Rome Reborn

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Rome Reborn



The valley between the southern end of the Viminal Hill and the western end of the Esquiline Hill. It was inhabited by a motley group people, including merchants, writers, politicians and many lower-class families.


From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 500-501.

The valley between the southern end of the Viminal and the western end of the Esquiline, or Oppius, which was connected with the forum by the Argiletum (q.v.), and continued eastward between the Oppius and the Cispius by the Clivus Suburanus (q.v.), ending at the Porta Esquilina. This district is now traversed by the Via Cavour and the Via dello Statuto. Another depression extended from the Subura northward between the Viminal and the Quirinal, and a third north-east between the Cispius and the Viminal that was marked by the vicus Patricius. The beginning of the Subura was called primae fauces (Mart. II.17.1) and was perhaps situated near the Praefectura Urbana (q.v.) cruenta pendent qua flagella tortorum (so HJ 329, n15).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    51. Domus Publica (House of the Pontifex Maximus). Sources.


    Caesar first lived in a modest dwelling in the Subura, but then moved to the Domus Publica when he became Pontifex Maximus.

    Suetonius, Julius Caesar 46

    52. Regia. Sources.


    The October Horse is the name given to the horse (specifically, the right-hand horse of the winning chariot) sacrificed to Mars each year after the race in the Campus Martius. The head of this horse becomes an object of fierce contention between two neighborhoods: those from the Sacred Way hope to mount it on the wall of the Regia, and those from the Subura want to attach it to the Tower of Mamilius.

    The tail of the October Horse, however, is quickly transported to the Regia so that some of its blood can trickle onto the sacrificial hearth and make a link to Mars. Some people say that this is offered to the War-god in place of a sacrificial victim (not, as the story commonly goes, as a punishment visited upon this creature because the Trojans, ancestors of the Romans, were defeated by the Wooden Horse).

    Festus 190

    76. Forum of Nerva (Forum Transitorium). Commentary.

    The Forum of Nerva is the smallest of the imperial fora, being more a long transitional space between the areas on all sides of it than a business center in its own right. Fittingly, in the late classical period it is the Forum Transitorium, the Transit Forum. Traffic (primarily foot traffic until late antiquity, when the wagon ruts still visible were worn into the stone pavement) passed through the forum not only side-to-side, into one of the larger fora of Augustus and Vespasian, but lengthwise along the course of the Argiletum. The Argiletum was the ancient street that exited the Roman Forum between the Senate House and the Basilica Aemilia and climbed up the valley to the Esquiline towards the Porta Esquilina (the lower part of this route is represented today by the Via Madonna dei Monti; in ancient times it was called the Clivus Suburanus). Further filling the space of the forum was a temple to Minerva and an elaborate new shrine to Janus near the other end, as described below by Martial [76.5].

    The sources and remains indicate that the Forum was substantially a creation of Domitian's. The decorations still visible from the street today, above and between the two marble columns left standing, are related to Domitian's favorite deity Minerva, who appears in the attic relief and is represented on the frieze by Arachne, the Muses, and the implements of spinning and weaving. (Much of her temple survived into the Renaissance, when it was dismantled by Pope Paul V for its marble, some of which found its way to the Acqua Paola Fontana on the Janiculum.) That the Forum should be named after Nerva, who succeeded Domitian, is understandable in light of the damnation memoriae visited upon Domitian's name after his assassination [45.3].

    The area behind the Forum of Nerva, in the rising basin between the Esquiline and Viminal hills (roughly, along today's Via Cavour) was a neighborhood called the Subura, which is portrayed in the sources as one of the most vibrant and characteristically Roman neighborhoods, with people from all walks and most stations of life. Being in a basin but rising away from the lower forum, it would have been free from most floods and yet not a conspicuous location for aristocrats engaged in public life, for whom the higher crescent extending from the Carinae over to the Palatine provided the preferable and more expensive properties on view from the Forum. Shopkeepers, writers, and artisans lived in the Subura in the company of the wealthier citizens, who would sometimes have owned the apartment buildings and lived on the more desirable ground floor. Caesar lived here in a modest home, only moving when he became Pontifex Maximus and was housed in the residence that came with the office [51.1]. Others, in the manner of Caelius [47.8], will have lived in similar “mixed” neighborhoods until they felt the need for one of the higher profile residences to match their career ambitions.

    The passages excerpted from Juvenal's third satire [77.6], while not specifically set in the Subura, and describing scenes that could be found throughout much of the city, belong here to illustrate daily life (with the proviso mentioned in the Introduction). It is interesting that both Martial and Juvenal, in evoking street life, mention wagons with building materials, much of which would have been destined for the construction of the imperial fora. Moreover, Juvenal's fear of Rome's “midnight terror” (fire) is materialized architecturally in the large stone wall still standing at the back of the Forum of Augustus, which would have formed some sort of fire-break from the Subura, as would a similar wall that bordered the Forum of Trajan.

    77. Argiletum and Subura. Sources.


    Lest you wonder, reader, where my book is sold,

    Or waste time looking, I'll be your trusty guide:

    Go to the shop of Secundus, the freedman of learned Lucensis,

    Behind the Temple of Peace and the Forum of Minerva.

    Martial, Epigrams 1.2.5-8


    My poor little book of poems: why would you live in a bookshop

    On the Argiletum, when my shelves at home have room enough?

    Martial, Epigrams 1.3.1-2


    Julius Caesar originally lived in a modest house in the Subura, but moved to the Domus Publica on the Sacred Way after he became the Pontifex Maximus.

    Suetonius, Julius Caesar 46


    The other day Gellianus, the auctioneer,

    Was trying to sell a girl with a reputation

    Equal to those who work the streets of Subura.

    When the bidding stalled below his hopes

    He tried to convince us the girl was clean

    By pulling her to him against her will

    And kissing her long and hard on the lips.

    Perhaps you wonder what such a kiss

    Accomplished? Every bidder withdrew.

    Martial, Epigrams 6.66


    [To visit my wealthy friend who lives on the Esquiline]

    I have to climb the long incline of Subura's street

    On sloppy paving stones that never dry,

    And struggle to make my way past the long trains of mules

    And masses of marble dragged along by rope.

    Martial, Epigrams 5.22.5-8


    [Umbricius, a friend of the poet, catalogues his complaints about Rome before leaving the city for the countryside.]

    “You and I, we live in a city that's propped, for the most part,

    On the sub-standard lumber the superintendent uses to keep

    The place from collapsing, who tells us we can sleep in peace

    As he plasters over cracks in a building poised to crumble.


    I won't miss the fires here either, that midnight terror.

    Downstairs, some hero is already calling for water and hauling

    His things to the curb by the time the smoke has reached your apartment.

    But you're oblivious: those who climb three flights of stairs

    Burn last—the ones with nothing between themselves and the rain

    But the tiles where the softly cooing rock-doves lay their eggs.


    Even sleep is expensive in Rome; it won't be found

    In apartments, that's for sure, and this sleeplessness ruins our health:

    The noise of the traffic, when a cart gets stuck in a tight turn

    Of the narrow street and blocks a flock of bleating sheep,

    Would rouse a sunning seal, or the Emperor Claudius, from slumber.

    But the wealthy have other means; called by important business,

    A rich man floats through town on a litter the size of an ore-boat,

    Catching up on his correspondence, his reading, and shut-eye,

    Gently rocked to sleep in his little curtained world—

    And he still gets there before us, however hard we wade

    Against the crowd in front and are shoved by the crowd behind.

    One man jabs me with elbows, another connects with an axle,

    Followed by someone who knocks my head with a beam or a barrel.

    My legs are smeared with muck and bruised by the crowd's collective

    Kick, while the studs on a soldier's boot trace its shape on my foot.

    …Down the street a giant trunk of fir

    comes bobbing along on wheels; another wagon

    delivers a load of pine swaying dangerously above the crowds.

    And if a single axle transporting Cararra marble

    snaps and spills its mountain on the commoners below,

    what's left of the bodies? Who troubles to find the limbs and gather

    the bones of common people? When we get crushed, our corpses

    vanish with our souls.


    Consider next the multitude of dangers that night brings on;

    Reckon the speed a tile attains in the distance between

    That roof and your head, and how many leaking and broken vases

    Are tossed from windows, as dents on the paving stones at the point

    Of impact attest. Only a man who is grossly negligent

    And careless of his family's future would dare head out for dinner

    Without a will; as many mortal dangers lie in wait

    For you to pass as open windows shine above your head.

    So let it be your fervent prayer, your pitiful little wish

    That the ladies above are content to dump only piss from their windows.


    Then there's the drunken punk who's angry from lack of action; …

    He sleeps better after assaults. But however young and stupid

    And stoned he is, he'll shy from the man whom purple robes,

    A long train of companions, and the slaves who light his way

    With torches and bronze candelabras protect untouched.

    But me, scraping along in the dark lit only by moonlight

    Or the guttering flame I coax from a little homemade lamp,

    He despises, and starts a quarrel designed to end in a fight—

    If you can call it a fight, when one man does all the hitting.

    Juvenal, Satires 3, selections


    [Epitaph] Quintus Gavius Primus, freedman of Gavius, a bootmaker from the Subura, lived 25 years.

    ILS 7547 = CIL 6.9284


    [Epitaph] This stone marks the double grave-plot of Donatus, a linen-maker who lived in the Subura near the monumental fountain.

    ILS 7565 = CIL 9526

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