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Cannibal fish, works of art and church – changing fate of one place

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Approximate location of the residence of Vedius Pollio in Rome. Google Maps, own selection
Approximate location of the residence of Vedius Pollio in Rome. Google Maps, own selection

I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated by discovering the continuity of the fate of the city and its individual parts. From the perspective of a short human existence, the evolution of urban space – its reconstructions, transformations and changes in functions – seems almost imperceptible. Sometimes it is only when we return to a place after many years that we say “what has changed here!” But when you look at the city from the perspective of hundreds of years, the changes the city is undergoing are much more visible.

Today I would like to invite you on a Roman time journey – we will start it from an unattractive place: an inconspicuous quarter between Via delle Sette Sale and Via in Selci in Rome. This is not a place frequented by tourists, because there is no particular reason to go there. But if we went back more than two thousand years, we would see a completely different landscape. The area was occupied by a huge villa belonging to a nobleman from the times of the turn of the republic and the empire. To be precise – he was not a representative of any old aristocracy, but a ghastly rich son of a freedman. His name was Vedius Pollio. He became famous not only for his enormous wealth, but above all for his cruelty, which surprised even the Romans themselves. Pollio went down in history because when one of his slaves committed a crime and was sentenced to death by his master, Pollio fed his body to the voracious moray eels that he bred in the pond. One can only hope that the slaves were not eaten alive by the fish… This pond, shrouded in macabre fame, was probably located somewhere there – between Via delle Sette Sale and Via in Selci.

If archaeologists’ assumptions are correct, Pollio’s villa must have been huge. The entire property was probably close to 9,000 square meters. Almost a hectare! For comparison – one of the largest and most luxurious houses in Pompeii – the so-called Faun’s House – spread over an area of ​​slightly more than 4,000 m2. Pollio’s house was comparable in size to the palace of the then reigning first emperor of Rome – Octavian Augustus!

Pollio died in 15 BCE and left his great residence to Emperor Augustus in his will. The ruler decided to demolish it. Why? Because he publicly condemned an excessively luxurious lifestyle (his own private apartment within the Domus Augustea palace was relatively modest), the demolition of the luxurious residence of the freedman – Vedius Pollio – was like a manifesto. In its place, Augustus ordered a building to serve all the inhabitants of Rome – the so-called Portico of Livia, named after the emperor’s wife.

Livia’s portico was a spacious square surrounded on each side by a double Doric colonnade with shapes full of noble simplicity. There were fountains in the corners of the square. In the middle – here the interpretation of the sources is unclear – either another fountain or an altar was built in honour of Concordia (“Concord of Augustus”). If it was indeed an altar, its shape probably resembled the Ara Pacis, which we can see today in the museum on the banks of the Tiber. From the outside, the building was surrounded by small shops and workshops, access to which was provided from the street. The colonnades of the portico were decorated with works of art. Ovid mentions them laconically in “The Art of Loving” – “Don’t miss the Portico that takes its name from Livia its creator, full of old masters”. According to the poet, this place was frequented by beautiful women, so men “going hunting” should look for prey there…

Livia’s portico survived for quite a long time. Archaeological data show that this place was used for its intended purpose as late as the 4th century. But with the fall of Rome, the loss of political importance, the impoverishment of the city, and the outflow of population, the Portico of Livia also began to decline. Probably in the 5th century CE, the building itself was already in poor technical condition because it was slowly being dismantled. We know that at that time people began to be buried in the square – the place turned into a cemetery surrounded by picturesque ruins.

This is how our journey through time reaches the end of the second half of the 5th century CE – the last decades of the Western Roman Empire. At that time, the wife of one of the last emperors of Rome orders the construction of a new Christian temple approximately 200 meters east of the Portico of Livia. The architects decide to use material from the dilapidated Portico for construction. The magnificent Doric columns surrounding the square are being dismantled one by one and transported to a construction site nearby. The church that was built then is known today as St. Basilica. Peter in Chains (at Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli). The columns from the Portico of Livia found their second life there and serve the Romans to this day.

And these columns are the only thing left of the magnificent Portico of Livia – today no other part of this building is visible. Only fragments of the foundations and pieces of marble slabs forming the floor have survived underground. Nothing more. We know the exact shape of the portico from a fragment of the so-called Marble Plan of Rome from the 2nd century CE, which shows the exact outline of the walls, the location of pillars and even fountains.

If anyone wants to see a souvenir of the imperial investment, which Augustus wanted to show that the luxuries enjoyed by the cruel Vedius Pollio are not welcome in the Augustan regime, he must go to the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. An additional reason to visit this place is the wonderful Renaissance sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo and, of course, the relics in the form of shackles with which Saint Peter himself was shackled.

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