Dog Days

There's no place like ancient Rome—except for sweltering modern-day New York City

And just like in New York, Rome's combination of infinite possibilities and potential for destruction were fascinating to behold. H.G. Wells, freshly arrived in Manhattan, marveled in 1906 at "the unprecedented multitudinousness, the inhuman force of the thing"; Juvenal, more pithily, saw Rome as "a monstrous city."

For a dose of ancient spectacle in all its overblown grandeur, we New Yorkers have midtown, where the surviving early-20th-century buildings mimic the classical style: Grand Central Terminal, crowned by the wing-footed god Mercury; the imposing Corinthian columns of th e New York Public Library and the General Post Office; the gilded statues of Civil War generals in poses that consciously echo those of Roman heroes. Alongside them are New York's ghosts: the original Penn Station, tragically erased from the earth in 1965, was designed on the model of the cavernous Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The West Side stadium, had it ever risen from the drawing board, could have been our very own Colosseum.

But it's the basic textures of everyday life that have the historical appeal for me.

All hail the "monstrous city": a scene from Rome
photo: Biciocchi
All hail the "monstrous city": a scene from Rome

Ancient writers wandered their city astonished at its opulence,consumed by moral outrage and deep envy. "In Rome, we are slaves to fashion, spending beyond our means, and often on credit," griped Juvenal. Romans were gleefully superficial, addicted to novelties and luxury, and would have been at home on West Broadway; the Markets of Trajan were the overpriced Whole Foods of its time, with seawater pumped in from the coast 10 miles away to keep oysters fresh. Other moralists like Lucian railed against ancient fashion victims who were more interested in their haircuts than in politics or philosophy, squandering fortunes on trifles, while the poor—the average writer, for example—had to scrape and fawn to patrons for the next meal.

Why would anyone put up with it? "All low-income citizens should have marched out of Rome en masse years ago!" proclaimed Juvenal, sounding like a tenant's advocate today.

But of course, they didn't. The trouble was, ancient Rome was an addictive place to be—especially if you'd been raised in the provinces, as many Roman writers were. Everything was bigger, brighter, brasher in the capital—it was simply referred to as Urbs, "the city"—and besides, many of its best entertainments were free. The streets were pure theater: You could see the world's finest artworks in gilded temples or hang out at the Forum, packed with jugglers, fire-eaters, and storytellers. Then there was the intellectual hubbub. The most talented people in the world converged in Rome: the most brilliant dramatists, the greatest actors, the best-looking dancers, the wittiest public speakers. If you could make it in ancient Rome, you could make it anywhere.

And so it's back to my precious rat-hole apartment, hoping that the boiler will be fixed and fuses repaired. I'll clear the pile of unpaid bills from the desk and get back to scribbling on the glories of ancient Rome. Who would live anywhere else?

Tony Perrottet is the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. He wrote this essay in New York, in the broiling summer, when rich Romans escaped to the beachside "Hamptons of Antiquity." Visit his website at

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