City of Rome Postgraduate Course 2021

Text and photos by Noah Cashian.

There were only three of us on the City of Rome course this year (2021) – hardly enough to fill the deserted ruins, galleries, and churches of an empty city. As BSR Director Chris Wickham reminded us, however, Rome hadn’t been seen in this way for generations, and (hopefully) it won’t be seen like this again for many years to come. Our stay at the BSR was extremely special for this reason: we saw Rome’s ancient monuments truly abandoned, with all the new perspectives this entailed. Some of these will be quite obvious. If you’re standing completely alone in the Pantheon or the Lateran, for example, you’ll start to see things which are almost impossible to notice otherwise.

A deserted Palazzo Altemps and a lonely statue

In terms of the bigger picture, though, we also gained a real appreciation for how important these ancient remains are for modern-day Romans and their city. I only realised this when I saw the ruins without their usual crowds: Rome’s monuments became vulnerable objects which had been lost for centuries before, and which could easily be lost again. This would all be very bleak, but the pandemic also granted us remarkable opportunities to see how everyday people from across the city were engaged with Rome’s past and its preservation. Living rooms, gardens, restaurants, palatial courtyards, and government basements were all on our hitlist, and we were extremely fortunate to see just how much the ancient and modern cities (and their peoples) remain connected with one another.

With Robert Coates-Stephens’ expertise we gained much more than perspective. I’d been studying Roman topography for roughly six months before I came to the BSR and had visited Rome several times, but I couldn’t imagine the ancient city as anything more than a jumble of names. Our daily fieldwork quickly fixed this, despite my terrible sense of space. Each day (and every week) was carefully choreographed to build upon what came before: we started with tours of the city walls, and literally worked from the bottom up as we huddled around blocks of tufa. Weeks later, when we reached the forum Romanum, our seemingly innocent sightseeing all came together. Once we got our eye in, previously indistinguishable lumps of marble and stone became indispensable markers of architectural style, period, and culture. The more we learnt, the more we could see – you’d think this is obvious, but you really don’t notice this sort of thing until you look at a wall of spolia and automatically begin to pick out the oddities (see below).

It’s from these smallest details that Robert would always draw out the most interesting questions. Some minutiae would be remarkable for their importance, and how much could hinge upon tiny fragments – think Forma Urbis Romae. Other details had an antiquarian appeal even if they weren’t strictly ‘important’, and these were the ones I always preferred:

What else was catalogued alongside this statue? Who scratched a lighthouse into the walls of the grand Ostian house – one of the owner’s children, or a sailor after the home was abandoned? The cutaway of a human stomach speaks for itself, and I wonder if the patron was a medical expert or if this kind of knowledge was simply a given in educated circles.

I never expected to be so carried away with the city’s material culture – I’ve spent the past five years focusing on texts and ideas – but I can say without a doubt that the three of us felt the same way by the end of the course. Our different topics (the middle republic, late antiquity, and Victorian classical reception) were all given more than comprehensive coverage by Robert, and I’m sure that the City of Rome course will appeal to anyone interested in ancient history, and probably everyone else beyond it; we were regularly joined by the BSR’s artistic and academic residents, and even a few stragglers from around Rome. Our experience can’t be separated from the community and atmosphere of the BSR itself, which we all felt so lucky to have – our daily dinners were always great fun and fittingly Spartan for the ancient historians. It’s quite easy to say that the City of Rome is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and it has greatly encouraged me to apply for doctoral study.