I descended the noble steps [from the church of St Gregory on the Caelian hill]. Every day of his life, I reflected, St Gregory while in Rome, and before he went to live at the Lateran Palace as Pope, must have seen the Colosseum; a few paces would take him past the Circus Maximus, already weed-grown and deserted, above which rose the imperial palaces, unoccupied for centuries but still capable of housing a stray Exarch from Ravenna. The last time they received an emperor was twenty-five years after Gregory’s death, in 629, when Heraclius visited Rome and was invested with the diadem in the throne room on the Palatine. What a ghostly moment that must have been; for the middle ages were ready to be born.
These words are from H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Rome, published in 1957.
I know nothing of that visit to Rome by Heraclius, I must say, but that portrait in words moves me to find out. Which, in a way, says that the book is doing its job!
I’m reading the book because it’s a gentle, restful book to read. For those unfamiliar with them, Morton’s books are a mixture of personal observation and material rewritten from books such as the popularisations of Lanciani, and are perfectly targeted at the educated but non-specialist reader. They are uneven; but the best are very good indeed.
But it is a wistful experience, reading Morton’s Through Lands of the Bible, where he travels through Palestine and Iraq in the 1930’s. It is a portrait of a peaceful, quiet world. Under the rule of the honest, efficient colonial powers, the region knew the first enlightened, progressive, civilised government that it had ever had.
How sad that it was also the last. I am by no means anti-American, but America has been the dominant power in the region since WW2, and the policies pursued by its ruling class, often well-intentioned but invariably counter-productive, have condemned its inhabitants to ceaseless, pointless strife, poverty and misery.
Let us take up the books written in better days, and dream of a better world than our own.
UPDATE: Later in the book Morton refers to a visit by Constans II to stay in the Palatine, some 20 years later than Heraclius. I have a feeling that his books were serialized, which may explain how episodic they sometimes can be; and mistakes like this!
Readers of twitter will be aware that I went to Rome last Friday, coming back Monday afternoon. I booked only a couple of weeks earlier, so I had to pay a large sum to the airline. But the hotel was cheap, relatively. Even so, the money seemed to vanish!
Going to Rome in August was a bit different. The traffic is much reduced. But the sun was truly brutal. It was 32C in the shade every day – although on Sunday night there was rain and a thunderstorm – which made it impossible to do much outdoors.
Sites close, also. I walked to the Trevi fountain on my first evening there, only to find it drained and empty. I had hoped to go and see the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca, which is open at 4pm on the 4th Sunday of the month; but it was closed because it is August.
I stayed at the Hotel Nerva, which is behind the ruins of the temple of Mars Ultor, and right on the imperial forums. I was shown to my garret – rooms in Rome always seem very small – but fortunately the aircon was on, if not as cool as I would have liked. I asked for, and got, a desktop fan as well, which helped quite a bit.
The staff ordered a number of items for me in advance, and also, at my request, asked for the ticket for Santa Prisca. This is useful if you don’t speak Italian. They ordered me a “Roma” pass which gave me free use of the underground (trains also airconditioned; stations not), as well as the train to Ostia. Interestingly I found that you can buy this pass in the arrivals hall at Ciampino, while waiting for your luggage. They also got me a ticket for the Vatican museums for 10:30 on Monday, although I could have bought this online and printed it off myself.
On Saturday I spent most of the morning at the Museo Nazionale in the Baths of Diocletian, opposite Termini railway station. It was air-conditioned, it had toilets – although not toilet seats, curiously -, a vending machine for bottled water and sweeties, and … practically no visitors. This made it ideal for photographing some of the exhibits. It was also very interesting to find that some exhibits which had been absent last year had returned, and vice versa. I took quite a collection of photos of the Mithras exhibits using the 10mp camera on my mobile phone. I’ve not yet done more than copy the photos to my hard disk, however.
For lunch I ventured out to one of the tourist bar-restaurants nearby, and was duly scalped for poor quality food. Avoid “steak” – I have twice been offered some mass of stringy fat with bits of meat interspersed in it. The bread was nice, but the waiter whisked it away before I could eat much of it!
After that, I headed downtown. For I had discovered that my 11 euro ticket for the museum would also admit me to the museum site at the Crypta Balbi, where I knew that there was a Mithraeum. This too was largely empty, and I was able to get myself onto an Italian-speaking tour of the basement areas, including the Mithraeum – rather disappointing, the latter. The staff were very helpful. But I must say that the printed materials were profoundly confusing, and it took quite some effort to get oriented! Upstairs there were Mithraic artefacts!
Then I walked up to the Pantheon, and then back to the hotel to snooze for a very necessary hour. Then in the evening I went out, bought a panini at a food shop, and then I sat in the shade next to the Colosseum, and watched the people go to and fro, until the sun went down.
On Sunday I used my Roma pass and took the tube to Pyramide, transferring from there to the train for Ostia Antica (also free). I have never seen a sign indicating which train is for Ostia Antica; but if you look inside, the tube-train-like panels above the doors indicate the stations to be visited. The train was airconditioned, which was nice. On arrival at the station, I walked to the ruins, and became aware how hot it was. It seemed an interminable walk from the ticket office to the cafeteria, which – and I recommend doing this – I visited first. It was empty, but I got some food, bought and drank more water, bought a 2 euro site plan in the bookshop, and then I looked to see where the Mithraea were.
Then I ventured out to see if I could find a particular site. It was bestially hot, and I quickly became aware that it was no fun at all. I was unable to locate the Mithraeum, and I realised that all I wanted to do was go back to Rome. So I did, getting back around noon. It was very good to get back to my nice cool room!
But the room had not been made up! So I ventured out, and ended up wandering up the backstreets, eventually emerging at Termini. There is a large Spar supermarket on the far side of the station, which is worth being aware of. Then back, and, after lying around a lot, out back to the Colosseum. It was rather threatening with rain. I walked down to where the Septizonium used to be, but couldn’t see much sign of it. Then back. I bought an umbrella from a street vendor, and sat near the Colosseum. Then it rained! Up went my umbrella, while everyone else ran for cover, except for a woman sitting not that far from me who got progressively drenched. For some reason she didn’t have, or buy, an umbrella. I felt a little sorry for her; but not enough to forgo my own umbrella! Eventually I spoke to her, and she turned out to be a sports journalist from Plymouth.
On the Monday I went to the Vatican museum. The pre-booked ticket meant that I could go through the entrance immediately without queuing; but the desks inside to exchange it for a ticket were a disaster. I emerged feeling very stressed. I went first to the Pio Christiano gallery, and found the statue of Hippolytus there. Fortunately this gallery was empty, and indeed was closed later. The bad news was that the statue was just a cast. Then to the cafeteria! Then I went in search of the Mithras monuments, which were in the “room of the animals”, but impossible to see from more than a distance. There were also some monuments in the Chiaramonti gallery. But on the whole the experience was awful – a great, sweaty crush of people in corridors too small for them, and no way out. I felt quite claustrophobic at one point, and eventually ducked under a rope and escaped!!
After that, I went back to the hotel, and got a car to the airport. I arrived 2 hours before hand, and it took an hour to get through baggage checkin and security. After sitting on a chair for half an hour, I went through and they were just boarding the priority passengers. So I had no real time to wait.
I don’t think that I would go to Rome in August again. It is just too hot to stand in the sun. But it was very interesting to see, all the same.
UPDATE: The Mithras tauroctonies in the Chiaramonti gallery are these. Unfortunately none of my photos came out well.
The Vatican hill is famous today for the great basilica of St Peters, constructed in the third decade of the fourth century by Constantine, and demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century. A collection of essays on this building appeared in 2013, edited by R. McKitterick, which contains various interesting snippets.
Few today are familiar with the layout of the church, so the diagram at the side is useful. A flight of steps led up to a gatehouse, behind which was a courtyard. This later contained the immense bronze pine-cone now in the Vatican museum. Behind this was the church proper, with a nave and two aisles. The transept gave access to two circular structures, the mausoleum of Honorius (which was turned into the chapel of St Petronilla during the early Dark Ages) and the chapel of St Andrew.
Around the church were all sorts of structures, not depicted on this diagram. The church was the constant resort of beggars, seeking alms, and doubtless many of the dwellings were hovels. Theodoric ordered the distribution of grain to them in the late 5th century; Pope Symmachus had shelters constructed for them near the church, and the Dialogues of Gregory the Great record a crippled girl who more or lived in the church until she was healed by a miracle.
A plan of the church by Alfarano, who had been associated with the church since the 1540’s, was published as an etching by Natale Bonifacio in 1590, when construction on the western end of the new basilica was well advanced. It shows the new construction as a ghost under the old.
Tiberio Alfarano drew the plan in 1571, and the hand-drawn original, known as the Ichnographia, is extant in the archive of the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro. Comparison shows that the printed version tinkered with the original in various ways, and that not every architectural feature on the drawing appears in the etching.
On the south side of the basilica were two circular structures, the chapel of St. Petronilla, actually the Mausoleum of the emperor Honorius; and the chapel of St. Andrew. Beyond these was the obelisk which now dominates St Peter’s square.
The function of the structure as a mausoleum was remembered as late as the 8th century, but thereafter forgotten until 1458 when a splendid late Roman burial was discovered under the floor, possibly of Galla Placidia and her child. Another was found in 1519, and finally in 1544 the intact sarcophagus of the empress Maria, wife of Honorius, complete with 180 precious objects in two silver chests, all of which were dispersed or melted down. The depiction of the basilica in the Nuremberg chronicle of 1493 depicts a round, squat building, which was doubtless the mausoleum.
The structure to the east of it, labelled “Vatican rotunda” in the plan, must predate the basilica as it appears in a gem of the 3rd century. It was converted by Pope Symmachus in the 5th century into a chapel of St Andrew.
I have also seen a paper suggesting that the “mausoleum of Honorius” was itself a 3rd century tomb, as was the Rotunda di Sant’Andrea. The mausoleum was demolished during the building of New St Peter’s, but the Rotunda remained until the 18th century, becoming the church of Santa Maria della Febbre. A 1629 painting of it, still behind the obelisk (which was surely moved by then?) and with New St Peter’s half-built behind it is available online:
And another 18th century drawing by Piranesi shows it nestling next to the basilica, when it was used as a sacristy:
The obelisk is an interesting feature, since it is quite unlikely that it was placed there by Constantine. We learn from Pliny’s Natural History that Caligula erected an obelisk from Heliopolis on the spina of his Circus, in the Horti Agrippinae on the Vatican. There is apparently consensus, among interested scholars, that the only certain fact about the location and orientation of the circus is that this obelisk was in the centre of it..
Two different circus plans appear online. I don’t know the source of the second one.
What can be said with certainty is that material from the circus was found during excavations in St Peter’s square, some 5 metres down.
Somewhere nearby, in all this, is the temple of Cybele and Attis, the Vatican Phrygianum. That such a temple existed in 160 A.D. is recorded by an inscription from Lyons which reads:
Taurobolio Matris d(eum) m(agnae) I(daeae) / quod factum est ex imperio ma tris deum /pro salute imperatoris Caes(aris) T(iti) Aeli Hadriani Antonini Aug(usti) Pii p(atris) p(atriae) / liberorum eius /et status coloniae Lugdun(ensium) / L(ucius) Aemilius Carpus IIIIIIvr Aug(ustalis) item / dendrophorus / uires excepit et a Vaticano trans/tulit ara(m) et bucranium /suo inpendio consacrauit / sacerdote / Q(uinto) Samnio Secondo ab XVuiris /occabo et corona exornato / cui sanctissimus ordo Lugdunens(ium) perpetuitatem sacerdoti(i) decreuit / App(io) Annio Atilio Bradua T(ito) Clod(io) Vibo / Varo co(n)s(ulibus). 
Various inscriptions from the end of the 4th century consist of dedications to Cybele by the last holdouts of the pagan aristocracy, suggesting that perhaps the temple was still in use in this period, and recording that the ritual of the taurobolium – being bathed in bulls’ blood – was taking place here.
Pensabene states that the 1959-60 excavations by Castagnoli – I don’t have a reference for these – revealed that there were major works in this area during the Severan period. The ground level was artificially raised by several metres and a large circular building was constructed whose foundations were contiguous with the obelisk. The foundations of this building contained Severan stamps from the first quarter of the 3rd century A.D. The suggestion is that this was to allow the building of a new Phrygianum, and that this was done under Elagabalus, who was enthusiastic for the cult.
The text is accompanied with a very poor quality image which appears to suggest that the Rotonda di Sant’Andrea stands on the site of the Phrygianum, and that the building was originally circular, with a south-facing portico:
My Italian is not good enough to work out whether Pensabene is suggesting that the Rotondo was, in fact, the carcase of the Phrygianum, stripped of its portico and reused for something else. But if so, this would certainly be very cramped, next to the basilica, and the presence of the vile eunuch priests and their revolting sacrifices right by the south door sounds rather unlikely to me. Even if it was a state cult, which Constantine might have been unwilling to interfere with, this seems improbable.
R. McKitterick, Old Saint Peters, (British School at Rome Studies), 2013. “Look Inside” on Amazon here.↩
For these details I am indebted to Paulo Liverani’s paper “St Peter’s and the City of Rome” in the McKitterick volume, of which I was able to read parts via the Amazon “Look Inside”. The material may be found on p.26; Gregory, Dialogues I, 3.25.1, 108; Life of Symmachus, 53, c. 7, in the Liber Pontificalis I 262; Theodoric in Procopius, Anecdota 26.29.↩
These details appear in the front matter of the McKitterick book, whose footnotes were sadly inaccessible to me.↩
Meaghan McEvoy, “Chapter 6: The mausoleum of Honorius” in: R. McKitterick &c., p.119 f. Accessible via Google Books preview here.↩
Plin. NH XVI.201; XXXVI.74; CIL VI.882 = 31191. All these references I owe to a remarkable discussion in the Ancient Coins forum here.↩
Patrizio Pensabene, “Culto di Cibele e Attis tra Palatino e Vaticano”, Bollettino di Archeologia 2010, Online at http://www.archeologia.beniculturali.it/pages/pubblicazioni.html; except that, at the time of writing, this is offline and I was only able to access the article via the Google cache. UPDATE: Later I found it at Academia.edu here.↩
The first is from R. Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, 1892, and appears on Wikimedia Commons here. Both have been copied from here.↩
Or so it claims on this website; it would be interesting to have proper details of these excavations.↩
I stumbled across the following sketch here. It shows Old St Peters (left). On the right is the wall that leads even today to the Castell Sant’Angelo, so the viewpoint is more or less that of every modern photograph of St Peters.
From this, it is easy to see why the old basilica was not impressive enough for the renaissance popes. It reminds one rather of the church of the holy tomb in Jerusalem.
Quite by accident I have stumbled across an old guide-book on Google books. It was published in 1843 by John Murray, and is full of interesting details on how to travel in these now vanished lands. On page 8 there are details of arrangements for carriage travel, and then something on inns, concluding with some very wise words:
In cases of this kind it would be absurd to carry English habits and prejudices so far as to expect the comforts and conveniences of the great cities. Travellers never gain anything by exacting or requiring more than the people can supply and if they have sufficient philosophy to keep their temper they will generally find that they are treated with civility and kindness.
That advice still holds, in hotels in places like Egypt.
The arrival in Rome on p.247 descends into details of inns and rental arrangements, all clearly the product of much experience.
The ordinary currency of Rome is the “paul”, which ran at about 50 pauls to the pound sterling of those undepreciated days. How much is that, one wonders? The National Archives calculator reckons that a pound in those days is equivalent to 50 GBP ($75) today, which would make the “paul” about the same as a modern pound, or $1.50. The numbers do “feel” roughly right, although probably a little on the low side. But such conversions are really valueless, and the reader must assess comparative value for himself.
On p.254 we get a survey of Rome, which includes this:
To the south and east of this district are the Palatine, the Aventine, the Esquiline and the Caelian, all of which, though included within the modem walls, are little better than a desert; their irregular surface is covered with vineyards or the gardens of uninhabited villas and they present no signs of human habitations but a few scattered and solitary convents.
Close to the Coliseum is the ruin the conical fountain called the Meta Sudans, which formed an important appendage of the amphitheatre. It appears to have been a simple jet issuing from a cone placed in the centre of brick basin, 80 feet in diameter. It was rebuilt by Domitian and is supposed to have been intended for the use of the gladiators after the labours of the arena. It is represented on several medals of the amphitheatre of the time of Vespasian, Titus, Severus &c. The fountain was constructed of brick work in the best style; the central cavity and the channels for carrying off the water are still visible. It was repaired a few years since, but these modern restorations may easily be distinguished from the ancient work.
Sadly the remaining concrete core of the meta sudans was demolished by Mussolini in 1936. A photograph from 1922 must be one of the last:
I suppose all of us have stood next to the colosseum and looked up the slope towards the arch of Titus, at the entrance to the forum. Du Perac, in 1575, did the same. His illustration of the scene shows the arch of Constantine to the left, as it still is (the colosseum is immediately to the left, out of view); before it, the vanished “meta sudans” (the concrete core of which appears in 1922 photos, before being demolished by Mussolini as part of a traffic widening scheme), and to the right, the view to the arch of Titus, still embedded in the remains of the medieval Frangipani fortress, exactly as the later cork model shows it.
Click on the image for the full size image (from the BNF in Paris).
It’s interesting that somehow the scene, with walls indicating people’s fields and property, is more “real” somehow than the rather institutional view that one gets today.