RUNNING IN ROME: Every day a discovery
Somewhat over a month ago, I was sitting with my friend Örjan in the garden outside the house in Bjärnum. We had just eaten an extensive dinner and enjoyed the presence of the nature all around us. In the mild twilight breeze after a day with clear blue skies we were talking amongst lush rhododendron bushes.
As usual, our conversation fluttered from subject to subject. Örjan told me that one of his brothers claimed that it is impossible to think while you are running. To be able to concentrate you have to stand still, or maybe even walk, but doing some serious thinking while running - impossible. I could not agree. I had imagined that my best thoughts appeared while I was running, or relaxing in a warm bath. Where there not several well-known books about thinking runners, like Alan Sillitoe´s The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner or Haruki Murakami´s What I talk About When I Talk About Running? I had assumed that the peculiar rhythm of running, how blood flushes through body and brain, the trail through a changing landscape, all such sensations must constitute a stimulus for the imagination and thoughts that constantly come and go while I run.
When I arrived in Rome, it´s more than a week ago now, I decided to test if I was right or wrong. I suffer from periodic addictions, not of alcohol or other substances, but of certain habits. One of my greatest liabilities is that during certain periods I concentrate far too much on specific activities. Sometimes they can be profitable and beneficial, like remunerated work, though sometimes they are quite meaningless - like blog writing. Occasionally running has taken up far too much of my time. If I have started jogging I do it almost every morning, then I suddenly quit and it may be years before I take it up again. Last time I had a running period was in Paris and that is now more than three years ago. Before that, I assume it was in Rome, maybe more than ten years ago, when I used to do my Ben Hur route, meaning seven laps around the Circus Maximus, which was close to the apartment we lived in before moving to Via Roberto Scott.
Why do I quit running? Maybe it's because I have been swallowed up by other tasks. A jog does not take long, but when pressing duties are piling up it may feel necessary to skip it. Actually, it's pretty stupid. To run actually means I´m enabled to store some strength, it signifies an energy boost for the daily toll. Often, it is furthermore a welcome respite from worries and gloomy thoughts, especially if I run through a beautiful landscape, which clears my mind.
Since I came back to Rome I have now been running five mornings in a row and am just back in the apartment, sweaty and exhausted after a race through the park of Caffarella. Since my running stint currently coincides with my blog writing I am combining the two passions and write down thoughts and impressions from my morning run, complemented by some information retrieved from books and the web.
At seven-thirty, I stepped out into the street in front of the apartment building where we live. I ran up a flight of stairs and ended up in the Italian summer landscape; green and lush before the merciless sun dries and burns it during July and August. In the dense greenery shine the white or pink flowers of oleander bushes, while meadows are dotted with blue and yellow flowers, with names unknown to me. Occasionally a flock of emerald green parrots dashes through the air, feral birds which have found a habitat in the parks around the Appian Road.
I cruised between dogs being walked around the park in front of our house, stumbled down a steep hill and on the right side appeared the first ancient monument; a round tower that make up the largely unknown Titus Flavius Abascanto´s memorial to his even more unknown wife, Priscilla. Along the Appian Road are several memorials dedicated to the memory of deceased Roman matrons, most famous is Cecilia Metella´s impressive mausoleum higher up along the street, even she a fairly unfamiliar lady.
As long as we have lived in Via Roberto Scott, Priscilla's tomb has been surrounded by rusting scaffolding and the adjacent section of the park has been secluded by a high fence and an iron gate with a hefty chain and heavy lock. A sign announces that the building will be restored in 2002.
I turned round the corner and passed a nameless trattoria. In the early twentieth century it was a popular place for tourists and pilgrims making their way down the Appian Road to reach the catacombs outside the walls of Rome. At that time the trattoria was called Aquataccio, Still Water, and the owner stored his famous, homemade cheeses inside Priscilla's tomb chamber. Nowadays, there are not many people walking along the Appian Road, except on Sundays when it is exempt from car traffic.
As soon as there was a short interval in the dense traffic of tourist buses, taxis on the way to the Ciampino airport, or private cars heading for Frascati, Grottaferata, Albano or IKEA, I scurried across the Appian Road and passed the church of Quo Vadis, taking its name from the The Acts of Peter, written sometime in the mid 100's. A most peculiar yarn telling about the apostle raising not only a young man from death, but also fried fish, makes a dog talk and praises God for paralyzing his own daughter to avoid her being married to a gentile. The apostle´s presence in Rome is due to the fact he pursues a certain Simon the Magician to prove that he is a charlatan. Peter makes one miracle after another and finally succeeds challenging Simon to a wizard duel worthy of Harry Potter. As a grand finale of this duel Simon succeeds in flying over Rome, but with God's help Peter makes him crash and after some time Simon dies of his injuries. However, Peter ends up with grave problems when several women after becoming "chaste Christians" stop sharing their beds with their husbands and to avoid execution Peter sneaks out of Rome, only to meet the deceased Jesus on the Appian Road. Frightened and surprised Peter asks him: Domine, quo vadis? My Lord, where are you going? Jesus answers him: "I walk to Rome to be crucified again." Peter realized that he once again has betrayed his friend and master, and ashamed returns to Rome and his forthcoming execution.
According to several Romans the Church of Quo Vadis is misplaced. According to them, Peter lived further down the road and if he had met the Lord it would have been after where the Church of St. Sebastian's now stands. In the catacombs under that church some monks have found an ancient marble slab with the inscription Domus Petri, Peter´s House.
Inside the church of Quo Vadis there is a marble slab set into the floor in which one discerns two deep footprints. Legend says it is Jesus' footprints. It was here he stood when he met with Peter. It is possible that the church replaced a Roman temple where the footprint slab was already present. Unfortunately, from other places in Rome we know that such marble slabs are votive offerings. Some Roman legionnaires, who after long years of hardship along the frontiers had returned to their hometowns, donated to their preferred temples marble slabs into which their footprints had been carved as a token of gratitude for having survived and as a sign that they had finally returned home and would never again leave their place of origin.
Such reading fruits rushed past inside my head while I ran along the wall around the meadows above the San Callisto Catacombs. A number of workers were frantically engaged in scrubbing mosses and lichens from the rough wall. One of those inexplicable activities that I sometimes witness in Rome. Instead of renovating the dilapidated monuments around the place, or picking up piles of trash, had a bunch of municipal workers been ordered to scrub a long wall, which was quite beautiful in its robes of hanging plants, lichens and mosses of various colors.
I turned into the narrow street towards the Caffarella Park, to my right I glimpsed a round building that I had not previously paid attention to, but considering my future blog contribution I probably had to find out something about the history of that structure. I stopped and read the sign that the Municipality had placed in front of the building. This admirable service is found all over Rome, where elegantly designed signs provide summaries of the history of monuments and specific places. Unfortunately, many of them are made unreadable by graffitti fanatics who apparently get some kind of kick from spraying them down with black or red color. On this particular sign I was able to read: Edicola di Cardinale Pole, Cardinal Pole's little house, but the explanatory text had been made unreadable by an unsightly graffitti squiggle.
Cardinal Pole? Who could that fellow have been? After I had returned home, I consulted Wikipedia and found that Cambridge's last Catholic bishop, Reignald Pope, had funded the construction of the round, little chapel and in another place I read about two theories to why he had decided to have it built. One was that he considered that the church Quo Vadis had been misplaced and the other that he built the chapel in a place where he had survived an attack from killers hired by Henry VIII.
Cardinal Pole had gone through hell because of the English king's constant divorces and weddings. Facing a specially convened meeting of theologians at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Reignald Pole had defended Henry's decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Pole´s defense had been a test of loyalty, since he had previously opposed the king's marriage to Catherine by quoting Leviticus 20:21: “And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.” However, in Paris Cardinal Pole used another convenient Bible quote, Matthew 22:24: “If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother”. Henry VIII was very pleased and Pole was back in favour.
However, when King's rampant libido complicated matters further and when he married Anne Boleyn, Pole lost patience with his king and escaped to Rome. A furious Henry VIII condemned the cardinal's mother and older brother to death, but repented and had them for a couple of years locked up in the Tower instead. Pole then began to publish pamphlets attacking the blasphemous rule of Henry VIII, while traveling across Europe trying to inspire Catholic potentates to attack England and with only three votes missing, Pole lost in 1555 the opportunity to become pope. It was perhaps not surprising that Henry VIII was trying to get rid of Reignald Pole in the place I was now passing.
I continued along the narrow street, and ran past the Chinese ambassador's residence, an exclusive tennis club and several of the strange hovels found in secluded places all around Rome; dilapidated shacks which crumbling walls that have been improved by corrugated iron and tarpaulins, shanties surrounded by overgrown gardens with wrecked cars, goats and chickens. Sometimes it appears as if the residents of these dilapidated shacks, with satellite dishes and laid-up trailers, own the land around them, for there can sometimes be seen a tethered horse, or an occasional, skinny cow.
I passed the open gates to the Park of Caffarella and while a rooster crowed in the vicinity I ran through cool and shadowy vaults of dense leaves. The crowns of gnarled trees on both sides of the gravel road joined one another above my head. When I passed a couple of athletic, young ladies, I forced myself to straighten my back and put more bounce into my steps, though it was not easy. I was already becoming strained and had reached the second breathing that my friend and running mate Stefan used to describe as my "vacuum cleaner groans".
After having passed another couple of ladies I began to think that considering I was sixty years old I was actually in an unusually good shape, but then I glimpsed before me a broad-shouldered gentleman, with a strange, distorted running style. We had reached a tiring stretch across a wide meadow and the sun glistened on the man's bald crown that was enclosed by bushy, snow white hair. I guessed that the man must be much older than I. On his black T-shirt was written Istituto Sacro Cuore with white letters, accordingly I assumed the resilient old man must be a priest, or a monk. I could absolutely not let an old man like that beat me in the track and therefore increased my running speed, but so did the priest and he even began to pull away from me with his strange, twisting running style.
I felt an increasing pain in my right foot. An excuse to cut back on the pace or a divination about upcoming difficulties in walking and running tomorrow? Should I give up? Never! I could not, with any self-esteem intact, give up the challenge from an old, tinpot priest. Though my vacuuming growl was becoming worse and it had begun to flicker before my eyes, I did not give up the struggle. I lasted two minutes more, then I had reached my limits. While the priest continued ahead with unbridled speed I staggered to a halt and pretended that I had become interested in the sight in front of me and that was actually true.
Breathing with greater calm I read the explanatory sign and watched the scenery. In front of me rose´s Egeria wooded hill, under it there is a cave where the Camenae dwell, these are nymphs who since time immemorial protect the spring which waters gush forth from a badly damaged, marble lion´s mouth into a pond with the surface covered by bright green algae. Over the ruined arch, which spans over the source and its marble statue of the god Almone, whose head is missing, chunks of dense greenery is exuding down over crumbling walls. What was in front of me were the remains of Herod Atticus´ Nymphaeum.
A nympheum is shrine within a cave, or by a source, which is consecrated to nymphs believed to live in and protect the flowing water. During Antiquity entire facilities with fountains, pools and banquet halls were developed around certain nympheae. That had certainly been the case in the days when the present Park of Caffarella was part of Herodes Atticus´ luxurious villa, the Tripio. Herodes Atticus was an immensely rich, Greek aristocrat and philosopher who had been summoned to Rome to raise Emperor Antonius Pius´ adopted son, Marcus Aurelius, who eventually became a legendary emperor and author of the perennial best-seller Meditations, a classic representative of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. We catch a glimpse of him in the beginning of the great movie The Gladiator.
Herodes Atticus married a relative of Antonius Pius´ wife, the fourteen year old Aspasia Annia Regilla, who owned the land that later became the Park of Caffarella. When the marriage was consummated Herodes Atticus was forty years old, a considerable age at the time, but he assured the world that he loved his Regilla. Under the joint patronage of himself and his wife Herodes Atticus ordered a variety of impressive buildings to be erected across the Empire, among them sports facilities, theaters and public baths in Athens, Corinth, Delphi and Thermopylae, and of course the brilliant buildings in Tripio, of which there now only remain the disintegrating nympheum and a temple that Atticus had erected in memory of his Regilla.
Atticus traveled frequently between Greece and Rome, where he held a variety of important political offices and acted as the emperors´ confidant and advisor. If he spent his time in Rome during the summer, he certainly enjoyed the cool, open halls surrounding the nympheum. As the days grew hot and stuffy Atticus and his entire household spent them beside the pools and rippling streams by Egeria's lush hill. It was maybe here that Regilla was brutally kicked to death during one of her husband's business travels. It was Alcimedon, one of Atticus freed slaves, who according to witnesses unexpectedly begun abusing his employer's wife, she died when Alcimedon directed a brutal kick to her stomach. We no longer know the cause of the attack, but when Herodes Atticus came back he was accused of instigating murder by Regillas brother, who was first consul of Rome. It was only Emperor Marcus Aurelius' intervention that saved his former teacher from execution. During the rest of his life Herodes Atticus devoted himself to building various temples honouring the memory his young wife, of which one remains in the Park of Caffarella.
I started to move again, the break at the nympheum had provided me with renewed vigor and fighting spirit. I ran back along the stream Almone, came across a bridge and reached Vaccareccia, the Caffarelli residence. The Caffarellis are no longer there, already in the beginning of the 19th century they sold Vaccareccia and the surrounding land and in 1853 they also sold their big town palace at the Capotoline Hill to the Prussians and it became the German Embassy, until Italy declared war on Germany in April 1915. The Caffarelli family had not so many distinguished members as the other noble families of Rome, like the Orsinis, Colonnas, Borgheses, Odelschalchis, Ludovisis or Torlonias. They apparently lived off the riches from their farm lands, something their ruined palaces still seem to testify. It appears as if there are people still living in the huge, run-down palace of Vaccareccia. The yard is littered with trash, dogs run around among chickens and sheep and strange structures of corrugated iron and chicken wire. I wonder how life was inside the huge building when the decline set in. Where old maids and decrepit old men staggering around like ghosts among dusty furniture in semi-deserted rooms and corridors, while chicken and cats ran around their feet?
The Almone Stream has not fared much better. When I passed a bridge, I noticed that the stream was blocked by a variety of junk, especially PET bottles and plastic containers. PET bottles appear to be one of our world's great curses. People have increasingly become accustomed to drink bottled water, even in Rome with all its fountains with fresh and tasty water. It is now forbidden to introduce PET bottles into Venice where they have blocked and destroyed several channels. These bottles are almost indestructible and while they float on the water surface they gather all manner of waste and harmful dung.
When I worked as a teacher in Växjö, I found that this year's national tests in English included a text about a boat called Plastiki, an eighteen feet long catamaran made of 12 500 PET bottles- It was built in 2010 by young people who later used the strange vessel to cross the Pacific, from San Francisco to Sydney. Far out at sea, they found vast expanses covered with plastic fragments, mostly PETmaterial. Currently, there are 46 000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the world's oceans. Each year, a million seabirds and 100 000 marine mammals are killed due to the suffocating plastic and the misery it brings along. The sight of the debris in the Almone Stream made me sad and I wondered what ancient Romans would have thought if they knew their holy water would be humiliated in such an awful manner.
Almone was once a sacred and intensely worshiped water course. The stream, Almo in Ancient Roman times, was once at the heart of one of the city's most important celebrations – The Holy Week of Attis. The peculiar rituals were initiated one week before the actual festivities began. On March 15, the Korybantes, the goddess Kybele´s clergy, cut the most perfect reeds to be found along the banks of Almo and in a solemn procession carried them up to Kybele´s and Attis´ temple on the Palatine. On March 22, it was time for Arbor Intrat, the Entry of the Tree, when a large pine tree was carried into the temple. During the following day, Sanguem, the Bloody Day, possessed Korybantes sung and swirled around while their Archicallo, High Priest, supervised how they cut themselves with sharpened swords and let their blood flow over the black stone, which crowned the head of the goddess's silver statue. It was during this celebration that the young men who would devote their lives to the services of Attis and Kybele castrated themselves. These wild rituals lasted for two days. The following day and night, Hilaria, was celebrated throughout Rome and people drunk and danced in the streets. The feast was followed by a much needed Requetio, Day Off. Climax came the next day, Lavatio, the 27th of March when Kybele´s bloodstained silver statue was taken through the streets of Rome in a chariot drawn by white, flower-bedecked heifers, which followed the cream of Rome's nobility, dressed in their best clothes, all them barefooted and surrounded by wildly dancing Korybantes.
The procession left the city through the Porta Appia, which is still there, but it now is called the San Sebastian Gate, from there, they moved down to Almo´s banks and the cart was brought into the middle of the stream where the Archigallo, to the people's loud acclaim and cheers washed the silver statue and its black stone, after that the procession returned to the Palatine in a triumphant mood. Spring had begun.
Occupied with thoughts about waste and strange religious rites, I ran without noticing it past Regilla´s beautiful temple, otherwise I used stop, peek through the fence and watch the charming temple where it stood in the shade of tall, well-kept pine trees, at the same time as I would be annoyed by the sign that declared that during the summer months one would be able to visit the temple between the hours of ten and four. Two Sundays I had walked up to the temple only to find the gates locked as usual. I will probably never get to see the inside of that templeWhen I in vain have come back to the temple I have been reminded of the fact that it is also called the temple of Redicolos. "Ridiculous" is ridicolo in Italian, but the temple is not named after a “ridiculous” deity. In ancient times it was dedicated the God of Return ‒ Redicolos, from the Latin word for return, redeo.
Today, I had decided to run without any break, all the way home, but I failed to do so. When I arrived at Appian Road I had to make a halt. Two carabinieri stood stiffly erect on their motorcycles, which with rotating blue lights passed by at breakneck speed, while their riders through whistles intermittently blew shrieking sounds. I could not understand why they were standing up, it looked dangerous. Soon after came two other motorcycle-borne carabinieri, though they were sitting down and after them came in the same insane rush five black limos, followed by another four motorcycle-borne carabinieri.
Some high dignitaries, or a couple of onorevole moving from one place to another. While the motorcade passed all activities stopped; runners, pedestrians, motorists and the moss scrubbing municipal workers followed the scurrying caravan with their eyes, shaking their heads. Onorevole, honourable, is a somewhat strange title for an Italian parliamentarian. I do not believe it is particularly common among Italians to respect and honour their politicians. Too many, within the entire spectrum from left to right, have made their voters disappointed by revealing themselves as corruptible persons, who do not consider themselves as elected representatives of their fellow citizens, but rather as upholders of their own privileges and high paid positions. Italians often state that the only time all are agreement within the Parliament is when its members are voting to increase their benefits and raise their own wages.
I was running again, thinking that the spectacle was probably more of a power demonstration, than a security measure. In any case it did not help Aldo Moro to have an escort when he was kidnapped by the Red Brigades. All five carabinieri and police officers who were supposed to protect him were killed.
Just before I turned into the last stretch on our home street, Via Roberto Scott, I passed a stump of a road called Largo Enrico Riziero Galvaligi, yet another reminder the Anni Piombi, the Years of Lead, i.e. the time when rightist and leftist terrorist groups kept Italy in constant fear and the Prime Minister Aldo Moro was murdered.
General Galvaligi had as a young carabinieri joined the partisans in their resistance fight against German invaders and Italian Fascists. In the 1970s he had along with the legendary della Chiesa, who eventually was murdered in Palermo, fought against the Mafia. When Galvaligi was appointed General, he also became chief of security for the carceri speciale, "special prisons", institutions where mafiosi and terrorists were incarcerated. At this time, after the assassination of Aldo Moro in 1978, the terrorists within the Red Brigades were considered to be the greatest threat to Italian society and democracy. Accordingly, it was mainly brigardistas who were locked up within special prisons. It was della Chiesa who ensured that they ended up there and the leftist press pointed to the unsatisfactory conditions prevailing in those prisons.
On December 12th 1980, the Brigades kidnapped Giovanni d'Urso, who within the Ministry of Justice was the main responsible bureaucrat for the special prisons. The Brigades announced that they had judged d'Urso as guilty to treason and had condemned him to death. He would be executed unless the revolutionaries who were incarcerated in special prisons were released. The Government feared a new Aldo Moro incident and immediately transferred the leftist terrorists from Asinara, the most notorious special prison, though the Mafiosi stayed behind on the isolated prison island north of Sardinia. Inspired by this success the leftist prisoners of Trani´s special prison rioted and took 18 prison guards hostage, threatening to kill them all if not all "political prisoners" were released immediately.
On the 29th December, instead of negotiating, Galvaligi sent in his carabinieri in an armed raid against the prison rebels, they were completely taken by surprise, made no resistance and the hostages could be released without any bloodshed. Nevertheless, the risky operation cost Galvaligi his life. On New Year's Eve he and his wife were returning home after mass in the parish church of our neighborhood. When they were taking off their coats, the bell of the entrance door rang, someone announced that it was the postman searching for General Galvaligi. He was waiting outside the gate with an official delivery. Galvaligi went downstairs to open the entrance door to the apartment building and was greeted by Remo Pancelli and Pietro Vanzi from the Red Brigades, opening fire with their automatic weapons. The general died immediately after being pierced by seven bullets.D'Urso was released two months later, but it took another six years before Italy's prison system was reformed, mainly due to intense pressure from the Catholic Church.
Pleasantly exhausted I entered our apartment. Now, when I have showered, relaxed and written my blog entry I consider it proven that Örjan´s brother was wrong – for sure you can think while you run. However, it can of course also depend on the fact that running in Rome may be an exceptional experience. You cannnot avoid being inspired by a city where even such a relatively forsaken place like the Caffarella Park possesses so many remarkable treasures. Even a simple jogging tour reveals layer after layer of culture, inspiration and challenges. I have only scraped the surface, variations seem to be endless. As one of my daughters stated ‒ even if you took away all the people from Rome, the town will continue to breath and speak to you.
Stoops, Robert F (2012) The Acts of Peter (Early Christian Apocrypha). Oregon CA.: Polebridge Press. Turcan, Robert (1997), The Cults of the Roman Empire.Oxford: Blackwell. Cento Bull, Anna and Philip Cooke (2006) Ending Terrorism in Italy. New York: Routledge.