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 On the city side of these walls where densely settled micro’hoods like castaelione used to be have been replaced by roads with noisy speeding traffic and oddly shaped open spaces that standout uncomfortably from old Ponte.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

Charles Dickens—an eyewitness in Rome, 8 March 1845

Who reads the travel writing of Charles Dickens?

On his travels, beyond being feted by local dignitaries, Dickens examined the penal system in the places he visited. In Rome, he witnessed and wrote a vivid account of the execution by beheading of Giovanni Vagnarelli, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a pilgrim on her way to Rome.

He preserved us a moment of Rome that no longer can be experienced. The scene is just outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the beautiful church featured in the film Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visit the Bocca della Veritá.

Dickens’ account was published in the collection Pictures from Italy. Read the entire essay below. It’s really good.

The abolition of capital punishment by civil authorities had its origins in Italy. Tuscany, in the eighteenth century, was the first state to do away with it. The government of the Papal States was the last to impose it. The last execution in Rome took place just a few years before the Eternal City became the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1871.

Preparing for an execution in Rome

Charles Dickens: “When Mastro Titta Crossed the Bridge”

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff.

He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

Mastro Titta’s memoir, Mastro Titta: the executioner of Rome: Memoirs of a corpse-maker written by himself, aims for a more bouncy account of his work than the tone found in Dickens. The book is hard to find; anyone else have a copy?

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni Decollato (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them.

Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.


There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.
At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Mastro Titta killed over 500 people by various gruesome means. It was a part-time occupation. He was a souvenir manufactuer and salesman St. Peter’s basilica in the other part of his life. His bloodstained clothes and the tools of the executioner’s trade are on display at the Museum of Criminology in Rome.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers.

Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!


Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney- coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Mastro Titta exhibiting the remains of the departed.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. “Attention!” was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.


After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last.

It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man – six-and-twenty – vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

Current image of the site of the execution on 8 March 1845. The church of S. Maria in Cosemedin is just out of the frame to the right; S. Giovanni Decollato is out of frame to the left.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.


The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.


When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front – a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.


Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.


The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw EX OFFICIO (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Exterior of the church of S Giovanni Decollato, the church that housed the confraternity that served spiritual needs of the condemned. Michelangelo, who lived in the area, was a member.

Augustus, Ovid and the Ara Pacis—consecrated 30 January 9 BC

The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar dedicated to the goddess Peace located in Rome. The role of Augustus in initiating a period of peace and prosperity was a key component of Augustan ideology. The altar was consecrated on 30 January 9 BC. The Roman Senate had commissioned the monument on 4 July 13 BC to honor the return of Augustus to Rome after he had spent three years in Hispania and Gaul.

Here is what Augustus says about the Ara Pacis in the “Res Gestae,” an account of his career that was inscribed on bronze tablets placed outside of his mausoleum, which will be open to visitors again this April.

On my return from Spain and Gaul, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilius, after successfully arranging affairs in those provinces, the senate resolved that an altar of the Augustan Peace should be consecrated in the Campus Martius in honor of my return, and ordered that the magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins should perform an annual sacrifice there.

Cum ex Hispania Galliaque rebus in iis provincis prospere gestis, Roman redi, Ti. Nerone P. Quintilio consulibus aram Pacis Augustae senatus pro reditu meo consacrandam censuit ad campus Martium in qua magistratus et sacerdotes virginesque Vestales anniversarium sacrificium facere iussit.

Originally the Ara Pacis stood in the Campus Martius along the urban segment of the Via Flaminia (the modern Corso), though outside of the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome.

Lanciani FuR plate 8 showing the site of the Ara Pacis and the mausoleum of Augustus

The Campus Martius was a flood plain. Over time silt deposits from flooding covered the monument. Fragments of the monument were uncovered over time, and a dedicated effort of recovery was performed during the Fascist regime.

Mjussolini and Hitler examining part of the Ara Pacis

The museum that housed the Ara Pacis was inaugurated in 1938. Like other artifacts from Roman antiquity, the Ara Pacis was employed as an adornment of Fascist ideology.

Fascists officials at the inauguration of the original museum that housed the Ara Pacis

The Fascist-era building was replaced by one designed the Richard Meir in 2006. Like the building it replaced, this museum is located adjacent to the mausoleum of Augustus, between the tomb and the Tiber.

Res Gestae inscribed on the exterior wall of the current Ara Pacis museum

The Fasti of Ovid, a group of poems that describe the religious festivals of the Roman year, is the only extant literary reference to the Ara Pacis.

In 8 AD, Augustus sent Ovid to exile due to “a poem and a mistake,” according to another of the poet’s works in exile, Ex Ponto. The Fasti were composed as part of his petition for permission to return to Rome. The quality of his writing remained high, but no poem or friend could bring him home; he died in Black Sea relegatio in 18 AD after ten years away from Rome.

My song has led to the altar of Peace itself.
This day is the second from the month’s end.
Come, Peace, your graceful tresses wreathed
With laurel of Actium: stay gently in this world.
While we lack enemies, or cause for triumphs:
You’ll be a greater glory to our leaders than war.
May the soldier be armed to defend against arms,
And the trumpet blare only for processions.
May the world far and near fear the sons of Aeneas,
And let any land that feared Rome too little, love her.
Priests, add incense to the peaceful flames,
Let a shining sacrifice fall, brow wet with wine,
And ask the gods who favor pious prayer
That the house that brings peace, may so endure.
Now the first part of my labor is complete,
And as its month ends, so does this book.

Ipsum nos carmen deduxit Pacis ad aram:
haec erit a mensis fine secunda dies.
frondibus Actiacis comptos redimita capillos,
Pax, ades et toto mitis in orbe mane.
dum desint hostes, desit quoque causa triumphi:
tu ducibus bello gloria maior eris.
sola gerat miles, quibus arma coerceat, arma,
canteturque fera nil nisi pompa tuba.
horreat Aeneadas et primus et ultimus orbis:
siqua parum Romam terra timebat, amet.
tura, sacerdotes, Pacalibus addite flammis,
albaque perfusa victima fronte cadat;
utque domus, quae praestat eam, cum pace perennet
ad pia propensos vota rogate deos.
Sed iam prima mei pars est exacta laboris,
cumque suo finem mense libellus habet.

Caligula—Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus— gets stabbed in the obscaena and dies 24 January 41

I love how Suetonius pushes all the right buttons to make the reader love and despise the Caesars. Caligula was his most sustained hatchet job. This grim and menacing figure, even when played with the charm of John Hurt in I, Claudius, makes Nero seem merely to have been a petulant boy operating under the influence of affluenza.

The ruins of the palace on the Palatine looking toward the Circus Maximus with a United Nations office building in the distance

After reading 57 chapters of Rome gone bonkers in Seutonius’ life of Gaius, we all know that Caligula has it coming. Our narrator tells us, “While he was running riot and laying waste in this way, a number of people had the idea of making an attempt on his life … Many prodigies foretold his violent end.”

Ita bacchantem atque grassantem non defuit plerisque animus adoriri … Futurae caedis multa prodigia exstiterunt.

The cryptoporticus on the Palatine believed to be site of the murder

His murder—undertaken during public games and performed in a passageway beneath the palace—was dramatic and messy.

“On the ninth day before the Kalends of February … There are two versions of the rest of the story. Some say that while he was speaking to the boys Chaerea, approaching from behind, gave the emperor’s neck a deep cut with his sword, shouting, “Take this!;’ then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, the other conspirator, ran his chest through from the front. Others report that Sabinus, who had arranged for soldiers who were in on the plot to get rid of the crowd, asked Caligula for the password following usual military practice. When Caligula replied ‘Jupiter,’ Chaerea shouted ‘Let it be so!’ As Caligula looked behind him, Chaerea split his jaw with a blow. As he lay with his limbs twisted up, repeatedly calling out that he was alive, others finished him off with 30 blows. All acted on the signal, ‘Again,’ Some even stabbed him in the nuts.”

VIIII. Kal. Febr. hora fere septima … Duplex dehinc fama est: alii tradunt adloquenti pueros a tergo Chaeream cervicem gladio caesim graviter percussisse praemissa voce: ‘hoc age!’ Dehinc Cornelium Sabinum, alterum e coniuratis, tribunum ex adverso traiecisse pectus; alii Sabinum summota per conscios centuriones turba signum more militiae petisse et Gaio ‘Iovem dante Chaeream exclamasse: ‘accipe ratum!’ Respicientique maxillam ictu discidisse. Iacentem contractisque membris clamitantem se vivere ceteri vulneribus triginta confecerunt; nam signum erat omnium: ‘repete!’ Quidam etiam per obscaena ferrum adegerunt.

View across the Circus Maximus toward the ruins of the Palatine

The end of Galba 15 January 69 “…he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled”

Servius Sulpicius Galba was the first man to fall in the year of the four emperors. It seems his old-fashioned ways and his lack of finesse in the political realities of the principate led to his failure as emperor and his murder in the Forum 15 January 69.

Here’s some of what Tacitus and Suetonius tell us about the man and his times.

Bust of Galba in the Capitoline Museum

Tacitus on the death and character of Galba

Galba’s body lay abandoned for many hours. Later under cover of darkness it was abused by soldiers and other men. Finally, Argius, his confidant and one of his former slaves, buried it in a humble grave at his old master’s villa. Galba’s head, which had been mutilated then impaled on a pole, was found the next day at the tomb of Petrobius—a freedman of Nero whom Galba had executed—and was placed with the body, which had already been cremated. This was the end of Servius Galba. He lived with good fortune for 73 years through the reigns of five emperors. He was happier under the rule of others than in his own. His family was of ancient nobility and possessed great wealth. Galba himself was of middling genius, being rather free from faults than possessing virtues. He was neither careless of reputation nor one to boast of it. He was not covetous of the property of others; he was frugal with his own, and greedy with the state’s. Kindly and complacent toward friends and freedmen, if he found them honest; if they were dishonest, he was blind even to a fault. But his high birth and the terror which the times inspired masked the truth, so that men called wisdom what was really indolence. While he was a younger commander, he enjoyed a reputation for his military service in the German provinces. As proconsul he governed Africa with moderation and, when he was already an old man, ruled Hither Spain with the same uprightness. He seemed a man of renown in private life, and in everyone’s opinion he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled.

Galbae corpus diu neglectum et licentia tenebrarum plurimis ludibriis vexatum dispensator Argius e prioribus servis humili sepultura in privatis eius hortis contexit. caput per lixas calonesque suffixum laceratumque ante Patrobii tumulum (libertus in Neronis punitus a Galba fuerat) postera demum die repertum et cremato iam corpori admixtum est. hunc exitum habuit Servius Galba, tribus et septuaginta annis quinque principes prospera fortuna emensus et alieno imperio felicior quam suo. vetus in familia nobilitas, magnae opes: ipsi medium ingenium, magis extra vitia quam cum virtutibus. famae nec incuriosus nec venditator; pecuniae alienae non adpetens, suae parcus, publicae avarus; amicorum libertorumque, ubi in bonos incidisset, sine reprehensione patiens, si mali forent, usque ad culpam ignarus. sed claritas natalium et metus temporum obtentui, ut, quod segnitia erat, sapientia vocaretur. dum vigebat aetas militari laude apud Germanas floruit. pro consule Africam moderate, iam senior citeriorem Hispaniam pari iustitia continuit, maior privato visus dum privatus fuit, et omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset.

Tacitus historiae
Manuscript of Tacitus – Codex Mediceus

Galba in the Forum and on the Via Aurelia

Galba was stuck down beside the Lacus Curtius and was left lying just as he was until a common soldier, returning from a distribution of grain, threw down his load and cut off the head. Then, since there was no hair by which to grasp it, he hid in within his clothing, but later thrust his thumb into the mouth and so carried it to Otho, who then, handed it over to his followers, who set it on a lance and paraded it about the camp with jeers, crying out from time to time, ‘Pretty boy Galba, exult in your vigor!’ The special reason for this insolent joke was, that the report had gotten around a few days before, that when someone had congratulated him on still looking young and vigorous, he quoted Homer: ‘As yet my strength is unimpaired’. Then the abused head of the former emperor was bought by a freedman of Patrobius Neronianus for a hundred pieces of gold; he had it thrown aside in the place where his patron had been executed by Galba’s order. At last, however, his freedman Argivus deposited the head with the rest of Galba’s body in the emperor’s family tomb in his gardens on the Via Aurelia.

Iugulatus est ad lacum Curti ac relictus ita uti erat, donec gregarius miles a frumentatione rediens abiecto onere caput ei amputavit; et quoniam capillo arripere non poterat, in gremium abdidit, mox inserto per os pollice ad Othonem detulit. Ille lixis calonibusque donavit, qui hasta suffixum non sine ludibrio circum castra portarunt adclamantes identidem: “Galba Cupido, fruaris aetate tua,” maxime irritati ad talem iocorum petulantiam, quod ante paucos dies exierat in vulgus, laudanti cuidam formam suam ut adhuc floridam et vegetam respondisse eum Ἔτι μοι μένος ἔμπεδόν ἐστιν. Ab is Patrobii Neroniani libertus centum aureis redemptum eo loco, ubi iussu Galbae animadversum in patronum suum fuerat, abiecit. Sero tandem dispensator Argivus et hoc et ceterum truncum in privatis eius hortis Aurelia via sepulturae dedit.

Suetonius VIta Galbae
Ruins of the Lacus Curtius and the site of the murder of Galba

Galba was a blueblood

Galba, who succeded Nero, was in no way related to the house of the Caesars, though he was, without doubt, of very eminent birth. His own line was a great and ancient one, for he would always have it included in the inscriptions on his statues that he was the great-grandson of Quintus Catulus Capitolinus. When was emperor he even had in his entrance hall his family tree put on display, in which he traced back his father’s origins to Jupiter and those of his mother to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

Neroni Galba successit nullo gradu contingens Caesarum domum, sed haud dubie nobilissimus magnaque et vetere prosapia, ut qui statuarum titulis pronepotem se Quinti Catuli Capitolini semper ascripserit, imperator vero etiam stemma in atrio proposuerit, quo paternam originem ad Iovem, maternam ad Pasiphaen Minois uxorem referret.

Vita Galbae

Galba’s mysterious cognomen

It is not clear why the first of the Sulpicii to have the name Galba acquired it, nor by what means. Some people think that, having besieged a town in Spain without success, he eventually set fire to it with torches smeared with galbanum. Others think it was because during a lengthy illness he made repeated us of galbeum, that is, remedies wrapped in wool. There are some who believe that it was because he looked very fat, which the Gauls term galba, while other take the opposite view that it was because he was very thin, so that he resembled the insect which lives in oak trees and is called the galba.

Qui prius Sulpiciorum cognomen Galbae tulit, cur aut unde traxerit, ambigitur. Quidam putant, quod oppidum Hispaniae frustra diu oppugnatum inlitis demum galbano facibus succenderit; alii, quod in diuturna valitudine galbeo, id est remediis lana involutis, assidue uteretur: nonnulli, quod praepinguis fuerit visus, quem galbam Galli vocent; vel contra, quod tam exilis, quam sunt animalia quae in aesculis nascuntur appellanturque galbae. 

Vita Galbae
Imperial intaglio of the Julio-Claudian period

Galba as a youngster

Servius Galba, who became emperor, was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of January in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus, in a villa on the hill near Terracina, on the left as you travel toward Fundi … It is common knowledge that, when he was still a boy and, along with his contemporaries, was paying his respects to Augustus, the emperor pinched his cheek and said, “You, too, child, will have a taste of our imperial power.”

Ser. Galba imperator M. Valerio Messala Cn. Lentulo cons. natus est VIIII. Kal. Ian. in villa colli superposita prope Tarracinam, sinistrorsus Fundos petentibus, adoptatusque a noverca sua Livia nomen et Ocellae cognomen assumptis, mutato praenomine; nam Lucium mox pro Servio usque ad tempus imperii usurpavit. Constat Augustum puero adhuc, salutanti se inter aequales, apprehensa buccula dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον τῆς ἀρχῆς ἡμῶν παρατρώξῃ.

Vita Galbae
Fresco from the imperial villa at Prima Porta

Galba the physical man

He was of medium height, completely bald, with blue eyes, a hooked nose, and hands and feet so crippled by arthritis that he could not endure wearing shoes for long, nor could be unroll books for even hold them. On his right side, his flesh extended and hung down so far that it could hardly be kept in place by a bandage.

Statura fuit iusta, capite praecalvo, oculis caeruleis, adunco naso, manibus pedibusque articulari morbo distortissimis, ut neque calceum perpeti nec libellos evolvere aut tenere omnino valeret. Excreverat etiam in dexteriore latere eius caro praependebatque adeo ut aegre fascia substringeretur.

Vita Galbae
Imperial ruins on the Palatine

Galba in love

His sexual preference inclined toward males, but only those who were especially tough and in full manhood. They say that when Icelus, one of his long-standing favorites, came to him in Spain bringing news of the death of Nero, Galba not only welcomed him publicly with the most ardent kisses but begged him to have his body hair plucked at once, then took him aside.

Libidinis in mares pronior et eos non nisi praeduros exoletosque: ferebant in Hispania Icelum e veteribus concubinis de Neronis exitu nuntiantem non modo artissimis osculis palam exceptum ab eo, sed ut sine mora velleretur oratum atque seductum.

Vita Galbae

Truman Capote and his pet bird Lola in Rome

Truman Capote wasn’t much of a sightseer. Still, he seems to have had a wonderful time in Rome, the city with more sights to see than perhaps any other. He was more interested in examining personalities, especially the bigshots who opened the world to him. And he always had a pet companion. He lived with his crow Lola at 33 Via Margutta, a little street not far from Piazza di Spagna.

Snowfall Via Margutta

We settled for the winter in Rome, first at a hotel (the management of which expelled us after five days, and was not even a first-class establishment), then in an apartment at 33 Via Margutta, a narrow street often painted by bad painters and renowned for the number of cats who dwell there, unowned cats sheltering in the overgrown patios and existing on the charity of half-mad elderly women, crones who every day tour the cat jungles with sacks of scrap food.

Here he is writing to his high school teacher Catherine Wood on January 3, 1953.

I am freezing in Rome. I have two electrical heaters but they just barely take the chill off the room. The floors are marble—absolute ice. I can hardly hold this pen. Princess Caetani arranged for me to have a private audience with the Pope. It was supposed to last 15 minutes, but I stayed more than half-an-hour, an extraordinary man, so really charming and beautiful.

Via Margutta

You can read about Lola, the apartment and the neighborhood in Capote’s posthumous collection of essays, Portraits and Observations.

Our apartment was a penthouse; to reach it one climbed six flights of steep dark stairs. We had three rooms a balcony. It was because of the balcony that I rented it; after the vastness of the view from the Sicilian terrace, the balcony offered, in contrast, a miniature scene as tranquil and perfect as firelight: several Roman rooftops, faded orange, faded ocher, and a few across-the-way windows (behind which episodes of family life could be observed).

Truman and Lola

When the sun was out Lola always took her bath on the balcony balustrade. Her tub was a silver soup dish; after a moment of sprightly immersion in the shallow water, she would spring up and out, and as though casting off a crystal cloak, shake yourself, swell her feathers; later, for long bliss-saturated hours, she drowsed in the sun, her head tilted back, her beak ajar, her eyes shut. To watch her was a soothing experience.

Titus Flavius Vespasianus—the delight and darling of the human race—born in Rome 30 December 39 CE

Have you see today’s obituary of the great humanist and master of literature (and my teacher and friend) Reggie Foster in the NYT? It’s a little bit of fact, more exaggeration, and the repetition of stories that began as sarcastic jokes and later presented as confession in various sources. The obit in Reggie’s hometown Milwaukee paper was warmer, but the best account of the man’s personality is the recent article, The Vatican’s Latinist.

Suetonius was frequent visitor to Reggie’s classroom. The life of Titus is not my favorite, but since it’s his birthday here are a few highlights to savor anglice et latine.

Birth

Titus, who bore his father’s cognomen Vespasianus, was the delight and darling of the human race. Whether through innate disposition, policy, or fortune, such was his success that he secured the good will of all, and that too—a most difficult task—while he was emperor. For while he was a private citizen and even during the reign of his father, he did not evade hatred, let alone criticism by the public. He was born three days before the kalends of January in the memorable year that Caligula was murdered, in a modest house near the septizonium. The room itself was dark and dingy, and today it still exists and is on display.

Titus cognomine paterno, amor ac deliciae generis humani, (tantum illi ad promerendam omnium voluntatem vel ingenii vel artis vel fortunae superfuit, et, quod difficillimum est, in imperio: quando privatus atque etiam sub patre principe ne odio quidem, nedum vituperatione publica caruit), natus est III. Kal. Ian. insigni anno Gaiana nece, prope Septizonium, sordidis aedibus, cubiculo vero perparvo et obscuro (nam manet adhuc et ostenditur)

Denarius of Titus

A man of quality

His qualities of mind and body were conspicuous even when he was a boy but still more when he came of age. His appearance was striking, conveying both authority and charm; he was unusually strong though not tall, and his stomach protruded a little. He had an exceptional memory and the ability to grasp almost all the arts of both war and peace.

In puero statim corporis animique dotes exsplenduerunt, magisque ac magis deinceps per aetatis gradus; forma egregia et cui non minus auctoritatis inesset quam gratiae, praecipuum robur, quamquam neque procera statura et ventre paulo proiectiore; memoria singularis, docilitas ad omnis fere tum belli tum pacis artes

Arch of Titus

Randy Romanus

He was suspected of self-indulgence on the grounds that he would engage in drinking bouts that lasted  with the most dissolute companions that lasted past midnight, he was also accused of lustfulness because of his troupes of catamites and eunuchs, and because of his passion for Queen Berenice, to whom he is even said to have promised marriage.

Praeter saevitiam suspecta in eo etiam luxuria erat, quod ad mediam noctem comissationem cum profusissimo quoque familiarum extenderet; nec minus libido, propter exoletorum et spadonum greges propterque insignem reginae Berenices amorem, cum etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur

Warren Cup – British Museum

Impressario

He was as generous as any of his imperial predecessors. At the dedication of the Colosseum and of the nearby baths that hear his name, he put on the most splendid gladiatorial games. He also staged a mock battle at the old Naumachia, and in the same place a gladiatorial show; on a single day 5,000 of a great variety of animals were killed in a single day.

Et tamen nemine ante se munificentia minor, amphitheatro dedicato thermisque iuxta celeriter exstructis, munus edidit apparatissimum largissimusque; dedit et navale proelium in veteri naumachia, ibidem et gladiatores atque uno die quinque milia omne genus ferarum.

Piranesi – Ruins of the Baths of Titus

Humanitarian

During his reign a number of disasters occurred, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania and an enormous fire Rome that lasted three days and nights; and a plague that had unprecedented severity. In the face of calamites of such magnitude, Titus expressed not just the concern of an emperor, but the love which only a parent can provide, giving consolation in his edicts and as much practical help that his resources could provide.

Quaedam sub eo fortuita ac tristia acciderunt, ut conflagratio Vesevi montis in Campania, et incendium Romae per triduum totidemque noctes, item pestilentia quanta non temere alias. In iis tot adversis ac talibus non modo principis sollicitudinem sed et parentis affectum unicum praestitit, nunc consolando per edicta, nunc opitulando quatenus suppeteret facultas.

Vesuvius and Pompeii

The Bird in Rome #tennesseewilliams

Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.

I found this graffiti on Vicolo del Bollo above and to the right of a nasone. It reminded me that Gore Vidal called Tennessee Williams the Glorious Bird first from premonition of his greatness and later because GV understood that Tennessee soared high above his contemporaries.

How lucky was I find to find this graffiti in Rome, the city where those two first met and where years later I joined them long after both had packed up and disappeared?

Rome 1948

Thoughts on old St. Peter’s basilica in Rome 12/12/882

Of all the disappeared wonders of the ancient world, the original basilica of St. Peter’s (extant c. 330 to 1505) is one I would most like to have experienced. Few of its features were preserved in the new church building. The accretion of memorials there was undoubtedly magnificent. We’ll never know.

Fragment of Navicella mosaic created for old St. Peter’s basilica

Here’s a report of an event that happened in old St. Peter’s on December 14, 882. It’s from the Annales Fuldenses, a contemporary Frankish history. It seems that order became shaky in Rome just as it had within the Carolingian dynasty.

Pope John (VIII) died. In his place Marinus, who was already bishop of Caere (near modern Cervetri not far from Rome), succeeded, contrary to canon law. A very wealthy man named Gregory, who was also a military commander that the Romans call a superista, was murdered by his colleague in the atrium of St. Peter’s; the floor of the church was drenched with his blood as he was dragged over it.

Annals of Fulda
Fragment of thirteenth-century mosaic once located in old St. Peter’s basilica and now in the Museo Barracco in Rome.

Iohannes pontifex Romanus decessit in cuius locum Marinus antea episcopus contra statuta canonum subrogatus est. Quidam Gregorius nomine quem Romani superistam vocitabant dives valde in paradiso sancti Petri a suo collega occisus est et pavimentum acceslesiae per quam trahebatur totum sanguine illius infectum.

Annales Fuldenses
Mosaic entitled Mater Misercordiae once located in old St. Peter’s basilica.

Finding Otto in the Vatican Grottoes

In Rome nothing is more absurd than the presence in the Pantheon (also known as Santa Maria ad Martyres since 608 AD) of the worm-ridden corpses of the first kings of the modern Kingdom of Italy, who made the Eternal City their capital in 1871. They’re gone but not all the way forgotten. The ridiculous, black-shirted guard that stands vigil over the graves is eager to restore to power this line of monarchs, who managed their government with the élan of mentally-challenged pimps.

Portrait of Otto II in an illuminated manuscript

Fortunately, the monuments to kings entombed in other parts of the city continue to exude a more romantic aura, the greater the further back in time they go.

Current tomb of Otto II in the Vatican grottoes

Holy Roman Emperor Otto II—Imperator Romanorum Augustus—died of malaria in a palace near St. Peter’s basilica 7 December 983. Like other popes, kings and anonymous faithful, he was entombed ad sanctos, i.e., close to the tombs of saints, in this case near the relics of St. Peter. Initially, Otto’s tomb was located in the atrium of St. Peter’s basilica, a highly visible location. Later, when the basilica was rebuilt in the sixteenth century his remains were transferred to a different sarcophagus, which one can visit within the grottoes of today’s St. Peter’s.

Otto was 28 years old when he died. Though he was not born in the purple, he was a child when made king of the Germans in August 961 and emperor in December 967, ruling in both positions as partner to his father Otto I (later called Otto the Great). At the death of his father in 973, Otto continued to rule as sole king and emperor, aged 18 years old.

Engraving on ivory to celebrate the wedding of Otto II and the Byzantine princess Theophanu

Otto II was a pivotal figure in the project of renovatio imperii, the renewal of empire. In Europe, Otto the Great had established his position as the highest authority in Latin Christendom, the papacy having been subordinated by the imperial manipulation of Roman elections. Thinking globally, Otto the Great married his son to the Byzantine princess Theophanu, a union intended by the Germans to claim equality of Latin and Greek (Christian) Romans and imperial power.

Things began to go badly for Otto II and the whole project of reviving the Roman empire in the last years of his life. First, in July 982, he sought to complete the annexation of the entire Italian peninsula to the empire. This required the conquest of southern Italian territories controlled by the Byzantine emperor and Muslim emir of Sicily. After early success against Greek and infidel, the Germans were defeated by a Muslim army in Calabria. The absence of a dominant power in southern Italy meant that Byzantine and Muslims were able to reclaim territory as Otto retreated to Rome.

Tomb of Otto II and medieval inscriptions and mosaic

Otto continued his father’s policy of controlling the Catholic Church through the nomination of popes. Events demonstrated the fragility of this policy as well. Nearly every Ottonian pope was challenged by a local claimant to the papal throne with the result that the political life of the city was volatile. One contemporary and vituperative historian called this defiance of imperial authority “the malign custom of the Romans.”

Just a few days before Otto’s death on December 7, 983, Pope John XIV was consecrated to continue management of the Church in support of imperial authority. The death of the emperor made this pope’s position shaky, and John XIV soon found himself imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was later murdered.

Floor plan of the Vatican grottoes. The tomb of Otto is located at #59. The tomb of his nephew Pope Gregory V is #58. The full location key is here.

The tomb one sees in the grottoes today is not the original vessel for Otto’s remains. His current sarcophagus is an ancient one put to new use. The only remaining portion of the original tomb was re-used too. The porphyry lid of Otto’s first sarcophagus is now the baptismal font in St. Peter’s. Unconfirmed reports hold that it was created as the tomb for the emperor Hadrian (obit 138 AD) and was discovered in the Castel Sant’Angelo, which Hadrian had built as his own tomb.

Baptismal font in St. Peter’s basilica thought to incorporate the tomb of the emperors Hadrian and Otto II.

Still, the idea of using the papacy lingered. Note that Pope Gregory V (996-999), whose tomb is marked number 58 on the floor plan and adjacent to Otto’s own, was a nephew of the late emperor. Gregory was made pope by this cousin the emperor Otto III, who died at age 21 in 1002, the last of Ottonians to rule in Rome.

Many tenth-century popes, including Otto’s man John XIV, were entombed in the atrium or the adjacent portico of old St. Peter’s basilica. These tombs were destroyed during the demolition of the basilica in the sixteenth century.

Plan of old St. Peter’s basilica made by Tiberio Alfarano in 1590