I know we can’t know everything about everything we visit when we’re traveling. But for me, the sights are so much more meaningful when I have at least some understanding of their significance. And while I consider a good audio or live guide to be absolutely essential, I get more out of my experiences when I go in armed with the basics. So let’s do it for Ancient Rome!
Ancient Rome began in about the 8th century BC and lasted for 12 centuries, before falling to a complex of factors that are the subject of many a tome. These brilliant humans created the system of government that inspired modern republics like the United States. They also made major contributions to pretty much everything else: art, science, literature, warfare, architecture, etc. They were pretty damn smart. And they came to dominate much of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, where, if you’re lucky, you can still find Roman ruins floating around. But if you’re traveling to Rome, you get to see where it all started.
And here it is, the hill where it really, really started. And by “really,” I mean according to mythology. Palatine Hill is where the she wolf found and nurtured Romulus and Remus. You know them, the baby twins rescued by a wolf, raised by a shepherd and his wife, who the twins later murdered. They built a great city by the Tiber and then fought over it. Romulus won and named it after himself (as one does). He sounds like an upstanding fellow. The hill sits above the Roman Forum, where its affluent residents could look down on the lowly people going about their business below. Emperors and their highfalutin friends lived up here for centuries. Fun fact: this was also the site of Lupercalia, the fertility festival that eventually gave way to Valentine’s Day.
The icon of Ancient Rome, the city generally, and possibly Western civilization (though I kinda hope not, because while it is an icon of architectural brilliance, it’s also an icon of violence). The Colosseum was built between 72 and 80 AD and is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, because it was built and modified under three emperors (Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian) who are known as the Flavian Dynasty (because of their family name, Flavius). It could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators and we all know what they were spectating: brutality in many forms. Fights, executions, animal cruelty. It was heinous. But apparently they did sometimes use it for theatre productions, too. And after the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was used for all kinds of things, like housing, workshops, and even a quarry (wince!).
People sat physically tiered according to their place in the social hierarchy, with the important people getting the good ground level seats (just like today at the Lakers and Knicks games). The spot below where I was standing to take this photo was where the emperor sat, flanked by senators. Some of their names are still carved into the stone. So when you were a kid and you complained about Jimmy taking your seat and then Jimmy said, “Hey, it’s not like it has your name on it!”, that may have originated here.* Above the senators were the noble class or knights, and then the normal people (and by “people,” I of course mean men), wealthy first and then poor. Because some things never change. Domitian added another level at the very top, standing room only, for the common poor, slaves…and women, because they’re the same as slaves. Obviously.
*May not be historically accurate.
The arena had a wooden floor covered with sand, and below it was this hypogeum, the underground network of tunnels and cages where they held gladiators and animals before the heinousness began. The tunnels of the hypogeum opened up to the outside of the Colosseum in several places so the animals and gladiators could enter. There were apparently lots of machines in the hypogeum, like pulleys for lifting scenery and animals up into the arena, and various other sophisticated contraptions.
This is the place where I had to take a self-imposed moment of silence to remember and mourn all the people and animals held in these cells, in pain and fear. It’s so strange to be standing in a place that has seen so much savagery, the very worst of humanity, violence for entertainment’s sake, and we’re all standing around taking pictures. High school kids are dragging their feet, filling out worksheets they resent. I see the Colosseum as a monument to human brilliance coupled with human barbarism. And while we have to move along with the herd, for logistics’ sake, I do think this place deserves some reverence.
The Forum was the center of life in Ancient Rome for centuries. It included multiple temples (choose-your-own-god kinda thing) as well as meeting places for important people, like senators. It was also the marketplace, which means pretty much everyone mingled here. There’s so much going on in this little valley, but a good guide keeps you tuned into what you’re walking on and how the Roman people used it.
The Pantheon is a Roman temple built in 126 AD by Emperor Hadrian. It was built on the site of an even older temple built between 27 BC and 14 AD. You enter through this beautiful rectangular portico, into a big rotunda, the dome of which is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. When Brunelleschi was trying to figure out how to finish the dome on Florence’s famous cathedral 1,400 years later, he came up to Rome to study how the ancients did it here on the Pantheon.
The inscription on the front means, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.” What? What does that mean? Well, it’s kind of complicated. Because Marcus Agrippa did build the previous temple that was on this site (a private temple for himself), but he was long dead when this one was built. Apparently Hadrian did this with a lot of his rebuilding projects, using the text of the original inscription. Go figure. An emperor who didn’t want glowing credit for his work? Odd.
In 609, Pope Boniface converted the Pantheon into a Christian church and dedicated it to St. Mary and the Martyrs. They say 28 cartloads of relics were removed from catacombs and placed here in the basin beneath the high altar. The good news about converting the Pantheon to a church is that it meant it would remain in use, and thus cared for. And it did. It is one of the few ancient buildings in Rome that has never been sitting there collecting dust. That’s why it’s also one of the best preserved.
During the Renaissance, Italians began burying their favorite people here in the Pantheon, including Raphael, and later Vittorio Emanuele II, first King of Italy after the Unification in 1860 (and thus, “Padre della Patria,” Father of the Country). Italians really, really love Vittorio Emanuele.
This is called the Capitoline Museums, but is actually only one museum. (I don’t get it.) It sits on the Capitoline Hill, above the Roman Forum, and began in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a bunch of his cool historic relics to the people of Rome (which was extra nice, considering that he definitely had a tendency to be a little douchey). It opened to the public in 1734, making it the first museum in the world, meaning that anyone could enjoy it instead of just the owner. The collection includes sculpture, pottery, coins, jewels, ruins, and lots of other gems from Ancient Rome.
Hey, look, it’s these guys!
This bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius was placed in the courtyard (you can see the copy up there in the exterior photo) by none other than Michelangelo Buonarotti. It’s inside now to protect it.
There are at least 40 catacombs below the city of Rome. These are underground cemeteries consisting of winding tunnels and chambers. They were mostly used by Christian Romans, beginning in 2 AD, but others were buried here, too. Most of the land for catacombs was donated by noble families, so those people are where the various catacombs get their names. Some of those people were even made saints for their generosity. The catacombs aren’t just holes in the ground for depositing bodies, though. The Ancient Romans decorated them with frescoes and sculptures, some of the oldest Christian art in the world. Some even have underground basilicas.
I visited the catacombs of Domatilla, which include a basilica and several levels of corridors and burial chambers. Getting there from central Rome requires some advance planning, but it is so worth it. A guided tour is included with admission. Pictures aren’t allowed (which is why I can’t show you any).
So there you have it. Everything you need to know to jump into your Rome vacation! Now your brain can be open to all the juicy details your guides will give you.
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