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American Academy in Rome


The American Academy in Rome is one of those buildings you take a deep gulp before entering. Built on top of one of Rome’s famous hills with incredible views over the city, it has the sort of imposing air designed to shock and awe. Thankfully, its residents are delightful, welcoming souls, one of whom, Fritz Haeg, kindly invited me there last week to speak about Food and Rome. It is a subject close to my heart, since, when I was at the British School at Rome, I had studied an area of the city around the Theatre of Marcellus, the site of the ancient Roman food markets, as well as the S.Angelo fish market, Rome’s main purveyor of pescine products for nine hundred years:

Putting my lecture together made me realise how little about food and cities really changes. For instance, fish in the medieval city could only be sold from slabs in the S.Angelo Market, which made ownership of one extremely lucrative: the slabs were worth more than a house; and were, needless to say, owned by noble families, not by the fishmongers who sold from them:

Equally impressive is Monte Testaccio, Rome’s ‘Eighth Hill’, which is made up of all the shattered amphorae that once brought food to the city. There could be no greater monument to the extraordinary effort it took to feed Rome, than that its waste packaging should still constitute a significant piece of geography two millennia later:

Last but not least, let us not forget the extraordinary foresight that led the Romans, before they built their city, to install a sturdy, tufa-built sewer system, the main conduit of which, the cloaca maxima, is big enough to drive a coach and horses through and still, astonishingly, serves the city today:

When it came to building cities, the Romans understood two things very well: make sure you can feed it, and sort out where the waste is going to go. We would do well to observe the same approach today.

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