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TRAVELING IN STYLE : THE EMPEROR'S LAST RESORT : When the Cruel Roman Ruler Tiberius Got Away From It All, He Headed to the Fabled Island of Capri and the Fishing Village of Sperlonga

October 16, 1994|William Murray | Murray is a Del Mar-based novelist and the author of two nonfiction books on Italy, "The Last Italian" (Simon & Schuster) and "Italy: The Fatal Gift" (Dodd, Mead)

IT'S NOT MY FAULT, THE ROMAN EMPEROR TIBERIUS (42 BC-37 AD) must have said to himself when he began to commit some of his more spectacular atrocities toward the end of his reign. It's hard to grow up the son of a ruthless, ambitious mother, Livia, and stepson of a celebrated tyrant, the one and only Augustus. What's a poor heir to do, if driven nearly mad by their schemes and maneuverings?

Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar, to give his full name, tried to get away from them. At the age of 36, he fled to the Greek island of Rhodes, where he lived for seven years and cultivated his artistic side. He had been a brilliant soldier and fought a number of successful campaigns to enlarge and consolidate Rome's growing empire, but what he really wanted to do was hang around with poets, artists and philosophers.

When Augustus summoned him back to Rome in 4 AD, though, and named him his official heir, Tiberius had no choice but to obey, and in 14 AD, upon Augustus' death, he became the empire's second autocratic ruler. Livia--who, it was rumored, had poisoned most of her son's rivals and perhaps even his stepfather--was delighted. Not so Tiberius. He spent most of the early years of his reign trying to persuade a reluctant Senate to reassume its legislative powers and restore some semblance of the vanished Republic. No one was up to the task, so Tiberius, forced to become a despot, became increasingly morose and embittered--the misanthropic figure of popular history.

He fled south toward the island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples, where he spent most of the last 10 years of his life, indulging himself in the lubricious pursuits and cruelties recorded by ancient historians.

Tiberius wasn't the first Roman to head south toward Capri for refuge, but he did it more often than anybody else. The Romans were great road builders, of course, and by the beginning of Tiberius' reign had established a number of places along the coast toward Naples for rich patrician families and retired soldiers to vacation. The main artery south was the Via Appia, which wound through the Alban Hills toward the coast to Terracina, an ancient Spartan and Etruscan city that was then an important port.

Today, Terracina is an agricultural and fishing center of about 40,000 people--bustling, but with a characteristically laid-back southern atmosphere. The side streets off the main avenues are tight and shadowed; the houses all have small, railed balconies and tall, shuttered windows behind which the inhabitants take refuge from the midday heat in summer. The harbor itself, with its rows of brightly colored fishing boats of all shapes and sizes, never seems frantically busy--and in summer, along the esplanade behind the public beaches, strollers walk arm in arm past hordes of sunbathers and swimmers. Much remains today to remind visitors of the town's classical and medieval past, including its most impressive relic, the Temple of Jupiter Anxur on the crest of rocky Mount St. Angelo, a summit that provides spectacular views over city and sea.

FROM TERRACINA, THE VIA APPIA THRUSTS INLAND TOWARD FONDI AND ITRI, bypassing the coast until it links up with it again at Formia, about 24 miles to the south. In Tiberius' time, there was a main artery along the sea named the Via Flacca (after the Roman official Lucius Valerius Flaccus, who built it in 184 BC). Traces of this road are still visible. It was about 12 feet wide and skirted the coastline past the ancient fishing village of Sperlonga and around the slopes of the Aurunci Mountains that here descend to the Mediterranean. Tiberius himself, of course, never had to do much walking. He traveled by trireme along the coast, while the accompanying legions and supply wagons marched overland.

Sperlonga marked the halfway point between Rome and the Bay of Naples. It was also home territory for Tiberius. His family on his mother's side were large landowners, and they owned villas in the area. The main one, where Tiberius always spent some time, was by the beach to the south, below the village. His visits were looked forward to both by the locals, because of the prosperity they brought to the area, and his soldiers, who were fond of the local white wine.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, for more than 1,000 years, this strip of coastal land around Sperlonga was almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country. It could only be approached from the sea or by a narrow road, little more than a footpath, from Fondi.

The rediscovery of the region began during the building of a new highway along the coast in 1958. Property prices soon began to soar. Outsiders were charmed by the sight of Sperlonga--then little more than a cluster of stone houses, stained an off-white by centuries of wind, sun and rain, perched on a rock thrust out into the sea above an unspoiled shoreline. Today, Sperlonga has become a major tourist resort, with villas, hotels and pensioni sprawled along the beach. Newcomers, many of them from Rome,

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