Goethe in Rome 1 August 1787

In the evening we bathed in the Tiber, in well set-up, safe little bathouses: then we strolled on Trinita de’ Monti and enjoyed the fresh air and moonlight. Mooonlit nights here are all one imagines or dreams them to be.

‘Fled is that music’—nightingale disappearing from England

Did you know that the nightingale has been in steep decline in England due to the disturbance of the songbird’s preferred habitat?

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Ernest Hemingway 2 July 1961

Some made the long drop from the apartment or the office window; some took it quietly in two-car garages with the motor running; some used the native tradition of the Colt or Smith and Wesson, those well-constructed implements that end insomnia, terminate remorse, cure cancer, avoid bankruptcy, and blast an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of a finger; those admirable American instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback being the mess they leave for relatives to clean up.

All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.

Rome—Catacomb of Commodilla to open to public for first time

The newly restored Catacomb of Commodilla, located near the basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura in the Garbatella neighborhood of Rome, will open to the public after recent restorations, according to the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology.

The date of the opening has not been announced. The Catacomb of Commodilla has never before been open to the public, but was reserved to approved groups by the Commission. Visits by made of reservation can still be made, according to the Commission’s website.

The catacomb of Commodilla were first excavated in 1903

The precise date of the creation of the catacomb is not known. Written evidence first appears in the fourth century in the form of a metric inscription composed by Pope Damasus I (obit 384.), similar to those he composed to promote martyrs’ tombs in each of the catacombs that ringed the city.

O once and again, in truth Felix [happy] by name you with undefiled faith, spurning the prince of the world, a confessor asked Christ for heavenly rule. O truly precious faith of the brother -know this- by which Adauctus the victor went fourth to heaven. The actual priest-in-charge for these by the order of Damasus the ruler, put in order the tomb of the saints and decorated its limits

Epitaph composed by Damasus
Cubiculum (sleeping chamber) of Leo, IV century tomb within the catacomb of Commodilla

The proximity of San Paolo, the tomb of Apostle near the location of his martyrdom, made the catacomb a much-frequented stop on pilgrims’ itinerary in the early Middle Ages.The better-known catacombs on and adjacent to the Via Appia Antica (San Callisto, San Sebastiano, and Domitilla) are a short walk away along Via delle Sette Chiese.

Detail from the ceiling of the cubiculum of Leo – The symbols on either side are Alpha and Omega. Remember that the Christ is “beginning and end.” Revelation 22, 13: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”

Commodilla is thought to have been the property owner of the site where the catacomb is located. Contemporary sources often refer to the catacomb as the cemetery of Felix and Adauctus, after famous martyrs entombed there. A passio of these saints was composed between the fourth and fifth as a means to promote pilgrimage to this site.

Fresco with Mary, Jesus, and martyrs Felix and Adauctus, and Turtura the donor of the art work, as described in inscription

The catacomb continued as a place of devotion for pilgrims if no longer as a place for the interment of the departed.

Detail of the donor Turtura

Pope John I (obit 526) conducted the last documented extensive renovation of the catacombs. The catacomb as a site of pilgrimage ended, it seems, in the ninth century. The relics of Felix and Adauctus were removed from the catacomb by Pope Leo IV (obit 854).

Pilgrim graffiti found on frame of the fresco of Turtura – non dicere ille secrita abboce (don’t speak the secrets aloud) – is an early example of vulgar Latin / early Italian

In 846, Muslim buccaneers had despoiled

the basilica of San Paolo and other churches and devotion sites around Rome. Leo IV, in response, enclosed St. Peter’s with his famous wall but San Paolo and its environs were left exposed until a more modest fortification was built by John VIII (obit 882). By that time, lack of security and the dispersion of martyrs’ relics from the site likely put an end to Commodilla as a stop on the pilgrims’ way.

Time slips by and we age silently with the years …

June 24 is the feast of Fors Fortuna, the goddess of good luck, divine blessings and fate. Celebration of this festival had the character of a spirited pilgrimage. Devotees came by foot and by boat. It was a day of playfulness, joy and drinking on the Tiber in Rome.

Time slips by and we age silently with the years, /There’s no bridle to curb the flying days. / How swiftly the festival of Fors Fortuna’s arrived! (Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, / et fugiunt freno non remorante dies. / quam cito venerunt Fortunae Fortis honores! / post septem luces Iunius actus erit.)

Ovid – Fasti
Rome, 1890. View from Rome towards Trastevere and the Farnesina, the site of Fors Fortuna

Ovid’s poem Fasti contains a description of the calendar of Roman religious festivals and dramatic narrative depictions of Roman mythology. In this work, Ovid presents himself as a bard writing by divine inspiration, “there is a divine power within me, and when it stirs I’m afire with inspiration,” (est deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo). He dedicated one book to each month of the year. Despite his claims to have completed the entire calendar year, the extant poem consists of books for the first sixth months of the year (January to June), and no quotation of the presumed remainder of the other six book-months is found in the work of other authors.

The Romans dedicated several temples to Fors Fortuna, all of them on the banks of the Tiber.  Servius Tullius, king of Rome from 575–535 BC, is said to have founded one of these temples. A second temple was founded by a certain Cervalius in 293 BC from the spoils of war. Both of these were built on via Portuensis, the road that ran from the city to the coast.  According to legend, the founders were of humble background and had ancestors born as slaves.

Quirites, come celebrate the goddess Fors, with joy: /She has her royal show on Tiber’s banks. /Hurry on foot, and others in swift boats: /It’s no shame to return home tipsy. /Garlanded barges, carry your bands of youths, / Let them drink deep of the wine, mid-stream. (ite, deam laeti Fortem celebrate, Quirites: / in Tiberis ripa munera regis habet. / pars pede, pars etiam celeri decurrite cumba, / nec pudeat potos inde redire domum. / ferte coronatae iuvenum convivia, lintres, / multaque per medias vina bibantur aquas.)

Ovid – Fasti

Ruins on Tiber near the site of the temple of Fors Fortuna and the present-day Farnesina

The most famous of these temples was in Trastevere, where it was built in gardens that Julius Caesar bequeathed to the Roman people for public use. At one time, the gardens hosted Cleopatra during her sojourn in Rome. Cicero complains about her presence there. The poet Ovid, whose verse from the Fasti is featured here, did not known this temple, since he had been in exile from Rome for a number of years by the time this temple was dedicated in 17 AD.

The people worship her, because they say the founder / Of her shrine was one of them, and rose from humble rank, / To the throne, and her worship suits slaves, because Servius / Was slave-born, who built the nearby shrines of the fatal goddess. (plebs colit hanc, quia qui posuit de plebe fuisse / fertur, et ex humili sceptra tulisse loco. / convenit et servis, serva quia Tullius ortus / constituit dubiae templa propinqua deae.)

Ovid – Fasti

Lanciani Forma urbis Romae (plate XX) Trastevere and Tiber

Today Renaissance Villa Farnesina occupies this site. This villa was developed by the banker Agostino Chigi, who commissioned Raphael other artists to embellish the building.  

Ovid began to compose Fasti in Rome presumably in hopes of in gaining the favor of Augustus (an avid reformer of Roman religious life) and other members of imperial family. He continued to write and to revise the poem after his banishment from Rome in 8 A.D to gain recall to Rome. Famously, Ovid attributed his exile to “a poem and mistake.” Whatever the official distaste for his early erotic poetry, his friendship with subversive members of the imperial family caused his final disgrace. From exile, Ovid dedicated Fasti to Germanicus, the ill-fated heir of the emperor Tiberius, and one of the most influential members of the imperial dynasty throughout his brief life. The appeal failed, and Ovid died in exile after 10 years of pining for return.

Rome: a place by the river

Forma urbis Romae (plate 14)

Whenever I’m in Rome I look for an apartment in Ponte, the picturesque neighborhood on the river just across from the Vatican. I can’t think of a better location in the city. While I’m there I do another kind of house hunting, though in this case I’m sure I’ll never find the one I’m looking for.

The story begins on June 19, 1073, the day that a certain Leo de Belconte and his wife Stephania sold a house and a plot of adjacent land to a monk/priest named Farolfo, who was the business agent of San Stephano, a monastery near St. Peter’s basilica.

This is the house I want to find. I have a copy of their contract. It has enough suggestive detail to give hope to the optimist in me.

Via del Banco Santo Spirito and Ponte Sant’Angelo

At least I know where the house might be, vaguely. The contract between Leo and Farolfo tells me that the property is in Ponte (that name has stuck for a thousand years) and more precisely in locum ubi dicitur Castaelione, that is, “in the place called Castaelione.” You don’t hear that name in the street much anymore. Not everything here lasts. Years ago, someone suggested that Castaelione might refer to bronze sculptures of lions heads found by the river that could have been a landmark that gave the name to the place.

Positam Roma regione de Ponte in locum ubi dicitur Castaelione quod est inter affines a primo latere teniente Crescentius Ceco et a secondo latere teniente Iohannes de Netto et a tertio latere terra de Sancto Celso et a quarto latere via publica …

Ponte: Houses and Tiber

The river is the best place to look, but the relationship between the city and the river isn’t what it used to be. In the old days, the city ran down to the Tiber and the river was an inescapable part of urban life here. The medieval city developed around the river. That relationship ended in the 1880s, when much of picturesque Ponte was laid waste for urban redevelopment.

Palazzo Altiviti now gone but once near Ponte Sant’Angelo

Houses, the grand and the humble, were demolished and the muraglioni, giant walls, were built to protect the city from its old life force. On the city side of these walls where densely settled micro’hoods like castaelione used to be have been replaced by roads with noisy speeding traffic and oddly shaped open spaces that standout uncomfortably from old Ponte. Was it in one of these places that Leo traded his house for money?

The trail runs cold. It always does. There’s an antiquarian shop at the river end of via del Banco Santo Spirito. This might be my last chance. I look at photographs and watercolors and I wonder if a tiny part of Leo’s house was built over and included in one of the later buildings, and then swept away with it together.

Piranesi Tiber life
Ponte and St.Peter’s basilica

Nero’s Playground: Emperor’s suicide site now a public park

Nero, emperor, artist and outlaw, died by suicide at a suburban villa between the Via Nomentana and the Via Salaria four miles north of Rome, 9 June 68. He was 30 years old. The last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero died 112 years after the murder of the Julius Caesar, founder of that political family.

The imperial archivist Suetonius, in his biography of Nero, narrates the emperor’s precipitous fall from power: provincial results, abandonment and isolation in Rome, and finally flight from the city with a handful of companions, including Phaon, the owner of the villa where he died.


Villa di Faonte, a public park that contains the ruins of the Roman villa where Nero is believed to have died, was inaugurated in 2021.

Ruins of the villa of Phaon preserved within the park Villa di Faonte

Nineteenth-century archeologist Antonio Nibby, based partially on the work of Suetonius, identified the ruins as belonging to the villa of Phaon in the 1830s. Material evidence for this identification include the age of the building, dated according to building style. The main ruin is of a cistern, which was first identified as a cryptoporticus. Another discovery there that connects the site to the late emperor is the funerary inscription to Claudia Egloge, the wet nurse who cared for Nero as a child and who arranged for the interment of his remains in the family tomb on the Pincio after his death.

Funerary marker of Nero’s caretaker Egloge found in area excavations.

The park is located in the Tufello area of the city, which is situated between Montesacro and Vigne Nuove.Tufello was developed in the 1920s as one of the Fascist-era garden cities, suburbs of contemporary design to house the professional and working-class residents who migrated to the capital from elsewhere in Italy or who were dislocated from other parts of Rome by various urban development schemes.

In Nibby’s day, this site was in melancholic countryside. Now it’s snug within subsequent urban sprawl. Entrances to the park are from Via Vigne Nuove and Via del Passo del Turchino. Housing and business development has continued in the area; Via di Villa di Faonte is the southern edge of the park. This road doesn’t exist in my not-so-old road atlas of Rome, but now it’s marked on Google Maps and similar sources. Rome’s metropolitana gets you close to the site. Take the extension of the blue Linea B towards Piazzale Jonio.

Location of Villa di Faonte within urban sprawl

The identification of the site as the actual villa of as that of Phaon is not conclusive since the evidence to support it is circumstantial. Also, the remains of several similar properties have been found in the same area.

Suetonius says

Suetonius depicts Nero as a ridiculous and doomed (though not tragic) figure. Beyond documents and literary allusion used through this life, the sources for Suetonius’ account are not known. No contradictory sources are used, so the life reads with the precision of legend. The critical reader is left to wonder how much is invention, how much arrangement of fact and cliché, and how is the embellishment of eyewitness talk and hearsay.

The final act of Nero’s life opened in the deserted palace. The previous days had been full of portent and turmoil. There was a horror film quality to some, as when the doors of the dynastic mausoleum—built by Augustus and still there today by the river—opened by themselves and a voice was heard calling Nero’s name and summoning him to enter.

Then there’s the political blood sport part of it. First, during a speech in the detailing the just punishment due to a rebellious genera, some senators heckled Nero, saying You will be punished, Emperor! It will be you!”.

Next he tried to rally the Praetorian Guard but was shouted down, even hearing the jeer, Is it really so hard to die? That line comes from the Aeneid, the scene where Aeneas’ rival Turnus is about to be killed by the hero. And so, the ideology of the dynasty is turned against itself. It’s literary code saying Nero isn’t fit to be emperor.

Final hours

Alone in the palace after midnight, Nero, indecisive and impulsive, considers his options. Flight to Egypt or even to Parthia, nemesis to Rome, to beg safety at that court. Or should he ask forgiveness in the army’s camp or from the rostra? Or is it best to die? Even that option was no simple. The poison he kept for himself had gone missing, probably stolen since its box was made of gold. So taper in hand, he stalked the silent and black dark halls of the palace in search of a reliable friend who will help him die. There’s no response to the knock on any chamber door. The princeps has become a pathetic, and he calls out into the void, Am I a man without friends or enemies!.

Last companions

Suddenly Nero’s final companions emerge from darkness. He hadn’t really been alone, rather he’d been reduced to the company of men of no significance, men who could not provide a way of out of this crisis.

Phaon, one of the emperor’s freedmen (a former slave made imperial advisor) suggests that the emperor seek refuge in his suburban villa. Together with Sporus, a young eunuch whom the emperor treated as his consort, Phaon, Epaphroditus, another of his freedman, Nero, barefoot and on horseback, left the Palatine for the last time, just was he was in tunic, wrapped in a dark, hooded cloak, and with a handkerchief covering his face.

Lanciani FuR, where Via Nomentana passes close to the camp of the Praetorian Guard

After riding through Rome, they entered the Via Nomentana. The escape route passed close to the camp of the Praetorian Guard, the soldiers in Rome who could make or break an emperor. In just a few lines, Suetonius creates the feeling of panic-induced impressions from Nero’s point of view: earthquake and flashes of lightning; shouting voices; the roar of acclamations from the camp; the stench of a dead body in the road; fear that he’d been recognized and was now vulnerable quarry.

All at once an earth tremor and a flash of lightning in his face filled him with terror and he heard the shouts of soliders from a camp nearby pophesysing doom for himself and success for Galba—and even one of those they met on the road was head saying, ‘Those men are after Nero,’ while another asked, ‘Is there any news from Rome about Nero,’.But when his horse shied at scent of a dead body left beside the road, Nero’s face was uncovered and he was recognized and saluted by a man who had served in the Praetorians.

The horses were set loose a few miles up the Nomentana, outside the villa. The fugitive, unsure if the house was safe to enter, cuts through the thorny hedge to the villa grounds, his clothes torn and his feet shredded and bloody.

He rested an hour. Then the moment arrived. Nero’s friends encouraged him to suicide so as to evade the humiliation of capture and trial. He agreed, then shouted, What an artist dies in me!

Then the indecisiveness returned.

While these preparations were being made, a runner brought a message to Phaon, which Nero grabbed, learning from it that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate and the object of a search, so that he might be punished according to ancestral custom. He asked what this manner might be and when he discovered it meant that a man was stripped naked, his neck placed in a fork, then this body beaten until he died, he was overcome with terror and snatched up two daggers, which he had brought with him, but having tried the blade of each one, he put them away again, saying that the fatal hour had not yet come.

And then it dissolved again, My life is shameful, unbecoming to Nero … unbecoming, in such circumstances, one must be decisive. Come, rouse yourself …

The sound of horsemen in the villa sparked new resolution. Nero quotes the Iliad, The thunder of swift-footed horses echoes around my ears, then, with the help of Epaphroditus, the dagger slid into his throat.

A soldier, with orders to take Nero alive, enters the scene; he attempts to staunch the wound.

Believing the soldier has come to his rescue, the princeps speaks one last illusion: Too late but what fidelity!

And Nero is dead, his eyes staring widely to the horror and dread of those looking on.

End of the line

The Julio-Claudian dynasty has a tangled family tree, root and branch a menagerie of friends and enemies within the Roman aristocracy, along with the occasional admission of new men, most obviously Marcus Agrippa (Nero’s grandfather).

Happier times for the Julio-Claudians as depicted on the Ara Pacis

Nero was born15 December 37—just as the sun was rising—at a seaside villa in Antium, on the coast near Rome. Ruins of imperial-age buildings are still seen there, though the World War II battle of Anzio (winter–spring 1944) reduced much of what once was to bits.

He descended from the rival political heirs of Julius Caesar. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, was the great-granddaughter of Augustus. His father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was the great-grandson of Mark Antony.

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Caesar’s inveterate, blue-blood enemy, was the other hereditary progenitor, being Nero’s great-great-grandfather. This haughty, committed and bumbling adversary died after Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus, having been tracked and slaughtered by Mark Antony.

Nero’s father wasn’t too sanguine about the prospects for family life. To the congratulations of friends, he responded, Nothing that could be born of himself and Agrippina that wouldn’t inspire loathing and bring disaster for the state.

Ahenobarbus died sometime, somewhere in Nero’s early years. Later Nero arranged the murder of his mother once she had become an irksome impediment to his moods and power. And as a younger teen on his way to the purple, Nero seems to have been privy to the murder of the emperor Claudius, the uncle and step-father who adopted him 25 February 50. Claudius died by poison 13 October 54.

And Nero’s friends …

Nero’s death didn’t end the stories of his friends. During the months after he disappeared and throughout 69, the year of the four emperors, violence consumed the partisans and lackeys of those vying for power. Phaon might have been among them since there’s no definite trace of him in the historical record.

Warren Cup – erotic scene with puer delicatus, the status of Sporus before his castration

Sporus and Epaphroditus, however, were survivors. The boy eunuch must have been something special. After Nero he became the protected concubine among the spoils of a series of power brokers. He lasted a year, his charm erased by the short time Rome belonged to Vitellius. The puer delicatus chose oblivion over the mockery and an ugly death as a victim displayed during the public games.

Epaphroditus did better Opportunistic men of his stripe always had their finger to the wind, and, as a prosperous palace insider, he almost made it through the entire Flavian dynasty. Domitian had him killed, ostensibly because he helped Nero in his hour of need. The real motive, however, was the emperor’s greed for the freedman’s property.

Funeral monument to Epaphroditus

Post mortem

Santa Maria del Popolo is one of the most exquisite churches in Rome. The current building was constructed close to where to tomb of the Domitii, where Nero’s bones and ashes had been deposited.

His nurse Ecloge and Alexandria, along with his mistress Acte, buried his remains in the ancestral monument of the Domitii, which is located on top of the Hill of Gardens and can be seen from Campus Martius. The monument is made up on a sarcophagus of porphyry, on which is an altar of Luna marble, and with an enclosure of Thasian stone.

Sixtus IV (obit1484) built this church on the site of a modest predecessor. He was responsible for other familiar places, including Ponte Sisto and the Sistine chapel. Other patrons and their artists continued to endow Santa Maria with beautiful things long after his death.

G. Maggi engraving (1625) of S. Maria del Popolo and the Pincio, called by Hill of Gardens by Suetonius

The origins of the earlier building are fuzzy. There’s a record from 1263, an inscription, but that’s as far as certainty goes. Legend is more precise. It tells that Pope Paschal II (obit 1118) built the first chapel here as a means to exorcise the ghost of Nero, which haunted the neighborhood of his tomb. One last blow was struck. Paschal, the legend continues, had the bones of Nero exhumed and thrown into the Tiber—defossis eodem loco ossibus Neronis et in Tiberim proiecitis.

Looking for medieval Rome

News from Rome: two years after our plans were cancelled, Valentina says, yes, the after dark, candlelit visit to the catacomb of Priscilla will happen next month. And, yes, we’ll meet at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, my favorite church in the city, then walk to Via Salaria to see Priscilla; and yes, we’ll have dinner at Da Ettore on Corso Trieste. And, yes she wants me to write an updated version of my article about looking for medieval Rome. So now it’s time for work, and it’s time to get ready for Rome again.