Category: bija-knowles - Part 3

Brittania Superior ‘v’ Brittania Inferior: the Roman Roots of Britain’s North-South Divide

Recent news reports suggest that Britain’s north-south divide is still alive and as pronounced as ever. Whether you’re talking about heart disease, house prices or teenage pregnancy, statistics show that the invisible line that divides the north of Britain from the south is all too real.

Running from the Bristol channel up to somewhere just north of Lincoln (placing Wales and most of the West Midlands in the ‘north’ half of the UK), it’s an insurmountable line that separates the traditionally affluent south and the poorer north (although there are exceptions to the rule on both sides).

So how did the Brits arrive at such a divided society? Far greater brains than mine have pondered this question – and have come up with some insights. Recent history could point to the closure of industry and in particular coal mines in the north of England and in South Wales, but the line existed way before the ’70s and ’80s. Alan Baker and Mark Billinge published Geographies of England: the North-South Divide after noticing the similarities in wealth distribution of early 14th century Britain and late 20th century society. They looked into the rise of London in the Middle Ages, the urbanisation of agricultural Britain and the Industrial Revolution as roots of the disparity in wealth between the north-west and the south-east. Interesting stuff, but were there signs of a north-south divide even further back in time?

Severus Divides Britain in Two – Forever?

We know for sure that Britannia was first slashed in two by the Romans in 197 AD (or sometime after that). The emperor Septimius Severus appointed Londinium (London) as capital of the new province Britannia Superior, while Eboracum (York) was the capital of Britannia Inferior. The dividing line between the two provinces of Britannia hasn’t been clearly established, but it’s believed to have included Wales and East Anglia, with Britannia Inferior ending at Hadrian’s Wall, just south of the Scottish border.

While Britannia Inferior was associated with military forts, the south-east of the province was considered the ‘civil’ zone

Severus’s division of Britain into two provinces was a consequence of a power struggle between him and Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain. Severus had seized control of the empire in 193 AD after executing the emperor Didius Julianus in Rome, while Albinus had the support of three legions in Britannia (based at the Roman forts at York, Caerleon and Chester). Severus offered Albinus the title of Caesar, which he accepted, at least for the time being.

Three years later, in 196, Albinus and his armies invaded Gaul, officially challenging Severus’s rule of the empire. Crucially, it was Albinus’s power-base in Britannia that enabled him to mount this attack. He was an experienced and respected military commander, but Severus defeated him at the Battle of Lugdunum (near modern-day Lyon), before turning his attention to the source of the disturbance Britannia.

The Military North vs the Civilian South

British Museum - Painted walls from Lullingstone Roman Villa

The emperor realised that the governor of Britannia had too much power and could pose a potential threat to the stability of the empire. In a classic ‘divide-and-rule’ move, Severus installed two governors instead of one, each with his own half of the province.

Following this, tribes in northern Britannia continued to rebel against the Roman rulers and some reports by Cassius Dio say that much of the northern half of Britannia was overwhelmed with rebellions from local tribes. Severus spent time at Eboracum, the capital of the new northern province, on a campaign to put down the insurgent tribes. Meanwhile Londinium remained the centre for commerce and government of Britannia Superior.

Could it have been this split in 197 AD that had such a far-reaching effect on wealth distribution in Britain today? While Britannia Inferior was associated with military forts, the south-east of the province was considered the ‘civil’ zone and a far greater number of Roman villas have been found in the area of Britannia Superior. While the north fought to control local tribes, the south-east had an easier time and prospered. It could be that this set the blueprint for our North-South divide.

The Ara Pacis As You’ve Never Seen it Before

Normally as white as a bleached bone, the Ara Pacis, the emperor Augustus’s altar to peace, is being restored to what could have been its original colours for a series of evening openings from tonight, until April.

The famous monument represents the Augustan golden age of the early empire and was excavated from several metres under Rome’s busy main shopping street, via del Corso, during Italy’s Fascist era in the 1930s. The fragments were reassembled and finally housed in a wooden structure in piazza Augusto Imperatore.

A new structure to house the monument was opened in 2006. Designed by Richard Meier, the building has met with harsh criticism from local Romans and professional architects for its lack of congruence and integration with the centuries-old churches and buildings surrounding it.

This is the first time that sophisticated virtual technology will be used to project images and colours onto one of ancient Rome’s monuments.

Visitors will have several occasions to see the Ara Pacis in colour between 20:00 to 23:00 (last entrance at 22:00) on following dates:

Friday 26, Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 February 2010
Friday 26, Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 March 2010
Friday 23, Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 April 2010

An exhibition about one of Italy’s best-loved musicians, Fabrizio de Andr, is on show in the exhibition space under the Ara Pacis. Tickets to an evening view of the Ara Pacis in colour, as well as entrance to the museum, costs EUR9 (reduced tickets are EUR7).

Caravaggio: Gay Icon Born Too Late?

Caravaggio was not a man of his time. As gay icon, father of modern painting and enigmatic artistic rebel, he speaks volumes to 21st century audiences visiting his current exhibition in Rome. The realism and drama that he transmitted onto canvas seem surprisingly fresh, while also connecting us with the feel and detail of life in the early 17th century.

But his portraits of youths – again, not typical of the early 1600s – seem to hark back to an era more than 1,000 years before his time. His sensuous appreciation of the male form, which scandalised his 17th century patrons, had more in common with Roman and Greek artistic traditions, which openly celebrated the male beauty, as well as pederastic relationships.

Classical statues showing gods, emperors or even ordinary youths were sculpted with the same awareness of male physical beauty that has been captured in many of Caravaggio’s paintings. There is also an intimacy to many Roman and Greek statues that was again taken up by Caravaggio, who painted youths in informal poses, doing ordinary things, while often sharing confidential eye-contact with the viewer.

Caravaggio may have taken the male portrait a step further than the Classical tradition (adding quirky realism to the mix) but there’s no doubt that he revived an appreciation for the male body (and undertones of a discourse on gay love) that had been pretty much stamped out since the late fourth century AD.

The artist’s appreciative eye for the male form becomes apparent quickly enough on a visit to the new Caravaggio exhibition in Rome. Of the 24 original paintings on display (that’s almost half of Caravaggio’s known masterpieces) at the Scuderie del Quirinale, many depict drop-dead gorgeous young men: muscular but fleshy, lithe and languid see the portrait of Bacchus, on display in the exhibition, to see what I mean.

The artist accentuates their smooth skin, dark eyes and curls of black hair. It’s not hard to see why one art critic described Caravaggio’s men as: overripe, peachy bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream.

A gay icon he may be, but there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was homosexual. His fascination for and sensuous depiction of the male body (far more naked or semi-naked male models populate his canvases than females) have led art historians and critics to debate Caravaggio’s sexuality but so far no one has pulled any definite proof out of the bag either way. Gay or straight though, Caravaggio remains a gay icon for several reasons.

The Makings of a Gay Icon

His art was revolutionary and daring for its time. He became famous for his use of light and dark in his paintings, placing sharply lit, ordinary-looking people on black canvases in biblical and sometimes horrifically violent scenes not previously seen on canvas. His artistic style, which was shocking and revolutionary in its day (he portrayed religious figures as realistic human beings warts and all) is recognised by most as the beginnings of modern painting.

Accounts of Caravaggio’s private life also read like the script of a Shakespearean drama. In fact a film has already been made of his life an avant-garde, art-house film by Derek Jarman, himself a gay rights activist.

As the most gifted artist of his time in Rome, Caravaggio rubbed shoulders with Italy’s powerful and rich arts patrons while at the same time keeping company with prostitutes, drunks and dissolutes.

His life is shrouded in mystery he was charged with killing a man, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a pub brawl in Rome in 1606, although the exact circumstances are unknown. He has also been accused of sodomy, as was his patron, cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte.

He lived as a fugitive in Naples, Sicily and Malta and died in nebulous circumstances at the age of 38 near Grosseto. Perhaps it’s a combination of all these things his artistic vision, his flamboyant lifestyle and the drama surrounding him that have made him into something of a gay icon today.

The Fight Against ‘Immorality’

In any case, Caravaggio lived at a time when having a public gay relationship with another man was just about impossible. The Roman Catholic church created a repressive climate of fear by persecuting and trying anyone they accused of immorality during the 15th-18th centuries. As part of their fight against ‘immorality’, the Roman Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600 for heresy, and put Galileo Galilei under house arrest for his theories about the universe.

The iron fist of the church made any lifestyle or opinions considered ‘anti-Catholic’ very difficult. Nonetheless, art critics believe that some of Caravaggio’s work was painted for an underground homosexual scene that existed in Rome at that time, which included the rich cardinal del Monte and his artistic circle of friends. The Lute Player, The Musicians and Bacchus were commissioned by del Monte. These were paintings of young men done by a man and aimed at a privileged male audience. However, any homosexual eroticism was carefully hidden.

A hundred and fifty years before Caravaggio, Florence and Venice had become Renaissance cities where homosexual relationships between men were widely acceptable. But even then, the Roman Catholic church, through their Officials of the Night, tried to prosecute and imprison any male found guilty of having sex with another man/boy.

The Greek and Roman Golden Age

Since the demise of the Roman empire, attitudes to same-sex relationships (with certain conditions attached) had turned on their heads. By the 17th century in Europe, the liberality of the Romans and Greeks was gone, replaced by intolerance and marginalisation.

The Roman tolerance was drawing to an end by the late fourth century AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius I passed a law in 390 condemning to death by being burnt at the stake if caught having gay sex. The law only applied to the passive partner in the act though.

It was probably with a great sense of justice and equality, that emperor Justinian modified the law in 558 AD – by extending the death sentence to include the active partner as well.

Do Caravaggio’s Sexy Men Show a Classical Appreciation of Male Beauty?

In fact, while Caravaggio’s males are beautiful, sensuous creatures, they are presented very much as the early 17th century patrons (often churchmen) wanted to see them set in biblical scenes, or engaged in innocuous activities (playing

How would his figures have appeared if he hadn’t been living in such a repressive time and place, and if the openness to homosexuality found in Greek and Roman art was still present in Baroque Italy?

music, carrying fruit or playing cards). Even so, some paintings such as the Conversion of Saul were rejected by the patron who commissioned the work, perhaps because the artist had presented a scene that was too unusual and too challenging for that time.

But how would his figures have appeared if he hadn’t been living in such a repressive time and place, and if the openness to homosexuality found in Greek and Roman art was still present in Baroque Italy?

Many Roman artworks openly show gay relationships between men. The Warren Cup, now in the British Museum, is engraved with an image of an older man penetrating a youth portraying the ideal pederastic relationship, with a young male (no older than 20) penetrated by an older man. Sex between two adult men was still seen as unacceptable though.

Other works of gay art from the Greek and Roman worlds include the Bell Krater (showing sex between a young man and his older ‘tutor’ or ‘protector’), which is also in the British Museum along with a fragment of Roman art painted onto a glass cameo. The scene is of a male couple making love the heads have been lost.

These Roman and Greek artworks show the openness to and acceptance of pederasty. They reflect the fact that most Roman emperors had young male lovers as well as a wife the most famous example is the emperor Hadrian and his young lover Antinous, who was publicly deified after his tragic death in the Nile. Hadrian even built Antinopolis to commemorate his lover.

To get back to Caravaggio though, his work may well have depicted similar scenes if he had lived in a different time. As it was, he lived in a time and place dominated by a conservative and authoritarian church, which ironically became his main patron. His art represents for many the suppression of homosexuality, while perhaps secretly celebrating it because who could look at a painting such as Bacchus, or Saint John the Baptist, without feeling that here is a celebration and appreciation of the male form? These 400-year old paintings will ensure Caravaggio keeps his status as gay icon.

Caravaggio is at The Scuderie del Quirinale, Saturday 20 February 2010 to Sunday 13 June 2010.

Hidden Londinium: What Will be the Next Big Find From Roman London?

Buried under the bustling modern London is the remains of our ancient past. Image Credit to Ian Muttoo.Roman London is mostly intangible, hidden and largely forgotten. Today it’s buried under tons of concrete and glass in the shape of the City of London London’s financial district with its busy streets, packed offices and underground networks. It’s not surprising that getting a peak at the remains of the Roman city founded soon after 43 AD is not easy, but archaeologists have excavated several large areas, often when construction projects and post-war reconstruction have provided opportunities to open up the ground. However, areas remain that have yet to be studied by a professional archaeologist, so what Roman structures could still be lurking under London, waiting for their chance to see the light of day again?

It’s an interesting question that may be impossible to answer. Some parts of the City may never be excavated or at least not within our lifetimes. The pressures of space and investor money make the probability of an archaeological excavation at some sites quite low. But the next best thing to hard evidence is an educated guess so by comparing the landmarks typically found in a Roman town with those already known in Londinium, could we come up with some of the missing Roman structures?

A Typical Roman Town?

First of all what are the main landmarks and buildings usually found in Roman towns? There are several ‘stock’ features, such as the forum and the Decumanus, but it’s also worth noting there were different types of Roman towns. Some were ‘colonia’ often towns built to house retired legions and others were ‘civitates’ more like a provincial market town in the middle of a native community. It’s not clear which status was assigned to London possibly neither, as it grew mainly as a trading town with sea access.

London's Roman amphitheatre lies beneath the Guild Hall off Gresham Street. Image Credit to Burc Ozkan.Colonia in particular and sometimes civitates too were usually built on a grid plan with streets laid out at regular intersections. Some of the main features of these types of Roman towns included the main north-south and east-west roads, the Cardo (Cardus Maximus) and the Decumanus Maximus, respectively. Other major landmarks would include the forum, near to the intersection of the Decumanus and the Cardo, a marketplace, an amphitheatre (for combative-type sports shows) and a theatre (for drama and musical performances).

You could also expect a basilica (used as an official public meeting place much like a town hall, rather than a religious building), the public baths (there were often several of these in larger towns), an inn (called a mansio) for travellers, several temples dedicated to a variety of gods, as well as the residential insulae. Sewers, hypocausts (under-floor heating systems), the city walls and burial grounds are other features usually found in Roman towns.

Many of these features have already been identified in the excavations of Roman London. Public baths have been found at as many as five different sites. The Roman amphitheatre lies beneath the Guild Hall off Gresham Street, the forum and basilica is approximately at the area of today’s Leadenhall Market and a third century AD Mithraic temple was found on Walbrook in 1954 (it was later moved to Temple Court, off Queen Victoria Street).

Not Your Average Town…

But Londinium wasn’t an entirely typical Roman town and there were several differences between it and other colonia or ‘civitas’ in Britain. For a start, the streets of Londinium weren’t planned in a geometric grid system in fact they were completely irregular. Londinium also had a fort and a palace (near the north end of London Bridge), which were unique features not found in every Roman town.

The fort was built in 120 AD and was roughly in the area now occupied by the Barbican Estate. The area was known as Cripplegate from Medieval times until it was bombed during World War Two. The palace, on the other hand, is thought to have been built for the rogue-emperor Allectus at the end of the third century AD.

Londinium’s basilica, underneath Gracechurch Street, is said to have been the biggest basilica north of the Alps, which also suggests Roman London was exceptional in some way. Apparently it was built badly and hastily, only to fall out of use not long after it was built (hmm, does that sound familiar to anyone?).

Between Queen Victoria St and Poultry, in front of the Bank of England, stands the controversial building, No.1 Poultry. Its pink and cream stripes and sharp angles mark it out as one of London’s more eye-catching buildings, but one that’s been met with disapproval from critics and Londoners alike. However, it was also the site of a big excavation of Roman London. Archaeologists working at the site found part of the Decumanus, along with some stone residential buildings (one with a mosaic floor) and some timber shops.

Another excavation revealed a Roman amphitheatre underneath the Guild Hall, about 200m north of the Poultry site. The amphitheatre, made in stone, dates from around the second century AD and is one of the most important Roman structures to have been found in the city, although only one end of it has been excavated.

Scholars have also commented on the lack of Roman villas found near to the Roman city walls, even though there were many villas further away from Roman London, outside a radius of about 10 miles. This is a further indication that Londinium wasn’t your average Roman town. It may have had a special status. It certainly had some unique features and landmarks.

The question remains though with so much of the area of Roman London under concrete, what else could be left undiscovered?

The Discoveries of Tomorrow?

During the second century AD, Londinium’s population grew to between 45,000 and 60,000. Lugdunum in Gaul (modern-day Lyon) had a similar-sized population in the second century (it had 40-50,000) and, like Londinium, it was also a regional capital. While the two towns are situated in different geographical locations and have different climates, some comparisons can perhaps be drawn between the two.

For example, Lugdunum was served by four aqueducts. Of course, this doesn’t mean London also had four aqueducts for a start, London’s wet climate and the south of France’s long dry summers presented different requirements. The Romans did build aqueducts in Britain although not as many as were built in southern Europe, where there was a greater need for fresh water during the summers. The Romans in Londinium may have relied on wells and spring water but it’s possible that an aqueduct would also have been built.

Lugdunum also had its own mint, and it is certain that London also had a mint between 296 AD and 325 AD coins marked with L or LON would probably have been minted there. However, there is no mention of the location having yet been found.

Lugdunum also had several temples where Roman gods, as well as eastern gods and traditional Gallic gods were worshipped. While the remains of several Roman-era temples are known in London, it’s possible that others still lie undiscovered.

Another distinct possibility is that more Roman settlements will be discovered outside the Roman city walls. In 2003, Roman buildings were found during construction work at Shadwell, east London, which enabled archaeologists to rethink the history of Roman London. They previously believed that the Roman settlement extended no further east than the Tower of London.

Perhaps a Roman theatre could also reasonably be hoped for, as could further Roman homes or trading/industrial buildings. As for the rest it’s anyone’s guess what actually could lie beneath parts of the City. As London wasn’t a typical kind of town, it may well have several surprises for future excavators.

Watch the video below to see what HAS been found in Roman London.

HD Video: Londinium Tour (Part 1)

(Click here to read a transcript of this video)

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Archaeologists in Rome Link Sanctuary of Nemi to Aeneas’s Golden Bough

Some 10 miles south-east of Rome, archaeologists have been excavating a site they believe was of great religious importance to the ancient Romans as well as to bronze-age communities. The dig at the sanctuary of Diana and Nemi (also known as Diana Nemorense), overlooking Lake Nemi, has found ceramic pieces dating from the 13th and 12th centuries BC, a stone enclosure and evidence that a large religious complex once existed there.

The archaeologists involved in the excavation, including Filippo Coarelli, a leading expert on ancient Rome and former professor of archaeology at the University of Perugia, believe that the site they’ve been examining in recent months could even be associated with the legend of the Trojan Aeneas.

Professor Coarelli, who also worked on the excavation of a villa believed to have belonged to the emperor Vespasian, said in a recent interview: “At the moment we’re excavating, among other places, at the Sanctuary of Nemi, which is one of the most important sanctuaries of ancient Lazio. It was made famous by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough series of books, which begins and ends at Nemi, because it’s one of the most noteworthy ancient centres of religion and culture.”

Are you Pulling My Leg(end)?

Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of how Aeneas (who, according to mythology, founded Rome several centuries before the city was built by Romulus and Remus in 753 BC) carries a branch of a tree with gold leaves to protect him as he travelled through the underworld as instructed by the Sibyl of Cumae. Legend also has it that the ‘golden’ tree was protected by a priest (or in some versions a king) and when a bough was cut off, a slave would also be able to kill the priest/king and then replace him, only to be killed himself in future by another slave.

At the moment we’re excavating, among other places, at the Sanctuary of Nemi, which is one of the most important sanctuaries of ancient Lazio.

Of course this is mythology, but this wouldn’t be the first time a site has been identified with Virgil’s adventures of Aeneas. In 1932, another eminent archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, discovered and excavated the site of the same oracle mentioned by Virgil the Sibyl of Cumae. This underground passage 131 metres long, carved in rock near Naples, is known as the ‘Antro della Sibilla’, or the Cave of the Sibyl, and the association with her is based on Virgil’s description of her cave.

The importance of the golden bough as a cultural symbol was sealed when the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer wrote his work named after the mythical icon. In The Golden Bough, Frazer put forth ideas on religion and mythology, giving an anthropological view of religion as opposed to the dogmatic theological views that dominated in Britain in the 1890s.

Getting to the Root of the Matter

So what has the dig at Nemi actually turned up? According to Professor Coarelli, the excavators have found a stone enclosure surrounding the remains of what appear to be a large tree, which is positioned in the middle of the religious Sanctuary of Nemi. Pottery votive offerings also indicate the importance of the site and the tree.

Professor Christopher Smith, head of the British School at Rome, told Nick Squires of the Telegraph: “It’s an intriguing discovery and adds evidence to the fact that this was an extraordinarily important sanctuary.”

Of course we may never know if the Sanctuary of Diana Nemorense at Nemi was also where the magical tree of legend grew. The association may remain a nice idea and a pleasant ‘maybe’ for those who like to think there is some truth to the Greek myths as told by Virgil. What is certain is that Nemi is a large and important ancient religious site, one of the most important in Lazio, and more excavation may be needed to discover its full history.

London’s Best Invaders – The Roman Traders

When it comes to invading marauders, who had more influence in shaping London? To my mind, the Romans will win this hands down. They came, they saw, and they started building drains, underfloor heating and fancy mosaics. They also had awesome military organisation and ferocious fighting techniques, but I think the Romans should be remembered as the invaders to beat all other invaders for a slightly different reason.

There’s no doubt they completely transformed the landscape of London. If it wasn’t for the Romans, Southwark would still be flooded by salt water twice a day. If Julius Caesar hadn’t landed in 55 BC, the thousands of Londoners that commute into the City would to this day be paddling across the Thames in boats instead of walking over London Bridge (fact based on the sound logic that the Romans built the first bridge across the Thames near the site of today’s London Bridge). This may not be a strict fact, but I liked the image of people in smart suits rowing across a bridge-less Thames to get to work. See, life without the Romans just wouldn’t be much fun.

London Transformed From Marshland

What is a fact, though, is that when Claudius’s armies conquered Brythonic tribes in 43 AD, the Romans arrived on the

They came, they saw, and they started building drains, underfloor heating and fancy mosaics

banks of the river Thames and found… well, not that much really. At the most, there may have been a smattering of Iron Age dwellings dotted around the area, but nothing resembling a village let alone a town. There may have been quite a good reason for the lack of Celtic settlers in the area namely the fact that Southwark was marshland while much of the north side of the river was threaded with watery areas and tributaries. While the Celtic tribes had built their oppidums in places such as Camulodunum (Colchester), they hadn’t much fancied setting up home on the water-logged banks of the Thames. Who can blame them?

The Roman Business Brain

But this didn’t stop the Romans, mainly because they had a sharp eye for one thing in particular. Yes, they liked their mosaics, their hot baths and pagan temples but more than all those things, the Romans were canny businessmen. By the first century AD they had become the supreme traders of the Mediterranean and had the organisational skills, methodical planning and sophisticated knowledge of mechanics, construction and industry to enable them to make money almost anywhere.

They saw their chance to set up a colony that had good sea access, while being sheltered, and also positioned at a certain distance inland, within reach of various Celtic tribes. In short, the Romans spotted a business opportunity.

So although it was the Roman legions who first set up camp and found a good place for Londinium’s first bridge across the Thames, it wasn’t long before the traders and merchants moved in. They, in my opinion are the true Roman invaders of London. Although they initially came to provide services to the military camp, industry and long-distance trade soon followed and enabled the town of Londinium to grow and flourish.

Whether the merchants and traders would all have been Roman citizens, I’m not sure. It might be more likely that some were traders who moved to Londinium from other parts of Britain, or other parts of the empire, creating the very first cosmopolitan multi-race centre on the Thames.

Anyway, the traders were tenacious and resilient, building the town up from scratch. They probably had to endure uncomfortable conditions, and probably lived in a town that must have looked more like a muddy, swampy building site during the first century at least. It would have been a far cry from the marble-clad monuments of imperial Rome (although living conditions in Rome’s insulae weren’t great either).

When Boudica’s army sacked and burned Londinium in around 60 AD, some of the town’s inhabitants fled while thousands who couldn’t leave were killed. Nevertheless, within a decade or two, the town was rebuilt and was once again thriving.

Without the tenacity of the traders who populated, built and rebuilt early Londinium, the town might never have been much more than a Roman military camp. In my opinion, the town’s Roman traders are the real invaders who put Londinium on the map and created the blueprint for what the city was to become over the next two millennia.

Get Romantic (and Cultured) in Rome This Valentines Day

It's kind of reassuring to know that you're not the first, and you won't be the last, to leave a padlock on Rome's Ponte Milvio. Photo by jonworth-eu on Creative Commons.Venice, with its grumpy gondoliers, and Verona, home to Romeo, Juliet and a pink Roman arena, both have formidable reputations as romantic destinations. But Rome too can more than hold its own when it comes to providing entertainment for lovers of all kinds (whether part of a couple or not).

There are several activities and a two-for-one offer on state-owned museums this coming weekend (13 and 14 February) in honour of Saint Valentine’s Day, but there’s plenty to inspire anyone with a yearning for a bit of romance and culture at any time of the year.

Some of ancient Rome’s most famous lovers Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous spent time in the capital. Few statues and monuments remain to remind us of them, but using your imagination has always been an important part of romance!

And when it comes to breath-taking city scenery, Rome, with its seven hills, has a number of romantic locations for a proposal with a view, or even just a panoramic photo opportunity.

Whatever you’re in Rome for, here are some suggestions on how to make the most of the Valentine’s weekend.

Two-for-one at Rome’s Museums

This two-for-the-price-of-one offer from Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage applies to state-owned museums and sites throughout Italy and is in honour of Saint Valentine’s Day. The offer, which is part of a campaign called ‘A San Valentino, innamorati dell’arte’, is valid on the 13th and 14th of February and is open to couples of all sorts (i.e., so long as there are two of you, just one person pays and the second can get in free). It’s definitely worth pairing-up for.

Among the government-run museums and archaeological sites not to be missed in Rome this weekend are Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Baths of Caracalla and Galleria Borghese. Galleria Borghese houses Titian’s masterpiece, Sacred and Profane Love, and Canova’s Venus Victrix, both pieces with obvious themes of love.

If it’s a love-themed visit you’re after, a visit to the Capitoline Museums is always worthwhile (although they’re not included in the two-for-one offer). The Capitoline Venus, modestly attempting to cover her naked form with a hand, has her own alcove while a nearby hall houses two statues, the Young and the Old Centaur, found at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. Hadrian never really got over the premature death of his young lover Antinous, and the two centaurs, said to represent young and old love, are very moving in that context. After Antinous drowned in mysterious circumstances in the Nile at the age of 19, in 130 AD, the aged Hadrian spent the last years of his life at Tivoli.

If you’re in any doubt about how beautiful Antinous may have been, you can see a bust of him at Palazzo Altemps, which is a gem of a museum that also holds the Ludovisi Throne a piece famous for its flowing lines and movement as well as a statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

Ostia Antica The House of Cupid and Psyche

As well as the two-for-one entry to state-owned museums and sites, there are several other free activities planned for the 13th and 14th of February. The House of Cupid (Amore) and Psyche, at Ostia Antica, is a well preserved Roman house, or domus, from the late imperial era. It takes its name from the statue of the a couple Cupid and Psyche in a passionate embrace, found in one of the rooms of the house. This Saturday, 13 February at 11am, a workshop aimed at families will explore the marble floors of the house (in opus sectile) and its history. Booking is necessary by contacting – tel. 06 56358092.

Rome’s Famous Lovers Antony and Cleopatra

The Roman commander Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra are ancient Rome’s most famous lovers. Of course it wasn’t a straight-forward love affair. She was previously the lover of Julius Caesar, while Antony was married, first to Fulvia and then to Octavian’s sister, Octavia. A cynic might wonder how Cleopatra managed to seduce not one but two of Rome’s most powerful men these were surely relationships based on power, lust and politics rather than love?

What was it about Antinous? Hadrian is said to have been inconsolable after his death. Photo by B Knowles.In his play, Shakespeare depicts them as a pair of utterly smitten lovers though, who let their passion for each other over-ride their political sagacity. Cleopatra spent time in Rome as the mistress of Julius Caesar, but she quickly left after his assassination. Today there is little left in Rome that personally commemorates Cleopatra.

However, her legacy was perhaps the Egyptian influence seen in monuments that are dotted around Rome. There are 13 Egyptian obelisks in the city (some imported from Egypt by the Romans and some made during the empire in Egyptian style). The obelisk at the centre of piazza del Popolo comes from Heliopolis and was erected by Rameses II. It was brought to Rome by Augustus (Octavian) in 30 BC the year that Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves, following their defeat at the Battle of Actium.

Other obelisks are in the middle of Piazza Navona (Domitian’s Obelisk), in front of the government building Palazzo di Montecitorio (this was originally built by Psammetichus II in the 7th century BC). Behind the Pantheon, in piazza di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, there is a small obelisk mounted (by Gian Lorenzo Bernini) on the back of a small elephant.

The Egyptian rooms at the exquisite museum Palazzo Altemps (near piazza Navona) also show off some of the Egyptian statues that found their way to ancient Rome, often as part of the cult of Isis.

Although in reality Cleopatra was probably not a physical beauty, in Shakespeare’s play her charms completely entrance Mark Antony. She probably had more charisma and wit rather than chocolate-box prettiness. Some of her most memorable lines from the play include this passionate memory of the early days of their love affair:
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows bent.
Antony is ready to renounce everything he has for Cleopatra he turns his back on Octavia, on Octavian and on Rome itself:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.

Photo Opportunities and Seductive Spots

It’s handy to know where romantic lovers like to hang out in Rome. If you’re part of a couple yourself, you might like to take your other half up to one of the hill-top balconies for a night-time view of the city and its many cupolas. On the other hand you might also want to avoid these places like the plague if you’re not in a romantic frame of mind. Either way, it’s good to know.

Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi is one of the most famous panoramic balconies in Rome. It’s on the Janiculum Hill and overlooks the whole city. You might need a taxi to get up there from Campo dei Fiori, or you could try walking up from Trastevere.

Another well known spot is Lo Zodiaco, on viale del Parco Mellini. With stunning views of Rome, there’s also a restaurant and bar, which will no doubt need to be booked ahead this weekend (Tel. 06 35496744).

Other spots to watch the sun go down, and to admire the acrobatic starling formations over Rome in the late afternoons, include the Pincian Hill in Villa Borghese, overlooking piazza del Popolo, although for those who really want a bird’s eye view should attempt a trip to the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Another spot for lovers is the unlikely Ponte Milvio site of a bloody battle in 312 AD, which saw Constantine I become the first Christian emperor of Rome, and heralded the start of the Christian epoch. As Constantine’s army pressed down on Rome, Maxentius’s men were pushed back and many of them including Maxentius himself were drowned in the Tiber. These days Ponte Milvio has become a spot for lovers and many of them leave a lasting dedication in the form of a padlock signed with their names.

If Pizza is the Food of Love…

Of course a romantic trip to Rome isn’t complete without as much good food as you can fit in. Nobody should visit Rome without trying pizza, artichokes and tiramisu.

  • Try the Tiramisu from Bar Pompi, on via Albalonga, off piazza Re di Roma (it’s on the metro line). It’s legendary amongst Romans for one good reason: it’s utterly fantastic. You can eat it in the bar, or have a take-away portion to eat out.
  • A trip to Rome isn’t complete without a thin-based Roman pizza. For a pizzeria with a bit of Roman cheek and energy, try La Montecarlo, on vicolo Savelli off Corso Vittorio Emanuele. It’s frenetic, fast, but the food is tasty.
  • February is a good time to try one of the Roman delicacies the artichoke. It’s most commonly served in most restaurants ‘alla romana’, cooked slowly in olive oil with roman mint. Or go to the historic restaurant ‘Da Gigetto’ in the Jewish quarter, right next to the Porticus of Octavia and Marcellus’s Theatre, for artichokes ‘alla giudea’, which is deep-fried and crispy.

Face-off: The Rampin Rider ‘v’ The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius statue, Rome

Very few large equestrian statues from antiquity have survived until modern times. Two that have reached us are the bronze statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, on display in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, and the Greek marble statue in fragments known as the Rampin Rider. Found by Georges Rampin in the late 19th century in Athens, it is a masterpiece of Archaic art and pre-dates the much more intact bronze of Marcus Aurelius by about 700 years.

Each statue tells us a huge amount about the time and place they come from the Rampin Rider from Athens in around 550 BC, compared to imperial Rome of around 174 AD. So in a two-horse race, which rider would be first past the finish line? It’s almost impossible to choose a winner and what is perhaps more interesting is the fact that these two works of art have reached us at all.

The Rampin Rider was all but smashed to pieces less than 100 years after it was sculpted and was buried in a ditch on Athens’ Acropolis. Meanwhile, the equestrian Marcus Aurelius was saved from being melted down in fourth century Rome only because of a mistaken identity the Christian authorities mistook the horseman for the devout emperor Constantine I, and so it survived while many other ‘pagan’ statues like it were lost.

Then as now, the horse-back figure usually portrays a hero or a leader; it symbolises military victory, strength and power. However, these symbols of political power are often the first landmarks to be pulled down when the next set of conquerors and commanders come along, making them vulnerable each time there is an (inevitable) regime change (Saddam Hussein’s statue didn’t last long after his regime was defeated in 2003). Add to this the size and fragility of large horse-backed statues (horses legs are notoriously delicate), then it becomes more amazing that any have survived at all for more than 1,800 years.

Other fragmentary parts of equestrian statues from antiquity are still with us – a horse’s head and a man’s foot, thought to the be parts of a mounted statue of Augustus from the first century AD, were found in a river in Germany last year. However, the Rampin Rider and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius are two of the most notable and complete mounted sculptures from antiquity. The Jockey of Artemison is another example from 140 BC – it was found in pieces in a shipwreck and is now on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Built about 700 years apart, one of marble and fragmented, the other of bronze and almost intact, there are few similarities between the two statues. Neither meets the scale of the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, but they are some of the oldest examples we have of mounted riders.

So in their very own Grand National, which horse would you back? The sixth century BC Greek horseman, whose head is in the Louvre while his body resides in Athens? Or the second century AD Roman bronze, said to be the inspiration for equestrian statues of the Renaissance?

Rampin Rider

Also known as the Rampin Horseman, this fragmented marble statue dates from 550 BC Greece.

Having been sabotaged during a Persian attack on Athens in 480 BC, it was re-discovered with other statue fragments in a ditch at the acropolis of Athens in 1877. The statue’s human head is on display at the Louvre, along with a replica cast of the surviving body parts, while the fragments that survive of the body are displayed in Athens along with a replica of the head. It wasn’t until 1936 that the head was associated with the rest of the statue.

The rider is sculpted in the style of the Hellenic ‘kouros’ figures, which are typically naked male statues, usually in a standing position (obviously not in this case), with wide-shouldered muscular frames, broad faces and curled or braided hair.

The Louvre describes the head of the horseman as a masterpiece of Archaic art, which blends Attic seriousness with the rich decorative tradition of eastern Greece.

The head is 27cm high, while the body is about 108cm high.

The identity of the Rampin Horseman is not known. He could be a hero or a member of the Athenian aristocracy, although his leafy crown suggests he could also be the winner of Hellenic games. Only fragments remain, but it’s thought that the statue could have been part of a pair of mounted riders. Scholars have guessed at their identities one suggestion is that they were Castor and Pollux, or Hippias and Hipparchus, the sons of Pisistratus. If on the other hand the statue was a single mounted rider, then it may have been an offering to the gods from a horseman.

Red and black pigments on the surface suggest the statue was originally coloured.

Plus Points

  • At 2560 years old, it’s not to be sniffed at. Carved more than 700 years before the bronze Marcus Aurelius, this statue laid down the designs for mounted statues centuries before the Romans got in on the act. The equestrian statues of Rome would have taken much inspiration from statues like this one.
  • Recognised as a Greek masterpiece.

Let Downs

  • It’s regrettable that this statue remains only in several fragmented pieces and that these pieces are held in two different countries.

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

This bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) was first displayed in ancient Rome in 173-6 AD.

The statue survived intact only because the emperor was mistaken for Constantine I. It was one of the few Roman statues to remain on public display during the Middle Ages. It stood in the piazza in front of the Lateran Palace until it was moved to the Capitoline Hill in the 16th century. A replica now stands in the middle of the Campidoglio square on the Capitoline, while the original is housed inside the Capitoline Museums, in a recently-built auditorium.

The bronze statue shows the emperor with an outstretched hand, symbolising peace and power. He is dressed in a toga and his hair is curled. The statue is far more life-like and has a more modern feel to it than the Rampin Rider.

As the only surviving imperial equestrian statue, it inspired and provided a blueprint for future Renaissance statues.

Having said that, the Roman artists in their turn were inspired by Greek sculpture, so without the Rampin Rider, we may not have had some of the famous Roman statues that still survive today.

By the second century AD, there were 20 or so bronze equestrian statues in Rome, but most didn’t survive. This one is the only intact bronze statue of a pre-Christian Roman emperor still with us today.

It stands 4.24m high, dwarfing the Rampin Rider, as well as anyone who goes to see it at the Capitoline Museums.

The rider is Marcus Aurelius, who was ruler of the Roman world between 169-180 AD. Also known as an important Stoic philosopher, the emperor was one of Rome’s ‘good’ emperors.

The statue may have been gilded originally.

Plus Points

  • It’s remarkably intact for a Roman bronze mounted statue (having been restored several times).
  • Although it’s far younger than the Rampin Horseman, its detail, size and the powerful stance of the rider and his horse make it one of the finest pieces in Rome’s Capitoline Museums.

Let Downs

  • There are very few let-downs to this amazingly preserved statue.

Which of the two statues do you back? Let us know in the comments box below.

Film-makers Uncover Trajan’s Hidden Roman Aqueduct

Two British film-makers have discovered what they believe to be the source of the 1,900-year old aqueduct built by the emperor Trajan in the early second century AD.

The underground chambers were found and filmed after some years of research into Roman hydraulics by the documentary-makers Ted O’Neill and his father Michael O’Neill.

According to Ted, it took some perseverance to find the location, which was hidden beneath a disused church some 30-40km north-west of Rome. Despite difficulties and delays in getting access to the site, the O’Neills were finally able to enter the underground chambers of the church in June 2009.

While the aqueduct was used from Roman times until the ninth or tenth centuries, by the Renaissance period it had fallen out of use. It was rebuilt by Pope Paul V between 1605 and 1615 and renamed the Aqua Paola after him. It still carries spring water to Rome to this day (culminating at ‘Il Fontanone’ on the Janiculum Hill).

Aqua Traiana: Huge Importance to Ancient Rome

However, the source of the Aqua Traiana/Aqua Paola had fallen out of the public consciousness, despite the fact that it was known as recently as 1935. A reference to it in a book, The Aqueducts of Ancient Rome by Thomas Ashby, who was director of the British School at Rome between 1906 and 1925, helped lead the O’Neill team to the right spot near the ruined chapel of Santa Fiore, on the shores of Lake Martignano (near Lake Bracciano).

The Aqua Traiana transported pure spring water to the Janiculum Hill, providing bathing and drinking water for people in that area, water for industry, as well as water for the original St Peter’s church (built during the reign of Constantine I) from the fourth century onwards.

According to Mike O’Neill, this was of ‘enormous importance’ to ancient Rome. He adds: The site of the water source was also of great religious importance.

Trajan went to great lengths to collect very pure spring water, which enabled a big improvement in hygiene and sanitation, as well as drinking water.

The source is right in ancient Etruria the area of northern Lazio and southern Tuscany today and was also an important water source for the Etruscans. The Romans, under emperor Trajan at the start of the second century AD, then built a nymphaeum at the site and built their aqueduct to take the water to Rome.

This enabled the Romans to bring about what could be seen as one of the first industrial revolutions, said Mike O’Neill. With a plentiful water supply coming into the city from the north, the Romans were able to expand certain industries such as grain grinding and stone sawing.

The water was also important as a domestic source. Trajan went to great lengths to collect very pure spring water, which enabled a big improvement in hygiene and sanitation, as well as drinking water. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the time, the empire was able to grow to its greatest extent, while the city of Rome also had a population of as many as 1.5 million.

According to Ted O’Neill, the moment the film-crew entered the underground chambers for the first time, they were struck by the preservation of the Roman opus reticulatum brickwork. They were accompanied by professor Lorenzo Quilici, an expert of ancient Roman topography from the University of Bologna.

Filming Inside the Underground Spring

Ted O’Neill explained: The chapel has two rooms extending off to each side, both of which are bricked off. The base of the structure is semi-oval shaped. The chapel is about 3m below today’s ground level, so a ladder was needed to get down into a chamber behind a bricked-up arch, as well as lighting equipment.

There, the team found beautiful brickwork in pristine condition. Professor Quilici confirmed that they are in fact Roman. Beyond this subterranean chamber, there is a long gallery that leads to the beginnings of Trajan’s aqueduct.

The team was researching and filming another Roman aqueduct at the time the Aqua Alsietina, which also begins at Lake Martignano. Ted O’Neill said: We’ve been very interested in aqueducts from the north of Rome although those that come into Rome from Tivoli and from the Castelli Romani are more commonly talked about.

The shores of both Lake Bracciano and Lake Martignano were known to the ancient Romans as a leisure retreat from the city. The Aqua Alsietina transported water into the Trastevere area of Rome (to Augustus’s ‘naumachia’ -a man-made lake where the Romans could re-enact sea battles).

The O’Neills run a small production company making documentaries and films. Film-makers by trade, their work has led them to some in-depth research into the aqueducts of Rome since they first became interested in the Aqua Vergine Nuova some time ago. They are interested in documenting these ancient structures from an historical viewpoint, as well as covering the Renaissance restorations and the modern state and use of the aqueducts.

As Mike says, Rome is the only city in Europe that uses aqueducts for its entire water supply, which is particularly interesting at a time when water supply is a serious problem in many parts of the world.

A conference giving more information on the source of the Acqua Traiana will be held this Thursday, 28 January at the Hotel Quirinale, via Nazionale, Rome. Contacts: Ted O’Neill (
0039-370-705-1538 – English and Italian) and Mike O’Neill ( – English only).

Rome’s Ancient Via Tiburtina: From Neolithic Shepherds to Roma Gypsy Camps

An illegal Roma gypsy camp might be one of the last places you’d expect to find yourself on an expedition in search of an ancient Roman bridge. But this is what happened to Professor Hans Bjur and his colleagues as they were researching their project on the historical and modern context of one of Rome’s oldest roads.

As they made their way through a more neglected corner of Rome’s Ponte Mammolo suburb, they followed the directions to where the bridge should have stood, only to find themselves in the midst of a temporary settlement. While the Swedish researchers were the object of some scrutiny from the camp they had stumbled upon, Professor Bjur and his team were also fascinated to find a modern community living at the very site of the ruin they had come to examine.

For one thing it was colourful proof that the old via Tiburtina was far from a relic it still has life in it, on it and around it, which is one of the main themes of their book, Via Tiburtina Space, Movement and Artefacts in the Urban Landscape, officially launched in Rome on Friday.

A Road With History

The via Tiburtina runs from Rome’s city centre all the way to Tivoli once the residence of the emperor Hadrian. It was a key road for communications as well as transport during imperial Rome. Mounted messengers would have galloped up and down it, while blocks of travertine may also have been transported from the quarries near Tivoli into the mushrooming city (bigger blocks may have been shipped down the Aniene river to Rome).

The origins of the road lie far beyond the Roman civilisation. In earlier neolithic times, the route would have been used by nomadic cultures who lived off their herds of sheep or goats. They would drive them down from the Appenine hills (beyond Tivoli) to pasture on the flat landscape near the Tiber. This transhumance would have been a ritual act repeated with the seasons.

A Blueprint for Interdisciplinary Heritage Studies

The book, co-edited by Professor Barbro Santillo Frizell (director of the Swedish Institute in Rome) and Professor Bjur (a specialist in urban planning and design at the University of Gothenburg), was launched to the international market with a seminar held at the Swedish Institute in Rome on Friday, 11 December. A panel of four speakers were invited to give an appraisal, moderated by the University of Gothenburg’s Professor Ola Wetterberg (head of the Conservation Department).

The panel’s speakers were Graham Fairclough from English Heritage, Maria Margarita Segarra Lagunes from Universit Roma Tre, Paolo Liverani from the University of Florence and Gert-Jan Burgers from the Dutch Institute in Rome. They each gave their own reactions and thoughts on the book, which embodies seven years of interdisciplinary research involving 11 scholars with backgrounds in archaeology, ancient history, architecture, urban design and planning, conservation and art history.

The panel all agreed the book is innovative and a good springboard for further work. Its interdisciplinary approach went further than putting together chapters written by scholars from different backgrounds. The researchers would sit down and physically write together an approach the team found challenging. It required them to re-examine their own professional assumptions and to find a lingua franca to express their ideas clearly, free from their own faculty’s jargon. The team believes their project provides a blueprint for future interdisciplinary projects and approaches to studying and conserving heritage.

Questions on Heritage

Many topical questions about heritage preservation and perception are raised by the book, many of them discussed in detail by the experts at Friday’s seminar. Some of these questions include:

  • Changing Identities: Via Tiburtina is an example of heritage that has lost its identity having been transformed from a vital artery route between the two power hubs of Rome and Tibur (Tivoli’s name during Roman times), it is now a sprawling and mixed urban and industrial area, described by the team as ‘urban soup’.

  • Professional v. Local: The book touches on the subject of heritage management, and whether heritage sites should be managed by national/international organizations, or by local groups the argument being that since the heritage sites are placed within communities, then it is up to those people to look after the site as they see fit. The professional v. local argument is discussed in the third section of the book. English Heritage’s Graham Fairclough noted: Landscape is common it’s owned by the community, everyone shares it and is responsible for it.

  • Movement: Via Tiburtina is about movement in landscape. Buildings and monuments are disposable many of them go up and come down even within our lifetimes. Roads and boundaries remain. Geert-Jan Burgers said: The book offers new innovative ideas on heritage, which doesn’t just include artefacts and monuments, but also considers networks and the movement of people.

  • Contemporary Archaeology: The book is as much about the present and future as about the past. It gives an ‘integrated’ view of time. Mr Fairclough argued that ancient heritage sites are also contemporary because they exist now and they reflect our own culture as well as the culture of those who built them.

  • Changes: It’s inevitable that our landscape, and therefore the landscape of heritage sites, changes over time. So are we preserving heritage (which implies an element of keeping it static), or are we managing change?

  • Landscape: Mr Fairclough said that the book raised interesting questions about landscape and what we think our landscape is. To most people it might mean a pretty view of natural countryside. But it can also include the urban landscape, roads and industry. Landscape also changes with the seasons, with the time of day, with the decades/centuries/millennia. It also changes according to who you are and what you see.

  • People: Perhaps landscape is an idea, rather than a tangible ‘thing’. Because landscape changes according to people’s perceptions, to protect the landscape, you also need to protect the people who live there. Modern housing is often built along Roman roads or Medieval field boundaries.

The book was a collaboration between the University of Gothenburg and the Swedish Institute in Rome. The contributing authors on the book were Mir Azimzadeh, Hans Bjur, Olof Brandt, Barbro Santillo Frizell, Kristina Hellerstrm, Hkan Hkerberg, Allan Klynne, Katri Lisitzin, Brje Magnusson, Simon Malmberg and Jonathan Westin.

Via Tiburtina Space, Movement and Artefacts in the Urban Landscape is available to buy from the Swedish Institute in Rome. For more information contact: Swedish Insitute, Via Omero 14, 00197 Roma, Italy; +39 06 320 1966; or

Photos by B Knowles and the University of Gothenburg.