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The city of Seven Hills

Rome… What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Gladiators? Julius Caesar? Surely not cats or even water? But these are important to Rome! Cats are a protected species in the city so you see many, many strays. As for water there are more fountains in Rome than in any other city in the world — more than 2000 of them. Water was very important to the Romans and they had a fantastic water supply system well ahead of the rest of the world. You can still drink from some of the fountains — the key word here being *some*. The beautifully designed Trevi fountain where visitors throw coins and make wishes for a successful romance is possibly the most famous fountain on earth. And since the coins all go to charity, there’s no harm done in making a wish.

Communal Roman baths with hot tubs can still be seen in England — remnants of the Roman invasion of that country. Yes, the ancient Romans were fastidious about cleanliness and beauty. They bathed and perfumed themselves, removed stains from clothes and from teeth. Urine was an important ingredient in stain removal as the ammonia helped. The women were fashionable and dyed their hair and used make-up. Have you heard the idiom ‘get the wrong end of the stick’? Well, it comes from the stick that the Romans used to clean themselves after going to the toilet. It had a wet cloth tied to one end to use in lieu of toilet paper so if you caught hold of that end, it wasn’t a good thing!

Let’s take a step back and consider the history of this unique city. Legend has it that it was founded by twins — Romulus and Remus — who, abandoned by their real parents, were brought up by a wolf. You may have heard that Rome is the city of seven hills (though there are actually more than seven). Unfortunately, the brothers fell out while deciding which hill to build on and Remus was killed by his brother. From a settlement on the banks of the River Tiber in 753BC, Romulus’ Rome grew to become an empire.

The history of the Roman Empire can be seen in three parts — The Period of Kings (625-510 BC), Republican Rome (510-31 BC), and Imperial Rome (31 BC – AD 476). Republican Rome is the one we see in most films. The age of a Senate and a rudimentary voting system. The age of the famed general, Julius Caesar, killed on the Senate floor. This was also the age when a legal system was born. A committee of 10 people wrote down ‘Twelve Tables’, that became the foundation of Roman law and covered everything from religion to civil law.

The Republic ended with the death of Mark Antony (he of Cleopatra fame). And Augustus Caesar declared himself emperor. Rome prospered. By 117 AD, the Roman empire was spread across 3 continents and more than five million square km. She was wealthy and feared. At every place they conquered, Romans built a road connecting it to Rome to ensure easy access. Straight roads, built to last. In the 4th century, they’d already created a network of around 80,000 km. Indeed, they are believed to have invented concrete!

Much of ancient Rome is yet to be excavated. Visitors can see parts of it through glass floors and walls. 

Of course, if you’ve watched anything or read anything related to Rome, a visit to the half-ruined Colosseum is a must. It’s not the happiest of places. Over a million animals and 500,000 people died in the ‘Games’ that were held there. It is an architectural marvel however, with underground passages, trap doors, and 80 entrances. Gladiators were usually slaves and yet they achieved superstar status in the arena. 

All slaves acquired status for one day of the year — the day of the Saturnalia festival (Dec 17) when masters and slaves exchanged roles in honour of the God of sowing, Saturn. The Romans prayed to the same Gods as the Greeks but under different names. Greek and Latin were the languages spoken.

In all of ancient history, Rome was never identified as Italian. The Italy we know today was divided into multiple kingdoms. After the unification of Italy, Turin became the capital and then Florence. Only in 1871 did Rome acquire the status of capital city.

The Pantheon is one of the few 2000-year-old buildings that is still in excellent condition, thanks to the special cement used in its construction. It was a temple and was later converted into a church. Around April 21 (Rome’s birthday), at noon, the sun shines down through the opening of its dome. A splendid sight if you can time your visit.

On a visit to modern Rome, you can’t quite escape its hoary past. Nor would you want to — it’s not called the Eternal City for nothing. And then there’s the very modern chaos and noise on the roads. Many Romans wisely prefer scooters to cars to zip through the traffic snarls. Dents on cars is almost a given!

The city of Rome has over 900 churches. If that doesn’t say enough about it’s religiosity, remember that Rome encompasses the city state of the Vatican inside itself but that’s a separate story. 

(Published 01 December 2023, 19:00 IST)

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