Ancient Rome, a trip to the Eternal City’s ghetto

View the soft underbelly of Eternal City’s violent past

I have this weird goal wherever I travel. Some travelers like to go to museums. Others find a beach. I find the poor people. I want to see the ghettoes, the gangs, the soft underbelly of tourist towns where many travelers aren’t willing to leave their comfort zone to see. It’s not a voyeuristic thrill. I don’t want to make myself feel good by watching others suffer. I’m curious how the less fortunate live under all the glitter of the more publicized side of their cities.

In South Central Los Angeles, while on assignment chasing a star high school basketball player, I was careful to stop my car at lights one full car length behind the one in front of me, just in case gangs try to car jack me. I prowled the South Bronx interviewing locals about the New York Yankees’ owner who wanted the team to move out of the neighborhood. I asked a cab driver in Haiti to take me to Port-au-Prince’s shanty town, a sprawling inner city covered in aluminum siding. He wouldn’t. But a couple of ex-Club Med employees in Rio de Janeiro took me on their favela tour.

Ancient Rome, Roman Insula

Ancient Rome’s Ghetto

When staying in Rome, I stepped back in history to see the poor. I stepped back nearly 2,000 years. You can do that in a city where ancient history is on every street, from Dorian columns to drinking fountains fed by the original aqueducts. Beside the gargantuan Vittorio Emanuele monument, in little-known Piazza Aracoeli, I found the remains of Ancient Rome’s ghetto, the Roman Insula. If Vittorio Emanuele was a body, the Roman Insula would be in its armpit. That’s an appropriate image for a neighborhood where the filth, poverty and danger rivaled any place Rome’s bloodthirsty military ever conquered.

The lasting image of Ancient Rome is of senators in togas drinking wine from gold goblets, of beautiful women parading into orgies and silver trays piled with the best fruits and meats in the world. It’s true. According to historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen, at the height of the Roman Empire in around 150 A.D., 1 percent of the people controlled 16 percent of the wealth. In perspective, Ancient Rome wasn’t that out of line. Today, 1 percent of the American people own nearly 40 percent of the wealth.

Think about that, you American 99-percenters, the next time you go to a toga party.

However, the discrepancy of wealth in Ancient Rome was massive. Rome’s 600 senators made about 300,000 sestertii a year (a loaf of bread then cost half a sesterce, a tunic 15 sestertii) and had an estimated wealth of about 5 million sestertii each. Rome functioned on slave labor. The working class, thus, had very little work and very little money. They were hungry, angry and desperate. They turned some neighborhoods in Ancient Rome into seething cauldrons of violence, gangs and fear. Thugs roamed the narrow windy streets with knives, cutting the throats of wealthy Romans who got lost on too much wine. Gangs set fires to lure firemen then jumped from behind smoke screens to knife them to death.

Ancient Rome, Roman Insula

The Roman Insula was one of those neighborhoods

To reach it I walked down glistening Via del Corso, past all its trendy fashion stores where you can buy a Prada handbag for 1,000 euros. I walked under the balcony in Palazzo Venezia where Benito Mussolini’s speeches brought the Italian crowds to a frenzy. At Vittorio Emanuele, hundreds of tourists climbed the steps of the palace to the left. To the right, hundreds more climbed the steps to the Piazza del Campidoglio, which has been the seat of Rome’s government for 2,000 years.

I walked past a street performer fascinating tourists by balancing a glowing ball around his shoulders and went straight to the middle. There I saw the ruins of a crude three-story building made of brick, mortar and stone. Small hovels, maybe the size of a modern bathroom, were carved out of the structure. This is where many of the poor lived during the Roman Empire. Families were large. Sanitation was nil. So was security. A Rome police force, developed by the Senate to curb the rising violence, rarely went in the place.

Going to the fence, I looked down at another series of structures. This was where the poor shopped. The poor were used as political pawns. Senators would loan them money at exorbitant interest. When they couldn’t pay it back, they were forced to vote for senators in their elections or face execution. They weren’t all poor, though. Julius Caesar lived in the Roman Insula before he was named dictator.

Ancient Rome had the greatest civilization in the history of man. It acquired the most wealth, wielded the most power. But the black hole of that Roman Empire has been buried by historians and tour guides alike. Two millennium later, you can find it, deep in the bowels below the mass of marble on which Ancient Rome was built, not far from where the wealthy can buy a bag for 1,000 euros.

In some ways, in 2,000 years, Rome hasn’t changed at all.

John Henderson is an American journalist who retired to Rome in January. To read more about his life inside Rome, read his Retired in Rome Journal on his website, Dogeared Passport.

About John Henderson


John Henderson worked nearly 40 years as a sportswriter, the last 24 with The Denver Post, including eight as a traveling food columnist. Worked since 1984 as a free-lance travel writer. Traveled to 98 countries and retired to Rome in January 2014. Originally from Eugene, Ore., and also worked in Kent, Wash., and Las Vegas. Graduate of the University of Oregon in 1978. Check out my blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Twitter @JohnHendeRome

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