We got up early on day 3 in Rome to head to the Colosseum. On the recommendation of my guidebook, I had purchased combined Colosseum/Palatine Hill tickets for us the night before, and this turned out to be a great idea. Instead of waiting in a line that might have been hours long, we were able to go through a separate line where we waiting, in the shade, for some 20 minutes at most before getting inside. I highly recommend buying the “full” combined tickets at coopculture. Even if you don’t visit the Palatine Hill, the time savings is worth it, though the Palatino is definitely worth visiting, as we will see below.
Only once we had passed the ticket readers did I realize that I had been doubting that we would actually make it inside! The Colosseum is one of the top tourist attractions in Rome, and probably a top attraction in Europe, and we were in Rome during the tourist season; the day before, we heard that the (regular) line was over three hours long. I took the following selfie to convince myself that I was, in fact, going to see the Colosseum.
One curious thing about the Colosseum today: the path you should walk isn’t marked particularly well! Combined with the massive crowds, it took us a couple of minutes to decide how actually to get to the interior of the edifice.
It is somewhat shocking to see a Christian cross featured so prominently right at one’s first view of the amphitheater; this particular cross was erected in 2000 on the order of Pope John Paul II, and it is dedicated to Christian martyrs. It is not really surprising to see the cross, however, in light of the observation we made in previous posts about the role of the Catholic Church in protecting and preserving many ancient monuments.
Even in its magnificence, the Colosseum is a shadow of what it one was. Throughout the Middle Ages, the original marble facade of the building and its seating was stripped as raw materials for other buildings. This process finally stopped in 1749 by order of Pope Benedict XIV, who viewed the building as a site of Christian martyrdom. Legend has it that the Colosseum is one of the places where Christians were fed to the lions for entertainment, though it is now believed that the nearby Circus Maximus (which we will see momentarily) was the place where people were executed for their faith.
So what was the Colosseum used for? It was used to entertain people with gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, executions, recreations of famous battles, mythological dramas, and… mock sea battles?
That sunken area in the middle of the arena with all the walls? Early in the Colosseum’s history, before the walls were in place, that area (the hypogeum) could be flooded, so that they could actually float ships. It was not long, however, before the flooding capability was replaced with two levels of subterranean tunnels which could be used to shuttle people and animals to and from the arena; this is what is visible now. The original arena floor, which was wood covered with sand, is obviously long gone.
Though the Colosseum was stripped of most of its stone, a few columns and statue fragments remain.
At this point, we had circled the ground floor of the Colosseum. After a bit of searching — remember how I said it was hard to figure out where to go? — we gave up and headed upstairs up the “down only” staircase. We weren’t the only ones.
The second floor gives you some lovely views, including scenes of some of the local housing, which I imagine is very expensive.
The interior of the Colosseum is certainly worth looking at, too, however.
The arena is estimated to have been able to hold between 50,000 and 80,000 attendees. For comparison, Soldier Field in Chicago, where the Chicago Bears play, can hold 61,000 people.
Circling the upper floor, one gets a nice view of the Arch of Constantine, which I wrote about in an earlier post.
This arch was built to commemorate the victory of the new Emperor Constantine over the then-Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E. Tradition holds that Constantine received a vision on the eve of battle, telling him that he would claim victory if he embraced Christianity. It is definitely true that Constantine abruptly supported Christianity soon after the battle, and it is somewhat astounding to think that this arch really commemorates the birth of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
One remarkable aspect of the Colosseum which cannot be seen today is the roof covering! The building originally possessed a retractable awning known as the velarium which provided rain and shelter to spectators. It could cover up to 2/3rds of the arena, and the rigging was operated by sailors selected from the Roman navy.
One last note: why is the Colosseum named the “Colosseum”? It turns out that there used to be a colossal statue of the Emperor Nero — some 100 feet tall — right next to the Colosseum, built around 68 C.E. The arena ended up being associated with the Colossus, and inherited its name!
The statue was possibly destroyed in the sack of Rome in 410 C.E.; the Colosseum was still in use until the 6th century, giving it an impressive 500 years of operation in its original purpose.
After our visit to the Colosseum was over, it was time for lunch. I had a lovely margherita pizza, celiac disease be damned, and we then opted to take an afternoon break from the heat. Afterwards, we headed to use the second half of our online tickets and see Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, whose entrance is right next to the Arch of Constantine.
You may have heard that Rome is built upon seven hills? Palatine Hill is the centermost hill and tradition holds that it is the place where the city was founded by brothers Romulus and Remus; archaeological investigations have shown that people have lived on the hill since the 10th century B.C.E.! When the Roman Empire began in 27 B.C.E., Emperor Augustus built his palace on the Palatino and the hill was the home of emperors after that. Scavenging and neglect have taken a great toll on the buildings of the Palatine, but there is still a lot to see and ponder. Incidentally, the word “Palatino” is where the word “palace” comes from! It is very weird and awe-inspiring to visit a place that is known to be the specific origin point of a word.
The first major structure that greets you on the way into the Palatino complex is another honorific arch, the Arch of Titus.
The Arch of Titus predates that of Constantine, the former having been built in 82 C.E., and despite the name, was not built by Titus! The Emperor Domitian built the arch as a memorial to his late older brother Titus’ accomplishments. The detail work on the arch is nothing short of spectacular.
From the arch, we turned left and headed up the hill to the palace complex. The largest surviving area is the Palace of Domitian, built by the titular Emperor somewhere around 90 C.E. It consists of three parts, the Domus Flavia, the Domus Augustana, and the Stadium.” Only the latter of these is easy to identify (remember what I said about the labeling?) but I will do my best to describe things correctly.
This large area is known as the Domus Augustana, and was part of the domestic wing of the palace, housing the Emperor’s quarters. The open area in the middle, however, was a garden, the “second peristyle” garden. Much more striking, however, is the “courtyard garden” a little further along.
The central area of this courtyard garden would originally have been a pool.
The sights in fact get more spectacular as one goes along; the next thing we encountered was the “Stadium of Domitian.”
It looks almost like a miniature chariot racetrack, which is where it gets its nickname, but it was in fact another sunken garden of Emperor Domitian. Notice the definitely-not-ancient wooden structures in the middle of the area? Apparently this stadium is used on occasion for public theater performances. This was the only way to explain the other definitely-not-ancient thing we saw a little ways down the path.
There are plenty of impressive palace structures to be seen, but one of the most spectacular parts of the Palatine Hill is the view. On the south side of the hill, one overlooks the remnants of the Circus Maximus.
The Circus Maximus predates the Roman Empire itself, and is said to have been built by Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth King of Rome, sometime during his reign from 616 to 579 B.C.E., though it was apparently in use even before this. The Circus could accommodate some 150,000 spectators, and it was used for chariot races as well as many of the same entertainment spectacles as the Colosseum: gladiatorial bouts, animal hunts, and executions. It is here that Christians were apparently fed to the lions. Not all deaths in the Circus were intentional, however; during the reign of Diocletian, there was apparently a collapse of stadium seating that killed some 13,000 people. Today, the Circus is a public park and is used by joggers.
Some fragments of the Palatino’s original glory remain, giving a hint at what it must have looked like during the Empire.
We didn’t dwell too much exploring the ruins, however, because we wanted to get to the Roman Forum! We took in a few more views from the hill, however.
The view of the Roman Forum itself, however, spurred us into returning downhill to explore.
On the way down, we passed some lovely orange trees.
One sight that I did not photograph, and in fact walked right past while there, was near this little nook.
Right around the corner from this, we passed a tunnel, and it turns out, if I understand it correctly, that it was the very tunnel were the Emperor Caligula was assassinated in 41 C.E.! Legendary for his cruelty and madness (though it is unclear how accurate these stories are), Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard on the Palatine Hill in a cryptoporticus (underground tunnel). Apparently the Emperor’s loyal Germanic guard would always wait at the entrance of the tunnel, leaving the conspirators the opportunity to strike the mad tyrant while he was defenseless. The German guard, in a rage when they learned what had happened, murdered many innocent bystanders along with some assassins who had not fled the area.
The conspirators were attempting to restore the Roman Republic; however, this attempt failed and Caligula’s uncle Claudius became the next Emperor. The tunnel where the murder took place was discovered by archaeologists in 2008, and looks like it is sometimes open to the public. When we walked by, it was roped off.
It was for centuries the center of Roman public life: the site of triumphal processions and elections; the venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches; and the nucleus of commercial affairs. Here statues and monuments commemorated the city’s great men. The teeming heart of ancient Rome, it has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, and in all history.
Its origins stretch back to 7th century B.C.E., and new construction ran up until at least 608 C.E., when the Column of Phocas was erected. That’s over 1000 years of use!
At this point in our day, we were nearing the closing time of the complex, so we didn’t have much time for careful inspection; I will give more general impressions. While walking the ruins of the Forum, all around you are fragments of this lost, thriving complex.
Beautiful trees and other vegetation provide a lovely contrast to the ruins of the ancient civilization.
A precious few buildings remain largely intact, due to being conscripted into the structure of churches. The “so-called Temple of Romulus,” apparently originally built in honor of the son of the Emperor Maxentius, is one of those.
Built in 307 C.E., it became incorporated into the Santi Cosma e Damiano basilica in 527 C.E. Incredibly, the bronze door is apparently original and the lock on it still works!
Neighboring the Temple of Romulus is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, originally built in 141 C.E. by the Emperor Antoninus in honor of his late wife; after his death, his successor rededicated it to the Emperor and wife together.
At an uncertain date, but possibly as early as the 7th century, the temple was made into a church, Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda.
Some original Forum statuary is on site; unfortunately, by the time we arrived, park workers had apparently roped off the area for the evening, so we were only able to see the statues from a distance.
Flowers in bloom make a lovely contrast to the pure but sterile marble.
This trio of columns is impressive alone, but it is the remains of a place of great significance, the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
Built in 495 B.C.E. to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Lake Regillus, in pre-Empire times it was a meeting place for the Roman Senate. During the Imperial era, it was a depository for the state treasury and also housed the bureau of weights and measures.
By this time of day, the park was nearing closing time, and the workers were getting antsy. We hardly had time to stop, admire, and photograph some additional sculpture…
… and stop to see yet one more arch, the Arch of Septimius Severus.
This arch was built by the Emperor Septimius Severus in 203 C.E. to commemorate his victories in two earlier campaigns against the Parthians that had occurred some years earlier.
At this point, one of the park workers was wildly gesticulating for us to head to the exit. I took a couple more photographs on the way back, including the following.
Remember the Column of Phocas I mentioned earlier? That’s it near the center of the photo; erected in 608 C.E., it was the last addition to the Roman Forum. It was built in honor of the Empreor Phocas of the Byzantine Empire; by this time, the Roman Empire had split into Western and Eastern (Byzantine) sections. Emperor Theodosius I, who died in 395 C.E., was the last ruler over a united Empire.
The series of columns in the right of the photo is the former front porch of the Temple of Saturn. The original temple dates to 497 B.C.E., but it was apparently completely renovated in 42. B.C.E. and needed to be rebuilt after a catastrophic fire in 283 C.E.; the columns here represent that third incarnation. It is one of the most magnificent pieces remaining in the forum and I regret not having more time to look at it.
And, with a final look and a few final photographs, we departed the forum.
From the forum, we went back to the hotel to clean up, and then opted to head to a lively section of the city, Trastavere, for dinner. The area is packed with lots of lovely little restaurants. I once again had a margherita pizza, because I usually can’t have them at home, as well as a melon and prosciutto appetizer and chilled glass of red wine.
After dinner, we decided to walk part of the way back to our hotel. Rome is a great walking city, because the center is relatively compact and there is always something to see. I took the following photo as we crossed a pedestrian bridge back over the river.
The view was lovely enough, but it turns out I should have been looking down, as well. The bridge we were crossing, the Ponte Sisto, is also ridiculously old, dating from around 1475. It was built on the order of Pope Sixtus IV. It in fact uses the foundations of an older Roman bridge, the Pontus Aurelius, which had been destroyed in the Middle Ages.
We didn’t really have a plan for our return voyage, so it was by pure luck that we stumbled into the next square, and I must thank my sharp-eyed colleague Taco for recognizing its significance! We had entered the Campo dei Fiori, the “Field of Flowers,” a lovely and lively square which is filled with restaurants and people.
The statue at the back of the square is particularly significant to historians of science and religion: it is a memorial to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).
Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar who became enamored of the then-revolutionary work of Copernicus, arguing that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice-versa. This revelation made Bruno famously speculate that the stars in the sky are not simple points on a celestial sphere, but suns in their own right, with planets around them and possible people on those planets.
In spite of his intuition, Bruno was not, in fact, a very good scientist. His interest in cosmology seems to have been largely motivated by theological and political considerations. In my understanding, he viewed his ideas of a plurality of worlds as a way to unify and enlighten the various warring sects of Christianity.
This idea did not sit well with the Catholic Church. Bruno was aware of this, and lived abroad for some time. However, he was lured back to Italy by a wealthy patron’s promises; this patron betrayed Bruno to the Inquisition, and after literally years of trials, he was hung upside-down and naked and burned at the stake — in the Campo dei Fiori where his statue now stands. Among the charges he was found guilty of: “claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity.”
The statue itself is tied up with the politics of the church and country. In my first post, I noted that the unified Kingdom of Italy took control of Rome from the church in 1870; among the supporters of this unification and liberation were a members of the order of Freemasons. Well, in 1885, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Humanum Genus, which was a broad condemnation of Freemasonry. This was a rather nasty shot across the bow, so to speak, to the Freemasons, and in response they decided to build a statue of Giordano Bruno, a reminder of the cruelty and unenlightened attitudes of the church.
In Italian, the inscription on Bruno’s statue reads:
To Bruno – From the Age he Predicted – Here Where the Fire Burned
We started walking back towards our hotel for the night, hoping to catch a taxi along the way. We passed one more set of Roman ruins along the way, and once again I missed something I would’ve loved because I am clueless.
Historically, what is amazing about this square is that Julius Caesar was killed in the curia (court) of the Theater of Pompey, and that location is believed to have been within this square. You are broadly looking at the location where Julius Caesar was assassinated.
What I did not know, and only now know from writing this blog post, is that the Largo di Torre Argentina is also today a cat shelter! Some 150 cats live among these ruins, which date from 400-300 B.C.E., and are looked after by volunteers. I would have loved to have visited the cats during the day; perhaps on my next trip…
Thus ends the description of my third day in Rome! That was a lot of history to pack into an 8-hour day; even more would be done the next day, when we visited the Vatican Museums…