Tuesday, 12 September 2017

On swimming in Ancient Roman fishponds, by Antonia Senior

This Summer, we snorkelled in an Ancient Roman Fishpond.

The setting was the incredible island of Ventotene, some 50 kilometres off the coast of Lazio. Just 800 metres wide and 3 kilometres long, Ventotene is a gorgeous, volcanic haven of what my kids call "cool Roman stuff". It is brimful of stories and tragedies.

Mussolini imprisoned some of his opponents on Ventotene - more specifically on the even tinier island next door - Santo Stefano. One of them, Altiro Spinelli, dreamed of a federal Europe to end Europe's ceaseless wars - and his Ventotene Manifesto is widely seen as the ideological founding document of the EU.

A view of Santo Stefano (the large island) at sunset. (There's a Brexit metaphor here, but it's too depressing)

In antiquity, the island was called Pandateria. It was the place to which Roman Emperors shuffled off their inconvenient women. The first of the exiles was Julia, daughter of the Emperor Augustus, who was exiled for adultery and immorality. The terms of her imprisonment forbade her from seeing men or drinking wine. The ruins of the massive imperial villa complex are called the Villa Julia - and I will write of them in a later blog. Julia is the subject of the novel I am currently working on.

Julia's daughter, Agrippina the Elder, and Grand-daughter, Julia Livilla, both ended up exiled on the same island and were allegedly starved to death there. Nero's unfortunate wife Octavia, the daughter of Claudius, was sent to Pandateria, and was executed there on her husband's orders. The last Roman to be sent to the island was Flavia Domitilla, the Grandaughter of Vespasian, sent by her Uncle Domitian for the crime of being Christian - at least according to the early church.

A tragic island, then. An island of abused, abandoned, pilloried women.

And now, a rather jaunty Italian holiday island - unfrequented by Brits, entirely Italian speaking, and utterly gorgeous. With one volcanic sand beach and glorious turquoise seas.

Claudia modelling the volcanic sand of Ventotene

But I want to tell you about the fishpond....

Fishponds were a feature of early Imperial holiday villas. They served an obvious practical purpose - catching and storing fish utilising the surge of the tide. But they were more than this - they were part of the elaborate pursuit of otium (leisure) which characterised the aristocratic Romans at play. A marriage of architecture and nature.

The ponds themselves were surrounded by partially submerged rooms - cave-like, man-made structures - which were gorgeously decorated and full of statuary. Seneca talks of these dining-rooms in a famous passage, where he describes the fish being freshly caught as part of the theatre of dining. Fresh mullet, sir?

A graphical reconstruction of the fishponds (from the report of 2004 archaeological work of Annalisa Zarattini – Simone L. Trigona –
Dante G. Bartoli – Ayse D. Atauz

An archaeological survey of the site in 2004 revealed the extraordinary complex engineering of the fishponds - which, like the nearby extant Roman harbour, was carved from the soft tufa rock. The whole system relied on tunnels which worked together to keep the water circulating so it would remain fresh and not stagnant.   

Inside one of the tunnels - the archaeologists' picture.
The amazing thing is that, by swimming from the rocks near the beach, and throwing yourself over a low sea wall, you can swim straight into this incredible feat of Roman engineering. With a mask, you can see the tunnels. And fish!. The atmosphere inside the vaulted space is incredible. History breathes on you, smelling of salt and seaweed. And we had it all to ourselves. Here are a few of me, the kids and my sister exploring. Forgive the indulgent holiday snaps, but we were SWIMMING INSIDE AN UNBELIEVABLE ROMAN MONUMENT - so I think you'll forgive me. 

A magical experience. Next time: Julia's Villa....


Ruan Peat said...

wow that looks amazing, I love italy and have never been here, thank you I shall be going to have a look myself one day. The idea of swimming in history is exciting!

Janie Hampton said...

How to make your readers jealous! You've literally been swimming in history.