Rome wasn’t re-built in a day
A few years ago I was lucky enough to be able to spend a day in Rome, Italy and spent the majority of the time touring the Vatican City, but always wanted to see the multitude of ancient buildings, monuments and fountains all over the city. This year I returned to the eternal city to spend three days roaming the streets and soaking up the history, starting with the Colosseum.
Anyone who has seen the film Gladiator with Russell Crowe playing the lead role should instantly recognize this structure as the arena where most of the gladiator fighting scenes take place. Originally built in A.D. 70, it was officially opened by Titus in A.D. 80 with ‘100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights’.
Walking around the outside of this magnificent amphitheater you immediately notice it stands alone, (most previous examples of this type were built into hillsides) and the grand scale of the structure that could hold over 50,000 spectators was the predecessor of today’s modern sports stadiums (albeit with a somewhat different use!).
The other obvious observation of course was that it wasn’t a complete structure, but clearly some new sections that had been added to ‘fill-in’ some of the missing pieces. After an initial four centuries of use, it was only natural that time and the weather (specifically earthquakes in 847 and 1231) had taken it’s toll on the Colosseum. However, I also discovered that a good deal of the structure was removed for use as building materials for newer structures such as the cathedrals of St. Peter and St. John Lateran, the Palazzo Venezia and defence fortifications along the Tiber River.
Inside the Colosseum looking out over the vast arena and around the seating areas I could get a sense of how it must have been back in it’s ‘glory days’, packed with baying crowds, cheering on their favourites and watching some of the more gruesome spectacles unfold. I say gruesome because laid out in front of me was an arena where it’s approximated that over 400,000 people and 1 million animals died during it’s gory history. This added a lot of perspective to my thoughts as I looked out at where the arena floor was removed and I could see the labyrinth of tunnels and rooms where the gladiators, prisoners and animals were held before (for most of them) their final time in the sunlight.
Some of the materials used in it’s construction were travertine and tufa, held together with iron clamps and faced with marble. The marble and iron clamps were coveted and stolen and eventually the Romans used a form on concrete (made from volcanic ash) which aided it’s longevity. Just off to the side of the Colosseum at the foot of the Palatine Hill stands the arch of Titus, commemorating the war of Judea and the sack of Jerusalem.
A final note on the Colosseum and the ‘rebuilding’ work being carried out. To be honest, I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the new construction work and it’s significance on the validity of an ancient monument. On the one hand I understand that over time these structures deteriorate, crumble and in some cases almost nothing remains. However, on the other hand, if they are ‘repaired’ to look like their original state, at what point does the repair work take over the original structure and it becomes nothing more than a modern mock-up such as we see in theme parks like Disney world.
Close by the Colosseum and next up was a tour of the Palatine, the center from where Rome grew into a great city and eventually became the seat of government for a vast Roman empire. ‘According to ancient Roman legend, the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Mars, were abandoned as infants on the flooding Tiber River and were deposited by the receding waters at the foot of the Palatine.’
This was one of the few times I actually took a guided group tour and was fortunate to have a guide who was not only very knowledgeable about the history of ancient Rome, but also it’s architecture. As I’m sure we all know, Rome was founded on seven hills, with the Palatine being the center-most and as the photo below shows, among many buildings and areas, it looks out over the Roman Forum and (to the other side) the Circus Maximus.
The Palatine was the affluent area of Rome and housed it’s many emperors along with the city’s administrative buildings and temples. I was intrigued to see the number of ongoing excavations all over the Palatine, but it’s perhaps not surprising given that the area was inhabited as early as 10th century A.D.
As I mentioned earlier I did actually join a group guided tour which covered the Palatine, the Forum and the Colosseum, costing around $50 and lasting around 3 hours. I am not usually one for guided tours, but in this case I highly recommend it as it also allows you to skip some long lines at the Colosseum and a knowledgeable tour guide can make it all a lot more interesting and enjoyable.
The Trevi Fountain
Although I had actually seen them during my first brief visit, I decided it was worth taking some time to make another visit to the magnificent Trevi Fountain (or maybe it was a result of throwing a coin in on my first visit). The fountain was built as the end piece to the 21 km long Virgo Acqueduct (Virgin Aqueduct) by Marcus Agrippa. The aqueduct was built to supply the thermal baths Agrippa built by the Pantheon.
It’s notable that during the 4th century there were an astounding 1352 fountains in Rome. The invasion of the Ostrogoths in 537 damaged the aqueduct and further invasions led to the abandonment of it’s maintenance, until it was repaired during the renaissance by the Popes. They also subsequently repaired the fountain and the first water spilled out in 1743, much to the delight of the 160,000 or so inhabitants of Rome at that time period.
The Roman Pantheon is a very imposing building and sits in a square surrounded by mostly apartment buildings. My first impression is that its remarkably well preserved considering it was built and dedicated (by the Roman emperor Hadrian) between A.D. 117-138, replacing the original building that was burned down in 80 A.D.
Hadrian is famous for his building projects but only ever put his name to one (the Trajan temple) and as you can clearly see, this building bears the name of Marcus Agrippa, commander and deputy to the first Roman emperor, Augustus. The purpose of the building was as a temple to the Roman pagan gods, but in 608 it was given to Pope Boniface IV and has been a church ever since.
The section that captured my attention was the rotunda and the immense dome that sits on top. The dome is a combination of art and mathematics, combining to produce a remarkable piece of architecture, the same height as it is in diameter (145 Roman feet).
To enable the dome to be constructed the use of building materials was strictly regulated with the heavier ones (such as travertine) used near the foot of the dome leading up to the very light materials (brick and finally pumice) at the top part. The dimensions of the dome are such that if it were to be completely flipped, it would fit perfectly inside the rotunda.
Another unusual feature is that the opening (or oculus) at the top is actually open with rain able to fall on the slight convex floor and the sun shining in and rotating round the interior is the main source of light for the whole building.
The Spanish Steps
Standing in the Piazza di Spagna (Square of Spain) and looking past the Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the boat) up towards the Church of Trinità dei Monti I was presented with a familiar sight. Built at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the staircase with 135 steps, known as the Spanish Steps, is a great place to sit for a while and admire the scenery an surrounding architecture.
I learned they are called the Spanish Steps (Scalina Spagna) because they linked the Spanish Square, which was so-called because it housed the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, (and as such was considered Spanish territory) with the church (of Trinità dei Monti) that was under the patronage of the King of France.
On the foot of the steps to the right is the house where the English Romantic Poet John Keats lived and subsequently died in 1821 at the young age of just twenty-five years old and has been made into a Museum housing memorabilia.
Despite the hustle and bustle of the crowds of tourists especially in the summer months, you can find uncrowded side streets to take time out to enjoy the day and look back on all the wonderful sights that make up Rome, the Eternal city.
Rome is an easy city to both get to and get around in. This time around I took a TrenItalia train from Venice, fast and comfortable the journey took just under 4 hours and cost approximately $75. To get around the city (other than on foot) I frequently used the metro and the buses. The metro has two lines, the red and the blue which run around the city and the buses criss-cross the main streets.
You have to buy your tickets in advance, at ticket machines in the metro, major bus stops or tobacconists shops and kiosks around the city and the fare was 1.50 Euro for a 100 minute period which starts when you validate it at the ticket validation machine or the first time you go through a ticket barrier at the metro stations.
I reluctantly left Rome for London, flying out of Ciampino (one of the two airports that service the city, the other being Fiumicino). Unfortunately (unlike Fiumicino airport) the train that connects Ciampino airport with the city doesn’t quite reach the airport and you have to take a short bus journey to get there. I opted to take a bus direct to the airport which took about 45 minutes and cost approx $6.