Mirabilia Urbis: Rome Walking Tours

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Ancient Roman Urban Planning

TempleModern Rome seems oblivious to the Tiber River, which divides the city neatly in half. In fact, the river is often unfairly compared to an open sewer, snaking between the Muraglioni, the towering white walls that were built during the late 1800s and early 1900s in order to dam the Tiber and prevent it from flooding. There was a time, however, when the city depended on its river for both transportation and commerce. Indeed, the city’s origins begin with the river, specifically a small inlet just downstream from Tiber Island. 

Here we start our visit by going back to 800 B.C., approximately 50 years before Rome's foundation. We discover a natural harbor teeming with Greek and Phoenician traders who, for the previous several hundred years, had dominated the Mediterranean and earned their living through commerce. As we discuss the foreign influences that shaped the emb Herculesryonic city of Rome, we consider several passages of literature: Virgil’s description of Greek Hercules' arrival on the banks of the Tiber; the settlement inaugurated by the psychic, Carmenta, and her whiny Greek son, Evander; and the arrival of Bacchus' mother from the east, tormented by the goddess Hera.  The foreigners that populate these stories flocked to the banks of the Tiber from abroad or accidentally washed up in its boat-friendly bay. Rome is not as Roman as most people think!

The natural harbor was used for centuries until it and the neighborhood around it underwent a series of renovations. From 600 BC on, the area was widely recognized as a commercial center, drawing large crowds. Soon, the riverside was one long marketplace: the Forum Boarium (the Cattle Market), the Forum Holitorium (the Vegetable Market) and the Forum Piscatorium (the Fish Vendors) flanked one another and thrived. After hunting down the remnants of these markets, we will admire multiple temples that still line the riverside—a small boardwalk of sanctuaries erected after momentous battles. Further downstream, we will appreciate a temple, often wrongly referred to as the Temple of Vesta, erected by a wealthy merchant and dedicated to Hercules. Originally noted for being the second temple in the city erected and decorated with Grecian marble, it is now the oldest existing marble temple standing in Rome.  Round Temple

Although the markets fed the city until the Age of the Republic, they were eventually dwarfed by the metropolis' growing needs. To avoid famine, corruption, and riots, local administrators decided to dismantle the old harbor and build a modern port with a sophisticated system of docks in the undeveloped plateau just downstream, where the neighborhood Testaccio now stands. Big businesses relocated, following the harbor and took advantage of grandiose new emporium, silos, warehouses and storage spaces.

Clearly, one or two stores lingered so that Aunt Julia and other locals could buy a bundle of chicory and a dozen eggs when the need arose. Theater Otherwise, the zone became quaintly residential. Although some real estate was left vacant, it did not take long for the State to develop it. Toward the end of the Republic, Julius Caesar found this site suitable for his theater, now known as the Theater of Marcellus.  Nearby is another archeological gem, a classical portico, reconstructed by Julius Caesar's adopted son, Octavian. Standing to the side of his adopted father's theater, it once surrounded two venerable Republican temples. The temples, and most of the portico, have disappeared, but one magnificent central entrance remains, waiting to be studied and admired.