The Paths of Glory
Friday, April 26, 2002
When you go by the Via Flaminia, as thousands have traveled before,
Having circled the Aventine Hill and the south end of the old Servian Walls in my search for the Order of Malta, I came back past the Circus Maximus (totally in ruins, but there's a nice park there now; last time I was in Rome it was ruins and swamp and abandoned weed fields, with some excavations begun by Mussolini and abandoned after WW II) and on through the Forum, over the Capitoline, and up the Via del Corso which will become the Via Flaminia at the north gates of the city.
Circling the Servian Walls and coming in through the old Apian Way gate, I'm headed northwest when I see this chap. His helmet is certainly not classical Roman. I thought I knew Roman history, but I never heard of this fellow, who cuts a striking figure. There is a convention regarding equestrian statuary, with the number of hooves raised off the ground indicating something, but I confess I have forgotten that, too. This man is well enough regarded to have a splendid statue, but I think few who see it know his story.
The guidebook has a short entry, not about this statue but about his house: The Albanian Prince Giorgio Castriota, called Scanderbeg (1402-1468), the "Terror of the Turks", has his portrait preserved on the house where he lived. That's up by the Quirinale, a few blocks southeast of the Piazza Colonna (the column of Marcus Aurelius). I've found nothing else about the Albanian Prince Giorgio Castriota, Terror of the Turks: unlike the Serbs and Croats, the Albanians converted to Islam and became tax collectors for the Turks. Scanderbeg was clearly not among those.
In the 15th Century A.D. the Turks conquered much of the Balkans, as well as much of the Mediterranean Sea. They took Rhodes from the Knights of St. John who moved on to Malta where they became the Knights of Malta. In 1527 Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna itself. That was the high water mark of Turkish conquests in Europe, although it wasn't clear until Lepanto in 1571 that the forces of the Prophet would not sweep all across Europe. After the Balkan conquests the Turks laid tribute on the Christians who refused to convert: the tribute demanded was young boys, who were taken to Istanbul, forcibly converted to Islam, made slaves of the state, and became the elite monastic shock troops known as the Janissaries. That's another story, but Serb and Croat hatred of those who, like the Albanians, did convert and become tax collectors has endured to this day. Scanderbeg may be more relevant in these modern times than the Romans know...
The way led over part of the Aventine Hill, past cloistered grounds that proclaimed themselves the National Dance Academy, and what looked like a very exclusive private school for girls run by the Ministry of Public Instruction. The girls were in school uniforms, but their parents who were picking them up from school drove expensive cars, and the neighborhood looked expensive. I am sure there are slums near downtown Rome, but the Aventine Hill area doesn't have any of them. It does have the residence of the US Ambassador to the Vatican. I didn't see any school busses.
Over the hill and onward to the Circus Maximus, then past it.
I didn't get pictures of the Parco del Circo Massimo because I didn't think of it. This was due to sheer terror: Roman traffic hasn't improved since Imperial times, and getting across Via del Circo Massimo on foot was hazardous. There's nothing there anyway: it's just an oval shaped park. Having gone around the park, which was full of dogs -- Rome has no leash laws, and dogs like to play in the parks -- I found a small street that, according to the map, led where I was going, in the general direction of home. I soon found gated areas with interesting old ruins and excavations, all unmarked, with a residential street on one side and the walls of the old Forum area on the other. I found the name of the street, and the church that gave it the name: Via di S. Teodoro. The guidebook says the church is 6th Century, and one of Rome's hidden treasures, but it was closed and I was in a hurry.
One place I did see was through a locked gate: the Cave of Romulus, or at least I think that is what it is. It's not open, and it's not labeled. There a lot of unopened and unlabelled ruins along the Via di S. Teodoro. The Forum is ahead and to the right, and that's the Palatine Hill we're looking at from the back side.
Moving along I find more unlabeled excavations locked up tight. This one I think is the Tempio de Cibele, on the Palatine Hill, where, I suppose, they kept the Sibylline Books. There were three of them. The Sibyl, a priestess with the gift of prophecy, offered to sell nine books to King Tarquin back in legendary Royal times. He thought the price too high, whereupon she burned three of them and offered six at the original price. He refused again, and she burned three more, at which point the King paid the original price for the nine for the three remaining. The books were ritually consulted by a special priesthood when Rome had times of trouble.
That was my thought at the time: it turns out that Cybele was a fertility goddess and the priests there castrated themselves in hopes of making the world fertile. The logic of that escapes me. I haven't yet found where the Sibylline Books were kept...
I probably should have established my scholarly credentials with the authorities here. When I did that in Greece I was admitted to a number of places closed to the public (including in Crete the real alabaster throne of King Minos, the oldest throne in Europe if not the world; the one on display to the public is a copy). I don't know if Italy has similar accommodations for scholars and authors, but I'd be surprised if they don't, and I would like to have seen the place where they kept the Sibylline Books. Another time, though...
And now a view of the Forum through the trees from the top of this little hill. Continuing,
I found the path down into the Forum. This path comes out right at the Cloaca Maxima, the old Roman (Etruscan, actually; it predates Rome) sewer that empties into the river. Opposite the Cloaca Maxima is a rather more inspiring picture of past glories, although the building of sewers and the draining of the swamps probably gave the Romans the ability to build such wonders...
Ruins of past glory.
And the Sacred Way. When you see Roman Triumphs, this is where they would have been held. Of course all around us are ruins now, so I don't need a slave whispering to me constantly to remember that I am but a man. And when this wasn't ruins, and the people shouted their adoration, the warning was needed, but not likely to be heeded. Triumphs were an odd Roman institution. Caligula celebrated one for his victory over the sea.
Looking back along the Sacred Way through the Arch of Septimius Severus. This was buried until 18th Century excavations began to expose the old Forum. Severus came after Aurelius, well into the late Principate phase of Imperial times. Republicans wouldn't have seen this arch, which was erected in 203 A.D. to commemorate the 10th year of the old soldier's reign. Septimius Severus was the first Emperor who wasn't Roman at all; after him there was never another Roman Emperor, they all being colonials who had risen to military command. Constantine, for example, was born in Britain...
Just to the right of this arch, to the left of the remains of the Temple of Saturn, was the Rostra, made of the prows of ships captured in the Battle of Antium in 338 B.C. From that Rostrum Brutus, and then Mark Antony, made their speeches following the assassination of Julius Caesar. I wonder how many school children have stood there to declaim Antony's speech? I confess I was tempted to do that myself. Or to stand in the shadows and say, privately, 'And Great Caesar in a monarch's voice shall cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war'...
But Caesar would never, I think, have acquiesced in the murder of Cicero, whose head and hands were displayed here on the Rostra from which he had so often spoken. Antony was a cruder man than his master, and insisted that Cicero be put on the Proscription List. Augustus (then still Octavian) to his shame allowed Antony his will during the Second Triumvirate (Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus). So great was Antony's hatred of Cicero that Fulvia, his wife, stabbed Cicero's tongue with a hairpin, whether out of conviction or mere loyalty to Antony I don't know. It didn't do her a lot of good once Antony met Cleopatra... There is a Papal reconstruction of a Rostra in the Piazza del Popolo.
The Sacred Way led up to the top of the Capitoline hill, past the Temple of Saturn. Like the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Rostra, this was all buried until the 18th Century when the Popes began excavations.
You see The Sacred Way over there past the schoolchildren who flock down these stairs. This route had a different purpose. The Triumph went up to the Capitoline along the Sacred Way...
But the captives came this way, to the Mamartine Prison, where those to be executed were lowered through a hole in the floor to be strangled and their bodies thrown into the Cloaca. Claudius describes a particularly hideous incident under Tiberius, in which the 14 year old daughter of a man condemned for treason was taken to the Mamartine. She didn't know what was to happen to her. She thought she was being punished for something she had done. Then she was lowered into the hole, where it was discovered that she was a virgin. Virgins couldn't be executed. So the executioner raped her before strangling her. The glory of empire coupled with a meticulous attention to the letter of the law. Of course that sort of thing can't happen now. We are more civilized than the people who built these splendors.
The stairs lead on to the top of the Capitoline Hill.
Of course these aren't classical buildings. These are constructs of Papal rule, designed by Michelangelo, and that's a copy of the statue of Marcus Aurelius put up during the reign of the Last Good Emperor. The original survives and is kept inside the museum here. The Roman City Council still meets up here, and some of these offices are still in use.
Across the hill
and down into the city:
Victor Emmanuel's great monument which obscures the view of the Capitol from the Piazza Venezia and the PalazzoVenezia. This is of course quite modern: it was begun in 1885 and finished in 1925, in honor of Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont and Savoy, first king of unified Italy. The monument is universally despised as "the epitome of self-important, intensive architecture." Poul Anderson used to say that it was a mighty failure: it attempted to be more obtrusive than the Albert Memorial, but wasn't successful. In fact, it's not a lot different from what a lot of Imperial Rome must have looked like. Empires build this sort of thing.
Over to the right on the Capitoline itself there used to be a wire run about 40 feet long by ten feet wide. A female wolf was kept there, and there had been a wolf caged -- but well fed and very well treated -- on the Capitoline Hill since before the Republic. Monarchy, Republic, Principate, Dominate, Papal Rule, Goths, Popes, Napoleon, Garibaldi, the House of Savoy, Mussolini: the wolf remained. After World War II it proved to be too costly to keep 24 hour guards to protect the wolf from modern vandals. The cage was still there the last time I visited Rome, but even that is gone now, and few remember there ever was a wolf on the Capitoline...
The heart of Mussolini's New Rome. His office was in the Palazzo Venezia, the brick building, and he used to address the people from the balcony. Victor Emmanuel's monument reminded the Roman people of past glories as Il Duce told them of the new glory of Rome to be achieved through sheer willpower.
The Via del Curso leads northward.
From modern to Renaissance. A Papal period church along the Corso. I didn't notice which one, but I find later from the guide book that it's San Marcello al Corso, rebuilt after it burned down in 1519, and is on the site of one of the earliest known places of Christian worship in Rome. The Trevi Fountain is about four blocks northeast of here, but I'm not going that way today. Instead, I head on up Corso to
the Column of Aurelius. The statue on top isn't Aurelius, though. Pope Sixtus V restored the column, but had the old emperor replaced with a statue of St. Paul. Inside the column there is a spiral staircase to the top. I didn't try to find out if it would be open.
And you must look for it to find it: the tomb of Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the world, solemnly made a god by decree of the Senate. This is what remains.
Around it is the city. It was much easier to find the Mausoleo di Augusto the last time I was here. There has been more new construction around it. It's no longer on the way to anywhere.
It was designed and built by Caesar Augustus in 28 B.C., and was the best place to be buried in early Imperial times. Agrippa, Marcellus and other victims of Livia's little box of poisons: the Imperial family's ashes were here, followed by Augustus himself in 14 A.D. The ashes and urns are long lost now. The obelisks that adorned the mausoleum have been moved to the Esquiline and Quirinal. One stands outside the Palazzo del Quirinale, itself built as the palace of the Popes. After 1870 that became the residence of the Kings of Italy, and is now the residence of the President of Italy. Other adornments have been moved to various places.
The Mausoleo itself later became a fortress, much like Castel Sant'Angelo, but that didn't last. The tomb was made into a park in Papal times, and has been a vineyard and vegetable garden, as well as a theater. It is no longer open.
There is a restaurant named for it in the modern building that overlooks it. That building didn't exist the last time I was in Rome.
There is access to the area outside the walls of the mausoleum; ground level in Imperial times, now well below street level. Derelicts seem to make good use of the seclusion there. No one else goes there.
And the whole is surrounded by a parking lot.
A block away is the Corso. This time of day -- evening, actually -- it is rather crowded with shoppers... North to Piazza del Popolo, then west.
Just before I got to the Ponte Margherita, I saw this, an advertisement for "street clothing." That anyone would buy clothing named for the instigator of the Slaughter of the Innocents is probably a sign of the times. Or perhaps the behavior of the couple on the sign is supposed to remind us of Salome? Herod could not have supposed that his path of glory would lead to a clothing advertisement located between Piazza del Popolo and the Ponte Margherita...
And finally, views from the Ponte Margherita looking south south east toward the Mausoleo di Augusto. The tomb is between us and the church domes, only about a block from the river. Also invisible in that direction is the great Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace built by the Senate to commemorate the Peace of Augustus Caesar after 13 B.C. It is being reconstructed now, and is surrounded by scaffolding and construction baffles so there's nothing to see or photograph, but it will eventually be open. It was sited so that the Great Sundial of Augustus (a huge obelisk) set up in the Campus Martius just about due east of the Altar would cast its shadow on the sacrificial altar on Augustus's birthday, but the sundial didn't remain accurate, and the obelisk vanished for a thousand years. It has been set up in a different place now. The marble friezes and reliefs of the Altar have been scattered, one section ending in Paris, another in Florence. When the restoration is complete it should be something wonderful to see.
I am greatly impressed by how the Romans treat their river. They have regularized its course, and taken out most of the obstacles to water flow to minimize floods, but unlike the Los Angeles River, the Tiber has not been reduced to a sterile concrete ditch. The Romans were fortunate that the Marshall Plan didn't include visits from the US Army Corps of Engineers who planned and executed the Los Angeles flood control system after our floods in the 30's, and managed to turn a wild river into a concrete watercourse with a few pathetic weedy islands here and there.
The Tiber has more character.
There are paved walks on one side of the Tiber. You reach them from stairs, and when the river is high they will likely be under water. On the other side of the river are the remains of paved walks that have been allowed to go to weeds and vegetation. There are paths in the weeds, which I suppose are used by derelicts who sleep under the bridges: I never saw anyone down there, but there were signs of encampment here and there. There are also boathouses, and canoeing on the river. Gulls make use of the river and swifts build nests along the stone embankments. Recall the flood levels from earlier times and you can understand why the river was straightened and given stone banks, but it wasn't ruined as a river.
Up above at street level there are also walks along the river, as well as highways. The river drive along this section is named Lungotevere in Augusta. Fiume Tevere is of course what we call the River Tiber, and what Augustus would have called Father Tiber.
The Margherita bridge leads from Lungotevere Augusta to Lungotevere dei Michelangelo. Cross that and you are on Via Cola di Rienzo, the major shopping street on this side of the Tiber as Via del Corso is on the other side. Via Cola di Rienzo goes from the district called Prati to the Borgo. You can tell what district you are in because it is stamped artistically on the trash cans which most tourists use and most young Italians can't be bothered with. At Virgilio I turned right to our apartment. It had been a long day following the paths of glory...
I append some remarks by a reader:
I saw the reminder link to your trip reports and, being a Classics major, immediately browsed your visit to Rome.
Naturally, I have a couple comments:
The Ara Pacis is the "Altar of Peace". As you noticed, there seems to be a rather concerted effort to eliminate reminders of the Fascist period. The construction around the Ara Pacis another instance of that effort.
The Sibylline books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline, which, as it did periodically, burned down, destroying them. They were reconstructed and again kept in the same temple until Augustus had them move to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine (conveniently next door to Augustus' house) where they stayed until Stilicho had the burned in the 5th century.
As you face the equestrian statue of M. Aurelius in the Campidoglio, the Temple of Jupiter would have been to your right and back toward the Tabularium a bit, overlooking the Forum.
Those temples in the Campus Martius, are, if I'm not mistaken, a group of small early republican temples dedicated by triumphators. They lie at the end of Pompey's Portico and are are: Juturna, Fortuna, Feronia, and Lares Permarini. The area is also called the Largo Argentina.
the temple behind the cat in this picture:
Almost everything you read on those big multilingual signs is suspect by the way. Richardson's "A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome" is both affordable and reliable.