Saturday, May 19, 2007

Roman Holiday...

Gashwin links to this amusing travel guide to ancient Rome.
To walk along the Tiber, start in the thronged market of the Forum Boarium beside the bronze bull which would tell you, if the noise and smell had not already done so, that this is Rome's main cattle market. It lies between the Forum and the Clivus Publicus, the main road from the Aventine hill, and also takes traffic from the south of the Palatine and the valley of the Circus Maximus, so the crowds are often dense.
While moving through the market, keep an eye on those cattle with hay tied on their horns, for this indicates a particularly dangerous beast. At the upstream end of the market is the Sublician bridge, the oldest of the bridges of Rome. Here Horatius is said to have held out heroically against the Etruscan soldiers of king Tarquin who tried to destroy Rome's nascent Republic. Rome's priests are called Pontifices (pontiffs) because of their connection with this bridge, any damage to which is seen as a sign from the gods. The bridge is made of wood without iron or stone now as a matter of tradition, but originally because the wooden framework made it easier to pull down in the face of an advancing enemy.
After crossing the river, turn right and walk along the Tiber. The river is reaching the end of its 250- mile journey to the sea, and has now slowed sufficiently to drop some of the silt which gives it a colour which the Romans call Tiber Yellow, and it twists snakelike through the city. A line of stones (cippi, as used for the pomerium) marks the limits of the authority of the commissioners who control the banks and ensure the smooth flow of the river - not always successfully.
Start at the Theatre of Pompey, built by Julius Caesar's great rival in 55BC. Spend an hour or two among the gardens and colonnades of the theatre, and admire the temple at the top which made it possible. At the time it was built, stone theatres were forbidden in Rome, so Pompey's architect made the stone benches of the theatre ostensibly steps leading to the temple. This little temple has the grandest staircase in the world, since over 10,000 people can sit on the "steps" to watch a performance on the stage below. If time permits, look at the Circus Flaminius.
When meeting Romans, knowing the basics of what to wear and what to eat will help to avoid unnecessary social embarrassment. Nothing is guaranteed to ruin a good dinner party like a guest who turns up wrongly dressed, and then blanches (or worse) when confronted with sow's udders stuffed with giant African snails.
On less formal occasions, Romans of every age and social class wear tunics. Unless on a formal visit, there is no need to pack a toga, and only Roman citizens are entitled to wear one anyway. The toga is stiflingly hot in summer and draughty in winter. It is also heavy, being of wool and three times the wearer's height by 10 feet across. This forms a large semicircle, which is worn by putting the straight edge over the left shoulder and wrapping it around one's back. Because it has no fastenings, unless the left elbow is kept bent, the whole thing comes unravelled.
The best class of overnight accommodation is a hospitium, though even there expect the furnishing to be sparse. Travellers must share their accommodation with as many people as the landlord can cram in, and bedbugs too. If travelling on the cheap, choose a caupona and share with the local ne'er-do-wells and a lower class of bedbug. Also, ask around for private houses that take overnight guests. One such house has a plaque which states, pithily: "If you are clean and neat, you'll find a room waiting for you here. If you're a slob, well, I blush to say it, but you are welcome as well. " Remember to keep a keen eye on your property in these rooms.
The ideal apartment is on the first floor, secure from thieves, but easy to bring water and goods to. It is also low enough for the occupants to jump to safety in the event of a fire or a partial collapse. An edict of Trajan keeps the height of apartment blocks to under 58 feet, and Nero introduced fire regulations, but the one rule to remember is never to rent before a careful inspection.
The Romans have a habit of siting cesspits uncomfortably close to wells, so it will come as a relief to know that Rome itself has an extensive sewer system which is regularly flushed with waste water from the aqueducts. The oldest and largest of Rome's sewers is the Cloaca Maxima, which runs under the Forum and is large enough to take a boat through, if that is your idea of fun. Many apartment buildings have gravity-feed facilities connected to the sewers or to a central cesspit, but many others make use of the tried and trusted chamber pot. Sometimes ordure is collected for agricultural purposes; in other places it is simply dumped in the streets.
Try to find lodgings close to a public bath, where a constant stream of waste water from the baths runs under the toilet seat, which is a bench with strategically situated holes on which you can sit and exchange the gossip of the day with fellow patrons. Watch for youths whose idea of a joke is to ignite a hank of wool soaked in oil in an upstream toilet. Having this burning mass sail just under your posterior can effectively ruin your day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Roman bench toilets were used in the squatting position. See this link