened, retired, there would always be a ready, non opposed successor.  In practice this would be like dividing the US at the Mississippi River, having a President and Vice President on each side, and no defined method for picking a new Veep.  Intrigue, death and Civil War ensued.

As mentioned the other day, Maxentius got a bad rap from historians of an earlier era. But he seems to have been an energetic ruler and a great builder.

Then as now politics makes men very rich, so Maxentius in short order acquired an earlier villa on the Appian Way and went on to build something that looked like this:

A huge "circus" as chariot racing tracks were called then.  Second only to the Circus Maximus this venue could hold 10,000 spectators. 

Today it is an open grassy field with parts of the stands here and there. 

I took this picture standing at one end of the spina the center part of the track.  The word means "spine" and in ancient times it would have been decorated with various water features, statues and right in the middle, a big ol' obelisk.  In fact, we have seen this obelisk previously.  It is a rather well traveled artifact for something this big!

The circus has a lonely feel to it.  And perhaps more than that of empty fields and ruined, empty bleachers.  Because the only time it seems to have been used was for a memorial service.

Maxentius does not get much respect from contemporary Christian writers.  But he is remembered as a loving father who grieved for the death of his son and presumptive heir, Romulus.  The inaugural games at the Circus were dedicated to his memory.

And here in the now familiar round format is the adjacent Tomb of Romulus.

Its a spooky place.  These niches were not for statuary but were intended to be the final resting places for a dynasty that Maxentius hoped to create.  But after a few short years he was killed in battle, his head shipped off to rebellious African provinces to prove he was really gone.  Romulus was the only one ever buried here.

On the day we visited we just missed a choir performance in the crypt.  That would have been something to experience.


So as promised, some practical advice for visiting the Via Appia and its many monuments.

1. Via Appia Day happens once a year in mid May.  Lots of places open that are otherwise hit and miss or "good luck".  But also lots of crowds.  It was very difficult biking. There were pluses and minuses for sure but in general I would pick another day.

2. On Sundays there is no automobile traffic allowed.  Given the overall kamikaze nature of Roman drivers this has some appeal if you decide to bike it.  But to be honest in many places there are paths along the side of the road that are where you would be biking anyway, those ancient cobble stones are murderous.  On weekdays you will probably have these impromptu bike lanes to yourself.

3. We rented bikes from Top Bike rentals.  Nice folks but the location near the Coliseum means you have to get yourself out of town.  Another option is to get the bikes at the "Punto Informativo" .  Cheaper and you would have a bit more time to explore with the closer drop off point.  The 118 and 218 bus will get you to there. This is right at the Tomb of Priscilla/Quo Vadis location.

4. You should take in a catacomb.  We did not, all of us having visited at least one before.  Good options listed below.

5. It might be a good plan to go to the far end of the Appian Way and walk back in.  It would be four or five miles if you did the whole route.  Getting there could be a little tricky.  Use Villa of the Quintilli as the farthest out point.  Taxis in Rome are actually fairly cheap.  Or, it looks as if there is a train station at Torricola out there.  I should caution that I have not read of anybody actually using this option.

The further out sections of the Appian Way are much less visited.  Ruined tombs all over the place.  It would be a very nice walk.

6. Here is a rough listing of the major sites, going from the far end in towards town, and what days they appear to be open.  Note of course that there are on and off seasons and that Italy is not the most consistent or well run place on earth.  Double check!

Villa dei Quintili this is a site I would have liked to visit.  It is/was an especially grand villa.  Open 9 - 4:30 except Mondays.  And maybe some other days, the website is vague.

Mausoleum of Caecelia Matella again open 9 - 4:30 except Mondays.  There also seem to be exceptions.  A single ticket can be purchased for this, the Villa Quintili and the Baths of Caracalla.

Circus of Maxentius.  Tuesday to Sunday 10 - 4.  This site might be for hard core enthusiasts only. 

Catacombs of San Sebastiano 10 - 5 Monday through Saturday.  I have not seen this catacomb but it looks to be one of the best of them.  There is a strong association with Saints Peter and Paul.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus. This one I have visited.  Its huge.  Catacombs are always nice and cool on a hot dry day.  Open daily except Wednesdays.

Tomb of Priscilla does not appear to have any scheduled opening times.  You can try and get a peek from around back of the restaurant.  It was open specially for Via Appia Day.

I should probably mention Roma Sottererrana, an organization that delves into all things underground in Rome.  Their headquarters is on the Appian Way.  If you were in Rome for a longer time check out their events and classes.

The Museo della Mura  is in the gate house of the Porto San Sebastiano.  This was in fact named for the nearby church and catacombs.  The museum appears to be free and open every day but Monday.

Tomb of the Scipios and the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas are open only to groups and by special arrangment.

There are a few things not far off the main Via Appia axis.  The Parco Aquedotti is a bit to the east.  On our previous bike jaunt we rode through it.  It has great aqueduct ruins of course but is also a very popular place for locals to picnic.

The Fosse Ardeatine memorial is near the Catacombs of St. Callixtus.  This was the site of an infamous WWII massacre.  Free.  8:15 to 5:45.

Because there is so much to see in the four or five miles of the Appian Way from Villa Quintili on in I have a hard time recommending an actual sit down meal.  Bring snacks. Several places closer in have the nice drinking water fountains that you find so frequently in Rome.  Bathrooms are hit and miss, there is one at the bike rental place near the Tomb of Priscilla.  And of course all the sites you pay admission to will have nice facilities.
Well.  This winds up an ambitious week of posting about an ambitious day of travel. Next week another "History in a place" feature but a bit less hectic.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Tomb of Caecelia - A Party Stop

Our next stop on the Appian Way is perhaps the best known. I am stepping a little out of strict chronology here but The Tomb of Caecilia Matella was a really happenin' place when we were there. It does not seem like the place to end our journey down a long, ancient necropolis.

This seems to have been the focal point of the "Via Appia Day" celebrations.  Lots of local vendors and political causes had tents set up.  A band was playing what I assume to be traditional Italian folk music.  Little girls in dresses were dancing to it.  All very much like a Fellini movie.  

Oh, and we ran into another re-enactor.  Who better than Pan - or perhaps a more generic satyr - to be the life of the party!

The Tomb of course was open and free of charge that day.  Here is a look from across the road.  The tomb proper is the round section on the left.  It was later incorporated into a 12th century fortress of the Caetani family.  In the fashion of the times they used this as a toll booth and to protect themselves from other local families.  It sounds as if they were all unpleasant robber barons.

Unlike our last stop there is no real doubt as to who was buried here.  Her name is still on a monumental stone up front.  It translates to:

To Caecelia Matella, daughter of Quintus Creticus (and wife) of Crassus

The tomb is 1st Century BC.  Quintus Creticus was Consul in 69 BC and the Crassus referenced appears to be the son of the famous Marcus Crassus who was a general under Julius Caeser.  The identification is made a bit difficult by there being three generations of the Crassus family with near identical names.

Although the tomb has survived in better shape than most similar structures the complex as a whole is quite the hodge podge. Excavations have been ongoing here since at least the mid 1500's albeit the early ones were nothing more than treasure hunts. Here a former gate into the fortress has been sealed off with various bits and bobs found over the years.

I am always interested in the post Roman history of places like this.  Many of the early engravings from artists off to see Important Ancient Sites tend towards the romantic. While looking for information on this tomb I did run across an online book that provided me with much useful information.  The serious student is directed HERE

The inside of the main tomb was somewhat of a disappointment to me.  It resembles nothing so much as the inside of an industrial chimney.  Obviously there are interesting parts that are off limits to visitors, especially on a day when herds of same were out in force.

The interior of the fortress is now open to the elements and has an assortment of relics that have been unearthed in the area. Naturally many of the better pieces are in museums.

The focused traveler certainly sees more, checks more things off his or her list.  But the joys of unfocused travel are not to be dismissed.  While wandering about to no particular purpose I stumbled across this:

CHRESTUS LICTOR CAESARIS.  I was at least aware that a Lictor was a minor official in Roman times.  The primary use of the title was for the bodyguards assigned to the Emperor and to lesser functionaries.  It had a few secondary meanings as well.  A sub class of Lictors had religious duties being present at sacrifices and serving as bodyguards for the priests.  The term "Lector" is unrelated btw.

And Chrestus?  An intense debate as to the relationship between this name/title and that of Christ/Christians existed that I knew nothing about before I found this stone. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Lunch at the Tomb of Priscilla

Following a strict chronological narrative the next post in my "History in one place" narrative should be the Church of Quo Vadis, which I discussed earlier.  I went over and had a quick peek at this while my travel companions were deciding on lunch options. They considered a snack bar that was doing a busy trade versus a little restaurant which looked cool and shady.  Cool and shady won out.

I am not going to do a real restaurant review because I suspect we did not catch Trattoria Da Priscilla at their best.  Dining in Italy - especially for dinner but to some extent for lunch - is intended to be a relaxed, extended experience.  As Via Appia day got underway the whole area was getting crowded.  In one of the few useful applications of my Italian language abilities it became clear that if you saw a table available and asked for it in Italian you got seated.  Those who asked in English....none available.

Lunch was pretty good.  I won't hold against them that glass of vino della casa that we ordered and never got.  We were perhaps a bit impatient to get on our way as the day was slipping away.

But Trattoria Da Priscilla gets a big plus mark, maybe an entire star, for having as its back wall a small section of the ancient Tomb of Priscilla!

Lets just go around the back for a closer look.  (Note, this is often not possible, we'll get to opening hours in a later post)

The Trattoria is on the right.  This is fairly impressive, but what are we actually seeing here?

Lets rewind chronologically first and have a look at an engraving from 1756.  This by the way is incorrectly identified by the artist, a Mr. Piranesi, as being the Tomb of the Scipios...

I am not sure if this is from the same side or the opposite in my photo.  The tomb has been knocked about a great deal and Piranesi seems to have altered the scale a bit. Note the difference in ground level.

The tomb is generally felt to be that of Priscilla, wife of Titus Flavius Abascanto, a freedman of the Emperor Domitian.  The contemporary poet Statius describes the elaborate preparations for her funeral and gives a rough location of the tomb.  An inscription said to have been found nearby is additional evidence.

What grabs your attention first is of course the central tower.  This is actually a much later construction.  Like so many other ancient buildings this was converted into a medieval watch tower using whatever old and new stones were available.  The actual tomb was two concentric cylinder the inner one having 13 niches for statuary.  

Here is the view walking around inside the inner cylinder.  The tower is indeed an architectural mess.  I assume the entry door is where the bricks can be seen above. There was a little opening to peek into on this.  My photo shows not hidden mysterious structures, just what looks like some lawn furniture covered with sheets.

The actual burial chamber is below our feet here.  It is descibed as a barrel vault that can be entered via a passage from one of the adjacent buildings (I am betting the Trattoria).  It is, or was, lined with travertine blocks and contained niches for three sarcophogi.

In recent times the burial chamber has been used to age cheeses!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Gate in the Aurelian Walls - Our Second Stop

Our Western societies are in many ways based on the Roman Republic.  Or if you are in a more cynical mood, upon the later Empire.  But in either case we instinctively relate to Rome when we look at our own times and circumstances.  This can be misleading.  My initial thoughts when considering the Aurelian Walls were along the lines of our current debate on the role of immigration and on the building of literal walls.

But that does not seem to be very close.  The Aurelian Walls were built quickly and in response to an unimaginable catastrophe...hostile armies approaching Rome!  This had not happened for centuries.  So perhaps the better analogy would be the ring of fortifications that sprang up around Washington DC at the beginning of the American Civil War.

When L. Domitis Aurelianus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops in 270 AD you have to wonder if he was very happy about it. The Empire was a mess.  The Persians were ascendant in the East, having in fact captured the Emperor Valerian a generation earlier and supposedly keeping him alive as a human footstool!  Since then it was all rebellions, barbarian incursions, plagues and short lived Emperors who were raised up by their troops then in short order assassinated.  Repeat.

Things were so grim that Aurelianus decided to put a defensive wall around Rome.  He pulled it off in just five years - actually it was finished after he himself was assassinated - and it is in places sloppy work.  Existing buildings were incorporated into it.  Any kind of building material from grand to gritty was just tossed right in.  But darn it all his Wall worked.  It was still standing tall three centuries later during the interminable Gothic Wars that accelerated the Decline and Fall so abruptly.

Lets visit one of the main gates of the Aurelian Wall, the one that opens onto the Appian Way.

Porta San Sebastiano.  This is one of the largest and best preserved of the Aurelian Wall gates.  That makes sense as the Appian Way was not only the most famous "road leading to Rome" it was a major transportation artery as well.  The gate looks to have been built in various phases and that is exactly correct.  Aurelian and his crash program of 270-275 built a double passageway gate in a set of walls that corresponds to the lower segment of the above structure.  Maxentius, an Emperor who does not get the credit he deserves*, renovated and improved it. Even Honorius, that decidedly lesser ruler of the late, decaying Western Empire did some very effective upgrades, basically doubling the height of the entire twelve mile course of the Walls while reducing the openings to more defensible single lanes.  And of course Belisarius, one of history's truly great Generals, added additional features during the Gothic wars.  In medieval times and up into the modern era the gate had both defensive and commercial was a toll collection site for those wanting to enter the Eternal City.

The last real defensive use of the walls was actually in 1870 when the Bersaglieri breached the walls on their way to capturing Rome, ending the temporal power of the Pope, and bringing about the Reunification of Italy.**

Note the banner that says: Museo della Mura.  This is the Museum of the Walls.  It was open when we were there, and gives a nice sense of perspective on the structure.

But first lets see the Gate as we did, coming out from the City.

The first thing you encounter is the so called "Arch of Drusus".  This was a support for a now vanished aqueduct that served the nearby Baths of Caracalla. It was simply incorporated into the defensive system.  The actual gate can be seen beyond. Walls connected the two structures creating an enclosed courtyard that would have been a very uncomfortable place for any barbarians who had managed to sneak through the first gate.

Here is the arch from the other side, looking back towards Rome.  As you can see there are a bunch of somewhat barbaric looking people milling about. As this was "Via Appia" day there were large crowds of locals on hand.  Booths and tents for various causes were set up.

Here a bunch of kids are having fun on an obstacle course set up in the courtyard.

Of course it was necessary to go up the stairs into the gate.  Here on a platform actually right over the Appian Way a re-enactor is giving an impassioned speech about the duties of the Roman Soldier.  It was a little hard to follow but I did pick up "Punto gladius", which is at the point of the gladius, a type of short sword.

Looking out from the top of the tower you can see that the walls still remain an imposing barrier.  It would take more than a short sword to do battle along this defensive front.

Looking out over our route for the next phase of the trip.  The Appian Way continues onward.

* Maxentius was a very energetic Emperor, a towering figure compared to some earlier or later ones.  But he was the Pagan Emperor defeated by Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  The Church wrote most of the history of those times.  Constantine turned Christian and was dubbed "The Great".  Maxentius is largely a footnote.

** Oh, there was also a battle of sorts in 1943.  We'll get to that another day.