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Region XII Ripa

In Italian, as in Latin, Ripa means the bank of a river, and the Twelfth Region took its name from being bounded by the river bank, from just below the island all the way to the Aurelian walls, which continue the boundary of the triangle on the south of Saint Sebastian's gate; the third side runs at first irregularly from the theatre of Marcellus to the foot of the Palatine, skirts the hill to the gas works at the north corner of the Circus Maximus, takes in the latter, and thence runs straight to the gate before mentioned. The Region includes the Aventine, Monte Testaccio, and the baths of Caracalla. The origin of the device, like that of several others, seems to be lost.

The Aventine, ever since the auguries of Remus, has been especially the refuge of opposition, and more especially, perhaps, of religious opposition. In very early times it was especially the hill of the plebeians, who frequently retired to its heights in their difficulties with the patricians, as they had once withdrawn to the more distant Mons Sacer in the Campagna. The temple of Ceres stood in the immediate neighbourhood of the Circus, on the line of approach to the Aventine, and contained the archives of the plebeian Ædiles. In the times of the Decemvirs, much of the land on the hill was distributed among the people, who probably lived within the city, but went out daily to cultivate their little farms, just as the inhabitants of the hill villages do today.

If this were not the case, it would be hard to explain how the Aventine could have been a solitude at night, as it was in the time of the Bacchic orgies, of which the discovery convulsed the republic, and ended in a religious persecution. That was when Scipio of Asia had been accused and not acquitted of having taken a bribe of six thousand pounds of gold and four hundred and eighty pounds of silver to favour Antiochus. It was in the first days of Rome's corruption, when the brilliant army of Asia first brought the love of foreign luxury to Rome; when the soldiers, enriched with booty, began to have brass bedsteads, rich coverlets and curtains, and other things of woven stuff in their magnificent furniture, and little Oriental tables with one foot, and decorated sideboards; when people first had singing-girls, and lute-players, and players on the sharp-strung 'triangle,' and actors, to amuse them at their feasts; when the feasts themselves began to be extravagant, and the office of a cook, once mean and despised, rose to be one of high estimation and rich emolument, so that what had been a slave's work came to be regarded as an art. It was no wonder that such changes came about in Rome, when every triumph brought hundreds and thousands of pounds of gold and silver to the city, when Marcus Fulvius brought back hundreds of crowns of gold, and two hundred and eighty-five bronze statues, and two hundred and thirty statues of marble, with other vast spoils, and when Cnæus Manlius brought home wealth in bullion and in coin, which even in these days, when the value of money is far less, would be worth any nation's having.

And with it all came Greek corruption, Greek worship, Greek vice. For years the mysteries of Dionysus and the orgies of the Mænads were celebrated on the slopes of the Aventine and in those deep caves that riddle its sides, less than a mile from the Forum, from the Capitol, from the house of the rigid Cato, who found fault with Scipio of Africa for shaving every day and liking Greek verses. The evil had first come to Rome from Etruria, and had then turned Greek, as it were, in the days of the Asian triumphs; and first it was an orgy of drunken women only, as in most ancient times, but soon men were admitted, and presently a rule was made that no one should be initiated who was over twenty years of age, and that those who refused to submit to the horrid rites after being received should perish in the deepest cave of the hill, while the noise of drums and clashing cymbals and of shouting drowned their screams. And many boys and girls were thus done to death; and the conspiracy of the orgies was widespread in Rome, yet the secret was well kept.

Now there was a certain youth at that time, whose father had died, and whose mother was one of the Mænads and had married a man as bad as herself. He and she were guardians of her son's fortune, and they had squandered it, and knew that when he came of age they should not be able to give an account of their guardianship. They therefore determined to initiate him at the Bacchic orgy, for he was of a brave temper, and they knew that he would not submit to the rites, and so would be torn to pieces by the Mænads, and they might escape the law in their fraud. His mother called him, and told him that once, when he had been ill, she had promised the gods that she would initiate him in the Bacchanalia if he recovered, and that it was now time to perform her vow. And doubtless she delighted his ignorance with an account of a beautiful and solemn ceremony.

But this youth was dearly loved by a woman whose faith to him covered many sins. She had been a slave when a girl, and with her mistress had been initiated, and knew what the rites were, and how evil and terrible; and since she had been freed she had never gone to them. So when her lover told her he was to go, thinking it good news, she was terrified, and told him that it were better that both he and she should die that night, than that he should be so contaminated. When he knew the truth, he went home and told his mother and his stepfather boldly that he would not go; and they, being beside themselves with anger and disappointment, called four slaves and threw him out into the street. For which deed they died. For the young man went to his father's sister, and told all; and she sent him to the Consul to tell his story, who called the woman that loved him, and promised her protection, so that at last she told the truth, and he brought the matter before the Senate. Then there was great horror at what was told, and the people who had been initiated fled in haste by thousands, and the city was in a turmoil, while the Senate made new and terrible laws against the rites. Many persons were put to death, and a few were taken and imprisoned on suspicion, and many, being guilty, killed themselves. For it was found that more than seven thousand men and women had conspired in the orgies, and the contamination had spread throughout Italy.

As for the youth, and the woman who had saved the State out of love for him, the Senate and the people made a noble and generous decree. For him, he received a sum of money from the public treasury in place of the fortune his mother had stolen from him, and he was exempted from military service, unless he chose to be a soldier, and from ever furnishing a horse to the State. But for the woman, whose life had been evil, it was publicly decreed that her sins should be blotted out, that she should have all rights of holding, transferring and selling property, of marrying into another gens and of choosing a guardian, as if she had received all from a husband by will; that she should be at liberty to marry a man of free descent, and that he who should marry her was to incur no degradation, and that all consuls and prætors in the future should watch over her and see that no harm came to her, as long as she lived. Her people made her an honourable Roman matron, and perhaps the stern old senators thus rewarded her in order that the man she had saved might marry her without shame. But whether he did or not, no one knows.

From a print of the last century

This is the first instance in which a religion, and the orgies were so called by the Romans, was practised upon the Aventine in opposition to that of the State. It was not the last. Under Domitian, Juvenal found a host of Jews established there, on the eastern slope and about the fountain of Egeria, and thirty years before him Saint Paul lived on the Aventine in the Jewish house of Aquila and Priscilla where Santa Prisca stands today. It is worth noting that Aquila, an eagle, the German Adler, was already then a Jewish name. Little by little, however, the Jews went back to the Tiber, and the Aventine became the stronghold of the Christians; there they built many of their oldest churches, and thence they carried out their dead to the near catacombs of Saint Petronilla, the church better known as that of Saint Nereus and Saint Achillæus. And there are many other ancient churches on the hill, and on the road that leads to Saint Sebastian's gate, and beyond the walls, on the Appian Way as far as Saint Callixtus; lonely, peaceful shrines, beautiful with the sculptures and pavements and mosaics of the Cosmas family who lived and worked between six and seven hundred years ago. On the other side of the hill, near the Circus, Saint Augustine taught rhetoric for a living, though he knew no Greek and was perhaps no great Latin scholar either—still an unbeliever then, an astrologer and a follower after strange doctrines, one whom no man could have taken for a future bishop and Father of the Church, who was to be author of two hundred and thirty-two theological treatises, as well as of an exposition of the Psalms and the Gospels. Here Saint Gregory the Great, once Prefect of Rome, preached and prayed, and here the fierce Hildebrand lived when he was young, and called himself Gregory when he was Pope, perhaps, because he had so often meditated here upon the life and acts of the wise Saint, in the places hallowed by his footsteps.

Later, the Aventine was held by the Savelli, who dwelt in castles long since destroyed, even to the foundations, by the fury of their enemies; and there the two Popes of the house, Honorius the Third—a famous chronicler in his day—and Honorius the Fourth, found refuge when the restless Romans 'annoyed them,' as Muratori mildly puts it. They were brave men in their day, mostly Guelphs, and faithful friends of the Colonna, and it is told how one of them died in a great fight between Colonna and Orsini.

It was in that same struggle which culminated in the execution of Lorenzo Colonna, the Protonotary, that Pope Sixtus the Fourth destroyed the last remains of the Sublician Bridge, at the foot of the Aventine. So, at least, tradition says. From that bridge the Roman pontiffs had taken their title, 'Pontifex,' a bridge-maker, because it was one of their chief duties to keep it in repair, when it was the only means of crossing the Tiber, and the safety of the city might depend upon it at any time; and for many centuries the bridge was built of oak, and without nails or bolts of iron, in memory of the first bridge which Horatius had kept. Now those who love to ponder on coincidences may see one in this, that the last remnant of the once oaken bridge, kept whole by the heathen Pontifex, was destroyed by the Christian Pontifex, whose name was 'of the oak'—for so 'della Rovere' may be translated if one please.

Years ago, one might still distinctly see in the Tiber the remains of piers, when the water was low, at the foot of the Aventine, a little above the Ripa Grande; and those who saw them looked on the very last vestige of the Sublician Bridge, that is to say, of the stone structure which in later times took the place of the wooden one; and that last trace has been destroyed to deepen the little harbour. In older days there were strange superstitions and ceremonies connected with the bridge that had meant so much to Rome. Strangest of all was the procession on the Ides of May,—the fifteenth of that month,—when the Pontiffs and the Vestals came to the bridge in solemn state, with men who bore thirty effigies made of bulrushes in likeness to men's bodies, and threw them into the river, one after the other, with prayers and hymns; but what the images meant no man knows. Most generally it was believed in Rome that they took the place of human beings, once sacrificed to the river in the spring. Ovid protests against the mere thought, but the industrious Baracconi quotes Sextus Pompeius Festus to prove that in very early times human victims were thrown into the Tiber for one reason or another, and that human beings were otherwise sacrificed until the year of the city 657, when, Cnæus Cornelius Lentulus and Publius Licinius Crassus being consuls, the Senate made a law that no man should be sacrificed thereafter. The question is one for scholars; but considering the savage temper of the Romans, their dark superstitions, the abundance of victims always at hand, and the frequency of human sacrifices among nations only one degree more barbarous, there is no reason for considering the story very improbable.


Within the limits of this region the ancient Brotherhood of Saint John Beheaded have had their church and place of meeting for centuries. It was their chief function to help and comfort condemned criminals from the midnight preceding their death until the end. To this confraternity belonged Michelangelo, among other famous men whose names stand on the rolls to this day; and doubtless the great master, hooded in black and unrecognizable among the rest, and chanting the penitential psalms in the voice that could speak so sharply, must have spent dark hours in gloomy prisons, from midnight to dawn, beside pale-faced men who were not to see the sun go down again; and in the morning, he must have stood upon the very scaffold with the others, and seen the bright axe smite out the poor life. But neither he nor any others of the brethren spoke of these things except among themselves, and they alone knew who had been of the band, when they bore the dead man to his rest at last, by their little church, when they laid Beatrice Cenci before the altar in Saint Peter's on the Janiculum, and Lucrezia in the quiet church of Saint Gregory by the Aventine. They wrote down in their journal the day, the hour, the name, the death; no more than that. And they went back to their daily life in silence.

But for their good deeds they obtained the right of saving one man from death each year, conceded them by Paul the Third, the Farnese Pope, while Michelangelo was painting the Last Judgment—a right perhaps asked for by him, as one of the brothers, and granted for his sake. Baracconi has discovered an account of the ceremony. At the first meeting in August, the governor of the confraternity appointed three brethren to visit all the prisons of Rome and note the names of the prisoners condemned to death, drawing up a precise account of each case, but ascertaining especially which ones had obtained the forgiveness of those whom they had injured. At the second meeting in August, the reports were read, and the brethren chose the fortunate man by ballot.


Then the whole dark company went in procession to the prison. The beadle of the order marched first, bearing his black wand in one hand, and in the other a robe of scarlet silk and a torch for the pardoned man; two brothers followed with staves, others with lanterns, more with lighted torches, and after them was borne the crucifix, the sacred figure's arms hanging down, perhaps supposed to be in the act of receiving the pardoned man, and a crown of silvered olive hung at its feet—then more brothers, and last of all the Governor and the chaplain. The prison doors were draped with tapestries, box and myrtle strewed the ground, and the Governor received the condemned person and signed a receipt for his body. The happy man prostrated himself before the crucifix, was crowned with the olive garland, the Te Deum was intoned, and he was led away to the brotherhood's church, where he heard high mass in sight of all the people. Last, and not least, if he was a pauper, the brethren provided him with a little money and obtained him some occupation; if a stranger, they paid his journey home.

But the Roman rabble, says the writer, far preferred an execution to a pardon, and would follow a condemned man to the scaffold in thousands. If he was to be hanged, the person who touched the halter was the most fortunate, and much money was often paid for bits of the rope; and at night, when the wretched corpse was carried away to the church by the brethren, the crowd followed in long procession, mumbling prayers, to kneel on the church steps at last and implore the dead man's liberated spirit to suggest to them, by some accident, numbers to be played at the lottery—custom which recalls the incantations of the witches by the crosses of executed slaves on the Esquiline.

F. Marion Crawford