Ancient and modern in the eternal city

Soon after returning from Rome, I logged into Facebook to find a question posed by a friend. She appealed to classicists, asking whether, when they visit Rome or Athens, they navigate using modern landmarks or ancient monuments/topography. Like others who commented on the post, this is a binary choice I find difficult to make, because in Rome the ancient and the modern are so frequently enmeshed.

The relationship between the ancient and the modern is something that all visitors to Rome confront. The many layers of the city’s past are particularly visible at certain sites in the city. At San Clemente, a twelfth-century basilica (still in use today) is built over the remains of a fourth-century church, a second-century Mithraeum (sanctuary of the god Mithras), and houses destroyed in the Neronian fire of AD 64. Piazza Augusto Imperatore today plays host to Augustus’ mausoleum, the Augustan-era Altar of Peace (moved to the square in 1938 and now housed in a glass structure built in 2006), Fascist-era buildings, and a daily-changing outdoor art installation.

The presence of the ancient alongside the modern, and an engagement with the relationship between past and present, is not a contemporary phenomenon; it has been a feature of the city since antiquity.[1] The ancient cityscape was littered with monuments from earlier periods, and writers reflected on the changes or continuities. Vitruvius describes the ancient (albeit heavily restored) hut of Romulus on the Palatine that ‘can recall to our minds and make clear the customs of antiquity’ (On Architecture II.1.5). Juvenal’s Umbricius laments the transformation of the Porta Capena (Satire 3). Perhaps most famously, the Pantheon, though rebuilt by Hadrian in the second century, carries a version of the original building inscription commemorating Agrippa’s erection of the monument a century and a half earlier.

Having time to appreciate the different phases of Rome’s history through long weekends of wandering or conversations over dinner, rather than having to dash from archive to archive on a compressed research trip, is one of the luxuries of a long-term residency at the BSR. The opportunity to consider the modern city against the ancient is especially exciting for me, since the themes of my research (multilingualism, identity, citizenship, migration) frequently invite reflection across the ancient and modern worlds. I have been thinking explicitly about how modern cities can be used to inform our understanding of ancient Rome, and vice versa. In the remainder of this blog, I therefore want to look at three sites of ‘modern’ Rome that each give a snapshot of ways that past and present (or more accurately different pasts and different presents) relate to one another.

IMG_7136

Foro Italico

The first site is the Fascist-era sports complex known as the Foro Italico, north of the Milvian Bridge. The complex’s decorative scheme is an expression of Romanità, a movement in post-Risorgimento and Fascist Italy that sought to revive the ideal of ancient ‘Romanness’. The site makes use of ancient Roman visual language. Larger-than-life heroic statues offered by the different provinces of Italy tower over the marble stadium. The main processional way is covered with black and white mosaics in which, disconcertingly, passably classical images of wrestlers and toga-wearing statesmen are interrupted by bobble-hatted skiers, loaded tanks and acclamations to ‘Duce’.

IMG_7134

Though the focus of my work is on textual rather than visual sources, seeing such active (mis)appropriation of ancient Romanness was especially interesting to me, given my research into changing conceptions of Romanness across time, and the gap between ancient and modern understandings or assignments of ‘Roman’ as a category. The term Romanità is itself an anachronism: though meant to mirror the Latin Romanitas, this term was not used before the third century AD, in the writings of the Christian author Tertullian.

The lack of in-situ commentary or explanation of the site’s use of ancient visual languages to promote one of the darker chapters of Rome’s history is surprising, all the more so given the site’s continued prominence in the city’s present. The complex is the home ground of AS Roma and Lazio, and hosts the Italian Open tennis and Six Nations rugby matches; it is therefore a site that welcomes visitors from across the world. It is a place where the encounter between ancient and modern shouldn’t go unremarked.

Jewish Quarter

A different perspective on the relationship between ancient and modern is offered in the Jewish quarter, just south of Piazza Venezia and Largo Argentina. The Jews formed a particularly interesting group in the ancient city, being more visible in the inscriptional and archaeological record than other ethnic groups.[2] They marked themselves out by the use of distinctive iconography and by their patterns of language use. In contrast to the inscriptions of the city as a whole, where Latin dominates, the majority of surviving Jewish inscriptions are in Greek, with some also in Hebrew. Language continued to be an important facet of Jewish identity into later periods. An inscribed bilingual Italian-Hebrew box for donations to orphans is still visible on the Via del Portico d’Ottavia. Modern restaurant signs and blackboards also frequently display Hebrew. As I discovered in the poignant Jewish museum, a unique Judaeo-Roman dialect of Italian survives in the streets around the synagogue today.

In other ways, however, the history of the Jews at Rome is not one of continuity. The papacy forced Jews to live in the ghetto between 1555 and 1870 (except for one short period under the Roman Republic of 1798–9). No such enforced ghettoization existed in the ancient city. Though there is literary evidence of the emperor Claudius expelling Jews from Rome (Suet. Claud. 25.4), authorities generally took a relaxed attitude towards migrant groups in the city and did not force Jews or other groups into particular areas. These differences highlight the changing role and attitudes of the state, and its consequences for the place of different ethnic groups in the city.

IMG_6772

The ‘English’ cemetery

The place of foreign and migrant groups in the city is also a theme of the final site I want to highlight, the Cimitero Acattolico. (In English, the site is often known as the ‘Protestant cemetery’ or the ‘English cemetery’, and is most famous as the resting place of Keats and Shelley). Despite these anglophone labels, non-Catholics from all over the world, of many different faiths, are buried here.

This site marks a break with the ancient city: in antiquity, there were no burial sites specifically reserved for foreigners. Indeed, foreigners are often surprisingly difficult to trace in the ancient evidence.[3] The presence (or, more often, absence) of different languages is one illustration of this. In the Cimitero Acattolico, there are many different languages on display (English, German, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, Ancient Greek, Latin; sometimes, but not always, accompanied by Italian). In Rome’s ancient inscriptions, comparable multilingualism is relatively rare, though it is worth noting that even in the modern cityscape the multilingualism of the cemetery is itself exceptional.

But foreigners of diverse origins were present in ancient Rome. Writing in the first century AD, Seneca described how ‘more than half’ of Rome’s population came from elsewhere (modern estimates suggest that around 20% of the ancient city were immigrants).[4] Though never concentrated as they are in the modern cemetery, and rarely as explicitly marked out, glimpses of this immigrant population do appear, for example in the Palmyrene texts assembled in the first room of the Capitoline’s Galleria Lapidaria.

The modern cemetery draws attention to the place of foreigners at Rome across time, and the ways they are made both visible and invisible to us. Like the other snapshots I have offered here, it shows how considering the ancient and modern together can enrich our understanding of the eternal city, its changing identities and populations. To answer my friend’s question with a paraphrase: when in Rome, do as the Romans, both ancient and modern.

[1] On the presence of the past in ancient Rome, see Edwards, C. (1996), Writing Rome: Textual approaches to the city, especially Chapter 1, ‘The city of memories’.

[2] On Jews as an exception to other foreign groups, see Tacoma, L. E. (2013), ‘Migrant Quarters at Rome?’, p.127–145 in de Kleijn and Benoist (eds.) Integration in Rome and the Roman world. On Jews in ancient Rome, see also Rutgers (1995), The Jews of late ancient Rome; Leon, H. J. (1995), The Jews of ancient Rome.

[3] On foreigners at Rome, see especially Noy, D. (2000), Foreigners at Rome: citizens and strangers; Tacoma, L. E. (2016), Moving Romans: migration to Rome in the principate.

[4] On migration to ancient Rome and Italy, see especially Isayev, E. (2017), Migration, mobility and place in ancient Italy; Tacoma, L. E. (2016), Moving Romans: migration to Rome in the principate.

Dr Olivia Elder (CRASSH–BSR Research Fellow, Jan–June ’19)