One of the challenges in crafting these blog posts is deciding how to best convey my impressions of a travel destination. How to best discuss a city as fascinating and historic as Rome? I decided to split this into two parts, this posting on the historic Rome of two millennia ago and the next a (relatively) modern look at this ancient city.
A Brief History of Rome:
While I’m far from a great historian, I do enjoy learning about a country’s history and culture as a way of appreciating it. There’s no better way for me to do this than to literally walk through history, which is easy to do in Rome. There are few cities older than Rome and fewer (if any) that played a greater influence on the development of the western world.
About 2000 years ago Romans thought their city (and its empire) represented the entire civilized world. To be Roman was to be civilized. To be anything but Roman was to be a barbarian (a little of that attitude still persists — Romans do know how to enjoy the good life).
The height of the Roman Empire lasted nearly 1000 years, from about 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. During the first 500 years of this period Rome was a Republic, governed by an elected Senate. The society was hierarchical including at the upper levels the Ruling Class, Vestal Virgins (who maintained the Sacred Flame), then free men, foreigners and, at the lowest levels, slaves and women. Starting with Julius Caesar an era of rule by Emperors (“benevolent dictators” backed by the military) began which lasted over 400 years. Some of these Emperors were truly great leaders and others were as terrible as many politicians we see today (e.g. Nero or Caligula). It was during the middle of this time frame that Roman empire reached its height, stretching from England to North Africa and into Asia. Rome’s decline began in the fourth century and it ended with the invasion and sacking of Rome by Barbarians. Thereafter Rome began a decline which lasted a thousand years before it’s rebirth in the Renaissance. From it’s height Rome’s population declined from over 1,000,000 to as few as 10,000 people.
Ancient Rome began as a series of huts and caves on the eastern bank of the Tiber River housing Romulus (after whom the city is named) and his followers. But it was built up during the glorious days of the Empire as a showcase of Western Civilization. Fortunately many of these wonderful ancient sights persist even into the 21st century.
Ancient Rome is best explored on foot and most (though far from all) can be seen in one busy day (what Rick Steves calls the “Caesar’s Shuffle”). It’s best to walk from the south, starting at the Colosseum, then onto Palatine Hill and the Forum, Capitol Hill, Trajan’s column & market, and ending at the Pantheon. You’ll discover in your exploration that engineering and design were in the Romans’ blood; they were masterful at this as their monuments provide testimony to.
Some of the great sights of Ancient Rome that you can still explore and enjoy include:
1) The Colosseum: Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, this was the largest building in the Roman Empire and it demonstrates their great architectural and engineering skills. Romans pioneered the use of concrete and arches in construction, both of which you’ll find in abundance here. The world’s first major sports arena, seating over 50,000, the Colosseum was used to entertain the restless masses. Gladiator battles (often to the death) were the favored events but the Colosseum housed public executions (eg. Christians), plays, exotic animal hunts and it could even be flooded for mock sea battles. What persists today is still very impressive, although the structure has been damaged by weather, earthquakes and the pilfering of many of the stones used to build it. A portion of the floor has been rebuilt but mostly it’s eroded and allows you to see the labyrinthine underground passages used to move animals and gladiators about. It’s use has changed over the years (including a period as a church — you can find a cross near the floor) and now it’s a favored tourist destination and one of the most iconic structures in Europe.
The Arch of Constantine sits immediately adjacent to the Colosseum. It’s well preserved and commemorates Emperor Constantine’s victories (and the acceptance of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine).
2) The Forum: The birthplace and historic heart of Rome, home to its government and center of commerce. To Romans, this was the center of the civilized world. It now consists of a maze of ruined buildings and column fragments that I found interesting to explore — not to see what’s there today but to try to imagine what the city looked like in its prime. During its peak it housed royal palaces, temples (some converted over the centuries to Christian churches), the residence of the Vestal Virgins, and shrines and memorials to its victories (eg. Arches of Titus and Severace). You can still visit the Temple of Julius Caesar and see the place where his body was cremated — often still covered with flowers and tributes. There is always some ongoing archaeological research and restoration but it’s a great place to explore for a few hours and to put your imagination to work. For a full list of the historic buildings in the forum, please click this link.
3) Palatine Hill: This hill overlooks the Forum and its caves were home to Romulus after whom the city is named. Over time there was a large palace (perhaps more than one?) built on the hill which was home to Rome’s Emperors, the ruins of which are still evident. Unlike the Forum, which always seems crowded and busy, Palatine Hill has a more relaxed quality, with spacious gardens, remnants of marble lined floors and terraces, and views of the city, Forum and Circus Maximus (where chariot races were held). While not a “hard core” site to visit, I’d recommend spending at least an hour wandering this hill’s massive ruins.
4) Capitoline Hill: Above the historic ruins of this city sit several palaces, two of which are now converted to the Capitoline Museums. For over two thousand years the city’s government has been housed here, most recently in the mayoral palace (Palazzo Senatorio). There is a spacious square (Campidoglio) and central equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, and a grand staircase leading to the hill from the north which was designed by Michelangelo. This hill inspired the name for the home of our Congress in Washington D.C.
5) Trajan’s Column & Market: The column commemorates Emperor Trajan’s victories. It is a free standing column situated immediately adjacent to the massive Victor Emmanuel Monument. The Column is almost 140 feet high, the outside demonstrating a spiral and elegantly carved series of reliefs that depicts a narrative of the war in a scroll-like manner. Originally it featured a statue of Emperor Trajan at its pinnacle but in the 16th century a bronze figure of St., Peter replaced it. The interior of the column is hollow and has a spiral staircase that can be climbed to the top (but it is not open to tourists). Trajan’s Market — an extension of the Forum — is extensively ruined and (unless you have tons of spare time) can be bypassed as you make your way toward:
6) The Pantheon: I think this is Rome’s greatest surviving ancient structure and one of the most unique old buildings in the world. Certainly it has the best preserved interior of any of the historic buildings in Rome and has been in continuous use for over 2000 years. Commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, it was built by Emperor Hadrian as a temple for all gods. That it is still standing is testament to how those who conquered Rome recognized its significance and did not use it as a quarry for other buildings.
The building features a magnificent and unsupported symmetric dome — built with astounding precision at a time when no computers of sophisticated instruments were available. It remained the largest dome in the world for over 1500 years and was instrumental in influencing Brunelleschi’s design of the Duomo in Florence and Michelangelo as he designed the great dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The walls, built of rock and concrete at the base of the dome, are 23 feet thick and which thin to 5 feet in thickness towards the top; it is still the world’s largest unreinforced dome and is exactly as high as it is wide. The very top of the dome (at 142′) houses the Occulus, lined by transparent rock which provides the only light to the interior of the building. The light is soft and diffused, much like candlelight.
It has been in continuous use throughout its history and, since the 7th century, has been a Catholic Church. The famous Renaissance artist, Raphael, lies buried in the Pantheon (because he so loved and was inspired by this building). The square in front of the Pantheon features an obelisk.
7) The Baths: Romans loved to bathe, enjoying the water provided by their elaborate system of aqueducts as a way to socialize and stay clean. There are several ruins of baths one can visit (none functional), the most central of which is the Bath of Diocletian. This bath complex has been converted into the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
8) The ancient Wall and Gate: The old city of Rome is surrounded by a wall almost 11 miles in length and still largely intact. Several older gates are also evident.
(Click thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)