When in Rome use the underground

Roman at underground signIt isn’t surprising that Rome’s Underground/Metro system is smaller than that of London’s - after all, Rome has just 2.7million inhabitants to London’s 8 million+ (though did you know that ancient Rome is said to have peaked at 1 million - a huge population for its time?). The present Metro system can carry tourists to many ancient locations; but remember, you must now comply with the recently- passed law against litter: ‘Take-out snacks must not be eaten at historic sites’. So arrive there well-fed!

The latest news is that Rome will shortly start major restoration work in several locations, including one that’s always of interest to visitors - the Colosseum. The authorities assure users of the Colosseum Metro station - it’s only a few paces away from the amphitheatre - that the £16 million project (funded by an Italian shoe/leather goods millionaire) will not affect their passage in the streets or Metro; it’s also planned that the Colosseum will remain open for tourism during the two years of this rebuilding programme. This means it could recall the site as it was in antiquity – masses of people and lots of noise, though now it’s from drills and diggers instead of the roars of people and wild animals!

The infamous amphitheatre was known by earlier Romans as the Amphitheatrum Flavium, because it was begun during Vespasian’s reign (69-79AD), added to during that of his son, Titus (79-81AD) and completed under Titus’ brother, Domitian (81-96 AD) the last emperor of this Flavian Dynasty. The building’s popular name comes from the Colossus of Nero – a bronze 35-metre statue that stood outside the building until the Middle Ages. After the Flavians, it was crowned and named the Colossus Solis, after the Sun God, Sol.

Let’s exit the Colosseum Metro, cross the road and join the long entrance queue. After viewing the upper parts, we’ll descend and look at how the ancient Roman engineers used their incredible skills to design and build this underground part of the great amphitheatre of horrors.

It was this hypogeum (Gk = ΰππο = under// γaia = earth) of the Colosseum, that was the first stop for the masses of animals that arrived here. They were brought to two levels of dark, swelteringly hot - and stinking - tunnels, pens and lift-cages (the latter took the live animals up to arena level and brought dead animals, victims and gladiators down). Every wild animal you can think of arrived here from Asia, Africa and Europe; note the higher arches that were needed for the underground movement of ostriches, giraffes and elephants. As you’ll know from your Roman history, North Africa and other parts of the world were depleted of their wildlife – and have never recovered it. It’s an understatement to say that in this ghastly world down-under, it must have been pandemonium (Gk: παν = all// δαίμων = demon). As for events at arena level - did you know that in 80AD, the inauguration ‘Games’ (a misnomer if ever there was one) lasted for 100 days and during that time 9000 animals and over 2000 gladiators lost their lives?

Now, after almost 2000 years, these grim lower parts (murky, dank, rambling, crumbling and menacing) as well as two upper facades, are to be restored. In addition, a new bookshop and a large visitors’ reception centre will be built (do you think Nero’s Caffè will open a branch here?!)

Just look at the size of this ‘underground city’ – it was 6 acres in its entirety (including tunnels to the Gladiator Training School). The remaining part-columns, archways and masonry walls all remind us of a normal building, but the architect/archaeologist/engineer, Heinz-Ju̎rgen Beste, who has worked in the hypogeum for over a decade, has revealed the hitherto unknown purposes of many of the small bits of original equipment here. He says they were all part of the vast amount of man-powered apparatus – which was mostly for moving animals upstairs. With today’s lighting we find it hard to imagine how it was with flares everywhere for the sweating slaves who worked these ancient machines and hardly ever saw the light of day. We also learn that, since the ludi (Lat = games) ended in the fourth century, this area has been used as a dump for rubbish and animal dung, a haystore and later on, a vegetable garden… In two years’ time, we’ll see it reconstructed as it was in its heyday – without the ancient stench!

What was the real purpose of these spectacles? It was nothing less than the self-promotion of the emperors, who wished to remain popular with the masses. In addition, they needed to maintain law and order. So much work in Rome was being carried out by cheap labour (slaves brought back from foreign victories), that there was a huge unemployment problem amongst the Romans themselves. To keep them from rebelling/fighting amongst themselves, there was free or subsidised bread, and constant ‘entertainment’ in the Colosseum and Circus (chariot racing track), all paid for at this stage of the empire, by the emperor. The days/weeks/months of such events for the audience of 50,000 here, caused the satirist poet Juvenal to write that the only concern of the Roman masses was for their ‘bread and circuses’ (Lat: panem [acc.of panis]et circenses) - food and entertainment!

Let’s go upstairs now for some daylight, fresh air and exercise. We’ll walk and bus (and sit in a café to eat our snack!) to another underground location where we can learn more about Roman society - from looking at their burial sites. From the Colosseum, it’s a short walk to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, then we take bus number 218 to the beginning of the ancient tomb-lined Via Appia (7 minutes), to arrive at several Catacombs (Gk: kata= down// kymba = exact orig. unknown, possibly ‘hollow’ or ‘receptacle’). The bus travels on the modern paved road, but if you want to walk on the original surface and look at some of the great tombs still standing there, when you alight, just continue walking for a while, until you see the great paving slabs that made up this ancient ‘intercity highway’- originally 560kms in length. It was built in 312BC by Appius Claudius Caecus, who didn’t become ‘caecus’ (Lat = blind) until old age. Via Appia, the chief trading route to the coast, started near the Roman Forum and ended in the port city of Brundisium (today’s Brindisi).

We’ll look through one of the 5 catacombs here – there are actually 60 that exist in Rome, many are Christian, some secular and others Jewish, and they were in use from the lst to 5th centuries. This one is named after Domitilla, a Christian woman who donated her land for catacomb use. Each catacomb is extensive; this one, for instance, stretches underground for 17kms (11 miles!) and has 150,000 tombs (2000 of them yet to be opened, the rest empty). The tombs are dug out of soft volcanic tufa (Ital: tuff ), which is easier to tunnel than many other rocks; this aided the work of both tomb builders and tomb robbers! By the end of the 9th century, however, all bones had been transferred to within the city walls.

Wear something warm when you visit, even if it’s 30C at ground level. It’s cold and very dark down here, and the narrow corridors go off in all directions, with empty burial loculi (Lat. Sing: loculus = a small place/niche), of different sizes on either side, so it’s essential not to lose sight of your guide with his/her little torch! The catacombs are on 4 levels, the oldest above, as it was the first level to be dug. They were begun here when it was illegal to bury bodies within the city walls and a burial plot of land was expensive to buy. It must have meant constant work for the fossori , (Lat = diggers, from fodere: to dig) and difficult for visitors to find their family tomb in this labyrinthine hypogeum. In some corridors, note the collections of oil lamps and lanterns with which they lit their way.

We can learn Roman social history from reading tomb inscriptions and noting the different designs and messages. Some families have richly-coloured, artistic scenes on their tomb frontage, others have small tomb chambers, (Lat: cubiculi) with family niches all around, and some could even afford to build private chapels where they held memorial services when they visited (note the tufa ‘chairs’ for invisible participants).

Here though, is the marble niche covering of little 4-year-old Criste, whose father wanted a memorial for his little girl. The epitaph reads: Cristor, filiae suae Criste, in pace anis IIII (Cristor, for his daughter Criste, now at peace, aged 4 years). The stone is not cut into a IV for the number ‘four’ that we see on formal, public memorials, but rather the four ‘I’ symbols; also, the word for ‘years’ is spelled with only one ‘n’ (such numbering and mis-spelling were quite often seen in informal dedications incised by semi-professional engravers). Criste stands with her hands raised (this depicts praying), her pet dog stands with her dad; all are participating in the ‘funeral banquet of happy eternity’. Two doves, symbolising peace, are on either side of this poignant memorial. The fact that neither her mother nor other children are shown in this funeral scene, could suggest that they might have already died (? from one of the many diseases for which there were no cures in antiquity?) and that dad and dog are now alone…

Another inscription reminds us of the notorious emperor Caracalla (sole reign: 211 – 217AD) whose real names were Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus - his nickname comes from that of his Gallic (French) hoodie cloak, which he made his personal fashion statement (nothing’s new in life!). One good thing that he did was to commission the great Baths (therefore named after him /Antoninus) a magnificent ancient leisure centre, that comprised warm baths and Greek and Latin libraries (see the impressive ruins today).

We see a mention of the Baths in the following inscription on a marble loculus cover : Cucumio et Victoria, se vivos fecerunt, capsararius de Atoninianas These words refer to (a:) the dead couple (Cucumio and Victoria) (b): the fact that they made this memorial for themselves while still living (se vivos fecerunt) and (c): the dead man’s former occupation in life, of which he was obviously very proud: Capsararius de Antoninianas : ‘a cloakroom attendant in the Caracalla Baths’. Thank you, Cucumio, for this information. It conjures up pictures of Romans arriving for a leisurely clean, swim and read, and handing over their outer clothes to you for safekeeping…

We haven’t even made a dent in the 17 kms expanse of this underground space, but after three hours it’s time we warmed ourselves, so let’s surface into the hot outer air, return to the Colosseum Metro and take the modern Underground system to Piramide, just two stations down the line.

The gleaming white pyramid that faces us when we emerge from the Metro was built in 12BC, in just 333 days, as a memorial to Gaius Cestius by his happy slaves! Apparently he had manumitted them (ie. made them freed-men) on his death – owners often did this. We pass it and walk for 5 minutes before reaching our lunch destination, where we shall defy the new Roman law by eating at a ‘tourist’ site. Strangely, there’s a connection between the modern law and this location, because this place, too, is about garbage - though the concern here was never discarded Big Mac paper wrappers!

We arrive at Monte Testaccio, (Lat: testa = earthenware pot) in the older part of town. This huge green mound stands 35metres in height; unfortunately it’s now closed to anyone who isn’t on an official ‘dig’ (and they’re extremely expensive) but if you peer through the sides, you can see earthenware bits sticking out here and there. It’s a man-made rubbish dump of discarded amphorae : (Gk: αμφι = ambi = both [handles]; φερειν = ferein = to carry); perhaps you call them ‘Dressels’, after the German archaeologist who first recorded them. The majority of them, globular in shape, brought olive oil from Baetica (today’s Andalucia) in Spain, though there are some from ancient Libya and Tunisia too. These 53 million amphorae travelled along the River Tiber from the port of Ostia to the state warehouses near here, which stored oil, grain, clothing, wine, foodstuffs. According to dates on these oil vessel shards, the dump was used for 270 years - from the time of Augustus to that of Gallienus – though it probably started informally a century before this. We also know that in mediaeval times, the site continued in use for games and religious festivals.

Over the years, small businesses have burrowed into the base of the Dressel dump, so that you can have your car fixed, chat to a local at their front door, or eat a tasty meal, surrounded by real Roman ‘rubbish’ (if you enjoy shocking people, you don’t have to say it’s bits of earthenware pots!). Let’s go inside the foundations, for a reasonably-priced veggie meal and a genuine ancient-historical experience.

The waitress (accustomed to Roman-history fanatics!) opens the glass doors that give access to this ancient arrangement of carefully-laid levels of earthenware shards, and moves tables so that our feet are over windows into the depths of the mound. Down there we see unbroken vessels that somehow missed out on being smashed. This landfill site stands here because it was apparently cheaper to pay potters to smash old amphorae and make new ones, than to clean and recycle the used ones. It provides us with an incredible amount of important evidence concerning Roman commerce and trade in these centuries; this we obtain from the tituli picti (Lat = painted/stamped commercial inscriptions) with which the necks were labelled. We learn names of import/export merchants, origin and weight of the oil, dates of passage on vessels, inspectors’ names - it was a typically well-organised and controlled Roman enterprise.

We take final photos, leave the café and walk to the modern Underground. En route we make a purchase in a minimarket, and as we approach the popularly - named Protestant Cemetery (real name : ‘Non-Catholic’ - there are not only Protestants, but Jews and one Muslim buried here too) we enter, to see the gravestones of the poets, Keats and Shelley.

We distribute our just- bought Whiskas pellets to the resident community of friendly, furry, feline strays, who sit on their chosen tombs, guarding the underground souls here, and then continue on to Piramide Metro.
We punch our tickets and hop onto the DOWN escalator – it seems we just can’t stay away from life below ground in this city!