Echoes of Empire: Of palm trees and elephant dung
by Agnes Crawford
For a while now I’ve been talking about trees on my tours. Especially on the Palatine Hill. Because people kept asking me about them. So I thought about it a bit and it dawned on me that very few are native to central Italy.
The stars of the hill are undoubtedly the Pines of Rome celebrated by Respighi. Indigenous to North Africa, the ubiquitous “umbrella” pines on the Palatine may have been planted to create shady avenues to protect delicate Grand Tourists from the glare of the sun, but they have been growing in and around Rome for far longer.
On the Palatine one also sees palms, olives, pomegranates, and peaches. Though this might first seem the fruit of a frivolous nineteenth century gardener, instead it provides us with a wonderfully tangible connection to the Empire once ruled from these palaces. This was an Empire which saw the movement of citizens and slaves, of merchants and soldiers, of imported grain, and exotic coloured stones, and of course of the wild animals which made the games so fearsome and exciting. As we look at the natural skyline of the city we are presented with an echo of an Empire which once stretched from Scotland to the Sahara, and from the Atlantic to Iraq. We can bring ourselves back to earth from this romantic reverie by reminding ourselves that the vehicle of much of this floristic exoticism was the digestive tract of wild beasties. And it is difficult, I find, to combine romanticism and elephant dung.