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Voting and the shadow of ancient Rome’s firemen

Today Italy votes. As the country faces increasing impoverishment and profound uncertainty about the future, the choices hardly give me confidence. None of the candidates has the international experience needed to drive this country forwards. As an Italian ambassador said to me recently, “Italy is a Ferrari driven by a 12-year old”. Let’s hope he and I are proved wrong.

Voting in Italy

The sad decline made me think of a thought-provoking archaeological treat I had this week.

Under my apartment block lies an ancient Roman fire-station – the Excubitorium - known as Corte VII. Normally closed to the public, you can get a permesso, and a kindly inspector from Rome’s superintendency will open it up. Excavated in 1866 by Pellegrini on behalf of the Vatican, it remained open until 1966. Sad to say, the 1966 roof is no longer trustworthy. Bits plunge into the excavated bowels of the fire station below, necessitating that we can only stand at the door and not enter. Still it is extraordinary, if you let your imagination loose.

Rome’s fire service was set up by Augustus in AD 6 when the city’s population numbered an estimated million souls. The Excubutorium was the watch-house of the 7th cohort of the vigiles, the brigade that took care of the Transtiber (region XIV). The city’s brigade was composed of 3,920 men, divided into seven cohorts of 560, each subdivided into seven centuries of 80 men. Each cohort had responsibility for two regions with a watch-house in each where they kept their kit. The vigili were constantly on the look-out for fires and could break into property to stop a fire spreading.

The Corte VII building was originally a brick built town-house dating to the earlier 2nd century that was transformed into the fire station at the end of the century. From the step you look into a dark courtyard with a fountain in the centre. To the right is an elegant porticoed niche that for all the world looks like a door. In fact, it was for a shrine and faces a door that leads to the left into the two- or three-storey multi-roomed fire-house. Benching followed the walls of the atrium. Red plaster once covered the benches and wall to conceal the brickwork, and, according to the excavator, was vandalised by hundreds of graffiti made by the firemen as they whiled away their down-time.

The atrium of the Roman fire-station in the Piazza Sonino

Descending into this now anonymous excavation, the enormity and complexity of life in ancient Rome at its zenith is nothing less than awesome. Then the fire service fell victim to the decline and fall of the metropolis. By late antiquity as Italy failed to compete in a new Mediterranean market, Rome struggled to sustain its civic institutions. With decline came the demise of its fire service.

We belong to a global economy today not a Mediterranean one. Change is the one certainty in our world. Have any of Italy’s political leaders grasped this lesson from their history? How soon will it be before contemporary fire stations are archaeological sites, closed because insufficient funds exist to maintain them?

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