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So begins ...
So begins Matthew Sturgis's book - a guide to Rome with a difference.
For over two thousand years Rome has been acknowledged as one of the world's great cities. It has been the hub of a magnificent empire, the birthplace of an enduring Church, the spring from which the Renaissance would draw its knowledge of the Classical past, the goal of every educated European making the Grand Tour and a pre-eminent centre of mass tourism.
Here is Rome through the eyes of the travellers who have flocked there over the centuries: from the sophisticated Turkish ambassador who found Republican Rome a bit crude and primitive, really, to the eastern Emperor overawed by the glories of Imperial Rome, to the pilgrims who in the Dark and Middle Ages visited the 'pitiful, malodorous but sanctified rump' that Rome had become; then to the eager classicists and collectors who flocked to Renaissance Rome, followed by the Grand Tourists, the Romantics, and the rather less grand tourists of today.
1 REPUBLICAN ROME
In the middle years of the second century BC Rome was under threat. The danger, however, was not military. It was the one-legged sideboard that, apparently, posed the gravest danger to Rome's power - at least according to the historian Livy. There were other worrying signs: bed curtains, bronze couches, and a fad for female lute players at private banquets. To the stern fathers of the Roman Republic these corrupting manifestations of 'Eastern luxury' were deeply troubling. It seemed as though the very moment of Rome's triumph might contain the seeds of her future downfall.
This was the period at which Republican Rome reached its apogee. After four centuries of continual warfare, the city's brilliantly organized, and ruthlessly efficient, citizen-armies had achieved an almost undisputed dominance over the Mediterranean World. They had conquered not just all the peoples and towns of the Italian peninsula, but also the powerful empire of Carthage stretching from North Africa into Spain, and - one by one - the sophisticated city-states of Greece. The final victories were achieved in 146 BC when the fabulously rich port of Corinth fell, and the once-great city of Carthage was razed to the ground.
Military success brought prestige and security to Rome. It also brought change - or at least the beginnings of it. Roman armies, returning from their campaigns among the Greek cities of southern Italy, Sicily and mainland Greece, carried with them new ideas, new tastes, and new one-legged sideboards.
Other novel artefacts arrived as well. Marcus Marcellus, was credited with introducing Greek art into Rome. The plundered statues and pictures that he brought back following the conquest of Syracuse in 211 BC gave Romans a first glimpse of an uncharted aesthetic world of taste and refinement. Previously most Roman statues, like their Etruscan models, were subtly stylized forms made from terracotta or wood, but here were exquisite, almost naturalistic, works in bronze and marble and ivory.
Over the next decades more arrived. The spoils of wealthy Tarentum were paraded through Rome in 209 BC. And when M. Fulvius Nobilior took Ambracia, the first city in mainland Greece to fall to Roman arms, he is said to have carried off 785 bronze and 230 marble statues for his Triumph. Set up in Rome's streets and squares, they provided conspicuous evidence of change, and also of wealth.
This was the 'germ of luxury', that - according to many wise heads - was threatening to infect the austere farmer-soldiers of the Roman Republic. (By the mid-second century BC there were, it must be admitted, few actual farmer-soldiers at Rome, but the type remained the ideal of the state's carefully cultivated self-image; and a potent ideal it was.)
The infection of luxury, obvious though it was to contemporary Roman moralists, would have been very much less clear to any of the thousands of foreigners who arrived in the city from across the Mediterranean world during this same period. They came from other parts of Italy, from conquered Carthage and its former lands, from rich Egypt, from Greece, from the Asian provinces (in modern Turkey), all drawn by Rome's power and Rome's wealth. Some were shipped as slaves, not a few travelled in embassies to plead before the Roman senate; even more came to seek their fortunes - as merchants, doctors, teachers, craftsmen and artists. At one level, almost all of them must have been disappointed by what they found.
Rome, in the mid-second century BC may have been a superpower, but she was not yet a super city - certainly not when compared to the great centres of the Greek-speaking world: Alexandria, Pergamum, Athens, Syracuse, Ephesus, Corinth and the rest. With their ordered civic spaces and elegantly appointed public buildings these cities of the Eastern Mediterranean belonged to another cultural sphere. Rome, by contrast, was mess.
The ranks of glowing monuments that form the popular image of 'Ancient Rome' did not yet exist. The Colosseum had not been built. The Pantheon was unthought of. There were no great public baths. There were no permanent stone-built theatres. There were no marble buildings at all. The city was a sprawling labyrinth of brick and timber dwellings, of cheap stucco, of painted terracotta, and low-grade local stone. It may have been huge (with a population perhaps exceeding 300,000), but it was chaotic. Nevertheless, even then, Rome held a certain fascination for all who visited her.
One such visitor was the celebrated literary critic and cartographer, Crates of Mallos. (His fame rested upon his rich allegorical interpretations of Homer, and his creation of a very early geographical globe.) He arrived in 168 BC, as an ambassador from King Attalus II of Pergamum, one of Rome's staunchest Asian allies. His sojourn extended over several months (rather longer than he expected) so he had time both to explore and consider the city. And it is possible to piece to together - or, at least, to suggest - some of his impressions.
Crates had travelled from a very different place. Pergamum, capital of the powerful Attalid Kingdom (in what is now western Turkey), was one of the jewels of the Ancient World. Its population - around 200,000 - may have been slightly less than Rome's, but its sophistication was infinitely greater. It was a centre of art and learning, of planned space and luxurious display. Besides its celebrated and richly adorned Altar of Zeus (now the centrepiece of the Pergamon Museum at Berlin) it boasted numerous marble temples and long, regular colonnades; it had huge permanent theatre, half a dozen palaces, a gymnasium, a dedicated health spa (presided over by the god of healing, Aesculapius) and a famous library of over 200,000 volumes. No such cultural amenities would have been visible in Rome.
Rome in 168 BC still wore a distinctly rough and martial aspect. Set in a bend of the river Tiber, and spreading upwards on to its seven hills, the city was enclosed within a massive and ancient defensive wall, some six-and-half miles around. This huge cliff of dark grey blocks of tufa, stacked without mortar to a height of some ten metres, would have greeted Crates as he sailed up the Tiber towards the Porta Trigemina. (Modern visitors to Rome are also greeted by an impressive run of the same blocks as they step out of Stazione Termini; it is one of several vestiges of the old Servian wall still visible today.)
The early history of the city was written in just such poor-quality volcanic stone. Rome stood upon a great shelf of the stuff, and it was this pocked, friable - but easily worked - cappellaccio that was first used as a building material for large-scale projects.
1 Republican Rome
2 Imperial Rome
3 Dark Age Rome
4 Mediaeval Rome
5 Renaissance Rome
6 Baroque Rome
7 Rome and the Grand Tour
8 Romantic Rome and the Victorians
9 Modern Rome