Thursday, July 17, 2014

Walk on Down That Roman Road

     Today Sandy and I took a break from photography and Roman wine and headed around the port road to the Bay of Trentova, a popular place for swimming and beach flopping.  Ah, but your intrepid reporters were not slacking, we were off to look at a Roman road in a very unlikely place.

Four years ago, our first summer here, Fabio and Fernando corralled us and packed us into a four-wheel-drive vehicle to take us out to see the site of a Roman villa, upon which had been built in turn a large eighteenth century villa, then in a perilous state of decrepitude and commonly referred to as “The House of the Cows” because a local land owner used it as an ersatz barn.  We turned off the road immediately before the drive down to the beach facility and headed up a ridge trail which rounds Monte Tresino, a headland which more or less defines the western terminus of Agropoli’s bay.  Now Fabio had borrowed a jeep, but not just any jeep.  We were riding up what can only be described as a pig trail in a genuine Russian Lada jeep.  Which had, I am convinced, no suspension whatsoever.  As we wallowed through mud holes three feet deep and over boulders, our heads were literally bouncing on the roof of the Lada.  And then, suddenly, out in the middle of the boonies, we were zipping down a real road!  Fabio whistled and pointed out the window and as I craned my neck out the rear window my jaw almost hit the pavement.  Yep, I said pavement.  We were out in the middle of nowhere on a beautiful little section of Roman road!  So naturally I wanted to come back and take a closer look.

A little background:  the Roman road system is rightly famous, but its status reminds me of that old gag of my favorite comic, Henny Youngman.  Henny sees a friend on the street and in the course of conversation his friend asks, “So, Henny, how’s your wife?”  To which Henny replies deadpan, “Compared to what?”  You supply your own rimshot. Compared to what had come before it since the dawn of civilization and after as well for many centuries, the Roman road system was stupendous, consisting of some 50,000 miles of highways all across Europe, the Levant and northern Africa, and perhaps as many as 250,000 miles of improved roads.  That was a record that lasted until the 19th century, believe it or not.  But compared to the road system of most modern European countries, much less of the whole of Europe, that’s a rather paltry number.  For comparison, the U.S. has something on the order of 4 million miles of improved roads.  

On the other hand, Roman roads were designed to last.  There are roads all over the Old World which are merely widened and paved over their Roman forerunner.  And literally hundreds of Roman bridges are still being used, even by motorized traffic, 2,300 years after they were first constructed.  Not too shabby when you consider the effective life of a modern bridge is about 70 years.  The secret of the Roman bridge was the arch, and the secret of the Roman road was that it was designed to shed water as quickly and efficiently as possible.  First the soldiers (Roman roads, like America’s interstate system, were really built for military transport) grubbed out vegetation for 20’ on either side of the center line of the road, then they dug a concave trench some 8’ to 15’ wide, depending on the importance of the road, and 6’ deep, and began stacking layers of fill, big stones on the bottom, then smaller stones, then gravel, then a layer of sharper’s sand which they mounded in the center to create a crown, then placed curbstones—which were literally curb stones—along both sides and carefully fitted onto the upper surface of the road large, usually polygonal slabs of basalt or some other hard stone which they fitted together with incredible precision so that water was forced to run to the sides of the road where it was carried by the curbs to small drainage channels which connected to large ditches at the edges of the road’s verges, and these in turn were channeled into streams and rivers.  Same concept as today, but the Romans had it nailed a long time ago. What little water seeped through the road surface quickly percolated through the fill.  Every Roman mile they placed a milestone which was—you guessed it—a real mile stone, complete with carved mileage to the two closest cities and to the Golden Milestone in the heart of the Empire in the Forum Romanum in Mother Roma.  Imagine the psychological effect if you’re a Celtic hick out in Gallia who’s never seen a road before and some wise ass Roman tells you you’re exactly 1,348 Roman miles from the center of power.

Actually, just a few days ago we traveled one of the most important of Roman roads on our way back from Policastro.  Today it’s a stretch of the A-3 autostrada, the interstate which hooks up with the A-1 and thus carries you from the Alps to the toe of the boot in Reggio-Calabria.  This stretch, which zips down the Vallo di Diano, the other main part of Italy's largest national park along with the Cilento, along the Tanagro River and through the valley of a Cenozoic lake, was the Via Annia in antiquity, though it is often misidentified as the Via Popilia.  But that’s 40 miles west of here.  So what was our little stretch of beautiful Roman road doing so far out in the hinterlands?  This will have been what the Romans called a via privata, a local road usually built at private expense by one or more landowners to connect with the larger public roads.  I can only imagine that SSP 572, the coastal road from Agropoli south to Palinuro and beyond, follows a Roman road as well. 

But what would justify such an expense?  Hard to see it from Sandy’s picture, what with all the macchia on the ridge, but to a Roman eye, this stretch along the coast must have looked like prime agricultural land.  If I were a Roman vigneron, I would drool just looking at it:  beautiful conformation, springs and year-round streams for irrigation everywhere, a perfect north-facing aspect in this toasty environment, and those cool, dewy breezes off the sea every night.  In short, this is prime location for Roman villas.

The literal meaning of villa in Latin is nothing more or less than ‘farmhouse’, but as early as the third century BCE the Romans were already farming on a commercial scale.  To put it concisely, the Romans invented agribusiness.  A typical villa farm grew wheat in the lowlands and olives, fruits and vines on the upper slopes.  What today we call polyculture.  Some also specialized in luxury products:  flowers, farmed fish, morays—I read today that escargot were even being shipped from this area to Egypt.  The Romans also invented the beach house, and, Sister, did these guys on Monte Tresino find a location!  The site of the villa is some 200 feet above the sea on a steep escarpment.  To create enough level space for what must have been a large villa complex, the Romans constructed a retaining wall around three sides, from 6’ to 10’ tall, and running out toward the sea some 60’ and then along the seascape a good 160’.  And we’re not talking dry rubble here!  Take a look at the picture and that gorgeous ashlar work.

So imagine yourself as the lucky owner of this villa maritima.  The Romans loved placing villas along these dramatic seascapes, and a 1st century CE eyewitness named Strabo says there were so many along the coast of the next bay north from here, the Bay of Naples, that it looked like one continuous city.  You have opted for a bit more quiet and privacy, here on the Bay of Trentova, but doubtless there are other Roman villas along the same stretch, as yet undiscovered.  Your house is equipped with a huge atrium with an ornamental pool, a tablinum or office where you can survey the public part of your house, a gorgeous peristyle courtyard out back with topiary and a small swimming pool, surrounded by summer bedrooms on two levels, service rooms, both a summer and winter dining room, as well as a spa complex with hot, warm and cold baths.  Some distance from the residential suite is the pars rustica, where wheat is threshed, winnowed and stored, where olives are processed into oil and where grapes are pressed and fermented into wine.  A spring some 60 yards from the back of the house provides delicious water, natural refrigeration for cheeses and other foods, and a shrine of the gods which has cultic pictures inherited from your Greek and perhaps Etruscan forerunners (Fernando showed me this little shrine and it is deeply moving).

But there may be yet another source of income for your luxury getaway.  Up on the ridge behind the villa is a seam of beautiful pink sandstone which has obviously been quarried at some point.  Sandstone which perfectly matches that used to construct the first Doric temples in Paestum, some 20 miles north.  Paestum, built on a limestone ledge where there is no sandstone for 20 miles.  Twenty miles south.  And 200 meters to the west of your villa is a small cove which defines a perfect landing for sea transport of bulk products.  It could very well be that our Roman agribusinessman was also a stone contractor as well.  If you were lucky enough to be that guy, that was about as good as life could get in antiquity.  A gorgeous home in a gorgeous setting in a healthful climate with a dependable income and a diet the quality of which exceeded that of a typical 21st-century American.

Sadly for Dave and Sandy, the ‘House of the Cows’ has been fenced off and gated, so we were grateful that our friends had taken us there earlier.  Happily, it looks to us as if the owners are now trying to restore the land and even the huge old farmhouse, perhaps as an agriturismo.  I truly hope so; they will have a spectacular location.  And happily as well, we decided to push our old muscles a bit and trek on up the flank of Monte Tresino to Punta Tresino where we were rewarded with the haunting remains of yet another torre, watchtower, this one the Torre Sarzana, and a panoramic view out over the azure sea.

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