Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Subterranean Rome - an engineering feat from 2500 years ago


At one time, one could visit,
but would you want to?

  Rome's - if not the world's - most famous sewer showed up on our RST Top 40 list, admittedly at #40, almost 9 years ago. We're revisiting it today, because it fits into our you-can't-go-there-anyway category; in this case, because it's underground.
Better to view it from the outside, here, today, as it exits into the Tevere.

 The sewer, or Cloaca Maxima (also spelled Cloaxa, as we did 9 years ago, but Cloaca is more common, we've learned since) - meaning "big sewer" - was constructed about 2500 years ago, even before the Romans as we know them. It was designed to canalize water coming down from streams on Rome's 7 hills into the Forum. It ran straight through the Forum and was first open, with small boards as crossing points (must have smelled lovely).

In the photo at right is a reconstruction of what the Cloaca Maxima looked like during the time of the Tarquinian kings (6th century BCE).

When we wrote Rome the Second Time in 2008, we were fascinated by the large mouth of the Cloaca on the Tevere that one can still see today (it shows up in Itinerary 3: The Strange Career of the Tevere, p. 48 in the print copy) - see photo above,"Lo sbocco nel Tevere." There are many views of that 2500 year-old opening, including by Piranesi (etching below), who apparently inspired Goethe to visit the Cloaca in April, 1788. There's evidence Goethe was able to go inside the sewer, though we don't know if he entered it from the Tevere. 

There are more, quite lovely, paintings and etchings at the end of this post.  Amazing a sewer can be so inspirational.

We, who are always finding ways to tie Rome, Los Angeles, and Buffalo, NY, to each other, offer to tie at least Rome and Buffalo together with the tracing above ground of the waterway below-ground. The photo below shows the route of the Cloaca Maxima, above ground, as it would look today. Recently, Bill took the two of us on a route following an important creek in Buffalo, the Scajaquada Creek, where it was placed - a mere 90 years ago -  underground, but can - more or less - be followed above ground. 

So that's our challenge to our readers and to us the next time we are able - to follow the Cloaca Maxima's route above ground.  Part of that route, of course, still wends its way through the Forum, and one can today find evidence of it above ground there, as in this photo:

These (above photo) are the remains of a small "chapel" ("Sacello") to the Sewer Venus ("Venere Cloacina"), evidenced also in a coin of the period (photo right). 

Other fun facts.  Most of the sewer is in use today, 2,500 years later, although not the part that opens onto the Tevere. Etruscans started building it by carving into the very useful tufo (photo left). It was finally (!) covered over in the 2nd century BCE, as Rome grew and there was need for more space. Agrippa (1st century BCE) took a boat and explored it. 

People who were sewer-keepers were proud enough to have this on their tombstones (photo right). 

One of the San Sebastiano stories has him thrown into it. Left, Ludovico Carracci's 1612 painting of San Sebastiano being thrown into the Cloaca

Parts of the Cloaca Maxima are built with the classic Roman marble, travertine (tons used by Richard Meier to construct The Getty Museum in LA - see, I got LA in there - as well as the Ara Pacis structure in central Rome). Photo right.

There have been visits "down there" from time to time, including the photo at the top of this post from the 1960s, as I recall. Now, small robots are used to investigate the caverns, called "robotini" or "archeorobots" - photo left.

Most of the information in this post is from a Zoom lecture by Daniela Pacchiani, a specialist in ancient archaeology, as part of Turismo Culturale Italiano's Roma Inaccessibili ("Inaccessible Rome") series in January and February.

Dianne (more 18th and 19th century paintings below!)

This is a nice "capriccio" or fantastical image
of the Cloaca's opening onto the Tevere. It is 
not too far from the temple, whose ruins are fancifully shown here,
but which are obviously not exactly in this location.

1 comment:

AMOROMA said...

The Basilica of San Giorgio in Velabro was initially named San Sebastiano, being built on the site where he was thrown into the cloaca. The Apse fresco shows both Saints Sebastian and Giorgio.

It should be noted that this building is not a true rectangle because the left wall had to be adjusted to accommodate the sewer, resulting in a trapezoid shape for the church. This would suggest that the sewer ran along the side of the church, The map you posted has the sewer route running closer to the river, rather than alongside the church.