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Letter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Travels through France and Italy

by Tobias Smollett

published by J. Mundell & Co.
Edinburgh, 1796.

Smollett's text is in the public domain. My photos and notes are not.


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Letter

Letter XXXII

Nice, February 28, 1765.

Dear Sir,

The colossaeum or amphitheatre built by Flavius Vespasian, is the most stupendous work of the kind which antiquity can produce. Near one half of the external circuit still remains, consisting of four tire of arcades, adorned with columns of four orders, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite. The height and extent of it may be guessed from the number of spectators it contained, amounting to one hundred thousand; and yet, according to Fontana's mensuration, it could not contain above thirty-four thousand persons sitting, allowing a foot and a half for each person: for the circuit of the whole building did not exceed one thousand five hundred and sixty feet.a The amphitheatre at Verona is one thousand two hundred and ninety feet in circumference; and that of Nismes, one thousand and eighty. The colossaeum was built by Vespasian, who employed thirty thousand Jewish slaves in the work; but finished and dedicated by his son Titus, who, on the first day of its being opened, produced fifty thousand wild beasts, which were all killed in the arena.

The Romans were undoubtedly a barbarous people, who delighted in horrible spectacles. They viewed with pleasure the dead bodies of criminals dragged through the streets, or thrown down the Scalae Gemoniae and Tarpeian rock for their contemplation. Their rostra were generally adorned with the heads of some remarkable citizens, like Temple Bar at London. They even bore the sight of Tully's head fixed upon that very rostrum where he had so often ravished their ears with all the charms of eloquence, in pleading the cause of innocence and public virtue. They took delight in seeing their fellow-creatures torn in pieces by wild beasts in the amphitheatre. They shouted with applause when they saw a poor dwarf or slave killed by his adversary; but their transports were altogether extravagant, when the devoted captives were obliged to fight in troops, till one side was entirely butchered by the other. Nero produced four hundred senators, and six hundred of the equestrian order, as gladiators in the public arena: Even the women fought with wild beasts, as well as with each other, and drenched the amphitheatres with their blood. Tacitus says, "Sed faeminarum illustrium, senatorumque filiorum plures per arenam foedati sunt." º The execrable custom of sacrificing captives or slaves at the tombs of their masters and great men, which is still preserved among the negroes of Africa, obtained also among the ancients, Greeks as well as Romans. I could never, without horror and indignation, read that passage in the twenty-third book of the Iliad, which describes twelve valiant Trojan captives sacrificed by the inhuman Achilles at the tomb of his friend Patroclus.

Δώδεκα μεν Τρώων μεγαθυμων υἕας εσθλοὺς
Τοὺςº ἂμα σοι πάντας πὺρ ἐσθὶει.

It is not at all clear to me, that a people is the more brave, the more they are accustomed to bloodshed in their public entertainments. True bravery is not savage, but humane. Some of this sanguinary spirit is inherited by the inhabitants of a certain island that shall be nameless — but, mum for that. You will naturally suppose that the Coliseo was ruined by the barbarians who sacked the city of Rome: In effect, they robbed it of its ornaments and valuable materials; but it was reserved for the Goths and Vandals of modern Rome to dismantle the edifice, and reduce it to its present ruinous condition. One part of it was demolished by Pope Paul II. that he might employ the stones of it in building the palace of St. Mark. It was afterwards dilapidated for the same purposes by the cardinals Riarius and Farnese, which last assumed the tiara under the name of Paul III. Notwithstanding these injuries, there is enough standing to convey a very sublime idea of ancient magnificence.

The Circi and Naumachiae,º if considered as buildings and artificial basons, are admirable; but if examined as areae intended for horse and chariot races, and artificial seas for exhibiting naval engagements, they seem to prove, that the ancient Romans were but indifferently skilled and exercised either in horsemanship or naval armaments. The inclosure of the emperor Caracalla's circus is still standing, and scarce affords breathing room for an English hunter. The Circus Maximus, by far the largest in Rome, was not so long as the Mall; and I will venture to affirm, that St. James's Park would make a much more ample and convenient scene for those diversions. I imagine an old Roman would be very much surprised to see an English race on the course at New Market. The Circus Maximus was but three hundred yards in breadth. A good part of this was taken up by the spina, or middle space, adorned with temples, statues, and two great obelisks; as well as by the euripus, or canal, made by order of Julius Caesar, to contain crocodiles, and other aquaticº animals, which were killed occasionally. This was so large, that Heliogabalus, having filled it with excellent wine, exhibited naval engagements in it, for the amusement of the people. It surrounded three sides of the square, so that the whole extent of the race did not much exceed an English mile; and when Probus was at the expence of filling the plain of it with fir-trees, to form a wood for the chase of wild beasts, I question much if this forest was more extensive than the plantation in St. James's Park, on the south side of the canal: Now I leave you to judge what ridicule a king of England would incur by converting this part of the park into a chace for any species of animals which are counted game in our country.

The Roman emperors seemed more disposed to elevate and surprise, than to conduct the public diversions according to the rules of reason and propriety. One would imagine, it was with this view they instituted their naumachiae, or naval engagements, performed by half a dozen small galleys of a side in an artificial bason of fresh water. These galleys, I suppose, were not so large as common fishing-smacks, for they were moved by two, three, and four oars of a side, according to their different rates, biremes, triremes, and quadriremes. I know this is a knotty point not yet determined; and that some antiquarians believe the Roman galleys had different tires or decks of oars; but this is a notion very ill supported, and quite contrary to all the figures of them that are preserved on ancient coins and medals.b Suetonius in the reign of Domitian, speaking of those naumachiae, says, "Edidit navales pugnas, pene justarum classium, effosso et circumducto juxta Tyberim lacu, atque inter maximas imbres prospectavit." This artificial lake was not larger than the piece of water in Hyde Park; and yet the historian says, it was almost large enough for real or entire fleets. How would it sound in the ears of a British sailor, that a mock engagement between two squadrons of men of war would be exhibited on such a day in the Serpentine river? or that ships of the line taken from the enemy would be carried in procession from Hyde Park Corner to Tower-wharf? Certain it is, Lucullus, in one of his triumphs, had one hundred and ten ships of war (naves longas) carried through the streets of Rome.c Nothing can give a more contemptible idea of their naval power, than this testimony of their historians, who declare that their seamen, or mariners, were formed by exercising small row-boats in an enclosed pool of fresh water. Had they not the sea within a few miles of them, and the river Tyber running through their capital! even this would have been much more proper for exercising their watermen, than a pond of still water, not much larger than a cold bath. I do believe, in my conscience, that half a dozen English frigates would have been able to defeat both the contending fleets at the famous battle of Actium, which has been so much celebrated in the annals of antiquity, as an event that decided the fate of empire.

It would employ me a whole month to describe the thermae or baths, the vast ruins of which are still to be seen within the walls of Rome, like the remains of so many separate citadels.d The Thermae Dioclesianae might be termed an august academy for the use and instruction of the Roman people. The pinacotheca of this building was a complete musaeum of all the curiosities of art and nature; and there were public schools for all the sciences. I may judge by my eye, however, the Thermae Antonianae built by Caracalla, were still more extensive and magnificent; they contained cells sufficient for two thousand three hundred persons to bathe at one time, without being seen by one another. They were adorned with all the charms of painting, architecture, and sculpture. The pipes for conveying the water were of silver. Many of the lavacra were of precious marble, illuminated by lamps of crystal. Among the statues, were found the famous Toro, and Hercole Farnese.


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A tiny part of the remains of the Baths of Caracalla, seen end-on from the church of S. Balbina.

Bathing was certainly necessary to health and cleanliness in a hot country like Italy, especially before the use of linen was known:e but these purposes would have been much better answered by plunging into the Tyber, than by using the warm bath in the thermae, which became altogether a point of luxury borrowed from the effeminate Asiatics, and tended to debilitate the fibres, already too much relaxed by the heat of the climate. — True it is, they had baths of cool water for the summer: but in general they used it milk warm, and often perfumed: they likewise indulged in vapour baths, in order to enjoy a pleasing relaxation, which they likewise improved with odoriferous ointments. The thermae consisted of a great variety of parts and conveniences; the natationes or swimming places; the portici, where people amused themselves in walking, conversing, and disputing together, as Cicero says, In porticibus deambulantes disputabant; the basilicae, where the bathers assembled, before they entered, and after they came out of the bath; the atria, or ample courts, adorned with noble colonnades of Numidian marble and oriental granite; the ephibia, where the young men inured themselves to wrestling and other exercises; the frigidaria, or places kept cool by a constant draught of air, promoted by the disposition and number of the windows; the calidaria, where the water was warmed for the baths; the platanones, or delightful groves of sycamore; the stadia, for the performances of the athletae; the exedrae, or resting-places, provided with seats for those that were weary; the palestrae, where every one chose that exercise which pleased him best; the gymnasia, where poets, orators, and philosophers recited their works, and harangued for diversion; the eleotesia, where the fragrant oils and ointments were kept for the use of the bathers; and the conisteria, where the wrestlers were smeared with sand before they engaged. Of the thermae in Rome, some were mercenary, and some opened gratis. Marcus Agrippa, when he was edile, opened one hundred and seventy private baths for the use of the people. In the public baths where money was taken, each person paid a quadrans, about the value of our halfpenny, as Juvenal observes,

"Caedere Sylvano porcum, quadrante lavari."

But after the hour of bathing was past, it sometimes cost a great deal more, according to Martial,

"Balnea post decimam, lasso centumque petuntur

Quadrantes —"

Though there was no distinction in the places, between the first patrician and the lowest plebeian, yet the nobility used their own silver and gold plate, for washing, eating, and drinking in the bath, together with towels of the finest linen. They likewise made use of the instrument called strigil, which was a kind of flesh-brush; a custom to which Persius alludes in this line,

"I puer, et strigiles Crispini ad balnea defer."

The common people contented themselves with sponges. The bathing time was from noon till the evening, when the Romans ate their principal meal. Notice was given by a bell, or some such instrument, when the baths were opened, as we learn from Juvenal,

"Redde Pilam, sonat Æs thermarum, ludere pergis?

Virgine vis sola lotus abire domum."

There were separate places for the two sexes; and indeed there were baths opened for the use of women only, at the expence of Agrippina, the mother of Nero, and some other matrons of the first quality. The use of bathing was become so habitual to the constitution of the Romans, that Galen, in his book De Sanitate tuenda, mentions a certain philosopher, who, if he intermitted but one day in his bathing, was certainly attacked with a fever. In order to preserve decorum in the baths, a set of laws and regulations were published, and the thermae were put under the inspection of a censor, who was generally one of the first senators in Rome.— Agrippa left his gardens and baths, which stood near the Pantheon, to the Roman people: Among the statues that adorned them was that of a youth naked, as going into the bath, so elegantly formed by the hand of Lysippus, that Tiberius, being struck with the beauty of it, ordered it to be transferred into his own palace: but the populace raised such a clamour against him, that he was fain to have it reconveyed to its former place. These noble baths were restored by Adrian, as we read in Spartian; but at present no part of them remains.f

With respect to the present state of the old aqueducts, I can give you very little satisfaction. I only saw the ruins of that which conveyed the Acqua Claudia near the Porta Maggiore, and the Piazza of the Lateran.— You know there were fourteen of those ancient aqueducts, some of which brought water to Rome from the distance of forty miles. The channels of them were large enough to admit a man armed on horseback; and therefore when Rome was besieged by the Goths, who had cut off the water, Belisarius fortified them with works to prevent the enemy from entering the city by those conveyances.g After that period, I suppose the ancient aqueducts continued dry, and were suffered to run to ruins. Without all doubt, the Romans were greatly obliged to those benefactors, who raised such stupendous works for the benefit as well as the embellishment of their city: but it might have been supplied with the same water through pipes at one hundredth part of the expence; and in that case the enemy would not have found it such an easy matter to cut it off. Those popes who have provided the modern city so plentifully with excellent water, are much to be commended for the care and expence they have bestowed in restoring the streams called Acqua Vergine,º Acqua Felice,º and Acqua Paolina, which afford such abundance of water as would plentifully supply a much larger city than modern Rome.

It is no wonder that M. Agrippa, the son-in‑law, friend, and favourite of Augustus, should at the same time have been the idol of the people, considering how surprisingly he exerted himself for the emolument, convenience, and pleasure of his fellow-citizens. It was he who first conducted this Acqua Vergine to Rome: he formed seven hundred reservoirs in the city; erected one hundred and five fountains; one hundred and thirty castella, or conduits, which works he adorned with three hundred statues, and four hundred pillars of marble, in the space of one year. He also brought into Rome, the Aqua Julia, and restored the aqueduct of the Acqua Marzia, which had fallen into decay. I have already observed the great number of baths which he opened for the people, and the magnificent thermae, with spacious gardens, which he bequeathed to them as a legacy. But these benefactions, great and munificent as they seem to be, were not the most important services he performed for the city of Rome. The common sewers were first made by order of Tarquinius Priscus, not so much with a view to cleanliness, as by way of subterranean drains to the Velabrum,º and in order to carry off the stagnant water, which remained in the lower parts, after heavy rains. The different branches of these channels united at the Forum, from whence by the Cloaca Maxima, their contents were conveyed into the Tyber. This great cloaca was the work of Tarquinius Superbus. Other sewers were added by Marcus Cato and Valerius Flaccus, the censors. All these drains having been choked up and ruinous, were cleared and restored by Marcus Agrippa, who likewise undermined the whole city with canals of the same kind, for carrying off the filth; he strengthened and enlarged the Cloaca Maxima, so as to make it capable of receiving a large cart loaded with hay; and directed seven streams of water into these subterranean passages, in order to keep them always clean and open. If, notwithstanding all these conveniences, Vespasian was put to great expence in removing the ordure from the public streets, we have certainly a right to conclude, that the ancient Romans were not more cleanly than the modern Italians.

After the mausolea of Augustus and Adrian, which I have already mentioned, the most remarkable ancient sepulchres at Rome are those of Caius Cestius and Cecilia Metella. The first, which stands by the Porta di S. Paolo, is a beautiful pyramid, one hundred and twenty feet high, still preserved entire, having a vaulted chamber withinside, adorned with some ancient painting, which is now almost effaced. The building is of brick, but cased with marble. This Caius Cestius had been consul, was very rich, and acted as one of the seven Epulones, who superintended the feasts of the gods, called Lectisternia, and Pervigilia. He bequeathed his whole fortune to his friend M. Agrippa, who was so generous as to give it up to the relations of the testator.
    The monument of Cecilia Metella, commonly called Capo di Bove, is without the walls on the Via Appia. This lady was the daughter of Metellus Creticus, and wife to Crassus, who erected this noble monument to her memory. It consisted of two orders or stories, the first of which was a square of hewn stone: the second was a circular tower, having a cornice, adorned with ox heads in basso relievo, a circumstance from which it takes the name of Capo di Bove. The ox was supposed to be a most grateful sacrifice to the gods. Pliny,º speaking of bulls and oxen, says, "Hinc victimae optimae et laudatissima deorum placatio." This tower was surmounted by a noble cupola or dome, enriched with all the ornaments of architecture. The door of the building was of brass; and withinside the ashes of Cecilia were deposited in a fluted marble urn, of curious workmanship, which is still kept in the Palazzo Farnese. At present the surface of the ground is raised so much as to cover the first order of the edifice: what we see is no more than the round tower, without the dome and its ornaments; and the following inscription still remains near the top, facing the Via Appia:

CAECILIÆ
Q. CRETICI F.
METELLÆ
CRASSI.

To Cæcilia Metella daughter of Q. Creticus wife of Crassus.

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Notice that Smollett gets the inscription slightly wrong.

Now we are talking of sepulchral inscriptions, I shall conclude this letter with the copy of a very singular will, made by Favonius Jocundus, who died in Portugal, by which will the precise situation of the famous temple of Sylvanus is ascertained.

Jocundi.

Ego Gallus Favonius Jocundus P. Favoni F. qui bello contra Viriatum succubui, Jocundum et Prudentem filios, e me et Quintia Fabia conjuge mea ortos, et bonorum Jocundi Patris mei, et eorum quae mihi ipsi acquisivi, haeredes relinquo; hac tamen conditione, ut ab urbe Romana huc veniant, et ossa hic mea intra quinquennium exportent, et via Latina condant in sepulchro jussu meo condito, et mea voluntate; in quo velim neminem mecum, neque servum, neque libertum inseri; et velim ossa quorumcunque sepulchro statim meo eruantur, et jura Romanorum serventur, in sepulchris ritu majorum retinendis, juxta voluntatem testatoris; et si secus fecerint, nisi legittime oriantur causae, velim ea omnia, quae filiis meis relinquo, pro reparando templo dei Sylvani, quod sub Viminali monte est, attribui; manesque mei a pont. max. a flaminibus dialibus, qui in Capitolio sunt, opem implorent, ad liberorum meorum impietatem ulciscendam; teneanturque sacerdotes dei Sylvani, me in urbem referre, et sepulchro me meo condere. Volo quoque vernas quo domi meae sunt, omnes a praetore urbano liberos, cum matribus dimitti, singulisque libram argenti puri, et vestem unam dari. In Lusitania in agro viii. kal. Quintilis, bello Viriatino."

My paper scarce affords room to assure you that I am ever,

Dear Sir,
Your faithful, &c.


Thayer's Notes:

a the number of spectators it contained, amounting to one hundred thousand. . . and yet, according to Fontana's mensuration, it could not contain above thirty-four thousand persons sitting: Current consensus is in the 50,000 range, and even the highest figure accepted today is only 87,000.

b These galleys were moved by two, three, and four oars of a side. . . some antiquarians believe the Roman galleys had different tires or decks of oars; but this is a notion very ill supported, and quite contrary to all the figures of them that are preserved on ancient coins and medals: Smollett is utterly wrong on this one, but it's interesting to examine how he could have thought this.

The words bireme, trireme, etc. are derived from the numbers and remus, "oar". So they do look like they mean "two oars", "three oars" and so on: and indeed, sometimes, biremis clearly does mean a 2-oared skiff (Horat. iii.29, 62; Lucan, viii.562, x.56).

It is also true that the overwhelming majority of ancient images of warships are of vessels with only one rank of oars. This is especially the case on coins, which are too small to show complicated detail clearly; and to a lesser extent on stone carving, where good design frequently requires somewhat schematic representation.

In fact, I haven't found a coin yet that clearly shows multiple decks of oars; but as for monuments, limiting myself to those known in Smollett's time, and that he either saw or could have seen, depictions of warships with two ranks of oars do appear on Trajan's Column and on the Nile Mosaic in Palestrina (discovered in the 16c). If to us they seem fairly clear, now that we've accepted multiple ranks of oars, it's understandable that to someone who hadn't, on the other hand, they might not.

c Lucullus had 110 ships of war carried through the streets of Rome: Well, yes and no. Plutarch, Life of Lucullus, 37.3: but see my note there; Dr. Smollett is being very selective with his sources.

d It would employ me a whole month to describe the thermae or baths: Smollett's summary of the Roman baths is pretty accurate; for a much more detailed account, with diagrams and illustrations, see the article Balneae of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

e especially before the use of linen was known: This is vague to the point of being misleading. True, the earliest Romans wore only wool; but both linen and cotton had been grown in Egypt, and worn there, for thousands of years: use of these washable materials reached Rome well before the time of Augustus.

f Agrippa's gardens and baths . . . statue by Lysippus:

For the Baths of Agrippa, see the article Thermae Agrippae in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

The statue appears to be the Apoxyomenos (strictly speaking, a Roman marble copy of the Greek original, which was of bronze), found in the Tiber in 1849 and now in the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums, shown here.


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(The young man — see also this full view — is scraping oil off his right arm with the strigil mentioned elsewhere in this Letter by Smollett; except that the strigil has not survived: it may have been of bronze.)

g when Rome was besieged by the Goths, who had cut off the water, Belisarius fortified them with works to prevent the enemy from entering the city by those conveyances: Reported by Procopius (Bell. V.xix.8 ff.) but not confirmed until excavations were conducted in 1998 in the parking lot of the American Academy in Rome on the Janiculum. See Andrew Wilson's pages for the interesting details and the photographs.


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