Island of Healing: the Tiber Island

For those who don’t know, Rome has an island too. Yes, an island in the river Tiber, straight in the city center. Don’t be surprised…We have everything here! It is one of the most charming places in the city, always quiet except during raining season when it always risks to be flooded :-)
Of course, it’s story couldn’t be just normal, it’s Rome guys, it is indeed long and really interesting, starting from the very beginning, its origins … actually it’s an island made of a tuff core with alluvial ground on top….Boring, right? And that’s why we have a better story to tell about how this island was actually made…

isola tiberina

The Origins

According to the legend, everything started in 509 B.C. when the son of Tarquin the Proud, the last of the Seven Kings, raped the noblewoman Lucretia from Ardea, causing the revolt of the Roman people (well done guys!) and the overthrow and exile of his father, i.e. the end of the Roman monarchy. Destroying something that was own by the declined tyrant after the revolt it’s a must, hence Roman people gathered up the wheat from the king’s fields in Campus Martius (in a rural society harvest was the Wealth) and threw it into the river: spike after spike, this became the Tiber Island!


Time goes by and we don’t know how this heap of grain was used  until the year 293 BC when Rome was struck by a terrible plague. The Senators, in charge to protect the citizen of Rome, used the most suited solution in case of serious crisis… Emergency safety rules? Quarantine for the sick people? No way. They needed a super consulence for this serious issue. So they consulted the Sibylline Books, a collection of Greek oracular utterances purchased by the Tarquin himself by a sibyl :) The response was clear and … effective: built a temple dedicated to Aesculapius,  the Greek god of medicine and healing!
Anyway building a temple for a new god was something that needed a procedure: Romans sent a ship to Epidaurus, seat of the most celebrated healing center in the ancient world, to ask for the statue of the god. What they got was a snake, symbol of the god (hence supposed personification of him), who jumped on the boat and curled itself around the mast.
Once in Rome the snake slithered off the ship and went on the island:  a superstitious Roman couldn’t have asked for a better response! Indeed this was for sure the best position for an hospital as it was provided with a natural spring, running water and an insulation that offered a secure belt in case of quarantine: the snake apparently knew what’s what  :-)

In 298 BC the temple was inaugurated: the whole island was modeled with travertine structures to resemble a ship (few remains are still visible on the south side) and a obelisk was the mast.

prua isola tiberina

Around the temple were porches used as an hospital. Well, the snake knew where to built an hospital actually, but not exactly as an hospital works …
At that time the idea of healing was the incubatio: people went to temple and spent the night under the porches … while they were sleeping the god went around healing the people or leaving them prescriptions or drugs. Of course only if they had left an appropriate offer for him.



What Happened After the Romans?

Despite its efficiency in healing people (just kidding :-D) the temple landed up as all the pagan temples when the empire became Christian: closed and abandoned. We don’t know exactly what happened later. In the 10th century on the island, again due to the position,  a fortress was built by the Pierleoni family (a tower still exists). In the meantime the former temple of Aesculapius was turned in a church, that of St. Bartholomew. With the renovated sacralisation of the area the story of the healing water showed up again and a well was built to draw it. Unfortunately, due to the water pollution, instead of heal people it usually made them die, hence the well was closed with a grid that still exists!


The New Hospital

Anyway the position was too yummy for an hospital and a new one  was founded here in 1548  (12 centuries later) by the followers of St. John of God. It still exists with the name of “Fatebenefratelli” that means “Do well, brothers”. It sounds funny but indeed wasn’t an exhortation for the doctors: it comes from the sing-song that priests repeated during the money collection :-) Even though is really tempting the idea of seeing a continuity during the centuries in the way this island was used, as healing center since the very ancient time until today, probably this isn’t true. It seems that during the 5th century it was used as a prison…another place that take advantage of the insulation…not exactly as efficient as Alcatraz but a kind of :)

Teeth and Records

Since the beginning this hospital was renowned for its dentists. The most famous was the Florentine friar Giovanni Battista Orsenico: he owes his fame to the fact that he was able to extract the teeth by hand, without pincers and, mostly, pain. He practiced between 1868 and 1904 and collected ALL the teeth extracted in three boxes: in 1903 they were opened and it turned out that he owned 2,000,744 teeth, that means an average of 185 teeth for day! This lead the friar straight in the Guinness World Records: he still hold the record for the “largest collection of human teeth“! :)

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The Infamous Column

And finally the last story: what happened to the mast-obelisk that decorated the island? It seems that it fell down in the 16th century and was replaced by a column with a cross on top. It was known later as the Infamous Column as on it was put up the list of the “bandits who didn’t take the holy communion on Easter day” (Oh yes, this really was considered a crime!). One of those was the Roman engraver Bartolomeo Pinelli, famous for his lascivious life, who ended up in the list in 1834. As soon as he saw his name on the list completely freaked out, not much for having been held up as an unbeliever, but for having been defined a miniaturist instead of engraver! :) This column doesn’t exist anymore: it was broken hit by a chariot (on purpose?) and substituted in 1869 with the monument still visible today.

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Pictures Credits:

  • View of the Tiber Island – G.B. Piranesi, 18th cent.
  • Isola Tiberina  – CC BY 2.0 – Maurizio Sacco
  • Remains of the travertine prow – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
  • The Temples and Cult of Asclepius – Robert Thom
  • Well in the Church of St. Bartholomew – CC BY SA 2.0 – Mararie
  • Ignazio Jacometti’s “Guglia di Pio IX” – CC BY SA 3.0 – Blackcat



Kissed by Fortune: Freedmen in the Ancient Rome

Some weeks ago one of my followers asked me to make a post about liberti, the Roman freedmen … so here I am: I hope you will like it :-)

Slaves and Freedmen

There is so much to say about slavery in the ancient Rome that talking about it would bring us a bit out of topic. Anyway there were basically two reason why someone became a slave: being captured as a war prisoner or run up debts. Of course also being a slave’s son.


Whatever was the cause, slaves always had the hope to be freed by their master. This could happen usually when the slave was in his thirties and had nothing to do with Romans’ generosity. The reason was mostly financial: a slave was quite a valuable good, hence his death meant a loss of money for his master. To free up a slave was a way to get back part of this money, because the slave must pay his freedom.
The other reason is that the hope for freedom worked as a deterrent against revolts.

Slaves were freed through a legal ceremony called the Manumissio, during which the master gave the slave a special hat called the Phrygian cap, Pileus in Latin, that the freedman always had to wear in public occasions. This oriental hat was originally used by the priests of the God Sun and by the Eastern rulers. We don’t know exactly the reason why it became the freedmen  feature, anyway because of this use it also became a symbol of freedom and, with this meaning, it was still used in very modern times…


It was used, for example, during the French Revolution: look this very famous painting: “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix … well Liberty is wearing a pileus! It is also used in the coat of arms of many nations (like Haiti, Cuba, Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc.) as in that of many other institutions, including one that Americans know very well: that of the U.S. Senate!
And finally, as I told you already, this is also the typical Smurfs’ headgear … maybe there is a murky revolutionary past behind this little funny characters that we don’t know :D

Click to Tweet this: Did you know that #Smurfs could have a murky revolutionary past? http://wp.me/p4k861-9m #history #archaelogy #phrygiancap via @talesofrome


The Status

Once a slave was freed, he acquired some rights, even if couldn’t be never considered as a born free Roman citizen. Mostly, freedmen hadn’t political rights, that means they couldn’t perform high public offices. This happened because, for the Romans, the most important difference between a slave and a free man was that the first wasn’t supposed to have a soul, the animus. A slave was a man without a moral autonomy: he was totally and completely identified with his master’s will. And, of coursem, a man with no will can’t be a good magistrate … Oh, there is still so much to learn from the Romans!

The Fortuna’s Sons

Freedmen were also dubbed as Fortuna’s son because their sell as slaves determined their future life: they could be forced to work in quarries, with the likely destiny to die for the strain much before they reached their thirties, or become their master’s favourite, with the hope to have the freedom and even an inheritance. This was the case of Clesippus.

Clesippus the Laundryman

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells the story of Clesippus, a slave who lived in Rome in the first century BC. We don’t know much about him: where was he from? how did he became a slave? was he white or black? tall or short?… we only know that he was hunchbacked and also “repellent in the rest of his aspect”. What we can deduce is that he probably had some secret virtues … and we’ll soon see which :)

As a slave, he work in a laundrette. With no washing machines it was really a dirty job: hand-washing  was very tiring and this was not the worst part. In launderettes, clothes were also coloured and, without the help of chemical products, colours were fixed with urine! Something that you can really call a shitty job :) 

It happened that the laundrette went out of business hence Clesippus was sold at auction, as the other goods. Actually he was sold in the same batch of a very precious bronze candlestick – and this became the reason of his luck. The cost for both (probably mostly for the fine bronze work) was 50000 sesterces. The batch was acquired by the noble and rich widow Gegania. She was a little bit cruel, too: during a banquet, she was showing the stuff she bought to her friends and, to keep her guests amused, forced Clesippus to undress and show all his deformities. Once Clesippus was naked, Gegania probably saw much more than his hump: in fact … she fell in love with him and became his lover! :)
This sentiment was so strong, that, after her death, Gegania left him not only freedom but also all her assets making him a rich man! Clesippus was really aware of the fact that all his luck was originally linked to the beautiful candlestick, so aware that he started to worship it as a god.


After his death Clesippus was buried in a magnificent mausoleum, worthy of his richness, on the Appian way, near the modern city of Latina. The funeral inscription tell us that he also performed some public offices (not the higher ones precluded to the freedmen, of course).

An Extra Tip

As I told you already, this post was done on request, therefore is a bit different from the others: it didn’t start with a geographical place or monument. Anyway also in this post I want to leave you with a suggestion about something to see when you’ll finally come to visit Rome: the Columbarium of Augustus’ Freedmen – a burial monument  on the Appian way, just outside the city center.
The Columbarium contains about 3000 niches, built to store the deaths’ ashes. The inscriptions found there tells us that this was the cemetery of the slaves freed by the emperor Augustus.


Anyway if you are thinking about an hard walk through the Roman ruin, well, you are totally wrong and this visit maybe much more enjoyable than you can expect. In fact around the year 1730 this place was transformed in a hosteria, a typical Roman restaurant … and that’s what it still is!!! Where else, if not in Rome, can you dine in an ancient cemetery? A little grim maybe…but, well, just avoid dishes with bones :D

Click to Tweet this: Where else, if not in #Rome, can you dine in an ancient cemetery? Just avoid dishes with bones :D  http://wp.me/p4k861-9m via @talesofrome

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Click to share this story! >> Kissed by Fortune: discover the life of Freedmen in Ancient #Rome on @talesofrome http://wp.me/p4k861-9m #history #slavery #archaelogy 

Pictures Credits:

  • Roman slaves – CC BY 2.0 – Jun
  • “Liberty Leading the People” – Eugene Delacroix, 1830
  • View of the Mausoleum of Clesippus – XIX century
  • View of the Columbarium of Augustus’ Freedmen – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756

What An Arch Can Tell: a Story of Hate in the Ancient Rome

On today’s post I would like to talk about a monument that gives us the opportunity to dig into different aspects of the Roman Society.

The Arch Of Septimius Severus

Leaning down the slopes of the Capitoline hill, the massive marble profile of the Arch of Septimius Severus is one of the most characteristic images of the Roman Forum…. I’m quite sure that if you have been in Rome and visited the Forum, you have a picture of it.


It was dedicated in 302 to celebrate the emperor’s victory over the Parthians, a population that ruled one of the biggest empire of the ancient world, spanned between Turkey and Iran.

There is too much to say about the triumphal arches and the Triumphus, that we would need another post for it…in the meanwhile take a look here :-)

Who Was Septimius Severus?

Septimius Severus was a Roman general who, while in 193 was leading the legions in Cornutum (Lower Austria), was acclaimed as an emperor by his own soldiers, after the death of the previous emperor Pertinax. In the meanwhile all over the Roman empire the soldiers acclaimed other three emperors…too many for just one city and so, after a bloody war, Septimius Severus smote all the rivals and became the only ruler in 197.


Anyway there is still something that you should know about him: if you are imagining a genuine Roman, born and raised in the Urbs, well, you are totally wrong! He was indeed born in Leptis Magna, corresponding to the modern city of Lebda, Libya… yes, he was African! Longer before Barack Obama, Romans had their own black ruler and with such a less clamor than today!

Actually on Roman time no one cared about the color of someone’s skin. Racism, as we are used to think of it, didn’t exist in the ancient Rome. What really mattered was just being a Roman citizen, or not. This could make the difference in many crucial occasions. Of course citizens had more rights than the strangers. For example, when someone was sentenced to death there were different kinds of execution:  less cruel for the citizens, imaginatively cruel for the strangers.  Not such a great benefit you could think…but I’m quite sure that your thought would be different if you were going to be eaten slowly by a lion instead of being quickly beheaded!

When Saint Paul was imprisoned and was going to be judged in Jerusalem for his Christian preaching he asserted his citizenship saying “Civis Romanus sum”… translated “Eat my shorts! I’m a citizen and I have the right of a fair trial in Rome!”

Actually what that also mattered was the census, money as always. But at least no one was discriminated for his race or religion (“And what about the Christians?” you may ask. Well, this is another topic that needs another entire post. Anyway just let me say about this that God wasn’t the real problem. Politics was. Trust me :-) )

A Multicultural Society

Rome had a very multicultural society. People from all over the Roman empire (that at its apex spanned from Spain to Iran and from Britain to North Africa) lived in Rome and you could see people of any culture and religion and listen almost each spoken language.


Indeed Septimius’ family was really multicultural too: he married Julia Domna a Syrian girl daughter of the supreme priest of El Gabal (there had been an horoscope predicting that she was destined to become a king’s wife. And that’s why Septiums married her….Ah the love!). Together they had two sons, Caracalla, born in 188 in Lugdunum (France) and Geta, born in 189 in Rome.

A Dysfunctional Family

Geta was the younger son and, as sometimes happen in every age,  he was often neglected by his father. Of course this generated conflicts and rivalries between the brothers, often moderated by Julia. If you are thinking to the typical skirmish between brothers, well, wait for the rest of the story…


We started with the arch that – despite they were just teenagers – was indeed dedicated also to Caracalla and Geta and this is what we expect to find on the inscription but wait…look carefully at the fourth line from the top: it was clearly erased and rewritten. And, no worries, you don’t need to learn Latin, I can tell you: there is no mention of the poor Geta.

The Disappearance Of Geta

In 208 Septimius went to Britain to fight the local tribes: that war was a hard life. Four years later, when he was almost near to die, he decided to name his two sons as co-emperors: this meaning they were supposed to rule together after the death of their father.

It is said that Septimius’ last words to his sons were: “Love your brother, enrich the soldiers and scorn all the other men”…Well Caracalla got 2 of 3. Let’s see…

Enrich The Soldiers: Done

He made a currency reform to raise the money to increase soldiers’s wage.


Love Your Brother: Failed!

As I wrote before, there was a huge rivalry between the two brothers, but Caracalla solved it in the most drastic, and efficient actually, way: he murdered Geta in the arms of their mother! Hard co-ruling? Maybe. But  Geta was murdered soon after his father’s death! Probably the main reason was just Caracalla’s hate for the world…and here we are at the third point…

Scorn All The Other Men: Done, Well Done!

For this last warning we have plenty of examples…
Around 205 he had his father in law, Plautianus, assassinated. Soon after, he exiled his wife Fulvia Plautilla and her brother to Lipari island…and this was just a happy period: later they have been, of course, killed.

Is this not enough? Family doesn’t count? Well, after Geta’s death, in Alexandria of Egypt was performed a comedy in which Caracalla was twitted because he had said (true story) that he had killed Geta for his own legitimate defense. Come on guys! Are you kidding me? Did you trust in Caracalla’s sense of humor? Of course they were punished: 20.000 citizens of Alexandria were put to death!


The Hate Pays Off

So much hate had consequences: in 217 Caracalla was murdered by Julius Martialis, the officer of his own bodyguard as a revenge for having killed Martialis’ brother.

So much hate deserve to be remembered too: the Renaissance politician and writer Machiavelli in his masterpiece “The Prince” mentioned Caracalla as an example of the cruel and ruthless prince (in chapter 19, “That one should avoid being despised and hated”). Anyway Machiavelli didn’t criticized him for his cruelty (that had made his father great) but for having kept with him a bodyguard whose brother he had killed before.

The Inscription

Finally: why the inscription was erased? Because, as if having been killed weren’t enough, Geta had also the damnatio memoriae, usually reserved to those who had sullied the Roman reputation.


Geta’s name was erased from each Roman monument, as his portraits (look that above!), as if he never existed!

Poor Geta!So finally this post is a small compensation for him: all cheer Geta! :-)

If you liked the story browse for other Tales of Rome and don’t forget to follow my updates on Twitter and Facebook! And share this story!

Pictures Credits:

  • View of the Arch of Septimius Severus – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1774
  • View of the Arch of Septimius Severus – CC BY 2.0 – Jean Christophe Benoist
  • Bust of Septimius Severus – II sec. AD – Glyptothek,  Munich
  • Map of the Roman empire at its greatest extent- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Tataryn77
  • Inscription of the Arch of Septimius Severus – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Arienne McCracken
  • Denarius of Caracalla – 217 AD
  • Geta and Caracalla – Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1907
  • Tondo showing the Severan dynasty, 199-200 AD – Berlin, Antikensammlung




Portunus and Saint Mary of Egypt. Stories of Harbors and Prostitutes

As you may recall, my latest post was about Hercules and his temple in Piazza Bocca della Verità. Anyway in this place there is so much history than we need much more than just a post to discover all the marvelous stories! So today I want to tell you about another corner of this square, nearer to the banks of the river Tiber where, still nowadays, there is a Roman temple perfectly preserved, the Temple of Portunus.

The Temple of Portunus and the Ancient Harbour of Rome



Portunus, as the name says was the Roman god of harbors and doors (portus and porta in Latin): this was indeed the place of the first river port of the city. To be honest the very reason for the existence of Rome itself has to be search in this place: here is the Tiber Island, the most suitable spot to cross the river and natural confluence point of all the most ancient and important roads connecting the mountain region of central Italy with the coast.

The temple was built for the first time at the end of the fourth century B.C. but during the centuries was rebuilt many times…as you can imagine flooding were quite frequent here :)

As all the pagan temple it was abandoned when the Roman empire became Christian.  Anyway in 872 pope John VIII transformed the temple in a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt. Why a female Saint in a port? Well, you’ll see soon that the story of this woman is connected in many different ways to ports and sea…

Why Saint Mary of Egypt?

According to tradition she was born in Alexandria in 344 – that is a port city, by the way; when she was twelve years old, she ran away from her parents house and began  a completely dissolute life, earning by begging or whoring.


After 17 years of this lively life she met a group of pilgrims who were going to ship for Jerusalem and thought: “Jerusalem, why not?…Oh no! I’ve no money to pay the trip… Oh yes, I’m a prostitute so …!”. Ok, maybe not exactly with this words and this thoughts but fonts much more religious than me say that she seduced the men.

Anyway when she arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre she couldn’t enter, stopped by an unseen force. And here begins her conversion: she prayed and finally decided to abandon the dissolute life and live as penitent. Well you should have already understood at this point that she was a girl of extreme decisions: not a simple conversion, may be not a life of prayers, no, she started a walk of penitence in the desert, and not for a month, no, FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE, eating only grass. 47 years – and many kilos lost – later she met Zosimo, a monk of a Palestinian monastery, who described her as a thin (really?) woman and almost naked, covered only by her long white, woolly hair. What did she ask to Zosimo? Food? No way! She asked his cloak to cover her nudity so that she could tell him the whole story. A year later Zosimo came back to the desert and found her death and still cover with  his cloak. According to tradition, a lion dug her tomb with its claws.


The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt

This is the story of Saint Mary and maybe now you are more aware about why the church, near the river and  in a place frequented mostly by sailors and foreign people (do you remember the presence of Greeks?) was dedicated to a former prostitute.

This was much more than just a symbolic dedication. Here was probably the most important brothel of Rome, whose origins seems to begin in the ancient Rome. There are no certain proofs about it, anyway the presence of the port is a significant indication. But there is more: nearby is also set the myth of Acca Larentia.

Acca Larentia

We already met Acca Larentia as the wife of the shepherd Faustulus who found and raised the twins Romulus and Remus. In another version of the myth, she was a prostitute in Rome who (was she tired of her old job? Who knows) went to temple of Hercules and spent there the night praying the god to help her. The next morning when she came out of the temple met the man who later became her husband, an Etruscan rich man named Tarrutius … much more better than The Dating Game!


When the husband died she inherited all his properties that left to the people of Rome at the end of her life. To thank her, Ancus, the third king of Rome, allowed her to be buried in the Velabrum and instituted the annual feast of the Accalia or Larentaria in her honor. Well, the Velabrum was exactly here, the valley between the Palatine hill and the river.

Prostitutes all-over the centuries

If the tradition about Larentia as a prostitute is true, looks like this tradition dates back to the Roman time, up to the Middle Age and, as shown by the presence of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt, until the modern era.

In fact since at least the 15th century, in the intent to restore the morality of the city of the Pope, the prostitutes of Rome were all relegated in a kind of ghetto, known as the “burdelletto“, the small brothel. Guess what? The chosen place was exactly this one, with the hope that the example of Saint Mary would help the lost women in their redemption!


Once again we have seen as things don’t change so much during the centuries :)

If you liked the story browse for other Tales of Rome and don’t forget to follow my updates on Twitter and Facebook! And share this story!

Pictures Credits:

  • Temple of Portunus – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
  • Icon of Saint Mary of Egypt – Russia, late 19th cent.
  • Detail of a miniature of Mary of Egypt – France, 15th cent.
  • Acca Larentia by Jacopo della Quercia (Santa Maria della Scala Hospital, Siena)- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Combusken
  • The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt – Giuseppe Vasi, 18th cent.





Greeks in Rome. The Ara Maxima Herculis and Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Just few days ago we celebrated Rome’s 2767th birthday. During this long, long period many things happened and changed. The city of the pagan gods became the cornerstone of the Christian  religion, kings, consuls, emperors, other kings, princes and presidents passed. Monuments were built and destroyed and then rebuilt again. Incredibly enough, some aspects remained pretty much stable over the centuries and, with this post, I would like to tell you a cool story showing exactly one of these things.

Our story starts with a legendary giant named Cacus who, according to the Roman tradition, had his den on the slopes of the Aventine hill, near the river Tiber.

The Giant Cacus

Kakos in Greek means “bad” that’s what the giant was. Virgil described him as a monster that was human and beast at the same time; around his house, the cave, the ground was always a red lake because of the blood of the people that he used to eat. To add some more horror, he used to preserve the head of the eaten ones and nail them to the entrance of his cave. I don’t want to imagine the smell of his breath :) … horrific! But actually the smell was just a pinprick: he was god Vulcan’s son and the main heritage he had from his father was the ability to breath fire. I hope at least that he used it to cook the human flesh :)


According to his name Cacus, the bad, used to terrified the people living in the village on the top of the Palatine hill. How and why this village was founded is another long story, enough material for another post, in the meanwhile take a look here. According to the legend, most of the people living in the Palatine village had Greek origins. Remember, we are still talking about a legend, but there are certain proofs that Greeks frequented this place at least since the 8th century B.C., if not before (that means before the foundation of Rome itself).

This was the frightful situation until Hercules, the Greek hero, landed  on the banks of the river Tiber. He was coming back to Greece after he had captured Geryon’s oxen (Geryon was another monster, living on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and this was the tenth Labour of  Hercules) and decided to stop here in Rome.

After the long trip the hero was tired – yes, also heroes sleep – and decided to take a nap near the place where he landed. Now it happen that this nap place was close enough to the cave of Cacus who, while Hercules was sleeping, stole some of the oxen – sometime human flesh could be stodgy …hence it’s better to have an alternative!

Cacus brought them into his cave by tugging by the tails. Because of this, the tracks were confused and when Hercules woke up and understood what had happened, couldn’t find the oxen. Anyway when the remaining oxen, free to graze, passed by Cacus’ cave, those that were inside started to moo, letting Hercules discover the thing. No need to say: Hercules killed Cacus and freed the oxen.

Despite the fact that he did it only for selfish reasons, people living around hit the jackpot and finally could stop to be afraid to become the dinner of some bad giant folk.

The Ara Maxima Herculis

To thank the hero, they built a sanctuary dedicated to him, the Ara Maxima Herculis. Well, up to here we are still in the mythological story, anyway the sanctuary actually existed. Many inscriptions, dedicated to Hercules, have indeed been found behind the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, proving that the Ara Maxima was exactly here.


The remains (or those believed to be the remains by the archaeologist) are still visible under the main altar, in the crypt of the church. They consist in a massive structure of tuff blocks dating at the 2nd century B.C. (the whole area around the Ara was completely rebuilt in that moment to prevent flooding, but for sure there was an older sanctuary). In the 15th century also the cult statue was found here and it’s now exhibited in the Capitoline Museums.


Because the Ara was built by Greeks, the cult kept Greek features until the imperial era: on the 12th of August, foundation day, an heifer was sacrificed – and then eaten by the faithful – by a priest who used to celebrate with the undressed head, a typical Greek custom. There were also sacred slaves belonging to the sanctuary (another Greek custom).

From Hercules to the Virgin Mary

As it often happened in Rome, after the end of the Roman empire and the arrival of the Christian religion, on the sanctuary a church was built, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Probably already in the 3rd century there was a church here, but the first confirmed tracks date from the 6th century. Around the half of the 8th century  pope Hadrian gave custody of the church to a group of Greek monks seeking for refuge from the iconoclastic persecutions. The monks were already settled here because the Greek community in Rome was there already: this bank of the river was called the Greek bank and the church was known as the Schola Graeca.


After the Greek monks, the church took the name of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, from kosmidion, ornament, referring the improvement carried out by pope Hadrian.

Why the Greeks, why here

There aren’t certain proofs that this place remains always the seat of the Greek community in Rome, anyway it’s likely for a very simple reason: here was the first river harbor of Rome and here was the place were the Greek merchants arrived a stayed. This was true for centuries, but also at the very beginning of our story: according to the historians the myth of Cacus recall the problems the first Greek merchants had on their arrival. The story of the oxen itself seems also to foreshadow the trade of cattle held here since prehistorical times and still in the imperial era: indeed this place was known as the Forum Boarium, the “cattle market“. This also due to the fact that here was the junction of all the main roads connecting mountains in the central  Italy with the coast, walked by shepherds since almost the 10th century B.C. In a marketplace the presence of a temple was not just a spiritual need: under the god’s protection and guarantee, merchants were free to make business…who could be so brave to cheat someone else under the eyes of Hercules?


So, the Greek presence in Rome, dates back to a long long time ago  and was still a fact in the early Christian era and in the Middle Age. And now?
Well, still today the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin follows the Melkite Greek Catholic rite: since the first construction of the Roman sanctuary this place is characterized by the Greek culture and still today, almost 3000 years later, it’s the same!

Last thing: the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is pretty famous because within the porch is the well known Mouth of the Truth…but that’s stuff for another post :)

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Pictures Credits:

  • Santa Maria in Cosmedin – by Giuseppe Vasi, 1761
  • Hercules killing the fire-breathing Cacus – by Sebald Beham, 1545
  • Blocks of the Ara Maxima – CC BY SA 3.0 – Lalupa
  • Statue of Hercules in gilded bronze – Capitoline Museums
  • Santa Maria in Cosmedin – CC BY 2.0 – Jeremy Thompson

Bernini and Borromini: the Feud of Piazza di Spagna

The whole history of art is full of stories of “sworn enemies”. This time I would like to tell about Bernini and Borromini, the two greatest Baroque artists.

The setting of this story is the beautiful and well-known Piazza di Spagna. Each corner of this amazing place is full of anecdotes: the Spanish Steps, the Fountain, the column of the Immaculate Conception … But this story is about the last hidden corner, on the South side of the square.  Here is the Palazzo (palace) of Propaganda Fide.

Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide

The Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith is the institution of the Roman Curia in charge for the missionary activities and related stuff. It was instituted in 1622 by pope Gregory XV and even now is a very powerful congregation, so powerful that its prefect is called the Red Pope: influential as the pope but red as cardinal! :)

propaganda fide stamp

In 1623, soon after the foundation of the congregation, Gregory XV died. His successor was Urban VIII, the Barberini pope. His papacy was really a grand moment for the history of art, mostly thanks to Bernini’s genius. Bernini was Urban’s official, favorite, ideal artist. The St. Peter’s Baldacchino, the  Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, the Triton Fountain, the Fountain of the Rivers and… I think you got it. The best. Well done Urban! Even though for making his new Rome, he destroyed the ancient one and her many inestimable artworks. Rome’s adage is “What Barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did”!
The adage is usually related to the bronze used for the Baldacchino, stolen from the Pantheon, but could be adopted for much more :)

Obviously Urban the VIII gave Bernini the task of designing the Palace for the congregation.

Bernini’s work…


To understand Bernini’s design you should look the facade on Piazza di Spagna: the palace, as conceived by Bernini, is characterized by straight and clear lines: a bricks structure with squared windows. On the top, the coat of arms of Urban the VIII: an empty (blue) field with three bees (wherever in Rome you see the bees  – also here in Piazza di Spagna on the fountain of the Barcaccia – that it’s a Urban’s work. It’s a kind of scavenger hunt!).

propaganda fide bernini

Bernini’s style reflects his personality in some ways: he was a “businessman”, rich, extroverted and very religious. For this reason many of his works are rigorous, because all the works are based on the same proportions of the human body: man was in fact created in God’s likeness, hence his proportion are universal, harmonic and divine.

… and Borromini’s one


In 1644 Urban VIII died and Innocent X became the new pope, who substituted Bernini with Borromini on the task of the Propaganda Fide Palace. Anyway the facade on Piazza di Spagna was already done, so he worked on the interiors and on the side. Turn on  via di Propaganda and look the facade: here you can easily seen the difference! Contrary to Bernini, Borromini was anxious, solitary and quick-tempered. His style really reflects his personality: moved, dominated by curves, concavities and convexities. The facade really seems to pop out! And actually many historians of art sustain that this facade seems too much imposing to be seen by this small street: it would need a wider space to be appreciated… That’s not a coincidence.


Guess what there was on the opposite side of the narrow via della Propaganda? …. Bernini’s house, where the artist and his family lived! Well, Borromini’s plan, or better we’ll say his dream, was to demolish the palace to create a wide appropriate square for his facade :)
So deep was the hate between the two artists that Borromini, not satisfied enough to have stolen the job to his rival – who actually was also forced to see the progress of works every day from his own windows – sculpted on the lateral facade of Palazzo di Propaganda Fide a pair of donkey ears. The reply was swift: Bernini sculpted on the shelf of his balcony a penis… yes, you got it, a penis :)

Unfortunately there’s no track of this skirmish because both artifacts were then removed to protect the “public decency“.

What you can still see are the different styles of the two greatest artists of Baroque Rome… Did you already decide between Bernini or Borromini? Well, I didn’t, it’s too hard!

This was just one of the many anecdotes about the rivalry between Bernini and Borromini, so let’s say to be continued

Do you want to feel the sensation to have feet in two different nations? First come to Rome :) Once here go to the main entrance of the Palazzo of Propaganda Fide and enter just with one leg: it’s done! The Palace has indeed the privilege of extraterritoriality, that means that it is part of the Vatican State: that’s why on the facade there’s the Vatican flag.

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Pictures Credits:

  • Palace of the Propagation of the Faith – etching by Giuseppe Vasi
  • Circular ownership stamp “C V P F” from the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide  – CC BY 2.0 – Kladcat
  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini – self-portrait, 1623
  • View of Palazzo di Propaganda Fide from Piazza di Spagna – CC BY 3.0 – Georges Jansoone
  • Francesco Borromini – portrait, 1630
  • View of Palazzo di Propaganda Fide from via di Propaganda – CC BY 3.0 – Manfred Heyde






Ancient Rome: No country for Women. The story of Cecilia Metella

Women’s day is coming and so, this time, I would like to tell you the story of a Roman woman, Cecilia Metella.

Who was Cecilia?

She likely lived and died around the half of the 1st century BC and soon after her death her family built for her the amazing mausoleum still preserved on the via Appia.
The via Appia was the first road projected and built by the Romans in 312 BC, connecting Rome with Brindisi, the main harbor in South Italy to Greece. Because of its antiquity and importance this was known by the Romans as the Regina Viarum, the queen of the streets.


Cecilia’s mausoleum was built in the first highest and most prominent spot of the via Appia outside the ancient city walls: hence it was the most visible and majestic tomb of the first and most important Roman road.
Said this, a romantic soul could think that this could be considered a monument to Love, a kind of Roman Taj Mahal: a mausoleum built by an inconsolable husband for the loss of his only love. It would be nice, but, unfortunately, it’s not. Let’s see why.

Piranesi-cecilia metella

The tomb is decorated in the upper part with a low relief with wreaths and oxen skulls, both a reference to religious sacrifices (flowers and oxen were offered to the gods). But the most interesting part is the relief in the central part: here there is an helmet, shields and a prisoner…Quite strange for a woman’s tomb, isn’t it? But it’s not enough: on the front side there is a huge inscription:

Caeciliae Q. Cretici F(iliae) Maetellae Crassi
Cecilia Metella, Quintus Creticus’ daughter, Crassus’ wife”.

And that’s the point: we don’t know anything about her, nothing in the inscription, nothing in the Latin writers. She was two eminent men’s daughter and wife, and that’s all! Both men were famous Roman generals, but there’s not a word about the woman… neither a stupid and false adjective like loving, beloved … nothing at all! She was just men’s possession, and she is defined just by this.
And that’s not enough: the inscription give us also the opportunity to talk a little bit about the Roman naming system, that says a lot about women position in Roman society.

The Roman naming system

She was Cecilia Metella. Nowadays Cecilia is quite common female name in Italy, and we are tempted to think that this was her first name, while Metella was the surname. No way! Roman naming system was called system of the tria nomina, or three names. Cecilia’s father, for example, was Quintus Caecilius Metellus…are you starting to understand? His first name was Quintus, then Caecilius was the name of the gens, the clan, last name we could say, and finally Metellus was the cognomen, the name of the family line, a kind of second last name. And that’s the point: Cecilia Metella has no first name! No, not because she was a bad girl, unworthy of a personal name: this was the system for all Roman women. ALL the women of the family had the SAME name: in this case all were Cecilia Metella! Well, now imagine a mother who has to call all the daughters: quite easy :) Yes, convenient but confusing, hence usually they had a kind of nicknames, like First, Second, and so on, or Elder, Younger etc.
Are you starting to think that Romans were too lazy to name all the daughters? Sadly this was not only indolence, there was a clear idea behind this: for a Roman woman the glory consists in no one who pronounces her name! A Latin writer, Macrobius praises a woman saying that she was so prudish that no one knew her name. The message is clear: woman wasn’t and didn’t have to be a person, but only a passive and anonymous part of the family!

So, why this huge tomb?


Said all this, why build a so huge monument for a woman, if she wasn’t important? Because – sadly to say but that’s it! – her death was just a pretext to celebrate the greatness of the family, during an historical period when Rome was afflicted by the civil wars and there was need and will to show off the power of the most eminent families. Cecilia Metella’s tomb is simply a way to celebrate the glory of the family men, whose names are in the inscription.

Another woman’s story: Annia Regilla

This beautiful and pleasant place is connected also with another woman…sorry, not happier story, but I told you: no country for women!
In the 2nd century this place became part of Herodes Atticus‘s property.


He was a rich senator and a philosopher from a glorious and ancient Roman family. When he was 40 years old married the 14 (yes, 14!) years old Annia Regilla, from another rich and glorious family. Thanks to her dowry they bought the propriety on the via Appia.
It happened that while she was pregnant of her sixth son, was killed, kicked to death to her abdomen, by an Herodes’ freedman. The husband was immediately accused to be responsible for the murder.
He had a process and was acquitted. Anyway people didn’t believe to his innocence – corrupt judges was frequent and easy for rich people. The public opinion was so important for a Roman that he had to do something to change people’s opinion. Hence he started to show off is sorrow: painted his house in black and began to built monuments and temples dedicated to Annia. The property on the via Appia became a huge sanctuary sacred to Demeter and its boundaries were marked by two columns bearing this inscription:
To the memory of Annia Regilla, wife of Herodes, the light and soul of the house, to whom these lands once belonged”.
Well, she was luckier than Cecilia and had at least some adjectives…anyway not so great reward for having been murdered by her own husband!

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Pictures Credits:

  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella- All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Carole Raddato
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756
  • Via Appia mit dem Grabmal der Caecilia Metella – Oswald Achenbach, 1886
  • Portrait of Herodes Atticus – CC BY 3.0 – Marie-Lan Nguyen



Happy Valentine! Top Five Romantic Places in Rome

Are you in Rome with your Valentine to celebrate? Let me suggest the best romantic places in Rome to make your Roman holiday the most romantic ever… and impress your lover!


Just above Piazza del Popolo, on this terrace you can have the best panorama in Rome. Visit it at sunset and add some magic atmosphere!


Looking for a different point of view? Choose the Janiculum Hill with its park, just across the Tiber river for another magnificent panorama. End your perfect Valentine day with a dinner in the charming district of Trastevere, just below the hill.

castel sant'angelo

Nearby St. Peter Basilica, this was emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum later transformed in a fortress. Reach it from Ponte S. Angelo and go to the terraces overlooking the river. And once you are there… enjoy the atmosphere.

giardino degli aranci

Just beside the medieval church of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill, this is one of my favorite places in Rome. A small, cozy garden full of orange trees with an amazing view on the river and St. Peter’s dome. Charming.


Do you feel like being more active? Go to the small lake of Villa Borghese and rent a boat. What could be more romantic than this?You’ll got also a good chance to show off your muscles :)

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Pictures credits:


The Temple of Saturn

Unknown gods and familiar habits. The Temple of Saturn

In this tale we are going to talk about a pretty unknown Roman god, Saturn, who left us a very popular custom.

Who was God Saturn ?

Saturn was one of the most ancient and important divinities of the Roman religion, the legendary king who, according to the tradition, ruled Italy in the Golden Age. Archaic Roman society was a rural one, hence this Golden Age was strictly related with agriculture, and this was exactly Saturn’s field. Inside his temple was an ivory statue of him which was empty and filled with olive oil – related with agriculture: Lazio was (and still is) rich in olive trees – and whose legs were fettered with woolen strings.

Saturnalia, something familiar

After the end of the autumn planting, Saturn was celebrated with a feast, the Saturnalia, that officially lasted from December the 17th until the 23rd. In the first day the woolen strings were loosened and the priest sacrificed  a sow that was later eaten in a sacred banquet.

Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia! Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - 1880 Akron Art Museum (United States) Painting - oil on panel

Saturnalia were the most loved feast of the Roman year. During this holiday week people used to invite friends and relatives for private banquets, offering them food and small gifts, such as candles, food, small clay figurines, usually accompanied by greeting cards … Does it sound familiar? Of course it does! The Saturnalia were so popular among the Romans that when the empire became Christian (in the 4th century AD) all those habits were handed over to Christmas!
So… blame Saturn, next time you’ll be in a hurry for last minute Christmas gifts! :)

This feast had also another peculiarity, during those days social norms were reversed and restrictions were relaxed:  gambling was allowed and masters would serve their slaves. This general sense of freedom was considered to be a memory of the Golden Age ushered by the God. People used to wear the pileus, a cap normally used by the freed slave, that was more or less like the Smurfs’ hat (I swear!).

Because of the laxity this period was perfect for murders and conspiracies and many famous episodes happened during it: Catilina’s conspiracy, murder of Geta by Caracalla and also that of Commodus. Latin writer Seneca complains that because of the Saturnalia “the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures”.

The Temple

The Temple of Saturn, was built a long long time ago in the very heart of Rome, the Roman Forum. It was dedicated exactly in 498 B.C.: that’s why I said long long time ago! It’s not only old, not exactly the oldest one, but is the oldest temple officially recorded by the Pontiffs, a kind of pagan priests who were in charge of recording the most important events. According to tradition, to myth, it was erected on the same spot of an older altar built by God Saturn himself, when he founded the first village on the Capitoline Hill.

This temple, as most of Roman ones, was also used as a kind of public office: public documents were displayed on its walls. And here was also the Roman Treasury, where coins and ingots were stored, and also the official scale used for coins.

Don’t be surprised by the fact that the treasury was in this temple: as mentioned above, Saturn was a god linked with fertility and rural world and for the archaic Romans wealth consisted of harvests and cattle: the Latin word pecunia, “wealth”, comes from pecus, “sheep“… and, despite you’re not a farmer, you still preserve a memory of this link when use the English word pecuniary!

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Pictures credits

  • The temple of Saturn – All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • Painting  “Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!” – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1880 – Akron Art Museum (United States)
  • “Mithra killing the bull” – 2nd-3rd century AD – National Museum in Warsaw

What’s in a name? The true story of the Colosseum’s Name

The Colosseum is the most famous monument of the city, if you think about Rome you think about the Colosseum and everywhere it is known as the Colosseum … but actually this is not the right name!

Pretend to be an ancient Roman, walking in the crowded noisy streets of  Rome and asking someone “Sorry, where is the Colosseum?” … No one could respond you. People would look at you like: WHAT? Because in Romans time this monument was known as the Flavian Amphitheater, or simply … THE amphitheater. Flavian because it was built in the 1st century A.D. by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian (69-79), the father, and the two sons Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96). Amphitheatre comes from the Greek preposition “amphi”, that means double (like amphibious or amphora), because is like two theatres back to back.

The True Story

So why we call it “Colosseum”? It’s really a nice story…
All starts in 64 A.D.: the Colosseum had yet to be built, Nero was the emperor and a huge fire destroyed the most part of the city, specially the area around the amphitheater itself (fires were quite frequent in ancient Rome).

After the fire, on the ruins of burned houses, Nero decided to build his own giant brand new villa in the centre of Rome: the Domus Aurea, or Golden House… a little bit megalomaniac project, but that’s Nero!

Domus Aurea

This villa was spread in a huge area and where now is the Colesseum valley was a beautiful garden with trees, plants, pavilions and finally…where now stands the Colosseum … a lake, the Stagnum Neronis or Nero’s lake.

The entrance of this villa was opened on the Roman Forum and it was decorated with a huge golden bronze statue of Nero: it was 35 meters high (or 100 feet for Americans), the largest bronze statue in the ancient world. To have an idea is more or less like the third floor of the Colosseum! So, really, really tall.

You can understand that people were not so happy about this villa so, after Nero’s death, the new emperor, Vespasian to please them decided to give back that part of the city to the people, building something for them…and what better than a Colosseum?!

So he just dried the lake and used the basin for the foundations of the amphitheater. The most part of the Domus Aurea was abandoned but the giant statue was left in the same place, simply erasing Nero’s face and putting the God Sun’s one… I guess also because of the weight!

In fact when more or less fifty years later another emperor, Hadrian, decided to built the biggest temple in Rome, the Temple of Venus and Rome, in the same place of the statue, he had to move it and needed a cart pulled by 25 elephants!

The statue was actually only moved few meters, nearest to the Colosseum: on the north-west side of the Colosseum is now a flowerbed made in tufa blocks that is a reconstruction of the original base of the statue; the original one was destroyed by Mussolini in 1936. It’s not a big distance, but the statue was so heavy and big that elephants were needed. This statue began to be called “Colossus”, because it was colossal, obviously.

Nero colossus
During the Middle Ages (since the 11th century), when the amphitheater was abandoned and no one could remember its true name and what it was for, the people began to call it Colosseum, simply because it was close to the Colossus. Unfortunately the statue is now lost because, later on in the Middle Ages, it was melted down to reuse the bronze. But we still use the name, Colosseum … And that’s why we call it so.

Love at first sight

The best “first sight” of the Colosseum is from the Fagutal: when you exit the subway try to resist and not to look outside; don’t exit from the main door but take the staircase on the right. You’ll reach the top of the Fagutal  hill and you’ll have the best first sight ever!

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Pictures Credits:

  • Colosseum – All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • Nero’s Domus Aurea – CC BY 2.0 – Jennifer May