"Rome in the First and Nineteenth Centuries"

[by Mary Shelley(?)--anonymously]
[Published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal X, 1824]

Rome in the First and the Nineteenth Centuries

OPENING that volume of Pinelli's etchings which contains his illustrations of the Roman history, I was somewhat struck with the frontispiece, or introductory picture, representing the worthy artist himself, as like as needs be, with his sailor-like neck-handkerchief and little cork-screw curls over his temples. By his side sat those eternal companions of his,--and no useless escort, believe me, to one who goes sketching in the Campagna di Roma,--two surly mastiffs, with their heads stuck together classically, like Cerberus of old. The artist seems in the act of listening, not very submissively, to a lady with a wolf at her feet; from which sign, joined with a helm and long rectilinear nose, I guessed her to represent no less a being than the Genius of Rome itself. Now, thinks I, if Mistress Rome be so condescending as to dictate a series of etchings to Signor Pinelli; why not, &c?--the inference is plain. But the deuce of it is, that when one of these artists gets an outlandish idea in his head, he puts it upon canvass at once, without proem or prologue, referring the ignorant spectator to his noddle or his catalogue. With us penmen the law says otherwise. We can take no such leap into the marvellous; we are first of all to explain the why and the wherefore, and have no right to depict visions without first relating how we came to see them. And really so many authors have begun now-a-days by setting themselves asleep, that to commence dreaming in any original way has become a matter of much difficulty. To walk and fall asleep, to get drunk and fall asleep, to ride, to meditate, &c. &c. are all preoccupied; to dream without plagiarism is impossible. Your modern visionary is as perplexed rotatory as a dog looking for his pillow.

So, to make a long story short, I fell asleep. When?--Evening. Where?--The Coliseum; around the galleries and corridors of which I had been wandering and stumbling for a couple of hours, popping my head out of its arches, like the fox in Ossian, and marvelling how it came to pass that the columns which from below seemed about three or four feet high, had nearly that measure in thickness when I came to stand by their side. I had been also strangely pestered by two English dandies, the sound of whose creaking boots and clanking spurs broke every now and then the thread of my cogitations. Nor was the sight of them more agreeable: they were handsome, good figures, no doubt; with fine English oval faces, nowise inferior to the proudest Roman bust, and habited in the fashionable taste of Europe; yet for all this I wished them at the Land's-end; and turning from them and the internal ruins of the amphitheatre, which they were surveying, 1 sat me down in one of the arches. The carriages from the Lateran and the gate of St. John rolled beneath, small as mice, numerous, but unregarded by me. My gaze was on the Esquiline, the distant Aqueducts, and the more distant Alban hills, their blue mass interspersed with a thousand gay spots, that marked the villages and villas on their sides. The vesper bell of the Franciscan convent in the Palatine began to chime, and I to nod--till, as I said before, gentle reader, I was fairly asleep.

What a speedy architect is the imagination! I had not been five minutes in slumber ere the whole amphitheatre was restored to its original perfection, its ruins half rebuilt, its arches, steps, its galleries and vomitories, all complete. An hundred thousand Romans, in their "eternal shirts," occupied their seats of marble. Great was the acclamation, the rising and rustling of togas, as the Emperor entered, and an hundred thousand of the masters of the world turned with looks of awe and submission towards the seat of the Caesar. All was hushed as the gladiators entered. They began the combat bold and determined; but the too earnest countenance, and the quiver of the naked muscle, spoke, through all their fortitude, a nervousness that communicated itself to me in such a degree as to become absolute pain. I turned from the scene, methought, and abruptly retiring to the deserted corridor, in my vision seated myself on the very seat which I actually occupied, closing my ears against the shouts that welcomed the victor and smothered the groan of the dying.

The Emperor of the day, methought, was Domitian, the "calvus Nero" of Juvenal; and in my dreamy identification with his age, my thoughts were occupied with the scandalous and witty pictures of the satirist; above all, the enormous turbot, and his summoning of the council thereon; and by one of those digressions, which dreams make nothing of, I was for a moment brought to think of Billingsgate and the Common Council. But this merely par parenthése; for behold, methought two Romans, in tunic and toga, paced round the corridor of the amphitheatre, and stopped even at the window where I was sitting. As they looked to the left with mournful aspects down upon the Esquiline, I turned towards the spot that seemed the object of their regards, and observed the palace of Titus erect in all its splendour, of which modern antiquaries have but the foundation and the baths, and in so many centuries of research have not yet more than half cleared them out.

"Alas!" said one of the toga'd figures, "to what purpose have served the fates, the conquests, and glories of Rome, except to leave the happiness of the world dependent on the temper, the good or evil whim of one being: yesterday a Titus, to-day a Domitian."

The other Roman had not time to reply, ere, methought, the two aforesaid English dandies came and took their station at the self-same window; and for the coincidence I cannot account, save that from it extends the most delightful of all prospects over the Esquiline and the Campagna, to Praeneste, the Alban hills, and Mount Algidus far in the distance.

My toga'd and my breeched companions seemed either not to see or not to acknowledge each other, as eighteen centuries difference in people's ages generally breeds a coldness between them, not to be overcome upon a first meeting. They talked, however, apart, Roman to Roman, Briton to Briton; and strange confusion certainly they made to me, who heard, as well as two ears could take in, all four.


"So the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter is to be rebuilt. Blessed be the fire of Vitellius that consumed the temple of the god, profaned by the foot of slaves! Its floor thick with ashes, its blackened and unroofed columns, form now the most appropriate temple for our deities."

"Speak not so loud, Publius, beware--some lurking spy may betray us to the Emperor."

"True, 'tis now a crime to be a Roman. Better far be a Syrian or Sarmatian, as our poet says or come a painted savage from the inhospitable Britain."

When were you in the forum?"

"But now I passed it. There was a whisper of the last batch of senators strangled. Their bodies lay under the Gemonian. I turned from them to the Temple of Concord, and exclaimed--O shade of Cicero, do the labours of the virtuous end in this!"

"Yet I have hopes of the Emperor--the arch he is finishing in honour of his brother, the virtuous Titus--"

"Long vowed, it could not be delayed. Besides, how unworthy a trophy of the conqueror of Jerusalem; --its pettiness disgraces the triumphal way."

"A strange religion, that of these banished Jews and Christians. 'Tis said, they worship an invisible spirit, to whom they sacrifice with prayers alone and inward meditations. They have no temples."

"Nor ever will in Rome, I trust. Gods multiply with bondsmen. When all our emperors are deities, methinks I would not take the road towards heaven."

"Caesar Domitian will doubtless take his seat in Olympus."

Would he were there!"

But how prospereth the state? Heard you nothing as you passed the Forum? The legions---"

"All's quiet in the East; the memory of Titus lives to awe the Orientals into obedience. Gaul and Britain bow submissively beneath our yoke. And, save some troubles on the Dacian frontier, there seems nought to dread."

"Say, hope. I wish, by Jove, that the British savages would rise: perhaps the Emperor, like another Claudius, might set off and gather cockle-shells against them."

"They may be even with us some of these days and the Britons of future ages may come to gather cockles, or as worthless trifle, in the ruins of Rome."

"Nay, when that shall be the case, their wicker London shall be more magnificent than our imperial city, their galleys bolder and more numerous, their armies braver, and the riches of the East shall flow to Thule, not to Rome. Impossible! look out upon the Esquiline, not a spot uncovered by a palace:--mark but this amphitheatre on which we stand! Are these memorials of a fleeting race? Or shall the barbarous nations of the North e'er raise their standards over imperial Rome? Thou mightest as well prophesy that humane letters shall be cultivated in Caledonia, or the muse of Catullus spring up in the chill and unknown Ierne."

"But the games are over; let us descend, and walk towards the Circus."

"What a mountain of palaces in this well-entitled Palatine. Here in this magnificence your arguments are answered: think you a nation could ever become obscure in the midst of such memorials? And the Circus with its throng of women, sooth-sayers, chapmen, and quidnuncs--has not life a strong-hold in this swarm?"

"It may he desert, as the palace of our first tyrant."

"Wisely did Octavian turn yon palace of his building towards this seat of shows and pleasure, afar and distant from the Forum, the sight of which might have excited disloyal sentiments in the breasts of his new-born courtiers."

"Boding begets boding--an augur's vision breaks upon me, and methinks I see, even on yon Palatine, the plaster hovel of the barbarian surmount the crumbled palace of the Caesar!"

"Go to--and yet I blame thee not; Domitian reigns. Let us on toward the river, and along beneath the Aventine. A midst the bustle of the crowded quay we shall forget these melancholy thoughts. But what new building is this?"

"An arch of Janus that Domitian builds!"

"I should not have thought the glutton a lover of the arts, or ornamenter of the city."

"Nay, who built like Nero?--besides, this is the market, a place peculiarly under the divine protection of his Imperial Serenity."

"Here is Vesta; let us pay our adoration to the oldest and purest deity of the Republic--but you're a sceptic."

"I but just thought Mars' altar might be the most appropriate deity of our orisons at present. If you be a lover of the old gods, here is Juno's famous temple above us on the Aventine. For me, there's quite divinity enough in the scene before us. Behold the Tiber and Sublician bridge. Spirit of Cocles, which of our divinities can boast of virtues equal to thy patriotism and courage?"

"Well, I press you not; and here is food enough for enthusiasm in your kind of political religion. Yonder lie the gardens of Caesar and the grove of the Furies, sacred with the blood of Gracchus."

"What mean you by political religion?"


"And you love it not?"

"Not as religion. When our commonwealth was in its glory, then love of it was indeed religion; it was the love of something truly divine. But now we need a substitute, and some less earthly one than the selfish and moral religion of our living poet, who preaches,
'Nullum numen abest, sisit prudentia.'"


"Will you come to vespers in Ara Coeli?--the church is on the site of the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter. It is the monks' feast-day, and their bambino, or waxen image of Jesus, which fell to them all the way from Heaven, is to be exposed: why, do you not know it?--That barn-looking place, crowning a huge Jacob's ladder of steps, to the left as you ascend the Campidoglio, brick without and gold within, the begging friars own it."

"Speak reverently of the bambino, my honest fellow, if you do not want to be stoned by the friars."

"Friars, indeed! Egad, I'd like to see pope or cardinal, that dare wag his little finger against an Englishman!"

"Did you see the hole that the Duchess of Devonshire is making in the Forum?"

Yes, l hear the butchers and graziers swear vengeance against her for cutting up their market-place. Fea is as busy with his galley-slaves rooting in the Temple of Concord. But what arch is that, the blocks of which strew the road from this to the Forum?"

The Arch of Titus: it was crumbling to decay; 'tis now taken down and about to be re-erected by the Pope."

"Pius, The Roman pontiff, restoring the arch erected to the conqueror of the Jews, after an interval of eighteen centuries, is striking. How little its builders could have foreseen!"

"Little indeed--that a priest of that same religion or its consequence should sit on the throne of the Caesars, and, assuming the self-same title with the Emperors of Pontifex Maximus, should re-establish more ridiculous mummeries than ever were invented by the caprices of Paganism. How many churches, think you, are in Rome?"

"From three to four hundred, I suppose; yet not half enough for the Iegion of saints, which each demand one."

"Pope Pius is to be sainted."

"Doubtless: his miracles at Fontainebleau, 'tis said, are numerous. A curious one Fra Raffaelli assured me of, that he had made the Empress Maria Louisa pregnant--by his payers."

"Were you at the saddler's in the Piazza, to-day, to see the English papers?"

"Yes,--full of hubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Laments over enslaved Rome and self-liberating Greece. Spain, too, all the rage--what we might, and what we won't do. We seem upon the bullying system."

"Pretty bullying. Like the two legged lion in Pyramus and Thisbe, we roar you, an' it were as soft as a sucking dove. Does his Holiness intend, I wonder, raising troops against the Spaniards?"

"Doubtless, if the weather be fine, and their umbrellas not out of order. The Swiss Guards of his Holiness, in their harlequin hose and doublet, would make good fight. I am thinking, if any of the old Romans were to pop up their heads, and see their military successors, how amazed they must be."

"Equally amazed, methinks, to see us here, lords of the ascendant,
The glass of fashion, and the mould of form--'

scattering our pearls among the crouching Romans, and rich enough to afford being doubly cheated by them, (the greatest comfort of being rich, by the by). The second coming of the Gauls in 1797 must also astonish them not a little, especially as those same Gauls came not to destroy, but to unbury and rebuild. And that Britain should have prevented Rome from becoming a province of this same Gaul, giving it up to a Christian Pontifex Maximus--verily, this might make Tully rub his eyes."

"Let us be off:--the monk below has ceased his preaching and the crowd has ceased to kneel and bray in the old arena. Let's saunter over the Palantine."

"Why, we should have our shins broke passing through the rubbish, or our throats cut, which is worse. Not a soul dwells upon it, except a few Franciscans, and our countryman Mills."

"No matter, we'll soon get over it. into the Circus."

"Worse and worse. and more lonely. How gloomily the Palantine overhangs us, now we are in the Circus; and this villa, is it not Mill's?"

"Ay! it belongs to Mr. Mills, or Sir William Gell, who have the honour of residing over the palace of Augustus. The saloons of the Roman Emperor, even yet fresh with their gilding, serve as cool subterranean wine-cellars to the English baronet, who with the King of Naples and the Irish Franciscans, shares the lorddom of the Palatine."

"Let us come on, I'm in an exploring humour; and moonlight,

'Hallowing tree and tower,'

will shed more interest on the scene. Let us visit the Cloaca."

"Truly an interesting visit to the great sewer. But even a sink becomes venerable by age. What's this?"

"The Arco di Giano, a queer kind of a little old market-house, built by Domitian, says Venuti."

"Domitian! 'tis strange, that although all the Romans, both bad and good, were extravagantly given to building, yet it is with few exceptions the fabrics of the virtuous that have survived. Who built so much as Nero? yet of his works there remains scarce a relic. Architecture seems to have had more discernment than History in bestowing immortality. Whilst the stupendous undertaking of a Nero and a Collegially have disappeared and left no trace, the names of Agrippa, of Titus, Trajan, Antoninus, and Constantine still live to fame in unperishing records of marble. And this pretty little columned affair--is it a watch-box?"

"A watch-box!--seest thou not its Corinthian columns? 'Tis a temple of Vesta. Yonder is the Ripa, a prison for all prostitutes unlicensed by the priesthood; and beneath it, the ruins of the Sublician bridge. Do you remember the prayer of Cocles, pater Titurinus?"

"Ay, and esteem the prayer more worthy than that of the modern Roman to his waxed and wigged saint. Wordsworth has uttered the sentiment sublimely,     "I'd rather be
A Pagan templed in a creed outworn," &c.
You know the paragraph!"

I must confess that here the conversation became too polemic for my attention; and in the long breach in my recollection of this dialogue, I must suppose, that I here fell from a state of dreaming into a deeper sleep, till aroused by the starting of another theme, of which perhaps the reader may hear. For the present I draw the curtain.


FROM the base slumbers of a darker age,
  My Italy once more awake and rise!
Behold thy bitter wounds with honest rage
  And blame thyself unhappy and unwise!
  Thy vanish'd liberty demands thy sighs,
Lost by thine own unworthy deeds alone.
Retrace those steps which have thyself o'erthrown,
  And tread the paths which may regain the prize;
Recall the memory of thine ancient fame,
  And think that those who once thy triumphs graced,
  On thy own neck the servile yoke have placed.
Thou aider of thy foes, behold thy shame:
  Theirs is thy glory, and for thee remains,
  Oh, blind and fallen! to endure their chains.


[1] Charles Robinson was the first to suggest that this anonymous story was Mary Shelley's (see Bennett edn. of MWS Letters, I, 413n). No external, documentary proof exists for her authorship, but the 1824 work is obviously relevant to The Last Man in any case.

[2] Henry Colburn (d. 1855) was introduced to Mary Shelley by her father, William Godwin. He was publisher of The Last Man in 1826. But before that he may have published Mary Shelley's short fiction; in 1824 she may have published (see note above) "Rome in the First and Nineteenth Centuries" in Colburn's New Monthly Magazine and Political Register, a periodical he had started in 1814.

Colburn is famous as the publisher--and brazen promoter--of fashionable society novels, including those known as the "Silver Fork School." From 1835-41 he brought out a series of "Colburn's Modern Standard Novelists" in nineteen volumes. This contained works by Bulwer Lytton, Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson), Horace Smith, T. H. Lister, Theodore Hook, and others. Benjamin Disraeli was also one of Colburn's authors.

[3] There is no evidence that this translation, signed "S," is the work of Mary Shelley (who, at any rate, is not known to have used this signature).