Despite its grandiose monuments, most of Imperial Rome was a squalid maze jammed with crumbling tenement houses lining ten-foot alleys filled with tradesmen, vendors and pedestrians as well as the occasional falling brick or the contents of a chamber pot. Jugs of wine hung from tavern doors. The street noise was deafening. (“Show me the room that lets you sleep!” observed the satirist Juvenal. “Insomnia causes most deaths here.”) Rich and poor were squeezed together, along with immigrants from every corner of the empire—professors from Greece, courtesans from Parthia (modern Iraq), slaves from Dacia (Romania) and boxers from Aethiopia. Animal trainers, acrobats, fire-eaters, actors and storytellers filled the forums. (“Give me a copper,” went a refrain, “and I’ll tell you a golden story.”)
On my last day in Rome, I explored the urban depths: I lurched through the dismal Subura, a slum neighborhood where Romans lived in cramped, windowless rooms with no running water, and I peered into one of their unisex latrines, where they wiped themselves with a communal sponge. Around one corner, I stumbled onto a makeshift arena, where a fight was in progress: 400 Romans in tattered, grimy tunics howled with laughter as mangled corpses were dumped on carts and limbs lay about in pools of blood. A dog dashed in to grab a severed hand.
Soon, during a lull in the mayhem, a svelte, Gucci-clad Italian woman tottered across the bloody sand in stilettos, to touch up the makeup of one of the extras. This was Cinecittà, the sprawling film studio on the outskirts of Rome that some call the world.s greatest factory for images of ancient life. Such classics as Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur and Cleopatra were all shot here, as well as Fellini’s Satyricon.
HBO is filming its $100 million series “Rome” (which began airing August 28) on a five-acre set that re-creates the city in the last days of the Republic. Bruno Heller, the show’s cocreator, hopes that the series will do for antiquity what HBO’s 2004 “Deadwood” did for the Old West: demythologize it.
“It’s sometimes hard for us to believe that the ancient Romans really existed in the quotidian sense,” Heller said, as we strolled back lots filled with period uniforms and props. “But they were real, visceral, passionate people.” The series attempts to show the Romans without judging them by modern, Christian morality. “Certain things are repressed in our own culture, like the open enjoyment of others’ pain, the desire to make people submit to your will, the guilt-free use of slaves,” Heller added. “This was all quite normal to the Romans.” —T.P.