One of the more important streets
in ancient Rome was the Vicus Iugarius which ran out of the north end of the
Forum (by the temple of Saturn)
along the foot of the Capitoline Hill. The street
ran west, through the sacred boundary of the city, towards the markets
and sacred areas by the old port on the bank of the Tiber.
At about the point the Vicus Iugarius
passed from the city into the port district of the Forum Boarium it bifurcated
and ran through a double arch in the so-called Servian Walls called the Porta
Carmentalis, (the "Gate of Carmenta"). Remnants of a later
version of this old gate (rebuilt in brick-faced concrete) are perhaps to be
identified amongst the archeological remains at the Area Sacra di Sant' Omobono
with its twin temples. By the time of the late republic, the Servian Walls had
lost their effectiveness because the city had simply spilled out past them,
and the Porta Carmentalis retained only its symbolic value.
The gate was named for Carmenta,
a local minor divinity assimilated by learned speculation of the late republic
or Augustan age to the mythical mother of Evander, the Arcadian
Greek whom Vergil portrays as settled on the future site
of Rome in Aeneid, Book 8.
Why is it interesting?
This city gate is interesting because
it shows two things; first, how Roman legends surrounded it and gave it an added,
and unexpected symbolic value; and how people who study Roman archaeology
and topography have been able to see beyond the legends and make sense of
In 479 BC, according
to the semi-legendary annals of the city,
306 warriors of the Fabian family (the gens Fabia) exited by what was later
assumed to be the right hand opening (as you look at it from the city side)
to fight a sort of private little war against the people of Veii north of
Rome. These were annihilated almost to a man, and in typical Roman fashion,
ill omen was attached to leaving the city by the right hand arch,
which was nicknamed the Porta Scelerata. Or so the legend runs.
The topographical facts.
But in fact, the wall of Rome containing
the gate did not exist when the plucky Fabians went forth to battle. Enough
of that wall survives today to see that it was built of a distinctive yellowish
stone called Grotta Oscura. We know where the stone was quarried, and that is
deep within the territory of Veii--which the Romans only acquired
nearly a century after the Fabians' destruction (396 BC is the traditional date).
The wall with its gate went up long after the Fabii departed! Why did their
story get connected with the gate?
The Roman topographer Lawrence Richardson
thought hard about this inconsistency and arrived at a solution. The name Porta
Scelerata (which certainly carries inauspicious connotations, and perhaps a
hint of religious pollution, since Latin scelus means something like
'crime', or 'wickedness' and can veer into the realm of 'misfortune' or 'calamity')
is an old one and predates the invented story of the Fabian departure.
The story of the Fabii arose with
great probability in the era after the Romans started writing their history
(after 250 BC or so) and smart authors with little information to go on tried
to fill in the gaps. This is also a reasonable guess because the writer who
invented the story of the Fabian departure did so at a time when people had
forgotten that the Servian Walls had gone up in the mid-fourth century. (Indeed,
the Romans called them the "Servian Walls" because they assumed in
ignorance that it went back to King Servius Tullius
in the sixth century BC.) How long after (say) 375 BC would people be ignorant
enough about the walls to attribute them to a period centuries earlier? I don't
know, but "a long time after the walls were built" is surely a safe
Richardson points to a few pieces
of evidence that bodies of the dead were carried out the Porta Scelerata in
order to be burned in the vast empty area (in mid-republican times, that is)
of the Campus Martius. The ancients generally were nervous about the dead, and
they developed many odd rites in dealing with them
which betrays that societal nervousness. The Romans in particular were careful
to get the dead outside of the sacred limits of the city (called the pomoerium),
and they developed practices to clean up the religious pollution stemming
from contact within the household (and city) with the dead.
It makes a certain amount of sense,
then, that the gate by which the dead were carried out thus got the nickname
Porta Scelerata. But this is just half of the story. If corpses exited the city
from this gate because the Vicus Iugarius was one handy route out to the Campus
Martius, it makes reciprocal sense that the great triumphal parades enjoyed
by successful generals--which were prepared in the Campus Martius--entered the
city by the same gate (and we know they did this).
But there were two arches in the
gate. Richardson makes the smart and defensible suggestion that people entered
the city through the Porta Scelerata, its ill-omen attaching to exiting the
city; and that people exited by the Porta Triumphalis (the other arch of the
gate), but did not enter this way because it was reserved symbolically for triumphators.
This imposed a sensible traffic flow in everyday life interrupted only by funeral
corteges and triumphal parades.
An interesting piece of supporting evidence.
Richardson summons an interesting
historical fact which not only is better explained by his theory, but which
also helps illustrate the situation posited by his idea. The emperor Augustus
died in AD 14. As in so many parts of his extraordinary life, his death was
marked by honorific exceptions to the normal rules.
Augustus was cremated
in the Campus Martius, where his vast mausoleum still rises (in truncated
form) today. We are specifically told he was escorted by a cortege of senators.
And, we are told, he was taken out the Porta Triumphalis as a special honor.
Why would this be special? Because normally the dead went out the other arch
of the gate (the arch by which the living entered).
Augustus' corpse was in some way
treated as though it were free of the polluting effects of normal corpses (and
the senate made him a god of the Roman pantheon right away). But in going out
the exit of the living, Augustus' corpse was in fact leaving the city by the
age-old triumphal route, and accordingly, not only did this neat arrangement
evade the unfortunate associations of the Porta "Scelerata," but it took the very last act of the man's
life (if I can put it that way) and associated it (like so much else he had
done) with notions of victory and triumph.
Richardson is a smart person with
strongly held opinions. He is wrong often enough, but always interesting, and
his solution to this old conundrum seems to me both right and interesting. If
it has a flaw, it might be that it is a little too neat.
Coarelli, Filippo. 1995. Roma.
Guide Archeologiche Laterza 6 (Laterza).
Richardson, jr., Lawrence. 1992. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient
Rome (Johns Hopkins). See p. 301 for the arguments summarized here with
references to the ancient sources.