The Reach of Rome by Alberto Angela is a scholarly, yet accessible story of the Roman Empire and its legacies. The author weaves his story around real people (cemeteries), real buildings (archeological digs) and real social customs (documentation and artifacts). He takes us on a journey through the Empire as we follow the course of a coin, hand-over-hand, in the year 115 CE Rome under the industrious ruler, Emperor Trajan.
The story is described as "cinematic". It moves back and forwards in time, allowing readers to imagine themselves in the same spot. This literary time machine is a must for the serious traveller who enjoys walking in the footsteps of the past, to see a glimpse of the future, which is ours today.
Alberto introduces us to exotic places, smells, customs, dangers, banquets and legionaires on the march. He takes us in to battle, the arms of prostitutes and gambling dens; has us ride with charioteers, partake in religious sacrifice, medical treatments and business dealings; and the way of life of the rich and poor.
The coin, we will follow is first struck in the Roman Mint by slaves. It is decorated on one side by the head of the ruling Emperor and on the other side a picture (such as a new bridge) advertises to the people across the breadth of the Empire of his achievements. It is an early and effective form of propoganda.
"The Roman Mint is a real inferno in the vicinity
of the Colosseum." p13
The coins are then transported by military couriers in saddlebags on the backs of horses and are quickly and efficiently dispersed to forts, governor's seats, provincial capitals, economic centres and miltiary posts. Today, these same routes are commandeered by armies of tourists - Rome, London, Paris, Trier (Moselle vinyeards), Beyond the Rhine, Milan, Reggio Emilio, Rimini, The Tiber, Circus Maximus, Ostia, Spain, Provence, Baia, The Medoterranean, Africa, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, Ephesus, Capadoccia and back to The Eternal City.
The story begins in Rome with a young woman scurrying, dressed anonymously in robes, along the streets to the den of a witch whom she will pay to put a hex on her husband. This social custom was well-documented by Professor Marina Piranomonte when the Sacred Fountain of Anna Perenna, in the Parioli neighbourhood of present day Rome was unearthed when an underground garage was being built. Many of the offerings, like this young woman's, were thrown in to this fountain.
"Digs uncovered objects connected to magic, rituals and hexes." p8
Anna Perenna had an erotic cult following;
"Banquet tables were set along the Via famina where they sing, dance, get drunk and have sex." p8
And so the newly-minted coin (called a sisterce) begins its round trip over The Alps, across the English Channel landing in Dover and on to the outermost edge of the Empire near Hadrian's Wall. But the squadron of horseman do not see Hadrian's Wall because it has not been built. These men serve Emperor Trajan and it will only be when he dies and is replaced by Hadrian 40 years hence that work on the wall will commence to keep the hostile Scots at bay and protect the legionaires from attack.
It is the second century after the birth of Christ and London is still a village. There is no Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey - just countryside. But there is a bridge spanning the Thames in the same place that London Bridge stands today. The Roman's gave birth to London and built the bridge at its narrowest point and deepest dock for trade.
Many of the the foundations of our modern society were laid down by the Romans and the author points to the uncanny use of some prominant places that have been used over and over again by successive generations of mankind.
Rome also gave birth to Paris, on The Seine and the Ille la Cite. The person who now has our coin in his pocket stands on the site of Notre Dame which won't be built for 1000 more years. But he does see the Temple of Jupiter that first stood on this site, which will be replaced by a christian basilica, and a Romanesque church until tourists finally throng around present day Notre Dame.
The Romans left many legacies, inventions, building and artworks but its most enduring is the 80,000 kilometres of sturdy, well-engineered roads that connected millions of people. These roads were marked at intervals by pillars that told the traveller the distance. The zero point of the Empire can still be seen near the Statue of Augustus outside the Roman Forum.
These roads were travelled on foot, hitch-hiked and used by wagons pulled by mules. Horses were expensive and used only for war, hunting, chariot racing, couriers and the postal service. Many of these horses were sourced from Capadoccia in Turkey, which when translated means 'land of the beautiful horse'.
Taverns dotted the highways and provided light snacks such as ricotta cheese on foccacia, wine, prostitutes, animal feed and shelter. Food and superstition dominated the lives of Romans as life was fragile. Food was symbolic in celebratory banquets, thanksgiving ceremonies and religious rituals. Licentiousness and debauchery gave relief from the uncertainty and harshness of everyday life.
"There is nothing better than a honey-filled foccacia dipped in milk to start the day." p282
And what was on the banquet menu?
"Wild boar, roasted doormouse dressed in honey and sesame seeds, snails, flamingo, peacocks, eel and sea bream." p308
Wine cups unearthed at the vineyards in Moselle depict scenes of banquets and toasts. Engravings such as "To your Health" are still common in our time and epitaphs found on cemeteries share the same humour and laments.
"Battles, wine and Venus ruin our bodies. But baths, wine and Venus are what life is made of."
Life was short and health was unpredictable. Death came early from war, childbirth, disease, accident, murder, overwork, slavery, shipwreck and superstition. Despite this fragilty how did Rome endure for so long?
Firstly, it offered incentives to soldiers and slaves. Solders who fought and lived were granted citizenship and land, slaves were granted freedom, coinage encouraged financial opportunities to those loyal to the empire.
"Roman coins have been found as far away as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and the northern tundra of Afghanistan." p19
Roman emperors also exploited "bread and circuses" by providing free grain to those who needed it and entertainment at the Circus Maximus. The Circus Maximus held over 200,000 people (the Colosseum only held 80,000) and operated continuosly for 1200 years. Around it sprang shops that sold cushions and parasols, cheese and pickled fish. Our coin now passes in to the hands of the gambling dens where a bet is placed on a favourite charioteer. Customers can be seen gathering early for a day at the races. They bite in to grilled sausages or a foccacia bun. They are served with a hot beverage of wine, diluted with water and scaldingly hot.
Coffee comes to mind but it is 117CE and the author tells us that coffee beans are still growing wild on the hills of Ethiopea. It will be another 1000 years before the streets are filled with the familiar aroma of Italian expresso.
The greatness and glory of Rome also had a dark side. Millions of exotic animals, many lost to extinction were captured and slaughtered for entertainment. The superstitious nature of the Romans also included the cruel daily sacrifice of bullocks, sheep and birds. The distribution of wine called "nectar of the gods" drugged an entire Empire. Rome also denuded vast tracts of land for their building programs, crop growing and mining for gold. Its engineers not only diverted river systems but were able to bring down entire mountains without explosives.
But back to our coin. It has made the round trip back to Rome After a year-long journey around the Empire the coin's journey ends - for now.
It is the custom of the Romans to place a coin (sisterce) in the mouth of a deceased person to pay their way in the afterlife and this is what happens to our coin. However, the light will shine on our coin once again when the body of the man it rests with is unearthed by future archeologists.
But all you need to know for now, is that the hex at the start of the story worked!
And now for some historical recipes inspired by the book Around The Roman Table. Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome by Patrick Faas.
Ovis Hapalis (Latin for boiled egg)
served with Julius Caesar's favourite sauce
200 gram of pine nuts
(soaked in water for 1 hour and drained)
2 teaspoons pepper
4 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons of anchovies
2-3 teaspoons of white wine vinegar.
(I used red Cabernet Vinegar)
Blend and serve. Really yummy!
100 gram fresh mint
50gm fresh coriander
50gm fresh Italian parsley
1 small leek finely sliced
Sprigs of lemon thyme
Crumbled salty cheese ie fetta
I also added cubed cucumber
A sprinkle of vinegar
(I used cabernet red wine vinegar)
Splash of olive oil
Salt to taste.
Chop. Combine. Enjoy.
©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved