The world has many hidden treasures: Remnants of the Roman Empire

By Gary B. Keller

The Roman Empire was one of the most expansive and important civilisations the world had ever seen. Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the Roman Empire has an unrivalled legacy in art, politics, medicine, and city planning. Today, you can check out ancient the empire’s contributions to art and architecture by visiting some of its surviving infrastructure.

CHAPEL OF SAINT VITTORE

In the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Ambrogio is a small, hidden chapel that’s has a decorated floor-to-ceiling dome with ancient 5th century mosaics. While the basilica around it was destroyed, rebuilt, renovated, and redesigned over the centuries, The Chapel of San Vittore remains the same. Art historian Marina Zaigraykina discussed the craftsmanship of the mosaics, particularly the one on the golden dome depicting the martyr Saint Vittore, was unequalled at the time. You can find this in Milan, Italy.

SEPULCRAL ROMANA

In accordance with ancient imperial laws, the Roman city of Barcino buried its dead outside of city walls from the 1st to the 3rd century, resulting in small cemeteries near roads leading out of the city. One of those cemeteries survived to this day, in the modern city of Barcelona. It contains 85 graves, the remains of an estimated 200 people.

AMMAN’S ROMAN THEATRE

What is now the capital city of Amman in Jordan, North Africa, used to be part of the Roman Empire, and they left behind one of the steepest and most intact theatres they ever built. Amman’s Roman Theatre was built in the 2nd century and up till now, its 6,000-person capacity is used for musical concerts, poetry events, and other performances because of its steep cavea, which provides perfect acoustics.
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ROME’S BURIED CITY

Modern Rome was formed during almost 3000 years of building and rebuilding. Thousands of years of new infrastructure built beside and on top of the civilizations before it, which is why Apartment hunting in Rome requires patience, a good agent, and short height. It’s pretty ironic, considering the fact that ancient Rome pioneered the very idea of proper city planning.

Forbes described the situation best when they called the city a complex archaeological layer cake. While most tourists congregate at the Coliseum, the Temple of Jupiter, and other aboveground Roman relics, not many are aware that underneath Rome lies intact remnants of its ancient past. Travellers can visit the Mithraic Cult chambers – underground places of worship for a mysterious religion practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th century.

The fact that many of these places have survived is part of the reason why the Romans continue to have such a strong hold on the modern imagination. The Roman Empire has been celebrated in fiction for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to the Oscar winning Gladiator. Historical Roman figures such as Julius Cesar and Spartacus are household names. Even those who don’t know their history will recognise their stories from films, TV, books, and games made about them. Spartacus in particular has been made famous through fiction and his connection to the famous Roman sport of gladiator fighting. The Stanley Kubrick film, which featured the iconic “I’m Spartacus”, is the most famous example, but the character has also appeared in other media. The Foxy Bingo game Spartacus Gladiator of Rome incorporates the famous story of the gladiator who led a slave uprising into its gameplay. With interest in the Roman Empire still running high across media platforms, more people will travel the world to seek out Roman treasures.

For anyone interested in history and culture, the Roman Empire remains one biggest reasons to travel and see the world.

(Editor’s note: As I organize my notes, quotes and photos from a long trip to the Republic of Georgia, this guest blog is written by Gary B. Keller, a history teacher with over 10 years experience. He has taught and traveled around the world and wants to share with fellow enthusiasts the places of interest he has found. In his free time he will be found with his nose in a book.)

The world has many hidden treasures: Remnants of the Roman Empire


(Editor’s note: After a long absence, while I recover from a marvelous trip to the Republic of Georgia, I am running a guest blog from writer Gary R. Keller.)

The Roman Empire was one of the most expansive and important civilizations the world had ever seen. Encyclopedia Britannica explains that the Roman Empire has an unrivaled legacy in art, politics, medicine and city planning. Today, you can check out the ancient empire’s contributions to art and architecture by visiting some of its surviving infrastructure.

CHAPEL OF SAINT VITTORE

In the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Ambrogio is a small, hidden chapel that has a decorated floor-to-ceiling dome with ancient 5th century mosaics. While the basilica around it was destroyed, rebuilt, renovated and redesigned over the centuries, the Chapel of San Vittore remains the same. Art historian Marina Zaigraykina said the craftsmanship of the mosaics, particularly the one on the golden dome depicting the martyr Saint Vittore, was unequaled at the time. You can find this in Milan.

SEPULCRAL ROMANA

In accordance with ancient imperial laws, the Roman city of Barcino buried its dead outside of city walls from the 1st to the 3rd century, resulting in small cemeteries near roads leading out of the city. One of those cemeteries survives to this day, in the modern city of Barcelona. It contains 85 graves, the remains of an estimated 200 people.

AMMAN’S ROMAN THEATRE

What is now the capital city of Amman, Jordan, used to be part of the Roman Empire and they left behind one of the steepest and most intact theaters ever built. Amman’s Roman Theatre was built in the 2nd century and up until now, its 6,000-person capacity is used for musical concerts, poetry events and other performances because of its steep cavea, which provides perfect acoustics.
(IMAGE 7)

ROME’S BURIED CITY

Modern Rome was formed during almost 3,000 years of building and rebuilding. Thousands of years of new infrastructure were built beside and on top of the civilizations before it, which is why apartment hunting in Rome requires patience, a good agent and short height. It’s pretty ironic, considering the fact that ancient Rome pioneered the very idea of proper city planning.

Forbes described the situation best when they called the city a complex archaeological layer cake. While most tourists congregate at the Colosseum, the Temple of Jupiter and other above-ground Roman relics, not many are aware that underneath Rome lie intact remnants of its ancient past. Travelers can visit the Mithraic Cult chambers: underground places of worship for a mysterious religion practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th century.

The fact that many of these places have survived is part of the reason why the Romans continue to have such a strong hold on the modern imagination. The Roman Empire has been celebrated in fiction for centuries, from Shakespeare’s "Antony and Cleopatra" to the Oscar-winning "Gladiator." Historical Roman figures such as Julius Cesar and Spartacus are household names.

Even those who don’t know their history will recognize their stories from films, TV, books and games made about them. Spartacus in particular has been made famous through fiction and his connection to the famous Roman sport of gladiator fighting. The Stanley Kubrick film, which featured the iconic “I’m Spartacus,” is the most famous example, but the character has also appeared in other media. The Foxy Bingo game Spartacus Gladiator of Rome incorporates the famous story of the gladiator who led a slave uprising into its game play. With interest in the Roman Empire still running high across media platforms, more people will travel the world to seek out Roman treasures.

For anyone interested in history and culture, the Roman Empire remains one of the biggest reasons to travel and see the world.

Champions League final? The Vatican had its own championship soccer game

St. Peter's Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday's final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.

St. Peter’s Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday’s final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.


Every seminary student in Rome studying to be a priest sets himself on a personal mission. He is dedicating his life to carrying God’s message, to bring joy to people, to build fraternity among his fellow man.

Saturday afternoon the mission for Stephen Cieslak, ordained as a deacon just a week ago, is to stop a penalty kick from Robert Kayiwa, a seminary student from Uganda. There will be more important times in these two men’s lives, but without a Bible in hand and clerical collar around their necks, no moment may be bigger than right then.

The two were engaged in a penalty shootout in the championship game of the Clericus Cup, a Vatican soccer tournament involving 16 teams made up entirely of seminary students and priests. Organized by the Centro Sportivo Italiano, it started 12 years ago when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni, then the Cardinal Secretary of State, wanted soccer to teach the “language of the world,” billing it “Prayer and Player.”

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.


Saturday was the morning of the Champions League final. About 1,500 miles to the north in Kiev, Ukraine, Real Madrid and Liverpool would play before a worldwide TV audience and two fan bases that don’t take a back seat to any in the world. Going from one extreme to another Saturday, I took a bus to Centro Sportivo Italiano’s nice sports complex a long goalie kick up the hill from the Vatican City walls.

Past a basketball gym, swimming pool and soccer fields of various dimensions is a main field with a small grandstand where the third-place game had just finished. I met Mark Paver, an Englishman who just won third place with Gregoriana and is a four-year veteran of the tournament. Tall, lean and fit, he looks younger than his 42 years. I asked him why he plays soccer while studying to enter the priesthood.

“It’s a chance to be a Christian with one another and secondly to be seminarians with one another,” he said. “In my case, at this point, to be a priest and create an environment and set an example for others to see and think, ‘Oh, yeah. Those are normal guys. I can be a priest, too. I can be a Christian, too.’”

Paver started playing soccer at 6 years old in Manchester where he later played in semipro leagues for several years. Most of the players in the tournament played as youths then in other cities as they went through their religious studies. These are serious, pious men, dedicated to a religious calling where righteousness is at the forefront of their lives.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.


But they play soccer. Many soccer players communicate on the field through conversational profanity. I asked Paver the obvious question.

Do you ever hear swearing?

“We picked a different way to live our vocation but we’re still human beings,” he said. “We still have blood running through our veins. And that blood goes to our heads sometimes.”

I asked what’s the worst he’s ever heard. He paused.

“I’m not sure I can repeat it,” he said, finally. “We try to let each other know when we think we’ve been wronged. Let’s say that.”

I walked through the fence onto the field in front of the two finalists who entered side-by-side in single file, just as Real and Liverpool would do later that night. These two teams were from opposite sides of the world: an American side with THE perfect nickname, the North American Martyrs. Their opponent was the defending champion, Pontificio Collegio Urbano, a group from all over Africa. Pope Francis even greeted and congratulated them at the Vatican earlier in the week.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.


Appropriately, the Martyrs were dressed in red, white and blue and Collegio Urbano wore uniforms of bright yellow and white. They looked like sprinting Vatican flags.

Without their religious gear, they looked like any rec league players, except the African team was almost universally short and the Americans were almost all boyish and almost, well, virginal. But they were all fit. I was curious about the level of play.

“I’m 42 years old and I’m still playing it,” Paver said. “That answers your question.”

If the level isn’t high, the passion is. The small grandstand seating 200 was packed, all with mostly students from the 80 seminaries around Rome. On one side hung red, white and blue bunting, the kind you see draped around baseball stadiums during the World Series. Behind it and the Cyclone fence were Americans yelling “USA! USA! USA!” and singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” On the other side, Africans with yellow and white stripes painted on their faces banged drums and sang the entire game, ranging from Shakira’s “This Time for Africa” to the rhythmic chant, “VAI! VAI! VAI! COLLEGIO URBANO! (GO! GO! GO! COLLEGIO URBANO!)”

The soccer wasn’t as bad as I thought. They passed well. They dribbled efficiently. They had a plan. Cieslak made a nice stop on a free kick then a cool one-handed grab of a corner kick. His counterpart, Emmanuel Umanah of Nigeria, had a couple of sliding stops on one-on-one confrontations.

Yeah, guys dribbled the ball out of bounds a couple of times. They kicked the ball over the goalpost more than under it. Cieslak’s goalie throws looked like a third baseman pegging one to first base. None of it bothered the fans who kept up the beat of the drums and the Americans’ chant that couldn’t prevent me from smiling: “LET’S GO MARTYRS!”

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.


Regulation ended in a 0-0 tie, leading to the penalty shootout, leading to Cieslak staring down Kayiwa. With the Martyrs converting their first penalty kick, Kayiwa took a long run and kicked a medium-speed line drive to the right — just about where Cieslak was waiting. Kayiwa walked back slowly with his head down. Umanah, showing fraternity, gave Cieslak a fist bump. Matthew Goldammer, a hulking redhead who looks a transfer from the Vatican rugby team, banged one off the left goalpost, making it even.

But Collegio Urbano’s Victor Tibanyendera from Tanzania skied one over the goalpost and William Nyce scored easily to clinch the shootout, 4-2, sending him storming into a sea of hysterically happy seminary teammates.

Cieslak, 26, comes from Portland in my home state of Oregon and went to De La Salle North Catholic High School. A goalkeeper since second grade, he showed up as a freshman and quickly became the starter when the regular keeper got angry and punched the ground.

Was it because he swore, he showed anger, he failed to show moral restraint and the school benched him to teach him a lesson?

“No,” Cieslak said, “He fractured his wrist.”

OK, it wasn’t the first dumb question I’ve asked in my career. Soccer is, in a small way, part of the plan for all these future priests. It’s not only to show their human side but it helps them work on the same skills they’ll need in a future parish.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to grow in fraternity,” said Cieslak who soon goes to a parish in tiny Tillamook, Oregon, for a year. “A lot of the things we try to do in seminary formation is to relate to each other on a fraternal level and on a personal level. When you’re out playing with other guys who are working toward the same goal, working to become priests, it’s amazing.”

Being a sportswriter for 40 years, I know athletes pray before games. I asked Cieslak who would God favor in a game if both sides are seminary students and all are praying.

“He favors us all,” he said. “There’s no favoritism with God.”

Then what’s the point of praying? I asked.

“It’s to thank God,” he said. “Thank God for our athletic gifts, gifts of our bodies and we can glorify him and we can glorify him whether we win or lose.”

The two sides greet each other after the game.

The two sides greet each other after the game.


But what does He think when you swear?

“We’re all capable of sin,” he said with a smile.

Soccer and religion transcends the world. Umanah, 28, the Collegio Urbano goalkeeper, started playing when he was a little boy in Nigeria and his friends kept taking him by the hand from midfield to the goalpost.

“They said, ‘Since you’re not good, stay here,’” he said. “‘If the ball comes, you take it.’”

Like the others, Umanah sees a direct connection between soccer and the priesthood.

“The world today, just like Pope Francis tells us, it’s a world that really needs people to go to the different areas to find people,” said Umanah who’s studying canon law. “I think football, apart for the passion I have for it, is also entering society and meeting people like me who are out in the world and trying to dialogue.

“Just like every other social activity (soccer) puts you in contact with people. For example, I never knew some of these footballers. Today, we and the Americans got to know each other. Now we know each other from different realities, from different countries. We get to share our stories and experiences.”

Later that night, I went to my soccer pub and watched Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius make two of the biggest errors I ever saw a goalkeeper make. In the Champions League final. In front of the world. He was last seen walking across the field crying, trying to hide his face and tears with his jersey. It was a night that may scar him for life. I’m interested to see what will happen to him, if he’ll ever recover.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.


It’s all about perspective. A few thousands miles and even more levels below the action in Kiev, Umanah put the Vatican spin on sport.

“Today was a very nice match,” he said. “We could really see the evangelical spirit. If someone gets down, the other one helps the person. To me, that is the gospel.

“We lost and I’m smiling.”

Rome public transportation: A fiery controversy leaves me waiting for answers — and a bus

In 2 1/2 years, 46 buses have caught fire, just one of many public transportation problems in Rome. Repubblica Roma photo

In 2 1/2 years, 46 buses have caught fire, just one of many public transportation problems in Rome. Repubblica Roma photo


The app on my cell phone mocks me.

I stare at it and so often it lies. It’s maddening, like the worst girlfriend you ever had, one that keeps returning to haunt you. It must have a mind of its own. Can apps have evil souls? The app is called Citymapper. It gives me the public transportation route from any Point A to any Point B in Rome. It also lists the time of arrival of every bus to every bus stop. Only one problem.

The bus often doesn’t arrive. The app says “in 6 min” then “in 12 min” then in “8 min.” By the time the third bus was supposed to arrive and doesn’t, I’ve gone through my entire vocabulary of Romanaccio, the sub-dialect of the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. The Romans around me remain calm, standing serenely as if this is as much a part of their day as their morning cappuccino.

Rome, once the most powerful society known to man, a city that has many of the world’s greatest museums, the best food and most beautiful architecture, struggles to move its citizens along its potholed streets. It has, without question, the worst public transportation in Europe. I know. I’ve been in every European capital except for a couple in Eastern Europe, and I never rent a car.

Besides buses not showing up, they are as packed as any in urban India. Buses and the limited three subway lines are often not air-conditioned, the bus tires go flat, drivers often go on strike and women get fondled.

Oh, yes. About twice a month a bus will inexplicably burst into flames.

It’s a mishmash of explanations, kind of like the fall of the Roman Empire. Corruption. Incompetence. Disorganization. And of course, the root of so many problems in Italy, the Mafia. But crime bosses are bit players, mere dime-store hoods in this drama that would make a good TV series — as long as the actors had cars to get to the sets. Good Lord, Rome has the only bus system in the world where the drivers don’t take tickets.

Me on a typical day trying to get around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on a typical day trying to get around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


After nearly 4 ½ years in Rome, public transportation is the one area where my honeymoon has worn off. I arrived in Rome from a completely different perspective than most locals. I was born, educated and worked my entire life in the western United States. Out West, public transportation is a rumor. Not one person from San Diego to Seattle could tell you what bus to take for any tourist site. Buses were just something that held up traffic. Growing up in Oregon 22 years and working in suburban Seattle for a year and a half and Las Vegas for 10, I didn’t once take a bus. Never. Ever. Not even one time.

In 23 years in Denver, particularly after living in Rome from 2001-03, I adopted more of a European lifestyle. I often took the bus downtown, site of my office and favorite watering holes. But in Denver, the only people who took the bus were the crippled, the poor and one environmentally conscious sportswriter. One New Year’s Eve, Denver’s bus company, the Regional Transportation District (RTD), offered free bus service all night. I took it downtown — alone. I was the only one onboard. Everyone else preferred to drive and drink. Then drive.

Is it any wonder that two years ago 10,500 people in the U.S. died from drunk driving?

RTD tries. Many Denver buses come only every 30 minutes until 8:30 p.m. Then it’s one per hour. I never blamed RTD, saddled with a true chicken-or-egg dilemma. They don’t have enough money to send out more buses; they don’t have more money because few people take the bus. For RTD to change its schedule it must first change American society. In the U.S., if you don’t have a car, you don’t have a life. Automobiles in America represent everything from your income to your political party. Yes, cars disgust me.

This is why when I retired to Rome its public transportation provided such a soft landing. From my perspective, Rome’s public transport was pretty damn good. At least, it was good enough to not add 25 percent to my yearly budget on a car — or add 25 percent more time wasted trying to find parking spaces. Buses go everywhere. The subway runs every five minutes. My Citymapper makes maps obsolete. I pay only 250 euros for a year’s pass. Last year I made 621 trips on buses, trams, the subway and regional trains. At 1.50 euro per ticket, that means the pass saved me 681.50 euros. That’ll buy a lot of wine.

I'm not the only one frustrated as this graffiti at a bus stop confirms. "Merda" in Italian means "shit."

I’m not the only one frustrated as this graffiti at a bus stop confirms. “Merda” in Italian means “shit.”


But then I recently wondered about the price I really pay as I waited on busy Via Nazionale in a driving rainstorm, looking at the electronic board above the bus stop indicating my No. 170 bus would arrive in three minutes. It never came. Then it would arrive in seven minutes. It never came. Then eight minutes. By the third whiff, I hopped on another bus and patched together a new route home.

Frustrated? Yes. Fortunately, I didn’t burn alive.

In July 64 A.D. Rome burned for five days. To this day, no one knows who caused it. Many blamed Emperor Nero; Emperor Nero blamed the Christians. What ensued was the Roman Empire’s first persecution of Christians, or, as advertised outside the Colosseum concession stands during gladiator games, “Christians on a Stick.”

It’s nearly 2,000 years later, and Romans still can’t figure out what causes fires. Drivers blame bad maintenance. Rome prosecutors blame corruption. Romans blame skinflint passengers not buying tickets. Everyone, however, does agree with the numbers. On May 8, the ninth bus this year caught fire, this time on Via del Tritone, the popular street near Trevi Fountain. The last escaping passenger had barely stopped praying before another bus not far away went Mt. Vesuvius, too. That made it 10 in 2018, meaning we’re well on our way to surpassing last year’s total of 22 which surpassed the 2016 total of 14. That’s 46 bus fires in less than 2 ½ years.

Cities have 46 tire sales. They don’t have 46 bus fires.

The organization running Rome’s public transportation system is called Azienda per i Trasporti Autoferrotranviari del Comune di Roma, or ATAC. I’ve suggested changing the acronym’s meaning to Authoritarian Transport Agency of Corruption but something was lost in the translation. ATAC is as popular in Rome as box wine. It receives less respect than Starbucks. Nero remains more beloved. Mussolini has nothing on ATAC. At least he got the trains to run on time.

Some drivers blame the fires on aging buses, some of which are 15 years old. The average lifespan is six or seven years. Wanted in Rome photo

Some drivers blame the fires on aging buses, some of which are 15 years old. The average lifespan is six or seven years. Wanted in Rome photo


Romans have even adopted a name for the bus fires: flambus, a play off of ATAC’s previous name, Trambus. ATAC is just lucky the only person injured was a woman May 8 who had minor burns on her arm. In a city with 2,000-year-old backlit monuments and some of the most beautiful women in the world, it takes a lot for Romans to stop and stare. What usually does the trick is a 45-foot bus engulfed in flames rising to the sky and its tires exploding like small bombs.

One journalist was quoted in The Local, Rome’s English-language online news source, saying, “Only in Rome does a bus explode in the heart of the city and people immediately blame ATAC, with no thought of terrorism. It says a lot about our emergencies.”

Only in Rome can Islamic extremists become comic foils. After one bus fire, the TV ran a headline loop at the bottom of the screen reading, “Breaking News: ATAC claims responsibility for the attack in Rome.”

The center-right newspaper Il Foglio ran a headline over one fire story reading, “ATAC Akbar!”

Not everyone is laughing. Claudio De Francesco, the regional secretary of the Faisa-Confail union, which has gone on strike over the issue, told RomaToday that “It’s not safe with ATAC. By this point drivers can only pray that nothing happens, and we don’t even want to think about what will happen when it starts getting warmer.”

ATAC doesn’t just have bus fires. As an organization it’s a dumpster fire. It is 1.3 billion euros in debt and hasn’t turned a profit since 2006. Of its 1,350 buses, 500 were in the shop last June due to faulty air-conditioning or other problems, according to The Italian Insider. ATAC’s crack PR team jumped to the rescue, claiming the number was only 380. So it’s good ATAC cleared that up.

Many of the buses, including one that exploded this month, are 15 years old. Transportation experts, according to The New York Times, say a bus’s lifespan is about six or seven years. Thus, the list of maintenance problems would scare an Indy 500 pit crew: Overheated engines. Oil and gas leaks. Tires flat in a few hours. Jumping gears. Faulty brakes. One time last year the hand brake of a parked bus disengaged, sending it careening across Piazza Venezia, a massive roundabout with traffic similar to what swirls around the Arc de Triomphe. The bus hit a Smart car and injured a woman.

In 2016, a nuclear engineer named, appropriately, Manual Fantasia took over vowing to return ATAC to respectability. A 2017-19 industrial plan called for electronic tickets and an additional 500 administrative police to join 200 current ticket inspectors.

The electronic tickets never surfaced, meaning freeloaders are still hopping on and off the bus like children on a merry-go-round. In my previous three years in Rome, I was asked to show my pass, called a Metrebus Card, twice. In the last year, I have been checked about once every two months. Enforcement is improving. Getting caught means shelling out a 104-euro penalty on the spot, a fee that apparently deters no one. I see fewer tickets shoved into the buses’ little yellow machines than I do empty seats.

Adding to the nightmare are a fleet of drivers who no doubt hate life. You’ve heard stories about Rome’s traffic and drivers. Imagine spending eight hours a day driving a 45-foot bus through that mess. Adding ticket taking is apparently beyond their skill set, although they do manage to text at 50 words a minute during red lights.

My new approach to Rome's public transportation problems. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My new approach to Rome’s public transportation problems. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Public transport strikes are also as common in Rome as wine tastings. No place else in the world do I know of where strikes are announced ahead of time. In fact, ATAC has its own web page listing all the fractured periods of operation and bus lines that shut down. And sometimes drivers act on their own. Strikes in Rome aren’t always over higher pay and better benefits. Sometimes they go like this:

Guido: “Hey, Giuseppe, you working today?”

Giuseppe: “Yeah, I’m driving the 170.”

Guido: “Want to take a break? I have a problem with my ex.”

Giuseppe: “Sure, I could use a caffe.”

So Giuseppe skips three rotations of his bus line while sitting at a sidewalk caffe listening to Guido verbally charbroil his ex-girlfriend. Then guys like me wind up walking through the rain to find another bus.

The most recent commissioner tried requiring drivers to punch a clock, which drivers responded with by striking and driving their routes slower than the horse-drawn carriages hauling tourists.

Every new elected official vows to stamp out Rome’s Whac-A-Mole corruption rackets. In 2015 Rome prosecutors investigated corruption in awarding contracts without due process, siphoning funds for sham consulting contracts and laundering money in San Marino bank accounts. The amount of dirty money involved topped 1 billion euros, according to Wanted in Rome.

In the past ATAC has been accused of printing counterfeit tickets, bribing politicians and nepotism.

Overlooking all this has been a string of mayors who have made no one forget Caesar Augustus. Gianni Alemanno (2008-13) of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party was tied to the Mafia. He allegedly accepted more than 125,000 euros from Salvatore Buzzi, the leader of Mafia Capitale, Rome’s local Mafia chapter. Buzzi’s previous claim to fame was on June 26, 1980, he turned on Giovanni Gargano, a corrupt judge who threatened to blackmail him, and stabbed him 34 times.

Buzzi and 40 others went to prison last year for pocketing public works funds. Consequently, like a junkie losing his dirty drug, the city fell apart. Alemanno’s successor, Ignazio Marino of the center-left Democratic Party, resigned after he was investigated for embezzlement, fraud and forgery tied to an expense receipt scandal.

His replacement and current mayor is Virginia Raggi, a 39-year-old former lawyer elected specifically from the outside of Rome’s stench-spewing political cauldron to clean up the corruption. But before she could show her clean, virgin hands, accusations of corruption started knocking off her cabinet members like plucked mallards. She went under investigation for abuse of office and giving false testimony during the investigation of one of her associates.

Alemanno and Marino were both cleared of charges as was Raggi of abuse of office although she remains embattled. Next month she goes on trial giving a false statement to an anti-corruption official, a procedure she encourages to clear her name. Consequently, Rome mayors seem no more empowered to clean up ATAC as they do the city streets, which have made Rome the filthiest capital in Europe.

Still, I happily hop on my No. 8 tram from my new apartment to Centro Storico. I’ll take the No. 871 to my lovely park, Doria Pamphilj. I’ll board the subway’s A Line to visit my Marina on the west side of town. I still love living here. It oozes history. It just doesn’t learn from it.

Yes, Western Civilization, Rome is burning again.

Apartment hunting in Rome requires patience, a good agent and short height

Celebrating on the balcony of my new home in Monteverde, the "chic" neighborhood of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Celebrating on the balcony of my new home in Monteverde, the “chic” neighborhood of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Home hunting is never fun no matter where you live. But try looking for a home in a 3,000-year-old city. It’s like stepping through a time machine and emerging in post-apocalyptic neighborhoods where everyone is the size of penguins and living on top of each other. I read a lot about how crowded and chaotic Ancient Rome was, despite its bacchanalian image of gold goblets and bedroom fountains. I just learned first hand what some of the housing was like. I wonder if Caesar Augustus ever did.

After four years in my dream home, a 45-square-meter penthouse apartment with a huge 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber River, I moved. About three weeks ago I resettled across the river and up the hill in Monteverde, a leafy, upscale neighborhood my girlfriend Marina calls “chic.” Going from my old Testaccio neighborhood to Monteverde is like going from a working class, trendy ‘hood to upper middle class. I’ll be fine as long as I can overlook Monteverde’s fascist roots. For three weeks I’ve learned to overlook the swastika knife carved into my elevator door.

I never thought I could leave my old apartment without openly weeping. It was the best four years of my life. I had wild aperitivos on my terrace, made great dinners for Marina, wrote a lot of copy in my little writer’s nook next to my sliding-glass window. It was the happiest home I ever had.

However, I left for the dullest of reasons: security. In Rome housing, it’s standard to follow up a six-month contract with a three- or four-year deal, including a two-year tenant option. My landlady, a single mother non communicative in two languages, never gave me more than six months at a time. She never gave me a detailed explanation except for, “John, I don’t want to be married to you for three years.” The 900 euros I paid a month was always well below market value so I always signed. However, at the end of every six-month period I faced stress not knowing whether she’d renew my contract or raise the rent. Due to Italian tax laws totally beyond my comprehension, she could only raise it a certain percentage. However, she could throw me out on the street any time. Rarely did she tell me her intention until the day we sat down with a new contract. She only raised me once in four years so I always stayed on.

When you’re retired in Rome, small stress becomes big stress. Hell, the only other stress in my life was getting enough foam in my morning cappuccino. Facing housing uncertainty every six months became too much. After four years, I had enough. During an argument over upgraded and ineffective radiators I paid for, through my one raised rent, I told her the Roman ubiquitous “Vaffanculo” (Go fuck yourself). I started house hunting the next day.

This apartment is bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) for the same 1,000-euro price. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This apartment is bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) for the same 1,000-euro price. Photo by Marina Pascucci


There are two ways to go about finding a home in Rome. You can do it independently, scouring websites and want ads, meeting random agents or landlords in neighborhoods far and wide. Or you can go with one agency that knows your needs and notifies you of places likely suitable. I did both.

I have an excellent history with Property International (info@propertyrome.net), run by two kind, knowledgeable British women with deep roots in Rome. The first apartment Property International showed me in my first Rome stint in 2001 I took. The first apartment they showed me when I returned in 2014 I took. This time it took a little longer. My apartment in Monteverde was the third one I saw. I had to pay a month’s rent as commission but that’s standard and it’s the best bargain in Rome. An hour after I paid it, as I sat on my long balcony overlooking the treetops of Monteverde, I forgot I even spent the money.

The search, however, revealed the real lows of Rome housing. Like any major city, housing is your most crucial expense. In Rome, where the cost of living (food, public transport, entertainment) is so much lower than London, Paris and New York, rent stands out even more. The rent here isn’t nearly as high but finding quality is challenging.

One advantage I have is I’m American. Many Italians prefer us as many of their brethren, rental agents tell me, often don’t pay the rent. Italian laws heavily favor tenants and evictions are nearly impossible. Many Americans here are on rich government contracts or, like me, are retired and financially independent. I don’t live hand to mouth. I can pay a year’s rent at a time if they want. I’m a landlord’s dream — except for the, ahem, occasional cleaning lapse.

My new kitchen even has a dishwasher. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My new kitchen even has a dishwasher. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But along the way, I saw some hovels only a fruit bat could love. Some examples:

* The first place I saw was in Parioli, Rome’s most hoity-toity neighborhood. Its tree-lined boulevards pass pretty cafes with outdoor seating in the shade. Foreign embassies aren’t far away and embassy personnel populate some of the roomy apartments with doormen and elevators.

This was not one of those places.

As soon as I walked through a scruffy patio into a ground-floor flat, I came to the bed. That was most of the living room. A small table took up most of the rest of it. A tiny adjacent room held a kitchen and washing machine. The landlord, who was also the tenant, was moving to New York. At least he won’t be shocked at how small the apartments will be there.

* Centro Storico would be ideal. Rome’s historical center is the city’s nerve center. I stayed here my first two months four years ago waiting for a permanent place and had a blast. How could I not? Every night I walked past a dozen bars, enotecas and pubs and twice that many restaurants and trattorias. The first apartment I checked was on a quiet side street just across the bridge from Castel Sant’Angelo, the massive 2nd century mausoleum Hadrian built that later became a fortress. The apartment looked perfect. Big bedroom. Shiny wood floors. Roomy kitchen. Long entryway with a writer’s desk. Only 950 euros a month.

Where do I sign?

Then I looked in the bathroom. The shower was built for jockeys. I had to bend over to get my head under the shower head which made my ass bang against the side of the shower. It’s a great place if I never wanted to bathe.

* I’m familiar with the neighborhood of Aventino. So are history buffs. It’s the hill across Testaccio’s main drag and is home to beautiful churches, an orange garden and one of the best views in the city. I’ve had numerous picnics on Aventino Hill, one of the famed seven hills of Rome. According to myth, Romulus and Remus founded Rome on this hill.

Just up the road from my old neighborhood, I wouldn’t have to change my nocturnal habits much. After I saw one 60-square-meter apartment, I wanted to ask the agent if the last tenant was a vampire. It was darker than the inside of a hearse’s trunk. We visited in the early afternoon of a sunny day. We turned the lights off and the 1,100-euro apartment was nearly pitch black. Rome is sunny 10 months a year. This would feel like every day was winter in Norway.

The proposed writing nook in an apartment near Trevi Fountain.

The proposed writing nook in an apartment near Trevi Fountain.


* Undeterred, I looked at two other places in Centro Storico. One was on Via Lavatore, so close to Trevi Fountain I could almost feel the water splashing on the front door. This zone couldn’t be more touristy if it was along the shore of Splash Mountain. A few doors down from the flat, a restaurant advertised, in English, “ITALIAN CHEF.” One gelateria may be the only one in Italy serving banana splits. Menus displayed outside had more translations than The Bible. I heard more Japanese on the street than Italian.

I walked in as two other potential tenants walked out muttering to each other. The top-floor, 45-square-meter flat for 1,000 euros had a nice writing desk next to a small window. A kind gesture but the slanted roof was so low if I stood up suddenly I’d brain myself. I had to bend over to get into a storage room. Too young to stoop and too old to sacrifice, I politely declined and left wondering how Centro Storico had grossly slanted the market unfairly toward dwarves.

The palace of this Centro Storico flat was big but the doorways were small.

The palace of this Centro Storico flat was big but the doorways were small.


* Another Centro Storico apartment was just off the main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele about a spilled Guinness from my favorite bar, Abbey Theatre Irish Pub. The 55-square-meter, ground-floor apartment for 1,200 euros was in a giant palace where I imagined nobility or successful painters lived during the Renaissance.

Very short painters.

In two rooms the top of the door came to my shoulder. I’m not that tall. I’m only 6-foot-3. But I felt like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a Vietnamese tunnel. Who lives in these places?

Some of the buildings are hundreds of years old, dating back to before the Renaissance in the 16th century. Back then, the average Italian was maybe 5-5. It’s still only 5-8. Most Italians would find these places ideal, especially if they wanted to learn the Japanese term for “banana split.” They’re welcome to them.

My writing post for the next four years -- at least. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My writing post for the next four years — at least. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I have found my new palace. My apartment is bigger at 55 square meters with a bigger living room, bedroom, kitchen, even bed. It has a real refrigerator, not like my old one that brought back memories of my freshman dorm. It doesn’t have the glorious riverside terrace but the wraparound fifth-floor balcony is a great place to watch the sunrise over the trees, cappuccino in hand. It even has — gasp! — an elevator. No longer will I have to hoof it up 90 steps straight uphill if I forget a pen.

I’m paying the same 1,000 euros as my old place but the key is this: My landlord, a gentle, kind, married guy who’s my same age, gave me a four-year contract. This entitles me to a resident’s card which, in turn, gets me a family doctor. That’s important as I’m starting to approach the age of some of Rome’s lesser monuments. I get utilities in my name which means lower bills.

I went from a double bed to a queen. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I went from a double bed to a queen. Photo by Marina Pascucci


In other words, I left heaven and found a soft place to land. I have four years to explore a new neighborhood, make new friends, discover new restaurants and drink in new bars. Monteverde has a deep, haunting history waiting to be studied.

In the meantime, I don’t want to meet the guy who carved that swastika.