This week's edition of History in a Place is centered here:
Quite a lot to take in really. This is a view from 1747 when a man named Giuseppi Vasi published a book of views of Rome. His focus was on places important to pilgrims and this was included because it was the road to the Basilica of San Paulo, better known as St. Paul's outside the Walls. This is the traditional location of St. Paul's grave.
But so much more going on here. How 'bout a modern view.
I could not exactly duplicate the perspective of the early engraving, at least not without being run over by multiple vehicles.
The first thing that grabs your eye is of course the Pyramid. This is by far the oldest thing in the picture, being the 1st Century BC tomb of Caius Cestius. It was built in the days when all things Egyptian were quite the rage following the Roman conquest of Egypt. From inscriptions it is known to have been completed when Agrippa - a friend of Cestius - was still alive. (Agrippa, son in law of Augustus, died in 12 BC). It is also recorded that the Pyramid was completed in just 330 days, quite the remarkable feat by the inefficient standards of modern Rome! As you can see in the early view, it was one of the existing structures built into the Aurelian Walls. Although it is impressive the Pyramid is not our main focus today so lets look a bit to the east...
Here we see the Porto San Paulo, looking a bit adrift with its adjacent walls chopped off by assorted mishaps and for the benefit of modern traffic. It is similar to the previous gate we visited along the Aurelian Way. Note again the accumulated upgrades from the time of Aurelian onwards...the addition of rounded towers, the two stages of height, the double doorway blocked down to one. It also has a courtyard behind it with two surviving gates out into the city.
During the Gothic Wars a group of Isaurian soldiers, who had gone unpaid for too long, opened this gate to Totila and his Goths in AD 549. This seems to have been part of a repeating pattern, another bunch of Isaurian's had opened the nearby Asinarian gate during another Goth incursian in 546. Isaurians it seems, just can't be trusted as guards.
The Aurelian Walls served as deterrents in the long centuries that followed. Saracen raiders, feuding locals, other European powers that took exception to Papal policy all came and went. But the Porta San Paulo had one last battle to witness.
It was September 10th 1943. Two days earlier Italy had agreed to an Armistice, effectively ditching Germany for the Allies. At first it seemed as if Rome would be left alone, declared an open city. But Hitler changed his mind, and German forces marched north towards the Eternal City.
Confusing battles ensued with Italian forces fighting on one side or another or just trying to stay out of the way. The Last Stand was here at the Porta San Paulo where a mixed force of Italian soldiers, Communist resistance fighters and poorly equipped citizens attempted to hold the ancient walls against modern artillery and flamethrowers.
Of course this ended badly, with 570 Italian dead and minimal inconvenience to the occupying German army. To one side of the gate is a surviving section of wall. The plaque reads: TO THE RESISTANCE THAT HEROICALLY MARKS HERE ON 10 SEPTEMBER 1943 THE SECOND RESURGENCE.
On the other side of the gate the wall was destroyed in a later bombing raid. On the new wall is a marker remembering one of the fallen of 10 September.
Italian military monuments are few in number. But at the Porta an Paulo you see numerous memorials. Here is a plaque honoring the first Allied troops who entered Rome in 1944. Alongside are other memorials that mention the "Tedesco Invasore" - the German Invaders. And the Nazifascista, which hardly needs translating.
For all its reverence for the distant past, for all honor given to the accomplishments of the Roman Republic and Empire, Italy very much downplays its recent history. I am sure there is a collective sense of guilt for being the birth place of the Fascist movement. I'll close with one final view of the Porta San Paulo.
This was intended to be one of the centerpieces of Mussolini's new Rome. From this gate went the road to Ostia, which was to be excavated as a display of Ancient Glory. Also on this road was the EUR Center, a sort of Fascist Disneyland of concrete. The display below is right outside the Ostiense Station, a rail center specifically built for the arrival of Adolf Hitler on a state visit in 1938. The road you see in front of you was once named Via Adolf Hitler.
The mute statues, chains binding them together, represent the victims of the Fascist plague that Italy helped unleash on the world.