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Try to imagine a Roman emperor palace. A vision of unbridled luxury – from jewel-encrusted walls to revolving dining rooms (that was Nero brainwave) – is bound to come to mind. But frustratingly its hard to find remaining traces of this kind of extravagance, even in the city of Rome itself.
True, in the Capitoline Museum, there is one showcase of extraordinary precious stones, which did once encrust the walls of some imperial residence on the outskirts of the city. But what remains of the vast complex on the Palatine Hill (the place which gives us the English word “palace”) is frankly disappointing: all that’s left is a lot of crumbling brickwork, minus its marble facing; and very little sign of luxury.
If you want to get a more vivid sense of the setting of the imperial court, you need to go outside Rome. For emperors knew better than to sit in the steaming and unhealthy metropolis during the heat of the summer. They had all kinds of country properties to choose from, throughout Italy.
The best known of these is the emperor Hadrian’s “villa” at Tivoli (pictured above; actually it’s the size of a small town). Hadrian was a great art collector and it’s here that many of the Roman sculptures now displayed in European museums were dug up. He even went so far as to recreate on this country estate some of the famous sights – and even then tourist hot spots – of the ancient world. One of these was a mini replica of the temple of Aphrodite at Knidos (in modern Turkey) with its famous naked statue of the goddess – supposedly the first ever made without any form of modest clothing. Hadrian no longer needed to sail to Knidos to enjoy her; he had his own private version at home.
But even more evocative is the island of Capri, which 2,000 years ago was entirely the personal property of the emperor, and no less opulent than it is today. There were at least 12 separate imperial residences on the island, not to mention the famous Blue Grotto (pictured below), which – to judge from the ancient sculpture and bric-a-brac found there – was as appealing to Roman princes and courtiers as it is to the modern visitors.
The most impressive of the residences on Capri is the so-called Villa Jovis (“Villa of Jupiter”) capturing not so much the luxury, but the terror and the sheer folly of the Roman imperial court. It is built dramatically on the cliff edge, and there is no doubt that troublesome hangers-on and other subversives were thrown over these precipices to their deaths.
But for me the most memorable sight here is the vast system of water tanks. There is no natural water supply on Capri (and that’s still its problem); for the place to be habitable, the Romans needed to capture rainwater on an industrial scale. In a sense, it is the tyrannical proportion of this water system that best sums up imperial power. Roman emperors chose to live where no one else could – or anyone sensible would. They were in the business of triumphing over nature.
Over the past few months, for a new BBC documentary, I have been following the traces of the emperor Caligula: the most notorious Roman monster, incestuous lover and megalomaniac.