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 Ravenna, Italy: A sleeping beauty awakened

Honorius (384-423) was only ten years old when his father died. Sad fact on its own, but his father was Theodosius the Great (347-395), Emperor of the Roman Empire. With big shoes to fill, he needed to grow up quickly. The rule of the empire was divided, with his older brother reigning over the eastern half and Honorius presiding over the western half.

Pesky barbarians kept trying to wrest control of his empire, and Honorius decided to move his capital to Ravenna in 402. The new capital was viewed as easy to defend, surrounded by fortifications built by earlier emperors and marshland. While the capital could be defended, its location left much of the rest of Italy vulnerable.

In 408, the Roman Senate bought their way out of danger by paying the Visigoths 4,000 pounds of gold to leave Italy alone. But having run through that the Goths returned to sack Rome itself in 410. Britain and much of the rest of the Roman Empire were left without Roman protection. And, although Rome was regained in 414, Honorius is remembered for the defeats suffered and the unraveling of the empire during his reign.

Perhaps tired of being cold, the Goths returned with a vengeance under the leadership of the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric the Great (454-526). Theodoric made Ravenna the base for his new Arian kingdom, welcoming more than 200,000 of his followers to settle in Italy. While this was bad for much of Italy, Ravenna flourished under the attention.

Two decades after Theodoric’s death, Justinian I (483-565), the Byzantine Emperor, was able to wrest control of Ravenna and much of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Ravenna continued to benefit from royal attention.

After the 8th century, Ravenna was no longer a star. This lack of attention and imperialistic investment turned her into somewhat of a sleeping beauty, extremely beneficial for preserving the city’s early Christian monuments. Eight of its 5th and 6th century buildings are recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as demonstrating “great artistic skill, including a wonderful blend of Graeco-Roman tradition, Christian iconography and oriental and Western styles.”

The mosaics inside these monuments are Ravenna’s main attractions, but we are going to ease into those. This first postcard from Ravenna is simply a random combination of photos of the city to whet your appetite.

Threw in a little bit of food from lunch to make you hungrier for Ravenna. We stumbled across a nice restaurant with street-side seating, La Gardela. As ridiculous as this sounds, the zucchini fries alone were worth the train ride from Bologna.

Okay, it’s not fair to totally hold out on the mosaics. Peek if you must at this UNESCO preview.