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Guidebooks to Ancient Rome

Carol H. Johnson

Although I dream of finding a portable, all inclusive guidebook, in type large enough for me to read, I know this is not possible until Personal Digital Assistants come with enormous storage capacities and large screens, tireless batteries, and cheap prices. Until that golden day, I continue to lug far too many books on Rome with me for our annual sojourn there each October. Even with trimming down the list of indispensables, and making tossable photocopies of bits and pieces of others, (ok, so that is five pounds weight of recyclable paper), my carryon bag still arouses suspicions of being seriously overweight when we LEAVE for Rome.

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Here are ones I take with me.

"Pagan and Christian Rome", by Rodolfo Lanciani
This has become my favorite. One might think that a book published in 1892 might be a little out of date, but Rome is the "City Eternal". The English translation is quite commendable, and Thayer's notes and added pictures are very helpful. I found this book just a few days before leaving for Rome last year, and after skimming over a few parts and reading the contents, I downloaded the chapters, increased the text to a size I could easily read, and printed out chapter after chapter, shoving into a binder. Both my husband and I thought we knew a goodly amount about ancient Rome, and were reminded of how much more there is to learn. It was the best book we've enjoyed in Rome.

Throughout the book, the freshness and immediacy of Lanciani's enthusiasm for antiquities makes what could have been a dull recitation of names, facts, translations of inscriptions into an adventure story. Lanciani was in charge of the found antiquities in Rome when there was a city wide rebuilding campaign as the city surged forth from its long sleep as a backwater into the capital of a newly united Italy.

Lanciani's research in archives led him to the conclusion that since 1327 digging for wells or foundations in the area of the ancient temple of Isis and Serapis (it was near the Pantheon) often brought up marvels from deep beneath the city. He says he easily convinced the city authorities to dig under a block long public street (on the western side of the church of St. Ignatius) to see what could be found. He had only a limited amount of time, but on the third day a magnificent sphinx of black basalt, the portrait of the Egyptian King Amasis was found 20 feet beneath modern street level. Six days later, a large, perfectly complete obelisk of red granite from Assuan was found; it is nearly a twin of the one nearby in the Piazza of the Pantheon. I found it exciting to walk up and down on that same street, being able to look at the buildings where beautiful pieces of Egyptian art I have admired in museums were found, some hundreds of years ago. The e-book includes the original illustrations, which relate closely to the text, supplemented where appropriate by modern photos.

Lanciani supports his topics with archeological findings, analysis of ancient texts and later commentaries, myths, tales and material from City, Papal and private archives. When reading his text, I have no doubt that everything he says can be substantiated.

He interweaves with the stories of the enlightenment that these wondrous objects can bring with sad tales of the thoughtless destruction of so much of ancient Rome throughout the centuries, and during the Renaissance building boom and during the building boom Rome was in spasms as it became a capital of the new nation of Italy.

To quote from Bill Thayer's website, where I found this treasure,

"Rodolfo Lanciani was an archaeologist who for many years towards the close of the 19c was in charge of all the excavations within the city of Rome, and personally responsible for a number of major discoveries which we now take for granted; for example, the House of the Vestals in the Roman Forum."

The page on Mr. Thayer's website is located at: Bill Thayer's Website.

A print out of the entire book is of course too large to cart with one if you are going for a shorter trip, but it is wonderful for revealing much of the ancient city, and you could take with you just smaller sections on areas or themes which are of particular interest.

This book has also revolutionized my thinking about ancient Rome.

"Guide to Underground Rome" (in English AND Italian) by Carlo Pavia. (The subtitle is "From Cloaca Massima to Domus Aurea, the most fascinating underground sites of the Capital".) Gangemi Editore, ISBN 88-7448-944-3, 400 pages, including a 212 page color photo section, updated in 2000. (Now available through amazon.com.)

I am a pushover for books on Rome, especially any in both Italian and English and written without the ponderousness which plagues art historians. Carlo Pavia, as the rear of the book relates, is a scholar of Ancient Archaeology and Topography. He has spent years studying the now underground areas of Ancient Rome, studying, photographing, and writing. He tells a few tales about the difficulties he has had in obtaining permission for access, for study and for photography of sites, which sound more like scenes from a Mozart opera. But the focus of his book is to show the almost unbelievable amount of remnants of ancient Rome beneath the city.

Pavia categorizes the underground areas by the level of difficulty in actually descending into these sites, from the few at the "first level", which are actually open to the public and suitable even for visits by children and the elderly, to the fourth and fifth level difficulty sites, which require special knowledge to visit - including scuba diving and cave exploration techniques. How could there be a need for scuba training under the city of Rome? When the embankment walls were built along the Tiber to finally stop its frequent floods at the end of the 1800's, the exit paths for the water that used to seep out to the river from underground streams were blocked and the water remained.

The book's front section gives a clear and engaging review of the various means through which over the centuries, Rome was buried under 20 to 40 feet of mud, debris, trash, collapsed buildings, etc. I find the 200+ page photo section spellbinding with carefully taken pictures of ancient Roman basements, of burial areas (some with handsome sarcophagus still in place), areas that still show traces of fresco, mosaic, and even formed stucco work. Now that debris and mud have been cleared away, one can see places where the ancient Romans lived, worked and were buried. It is especially nice to see these without the additions of centuries of other uses and tastes in decorative schemes.

Often ordinary guidebooks give scant coverage to these underground areas and so there are some I blithely overlooked on earlier trips. However, Pavia repeatedly cautions that access to many of the sites are difficult either due to having to descend through trap doors (often with NO stairs), or having to navigate the labyrinth of necessary bureaucratic permissions. At the rear of the book is a summary of the 100 monuments described in the book with their main characteristics, level of difficulty in visiting, and the authorities to whom one has to apply for permission. Sometimes it is very easy, such as visiting the Mithreum under the church of San Clemente - there are regular, posted hours, it is well lit and provided with stairs, and one simply pays a small fee to help support the site. Pavia relates that of the over 400 sites already identified in Rome, his book deals only with 100, simply because of the difficulties in visiting the others.

The chapters are entitled:
Houses, palaces, and villas
Nympheums, baths and cisterns
Theatres and stadiums
Mithraeums, temples and sanctuaries
Subterranean churches and tituli (Early Christian churches with charity offices included)
Underground Tombs
Catacombs
Various minor hypogeums
Difficult and dangerous spaces
Update for the year 2000 Jubilee

If you see this book in a Roman bookstore, grab it and if you have time, enjoy it while in Rome. If you prefer, you can buy this book through amazon.com and start in on the fun before you next visit Rome. If you can read Italian, grab any of his other books that have not been translated into English. This October I will take with me a photocopy of the locator map, the summary listing, and probably a good chunk of the front section. The Lanciani in its binder comes with, too.


My husband is a retired professor, and we are able to travel to Italy twice each year now. We spend May on the border of Umbria & Tuscany at Castiglione del Lago, and October in Roma.

© Carol H. Johnson, 2004

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