The Waste Hill of the Ancient Roman Oil Boom

Monte Testaccio is a park in Rome, a 35 metres high hill that’s over a kilometre wide. It’s an artificial hill, created during the Imperial period by dumping all the used amphorae (clay jars) used to contain olive oil, which was used for food, cooking, heating and light in ancient Rome.

It’s estimated to hold the remnants of over 53 million such amphorae (which generally could only be used once due to the clay turning the oil rancid.) From this we can calculate the olive oil use of Rome at around 6 BILLION litres of oil throughout the late Republic and Imperial eras.

A city of over one million people for hundreds of years used so much oil that the used up containers are now a manmade hill a kilometre wide.

Today, by contrast, we use up 15 billion litres of crude oil. But where Rome used up their 6 billion litres during the entire classical period, our 15 billion litres of crude is EVERY DAY.
Just imagine, every single day, we use up 2.5 times as much oil as ancient Rome, the biggest city on Earth before the Middle Ages, did during its entire history. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Furthermore, since the Roman oil was ‘grown’, it was also essentially carbon neutral, though obviously it led to localised pollution in the capital. Ancient Rome, in other words, would have smelt smoky, greasy and rancid. But it wasn’t enough pollution to affect the climate.

To achieve that, we’ve had to take the entire Roman oil use and waste multiples of the equivalent DAILY, for decades on end. It has to stop. We need renewable energy sources to become easy and ubiquitous as quickly as possible.

The world is still dealing with the trash and effects of ancient Rome’s oil use two millennia on. The problems we are creating now will still affect our descendants for unimaginable periods of time, assuming our species survives our own wastefulness and short-term thinking.

Buon Compleanno, Guglielmo Shakespeare

On this, his 459th birthday, I will dedicate a little time to re-reading some favourite sonnets – originally a Petrarchan form of poetry – by the Bard. I might even pass time with that overlooked early masterpiece Venus and Adonis, or else the now contentious Taming of the Shrew.

I might rewatch the excellent documentary series Shakespeare in Italy, from the BBC in 2012, featuring Francesco de Mosta, although it is alas not currently available on the iPlayer.

Or there’s always Nothing Like The Sun, Anthony Burgess’s tour-de-force novel of Shakespeare’s lovelife, which heavily features a Dark Lady who, for once, isn’t Italian. Burgess is somewhat of an outlier when it comes to Shakespeare. Despite having spent much of his own life in Italy, and married to an Italian, he tends to play down Shakespeare’s Italian connections.

Where most researchers and novelists have followed AL Rowse and identified the Dark Lady as Emilia Lanier, a woman descended from the Italian Bassano family, Burgess presents her as an unlikely Malayan in Elizabethan London.

This has always been my favourite of the covers.

Likewise, where many scholars accept that it is possible, though unlikely, that Shakespeare could have travelled abroad to Italy before his theatrical fame, Burgess elsewhere fictionalised a Shakespeare travelling to Spain to meet Cervantes at the height of both men’s fame. (He also wrote a short story where Shakespeare received literal inspiration for his plays from time travellers, so as a theorist of Shakespeare he was very much an outlier really!)

Despite Burgess, there is no doubt that Italy loomed large as a source of inspiration for Shakespeare. From the sonnets of Petrarch, to the sources of plays like Othello or Measure for Measure in works by Italian authors such as Ariosto, to the imagined Italy of his settings in Venice, Verona, Milan and elsewhere, to the Roman plays, Shakespeare’s work returns again and again to an Italy of the mind and soul.

I recently got the chance to revisit Stratford-on-Avon, and attend a performance of the recent RSC production of Julius Caesar, considered by many to be the best of Shakespeare’s Roman plays.

It was as magical and eclectic as one might expect from the RSC’s troupe. The lethal geopolitics of the late Republic and early Empire are distilled by the Bard into an almost claustrophobic clash of private loyalties and public interests.

I also went to visit Shakespeare’s schoolhouse, which is amazingly still in use as a school today, and was treated to a Latin lesson from his schoolmaster, an entertaining chap who may possibly have been an actor too. For it was of course in Warwickshire and not Tuscany that Shakespeare was first introduced to Italy and the literature of Latin and – by extension – Italian.

The more one reads Shakespeare, the more the influence of Italy, Romans and Italians becomes evident. I haven’t even mentioned his likely friendship with the English-born Italian John Florio, author of the first English-Italian dictionary, and a man who contributed almost as many words to English as Will himself.

Italy has no shortage of writers to be proud of, and no need to lay a claim to England’s finest. Nevertheless, Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without Italy.

Buon Compleanno, Guglielmo.