Scattered Chunks of Antiquity

Posted on



Our guide picked us up at 10:00 this morning, after a good long night’s sleep since we fell asleep early the night before. Her name was Carolina, and her English was heavily accented but otherwise excellent. Our first stop was a glasses shop to repair J’s frames; they’d been sat on during the plane ride yesterday, and lost a pin. It was five minutes’ work plus the provision of a new pin, and the gentleman at the shop didn’t charge us for it. We took back the now-functioning glasses, thanked him in two languages, and were on our way.

Our guide caught us a taxi, which amused both J and me. We explained to Carolina that in New York, where I’d grown up and J had spent enough time with grandparents to know it pretty well, there’s a similar “street taxi culture” as here in Rome — you can hail a taxi from any busy street corner, and that’s how most people get them. In Seattle, you have to phone to arrange one in advance. We got in the taxi and headed to the Jewish quarter.

The Jewish Quarter and the Rose Garden

The Jewish quarter of Rome is not quite the original ghetto, but the Jewish quarter of Venice is. The word ghetto has a number of possible origins, but they’re all traced to that Venetian sector where the Jews were required to live in the time when Italian city-states had designated Jewish sectors. So the Roman one is very nearly the first, and it’s very old. The first place we stopped was the Rose Garden Cemetery, which has a bit of a checkered past but an intriguing one, interconnected with the Roman Jewish population.

The current Municipal Rose Garden was, from 1645 until 1934, the Jewish community’s local cemetery. Because there were strict regulations in otherwise Catholic Rome against putting any kind of religious symbol on a grave except for Christian ones, the grant of a plot of land for a cemetery where it was legal to conduct Jewish funerals was important. In 1934, the Mussolini regime took over the land despite passionate protests from the Jewish community, in order to build a new road more intended for the aggrandizement of the regime than for any more useful purpose. They wanted the road to be ready in time for the 12th anniversary of the insurrection which brought Mussolini into power.

Rose Garden Cemetery. — MM, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The government promised the Jews that all bodies would be carefully exhumed and moved to the new Jewish cemetery, further on the outskirts of town. They also promised to build a new Jewish school, in compensation for taking the property. The school never came about, as less than four years later the Nazi-originated antisemitic laws began to spread to Italy. And not all the bodies got moved, either. The state simply stopped moving them when it ran out of time, and built the road anyway. During the war, the former cemetery (most of which was not covered by the road in question) was used as a vegetable garden to help prevent scarcity from causing hunger in the city. But the Jews, most of whom were no longer in Rome because Italy’s Nazi allies had demanded that they be sent to Auschwitz, were not involved.

When the war ended, the new Italian government had to come to terms, like the new governments of many former Axis countries, with how their country had treated its Jewish population during the past decade or so. As part of that process, it reached out to the remaining Jewish community to ask them for input on what to do with the property which contained the former Jewish cemetery and which still held some Jewish bodies under the soil. They reacted positively to the idea of a municipal rose garden on the land, and that was eventually what was built. It is still considered a Jewish cemetery by the Roman Jewish population, since there are still buried Jews underneath it; but that doesn’t preclude a rose garden — in fact, since it’s forbidden to put cut flowers on a Jewish grave (you don’t kill the living to honor the dead), planting live flower bushes is a common way to bedeck a Jewish cemetery with flowers.

The footpaths in the modern rose garden are laid out in the shape of a menorah, in recognition of the garden’s historical purpose. The rose garden contains specimens from all over the world — though, interestingly, there have been no contributions from Israel yet. Many Roman families visit it the way Portland, Oregon folk near where I live visit their rose garden on a nice day for a pleasant time in the outdoors. Jewish visitors do likewise, but still remember that it is also a cemetery, and often leave a stone in remembrance before departing, as we do when we visit a grave.

We moved on from the garden, seeing bits and pieces of things as we walked. We spent a little while in the tiny local Holocaust memorial museum, but it was designed to teach Roman families about a part of their history many don’t know. This is material J and I both knew from the cradle and which I spent my college major studying in depth. I remember looking out a door that was wide open to allow the breeze to circulate, but with a barrier across indicating no exit, and feeling a little like a caged bird. With J’s consent, I asked our guide if we could leave a little after that. There’s only so much horror I’m typically in an emotional condition to take without preparation.

View out the forbidden doorway of the Auschwitz Museum, showing some medieval archways. I spent a lot of time staring out that door when I was starting to feel a bit trapped inside.
The square dome of the synagogue. It distinguishes the building from the endless Roman churches, which have round ones.

Bits of history

Most of the tour, however, was much less somber and a great deal of fun. J and I were both blown away by the constant layers of recycled materials in the construction of the city. Any given building might contain modern apartments in active use, with a facade built in the middle ages, and a scattering of pieces (from a whole series of ancient arches and columns to a few simple bricks) from ancient Rome that had been gathered up during the medieval construction of the exterior and reused because they could. Because the Roman structures lasted, and were pretty.

Remains of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus
Israeli flag on a street corner in the Jewish Quarter of Rome

In addition to the ancient pieces built into the everyday houses around us, there were random elements of ancient archaeological sites all around us. There was the very old and important temple of Apollo Sosianus with a few pillars still standing, right in the middle of the Jewish quarter, with ordinary houses and restaurants all around it. The ancient temple of Bellona, one of the Roman gods of war, had been right beside it and some bits of that were still standing as well. It was, we were told, where the triumphal processions began, on the Campus Martius just outside of the old city; they would wind into the city proper and around through it to finish at the temple of Capitoline Jupiter. It’s important that this spot was not strictly within the ancient boundaries of Rome, because both the temple of Bellona and that of Apollo, for different reasons, had to be outside of the city limits. Apollo was a foreign (Greek) deity, even though widely worshipped by Romans, and Bellona was a war god whose temple could not violate the sacred peace of the city. So both were placed on the Campus Martius, where a lot of war-related activities were conducted just outside of town so they didn’t breach the pomerium, the sacred boundary that designated the city proper.

In ancient times, this area might have been outside of Rome proper. But today it’s right smack in the middle of town, and these temples were casually surrounded by apartment buildings and cafes and shops. It was incredibly cool to take a random corner and find ourselves staring at 2,500 year old temples. There was a similar instance where we passed the Aurelian walls (put up in the time of the emperor Aurelian, about 275CE), and found a pyramid built right into them. Apparently this was the pyramid of Cestius, a tomb built for a Roman magistrate in the early imperial age, around 12 BCE. I’m not sure why Gaius Cestius decided to have his tomb built in the style of the Egyptian pharaohs — one hypothesis is that he was a general in the Nubian campaigns, and has his tomb built in the style of the tall, sharp-pointed Nubian pyramids in honor of that achievement.

Bits of an old Roman temple directly in front of a still-active apartment building whose exterior was constructed in the middle ages
The pyramid of Cestius, built right into the old Roman city wall

In any case, there was this pyramid which happened to be there at the time Aurelian constructed his new city wall, and so the workmen built it right into the wall itself. And now both, with their varying different levels of antiquity, were still here in the middle of the modern city, while the urban traffic passes by and ignores them completely.

By this time, I was starting to run low on ability to walk. I wished I had been able to bring my scooter — Rome is not an ideal place for mobility-impaired travelers, because the cobblestones make it very difficult to use a wheelchair of any type here. I resigned myself to doing a lot of walking, but past a point, my hip acts up badly, and I have to stop. We took it easy for a bit, stopping for a break in a little park so I could sit down. I was definitely feeling my age.

A scattering of houseflies whizzed around us while we sat. I tried to wave them off — and ended up accidentally getting one right down my throat! Spitting it out was not possible so I did the next best thing: picked up my water bottle and gulped hard, to get it down and out of my way as quickly as I could. It was more than a little horrible, but at least I had the comfort of being reasonably confident that it wasn’t going to make me as sick as the water in Uganda had done. And tap water in Rome is safe and healthy.

I told my son on the way out of the park, “You now know an old lady who swallowed a fly.” He asked in prompt response, “Do I know why she swallowed a fly?”

Our guide was deeply confused, not knowing the American nursery rhyme we were citing. I explained it, and told J that I was NOT planning to swallow a spider to go after it. I’ll just have to live with a little extra protein in my diet.

Piazza Navona

We went on our way, picking up much more pleasant things to eat — a basket of apricots and a couple of peaches from a local fruit stand, and a crostata, which is a type of fruit tart with crisscross strips of dough over the top. Then we went a few blocks away to the one additional place our guide wanted to make sure we got to see, before my hip gave out: Navona Square.

Navona Square, or Piazza Navona in Italian, is the site of an ancient athletic stadium. You can absolutely tell this from the shape, which isn’t a square at all but an oval that’s very like a modern setting for track and field events, with the street around the outside of it and a big open area with fountains in the middle. Carolina said that the Christmas Market is set up here in December, with a carousel for children and stalls selling gift items. J was fascinated by the obvious track flavor to the shape, and we talked for a little about the people whose windows look out over the square imagining watching an ancient footrace from their homes, or a jogger going out in the early morning for a run around the piazza and picturing themself in an ancient race for the honor of their gods.

The fountains in the piazza are baroque and impressive. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, pictures river gods representing four rivers, one from each of the four known (at that time) continents: Africa represented by the Nile, Europe represented by the Danube, Asia represented by the Ganges, and the Americas represented by the Rio de la Plata. I have to assume that Bernini didn’t know enough yet about the Amazon to realize how much more effective a representative river for its continent it would be, nor the Mississippi if North America were even in consideration.

The fountains in Navona Square
Baroque facade of the papal palace and connected church, at Navona Square

Along all of one side of the piazza is a baroque construction which includes both the palace of Pope Innocent X (pontificate from 1644-1655) and the church of Sant’Agnes. The building is beautiful, and the church is still open to the public. We stopped in briefly, both to see the interior and to have a cool, quiet spot to sit down for a little while, since I really couldn’t push my hip any further.

The interior of the church is ornamented to the last conceivable detail. If I ever thought the Victorians ornamented everything, it’s nothing to the baroque Romans, especially when they were putting their best craftsmanship into a church right next door to their pope’s home address and built for his at least occasional personal use. (A balcony on the side against the Pope’s palace wall allowed him to sit in on services from his own home by simply walking through the connecting door.) Altars on the sides are designated for Sta. Agnes, for whom the shrine was named, and St. Sebastian; smaller altars for less important saints were at the corners. The ceiling was decorated in jewel colors, with a cupola covered in frescoes surrounded with stained glass.

Ceiling frescoes and cupola in the Church of Sant’Agnes in Navona Square.

We sat for the ten minutes or so until the church was closing, but even with that much of a break, my hip was no better by the time I stumbled out. Regretfully, I had to tell Carolina that I needed to head back to our hotel; I just didn’t have anything left. J was very kind about it, though I felt guilty about taking him away from the couple of hours we could have continued if I had been strong enough. But he’d pretty clearly had a blast nevertheless, and so I tried to concentrate on all the wonderful things we did get to see, instead of the things we didn’t. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were both glad of a rest anyhow.

Today, I’ve spent most of the morning writing up this post, since we have a quiet day until late afternoon. At 4:20pm we get picked up from the hotel to go see the major Roman ruins left in town: the Colosseum and its surrounding buildings. Stay tuned! I’ll tell you all about it next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *