I’ve been enjoying the series Meet the Romans, and episode 2 really revealed what I love about many ancient Roman cities. I’ve been to quite a few, though often without knowing beforehand that they were ancient Roman cities. These include cities like Dubrovnik, Split, La Spezia, Florence, Istanbul, Budapest, and yes, Rome. The attributes I’ve come to love include:
1. very narrow streets, often not accommodating cars
2. countless 4- to 6-story buildings with a variety of units, from cheap tiny units to large family units with courtyards
3. built into the 1st floor of these buildings are tiny shops – everything from restaurants to banks to bakeries
4. in ancient Rome most housing units weren’t used for much more than sleeping – living was done in the city. You often didn’t have a kitchen, laundry facilities, or even a bathroom.
The host Mary Beard tells about the horrors of these things (barely enough room to lie down, the danger of dark small alleys), but I think in a modern world they’d be wonderful (ok, keep private bathrooms). Walk to your job, spend time in a vast variety of restaurants or pubs, experience the feeling of a busy narrow street, chat with neighbors at a public park, and take your kids to relax and play at the public bath or let them play in a public square while you grab a cappuccino. This is heaven to me.
The only reason most modern cities aren’t like this is because we force them not to be. We require minimum space for all housing types, design our streets for cars instead of people, limit the height of buildings in most places, and separate our retail from our living zones. The effect is to push the less-rich outward, separate us from other people, and force us to drive for any services we need. I don’t know any U.S. city with a building code that would allow you to build anything close to an ancient Roman city, though there are arguably no health or safety reasons for this.
Now imagine a modern implementation of a Roman city. The narrow streets would be well-lit and safe, the apartments would be ranging from affordable to extravagant, the tiny shops would provide jobs to many that live above, and dense office buildings would provide jobs for many more. Well-planned parks and amenities would provide endless entertainment and chances for social interaction, while the pub on your block may connect you with your nearby neighbors. A good subway station in your neighborhood would bring you to other areas when you need to travel.
Above I’ve included a drawing of one of the stone maps Beard shows. On the lower side in red there’s a high-end residence with a courtyard (the black dots) and tiny stores built in to the first story. Across the street in blue there’s an apartment building with tiny stores built into the first story. Notice the very narrow street and imagine just how active and alive this street would feel.
As not everyone will have the opportunity to visit these cities, below are a few photos I’ve collected to get some flavor of life from our past.
1. Public bath in Budapest. Note these are not the scary places an American might think of, it’s more like something between a public pool and a day spa. Inside the building are a few dozen baths similar to hot tubs, and rooms for massages.
2. Grainy picture (sorry) of a public square in Dubrovnik during a soccer match. People wandering with drinks, sitting on church steps with picnic lunches chatting with strangers.
3. Narrow alley in Korcula
4. An old alley in Rome