The Second Fall of Rome

All Roads may lead to Rome, but they are full of potholes

There are few worse places to be during the current Roman heat wave—the hottest ever recorded in a city where the cobblestones retain their heat like a brick oven—than on an un-air-conditioned city bus. Except perhaps out on the street. But when your scooter has been stolen and your Fiat is in the shop being realigned after a pothole incident, and you can’t find a taxi anywhere, there is little left to do except join other desperate souls who have no choice but to trust Rome’s dismal public transportation.

About 20 grueling minutes into the ride, during which we moved only a kilometer or so because the driver was driving excessively slowly, the bus stopped short of a bus stop and all passengers were ordered off, including a heavily pregnant woman, with no explanation at all. Then the driver sped away with her empty bus, leaving us angry, bewildered and part of a growing set of disgruntled Romans who have nothing good to say about this city.

Che palle!” the pregnant woman said, using a not-so-nice term that literally refers to male genitalia but is more generally used in moments of extreme exasperation. “This city is a living hell.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

”How is it possible to say an unkind or reverential word of Rome? The city of all time, and of all the world!” author Nathaniel Hawthorne once pondered. Clearly, he didn’t see the city as it is today. In fact, Rome bashing has become fashionable lately, and rightly so. Whether we’re talking about the general degradation of infrastructure laid bare by Reuters, or the city government’s inefficiency highlighted in The New York Times, there is little question that these are among the worst of times for the eternal—or is it infernal?—city.

Some of the problems, including the apparent absence of garbage collection and the knee-high grass in city parks and between the cobblestones—where rats are breeding like bunnies—is likely a direct result of a corruption clean-up effort by City Hall. As we reported in December, Rome’s mafia capitale had kept the city hostage under a series of nefarious contracts, including the one for park and road maintenance. Under the mob’s control, there was a tendency to over-prune, slaughter trees and kill every blade of stray grass to give the appearance that everything was kosher. Now under the current mayor, Ignazio Marino, those formerly ill-gotten contracts are being handed to real Roman companies rather than shell companies that, paradoxically, had to ensure the work was done to keep siphoning profits without raising eyebrows. As a result, during the transition at least, those services have all but stopped.

Other troubles, like the abysmal public transport battles that residents and tourists now face daily are instead a result of a management style that seems straight from a page of Emperor Nero’s handbook. The transportation mess is not limited to the weekly strikes and faulty services or the so-called “sciopero bianco,” or white strike, in which drivers of buses and trains often drive super slowly or just abandon their passengers in mid-route.

The chaos is not just an inconvenience. It can be downright deadly. In early July, a 5-year-old boy died when he fell into an empty elevator shaft in a Rome subway station that someone had apparently forgotten to cordon off. This week, a fast subway train ran between stations with one of its doors open, terrifying passengers and nearly sucking one lady into the dark tunnel.

The battle of the buses is complicated, but it centers around new regulations imposed on ATAC, the company that runs—or fails to run—Rome’s public transportation. Not only is the company facing bankruptcy after years of stunning mismanagement, the operators’ union has insisted that drivers, who now have to actually clock in for work as opposed to just showing up, leave work when their shift is up, even if their route hasn’t been completed.

Buses and trains, many of which are not air conditioned, run painfully slowly as a silent protest by the drivers, which means passengers wait hours in stations and at bus stops. Things came to a head this week when angry riders stormed the cabin of a subway train after the driver refused to move, insisting he didn’t feel well. Police eventually intervened and convinced the driver he had to keep the train moving, although by then it was already more than half an hour behind schedule.

On Friday, Mayor Marino asked forgiveness for the woes, and said that he would fire the board of ATAC and ask for a private partner to help run it, although it would be easier, he said, to just close it altogether. The city would also pump €200 million into the ailing company to try to get things back on track.

Even if the public transportation nightmare is solved, the rest of Rome’s decline has no end in sight. For proof, just look at the popular blog site called Roma Fa Schifo, or Rome Sucks, where residents post pictures and videos to back up the bad press. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gave Marino a not-so-subtle ultimatum, suggesting he “govern or go home.”

All of this is especially worrying given the fact that the Vatican has declared 2016 to be a Jubilee Year starting in December, which will bring millions of pilgrims to the crumbling city. The last Jubilee, in 2000, attracted an additional 25 million, which took years to prepare for. This year, estimates put that figure at 33 million, at a time when Rome is already on its knees.

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Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes, and it will undoubtedly rise again, for now it’s best to do as the Romans have always done: keep complaining and hope that sooner or later, someone will listen.