A tale of two lost cities

Last summer I spent some time in Campania, and my family took the chance to visit a few places we had not seen before.

My wife had visited it, but I had never been to the Reggia di Caserta, the largest (former) royal residence in the world, which you may remember as being the background for the royal palace in Star Wars: Episode I.

Charles VII of Naples wanted to build a big palace to make it the administrative center of his kingdom. But history is what happens while you’re making other plans, and by the time the palace was finished, Italy’s unification was underway, and the center of the state would move to Rome.

It is, anyway, a stunning sight, and I highly recommend it. But I did not want to talk about this in particular.

Lost and found and lost again

We visited the archeological site of Pompeii, a populous Roman city which was thriving in the first century. Alas, history had other ideas.

The eruption of mount Vesuvius covered the city in volcanic ash, and also destroyed the nearby Herculaneum§.

We know a lot about this, because Pliny the Younger saw the thing with his own eyes, and wrote about it. After the disaster there was some feeble attempt to recover some stuff, and there was some looting, and the Romans gave up on excavating meters and meters of ash, and over the centuries we forgot where the city was.

I can hear you, Dear Reader, “How do you lose a city? Just look at a freaking map!“. But you see, there were not a lot of maps. And the topological references weren’t there either. The coast had shifted by kilometers, and even the layer of ash had been covered by dirt and vegetation.

The city was buried somewhere, but people had no clue, nor interest, in looking for it. Until they did, in the 18th century. First we found Herculaneum by mining stone, and then we found Pompeii, covered by the ash.

We were lucky because the ash preserved a lot of the city, including paintings, mosaics, statues, buildings and more.

If you visit Pompeii you have the surreal feeling of walking in a theme park, because there is just so much stuff. You will see the bakeries, the eateries, the public baths, the tanneries. You will see painting of gods, advertisement, political campaigning. The brothels and the temples and the places of government§.

And of course, you will see the calques of the people, and animals, who died there. You see, before the ashes arrived the people and animals were killed by fumes, and their muscles contracted and kept them in position as the ashes fell over them.

It must have been a terrible way to die§, and the cast of the dog trying to free itself has made an everlasting effect on me when I first saw it as a kid.

And yeah, the casts. When Giuseppe Fiorelli started working on the city in the 19th century, he noticed they were hitting empty cavities left by the (long disappeared) bodies. He had the brilliant idea of using liquid plaster to fill such cavities, and then excavate the casts and look at them.

The plaster casts are incredible, the images of people covering their head, hugging each other, cowering in obvious fear. I am moved a bit even as I write. A write described as

The pain of death that gets back body and image

Luigi Settembrini

The casts are an incredible window on the past, but Fiorelli was not foreseeing enough: we have lost many of them due to bombings in WWII. And he had not accounted for the fact that gypsum will, over time, fall apart on its own. So we have lost many of the casts, and this time it will be forever.

Modern archeology is attempting to use resin for the same process. Resin has a big advantage: you get to see the bones inside. For some reason, I don’t like this, it feel indiscreet to look inside people..

The unseen city

Both me and my wife had seen Pompeii already, and yet neither of us did.

You see, Pompeii has not been fully excavated yet. As far as I understand, it is a bit of a dream for an archeologist to be able to participate in the ongoing excavation. But modern archeology moves slowly to preserve as much as possible§, I may not be alive by the time they are finished.

And even if I was around. I’d likely still not see it all. There is not enough personnel to monitor a site this big, so only parts of the city are accessible every day. One day you may see something, one day you may see something else. And maybe one day we’ll get another bombing, and something will be gone forever.

Something lost for centuries right at our fingertips, and yet impossible to see.

The temples nobody knows

Another place we got to visit was Paestum, which was also a Roman city. Except of course before that it was a Lucanian city. And before that a Greek city, named Poseidonia, after the God of the sea, as it had an enviable position close to it, and was an important commerce center. Alas, this was not to last.

The delta of the nearby river clogged up, this in turn made the river stagnate, and the nearby land become swampy. With swamps came mosquitoes, and with mosquitoes came malaria. The city became a bad place to live, and it slowly depopulated until it was completely abandoned in the middle ages.

And so, once more, we lost a city.

William Stanley Haseltine - Temple of "Ceres" at Paestum - Walters 371557
William Stanley Haseltine – Temple of “Ceres” at Paestum, 19th century. Notice the swampiness.

I can hear you Dear Reader, you are thinking: “I’m literally looking at a picture of the temple, we obviously did not lose it!”

Sure, but you have to understand: that’s just a temple. Sure, people who lived in the area may know that there were some ruins there, but they didn’t know what it was, and the collective consciousness had forgotten about it. Some people may encounter the name in ancient texts, and would identify it with the nearby Agropoli.

It’s hard to imagine that some knowledge may just disappear, in an era where you can lookup any random name on the internet, but forgetting was the norm.

The historian Alessandro Barbero often says this about antiquity: when an historian or a teacher speaks about antiquity, we have the feeling of knowing everything about it. In reality, we know almost nothing about it.

Historians in pre-modern times wrote some stuff down, but not much, most was lost, and some time they just made shit up. Someone invented a princess Scota of Egyptian origin to explain the latin name Scotia for Scotland, and this became accepted knowledge for a few centuries.

Charlemagne founded the Scola Palatinae to standardize the bible, gave it money to fund monks, its own herd of sheep to make parchment… and they did a massive production of 2 bibles per year. For centuries knowledge was rare.

But today.. this is such an incredible site, and still, it is kind of forgotten. Did you know about it? I was lucky enough to visit it while in high school, but my wife, who has travelled Italy far more than me, had never even heard of it.

Apparently this place is home to 2 overlapping UNESCO sites. It’s a stunning area where you can see multiple Greek temples intermixed with Roman architecture. There are Lucanian tombs and paintings (these are the folks who invented the -Roman circus, tho you may never had heard of them). The city is also where the largest surviving Greek painting was found.

It’s a must see in my opinion (although the museum is under renovation), and I hope it does not get forgotten.

A city is not dead while its name is still spoken§

I worry sometimes about our age. We have access to so much information that it becomes really, really hard to focus. In a sense, we live in the opposite hell of the medieval people.

Any historical site needs to fight for relevance, or it will be forgotten. People used to travel in their own country before going abroad, but they don’t anymore, so you don’t get “visited by default” these days.

This won’t be a problem for Florence or Stonehenge but what will happen with the minor sites?

And what will happen with non-historical sites? Small towns are already depopulating and being abandoned in Europe and elsewhere. In the last 20 years large urban population doubled, in part because of population growth, and in part because people no longer want to live in a small village with one church (or temple).

There are towns becoming forgotten right now, I suppose this is normal, but it is, in some sense, humbling. We will be forgotten too, and I am sometimes saddened that I can’t remember my grand-grandparents’ names§, and perhaps it is necessary to lose sight of old things to focus on the new ones.

Still, I hope I don’t get forgotten too soon.

On Athens

Una faccia una razza

A phrase often heard by Italians visiting Greece is “una faccia una razza“, (one face, one race) implying we look like each other, so we’re more or less the same people.

This sentence may have stemmed from fascist propaganda, but it has been embraced by the tourist industry, because one thing Capitalism is good at is recycling things. Think Che Guevara t-shirts.

And yet, one can forgive the person who made it up, as Italians do feel at home in Greece. When Greeks and Italians meet and discuss the oddities of their respective countries, the other side is generally nodding along saying yeah, we also have this.

Messy government? Check. People spending way too many years in university for no good reasons, and the concept of “refusing low grades”? Check. A bunch of leftists and anarchists§ but also popular neo-fascist movements? Double check. The sea, mediterranean diet, family, religion..? Check them all.

I also believe spoken Greek is the only language which shares a melodic cadence with Italian. If you hear people speaking but you can’t hear the words, you can easily confuse the two§.

But there’s something deeper than that.


When I was a kid, I had a deep love for classical antiquity.

This was, perhaps due to the fact that I grew up in Italy, but I think it was really because I got into competitive trivia with my best friend, trying to outdo each other in class with anecdotes and tales and such.

Plus, my mom used to say me and my brother were her jewels.

Anyway, in my child brain, Roman, Etruscan, Greeks etc.. all got mixed up together, and that has tinted my perception since, and made me feel like we share more than we may actually do.

Gave me that feeling that, sure, we share no language nor alphabet, but modern Greeks and modern Italians have a common inheritance. Deep down, while our respective countries are no longer the center of the universe, we still look at the rest of the world and somehow still feel we’re the civilized ones, and foreigners are barbarians.

In the words of the satyrical masterpiece Fascists on Mars, one can secretly keep thinking of outsiders as

people who were hunting groundhogs naked, while we were already stabbing a Julius Caesar!

Gaetano Maria Barbagli (Corrado Guzzanti)

Is this feeling justified? Of course not, Dear Reader, it is pretty obvious we are the backward countries now. But still.

A tale of two cities

So when arriving in Athens, I expect to see Rome. Old women going to churches, with a slightly different layout. Collapsed temples, albeit made from different stones. Roads that were old millennia ago, covered with cars that should have been kicked out of the city center decades ago. Shitty souvenir shops and grand architecture.

That is true, up to a point. But what I did not realize is that Athens and Rome diverged, in the last couple millennia, while I wasn’t paying attention.

Rome was still an important center of the western mediterranean, while the eastern center moved to Costantinopole Bysantium Istanbul.

While Rome was the see of the Pope and capital of the Papal States, Athens was a minor city in the Ottoman Empire. Rome got new baroque churches, while the old ones in Athens were converted to mosques, and when the greeks gained independence, they were, supposedly, demolished altogether.

That would explain why you don’t find something like San Paolo fuori le mura, but either large modern churches, or tiny ancient ones, that the ottomans didn’t bother with.

And then you have the modern developments. Downtown Rome has been a mass tourist destination for decades, and this means almost everything downtown has been restored and redone to accomodate tourists. Except public transport. Meanwhile, downtown Athens is still full of half-demolished buildings, and a stone throw from the tourist center you’ll find big ugly buildings where floors have been converted to be a Chinese import warehouse. Chinese Communism is good at recycling things, think Che-Guevara t-shirts.

I was told Athens gets 3M airline visits per year, which is about one tenth of the people who land in Rome’s main airport.

So the city feels, in some sense, still protected from mass tourism. Yes once you climb up the acropolis you will encounter a bunch of pesky foreigners, but you still have a chance of meeting some genuine greek people downtown.

Good luck finding a non-tourist in Rome’s Trident.

What is also interesting is that, as soon as you walk a bit out, you’ll find a bunch of rundown buildings which, you would assume, could be trivially renovated and turned into a B&B. But I am told this does not happen because they appear to often have no foundation.

So you’d have to build one but (like in Rome!) as soon as you dig a hole you’ll find something of archeological value, and the authorities will freeze the construction. And so no bank is giving out loans for this, and so it does not happen. Fintech is not good at recycling things.

A big hunk of stone

What might really set Athens apart from Rome, is the fact that it’s a port. I mean, the sea is a pretty distinctive thing. But you see, Athens is not named Poseidons.

A legend§ goes that the God of the Sea and the Goddess of Wisdom had a contest to decide who would be patron of the city, on the Acropolis.

Poseidon struck the ground and water sprung out. Athena had an olive tree come out of the dirt. The people chose olives.§

But the main character in this story is neither Athena nor Poseidon. It’s the Acropolis.

I did not expect the Acropolis. Rome has hills, sure. Edinburg has a pretty massive rock in the middle. Many ancient cities are built on high ground.

But the Acropolis of Athens dominates the city with an almost cyberpunk look.

Its sides have been built and rebuilt and fortified and bombarded and it has almost no vegetation, and you just look up and you see it from freaking everywhere.

Basically every accommodation in Athens has “a view on the Acropolis” in their description because it’s visible from everywhere, it’s just a matter of turning the right way!

And… it’s somewhat tiny at the top? But oh, so beautiful.

I am familiar with classical temples. I’ve seen a ton of them, both Roman and Greek. A church in my hometown has columns that have probably been stolen from some and I grew up between them.

I know, cause I studied it in school, that columns are tapered to trick your eyes to look taller. I remember the ones on the corners are bent differently to make the facade look better. I recognize the column orders. And yet, the Parthenon is such a sight that your rational brain takes a back seat and you’re left in awe.

Shadow of the Colossus

The problem with the Acropolis, and the Parthenon, is that it’s too important. The newly built Acropolis museum is literally shaped like the rock, and it was built to host the Parthenon marbles when the freaking barbarians will give them back.

But there’s so much more! For example, the Kerameikos area is absolutely awesome, but mostly ignored by weekend travelers. As someone who has shepherded people in Rome, I can sympathize, I know I’ll never get anyone to stay long enough to visit everything, they just want to put a checkmark on the Colosseum and Saint Peter.§

What about modern Athens and ancient Athens tho? Are people condemned to live in the shadow of ancient greatness, will they be constrained by that? Should modern artists measure themselves with Phidias?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think it’s happening. Athens felt like a vibrant city, where many things are happening.

But perhaps it is at risk, as mass tourism inevitably embraces it. Like Rome, its center will probably become even more overrun with shitty accommodations and pseudogreek eateries. Old people will die and their kids will rent out their places. New buildings will come and old ones will go. You’ll no longer walk on cracked stairs built a century ago, but on modern ones made with marble imported from the Far East. The soul of the city will shift.

But there’s something called the Lindy effect, which in short says, the older something is, the more likely it is it continue existing.

Do you trust the building you’re in now, to be there in 50 years? 100 years? 200? I do not. But I’m pretty confident the Etruscan tombs in my home town will still be there.

Athens will be fine too, it went through a lot, but it stood for three millennia, it’ll manage.