Occasionally, when I travel, I experience, not so much a senior moment, but “a surreal moment.” Perhaps it comes to the same thing. One such moment occurred a year ago on a May morning in Rome. I was sitting on the terrace of a villa in the via della Terme Deciane. I could see the Palatine Hill just across the way and on it the ruins of the palace of Septimius Severus (193-211AD). The view was magnificent, made more so because I was seeing it from such an intimate setting. It was like owning a Constable.
The villa sits on a sickle shaped street with one end at via Aventino and the other at via Circo Massimo. The street takes its name from the Roman baths that the Emperor Decio (249-251AD) built here almost 1800 years ago. Today, the street accommodates, aside from a string of elegant, private dwellings, the American Embassy to the Vatican. You can pinpoint the embassy by the two carabinieri who stand outside. Their vehicle blocks the sidewalk.
Just beyond is No. 31. The number, hidden behind a century's growth of ivy, is on a door embedded in a high, garden wall. If you didn't know it was there, you would certainly miss it. Behind the wall on a slight rise is a tall house. It is brownish gold, emblematic of the Roman sun. Its roof is tiled. A sign on the door says Attenti al Cane. There is, of course, no dog. That is not a deception. Perhaps there had been a dog. Maybe there will be again.
I breakfasted on the terrace of my apartment every morning, a cup of milky tea and a bowl of cereal. I couldn’t take my eyes off the Palatine Mount and the ruins of Septimius Severus' palace. I grew up believing that all roads led to Rome and now I was having breakfast just across the way from the carrefour.
What made that moment on the terrace surreal was a bit of history that suddenly popped into my head. Just over there, within yelling distance in fact, on February 27, 212 AD, Caracalla, son of Severus and joint Emperor of Rome with his brother Geta, whom he hated and who hated him, agreed to meet in their mother's apartment to reconcile their differences. Severus had hardly been dead a year. While they were talking, Caracalla’s henchmen leaped from hiding and hacked Geta to pieces. Caracalla joined in. Geta’s mother tried to protect him. She was wounded in the hand. He died in her arms, covered in her blood as well as his own. Caracalla visited her in the days following the murder. She feigned approval for the fratricide. She received her son’s embrace. She must have told him how nice it was to see him.
In a murderous follow up Caracalla slaughtered 20,000 countrymen whom he suspected of being friends of Geta. The year after the assassination, he left Rome and proceeded to spread murder and mayhem throughout his Empire. This is what Gibbon says about his Alexandrian massacre:
From a secure post in the temple of Serapis, he viewed and directed the slaughter of many thousand citizens, as well as strangers, without distinguishing either the number or the crime of the sufferers; since, as he coolly informed the senate, all the Alexandrians, those who had perished and those who had escaped, were alike guilty. (p. 118)
Just a few short blocks away from my terrace is the Viale di Terme Caracalla. I cannot fathom why there is anything named after him in the Eternal City. It would be like naming a square in Florence after Mussolini.
“Have things gotten better since the time of Caracalla?”
I suppose it depends upon the view from your own terrace.
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