One of the most charming features of Ravenna is that the English translations on the explanatory text in all the churches and museums seem to come from a single practiced hand, itself a blend of East and West: “The clothing was covered by rich coiffures, closed in silk hairnet with golden threads, and by precious footwear in black leather with baked golden decorations.” And: “After Athalaric’s death Amalasuntha married her cousin Theodahad, who killed her, being inspired from the conservative Gothic wing.” There are shady nooks in parks all over the city, and the book to have with you is Peter Brown’s World of Late Antiquity, a work of historical prose in the high style that explains what the Fall of Rome was and wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t the cataclysm of popular imagination, with fur-clad Teutons putting Rome to the torch. Leadership changed, but for most people in the empire, life in 477 was the same as life in 475.
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.