Rome: Ancient Days Edition

Our Italian trip is over and done with, and we are back basking in the humidity of mid-August Taipei, but I want to make sure to document the rest of our trip. Thanks to all my copious photos and Instagramming not to mention the wealth of Wikipedia, I have some great reference points. The most anticipated part of our Italian trip was the visit to the ancient sites of Rome, because I took Latin for six years and studied mythology and Roman history for most of that time. Many sites in Rome hail from the most fascinating times in its history – the late Republic and the early Empire (about 100 BC to 150 AD). In exploring those sites, we trekked through the Colosseum and Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museums, and the Baths of Caracalla.

The most rewarding but easily most tiring day was visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum on a joint ticket of 12 euros. We lined up to buy tickets at the Forum as soon as things opened at 8:30 am, and scored a 9 am entrance to the Colosseum, bypassing what easily looked like a hundred and fifty people in line. Eek. The Colosseum was better known in ancient times as the Flavian Ampitheater, begun by Vespasian, who began his reign in 69 AD. His oldest son Titus continued the building, and it was finished by his younger son Domitian. Originally, wooden passageways under the floor of the Colosseum were used to channel the gladiators and beasts who fought in the stadium. Sometimes, they would be removed entirely, and the entire floor flooded with water to provide a stage for mock naval battles. (That ended after Domitian constructed stone passageways to replace the wooden ones.) It is still incredibly imposing, despite a few earthquakes over the centuries that have destabilized one side.

There was much more signage around than when Steve came last time, including some interesting permanent exhibits about the archeology done around the area. For example, we saw a lot of discarded foodstuff, and could extrapolate the ancient equivalent of popcorn and beer that the Romans would enjoy at the races. As we walked around, there was no shortage of folks who had not taken Latin for six years and decided to employed tour guides in various languages. Many of them spoke English, but it was fun listening to one family get a tour guide in very Italian-accented French. It was at least possible to hide from the sun amid the huge arches, so even though it got hot quickly, we did enjoy our time walking around the Colosseum. We capped off our visit by sitting in the shade outside admiring the Arch of Constantine and munching on some tasteless sandwiches. (There are very few food places surrounding these sights in the middle of Rome, so we had purchased sandwiches beforehand, but they were no prize either.)

As a classicist, I kind of expected to see just remnants of what had been happening thousands of years ago, but the Colosseum was overlaid with marks of all the people who have lived there or used those facilities in other ways since then. After the Flavian Ampitheater fell into disuse, the Colosseum started inhabited sometimes by powerful families who essentially renovated parts into apartments for their own use, and at other times by medieval shopkeepers who used them as storage facilities for goods or livestock.  The same thing happened in the Forum: a few of the sites we saw but didn’t go into were temples in Roman times that have been repurposed since then into small churches, partially accounting for why it has survived so long. After all, that’s what happened to the Pantheon. When we climbed the Palatine Hill, we could see some parts of the hill which had been reconstructed into the Farnese Gardens by the eponymous family in the Middle Ages (they were related to the Pope at that time, which means you could buy whatever parts of Rome you wanted!). It’s interesting and a bit unexpected, but I think I’ve just inherited a bit of a conservative attitude about those things. History isn’t merely something that was constructed way back then and now should be kept in an air-conditioned museum; building on it, repurposing it, and using it are all natural ways of paying tribute to those structures. It’s actually hard to imagine that we’re going to keep using buildings that are constructed now for hundreds of years. Today in the US, it’s amazing if something’s been standing for 100 years, period!

After a morning of exploring the Colosseum, we started on the much harder task of walking around the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. It was a long, hard slog, which I’m sad to say, because it was such a historical, lovely place, but the hot and unrelenting weather put an incredible dampener on our entire day. We could only walk about five or ten minutes before having to seek a shaded place to re-hydrate for another 15-20 minutes. Thankfully, there were many spouts and fountains on the Forum where we refilled our water bottles. Steve was so wrung out by the weather and dizzy in parts that in retrospect, I think he definitely had a touch of heatstroke.

In the Forum, we saw the Arch of Titus, which he had constructed to mark his conquest of Judea (yet another sack of Jerusalem…). On the Palatine, we saw the remnants of villas that had been determined to be owned by Augustus and other bigwigs of the time. We also saw remnants of prehistoric stone huts, one of which they had nicknamed the Hut of Romulus, who was the founder of Rome. Down in the Forum, we walked around the rather well-marked out House of the Vestal Virgins. The garden is gorgeous, and there are many recovered albeit partial statues of famous Vestal Virgins of the time. Next to it were partial remnants from the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux). One of the most well-preserved temples was one side of the façade of the Temple of Saturn, which housed the treasury or aerarium, with stores of gold and silver. It’s positioned at the foot of the Capitoline, somewhat looking down the Forum, next to the Arch of Septimus Severus, also an incredibly old arch.

We finally exited the Forum after a good three hours via Capitoline Hill. I think it was that afternoon that we discovered the restorative properties of a cold can of Coke. While it’s not useful if you have it all the time, it’s a medicine of sorts when you have it on the run – bubbly to wake us up, chilly to bring the temperature down (especially when held to the side of your neck where the jugular runs), and sugary to energize you and keep you going!

Second best was probably the Capitoline Museums, where we spent about five hours poring over ancient statues. Of special note were the Capitoline she-wolf (lupa) which was originally thought to have been from the Republic, but has been shown to be dated from more like 800 AD, with tiny bronze baby statues of Romulus and Remus. The Dying Gaul is a part of the museum, a marble statue of a Gaul (shown by the torc around his neck and his braided hairstyle) suffering from what is likely a mortal wound. Most impressive was probably the statue of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor. The original statue of him on horseback was placed in the middle of the square outside the Capitoline Museums by Michelangelo himself in the 1600s. He had been responsible for a redesign of the Capitoline Hill piazza. However, in the 1980s, they discovered that it needed a thorough restoration and to be housed indoors in the future, so nowadays, the original bronze which is now very much green (though still has traces of gilt) is inside the museum, and a copy has been placed where Michelangelo originally put it. We also saw large stones that were a corner of the famed Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Honestly, to see all these actual parts of the things I had studied so long ago was astounding, and I went back and forth between being incredibly tired and sleepy because of the weather and walking around ad infinitum and being very excited to see something that I had almost forgotten was located on the hill.

On our next to last day, we made a trip to the Baths of Caracalla. This was a huge bathing complex close to the Aventine Hill, constructed by the emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla. It was in use from roughly the mid-200s AD to 530 AD, and while there are other baths in the city, the remnants of this gave us a much better idea of what the baths resembled. The remaining walls were in reddish brown brick and absolutely huge and soaring. We saw many alcoves where there used to be statues that decorated the various rooms. Some mosaics that were not very inspiring remained on the ground. Honestly, it was the most exasperating thing about Rome: so many sites like the Baths of Caracalla were completely bereft of the statues and art that made it an inspiring site. Half of these things were sitting in the Vatican Museums, the National Archeological Museum in Naples, or in some villa of minor European royalty who had dug them up or dragged them away from these sites. When you actually come to this place, you have to really use your imagination to see the grandeur they evoked. Mind you, maybe those things wouldn’t be well-preserved, sitting out here for hundreds of years, but it’s just profoundly sad to see this as a large shell of what used to be.

Looking back on our week in Rome, I’m glad we saw everything we did, but I also don’t feel a desire to ever go back. Perhaps in another twenty or thirty years, we’ll want to go back through and bring our children, but it definitely won’t be in the summertime! So long, urbs aeterna.

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