Ye olde travel guide: Rome 192 AD

Anthony Riches reveals the pleasures and dangers that are in store for a visitor to the capital of the Roman empire

Illustration by Jonty Clark

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Rome. Even the name inspires awe. One million inhabitants, consuming nine million kilos of grain a year and a million cubic metres of water per day. It has more diversions than could ever be crammed into even the longest of visits – but don’t let that stop you trying!

When to go

When all roads lead to Rome, there’s no excuse for not coming to the civilised world’s premier city. While there’s no wrong time to visit the glory that is Rome, we recommend that you arrive in late spring, usually a pleasant 22 degrees, and before everyone that matters flees from the stifling heat to the seaside. The end of April is a very pleasant time to visit (more later), but the autumn is to be avoided. Rain, more rain, and plenty of it!

What to take with you

You’ll only need two things. Money – this isn’t a cheap city for the outsider – and bodyguards to make sure that you don’t lose it. Skilled local protection will be expensive, but both the number of tourist frauds and the danger of robbery with violence make this expense essential. Oh, and don’t forget to pack your toga. Formal dinner parties will demand that you look the part.

You’ll need a full purse to make the most of the delights offered by this fabulous city. You can ‘do Rome’ on five sestertii a day, but with a bottle of decent Falernian easily costing that much, you’ll want at least 50 sestertii per night.

To really make the most of the city you’ll need one gold aureus to spend per day, but don’t carry it all round with you! Visit a bank and deposit your wealth, only withdrawing enough to fund your activities every day or two. And don’t trust any of the people around you with your money – including your local bodyguards!

Where to stay

First set your daily budget, then look for an appropriate hostelry. As ever, the more you pay the more convivial atmosphere you can expect.

On a budget, look for a caupona (a restaurant with rooms) but be ready for a lively time. Your host will be doing whatever he – or she – has to in order to scrape a living from the clientele. We recommend paying enough that your brushes with prostitution, and quite possibly the city police, are a matter of informed choice, rather than where you lodge. Stabulae, or coaching inns, usually found just outside of the city walls, will provide a less risky option, and can stable your horse if you have one.

At the refined end of the market we happily recommend one of the gorgeous hospitia, private houses converted to play host to the well heeled. If you’re missing your atrium or that nice walled garden back home, your hospitium will more than compensate.

Sights and activities

The most inventive diversions of the empire are gathered here, with something for every taste and budget. Our choice? Go for a bath! Nine hundred bath houses offer many and varied services, but be sure to visit the city’s major thermae.

Choose the sprawling baths of Trajan to watch Romans at play, or for that more exclusive experience we recommend the upmarket baths of Sura on the Aventine. Whichever you choose, relax! Hire a boy to oil your body and then scrape away the city’s dirt; eat, drink, gamble, read, listen to poetry or just enjoy a ‘spiritual’ massage by skilled eastern practitioners. Entry is a snip at one-sixteenth of a sestertius, but you’ll spend a lot more once you’re inside. And take that bodyguard in as your towel carrier – thieves and pickpockets abound.

What about the circus? Go for the biggest and best, and head straight to the Colosseum, just to the east of the main forum. Gladiators and wild animal hunts, mock battles, executions and dramas, it has everything. You may even get to see the emperor Commodus earn the crowd’s adulation by performing as a gladiator!

Spiritual needs can be met by numerous temples happy to take your money, and more earthly requirements by innumerable brothels. Prostitutes are also to be found at the baths, the circus, in taverns, bakeries, cook houses, inns, even at funerals – so just about anywhere, and cater to all pockets and predilections. Just keep a close eye on your purse. Afterwards you can expect to need another bath, if only to wash away the soot that cascades from their lamps.

Come in late April for the festival of Floralia, when the city’s female entertainers have their moment in the sun and certainly make the most of it!

Emergencies

Be warned: if you get into trouble you won’t find much sympathy here. Romans are by necessity robust survivors, and they’ll expect the same from you. Fail to heed these cautionary words and your visit will be nothing if not exciting. Enjoy your stay!

Anthony Riches is a historical novelist, author of the bestselling Empire series.


Rome today

The glory of ancient Rome still packs them in today, as anyone who’s queued for the Colosseum in the height of summer will tell you. However, the imperial city is only part of the story for the millions who come each year. Layer upon layer of history has created a huge and chaotic urban museum, centred around the brooding statue of philosopher Giordano Bruno in the Campo dei Fiori.

In the centuries after 192 AD Rome became the home of the Latin church, and it is to St Peter’s and the Vatican that many pilgrims come, whether to worship or rubber-neck at the Renaissance and Baroque treasures within.

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Rome today, however, remains as it has been for millennia, all about the Romans: noisy, outgoing, stylish and unable to comprehend why you’d dream of living anywhere else. Spend a day in their shoes, sipping espresso, zipping through dense traffic on scooters and staying out late on sweltering evenings and you’ll find it hard to leave, too. Watch out for the tip-hungry Centurions who prowl the crowds posing for photos, by the way.