When I explain that I’ve written a book about ancient Rome, people always ask about the research. Did I scour the remotest ruins of Italy, like some bespectacled Harrison Ford? Or did I visit the Cinecitt film studios, where they’ve been shooting Rome, the raunchy new HBO series that promises to be Deadwood with togas? Well, yes. But to capture the fabric of ancient life, I didn’t really have to leave home.
The ideal place to be writing about imperial Rome, from an imaginative point of view, is right here in New York.
In fact, every time I wake up in my cramped East Village apartment, all I have to do is squint and I might as well be back in the Subura, Rome’s feistiest neighborhood in the days of the Caesars. The Subura (nobody knows where the name comes from) was the original gritty downtown: Located conveniently close to the Forum, it was jammed full of tenement houses, each six stories high, called insulae or “islands,” and broken into rental apartments that were touchingly familiar—notorious, one historian says, for “the fragility of their construction, the scantiness of their furniture, insufficient light and heat, and the absence of sanitation.” In those days, harassed Roman tenants would climb 200 steps to their top-floor garrets, whose walls were so thin they could overhear the most intimate sounds of their neighbors (and this before stereos). They battled rapacious landlords, who ignored the most basic building repairs: “The agents propped up a tottering wall,” notes one historian, “or painted a huge (ceiling) rift over, and assured the occupants that they could sleep at their ease, all the time that their home was crumbling over their heads.” Adding insult to injury, they paid extortionate prices for the privilege:
“Ever-rising rent was a subject of eternal lamentation in Roman literature,” notes the French historian Jérome Carcopino of the brutal real estate market.
We know all this because back in the first and second centuries AD the Subura was full of impoverished Roman writers like Juvenal and Martial, bitching about their tiny apartments and the indignities of their impecunious lives—and surprise, surprise, it doesn’t take a huge historical leap to get inside their heads.
Just listening to my beloved 10th Street cacophony every morning puts me at one with the ancients: “Insomnia is the main cause of death in Rome,” ranted Juvenal. “Show me the apartment that lets you sleep!” Of course, instead of sirens and car alarms, the Romans were driven mad by the shrieks of street vendors and bells from pagan rituals. The night traffic was deafening: Axle grease was rarely used in ancient times, so the high-pitched squeal of wagon wheels grinding through the narrow streets was as piercing as the brakes on New York’s garbage trucks.
Whenever I make my way downstairs to the rubbish-strewn sidewalk, I can gather more inspiration about ancient life: Strolling the Subura was once an assault on the senses, weaving through an obstacle course of filth and pushy crowds. (“One man digs an elbow into my side, another a hard pole,” wrote Juvenal, “one bangs a beam, another a wine cask, against my skull.”) There were serious dangers from above: Rome was a permanent construction site, and you had to look out for falling bricks as well as the fetid slops from chamber pots; whole buildings would regularly collapse, swallowing their unlucky tenants. Today, we New Yorkers still have to keep an eye out for falling scaffolding, pot plants, masonry, or air-conditioners—although even the Romans would have been appalled at the scale of the Henry Hudson Parkway collapse last May.
Squalid as it could be, the Subura lured aristocrats slumming on bar crawls and even became home to some of the bohemian Roman rich, whose palatial villas the author Pliny the Elder once compared to “the mad schemes of kings.” As for me, I walk every day past the glittering new Astor Place Tower, boasting a price tag of up to $12 million an apartment. “Where has the purse of greed yawned wider?” asked Juvenal, wondering why the Romans had set up no altars to Mammon, the pagan god of wealth.
It’s comforting to know that I’m part of a great tradition.
The parallels make perfect sense: New York and imperial Rome are really alter egos, the twin icons of Western urban life, and the two places that have most defined our idea of what a city can be. The metaphors used for both are interchangeable—especially those from the mythic Rome of the second century AD, and the heroic New York of the early 20th century. Like that of New York, the scale of the classical city once astonished the world: Over a million people were squeezed in there, a population density that would not be matched until industrial-age Manhattan. Ancient Rome was the world’s first great immigrant metropolis. It enjoyed a casual street democracy, since rich and poor were thrown together cheek by jowl (and those tiny Roman apartments had no kitchens, so everyone ate at fast-food stalls). It had an enduring reputation for crime—”Only a fool accepts a dinner invitation without first making out his will,” Juvenal wrote, of walking Rome’s streets after dark—and it was a notorious cauldron of vice, “a meeting place for all that is shameful and degraded,” wrote Tacitus. (This may sound like Pat Buchanan denouncing Howard Stern, but in a nice historical twist, it was actually an attack on the new cult of Christianity, which was regarded as secretive and perverse).
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 the 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.
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 tonyperrottet.com