Postcard from Rome, Italy: A numbers game sparked by the baths

Visualizing times gone by is difficult, even when surrounded by highly visible ancient remnants.

Baths to accommodate 3,000? That number finally hit me for some reason. Wait, how big was Rome?

The Diocletian Baths, built beginning about the year 290, could accommodate 3,000 people bathing, getting a shave and a haircut, exercising, reading in the library, gathering for gossip and, well okay, visiting the brothel. Not sure in which order these activities were engaged.

But the Diocletian Baths were not the only baths. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in ancient Rome.

Which finally sent me back to try to understand the immense size not of the sprawling Roman Empire, but of Rome itself.

The AlamoDome in San Antonio seems large to this girl; it can accommodate 64,000. The Coliseum in Rome could house somewhere in the range of 75,000 people, who could all exit within a 15-minute period after Emperor Diocletian (244-311) had executed some of the thousands of Christians he made into saints during several prime years of persecution.

But that was still a small house in Rome. Other special events attracted even larger crowds; close to 300,000 could gather to watch chariot races at Circus Maximus.

Wait, where did all those people come from? The majority were just locals. The population of Rome then was well over 1,000,000. So hard to envision an ancient urban environment that dense.

Things would change dramatically in only a view years. The collapse of the empire, invasions by those pesky Goths. The population evacuated for new opportunities or was devastated by pestilence. During the 1300s, with schism in the papacy between Rome and Avignon, Rome had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

But I digress, once again.

The photos below are from the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano housed on the grounds of the former baths and portions renovated/remodeled into cloisters for a Carthusian monastery, commissioned in 1561 by Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) of the Medici clan and designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564).

More recent remodeling to house the collection and special exhibits was completed in 2014. Thousands of the museum’s holdings once crammed akimbo into this one location are now spread out for improved viewing around several locations.

And, by the way, sometimes there was a lot of r-rated activity happening on the outside of those sarcophagi.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Palatine perch facilitates time travel

If zip codes were used in ancient Rome, Palatine Hill is the one you wanted during those B.C. years. The twins purportedly were born there, and Romulus settled right there in the neighborhood after disposing of his brother Remus.

The legendary she-wolf-nursed founders of Rome gave the city its birthdate a while back. Rome celebrated turning 2,771 on April 21, 2018 – kind of a humbling experience after experiencing events heralding San Antonio’s Tricentennial this year.

Anyway, Cicero (106-43 B.C.) resided there, as did the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D.). While Augustus’ abode was relatively humble, subsequent emperors erected more elaborate quarters.

The great fire of year 64 left fiddling Nero (37-68 A.D.) some major cleared real estate on the hill available for construction of his new palace, Domus Aurea, or the Golden House, so named because many of its walls were covered with gold leaf. Recent archaeological digs have revealed remnants of the emperor’s over-the-top revolving dining room.

That’s obviously an oversimplified, superficial glimpse of the history of Palatine Hill. But we were really in search of a way to sense some of Rome’s ancient past above the hoards swarming into the Coliseum below. The crowds thin out, and much of the spacious hilltop turns into almost a pastoral setting for contemplating the vestiges of ancient civilization.

Now let us, by a flight of the imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past – an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the later one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine….

Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, 1930

Analogies often distract me, and the above one does as well. Sorry, Dr. Freud, but you left me on the hilltop without traveling down your desired psychical paths.

Derailed, I flew off to pondering that Palatine Hill is indeed a place where phases of development from 2,000 years ago still exist in the midst of a city creeping toward 3,000,000 people. A peaceful place where your imagination easily can time-travel deep into multiple layers of the city’s past and then fast-forward to view today’s Rome spreading out all around you.