(The scene of the crime)
I was waiting for the metro at Termini the other day (see my post here on why Termini is allucinante) when I had a disturbing encounter. I noticed an agitated woman shuffling along the platform in flip-flops. As a general rule, if you see someone wearing flip-flops in central Rome they’re either a) a tourist or b) homeless and/or mentally ill. This woman belonged to the second category, and was shouting.
I moved away from the edge of the platform (too many horror stories about people being pushed) and watched her approach a rubbish bin and start rummaging around. She pulled out a few things, including a stick of corn on the cob, and then turned to glare at me. I don’t know if she’d noticed me watching her, or if I just happened to be the nearest person. “Fatti cazzi tuoi!” she shouted at me, waving the corn as if it were a knife. And then, still thrusting the corn in my direction, she said something so vulgar it doesn’t bear repeating. I quickly sidled away, and was relieved when a friend arrived out of nowhere – coincidentally she had been at the other end of the platform, and watched the bizarre scene unfold.
I know there’s nothing particularly significant about what happened. These things happen. (Especially at Termini). But I’ve been feeling increasingly cynical about Rome recently, for various reasons, and this incident is one of many that seems to represent the absurdity and degradation of Rome. There are many others. Valeriano having to call the police in order to make the security guy let him into the INPS office. The group of citizens who “illegally” fix some of Rome’s 10,000 potholes. The inexplicable, long-term closure of three of the most central metro stations.
I don’t want to become one of those bitter, moaning expats, but when nothing works, it can be difficult. Usually, when an Italian asks me why I chose to leave London for Rome, I launch into the story about how I fell in love with the Eternal City as a student – the weather, the food, the art, the history, Keats and Shelley and Testaccio…But most recently, when a teenage student asked me why I’d moved to Rome, I replied, “Oh, you know. Pizza, pasta, mandolino.” (Italians joke about these stereotypes. It’s like someone saying they moved to the UK for tea, Big Ben and the Royal Family).
I needed something to put things in perspective, to stop this slide into cynicism, and it came in an unexpected form.
I finally got round to reading one of my Christmas presents – Matthew Kneale’s alternative history of Rome. This book has seven chapters, each focusing on a moment that Rome was attacked, from the Gauls in the 4th century BC to the Nazis. As well as explaining the context and main players of the battle, Kneale gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Romans at the time. What did they eat? How often did they wash? What were the streets like at night? So many books focus on Ancient Rome and Renaissance Rome, on emperors, popes and artists. It was refreshing to read about living conditions for ordinary Romans in the Middle Ages for a change.
Kneale is also a novelist, which might be why he’s so successful at bringing the past to life. The most moving section was on the Nazi occupation, probably because it’s so recent, and feels so real – the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, or the Jews being rounded up in the Ghetto – but the whole book is filled with vivid anecdotes, humour and tragedy. One fact that really stuck with me is that in Renaissance Rome, with the ancient aqueducts no longer in use, Romans were forced to drink the filthy water of the Tiber. Drinking the water of the modern day river doesn’t particularly appeal, but it was even more foul then – the Tiber was essentially an open sewer, filled with corpses. Visitors were disgusted, but Romans were proud of their water. Pope Clement even brought a barrel of Tiber water with him when he left the city, claiming he couldn’t drink anything else.
I was shocked by the descriptions of the Sack of Rome in 1527, which Kneale describes as “Rome’s 9/11”. People were thrown alive into the river. Ordinary people – women and children – were slaughtered in the street. There are reports that men were tortured, castrated, made to eat parts of their own body. As if the violence were not enough, the plague arrived. Food was scarce. And then the Tiber burst its banks, and more died in the flood. Literally the only person who was having a good time was Benvenuto Cellini: “My drawing, my wonderful studies and my lovely music were all forgotten in the music of the guns, and if I told all the great things I did in that cruel inferno, I would astonish the world.”
1527 is obviously an extreme example – Rome at its most miserable. But as I turned the pages, I was forced to reflect on the fact that the average Roman, over the course of history, has had a pretty grim existence. Even if you were lucky enough to avoid war, your chances of being a slave, being raped/tortured/murdered, dying of the plague, dying in childbirth, dying of starvation, or just suffering the general pains of existence, were very high indeed.
So, what’s my point? Not that we should stop criticising modern Rome’s shortcomings, or that we should shrug off our problems, constantly telling ourselves that it could be worse. (“Sigh! Another sciopero! But least I’m not an orphan in 1527, hoping to die of the plague before the marauding troops arrive.”)
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that everything was better in the past.* To hark back to the good old days, when Rome wasn’t covered in rubbish, when the trains ran on time, when the city was shiny and beautiful, one of the wonders of the world. But what do we mean when we talk about the decline of Rome? Was everything so much better before? Perhaps for a brief period – from the end of the Second World War to the 1990s – things were to some extent “better”, compared to today. It’s debatable. And even if it is true, that period covers just a few decades, a mere blip in Rome’s 3,000 year history.
Rome has a multitude of problems that need fixing, from the decrepit public transport system to the rubbish crisis, but let’s try to keep things in perspective. Focus on the positives. I recently watched a video about how it’s human nature to fixate on the negatives while ignoring the positives. (Caveman brains in the 21st century). When you compare Rome in 2019 to almost any other year in the past, it’s actually pretty wonderful. No war, plague, flooding, slavery or starvation. For the minority that are suffering, help is available, whether from charity, the church, or just ordinary human kindness. And I’m one of the lucky ones. My equivalent in Rome of the past – a foreign, unmarried woman – would not have felt as safe walking the streets, and would not have had my rights. I have a job and a roof over my head, and I don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. I enjoy modern luxuries like a washing machine, air conditioning, and a bathroom. (In 1931, only 1 in 10 Roman apartments had their own bathroom).
Rome is far from perfect, but I would argue that there’s really no such thing as a perfect city, in any time, in any place. It’s all relative.
So, my advice? Go and read a history book, and then enjoy a gelato in the sunshine. It could be better, but really, it could be so much worse.
I originally wrote “better in the pasta” before I realised my mistake. See what living in Italy has done to me?