Rome- the eternal city. When we think of Rome we tend to immediately conjure up popular images in our head- St Peter’s Square and the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum. Out of all these monuments only the Colosseum is a monument from Ancient Rome. And yet Rome is and was principally a Roman city so there is no dearth to the number of Ancient Roman monuments you can see in Rome- some better preserved than the others. Because Rome is a city of different time capsules with one often overlapping the other, it is often easy to overlook how a structure over 2000 years old coexists with something from the 17th Century and that with something from the past century.
In this series I hope to highlight a few Ancient Roman sites that do not often make it to the traveller’s to-do list. Every one of these sites is unique in my opinion and I hope that some of you who will be travelling to Rome in the future would be tempted to visit at least one of them. I do not list them in any order of preference or importance- merely in the order of my convenience.
So the first site to make it to the list
Porta Maggiore and the Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker
This site is one of my favourites not just because it houses what must be one of the quirkiest tombs ever in the history of humankind but also because it is a site where different layers of time intersect and reside with one another.
Porta Maggiore used to be called Porta Prenestina and was one of the gates that led into the town of Rome. This was originally constructed in the time of the emperor Claudius (around 50AD). The gate has an interesting structure which is provided by two aqueducts running one on top of the other bringing water into the city- the Claudia and the Anio Novus. These aqueducts facilitated the construction of an arch like gate below them.
The architecture of the columns and other decorations of the arch are interesting as they are a style unique to the Claudian period called the rusticated style. We can see how the triangular pediments are clearly sculpted whereas the columns look like blocks of stone just heaped one on top of another with little or no styling. This was the rusticated style- it is thought that this referred back to Claudius himself- who became an emperor almost by accident- for he was ignored for most of his life as a worthless stammerer thereby saved from the power politics race in the imperial family. Claudius was however, well learned in history and languages. Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God are both great books to read about this period.
Just outside the gate we find one of the most intriguing tombs ever in Roman civilisation. This tomb (which looks nothing like a traditional tomb from contemporary or even modern times) was built by a wealthy freedman (a slave who managed to obtain his freedom) who must have been a big name in the bakery business.
For a bit of context- in most of the ancient Roman cities tombs for the dead (which contained ashes) were not allowed within city limits, they clearly demarcated the city of the living and the dead. For this reason roads coming into the city outside the gates are often lined with tombs. The closer to the city, the more important or wealthy the occupant of the tomb or his/ her relative. So getting a spot right outside the city gate must have been a feat of some sorts for someone who was only a baker. In fact the tomb was primarily for the wife of Eurysaces – Atista. But the nature and the decorations of the tomb leave no doubt as to who is making a statement. There was a habit in Rome of doling free bread to the poor and it is thought that Eurysaces may have had a large contract of sorts from the Roman administration for this and other government contracts.
The tomb is amazing to look at- mainly because it looks so bizarre. It rises to a height of about 30 feet and looks like a weird collection of open cylinders heaped together. These cylinders are representations of grain measurement units. Running around the entire length of the tomb on the top are friezes with depictions of people involved in activities related to baking- grinding the grain, kneading the dough, baking and so on. If the essence of a tomb is to remind humanity of the lives of the occupants- I can’t think of anything more striking or successful than the tomb of Eurysaces the Baker.
Note: Porta Maggiore is definitely not a tourist hotspot- it is located right in the middle of a busy tourist intersection with even trams running through one of the arches. But it is definitely worth a visit- if not for anything than for bragging rights- Eurysaces would completely agree.