Rome: Hidden History

“ROME IS like Kuwait,” says archaeologist Marco Mancini. “In Kuwait, no matter where you dig, you hit oil. In Rome, you hit historical treasure. It is not a city – it is a museum.” We are at the famous Trevi Fountain, although there are none of the crowds you usually associate with this most famous of Rome’s landmarks.

That is because we are deep underneath, admiring the remains of a massive water tank built by the Ancient Romans at the end of the aqueducts that supplied water to their city. The same water from the hills 100km away continues to feed the fountain above us – although the water in here now hums through stainless steel pipes rather than the concrete ones of Roman times.

“We still live in a Roman world,” says Marco. “They invented concrete, and they perfected the arch – the basis of modern bridges and buildings.” It was such innovation that allowed the construction of the seven aqueducts that fed into this cool underground chamber, where an ancient flushing toilet is only one of the surprising sights. The water may now have disappeared into modern pipework but Marco is in his element. A face darkened by the many months of the year he spends on digs in the Middle East and Asia – he keeps breaking off conversations to answers phone calls in Arabic or arrange flights to Georgia – becomes passionate when he runs a hand over ancient marble.

Rome is the world’s most important archaeological site because history here has never stopped,” he says. “It was the capital of the monarchy, the Republic, the Roman Empire, then the Catholic Church and now of Italy. In Athens, history stopped from Roman times until the 19th century; you find the Roman level at six meters. In Rome it is at 18 meters. On top of history, there is always a new work in progress.”

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Back in the streets above, we take a detour to find the remains of an aqueduct tucked into a space between two buildings near the fountain. A plaque informs me it is the “Acquedotto Vergine” – the Virgin Aqueduct built by Agrippa in the 1st century BCE – and gives a number to call to arrange a closer visit. Only, this being Rome, the plaque is carved in marble and topped with the initials familiar from countless sword-and-sandal epics: S.P.Q.R: Senatus Populusque Romanus – “The Senate and People of Rome”. The aqueduct was built in 19BCE, when thirsty soldiers were led to a hidden spring by a young girl, hence its name. It still feeds the Trevi Fountain – on which the spring’s story is represented with figures of the girl, soldiers and Agrippa – and Bernini’s equally spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers on Piazza Navona, as well as irrigating the gardens of the Villa Borghese.

As shoppers pass by and tourists walk into a Burger King nearby, I peer between the bars of a rusty iron grille at a curved arch, now at street height. The rest has been swallowed up by the city’s upward growth. “Rome is like a book you read backwards,” says Marco. “You see buildings from the 19th century. Under them you find ones from the Middle Ages, under that remains from the 2nd century and under that maybe a structure from 200BCE. As you go down, you go further and further back in time.”

We are on our way to another underground treasure, the church of San Nicola in Carcere. On the way, we pass the Victor Emmanuel II Monument and Marco points out its shining white marble contrasts with the warm tones of the rest of the city, earning it the nickname of the “wedding cake”.

Walking down the gently curving Via del Teatro di Marcello, past the theatre itself, the largest in the Roman Empire and built on land cleared by Julius Cesar, we come to San Nicola. It is a hot day and a relief to plunge into the cool interior. Beams of sunlight stab down from the high windows to dramatically light the marble floor and columns, and illuminating the ornate ceiling prominently bearing the papal arms of Pope Pius IX. The church is a fantasy of gilt statues and rich chandeliers, full of the excess that prompts an Irish visitor beside me to say: “The Roman Empire has never gone away. It is just under new management.”

While its roof dates to the 19th-century, the church itself was rebuilt in the 16th century. However, an archaeologist such as Marco is not going to get too excited by a building that is a mere 400 or so years old. What we have come to see lies underneath and we plunge down steps into a crypt whose bare bricks could not be more of a contrast to the ornate church itself. Here, Marco’s eyes light up like a kid opening the presents brought by Santa Claus to whom the church’s Saint Nicholas – patron saint of sailors and children – is a distant relative. “We are standing in a Roman temple from 260BCE,” he says. “This is the temple of Janus and over there is the temple of Juno, built in about 195BCE – 300 years before Julius Caesar.”

As my eyes start to pick out walls and find the scale, I realize how massive those temples were. The church stands on the remains of three that dominated the Forum Holitorium, Ancient Rome’s vegetable market. A small scale model in the crypt helps me understand the alignment and that the church still looks out on the same road, a triumphal route where conquerors passed in chariots. “A slave whispered in his ear ‘Remember, you are only mortal’” says Marco. “They would have stopped at each of these temples to make an offering.” I put my hand on a foundation that has stood in this spot for more than 2,000 years and a chill runs through me that is not from the dampness of the cellar. I am touching history.

“There is something buried beneath everything in Rome,” says Marco. “Archaeology is always a work in progress because we are always finding something important.” Outside, he points out how the church’s facade incorporates the columns of the Juno Temple, while a set of five pillars from the Temple of Spes, or Hope, are clearly visible, infilled to make a side wall. Livy recorded that: “Among the many prodigies reported in the winter of 218 BC, the Temple of Hope in the Forum Holitorium was struck by lightning.”

Across the road, a team of young archaeologists labor in the noontime sun amid a confusing jumble of foundations and trenches. It looks like a thankless task to make sense of a site where 17 layers of religious worship stand beside the present church of Sant’Omobonomore. Marco points out that we owe much of what we can see of Rome to the Fascist dictator Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943. “The ancient city was all covered by new buildings and he rediscovered everything you see: the Palatine Hill, the Forum, the Colosseum. Of course, it was self-publicity. After the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935 he said ‘The Roman Empire is alive!’ and he considered himself the last Emperor of the Roman Empire. His fascist movement used the eagle, the symbol of the Roman legions.

“But the ‘inventor’ of modern archaeology was Mortimer Wheeler, who developed the methodology of scientific digging. Before that, digging was really a race to find important sculpture. Stratification was not important but now even the color of the earth is vital in how we date an object.”

Nearby is a more famous church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, where a long line of visitors snakes out the door. Most have come to see, not the church itself, but a round marble mask in its porch. Legend has it that a liar who places their hand in the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) will lose it. Gregory Peck memorably pulled a disappearing hand stunt on Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday” and the number of Japanese couples photographing each other, hand in mouth, attests to the continuing popularity of the film there.

Inside, the church itself is almost deserted, which seems a shame given its history. It holds the relics of Saint Valentine, which are displayed on his feast day, February 14. Yes, that Valentine. It too stands on the site of an ancient temple of the second century BCE. Marco points out the traces of 11th-century frescoes and medieval frescoes, the pillars in an assortment of styles that come from other buildings and the floor that reuses dramatically large pieces of marble that came from all over the Roman world. We descend into another crypt that has been carved out of the soft volcanic rock – tufa – that was used to build the temple as well as, much later, the church itself.

To understand Rome you have to understand this volcanic history and, over a long lunch that reveals food is another passion, Marco explains why. The hills whose springs fed Rome’s aqueducts also supplied the soft stone that could be worked with bronze tools. From 200BCE onwards, this tufa was embedded in concrete and faced with marble or hard travertine limestone to construct the awe-inspiring public buildings of the fast-growing city. Volcanic ash and pumice were combined to make Roman concrete, the material that allowed the construction of the Colosseum and the aqueduct, among many other engineering wonders of the time.

One of these was the Baths of Caracalla which stand near the Circus Maximus. Built between 212 and 216, the ruins still soar 37 meters tall, higher than most of Rome’s modern apartment blocks, and their design provided the inspiration for 1910’s Pennsylvania Station in New York. Even so, they are literally a shell of their former glory, stripped of the marble, mosaics, mirrors and statues that made them an opulent expression of Roman wealth. With two libraries, one with texts in Latin, the other Greek, gyms, shops and expansive gardens, they were a leisure center as well as a spa that held 1,600 bathers.

But it is by plunging underneath again that I get a real impression of their scale. The whole structure was raised to accommodate six-meter-high service tunnels. These cool brick arches are big enough for two wagonloads of wood to pass each other. A roundabout above ground controlled traffic as slaves labored down here to feed the furnaces heating the baths. Underneath us still are the massive sewers that carried wastewater to the Tiber. “There is no spa in the world as big as this today,” says Marco. “And this was not even Rome’s biggest – the Baths of Diocletian could take twice as many people.”

Seneca the Younger, writing in around 50CE, brings the sounds of a Roman bath vividly to life: “When the body-builders exercise and strain (or imitate someone straining) to lift weights, I hear their grunts as they express pent air, followed by the hisses of their harsh inhalations. When one of the clientele relaxes to a cheap rubdown, I hear the noise of hands as they strike his shoulders, ranging from flat smacks to a cupped blow, depending on the stroke. Add to this the aggressive loud-mouth, the thief who’s been caught, the person who likes to hear himself sing in the bath, and the bathers who love to make big splashes when they jump in the pool.” Some things never change.

Walking around, I am overwhelmed by the scale and amazed that this is my first discovery of these baths after four previous visits to Rome. What other treasures have I missed? Marco takes me to one on the next day. The Parco dei Acquedotti (Aqueduct Park) is on the edge of Rome near the Appian Way – named for Appius Claudius Caecus, who also built the first aquaduct in 312 BC – and has the remains of seven of the 11 ancient aqueducts that served Rome. Mothers play with their babies in the sun, while kids kick footballs and teenage boys do press ups atop the remains of the 16th-century Acqua Felice.

This aqueduct was built on the Aqua Marcio, constructed in 144BCE to supply the Baths of Diocletian with water from sources up to 92km away. “It was here that the Goths broke the aqueducts when they besieged Rome in 537,” says Marco. “That event marks the beginning of the end of Ancient Rome and the start of the Middle Ages in Italy.” Water still pours from a break to supply a small bathing pool in which a group of local boys enthusiastically splash. I wonder if they know they are playing amid so much history. We ask them if the water is drinkable. “I have been told no,” one says. “But it is an aqueduct, so we drink it.”

Dominating the skyline behind us is an arcade of the Aqua Claudia, although Marco points out that much of its height has been swallowed by the rising ground level. It is still impressive, striding high over the landscape in both directions. Finished in 52CE, it is a backdrop for a nearby golf club and I watch a passing jogger use it as support for her stretching exercises.

“There were 11 aqueducts supplying Rome,” says Marco. “They stretched for 800km and supplied more water per capita than in any modern city [1 cubic meter per person; New York supplies 0.75 cubic meters]. They were essential to its growth and being able to tame nature in this way – bringing the water to the city, rather than having to site the city near the water – was a sign of how remarkable Rome was. We still use many of their tunnels today for our modern water supply.”

To see what a real Roman city looked liked, rather than its grand imperial sights, we spend a day at Ostia Antica, the former port on the Tiber that was founded in the fourth century BCE. It is easy to compare it to Pompeii but that does it an injustice as it is much better preserved. The warehouses and apartment blocks still stand, up to two stories, as well as the tiered seating of the theatre.

The town was left high and dry when the Tiber changed its course but its former importance can be judged by the wealth of mosaic floors advertising the 60 businesses in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni. Looking to send goods to or from France? Then just find the sign for Navi Narbonenses with its picture of a sailing ship. Narbonne, a major French Mediterranean port in Roman times, is now as landlocked as Ostia Antica itself.

The Bath of Neptune – so-called from a large mosaic of Neptune in a chariot – is on a much smaller, but more complete, scale than Caracalla. The bath’s Temple of Mithras was overlaid with an early Christian church in the 4th century, although another church nearby is even earlier, one of the world’s first. The walls of a villa bear frescoes of the four teams involved in chariot racing, their colors of Red, White, Green, and Blue faded but still clear. On the main street, a restaurant – or rather a fast food outlet – still has the menu on the wall and massive storage jar for olive oil. Marco starts identifying the different marbles that make up the bar: “This is Serpentine – see the pattern like a snake? – from Libya, this sand-colored one is from Paros in Greece, this one is from Iran – the Romans knew it as Persia…”

Were all these expensive marbles brought here just for this tiny workers’ restaurant? “No,” says Marco. “They were recycled from other buildings. In Rome, even history has a history.”