There’s a thousand things I wanna say to you
(Paul Weller, The Jam, ‘In the City’, 1977, Polydor Records)
Don’t step on the lines or the bears will get you
(Often said to children walking in cities cf. ‘Lines and Squares’ by AA Milne, When We Were Very Young, 1924)
Rome was a very outdoor city, still is, as you can tell when trying to find somewhere outdoors to eat late on a summer evening. Cities are places of opportunities (as Weller tells us) or of dangers (as the warning to children suggests; in Milne’s poem, bears hang around street corners waiting to pounce; we might read an early suggestion of ‘stranger danger’ there). But then again, as Aristotle commented with regard to Athens, those who live outside the city are either Gods or Monsters.
Christianity in the Roman rite is often performed outdoors with parades, autos da fe, presentations of saints’ images, through to pilgrimages to cult centres.
But Rome itself was always like that and what we see performed today in Christian culture derives from that, not only in Rome but throughout the Roman world. I am indebted to the excellent chapter (Power Walks: Aristocratic Escorted Movements in Republican Rome) by Ida Östenberg in The Moving City, eds Östenberg et a;, London Bloomsbury, 2015.
Processions were always a political tool, witness the progress of the republican Consul through the city preceded by lictors and heralds. Below see a coin of Brutus, showing his reputed ancestor L Junius Brutus, the first ever consul of the republic.
|Coin of Brutus, showing procession with lictors and accensus|
The consul is shown third from left with two of his lictors fore and aft and an accensus (herald) clearing the way. We cannot tell if these were meant to be the same lictors who returned the bodies of his sons in Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of 1789, a year in which a lot of movement ran through Paris.
|The Lictors Return to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons by Jacques-Louis David, 1789|
Under the Republic, candidates for office were expected to walk through the city meeting and greeting voters. This was sometimes a disagreeable event for Roman aristocrats, famously C Marcius Coriolanus, who today we see largely through Shakespeare’s dramatic version of Plutarch’s life. It was a commonplace of candidates for office to process to the Roman Forum with an entourage of supporters and there to meet voters and canvass their votes. By the first century BC, there were over 900,000 people eligible to vote and we have a reference to it taking over five hours to conduct the voting for consul.
On reaching majority, a Roman boy would celebrate his toga day and process with his father and entourage from the family home to the Forum. The family also took part once, sometimes twice, a year as part of the Compitalia to honour the lares and penates, household gods; the drawing below shows a procession carrying a lar, held aloft by a young woman.
|Young woman carrying a Lar in procession; Lateran Museum|
We know quite a lot about Roman funerals of the leading citizens from Polybius (book 6). The surviving family of recently dead member would assemble at the family home, where death masks in wax, depicting famous ancestors, were kept in the atrium. Members of the family would wear these and process through the streets carrying the bier of the deceased to the family tomb site.
Many of the religious rituals of the classical era involved movement through the streets of Rome. Among the most famous was the twice yearly procession of the Salii, the jumping priests of Mars, who paraded in bronze armour, chanting doggerel so obscure that neither Ovid nor Cicero could understand it. Surviving Fasti indicate which days were permitted for trade (fasti), which were not (nefasti) and so on. As processions, which in later times might involve emperors and would certainly have involved the great and the good, heads covered and in certain religious robes. Nothing was allowed to delay or damage the ritual or else the ceremony had to be repeated on a new, auspicious day. Animals to be slaughtered would have to be selected from markets and taken to the temple in question.
Roman triumphs, originally celebrated for successful generals (imperatores) but in imperials times by the emperor, took the form of massive processions through the streets, the most famous being those of Julius Caesar, who marked a triple triumph in as many days. Domitian was infamous, according to Suetonius, for celebrating not only triumphs in which he had played no part, but those to mark battles which had not happened. As well as the triumph, lesser celebrations such as the ovatio, involved the successful general walking through the streets in a toga praetextata as part of a major entourage of supporters. Aulus Plautius received an ovation in Rome on completion of his conquest and term of office in Britain, and Claudius walked beside him to and from the Capitolium, as Tacitus tells us (Agricola 14).
Carriages were banned in the city on purely pragmatic grounds. The Chronography of AD354 lists in Regio I Porta Capena both public areas where carriages might be left (area carruces) and a storage place for imperial carriages (mutatorium caesaris). Litters were used for private travel within the city and Region XIII (Transtiberim, i.e. Trastevere) contained the barracks of litter bearers (castra lecticariorum). As always, there were members of the elite who managed to ignore such rulings, especially if their houses were in better areas. According to the Chronography of AD354, there were 1,790 houses, but 46,602 insulae blocks of flats.
With 256 bakers and 290 grain warehouses in the city there would have been considerable movement of cereals. As Rome came to import most of its grain from Egypt, Asia Minor and Sicily into Ostia and Portus, there would have been massive traffic upriver to the wharves at the foot of the Aventine, from which the trade proceeded into the city. Oil and wine too, as the huge mound of the Monte Testaccio testify.
Two types of live creatures would have needed to move through the city: livestock for both ritual use and human & animal consumption and slaves and captives, the former for sale and the latter for public shows and triumphs.
We might also think about the impediments to such movements. These would have been many, ranging from discarded babies to stray animals, runaway slaves to buildings placed outside of official street lines, as can be seen in cities like Antioch. In Athens, the former exercise of voting was hardly helped by the original Agora being used to house temples from across Greece. That’s one way to snuff out democracy: build in it. At Rome too, the Campus Martius, where Roman citizen armies had mustered and people voted, was built over with a memorial district in favour of the new emperor, including the Ara Pacis Augustae.
Experience of public routes in the provinces might not always be positive: the Babylonian Talmud reports a discourse among three rabbis.
R. Jehudah opened the conversation, saying: ‘How beautiful are the works of this nation [the Romans]). They have established markets, they have built bridges, they have opened bathing-houses.’ R. Jose said nothing, but R. Simeon b. Johai said: ‘All these things they have instituted for their own sake. Their markets are gathering-places for harlots; they have built baths for the purpose of indulging themselves in their comforts; they have built bridges to collect tolls from those who cross them.’ (Babylonian Talmud, p.56-7, around the time of Antoninus Pius).
This was reported to the Roman governor and Rabbi Simeon was condemned to death by the governor for this ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ statement, but went and lived in a cave for twelve years and the governor died. It does indicate that Simeon saw no advantage in a Roman bridge, but Rabbi Jedudah was rewarded. Cities have long been repacked to suit the authorities. As has been pointed out, the grands boulevards of Paris built by Baron Haussmann during the carnival empire of Napoleon III were built wide and straight to enable protestors to be fired on. Likewise Mussolini cut a wide road through the clutter of the medieval Borgo (the Burgus Anglorum where English visitors to Rome stayed in the middle ages to open up a grand vista of St Peter’s.
Christianity took over many Roman rituals and parades, such as the Lupercalia, which was transformed into the Easter Parade. Cities, including Rome itself, gradually came to bury people in and around churches and other holy sites, rather than in the mausolea outside Rome’s notional pomerium.
Take for example the rogation that Sidonius Apollinaris and the citizens of Arverna (Clermont-Ferrand) performed in AD474 to insulate the city against attack by the Visigoths; they did this because the actual city walls were so ancient and unrepaired that they had fallen down (Ep. 7.1 ‘Our only present help we find in those Rogations which you [Bishop Mamertus of Vienne] introduced’, cf. Ep. 7.8 ‘Alas! penned as I am within the narrow enclosure of half-burned and ruinous walls, with the terror of war at the gates’). Gregory of Tours recalls in the Miracles of St Martin that people prayed for the Visigoths to bypass their town and if they were lucky ‘the Goths passed by on the other side of the road’.
So when we write about the creation and definition of public space, we should always remember that public space was designed to be crossed and defined by human movement through it.