Rome – Capitoline, Palatine and Caelian Hills

The Island of the Tiber is nowhere to be seen and the only suggestion of the Tiber itself is that stretch of white embankment in the middle distance on our left, and seen just to the left of that nearest tower. But beyond that strip of river embankment, ranging from left to right, are five of Rome’s seven hills. We may be surprised, at first – most people are – at the level aspect of things here in Rome, the famous hills appearing more like billows or swellings, scarcely perceptible at times in the sea of countless structures, spreading and vanishing before us. But nevertheless we can get these hills pretty clearly in mind. The Quirinal Hill, the most northern of the seven hills, lies beyond the range of our vision to the left or to the north. The Viminal Hill lies mainly beyond our vision range to the left ; you cannot distinguish any particular elevation from here. We should constantly refer to the map in order to get a definite idea of these locations. Just over this near tower we see the Capitoline Hill. The dark foliage of trees shows its outline fairly well, and the tower of the present Capitol, built upon the remains of the ancient Tabularium, rises prominently above it. Farther to the right is another tree-covered elevation against which we see outlined a nearer tower with a pyramidal roof. That is the Palatine Hill. Against the skyline, seen over the cypresses on this hill, we can discover the massive walls of the Colosseum. Just beyond and between the two hills last pointed out, the Palatine and the Capitoline, lies the Roman Forum, extending, as our map shows, from the building beneath the Capitol Tower on the Capitoline Hill off to the right toward the Colosseum. We will not stop now to think about that spot, fascinating at it is. Later we shall go and stand among its crowded ruins. Between these two hills and a little beyond them, we can see the gigantic arches of the Basilica of Constantine, which stand on the farther side of the Forum. Beyond the arches, covered with buildings. that make up part of the sky-line, is all that is left of the Esquiline Hill. There, though we can hardly distinguish them, are the ruins of the Baths of Titus, built on a part of the site of Nero’s Golden Palace ; and on that hill, we remember, was the Villa of Maecenas where Horace was a constant guest; and from a tower in that villa Nero saw the burning of this city to the slow music of his own violin while he revelled in what he called ” the splendor and witchery of the flames.” When the line of Euripides was quoted to him, ” When I am dead, sink the whole world in flames,” he replied, ” Nay, while I live!” Vergil also lived on that Esquiline Hill, near the gardens of Maecenas.

To the right of the Palatine Hill and scarcely separated from it, is another mound which extends beyond our vision limit. That is the Caelian Hill. Farther to our right, entirely hidden from us here, is the Aventine.

During the course of the centuries the summits of these mound-like elevations have been levelled off, and the intervening valleys have been largely filled up. It is evident, though, that the hills were never very high. Their respective height above sea level is as follows :

Capitoline, 157 feet; Palatine, 166 feet; Caelian, 158 feet; Viminal (railway station), 187 feet; Esquiline, 177 feet; Quirinal (Porta Pia), 206 feet; Aventine, 150 feet.

But beyond all that comes within our present range of vision, is the land of Italy, stretching away on all sides of us. Off in front of us and to the left, not over twenty miles away, are the Sabine mountains, the foothills of the Apennine mountains; not more than fifteen miles toward the southeast, on our right, must be the Alban hills, and directly to our right, only fifteen miles away is the sea. Back of us, or rather over our left shoulder, are the hills of Tuscany ; and still farther away in that direction are Florence and Milan; and still farther, three or four hundred miles distant, is Switzerland, a part of the Gaul of Caesar’s day. Greece, Asia Minor and the East, whither so many armies went from Italy, lie far away before us; while Carthage, toward which the Romans on these hills turned their thoughts in bitter hatred for so many centuries, lies not more than three hundred and fifty miles to our right. We are standing, then, not only in the midst of Rome, but also in the midst of the Roman Empire.

At present, however, we are to give most of our attention to this city of Rome itself, and in order to simplify what otherwise might be perplexing to the average tourist who looks out on this mass of buildings, we shall try to think of the objects of interest be-fore us in the order of their antiquity ; that is, in relation to the five different periods into which we have divided this city’s past in our ” Story of Rome.”

There is probably no structure that we now see in the landscape before us which has come down to us from the old Kingly period (753 to 509 B. C.). The Tabularium on which is the Tower of the Capitol, just pointed out, belongs to the Republican period (5o9 to 31 B. C.). Of the buildings belonging to the time of the Empire (31 B. C. to 476 A. D.), we can see dimly the ruins of the palaces of the Caesars on the Palatine, the walls of the Colosseum (81 A. D.) just beyond, and the arches of the Basilica of Constantine (312 A. D.), between the Palatine and the Capitoline Hills.

Let us proceed to give our attention to some of the churches before us that were founded during the period of the Empire. For instance, notice again that noble, old square tower near us, a little to our left, pierced with windows and surmounted by a statue of the Virgin. That tower belongs to the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, supposed to be the first church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin. Tradition says Pope Calixtus I, A. D. 224, founded the church on this site because a spring of pure oil miraculously burst forth at the time of the birth of Christ and flowed down to the Tiber. From this came the name of the church, in early days, that of Fons Olei. A story is told that the tavern-keepers contended with the early Christians for this site, upon which the fatter had reared a humble chapel, and that the matter being referred to the Emperor, Alexander Severus, he decided in favor of the Christians, saying, ” I prefer that it should belong to those who worship God, whatever be their religion.”

The church, the greater part of which extends toward us from the tower, has been frequently restored. The tower is ancient, being nearly one thousand years old. On one of the walls of this church is an old inscription supposed to date from the time of Trajan. Between the doors is said to be preserved the stone which was attached to S. Calixtus when he was thrown into the well. The nave is supported by Ionic capitals, some of which are decorated with heads of pagan gods. In this church are preserved some beautiful mosaics of birds found in the catacombs, and also an Assumption of the Virgin. It would be interesting to go down and enter this quaint old structure and hear the music roll through the ” long-drawn aisles ” and see the flood of light stream through the violet window panes and fall athwart the opus-alexandrinum pavement. In this church there is, at the side door, a marble slab built into the wall, which is said to have lain by Peter’s cross, and in which marks like foot-prints are to be found. The sacristan of the church repeats the old story that these marks were left by the angels that stood around the dying Peter.

The tall buildings just to the right of the church, directly in front of us, enclosing a garden, are used by the Benedictine monks of St. Paul as a summer residence and monastery and the square tower with the peaked summit beyond these buildings belongs to the fine Church of S. Crisogono, supposed to date from the time of Constantine and certainly known in 499, though it has been restored several times. Near that church in 1866 an excubitorium or ” station house ” of the Seventh Cohort of Vigies, the Roman firemen and police guards of the early centuries, was discovered. The rooms are in a fair state of preservation and show numerous graffiti or wall inscriptions drawn by the occupants.

Now direct your attention once more to the Tower of the Capitol on the Capitoline Hill. Just to the left of this tower and almost directly over the bell-tower of the Church of S. Maria in Trastevere are seen in the distance the two domes and campanile of the Church of S. Maria Maggiore. That church or basilica stands upon a slight eminence, the northern spur of the Esquiline Hill where Servius Tullius had a palace, and is at once simple and sublime. We find its location on the map between the names of the Viminal and Esquiline Hills. That church ranks third among the great churches here, and is the largest and finest of the eighty churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin. It is, in some respects, the most beautiful and harmonious basilica in the city. It is also one of the oldest church structures remaining in Rome and possibly in Christendom, having been founded in A. D. 352 by Pope Liberius to commemorate, it is said, a miraculous fall of snow on the fourth of August which covered only the site of the church. The Virgin, appearing in a vision, announced that she had set apart this ground for a church to be called by her name.

In honor of this vision, on the fifth of August each year the feast of La Madonna Della Neve is held there, during which showers of white rose petals are thrown down through openings in the ceiling of the church, like a “leafy mist between the priests and the worshippers.” The great campanile erected by Gregory XI in 1376 on his return from Avignon, is the highest tower in Rome. This church has a nave, two hundred and eighty feet long and sixty broad, supported by two rows of white Ionic columns, so chaste and simple that you might well imagine yourself in a Greek temple. The pillars are surmounted by a frieze of resplendent mosaic pictures representing Old Testament scenes which were executed in A. D. 440, and yet they are so fresh and glowing that he who beholds them might well believe that they were but finished that very morning. The mosaic pavement, with its crimson and violet hues, softens the white and gold of the ceiling and the walls, for the flat roof is gilded with gold from the first fruits of the Spanish-American invasion and presented to the church by Ferdinand and Isabella. The general effect viewed from the great entrance is entrancingly beautiful. It is said that the glistening columns, that add so much to the grace and purity of the structure, were brought from a temple of Juno. In this church is the Santa Culla, that is, the cradle in which our Saviour is said to have been carried into Egypt, and it is shown to the people every Christ-mas eve. The world does not hold many other such remark-able temples of Christian worship, Well worthy is it to be one of the five patriarchal churches of Rome!

Right in front of the church, at the summit of the old Vicus Cyprins, on the Via S. Maria Maggiore, in a little house previously occupied by the poet, Pedo Albinovanus, is where, the poet Martial tells us, Pliny lived.

We are able then to look out here upon the very first Christian churches built in the world. What multitudes of churches have grown up from these early beginnings ! What a change these early churches inaugurated ! Even when these seats of Christian worship were first established, and for years afterwards, temples to the old Roman gods were still standing in this city. For nearly a thousand years the heathen temples had been the centers of the religious observances of the people. What bitter persecution these first representatives of the new faith had to meet ! In their struggles and oftentimes seeming defeat, they hardly realized how great was the movement of which they were the forerunners.

But before we turn from this place, we should give careful attention to the more modern district of the city at our feet. It is called the Trastevere, and is one of the most fascinating and characteristic parts of Rome. The people who live down under these roofs call themselves Eminenti and prove their right to the title by their stately and arrogant manners ; and, indeed, some scholars hold that the residents of this district are the only lineal descendants of the ancient Romans, and much may be said in favor of this theory. Their language is a peculiar dialect containing a larger number of purely Latin words and phrases than the ordinary Italian. They are far more revengeful than other Romans. They dwell largely by themselves and rarely marry except among their own people. They are physically a magnificent race, being stronger, handsomer and more graceful than their neighbors. A Trasteveran girl is often an ideal of Italian beauty :

” There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip, Nay, her foot speaks!”

A favorite expression of these people is ” I am a Roman of Rome ! ” (Romano di Roma!)

In this section of the city, more generally than elsewhere, the streets are sinuous, shadowy-like lanes, not unfrequently filled with odors of ancient vegetables and rancid oil. Into many of these tortuous thorough-fares the sun never shines. Open air cook-stalls are seen on every hand, for many of the people never light a fire at home ; dealers in cooked vegetables display steaming turnips, cauliflowers and spinach ; bakers’ shops offer bread, looking as hard and round as paving-stones; lottery offices are everywhere, wine-shops in abundance, while diminutive donkeys pull creaking carts over the uneven pavement, and the air resounds with the shouts of men, the cries of women and the screams of dirty-faced, tangled-haired children.

Barber chairs are placed against the walls of buildings in the open air. It costs one cent to fell a beard of a month’s growth.

Such street scenes were much the same as early as Domitian’s time. In fact, open-air shops became such a nuisance that the emperor was compelled to do away with them. “The audacious shopkeepers,” says Martial (vii, 6i), “had appropriated to themselves the whole city and a man’s thresh-old was not his own. You, Germanicus (Domitian) bade the narrow streets grow wide; and what but just before was a pathway became a highway. No column is now girt at the bottom with chained wine flagons; nor is the praetor compelled to walk in the midst of mud, nor again, is the barber’s razor drawn blindly in the midst of the crowd, nor does the black cook-shop project over every street. The barber, the inn-keeper, the cook, the butcher keep their own places. The city is now Rome, recently, it was a great shop.” It would seem as though another Domitian were now needed.

It is an interesting sight to see the Trasteverini going home from their work at the evening time, their jackets slung jauntily over one shoulder, as with stately strides they pass along the darkening streets with “the lights twinkling in the little cavernous shops.”

Here in the Trastevere, also, the famous and distinctly Italian game of ” morra” originated, and here it can be seen played to the best advantage. The word “morra ” expresse the idea of delay or check, and the game consists in presenting very suddenly to your opponent your right hand, keeping one or two fingers shut, and in crying at the .same time the number of fingers extended. Your partner is required to seize your intention with lightning-like rapidity, and is compelled at the same time to imitate you and to pronounce the number quite as rapidly. Failure to do so loses the count, and, if repeated, the game. In the excitement which accompanies the playing the Trasteverini often assume attitudes of ferocious grace and beauty.

If a man is honest and straight, the Trasteverini have a saying, ” So trustworthy, that one may play morra with him in the dark.”

You must observe that these houses have an original aspect, which is interesting by itself. They are not simply piles of masonry, merely convenient and expressionless lodgings. The roofs of many of them are enclosed by a wall or balustrade, and answer as airy promenades, when they are not used for drying clothes, for which they serve, as the poles reared at intervals along the roof indicate. Ugly as many of these houses are, they still compel you to stop and take a second look at them.

Glance again at that monastery garden beyond the nearest roof, hemmed in by tall brick buildings, then notice over the roof of the building, at the further end of the garden, the pyramidal tower of the Church of S. Crisogono; well, to the left of this campanile, only farther away, and situated on the other side of the river under the hill was the Ghetto, the Jewish quarter of Rome, in a labyrinth of crooked streets and foul gutters, the dark courts discharging pungent odors and the crumbling steps clinging to walls reeking with the filth of centuries.

The word Ghetto comes from the Hebrew word “chat,” broken or dispersed. The Jews first settled there in the time of Pompey the Great, after he had taken Jerusalem and brought the first Jewish slaves to Rome; and Vespasian, while always allowing Jews great freedom, taxed them the half shekel, formerly paid into the Temple treasury at Jerusalem, to Jupiter Capitolinus, and this tax, under another name, is still demanded of them. They attained fame as physicians long after their persecutions had begun; and even as late as the fifteenth century, the chief physicians at the Vatican were Jews. This district was enclosed by Paul IV by putting gates across the streets, and he compelled the Jews to remain in their quarters from sundown to sunrise. As a result of their restricted quarters the inhabitants of the Ghetto, about five thousand, performed all their vocations, commercial and domestic, in the streets. Their homes were so dilapidated and ill-kept that they were hardly endurable. You could never miss the Ghetto, for the odor was very marked even at a distance. So unbearable, at length, did it become that the Roman authorities have had the entire dimtrict leveled, but the soil is so reeking with filth that it still pollutes that part of the city. It has been laid waste for several years now, but no building will be permitted upon it until it is thoroughly purified by sun and rain, which will require some time.

We said not long ago that the Aventine Hill lay beyond the limit of our vision on the right. It is in that direction, too, some fifteen miles beyond the city limits, that the Alban Hills are situated, the site of Alba Longa, Rome’s mother city. We will now look in that direction. That is, while remaining at this same place on the Janiculum Hill we shall turn so far toward the right, or south, that the solid building on the Caelian Hill now on our extreme right will then be at the extreme left of our field of vision. The general map of Rome will make this next position definite. We found before on the map that there were four red lines branching toward the east and south from our position on the Janiculum Hill. We are now to see that part of Rome which is included between the second of these lines from the top and the lowest line. At the end of each of these lines on the map margin we find the figure 3.