There are a number of reasons that I like Rome. The food is simple and magnificent. The streets are a chaos of toothless old women, young men dressed as Roman Legionnaires, fat and jiggly tourists and Vespa scooters that, it seems, drive the streets by themselves. But it is the closeness of Rome’s history that I adore – a history refuses to be relegated to the past. But the last thing I expected to find when I was there was a very ancient version of the Internet …
Marie and I do not opt to stay in a hotel. Instead, we take an apartment for a week just around the corner from the impressive Piazza Navona and a mere five minutes from the magnificent Pantheon. Bags unpacked, we decide to head out for a wander. I figure that with a name like Carabini, I should have no trouble blending in. My freckles give me away however. As does my hair that is blonding-while-you-wait. And the fact that I’m wearing shorts (something that no real Italian would ever dream of doing). And that my legs are so white the locals surely think they are minty.
Rome is a wonderfully walkable city. It does not take long, however, for the heat to begin to pose a bit of a problem for me. In Ireland, summer usually just means that the rain is slightly warmer – but here, the sun throbs like a migraine. I buy a bottle of water from a man who gesticulates wildly as I hand over the money. I initially think that I’ve done something to upset him – but it does not take me long to realise that the Italian language is, apparently, part Latin and part shadow-boxing.
The heat means that we can’t walk as fast as we normally would. Time for a little rest and a little hydration. I spy some ruins across the street – somewhere to rest. We cross over and lean our arms on the wall. This area appears to be a square with some substantial ruins in the centre – all walled off. I can see at least four ancient buildings. It looks magnificent. I inhale a deep breath through my nostrils as I contemplate it all …
“Hey – Marie,” I say, noticing a strange whiff on the air. “Do you smell piss?”
She samples the ether. “Yeah – I do, actually. I smell piss too.”
We look around to see where it is coming from.
“Seán – I think it’s cat piss.”
“Yeah – look at the ruins – look at all the cats.”
She’s right! There appear to be hundreds of cats swarmed over the ruins – I hadn’t really noticed until now.
I consult the guidebook. “You’re not going to believe this. This place is called the Largo di Torre Argentina. It has four ancient Roman temples and is used as a cat sanctuary.”
“Well that’s … odd.”
“There are four temples. There’s the temple of Juturna – the Goddess of water springs.”
“Seems appropriate given that each cat is, essentially, a urine spring all of its own.”
There is also a temple to the Luck of the Day. It smells like cat piss. There is a temple to Lares Permarini – protector of sailors. it smells like cat piss. And, finally, there is the temple of Feronia – who, most aptly of all, is the Goddess of Wildlife, Fertility and Abundance. She’s still going strong by the looks of the hundreds of cats that have taken over this place and are trying to dissolve and destroy it with their mighty piss.
Cats, it seems, were somewhat revered, however, in ancient Rome and had free access to temples – so it is perhaps fitting that they still have this access here. As we watch, we see tourists descend into the sanctuary and walk with the cats (perhaps Rome’s version of swimming with the dolphins?).
I later learn that there are health concerns about the area and there are some in power who would remove the cats. I also learn that at this site stood the theatre of Pompey – which was one of the centres of entertainment in ancient Rome. It was, at it happens, also the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated. (the theatre ruins, it should be noted, now smell like cat piss).
And then it dawned on me … this place is a lot more significant that it had seemed at first scent. In ancient Rome, this place was the centre of political power – used, as the theatre was, as the senate building. It was a place where people came for answers – boasting no less than four temples. It was, as a theatre, the centre of entertainment. And now, it is overrun with cats. I had made a most important discovery: this place is the ancient world’s version of the Internet … and the original blueprint – power, answers, entertainment and cats – has remained unchanged for thousands of years …