Wanted: Urban planner, good with emperors

Ancient Rome, just before the Common Era, was “Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean – crowded, chaotic and filthy.” Most residents lived in “tall jerry-built tottering blocks of flats known as insulae or ‘islands,’ which rose as high as six stories and were given to sudden collapse or outbreaks of fire. Building codes did not exist.”  There was no heating and no limit on how many people landlords could cram into these rat traps. Robert Hughes, whose book Rome is quoted here, estimates a total population of about 1.4 million at that time.

OstianInsulaPeople threw pretty much everything they didn’t want into the street. Garbage, excrement, kitchen waste, even corpses. (!) There was no running water for most residents, except underneath the ubitquitous public toilets. With stellar sewers and storm water channels, the rain would eventually wash the festering, mouldering mess into that system. It all landed in the Tiber River – a source of drinking water. (!)

“The streets of Rome were unlit and unpoliced … [they] had no numbers or posted names.”  Terra cotta pots were plentiful, so they were tossed out along with the contents from any handy window – usually at dusk. Getting home at night would have been epic, especially during the time when young Nero is said to have roamed alleys looking for people to beat up … for fun. (Can anyone say psychopath?)

In “a masterpiece of bad urbanism,” Julius Caesar banned most traffic between dawn and Romanchariot4mid-afternoon. (But not the vestal virgins and champion charioteers.) Result: chaos, clutter and cacophony all night long as commercial traffic banged through the stony, rutted streets on “wooden wheels with iron tires.” Poets wrote furious prose about the din.

Rome, the enemy of repose!

I can imagine a classified ad:

Wanted: urban planner. Good with emperors and slum landlords, able to collaborate with vestal virgins and hefty chariot celebrities. Frequent night work, good vision and strong skull required. Demonstrated ability to work with the sleep deprived and angry poets. Knowledge of local business routes a definite asset. Applicants with firefighting experience will be given preference.


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