Today, which was more sweltering than yesterday, I had the unique honor of accompanying my eleven year old’s class on a walking tour of Roman Milan. It was, in a word, fascinating. I could go on and on about the beautiful advances the Roman’s made here and elsewhere, and about my suspicion that a visionary, benevolent dictator is probably better than an economically efficient, committee-run democracy in terms of what he or she contributes to the lasting physical world. But I won’t. It’s too sweat-inducing, even at this late hour, to take up one end of a heated argument. But I will share with you something I learned today—well, no, experienced is a more accurate word—which left me even more in awe of Roman ingenuity than I already was.
Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, in his effort to render Milan a beautiful and effective anchor-city with a series of infrastructural and architectural endeavors, had a theater built in its center. He believed strongly in theatrical entertainment as a means of spreading Roman culture and thought, so the theater was free to all. This theater held 7,000 spectators, almost half of the population of the ancient city of Milan, or Mediolanum, as it was called at the time. Theatrical productions often lasted entire days, so audiences overheated by the delight of comedies, tragedies and pantomimes had the opportunity to exit intermittently into an enormous columned arcade, where they could get fresh air, drink wine, or indulge in the food of the day—sheltered, if necessary, from inclement weather or free to roam the green.
The ruins of this enormous theater are under and intermingled with the foundation of Milan’s current Chamber of Commerce. Being a cultural asset, access to the ruins which have been beautifully preserved is free to the public. You descend about three flights into the ground, enter a small hall where some of the original theater walls are laid bare, then wind around into a much larger, cavernous space featuring a glass and steel wire walkway illuminated by fine pin-point lighting. From here, you can observe the remains in a more intense and intimate setting. The place is still, and yet it breaths.
Literally. Upon entering this room, you are instantly struck by a peculiarly pleasing smell, which hangs in the background but which exerts an undeniable influence on your experience of the dark, ancient space. The guide informed the children, that we were smelling a scientific recreation of the odor which scientists and archeologists believe permeated the theater at most times, pumped non-stop into the exhibit space by a series of silent fans. Given the heat and the massive crowd, the Romans found it prudent to continually spray the audience with rose water, simultaneously making its members smell better and protecting them from errant germs with the rose’s antibacterial properties. So rose was the base of the aroma. But what we smelled was more complex than that. Designers and scientists, in order to replicate the literal savor of the place, had added also the scents of saffron (from the food offered at the theater), wine (the beverage of choice) and body odor. How’re those last two words for a punchline?