Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Of Gladiators and Mithra: Capua

(Pictures: The Sanctuary of Mithra, the fresco of Mithra slaying a bull, the Capua amphitheater outside, the vaulted tunnels of the amphitheater inside, and a scene displayed at the Gladiator Museum.)

A correre e cagare ci si immerda i garretti.
(By running and defecating at the same time, you'll get feces on your heels. Or -- doing two things at the same time will result in a mess.)

Nook of Naples: Situated sixteen miles north of Naples within the fertile plains of the Caserta province, Capua dates back to at least the 7th century B.C. when Etruscans and Euboic Greeks settled the area. Today, the ancient city lies mostly underneath the modern town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, which came into existence at the end of the 18th century.

The ancient city has several notable claims to fame. In Roman times, Cicero wrote that the fleshpots of Capua defeated Hannibal because his Carthaginians became soft due to the high living in the city. At the time, Capuan residents were considered wealthy, well-groomed, and always perfumed. The city was also called the terra di lavoro or land of work due to its cornucopia of agriculture, metal-working, pottery, ceramics and extensive trade in other goods. The ancient writer Livy referred to Capua as the granary of Rome due to its abundant wheat crop.

The visitor to Capua easily finds the amphitheater at the center of the city. It's the second largest in Italy next to the Coliseum in Rome. Built in the late second century B.C., the well-preserved ruins once held up to 60,000 spectators. The amphitheater is open for roaming the vaulted corridors, the gladiator field, and the underground tunnels where once elaborate stage machinery as well as caged animals used to be kept. During Roman times, the shows at the amphitheater admitted both men and women for free. Exotic animals and fantastic scenery made the events extremely popular.

A Gladiator Museum next to the amphitheater contains two rooms of artifacts as well as a display of fighting gladiators. At one time, Capua boasted the best gladiator schools that trained both slaves and freemen. The gladiators were divided into categories according to the type of armor used and their combat specialty. The amphitheater put on two kinds of shows: the munera where gladiators fought each other to the death and venationes where gladiators fought against wild animals, sometimes even being thrown unarmed into the arena. Spartacus, the leader who led the slave revolt in 73 BC against Rome, first distinguished himself as a gladiator in the Capua amphitheater.

Before leaving the amphitheater, visitors should ask to see the Sanctuary of Mithras. (It's the only way to gain access.) The nice gentleman at the entrance window disappears for a moment, returns with a key, and tells you to follow him by car. You drive through the bustling streets of Capua where signs for the sanctuary appear and then vanish. The museum custodial stops his car at a dead-end road, in the middle of which a red-brick building with a Latin placard marked 'Mithraevm' squishes between apartment houses. He unlocks iron double doors and takes you down a flight of stairs until you enter a vestibule. A rectangular vaulted room has a ceiling with vestiges of red and green stars on a yellow background. In the front niche a fresco depicts the god Mithras slaying a bull.

The cult of Mithras originated in Persia during the 14th century B.C. His cult traveled across Asia Minor to Greece and then Rome where by the 1st century A.D. it gained popularity, especially among the common people. Scholars have written quite a bit about the syncretism between Mithraism and Christianity due to the many Christian churches that were former Mithraean and the fact that Christ's birthday coincided with the birthday of Mithra -- December 25th.

Capua holds more ancient wonders if you have the patience to wind through the streets asking for directions at every block. The Etruscan Furnace still remains from the Archaic period, the Carceri Vecchie is the old jail whose inmates included gladiators, and further afield are the Temples of Diana Tifatina (now a Christian basilica) and the Temple of Jupiter Tifatina (merely stones wedged into a mountain).

An absolute must for a visit to Capua is the Museo Campano di Capua tucked halfway down a narrow street. This small museum houses mosaics, medieval paintings, and funerary epigraphs of the Roman period. But the highlight are two rooms filled with tufo statues depicting seated mothers holding swaddled infants. These statues date back to the Etruscan period and not much is known about them except what can be gleaned by gazing at their elusive faces.

Getting There: Capua, in the province of Caserta, is about 11 kilometers from Caserta and about 35 km from Naples. If you are coming by car, the nearest exit from the A1 motorway is marked Capua. If you come by train, the station is 1 kilometer from the city center.

Books & Movies: The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss details the rebellion led by the charasmatic leader, Spartacus. Stanley Kubrick also made a movie about the gladiator titled Spartacus. The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries by Manfred Clauss provides an examination of the Mithraic god and his followers during the Roman period.

La Cucina Napoletana: In my last two posts I wrote about pasta, so this third and final post must include sauces. Just as the number of pastas here in Naples are abundant, so too are their simple and elegant sauces. My Italian book Pasta: Passione e Fantasia divides sauces into six types. I will list them here translated and loosely paraphrased, but I don't add much by way of precise measurements because the Neapolitans themselves encourage experimentation and the adding of different ingredients from your own particular cupboard.

Fish Sauce: In a pan, fry oil, onion, garlic, and celery together. Add any kind of fish (salmon or trout, for example) and then add fresh tomatoes and herbs (including lemon zest, basil and/or parsely). Simmer for no more than 15 minutes. This sauce goes well with long types of pasta or spaghetti.

Cheese Sauce: Melt a knob of butter in a pan, then add flour and mix until smooth. Add milk and bring to a slow boil. Lower the heat and add any kind of diced cheese of your choice (gorgonzola, gruyere, fontina, parmesan). This sauce is rich in calories and goes well with short pastas such as penne.

Herb Sauce: Melt butter in a frying pan at low heat, then remove and add a mix of fresh herbs (basil or thyme, for example) torn into pieces by hand. Add a few teaspoons of water from the cooking pasta. This is a fresh sauce with lots of aroma that works well with any pasta.

Tomato Sauce: Mince an onion and brown in a frying pan with a little extra virgin olive oil. Add a clove of garlic and tomato pulp. Salt and cook for 10 minutes. Add a half teaspoon of sugar to take away the acid taste typical of tomato sauce. Before serving, add fresh basil. This is a classic sauce that goes well with all types of pasta from spaghetti to penne.

Meat Sauce: Brown minced bacon in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Then add one onion, carrot, and celery. When the vegetables are soft, add ground meat of your choice (beef or veal, for example). When the meat is cooked and sizzles, soften with red wine. Add tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes.

Vegetable Sauce: Cut diverse types of vegetables into small sticks (zucchini, carrots, and leeks, for example). Add a little extra virgin olive oil along with herbs such as basil, majoram, and oregano, tearing them by hands to the keep the flavors fresh. Add fresh peeled tomatoes and salt to the sauce. Cook for a maximum of 10 minutes. The vegetables must remain crunchy. This is a light sauce that can be prepared using vegetables of the season.

Buon Appetito!

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