Borders are funny things, aren’t they? By defining territories, which piece of land some ancient King or Emperor annexed, they try to delineate populations, even impose a limit on where a certain tongue is spoken. But people, like languages, are fluid. Look at Rome right now: full of lost souls and adventurous souls and new souls pouring in over the borders in search of a better life. Many fleeing for different reasons, most running towards the same ideal: a brighter future. A job, a home, a life of sorts. If you squint (not so much actually) the expats and the immigrants and the refugees don’t look so different from one another. And according to Amy Doherty, not much has changed in the great city of Rome in some 2000 years.
We’re standing in front of the Pantheon, in this most iconic of Roman squares. Amy, my guide for the day is a scholar of Ancient Rome and the founder of tour company Luxe Associates Travel. What lies before us is almost a given; the water fizzing with sunlight in the great marble fountain supporting an obelisk before the impossible, perfect geometries of the church better known as the Pantheon. We’re talking about Augustus and Hadrian’s day and what the people of Rome might have looked like then.
“They came in from all over the Empire,” says Amy, “from Syria, and the Ukraine, from Greece and the Germanic tribes to the north. They were part of the Empire and they were coming to Rome in search of a better life. Here —” We look round at the wintery piazza, the shadows and the dancing light — “this piazza is a crucible of that evolving, changing culture. The obelisk – the second oldest in Rome and one of 13 in the city – was brought here by the Romans, who were fascinated by cultures older than themselves. In 30 BC, Rome annexed Egypt, and the obelisks in the city are a part of that plunder.”
It’s hard to see the obelisk as something exotic and esoteric in this square, already so full of symbols; but to citizens of that time it would have been a potent sign of Rome’s foreign policy. The Pantheon, too, is the third to have stood on this spot: the other two burnt down in the fires that raged frequently through the city. Hadrian, sponsor of the monument which stands today, copied the lettering from a previous version, which is why Agrippa is credited with the building work on the ancient signage above the pillars. Once pan–theic, dedicated to all the gods, today it is the burial place of Raphael and a Marian church which hosts a famous Pentecostal rite. Times change, but if you squint, the rose petals that now tumble through the oculus 50 days after Easter, representing tongues of flame, probably didn’t look so different from the cinders flitting away from offerings burnt in the name of the old gods.
We stop for a coffee in the square’s famous La Casa del Caffè Tazza D’Oro, which has stood here since just after the war. I’m actually participating in Luxe Associate Travel’s Culinary Stroll, but Rome’s epic history keeps getting in the way. It’s hard to look at the fountain and the piazza and not see the merchants of the city’s ancient past. The Tazza D’Oro café has been run by the same family since 1946 and is a must for coffee enthusiasts: they even have a 24 hour vending machine outside for real addicts containing sacks of beans and wonderfully smoky, freshly ground coffee. Soon we make our way to meet the family behind one of Rome’s most iconic fruit and vegetable markets, another family trade.
As we sample some seasonal produce, Amy introduces us to the mother, son and daughter who have been maintaining the market, rain and shine, for nearly 60 years. As their story unfolds, I can’t help thinking about the millions of small traders over the centuries feeding the citizens of Rome and carving out a living. It’s as if we’re back to the beginnings of the tour in the shadow of the Pantheon.
We go on to sample cheese, cold-cuts and wine in an iconic enoteca, this time enjoying artisan products from all over the country. It’s a reminder why the North of the country is such a potent producer of quality food as we taste ham from Friuli and Emilia Romagna and cheese from Piedmont.
The tour moves on to a secret location, as we have lunch in a tiny trattoria that I didn’t know existed. Under a canopy of ivy, we try some of the city’s boldest pasta dishes and drink local wine. Coffee and gelato follow, wending our way through the buzzing streets to visit other traders, workmen yelling and families rushing by, flanked by the fragments and monuments of the ancient world, coming full circle to the Pantheon. Bangladeshis with colourful toys and Africans selling handbags scatter as the white caps of the vigili weave through the crowd before the great pagan temple, and the red thread of the Eternal City tightens a little, drawing up present and past.