Suburra was a vast and populous district of Rome, which lied in the dip between the southern end of the Viminal and the western end of the Esqueline hills.
The term Suburra describes the most infamous neighborhood within the capital of the Empire, where crimes, fires and robberies were constantly present. It was crossed by a road called Clivus Subaranus, where the poorest class of the Roman society, including slaves, thieves and courtesans lived. This road, filled with plenty of taverns, was well known as the “red-lights district”, where gladiators and even patricians used to go to spend a night of passion.
These unbearable conditions of life led the Roman aristocratic class to take a drastic decision: erect a wall of 33 meters height around the neighbourhood in order to protect themselves from this dangerous area and avoid continuous fires.
These boundaries not only accentuated the difference in height within the city, but allegorically talking, they also emphasized the supremacy of the patricians over the sub urbe –under city- where the poorest population of Rome lived.
We have many stories and facts of everyday life thanks to the multiple Latin authors which witnessed in first person the atrocities and difficulties of this area. Martial, born in Bibili, Spain, between the 38 and 41 AD, in the Epigrammaton libri, a collection of poems divided into twelve books written in verses, talks about the Roman society and the poor condition in which he was living. In the Book V, No. 22 Martial describes the squalor of the Suburra saying:
“I must surmount the steep path of the Suburran hill, and the pavement dirty with footsteps never dry; while it is scarcely possible to get clear of the long trains of mules, and the blocks of marble which you see dragged along by a multitude of ropes”.
The Latin poet Juvenal, born in Aquino, Lazio, between 50 and 60 AD in his collection of satirical poems called “Satires”, (as other authors such as Tacitus and Suetonius did), talked about the discussed figure of Valeria Messalina, wife of the Emperor Claudius. During the night, with her blonde wig, she used to go to Suburra, where she allowed herself repeatedly, to every kind of men.
“Possible time, her taut sex still burning, inflamed with lust. Then she would leave, exhausted by man, but not yet sated. A disgusting creature with filthy face, soiled by the lamp’s Black, taking her brothel-stench back to the Emperor’s bed”.
Looking from the Suburra towards the Forum of Augustus and the Temple of Mars Ultor
Nowadays, Suburra corresponds to the area known as Monti (one of the twenty-two Rioni of Rome). Especially after the construction of new roads, such as today’s Via Panisperna or Via Cavour between the 16th and 19th century, Via dei Fori Imperiali and the excavation of the archaeological buildings of the Forum Romanum between 1924 and 1936, Monti has achieved great value and fame.
The area has survived many changes throughout history, manteining its peculiarities.
Suburra was the hidden heart of Rome, heart of social and human contradictions, noisy, crowded, the concrete manifestation of the social inequalities within the Roman society.
Transgression, poorness, prostitution are some of the features presented in the Italian crime drama series Suburra, developed for the platform Netflix, which talks about the real life events of the Mafia Capitale, investigations and corruption of politicians and churchmen. It shows us that even nowadays we can still talk about Suburra, not only referring to Rome but also to all the big and small cities were social inequalities are still very marked and unsolved.
Bibliography and Sitography:
Ingenium et ars 3; Luca Canali, A. Cuchiarelli, S.Monda – Einaudi Scuola
For the translation of the Latin texts :
“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.” – Chinese Proverb