That which does not kill us makes us stronger. — Nietzsche

Peeps at Ancient Rome - Jamse Baikie




A Visit to Rome in A.D. 71—the Journey

Now we are going to pay a visit to the Eternal City, and since we have the privilege, unlike other travellers, of choosing the year, and the route, and all the circumstances of our journey, we are going to arrive in Rome just in time to see the splendid Triumph by which Vespasian and Titus intend to celebrate the capture of Jerusalem, and we shall travel by the most famous of all Roman roads, the Appian Way. Our long voyage from Alexandria on the big corn-ship Canopus is gradually drawing to a close. We have spent a couple of days in the splendid harbour of Syracuse, and have recalled the memories of the two great sieges of that noble city—the first, when Nikias and the magnificent Athenian fleet and army perished miserably, and the second when the stern Roman Marcellus put the town to fire and sword, and the great Archimedes died in the sack of the city he had tried in vain to save. We have entered the narrow strait that separates Sicily from Italy, and have run through it with a fair south wind, leaving Rhegium on our right. The course is now straight for 182 miles to the famous port of Puteoli, and, as our good ship is doing a steady seven knots, we shall reach harbour in about twenty-six hours, if the wind holds.

A day and night of perfect sailing brings us to the Bay of Naples. We round the Cape of Minerva, leaving on our left the lovely island of Capreae, round which the memories of the Emperor Tiberius and his vile pleasures still seem to hover. On our right lies the shapely cone of Vesuvius, green and vine-clad, giving no warning yet of that dreadful burst of fiery destruction that in a few years will make the beautiful country at its base a waste and desolation. There is Pompeii, and about two miles beyond it you can see the villa of our good friend Publius Fannius Synistor, where we shall stay for a night before we travel on with him to his town house in Rome.

The good folks of Puteoli are already crowding down to the quay to see the arrival of the corn-ship, for they know us from afar by the fact that we have not lowered our topsail as we passed the Cape of Minerva. No other merchantman dare enter the bay without shortening sail; but the Alexandrian corn-ships have the privilege of coming in under full press of canvas. Now our sailors have got the anchor ready, and as we sweep in between the mole-heads and round to, topsail and mainsail are furled, and our cable runs out with a roar and a splash. Our host's four-wheeled family chariot is waiting for us and our belongings, and we lumber away along the shore road by the slopes of Vesuvius to the villa shining white in the warm sunshine on the green hill-slopes.

[Note: The villa described is that discovered at Bosco-reale, about two miles from Pompeii, and excavated in 1894-95. The silver vessels mentioned were found as stated, along with the skeleton of the lady of the house and those of two of her slaves, in the hall of the wine-presses, which had been prepared in haste as a room for her use. Publius Fannius Synistor is the name of the real owner of the villa, Maxima the name inscribed on some of the articles of the silver treasure.]

At the gate Publius is waiting to receive us, for he has seen the chariot creeping up the slope, and we clatter into the courtyard and get down, glad to be able at last to stretch our tired limbs. Publius's villa is quite a small and unpretending one, half dwelling-house, half farm, and he only comes down to it now and again to see that the wine-making and olive-pressing are going on all right; for a good part of his income is drawn from his vines and olive-groves on this pleasant hillside. On our left hand in the court-yard stand the living-rooms of the house, in front are the wine and olive presses, and on our right the store-rooms with the great fermenting vats and the big earthenware jars where the wine and the oil are kept and matured.

The first thought, of course, when our belongings have been stowed away, is the bath, and Publius leads us through the house to where the three chambers of the bathroom lie. The bath has three stages—cold, tepid, and hot—and we come out from the last thoroughly refreshed after our journey. We shall have no company, for the villa is so small that there is only accommodation for Publius, with his wife Maxima, and our two selves. There are slaves, of course, but no one bothers as to the kind of lodging they may have. The public room where we take our evening meal is not very large, but it is prettily painted in fresco, and one painting of a rustic temple is well worth looking at.

The horseshoe table, where we recline and chat over our journey as we eat and drink, is tastefully decorated and gay with flowers, but the chief glory of the room is the silver plate. Publius and his wife rather pride themselves on their taste in silver, and there are some pieces that even a Roman grandee might not despise. Look at this beautiful bowl, with the symbolic figure of Africa, and these cups with the figures of the Emperor Augustus receiving homage from the barbarians, and the sacrifice to Jupiter of the Capitol. You will scarcely match them nearer than Rome. Here, again, is a curious old goblet decorated in the strangest taste. All round its sides stand figures of the Greek poets and philosophers; but they are represented by grinning skeletons. It is a regular Dance of Death, and one rather wonders that Publius and his wife care to have such a thing on their table; it seems ominous. Yet neither our kind host nor his hospitable wife realize how true the omen is, nor that before many years have passed Maxima, fleeing with her slaves from the deadly fire-shower of Vesuvius, will heap together these costly treasures, the grim skeleton goblet among them, in a corner of the wine-press room, and, perishing there beside them, be found long ages after, a skeleton herself. No thought of that terrible day crosses their minds, or ours, to-night.

Supper and conversation over, we go early to bed, for we have a long and tiresome journey to begin to-morrow. The Roman does not believe in big bedrooms, and our cubicles are tiny, and perhaps just a little stuffy, while the beds are not much bigger than our bunks on the Canopus; but weariness is the best opiate, and we sleep soundly enough this first night in a Roman house.

A lovely morning sees us all early afoot, and after a good meal we start in the four-wheeled chariot, drawn by sturdy mules. We are well armed, and Publius has already sent word for several of his slaves from Rome to meet us half-way at Anxur, and escort us into the city, for the low-lying part of the road through the Pomptine Marshes has an evil name for highwaymen and rascals of all kinds. To-day we have to journey by cross-roads, first along the bay to Neapolis, and then, turning inland up country, to Capua. At that once famous city we shall strike the Appian Way, and have good solid pavement beneath us all the way to Rome.

The new day finds us rolling through the gate of Capua on the broad pavement of the great road. The white stone ribbon runs on for mile after mile in front of us, mostly downhill, for we are making for the sea once more. Twenty-one miles of easy driving and we are at Sinuessa, where we shall take our midday meal, with the blue waters of the Tyrrhene Sea rolling almost to our feet. The inevitable siesta takes up the hot hours of early afternoon, and we start again for our next stage to Formhe. We can see the famous watering-place at the head of the beautiful bay from a long distance off—the long white street by the shore, and the villas embowered in green on the slopes behind. Publius points out to us the one which used to belong to Cicero, and we pass not far from the very spot where Mark Antony's bravoes overtook and slew the great orator. The shadows of evening are beginning to fall as we drive through the streets of the busy little town to our inn.

Our next day is the most anxious one of the journey. From Formic we follow the winding road as it strikes inland through the Caecuban hills where the vines, laden with their purpling clusters, cling to endless rows of elm-trees. Beyond the hills, we turn seaward once more, and, as we near Anxur, the road shows us a fine piece of Roman skill and determination in the overcoming of difficulties. At this point the best track for the road used to be blocked by the great cliff of St. Angelo, so that wayfarers had to take a stiff climb and descent to avoid the obstacle; but of late years the emperors have cut back the whole cliff for 120 feet, and a beautiful smooth roadway sweeps round the face of the great rock above the echoing waters.

At Anxur, four of Publius's slaves, armed and mounted, are waiting for us, and a mile or two farther on begins the danger zone. Before us, for nearly twenty miles, stretch the dreary Pomptine Marshes. Side by side with the road, which cannot be kept up here so well as on the more solid ground, runs a canal, and many passengers prefer to travel this stage by canal-boat rather than risk the road. For not only is the surface poor, but the whole district is haunted by daring robbers who stick at nothing, from cutting the wayfarer's throat to kidnapping him bodily and selling him as a slave. The canal-boats are perhaps safer, but even they have been held up often enough. We have our own guard, however; the road is very busy with the crowds who are thronging Romewards for the Triumph, and special military patrols have been put on the dangerous parts of the way; so we stick to our family coach, and, without any attack, reach the end of the marshes at Appii Forum, where we pass the night. To-morrow we shall see Rome.

The last stage is over ground sacred to every true Roman. Shortly after we leave Appii Forum a range of blue hills lifts its crests far ahead, and these, Publius tells us, are the Alban Hills, on whose slopes rose the first settlement of the Latins, Alba Longa, the mother of Rome. Now the road begins to rise to the long steep slope of Aricia, beyond which we shall see the Alban Lake on our right, and get our first glimpse of the distant walls and temples of the great city. But we have first to run the gauntlet of the pest of Aricia. The professional beggars of Rome, a countless horde, know well that the steep Arician slope obliges even the fastest of chariots to take it at a walking pace, so that the traveller has no escape from their deafening cries and importunities. To-day, with so many people travelling, they are out in full force. The road all the way up the hill is lined on either side with blind, halt, maimed, and sick, with sturdy beggars and walking skeletons. It is no use to refuse them; they only pester you the more, unless a smarter or more luxurious coach or litter calls off their attention. The best way is to scatter a handful of small cash among them at once.

You do so, and behold a miracle, or many miracles! Blind men suddenly regain their sight, lame men let down crippled legs that have become sound in a moment, withered arms are swiftly stretched out, ghastly sores, that made you sick to look at, are forgotten (they can be easily painted up again); and the whole filthy gang is tied into a struggling, snatching, cursing knot. Meanwhile, you gain a few yards, and before they have picked up the last denarius, another family coach is coming up the hill behind you, and attracts the wolves.

Now, from the slopes beyond Aricia, we can see our journey's end. Beneath our feet stretches for mile after mile a broad plain, the Roman Campagna. Away to the north and east it is bounded by the long blue line of the Sabine Hills, with Mount Soracte standing out conspicuous beyond the city. Rome itself lies in the centre, its seven hills crowned with gilded temple roofs and shining marble walls and columns, its winding river flashing back the sunlight. But the ancient walls of the city are almost lost in the huge suburbs. The whole plain, almost to your feet, is dotted over with villas and gardens, which stretch away on all sides of the city as far as the eye can reach. Straight lines are drawn across the great expanse of building and greenery, converging upon the heart of the city as the spokes of a wheel converge upon its hub. These are the great roads, and, more wonderful still, the great aqueducts, which bring the waters of the neighbouring hills to supply the countless fountains and public baths.

Descending to the plain, our road runs straight as an arrow for ten miles to the city. On either side of the way are the tombs of the noble families whose names are almost an index to the history of Rome. The villas begin to crowd closer together, and the gardens grow smaller. Now come streets, though we are still beyond the walls, and the roadway bears an endless stream of chariots, litters, wagons, horsemen, and foot-passengers. Now the blare of a trumpet is heard, and a cohort, marching south, clanks past through the dust, everything else promptly clearing the way for the iron files. They are men worth seeing, bronzed and lean from hard campaigning; for they are not long home from Palestine and the siege of Jerusalem.

Here is the dark Porta Capena towering in front of us. We pass under the gloomy archway, perpetually weeping from the leakage of the Marcian aqueduct that passes over head, and we are in Rome at last. In a kind of romantic dream we drive past the ancient wall of Servius Tullius, turn to the right between the Celian and Palatine hills, and along the Velia to the slope of the Esquiline hill, where our friend's town house is situated.