By Isobel Lee
Rome is one of those cities which takes a while to reveal itself; a city of layers, which continues to reward archaeologists today with surprising finds. We’ve dug deep to come up with some unusual facts about the capital which even the better travelled among you might not have heard. Read on!
1. The water of the Tiber was once drinkable, and was actually considered excellent for the health. Back in the mists of time, when Rome was first founded, its early citizens relied on the river for their household needs, including drinking water. It was only in 331 BC that the first ever aqueduct was constructed by the Censor Appius, bringing clean water in from the Alban Hills. The Romans would go on to construct a total of 13 aqueducts, supplying water to private houses, fountains, thermal baths and for irrigation, although many citizens still relied on the Tiber. By late medieval times, many of the aqueducts had fallen into disuse, and travelling water sellers became an essential part of Roman life. Many of these sold flasks of water from the Tiber, sourced upstream, and left for several days to allow the sand to separate out. In 1693 Pietro Rossini wrote that it was “the best drinking water in Europe, thanks to the quantity of minerals that enrich it”.
2. It’s the Romans that can take credit for the introduction of cats into Europe, although the creatures weren’t quite as domesticated as those you can find today at the city’s cat sanctuaries at Largo Argentina and Testaccio. Cats were first brought to Europe by the Emperor Augustus, who annexed Egypt in 30BC. He plundered obelisks and other valuables to adorn the city of Rome, but his sailors also took cats onto their boats to keep the rats at bay. They proved useful during the voyage and even more invaluable once back in Rome for dealing with the city’s huge vermin problem.
3. Local legend swears that snow has fallen in Rome on August 5th – one of the hottest days of the year. The story goes back to the year 352AD when a rich, Roman patrician called John was visited by the Virgin Mary in a dream on the night of August 4th. John had no heirs and wanted to know how to use his wealth to serve the church; Mary told him that snow would fall the following morning and he should build a basilica in the very spot it settled. Pope Liberius had the same dream, and on the following day, ordered for the foundations of a new church to be traced exactly where the snow had fallen. Paid for by John, the Basilica came to be known as Santa Maria della Neve, or St. Mary of the Snow. Today the church of Santa Maria Maggiore stands on the spot where the ancient basilica was built; the architectural form that we can admire today dates back to 1750. Santa Maria Maggiore (meaning the greatest) takes its name from the fact that it is considered the most important of the churches dedicated to Mary in the city.
4. The origins of the name of one of Rome’s most famous churches, the Ara Ceoli, are shrouded in mystery. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which has also given its name to a piazza and a street, is one of the city’s finest churches. But the origins of its name are shrouded in myth. One legend recounts that the emperor Augustus heard a voice saying “Ecce ara primogeniti Dei”, on this spot (this is the altar of the first born of God) which inspired him to build one of the first temples on the Capitoline Hill. A reminder of this event can still be seen in the transept, where these words are carved over an arch. Another story says that the original high altar bore an inscription which read: Noscas quod Caesar tunc struxit Octavianus hanc ara, celi sacra proles cum patet ei (“You know that then Caesar Octavian erected this altar, when the offspring of heaven was revealed to him”). Celi is the genitive of proles, not ara, but the two words may have been read together. One of the most plausible reasons is the fact that the ancient citadel which once stood here, known as the Arx Capitolina, may have mutated into Arx Coeli with the establishment of Christianity, later Ara Coeli.
5. The largest tomb in Rome – the Pyramid of Cestius, which is a staggering 37 metres high - is actually empty. It’s the only Egyptian pyramid in the city, and was believed to be the burial place of Remus, according to popular tradition. However, it was actually built for a wealthy Roman called Cestius, who was struck by the trend for all things Egyptian, which occurred after Rome annexed Egypt. Believed to have been constructed between 18 and 12 BC, legend has it that Cestius failed to pay the builders for their work, so on his death, his remains were not interred here. It is understood that later treasures which were stored here were ransacked by thieves and since the land around the Piramide has changed drastically over the years, any other ancient artefacts were probably disturbed or removed. In more recent times, it was a source of inspiration for poets, with Percy Bysshe Shelley calling it “one keen pyramid with wedge sublime” in Adonaïs, his 1821 elegy for John Keats, who is buried next door. Thomas Hardy, on visiting Keats’ grave, wrote “who, then was Cestius / and what is he to me?” in his poem ‘Rome: At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats’. In 2015, restoration work, paid by a wealthy Japanese patron, returned the pyramid to its gleaming white glory.