Roads and romance

David Whitley takes a fresh look at Rome via two tours based on contrasting eras of the Italian capital, taking in the Roman Empire’s pioneering infrastructure and the world of the poets Keats and Shelley.
The Terme di Caracalla baths, in the centre of Rome, are close to the city’s more famous monuments, yet aren’t as thronged with tourists. The baths are part of a tour of the city’s lesser-known landmarks. Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images
The Terme di Caracalla baths, in the centre of Rome, are close to the city’s more famous monuments, yet aren’t as thronged with tourists. The baths are part of a tour of the city’s lesser-known landmarks. Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images

It’s only a short walk away from the Colosseum, but the ruins of the Terme di Caracalla are staggeringly devoid of visitors and men dressed as gladiators posing for photos. To write this off as a baths complex, however, is to massively undersell it. The walls are toweringly high; the scale epic. And, given that the baths are nearly 2,000 years old, the engineering was an astounding feat.

“What we’re looking at is the equivalent of the steel core of a skyscraper,” says Agnes Crawford, of the private-tour specialist Understanding Rome. “All of this brickwork would have been covered in marble, but over the centuries it has all been stolen to decorate ­churches.”

Visiting the baths is a way of getting a new perspective on a city that is too often reduced to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Vatican Triangle. The Terme di Caracalla gives a good idea of just how strong the Roman Empire was. The stone used to decorate the vast complex came from around the empire – sourced from modern-day Tunisia, Egypt and Greece – and more than 6,000 people could fit inside.

“The Romans weren’t minimalists,” says Crawford. “They covered everything in bling. The ideas we have of restrained classicism are seen through the eyes of 17th- and 18th-century Grand Tourists, who cherry-picked the aspects that they liked.

“The average Roman citizen didn’t really have much to do,” explains Crawford. “The city was functioning on slave labour, so this became a place to hang out, gamble over tiddlywinks and gossip.”

The merry citizens lounging around the Olympic-sized swimming pool probably didn’t appreciate how brilliantly the natural setting had been harnessed. Much of the south-facing wall was made from glass bricks, making use of the sun’s heating power. Brick pipes were built into the walls to allow the caldarium to be heated from all sides, and a constant flow of fresh water came in from the aqueduct at the top of the slope the baths were built on.

The baths are close to the ancient city walls, which were built 60 years later. “It was the beginning of the end,” says Crawford. “Needing walls for protection was a sign that things were starting to go badly.”

Before the walls went up, Rome’s imaginary boundary was something of a dividing line between the living and the dead. Tombs had to be built outside the city, and the roads branching out farther afield were lined with catacombs.

Many can be found along the Appian Way, the best preserved of Ancient Rome’s arteries connecting the mother city to the rest of the empire. Just wide enough for two carts to pass, this time-worn cobbled road spreads out through the countryside on the outskirts of the modern city. It was built using lava stones from the hills in the distance, and there was clearly some prestige in having property along it. The rich would build showy tombs for themselves and loved ones at the roadside, using them as status symbols.

One still-standing tomb, devoted to Caeciliae, the wife of Crassus and the daughter of Creticus, is so large that it was later converted into a fortress. Another estate still has the ruins of the stadium built to host chariot races by its owner. The Villa dei Quintili, meanwhile, was so impressive that Emperor Commodus had its owner executed on trumped-up charges and commandeered it for his own use.

A campaign in the 1950s saved the Appian Way being lost to Rome’s expanding sprawl. Other Roman roads had been subsumed, but this was the first and most precious. It was conceived back in 312BC, during the days of the Roman Republic, by consul Marcus Appius Claudius.

“He really should be more famous than he is,” says Crawford. “Because, aside from the roads, the other big idea he had was building the first aqueduct.”

We drive over to the Aqua Claudia, parts of which are still standing. It runs down from the Tivoli hills, and was used to supply the Palatine Hill in the city. The gradient is barely susceptible but precisely measured, to ensure that gravity takes the water down through the aqueduct without eroding it. This was mainly achieved through following higher land and judicious tunnelling, but, in places, some hefty construction work was needed. Hence the 30-metre-tall brick arches that we find ourselves standing beside, with the city skyline in the distance.

The system of aqueducts was a remarkable achievement and it supplied more than 1,200 water fountains in the city. The city’s greatness was built not on ideals, but mastery of maths and technology. Roads and water supply might not be all that romantic, but once you understand them, ancient Rome makes much more sense.

If it’s romance that you’re after, however, another tour is probably a better option. Context Travel runs a “Timeless Inspiration” trip that looks at Rome through the eyes of the great Romantic poets – Keats, Shelley and Byron. Even if you’re not particularly fussed about the poetry, the life stories of these three are utterly gripping.

Tucked up against the city walls, the Non-Catholic Cemetery is one of Rome’s most beautifully peaceful spots. It’s all wisteria, birdsong and lovingly tended graves. Hilary Bockham, Context’s guide, leads towards a bench in the corner and begins to tell the tale of Keats. He was ill with tuberculosis, and his friends clubbed together to send him to­ Italy where it was thought the climate would help him. It didn’t – the long journey and the humidity made things much worse – and he died a few months after ­arrival.

He didn’t write a thing while in Rome, and didn’t want his name to be on his gravestone. Instead, the one next to it – that of his companion Joseph Severn – simply states that he was a friend of Byron’s.

Shelley’s grave is farther round, and there’s no false modesty there. But the grave next to his has the best story of all. Edward Trelawny – the sort of hanger-on who dined out telling tales of the poets long after they had passed away – died in England. But he had his housekeeper take his ashes all the way to Italy, then insist that he should have the grave next to Shelley’s. It was utter chutzpah, but he got away with it.

Keats’s death inspired Shelley to write Adonaïs, one of his most famous works. And when Shelley’s body was found washed up on a beach following a shipwreck, he had a volume of Keats’s poetry in-his hand. His body was burnt on a funeral pyre on the beach, and the omnipresent Trelawny stole Shelley’s heart to give as a somewhat macabre present to the bereaved wife, Mary Shelley.

A cab ride across town takes us to Keats-Shelley House, where Keats lodged with a local family. It’s now been turned into a museum, lined with thick wooden bookcases and oozing early 19th-century atmospherics. The collected letters and documents inside make for compelling reading – and show just how interconnected the whole scene that ballooned around the Romantic Poets was. Keats wouldn’t open the letters from his estranged fiancée Fanny Brawne as the mere sight of her handwriting made him burst into tears. Joseph Severn’s letter to her father describes Keats’s death, while a watercolour on the wall turns out to be of Shelley composing ­Prometheus Unbound.

The ruins behind the fresh-faced poet look oddly familiar. It soon hits home why – they’re the Terme di Caracalla. It appears that ancient Rome inspired some not-so-ancient rhyme.

Published: June 19, 2014 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one