Guiding Strangers through Rome - Plautus, Propertius,
Vergil, Ovid, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Petrarch (1)
Is there any traveller who has not had reason to sigh like this: "The guides were going through their prearranged program, paying no heed to us who begged that they would cut short these harangues and their expounding of most of the inscriptions". However, this is not the com-plaint of an angry customer who has written a letter to his travel agency in order to get a refund. No, it is the expression of displeasure uttered some 1900 years ago by Plutarch, the priest at the oracle of Delphi. Living at this focus of ancient tourism, he had to watch the periegetai, as they were called in Greek(2) , every day and got angry at their shameless behavior and vain words.(3)
One can gather from the scattered testimonia that those periegetai were to be met in every place, where tourists or pilgrims could be expected. They were so prevalent that it was not considered unreasonable to fear that one could not escape from them even in the Underworld, as Lucian tells us.(4) Their reputation was notoriously bad, but on the other hand they were indispensible: How else could a stranger find his way through an unknown city, if he had no host there, or how else could he get in-formed on the various local objects of interest? Even Herodotus (pa-ter historiae) sometimes got his information from such guides.
When they approached a big city like Rome for the first time, many visitors might have shared the feelings of Tityrus, the shep-herd in Vergil's first Eclogue, who later tells his friend Meliboeus (Verg. ecl. 1,19-25):
stultus ego huic nostrae similem, quo saepe solemus
pastores ovium teneros depellere fetus.
sic canibus catulos similis, sic matribus haedos
noram, sic parvis componere magna solebam.
verum haec tantum alias inter caput extulit urbes
quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.
It is - at least at first glance - astonishing, how seldom ancient literature takes account of experiences like the one expressed by Tityrus - a feeling of elementary alienation in a mysterious environment. In most cases the authors presume that their audience is well aware of the text's topographical context. Few, but well-aimed keywords are sufficient to evoke in imagination the association of the real places: There is no need for comprehensiveness, even when these places are an essential part of the text.
Typical examples are Aristophanes' comedies, which can be completely understood only if one includes the reality of living conditions in Athens in one's considerations.(5) Another good example is Horace's satura 1,9 ibam forte via sacra: This satire's point - sic me servavit Apollo - is an allusion to the erection of the temple for Apollo Palatinus in the years following Actium.(6) Only a few texts have such complete information that readers not familiar with the locality are not at a loss, but can find their imaginary way along with the author. In what follows I will try to shed some light on the factors that are responsible for this very special genre within ancient literature. I will leave aside the Greek literature and - following the advice of the genius loci -will rather concentrate on the paradeigma Rome. The capital of the Imperium Romanum - both a political and intellectual center - is particularly well suited to such a study.
Rather than compile an anthology I will try to explain under which circumstances sightseeing tours through cities can become a topic in Latin literature and what can be learned from this phenomenon about the structure of Latin literature in general.
Tityrus' words reveal Vergil's autobiographical experience, for neither was he born in Rome, but rather in a small village, in Andes near Mantova. He shares this provincial origin with so many other Latin poets who, despite their rural beginnings, prove an intimate familiarity with the urban face of Rome: most of their imaginary sightseeing tours are for experts, not novices.
This observation is already true for the earliest example extant in Latin literature, the interlude in Plautus' Curculio.(7) The Choragus, the manager, seizes the opportunity that the stage is empty for a moment and directly addresses the audience. For our purposes, it is not necessary to discuss whether this scene is genuine or a later addition. Its comic appeal is not affected whether the passage was written by Plautus himself or by an interpolator(8) , but if the latter is the case, there is no chronological problem in identifying the basilica as the Basilica Porcia (built in 184) (Plaut. Curc. 462ff.):
halapantam an sycophantam magis esse dicam nescio.
ornamenta quae locavi metuo ut possim recipere;
quamquam cum istoc mihi negoti nihil est: ipsi Phaedromo
credidi; tamen asservabo. sed dum hic egreditur foras,
commonstrabo, quo in quemque hominem facile inveniatis loco,
ne nimio opere sumat operam si quem conventum velit,
vel vitiosum vel sine vitio, vel probum vel improbum.
qui periurum convenire volt hominem ito in comitium;
qui mendacem et gloriosum, apud Cloacinae sacrum,
ditis damnosos maritos sub basilica quaerito.
ibidem erunt scorta exoleta quique stipulari solent,
symbolarum collatores apud forum piscarium.
in foro infimo boni homines atque dites ambulant,
in medio propter canalem, ibi ostentatores meri;
confidentes garrulique et malevoli supera lacum,
qui alteri de nihilo audacter dicunt contumeliam
et qui ipsi sat habent quod in se possit vere dicier.
sub veteribus, ibi sunt qui dant quique accipiunt faenore.
pone aedem Castoris, ibi sunt subito quibus credas male.
in Tusco vico, ibi sunt homines qui ipsi sese venditant,
[in Velabro vel pistorem vel lanium vel haruspicem]
vel qui ipsi vorsant vel qui aliis ubi vorsentur praebeant.
[ditis damnosos maritos apud Leucadiam Oppiam.]
sed interim fores crepuere: linguae moderandum est mihi.
This scene is an alien element in the Curculio plot. Nowhere else in this comedy is Rome mentioned, so we can guess that the author aims at the perception of his Roman audience that is surprised when suddenly the real surroundings are commented on from the stage. Considering that this digression is well calculated and judging from the Choragus' perspective we can even conclude that the stage was in the Forum itself. Here during the Republican era the ludi gladiatorii were performed and also some of the wooden theatres had their place.(9) We can even gather from the sequence of the topographical names that the stage was in the Northwest corner of the Forum Romanum beneath the temple of Saturnus. Not a literary but the real marketplace is the subject of this interlude, of course - according to the decorum of the literary genos - in a satiric disguise. It is not implausible that while the choragus was speaking his part, by chance there were really trials going on or a business was trans-acted nearby. And the spectators could compare those people with the types enumerated by the choragus.
To sum up: The Forum was a topographical mirror of Roman constitution(10) and society, a fact that Plautus demonstrates in a satiric way. Plautus enacts a sightseeing tour for experts, who appreciate parody and the comic effect.
Plautus' scenario was the inspiration for Ovid, who offers in Ars Amatoria 1 a similar sightseeing tour through Rome, this time not intended for experts of dubious machinations, but instead for strollers in search of girls. Plautus was born in Umbria; Ovid was the gloria Paelignae gentis. Umbria was also the home of another poet: Propertius. In some modern editions his elegy 4,1 is entitled "Stadtführung" (sightseeing tour) (Prop. 4,1,1-16):
ante Phrygem Aenean collis et herba fuit;
atque ubi Navali stant sacra Palatia Phoebo,
Euandri profugae concubuere boves.
fictilibus crevere deis haec aurea templa,
nec fuit opprobrio facta sine arte casa;
Tarpeiusque Pater nuda de rupe tonabat,
et Tiberis nostris advena murus erat.
qua gradibus domus ista, Remi se sustulit olim:
unus erat fratrum maxima regna focus.
Curia, praetexto quae nunc nitet alta senatu,
pellitos habuit, rustica corda, Patres.
bucina cogebat priscos ad verba Quirites:
centum illi in prati saepe senatus erat.
nec sinuosa cavo pendebant vela theatro,
pulpita sollemnis non oluere crocos.
At first sight, Propertius creates the atmosphere of a complete tour through Rome, during which he describes Rome's most important buildings to a guest from abroad using the olim-nunc-scheme. But a closer look reveals neither a topographical sequence for a walk nor a fixed point for a panoramic view and soon Propertius loses his interest in this motive and turns to Roman history: his purpose is not to provide information on the various houses, streets or the river as such. For a complete narrated walk through the city of his own present, a regular daily affair, apparently did not pose a sufficient poetic challenge. Propertius uses this rather brief citation from reality as a means to put his audience in the midst of Rome and to lay the ground for his aitiological narrative.
There is one important exception to this general observation that extensive descriptions of one's own city are usually avoided: When a poet has an additional special intention on his mind, he can use such a tour as a vehicle to grasp his reader's hand and lead him through Rome. The best known instance of this is in the eighth book of Vergil's Aeneid: Aeneas has finally arrived at the future site of Rome as guided through it by the native king Evander. One can easily follow their way on any city plan, ancient or modern, or even really walk in their footsteps through Rome: they start at the Ara Maxima (near the modern Bocca della Verità), then pass along the mons Tarpeius, the Capitolium and the Arx, and having crossed the Forum they finally arrive on the Palatine. Evander explains the meaning and history of each and every place, for example (Verg. Aen. 8,355-358):(11)
reliquias veterumque vides monimenta virorum.
hanc Ianus pater, hanc Saturnus condidit arcem;
Ianiculum huic, illi fuerat Saturnia nomen.
In some cases the poet himself weaves in the references to the conditions of his own time, providing a modern place name:(12)
pauperis Euandri, passimque armenta videbant
Romanoque foro et lautis mugire Carinis.
Hints like this encourage readers to apply their own knowledge about present urban reality to a situation from the past. As the poet indicates the lines of sight, he transports the audience into the midst of the action. For the two heroes are walking in the heart of Augustan Rome: The mons Capitolinus is the traditional centre of Roman religion, the forum is the place for business and judicial actions, and finally the mons Palatinus is the new seat of political and religious power.
As Evander teaches Aeneas the stranger, who has come from a topographically remote region, Vergil informs his readers on how things were in a chronologically remote distance. By stressing the diachronic continuity, he contributes to the dignity of his own time's status. Vergil's tour through Rome therefore does not intend to evoke an everyday experience, but sheds light on the city from an exotic perspective – the perspective of a stranger from a far-distanced place and time.
Some thirty years later another poet makes use of Vergil's poetic device, whereby it is proved how poetically useful this invention was: In this manner Ovid starts the third book of the Tristia, the sad elegies from the Black Sea where he was exiled by Augustus. As the author is compelled to stay away from Rome, the book itself has to look for a guide (Ov. trist. 3,1,1-4): (13)
quasque petam sedes hospes in urbe liber."
haec ubi sum furtim lingua titubante locutus,
qui mihi monstraret, vix fuit unus, iter.
This seems to reflect reality like nowhere else in ancient literature. Nevertheless it must have happened every day that strangers, who came from abroad to the city of Rome with her circa one million inhabitants and who did not have friends that could help them, had to ask their way under great difficulties. It is not pure chance that the verb monstrare, which Ovid uses here, is the equivalent to the Latin term for tourist guide, monstrator.
The following description of the book's way takes its starting point from the fora of Caesar and Augustus.(14) Like in Vergil before, Ovid's words stress especially the visual impression (27-34):
`haec est a sacris quae via nomen habet;
hic locus est Vestae, qui Pallada servat et ignem;
haec fuit antiqui regia parva Numae.'
inde petens dextram, `porta est' ait `ista Palati;
hic Stator, hoc primum condita Roma loco est'.
singula dum miror, video fulgentibus armis
conspicuos postes tectaque digna deo.
In what follows Ovid gives an ample description of the emperor's house with the iconographic references to the most important gods: Iuppiter, with the corona civica, and Apollo, with the laurel trees.
But there is a basic difference between Ovid's monstrator and Vergil's Evander: Ovid directs the book's attention not so much to the remains from the past but to the architecture of the Augustan present: The Forum Iulium and the Forum Augustum, both completed by Augustus, the aedes Vestae and the regia, where Augustus had his official seat as pontifex maximus, the temple of Iuppiter Stator, restored by Augustus, and finally as the climax of the tour, the Palatine with the temple for Apollo Palatinus and the princeps' house. For an inhabitant of Rome this was of course not new. But the admiration beyond all bounds, as expressed by the libellus, perfectly illustrates the reaction of a stranger from a barbarian coun-ry. This impression is clearly aimed at by Ovid's narrative focus.
Having finished the touristy part of the tour, we learn the very purpose of the journey: the book visits the public libraries. The most important of which are fortunately situated near the palace, in the Porticus Danaidum close by the temple for Apollo Palatinus. There Augustus had built them as a part of his imperial architectural program. But once deemed personae non gratae, Ovid's carmina were removed from the public libraries. And there is no clemency for the Tristia either, so the book cannot enter. Alone it steps down on the other side of the Palatine to the Circus Maximus, walks across the Forum Boarium and Forum Holitorium to the theatre of Marcellus (69-72):
haec quoque erant pedibus non adeunda meis.
nec me quae doctis patuerunt prima libellis,
Atria Libertas tangere passa sua est.
With this periphrasis, Ovid alludes to the public libraries in the Porticus Octaviae and in the Atrium Libertatis. The latter was founded by Asinius Pollio, who first had the idea of establishing such a service to the public. The statements on urban topography are now getting less concrete and Ovid gradually says goodbye to his fiction: Only Roman readers can know that with this last detail the circle is completed: The Atrium Libertatis is situated close to the forum Caesaris, where Ovid had his book's tour start.
The monumental center of Rome remained the primary interest of authors over the centuries, as is confirmed by this last example from antiquity: in a description equivalent in reality to the imaginary travels of Aeneas' or Ovid's Tristia book, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus(15) writes of the Augustus Constantius' first visit to Rome in May 357 A.D.(16) The Roman senate spares no effort to arrange an impressive program for the monarch. For even though in the meantime Constantinople had become the capital and thus had superseded the old capital,(17) Rome still felt that it was the home of the empire and of all virtues - imperii virtutumque omnium lar, as Ammianus addresses her in the introduction. Constantius starts his official visit at the Forum (Amm. Marc.16,10,13f.):
Up to now all the places Constantius has seen also played an important role in Vergil's and Ovid's tours.
Now Constantius takes up quarters probably in the emperor's palace on the Palatine. From there he makes his sightseeing tours. Unlike in Plautus, Vergil or Ovid we can't get a continuous topographical sequence of the places that Constantius visits, a round beginning and ending at a defined place. Obviously, Constantius makes several excursions that bring him directly to those places that are of specific interest to him.
Apart from the time-honoured temple of Iuppiter Capitolinus and from the theatre of Pompeius built during the late Republic, Constantius primarily sees monuments that were erected in the late first or early second century A.D.: From Flavian times originate the Colosseum, the Forum Vespasiani or Forum Pacis, the Odeon, the stadium of Domitian (the Piazza Navona). Constantius also visited buildings by Hadrian: the temple of Venus and Roma and the Pantheon in the shape as it still exists today. In addition, the honorary columns for emperors are mentioned: still today we can see the columna Traiani and the columna Marci (for Marcus Aurelius). Ammianus leaves the buildings from later times almost aside, only baths are mentioned in a kind of summary: They are said to have been as big as whole provinces, obviously an allusion to the Thermae of Caracalla and Diocletian.
The most impressive part - the climax of Constantius' visit - is the forum Traiani. And now he finds himself in the same situation as Vergil's Tityrus: Rome is beyond the scope of all standards of comparison that are available to non-Romans:
These words also express the emperor's displeasure about the equestrian monument which was installed in his honor on the Forum Romanum and which could obviously not reach the splendor of monuments from earlier times. Nevertheless, foremost they illustrate a common impression in late antiquity: that it is a time of decline, impossible to be com-pared with the past ages of ancestors.(18)
It is equally instructive to see what Constantius is not shown, or what Ammianus does not tell us: Missing from his tour are the remains of Rome's earliest times, possibly because they would have paled before the monumental buildings of the imperial period. Missing too is the huge basilica at the edge of the Forum Romanum, which Maxentius had begun and Constantinus Magnus had completed. This was doubtless a very impressive building, but not from the great times of Rome. Other obvious omissions are the numerous churches - just think of St. Peter's church or the Lateran Basilica -, by which Constantinus Magnus had promoted the Christian religion, which had privileges over the other religions since 313. But in 357 the Roman senate still felt loyal to the traditional Roman faith and gods and considered both the upgrading of Christianity and the change of the seat of government unjustified measures. It was therefore logical that the senate and its supporters were especially proud of buildings from that era when the Imperium Romanum had reached its greatest height. Ammianus is a faithful witness to this tendency.(19) It is more than pure chance that in his narration, Trajan - the emperor who had led Rome to the heights of expansion - also left the most impressive architectural monument: his Forum.
The program for the visit was successful: Before that Constantius had sympathized with the Christian religion, now he was impressed by the splendor of the pagan past and changed his politics. But the magnificent remains cannot obscure the fact Rome had already become a kind of open-air museum of its own great times.(20) This is reflected in Ammianus' words: Constantius arrives from a geographical far distance to a city that had its zenith long ago in a temporal far distance.
The deep gap between the epoch of Rome's glory and one's own real impression exists to an even greater degree for people from the Middle Ages than for Constantius and Ammianus. So in the final leg of our journey we will step beyond the limits of antiquity and have a look at the Renaissance, when both ancient thoughts and ancient topography were rediscovered: now we are dealing with Francesco Petrarch.
In 1337 he came for the first time to Rome, when the city was sufferring its deepest humiliation, having not only lost the emperor's residence to Constantinople, but also the pope's seat to Avignon - the years of the Babylonian Captivity of the Roman church. Despite being overwhelmed by his first impression of Rome, Petrarch can only become silent and marvel at the remains. In a letter, dated the Ides of March and written on the Capitoline, he tells his friend Giovanni Colonna :
It takes half a year until he regains the power to speak about Rome, at least in a letter, and then he recalls how he had strolled through Rome with his friend. He combines his own individual memory with the cultural memory (fam. 6,2):
While looking back Petrarch does not mention the places in their topographical context or in the sequence of his visit, but rather in a chronological series, a short history of Rome: From Aeneas in prehistoric times via the republic and the empire (Augus-tus) to the assumption of power by the Christians - history becomes a eÀn kaiì oÀlon.
Space becomes time: In Petrarch's recollection the tour through the city is transformed from a real event into an ideal order. Roma aeterna, now lying in her own ruins, resurrects in imagination: it becomes - using the expression of Aleida Assmann - an "Erin-nerungslandschaft", a landscape of memory.(21) This memory forms a synthesis of pagan and Christian Rome.
But Petrarch can extricate himself from the muteness and silence. He makes use of his recollection for poetic purposes in his great Latin epic Africa praising the deeds of Scipio Africanus. In book eight, the Carthagian Hasdrubal desires to be admitted to Rome, in order to negotiate with the senate. And to this fictive persona occur experiences nearly identical to Constantius (as described in the visit chronicled by Ammianus Marcellinus). Hasdrubal too is deeply impressed by the eternal city and admiring the buildings he becomes a friend of the inhabitants (Petrarca, Africa 8,860ff.):
prima viros; magno mox obvia moenia giro
Pallantea vident, quo structa est regia monte
Euandri primusque novae locus inclitus urbis;
hic elementa notis impressa, hic Archados almae
divinum ingenium et miracula maxima rerum
monstrator docet ipse viae librosque repertos
fatidicae Carmentis opus, quantumque Latinis
contulit ingeniis mulier veneranda per aevum.
Coelius ad dextram remanet, fastigia laeva
collis Aventini, validasque in rupibus arces
suspiciunt antrumque vident ...
We must stop here, although Petrarch continues the description of the city for many more verses. Quantitatively it is the largest example of this literary genre - and not by pure chance: It is not the spatial, but the temporal distance that makes such an ample reference necessary, for Rome's greatness can only be detected in history. In this respect the contemporaries, even the Romans themselves, are in the same situation as Ovid's book from the barbarian shore of Tomi: They need a guide, a monstrator. This legitimates Petrarch's desire to go beyond the limits of his narrative: While watching Hasdrubal on his way through the Rome of the Scipionic age the poet mentions buildings from later times as well, so that we have a complete impression of the pagan past. I give just one example for this (903ff.):
debita, cui rerum princeps. Hinc valle relicta
Esquilias fessi dictumque a vimine collem,
inde Quirinalem superato vertice montem
transierant, nudoque duos astare gigantes
corpore conspiciunt - en quot certamina famae! -
Praxitelis opus Phidiaeque insigne supremi.
Let us draw some conclusions from our tour: An ancient author takes the role of a periegetes in relation to his audience for the following two reasons:
- A sightseeing tour through an unknown city - whether an imaginary one or a real one - increases the authenticity and credibility of the whole text and realizes the rhetorical principle of the pithanon.
- If an author guides his audience through his own city, either he recalls well-known places only by allusion or he takes the perspective of a geographical or temporal stranger. This alienation and the selection of what he demonstrates stands in the service of his global intention, as can be seen especially from the examples in Vergil and Ovid.
It does not matter whether a place really exists or not, but how much it is present in the writer's and the audience's mind. For that reason scholars are misguided if they only look for the "Realien," because they underestimate the importance of the particular cultural context of a text.
Both methods - the tour through the unknown and the tour through a familiar city – get their significance from the fact that those walks are something very special and thus can attract particular attention. In this respect, too, literature of antiquity differs from that of modern times, where the close nexus of understanding between author, reader and topographical ambience is loosened. We can immediately learn this from the fact that there are many more descriptions in which German or even Italian authors from the last two centuries made Rome the subject of their works: let me pars pro toto mention Jean Paul ("Titan", 1805), E.T.A. Hoffmann ("Prinzessin Brambilla", 1821) or Wolfgang Koeppen ("Tod in Rom". 1954). But dif-ferent from the perception of the modern reader, who is determined by his experience in literature and every-day-life, it is true that ancient literature is urban in a very special sense, it is related to the urbs or polis, where the authors can find their primary audience. And this audience does not want to be bored by lengthy explanations of well-known facts, the kind so thoroughly expounded by Plutarch's periegetai in Delphi, but fascinated by a consistent concept instead.
1 A Paper delivered at the Pacific Rim Seminar ,,Roma - Theatrum Mundi" (Rome, Temple University - Villa Caproni, June/July 1999). I have to thank Martha Davis for the invitation and especially Janice Siegel for the enormous help with the English translation. I have added only the necessary references, a larger German version of the paper (covering also Greek cities) will be published soon.
2 Cf. K. Ziegler, Kl. Pauly 4,1975,633 s.v. Periegetes; Pausanias's Description of Greece. Translated with a commentary by J.G. Frazer. Vol. I ND New York 1965. LXXVIf.; L. Friedländer: Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms in der Zeit von August bis zum Ausgang der Antonine. 9. Auflage von G. Wissowa. Bd. 1 Leipzig 1919. 389-488.
18 Maybe I should add that the traces of Trajan's horse have just been excavated, as I have learned from the Italian newspapers - at the moment the most important sources for archaeological news from Rome.
19 Cf. V. Neri: Ammiano e il Cristianesimo. Religione e politca nelle ,,Res gestae" di Ammiano Marcellino. Bologna 1985 (Studi di Storia Antica 11); K. Rosen: Ammianus Marcellinus. Darmstadt 1982 (EdF 183) 164-169.