Wednesday 9 November 2016

Time Travel in Rome's Piazza Navona

On the day this blog is due I will be in Rome, being a writer-in-residence to kids at St Stephen's High School. So I thought Id dig up a suitable post from my Roman Mysteries Travel Guide. When in Rome, try a little Time Travel. Heres how to do it in Romes Piazza Navona! Caroline Lawrence

A Top Fan took my advice... and loved it!
Sit in at an outdoor table of the Tre Scanlini in Piazza Navona as the afternoon is cooling into evening. Order a tartuffo. Tartufo is Italian for ‘truffle’. But this is no fungus; it’s a triple chocolate ice-cream treat. It will be expensive. That doesn’t matter. You will never forget this experience. 

As you wait for your tartuffo to arrive, look at the shape of the
Piazza Navona. Does it remind you of anything? It used to be a race-course for chariots, like the Circus Maximus, only smaller. It was built by the Emperor Domitian, Titus’s younger brother. Where the people are walking (and where you are sitting!) used to be the race course, with chariots driving at breakneck speed. Imagine four-house chariots driving there now – from your left to your right, and trampling all the unsuspecting tourists! 

The central part of the Piazza Navona – with its obelisk and fountains – would have been much thinner in the first century AD, about the width of the base of the obelisk. That was the central barrier of the racecourse, called the ‘spina’ or the ‘euripus’. The fountains are too wide and wouldn’t have been there in Roman times, but parts of the euripus would have been filled with water for the sparsores, the boys who sprinkled the track with water to keep the dust down. Instead of the big fountains at either end, imagine bronze cones, each about as tall as a cypress tree. Those cones were called metae, and they were the turning posts. This is where all the worst crashes occurred, as charioteers made a 180 turn at great speed. 

The chariots weren’t wooden chariots like the ones in Ben-Hur. Those were ceremonial chariots, used for solemn processions. Racing chariots were probably not much more than a wicker basket on wheels, designed to be as light and fast as possible. Imagine driving a basket on wheels behind four powerful stallions going at breakneck speed.

You have the reins wrapped around your waist, to keep your hands free to use the whip or tweak a particular rein. But if you are thrown out of your chariot you will be pulled along the sandy racetrack. Charioteers were given a knife in their belt to cut themselves free of the reins if they were thrown out of the chariot. Imagine trying to cut through eight thick leather straps as you are dragged along the sandy track with horses thundering past on your right and left, their hooves only inches away! Whew!

Your tartuffo should have arrived by now. You deserve it. As you savour the triple chocolate, remind yourself that chocolate was unknown to the Romans. Poor Romans. But wait, they had chariot races and we don’t. Which would you rather have: chocolate or chariot races? 

Now look at some of the Roman men and women walking in the Piazza. Imagine them dressed in tunics and sandals. Imagine the women in stolas and pallas. You can easily see which Roman men would have been patricians or senators. And you can easily spot the rustic farmers and peasants. That beautiful female street-sweeper must be a slave from Germania. And that big muscular youth, showing off to his friends, is probably a gladiator. That man with the thinning hair and the wire-rimmed glasses is the spitting image of Cicero. 

One mystery I have never been able to solve is this: What did Italian men do with their hands before cigarettes and mobile phones were invented? 

Author of the million-selling Roman Mysteries, Caroline Lawrence is now writing the Roman Quests, a series set in Rome and Roman Britain in the final years of the volatile Emperor Domitian, who had a caffé named after him.

1 comment:

AnnP said...

This really makes me wish I was sitting in a square in Rome. After this morning's news though, I definitely feel more in need of chocolate than chariot races.