As part of his Channel 5 history travelogue, Gavin and Stacey and EastEnders actor Larry Lamb has immersed himself in Etruscan objects, classical statues and magnificent frescos in Italy’s capital, in a bid to uncover the dramatic story of Rome’s rise to power.
Rome: the World’s First Superpower retells 750 years of history through the towering monuments of Italy’s capital, and the actor “plays guinea pig” by covering his face in plaster to make a Roman emperor-style mask, and visiting ancient sewers “with rats as big as crocodiles”.
It’s beneath Rome’s grand, buzzing streets that the empire began, explains Lamb. “Rome was once just a great, big, swampy field,” he says. “As the city grew, the ditches that had been dug by Rome’s earliest kings to drain water into the Tiber got covered over and became the basic part of Rome’s sewage system.”
The presenter and his film crew obtained special permission to go underground and wade through the city’s 2,500-year-old bowels. “It’s quite extraordinary, it really is,” he smiles. “We saw bits of old pot lying down there that have been there since these things were built.”
Traces of the former caput mundi (Capital of the World) can be seen in every crevice of the city centre. In the four-part series, Lamb, with a copy of Livy’s History of Rome permanently to hand, takes a closer look at the sculpture that signifies the beginning of it all – the bronze Capitoline Wolf now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. This she-wolf is believed to encapsulate the mythical origins of the Eternal City, and the story of Romulus and Remus, who proved to be natural leaders. Romulus eventually killed Remus in a battle for power, and thus the city’s origins and moral values were born.
On the face of it, Romans invented everything from underfloor heating to concrete and aqueducts – they also claimed a form of democracy. “Ostensibly, you had a society that had figured out a way to run itself for the betterment and good of everybody, but there was a very definite class system,” says Lamb. “There was a lot of greed, a lot of corruption and misuse of power. These things combined started to unravel what had been rather a good idea. Sadly, we’re still running into the same problems in the civilisation that we are part of now. There’s huge disparity in wealth; history is repeating itself.”
At its peak, the ancient Roman empire had an estimated population of 50–90 million (20 per cent of the world’s population). Today the city still attracts several million tourists each year, who come to see the remaining jewels of the ancient metropolis. The most touristy spots shouldn’t be snubbed, says Lamb, who speaks fluent Italian. “I recommend visiting the Colosseum,” he urges. “Although it was built much later than the period we were focused on in the show, it is absolutely phenomenal.”
Meanwhile, the area around the Campo dei Fiori and the old market in the Jewish Quarter are great places to “wander into the back streets,” says Lamb, where there are lots of small piazzas, ancient churches and little places to stop off and shop and eat. He also suggests crossing the river Tiber to Trastevere, which used to be an old working-class area. Now gentrified, Trastevere’s preserved medieval lanes and ivy-covered trattorias still evoke old-world charm. But if you do want to get away from other tourists, Lamb says it’s well worth venturing beyond the city. “I would take a train or bus out to the ancient port city of Ostia, at the end of the Tiber.”
Telling familiar stories of heroes and villains from Hannibal to Julius Caesar, Lamb has become closer to understanding how one small city conquered the world – and maintained its grasp for nearly 1,000 years. If he’d been alive at that time, would he have liked to join the Roman ranks in Italy’s most seductive city?
“I’d have liked to have been a really nice Roman emperor, but I would have been bumped off in the first fortnight for being too nice,” he laughs. “If you gave me the choice between someone living on the streets in dire, abject poverty and being a Roman emperor, I’d be an emperor… but if I could be a comfortably-off farmer living in the countryside, just outside of Rome, I’d go for that. A Roman citizen, but a country gent.”