It is well known that, about the turn of the century, Sigmund Freud had a persistent desire to visit Rome that was repeatedly frustrated on account of a neurotic inhibition.footnote He planned several trips to Rome, and even set out on some of them, but a powerful phobia stopped him from reaching his goal. Only on 2 September 1901 did he finally succeed (with unexpected ease, given the strength of his earlier inhibition) in entering the city of his yearning; thereafter, he returned to Rome a number of times without difficulty. Freud makes frequent reference to this phobia of his in The Interpretation of Dreams (Traumdeutung)footnote1 and in the letters to Wilhelm Fliess dating from the same period. He recounts incidents from his unsuccessful trips; he writes of dreams about his desire to reach Rome, about his sadness in failing to do so and the fear which held him back. He also indicates the cause, or rather the network of closely interlinked causes, to which he attributes his inhibition.

For reasons which I have tried to make clear elsewhere, and which someday, perhaps, I shall explain more fully,footnote2 the interpretations given in Freud’s writings of dreams, slips and neurotic symptoms have always seemed to me among the weakest aspects of his scholarly work (they are of the greatest interest, on the other hand, if we take them not as ‘interpretations’ but as themselves manifestations of that anguished hyper-psychologism, that psychic malaise which has so widely afflicted the more sophisticated and decadent members of the twentieth-century bourgeoisie). Freud’s greatness, I believe, is much rather the greatness of Proust, Kafka, Musil or Joyce than that of a great scientist. At the same time, though in lesser measure, I also believe that Freud made contributions of real scientific value, and that some even of his interpretations are highly probable (naturally I do not state that they are ‘right’, such judgements being the province of the psychologist or the professional psychiatrist). Among these I would include the explanation which Freud gives of his ‘Roman phobia’.

However, by a turn of events which appears something of a paradox, orthodox Freudians have not accepted this explanation, and indeed have not even troubled to refute it, even though, despite their unquestionable intelligence, they have unhesitatingly gone along with other interpretations of Freud’s which I would regard as altogether unprovable and ridiculous. At the best, they have allowed that Freud gave some tentative ‘beginnings of an interpretation’ but soon abandoned it—censoring himself, they imply, from motives of personal discretion. At the worst, they have flatly denied that Freud offered any interpretation whatever.footnote3 They have then hastened to proffer, with varying degrees of self-confidence, interpretations of their own conformable to psychoanalytic orthodoxy—and therefore similar to the weakest put forward by Freud himself!

Freud did impose, especially in The Interpretation of Dreams, censorship which was not only unconscious, but quite openly intentional. He frequently brought this to bear where he would otherwise have been obliged, in the explanation of his own dreams, to disclose excessively intimate details of his private life and his sexual psychology. We have his own word for this, both in the Preface to the work’s first edition (1899) and at various points in the text, one of which has to do with his reflections on the phobia about Rome.footnote4 However, it is one thing to leave out references to autobiographical details, even important ones; it is another to have fabricated an entire interpretation, which Freud himself would have thought to be false, and which has little kinship with ‘Freudian’ explanations of the usual type.footnote5 But this, according to the more ‘moderate’ Freudians, was precisely what Freud did. As to their more ‘extreme’ colleagues, we have already seen their claim that he simply refrained from any ‘explicit’ explanation. The zeal of their Freudian orthodoxy thus leads them to censor Freud’s own text—which does not seem to me a legitimate procedure.

One point must be cleared up at the outset. When I speak of ‘Freud’s interpretation’, I am not referring to the first, very brief note (se iv, p. 194) in which Freud speaks of ‘reasons of health’ as preventing his travelling to Rome. Here he has in mind the unwholesome climate which, exaggeratedly feared as it was by ‘Northerners’, did indeed afflict the city in late summer and early autumn (the only time of year when Freud was free to travel). Jones (II, p. 18) and Musatti (O IV, p. x) are right to reject this explanation as altogether inadequate, though I do not in all honesty believe we can regard it as nothing but a rationalization: as we have noted, the unhealthy Roman climate (malaria and sirocco!) was at this time the subject of widespread and not entirely groundless fear. The city was bordered by marshes where malaria was rife, and within Rome itself there remained areas either still affected by the disease or but recently freed of it. The nineteenth-century Italian poet Giosue Carducci called for the Goddess Febris, venerated and feared by the ancient Romans, to return, as if she alone could check the flood of speculative building let loose by the reclamation of the Roman malarial swamps now that the city had become the Italian capital.footnote6 (Carducci, greatly esteemed in his own day for the feeblest of his verses—those in which, reneging on his youthful Jacobinism, he takes on the role of laureate to the new monarchical and nationalistic Italy—still deserves to be read today, when he is no longer the object of such excessive enthusiasm: as well as his early Jacobin poems, there are others, inspired by a powerfully felt sadness and regret for the transience of life’s glory.) The sirocco, a debilitating wind which was itself thought to cause malaria, was no less feared by robust Northerners. At the time of the Restoration, the distinguished Prussian historian and politician, B. G. Niebuhr, who came to Rome as ambassador to the Papal States, suffered from an obsessional fear of the sirocco, which began before he arrived in the city and continued for some time afterwards. When he was first at work on the Traumdeutung, Freud of course had no direct experience to go on, but when, having overcome his neurosis, he visited Rome for the first time, he did indeed fall victim to a severe prostration induced by the sirocco, which ruined the final days of his stay (letter to Fliess, 19 September 1901). It seems reasonable, then, to regard his note as a rationalization only in the sense that it was the exaggeration of a genuine fear: otherwise, it is hard to see why Freud, when he came shortly afterwards (as we shall see) to set out what he regarded as the fundamental grounds for his Roman phobia, did not remove his reference to the unhealthy climate. It must admittedly be conceded that his exposition taken as a whole is no model of coherence or consistent development (in this, it is typical of the Traumdeutung, much of whose fascination derives from its being at once autobiography and ‘treatise’). However, that Freud retained his note on the climate surely indicates that he continued to regard it as playing a real part, though a restricted and secondary one, in the aetiology of his fear of travelling to Rome.

One further preliminary point needs to be made. The ‘Roman phobia’ was a particularly severe manifestation of a more general phobia, to which Freud was especially subject in his youth but of which he was never completely cured: a fear of travelling, and notably of travelling by train. This was by no means an insuperable neurosis, for Freud travelled extensively, but he had often to suppress a state of anxiety which sometimes became acute. Jones gives abundant evidence of this in his biography (I, pp. 14, 197f., 335) but neither he nor any other scholar (apart from Musatti, in one cursory note) connects it in any way with the ‘Roman phobia’. Obviously, a fear of travelling in general cannot account for the much more intense fear of going to Rome, but it is still worth noting that the latter germinated, so to speak, in the field of this broader but analogous phobia. If we remember this, we shall see all the more clearly how implausible are some of the interpretations of the Roman phobia which certain Freudians have put forward.

Let us now turn at last to the real explanation of his ‘Roman phobia’ which Freud gives in the Traumdeutung (V B: se iv, p. 196f). On his ‘last journey to Italy’ (in 1897: we must bear in mind that the first edition of the Traumdeutung came out in 1900), Freud travelled as far as Lake Trasimene, where he saw the Tiber and where he was only fifty miles from Rome; but he then felt obliged to turn back. At this point, he found himself thinking of a piece of writing which included a passage (referred to further below) concerning Hannibal. ‘I had actually been following in Hannibal’s footsteps. Like him, I had been fated not to see Rome; and he too had moved into the Campagna when everyone had expected him in Rome. But Hannibal, whom I had come to resemble in these respects, had been the favourite hero of my later school days.’ Freud now recalls and distinguishes two successive phases of his passion for Hannibal. In a first stage, he had sided emotionally with the Carthaginian hero, as had many of his contemporaries. (This had nothing to do with Hannibal’s Semitic origins, being rather a typical schoolboy affection for defeated heroes, such as has inclined all of us to prefer Hector to Achilles, Hannibal to Scipio, and so on: I myself, though not of Semitic birth, was led by a ‘Hannibalism’ of this kind, which lasted right into my adolescence, to consume, in indigestible amounts, the most varied literature on the second Punic war.) In a second phase, while he was attending the Obergymnasium (secondary school), Freud’s sense of being isolated in a hostile environmentfootnote7—many of his peers were anti-semitic—lent an intenser and more ‘polemical’ tone to his love of Hannibal, whom he now saw as a Semitic hero, beaten by the Romans but never yielding to them. ‘To my youthful mind Hannibal and Rome symbolized the conflict between the tenacity of Jewry and the organization of the Catholic Church.’footnote8