Travels September 2006

The Road from Ravenna

In the footsteps of the last Roman emperor

Not for Romulus Augustulus, though. His life was spared, but he was exiled to the far coast, to modern Naples. As far as Professor Nathan can tell, Romulus left Ravenna with his mother, and probably a large retinue. The natural way to go would have been to take the great Via Flaminia—roughly the path of the current Strada Statale 3—south to Rome, and continue from there to Naples on the oldest of Rome’s major roads, the Via Appia, which even then had been in place for 700 years.

Had Romulus Augustulus been to Rome before? We don’t know. Because their capitals lay elsewhere, many of the later emperors spent little or no time in the Eternal City. (Diocletian had been emperor for twenty years before he visited Rome.) The first sight of the city, with its massive wall, would have impressed even a jaded teenager. Rome (like other cities in the empire) was not fully fortified until late in the third century A.D., when the security situation, in the form of barbarian incursions, turned ominous. Starting in 270 the emperor Aurelian encircled Rome with a wall; it is as much as thirteen feet thick and thirty-five feet high, and runs for more than twelve miles. Most of it is still intact.

The Aurelian Wall greeted Alaric the Visigoth when he approached Rome with his forces, in A.D. 408. Breaching it was beyond the barbarians’ capabilities. Cities really were safe behind their walls, though they might have to endure what Alaric had in store—a protracted siege. Partly to see how Rome may have looked to the Visigoths, and partly in the spirit of Sir Edmund Hillary (Quia est!), I decided to walk the whole perimeter of the wall. Given the weather (Rome can make you wilt in a day) and the fact that I served as my own Tenzing Norgay, I conducted the assault over the course of three very long mornings. The first took me past the Via Salaria. Alaric finally entered through this gate, in 410, after the Romans had had enough and agreed to let the Visigoths in for a relatively controlled sack, lasting three days. (When the Romans asked what they could keep for themselves, Alaric replied: “Your lives.”) Rome was sacked once more, in 455, now by the Vandals, and again it opened itself up for controlled pillage, this time for two weeks. A vulnerable feature were the eleven aqueducts leading into the city, hard to miss on their high arches and easily cut. But one of the eleven, the Aqua Virgo, was almost entirely underground, and flows to this day. Its terminus is the Trevi Fountain; you can see (and hear) part of the ancient aqueduct below the Sala Trevi cinema in an alley nearby.

The last leg—in every sense—of my circumambulation took in the Porta San Sebastiano, where the Via Appia begins its 350-mile journey to the heel of Italy’s boot. Parts of the Via Appia Antica are closed to traffic on Sundays, and the stretch running south from the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, lined with crumbling graves and tall umbrella pines, and parallel to an aqueduct, is one of the finer archaeological walks in the world.

One hundred and twenty miles along that journey, on the Bay of Naples, stood the great estates of Lucullus, the general and statesman of the late republican period—estates described by Plutarch and supporting a way of life so opulent as to give rise to our own term lucullan. Modern Naples is dense, hardscrabble, chaotic, and unrelaxing, but redeemed by what’s around it (Pompeii, Vesuvius, the coastal towns). In imperial days the bay area was a vacation spot for wealthy Romans. The naturalist Pliny the Elder had a villa here, in what is now the beach town of Miseno; it was from Miseno that he sailed to get closer to the eruption of Vesuvius. (Very bad idea.) You can still walk the sprawling remains of the emperors’ villa on a hillside at Baiae, nearby; and you’ll be virtually alone when you do. (For reading, bring Robert Harris’s excellent historical novel Pompeii.) But no domains rivaled those of Lucullus. Gardens cascaded luxuriantly down terraces to the shore. Sluice gates brought the renewing sea into teeming fish ponds. Offshore follies floated on the waves. The quality and plenitude of food and drink were renowned, and served not merely to impress others. Once, when Lucullus was dining alone, a servant prepared a simple meal and was told by his master to go back and bring forth a sumptuous repast, as if there were guests: “Did you not know that tonight Lucullus is dining with Lucullus?”

In some diminished manner the Lucullan estate must have still been extant in 476, because Romulus Augustulus apparently passed the rest of his days there. The site is occupied now by the medieval fortress Castel dell’Ovo, on a headland, nearly an island, that effectively separates the tourist waterfront of Naples to the north from the gritty seaport to the south. Castel dell’ Ovo means “Castle of the Egg” (or, as they call it in Ravenna, “Acropolis of the Female Gamete”). According to legend, the poet Virgil placed a sacred egg in a secret room underneath, and said that if the egg ever broke, Naples would be destroyed. Looking at Naples today, it’s hard to say whether the egg is intact.

The Lucullan villa at some point gave way to a monastery, enshrining the bones of Saint Severinus; circumstantial evidence suggests that Romulus and his mother may have founded it. If this is the same “Romulus” to whom the Ostrogothic king Theodoric wrote in 510, then Romulus Augustulus lived for a good long while after being removed from his throne. He didn’t have to worry about money: in a rare act, the barbarians who kicked him out gave him a large annual pension.

Sitting across from the Castel dell’Ovo in the breeze late one afternoon, eating a granita al limone, I wondered what Romulus Augustulus thought about during his thirty-five years on the Bay of Naples. I know what I would have been thinking: I’d sooner lose an empire than Ravenna.

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Cullen Murphy is an editor at large of Vanity Fair and was for many years the managing editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a book titled Are We Rome?, to be published next spring. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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