August, and the Paludes Pomptinae


Daisy Miller by Henry James (1878) may be a story to haunt the memory, with its images of Rome and of the young American girl, innocent and misjudged, who dies of that summer disease ‘Roman Fever.’

Horace writes to Maecenas c. 20BC:
‘After promising to stay five days in the country, I have broken my word and am missing for the whole of August. But if you want me to live fit and in proper health, Maecenas, then the pardon that you give when I am ill, you will give when I am in fear of illness—when the first fig and the summer heat embellish the undertaker with his black attendants, and when every father and loving mother grows pale for the children…’ (see Texts menu).

The history of malaria seems inextricable from the history of the human race. It resonates in literature as ague and fever, as well as references to good and bad air. It killed thousands of American soldiers in the second world war. Although it is now curable, 438,000 people died of it in 2015.

It was a permanent threat—especially to children and adolescents—in ancient Rome. Everyone knew it was seasonal to the late summer months, and that it emanated from the Pontine Marshes between Rome and the sea. The writers Varro and Columella, although they did not know about the mechanisms, or the carrying by mosquito bites (a daily occurrence) or the protozoa that give malaria, were definite about its origin in the swamps; and Columella went so far as to posit animalia quaedam minuta, invisible to the eye, which entered the human body to create disease.

Julius Caesar had a plan for these pestilential marshes—the Paludes Pomptinae—which involved diverting the Tiber to draw off their waters: but this was scarcely begun. There are hints and suggestions that Claudius and Nero were interested in such a project; but the draining of the marshes, by Mussolini, was not completed till 1939. The expanse is now cultivated and populated; but as with our own such areas in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, constant engineering is required to keep it from reverting to marshland.

Of interest:
Robert Sallares: Malaria and Rome: A History of Malaria in Ancient Italy, 2002, OUP
M. Terentius Varro: De Re Rustica, c.50BC
L. Junius Moderatus Columella: De Re Rustica, c.AD65

Next post: Parison: balance, parallel and contrast.

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