While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.Lord Byron
Rome is a huge city, packed with tourists – even in the off months – and in light of that, today’s post is simply about “Ancient Rome.”
The most iconic attraction in the old part of the city is the Colosseum, which is actually not the building’s true name. The real name of the Colosseum is the “Flavian Amphitheatre,” but it became known as the Colosseum due to the giant statue of Roman Emperor Nero that stood next to it (Colossus is derived from the Greek word for “giant statue”).
The Colosseum was commissioned in AD 72 by Emperor Vespasian (the first of the Flavian Emperors), who had no blood right to the throne, and his son, Emperor Titus. As part of their campaign for legitimacy, they built the Colosseum on the former Emperor Nero’s private boating lake. Thus, the Flavians could boast that they were “reclaiming” the land for the people by giving the people bread and circuses. The Colosseum is 160 feet high, almost a third of a mile around, and could accommodate 50,000 people. This amphitheatre was unique in that it was round, rather than the traditional semi-circles used by Greek theatres. It was possible to build a round structure because of the use of Roman concrete, an innovation not known to the Greeks. Silly Greeks. The vestal virgins (see, infra) actually got their own special box so that they could come and watch the games. Although one would think watching half naked men fight to the death would not be considered virginal.
Gladiators occupied a blurred social space in the Roman hierarchy. Typically from the lower classes, gladiators were revered by the Romans for their “Roman-like” qualities and became celebrities. Some gladiators would eventually win or earn enough money to buy their freedom, thereby achieving the “rags to riches” archetype. Giving slaves and lower classes this hope helped to keep them in line. Basically, this process was the predecessor to the myth of the “American Dream.” But, in AD 404 gladiatorial games were banned (at least in the city of Rome), then in AD 523 wild animal fighting was banned. Thus, ending (without answering) the hard question of gladiatorial social status.
Located nearby the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine (AD 312), which was built to commemorate Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius (a “pretender” Emperor). Before the final battle against Maxentius, Constantine converted to Christianity allegedly due to a vision. The Arch was hastily built, and in fact incorporates multiple statues from other earlier buildings, including part of a battle frieze as well as figures of prisoners from the Forum of Trajan, several Hadrianic roundels, and eight Aurelian panels.
The next major site that people typically want to see is known as the Forum. The Forum was originally used as a necropolis (i.e. cemetery), and subsequently was the site of the Battle of Lake Curzio, a battle between the Romans and the Sabines, before it became the center of Roman life. It was eventually abandoned and buried, becoming a grazing area known as Campo Vaccino and then a quarry, although some temples were saved from dereliction because they were repurposed as Churches. It was during the beginning of the Republic that the Temple of Saturn and the Temple of the Dioscuri were built (509 BC), and during the 2nd century, the four basilicas were built, including the Basilica Aemilia, which was built by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 179 BC, but burned down during the sack of Rome in AD 410. It is possible to still see melted coins in the pavement from when it burned. Also here is the Basilica of Constantine, only one third of which remains today (it once spanned a space the size of a football stadium), and at the far west end stood a huge statue of Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor), the remains of which are now housed in the Capitoline Museum.
Several temples dedicated to past emperors remain in the Form. For instance, the Temple of Antoninus Pius & Faustina was built to honor Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina.
The Temple of Romulus was probably dedicated to the son of Emperor Maxentius (and not the mythical founder of Rome). It was a circular brick building with bronze doors. In the 6th century, it was converted into a church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, which likely is why it survives to this day, and it now houses an 18th century Neapolitan presepio (the nativity scene). Also located here is the Temple of Julius Caesar, which was built on the spot where Caesar was cremated in 44 BC.
The temples not dedicated to former emperors include: the Temple of Vesta, Ancient Rome’s most sacred temple. This temple was circular to mimic a farmer’s hut (typical of where the “ideal” Roman and his family would live), and it housed a fire (Vesta was the goddess of fire), which was tended by the Vestal Virgins. It was said that if the flame ever went out, Rome would fall. The six Vestal Virgins lived in The House of the Vestal Virgins. The virgins were chosen from noble families before they reached the age of 10, and each served 30 year terms. The Vestals were so revered that they got their own box seats at the Colosseum, and those virgins who successfully fulfilled their terms were given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. Those who dared to break their vow of chastity were buried alive, which seems to me like an overreaction. But, you know, gotta make sure that those girls tend to that fire.
The Temple of Saturn now stands as the most prominent of the ruins in a fenced off area between the Forum and the Capitoline Hill. The ruins date from 42 BC, but historians think there was a temple on this spot as early as 497 BC. Saturn was the mythical King God of Italy, who ruled over an Italy in which there was no slavery, personal property or war. Every year between December 17th and 23rd, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, where the social order was turned upside down to recreate this fantasy world. (Sounds eerily similar to England’s May day.)
Meanwhile, the three slender fluted columns are now what is left of the Temple Of Castor and Pollux. It is one of the city’s oldest, built in the 5th century BC to commemorate the Roman victory over the Tarquins. According to legend, after the final battle against the Tarquins, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, Jupiter’s sons, watered the horses at this spot. As a symbol of Rome’s republic, the temple was often used as a meeting place of senators, and its front steps served as a podium for free speech.
The Temple of Venus and Rome was designed by Emperor Hadrian and was purportedly the largest and grandest in Rome. It was dedicated to Roma (the personification of the city) and to Venus Felix (who was thought to be the ancestor of Rome, through her son Aeneas). [There are excellent views of the Colosseum from this Temple]
Also located in the Forum is the Arch of Titus, which commemorated the AD 70 Roman victory over Judea. It was during this war that the Romans burned the Temple down and enslaved over 50,000 Jewish people, who were forced to build this arch as well as the Colosseum, a reminder of the dark underbelly of the Roman Empire. If you look closely, you can see the Jerusalem Menorah carved into the Arch.
This Menorah was stolen during the war and taken back to Rome as a “trophy.” Although usually tolerant of other cultures and religions, the Romans were unable to cope with the Jewish religion due, in part, to what the Romans saw as secretive rituals. The so-described secretive rituals bred suspicions of sedition and dissension, especially when the Jewish religion preached of a coming apocalypse that would overthrow the world powers. This, obviously, did not sit well with the current world powers. Even more troubling to the Romans, however, was the “new Judaism” that had recently begun springing up around the Roman Empire. This new religion was more threatening to the Romans because it allowed non-Jews to convert and join, which meant that distinguishing the converts from typical Romans would be impossible. This new phenomenon was later coined “Christianity.”
The Curia is a 1937 restoration of Diocletian’s Curia. Diocletian changed the way the role of emperor worked by ritualizing imperial power. It was he who divided the cities into units called “dioceses,” which the Church later adopted.
The Rostra is best known for being the site of Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech after the assassination of Caesar. It was a dais where speeches were given to the public. Its name comes from its decoration with ship’s prows, known as “Rostra” in Latin.
The Arch of Septimius Severus was built in AD 203 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of good ole Septimius Severus; the reliefs depict the emperor’s victories in Parthia and Arabia. Originally the inscription across the top was dedicated to Septimius and his sons, Caracalla and Geta, but Caracalla murdered Geta and removed his name (what is it with Romans killing their brothers??). You can still see the holes where the name was removed.
Trajan’s Market was a complex of shops on five levels (with the 5th level acting as a welfare office that delivered the corn dole). The street that ran through the market, Via Biberatica, was named after the drinking inns that had lined it. The market was built by Emperor Trajan and his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, in the 2nd century AD.
The next major location to see is The Palatine Hill was the home of the wolf that saved Romulus and Remus. She lived in a cave that became known as the Lupercal. In 2007, archaeologists found a vaulted sanctuary that is thought to be the cave that the early Romans believed was the Lupercal, and traces of mud huts have been found that date back to the 8th century BC. The Palatine became the place to live during the Imperial Era; in fact, Augustus was both born on the Palatine (63 BC) and established his imperial residence there. We get the Italian word “palazzo” and the English word “palace” from this Hill. Interestingly, it was on the Palatine and during the 16th century, that the Farnese family built the first private botanical gardens in Europe. The Imperial Forums were built between 46 BC and AD 113. The Forum of Caesar, was built as part of Julius Caesar’s massive building campaign, which was eventually finished by Emperor Augustus. Part of the building included a temple to the goddess Venus Genetrix (from whom Caesar claimed descent). The temple contained statues of Caesar and Cleopatra as well as of Venus, but all that remains now is a platform and three Corinthian columns. The Forum of Augustus was built by Emperor Augustus, in conjunction with the temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), which he had promised to build if he won the Battle of Philippi against Brutus and Cassius in 41 BC. As a clever propaganda move, the statue of Mars that was placed in the temple resembled Augustus. At least half of this Forum is hidden below Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Other emperors imitated the Caesars and built their own shrines to themselves. A Temple of Peace was built in honor of Emperor Vespasian, but was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt during the 3rd century as the Forma Urbis Romae. Later, the Emperor Domitian built a piazza to connect the Forums with the Temple of Peace, but he died before he could complete the work, and his successor, Nerva, turned it into the Forum of Nerva. The Forum of Trajan was used for military encampments and to perform judicial procedures. Trajan’s Column stands behind his Forum. The column was inaugurated in AD 113 to celebrate two campaigns in Dacia (modern day Romania) and is decorated with scenes from the campaigns. Trajan’s ashes were placed in an urn in the hollow base of the column. Allegedly, Pope Gregory the Great prayed to God to release Trajan’s soul from hell because he had been moved by a scene on the Column depicting Trajan helping a woman whose son had been killed. God appeared to the Pope, telling him that the Emperor had been rescued from hell, but that the Pope was not to pray for any more pagans. When Trajan’s ashes were exhumed, his skull and tongue had remained intact and proceeded to tell those who had exhumed him that he had been released from Hell. Due to this miracle, the land surrounding the column was declared sacred and the column was spared from destruction. The statue of Trajan at the top, however, was replaced with one of St. Peter in 1587.
The last major site that I’m going to talk about is the Capitoline Hill. Allegedly, Saturn founded a settlement on this hill before the foundation of Rome, and interestingly, archeological evidence does indeed suggest that the hill was inhabited before the traditional date of the founding of Rome (753 BC – a date most historians also find fault with…). Because of its steep incline, it was chosen as the city’s main stronghold despite the fact it is the smallest hill. The Hill is now home to the Capitoline Museum, which is located in the Piazza del Campidoglio. In 1536, Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to design the Piazza del Campidoglio because of an upcoming visit from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but the piazza wasn’t actually finished until the 17th century.
Also located on this Hill is the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, which was dedicated to Optimus Maximus Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (the “Capitoline triad”). Construction began during Tarquinius Priscus’ rule, but was not completed until the reign of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. It was rebuilt in marble after the fires of 83 BC, 69 BC, and AD 80. The square in front of the Temple was known as the Area Capitolina, where a number of temples dedicated to minor deities, as well as other religious buildings, statues, and trophies were placed.
The Temple of Juno Moneta was built in 344 BC in fulfillment of a promise made by L. Furius Camillus during the war against the Auruncii. According to Legend, Juno’s sacred geese warned the Romans against a Gallic siege, inspiring the temple’s moniker “Moneta,” from the Latin word “to warn.” The name began to be associated with the nearby mint, and as a result, the term “money” was coined. HA! I really didn’t mean for that to be a pun, but bravo, Haley, bravo. My subconscious has bested me yet again.
The Temple of Veiovis was discovered in 1939 during an excavation under the Piazza del Campidoglio. Veiovis was the youthful God of the underworld derived from the ancient Italic version of Jupiter. The temple is located in the same area where Romulus allegedly extended hospitality to fugitives from the greater Latin area in an effort to boost Rome’s population. It was consecrated in 196 BC by Consul Lucius Furius Purpurio during the war against the Gauls, and it was dedicated four years later, in 192 BC, by Quintus Marcius Ralla.
The Capitoline Museum is housed in two palazzi, dei Conservatori and Nuovo (façades designed by Michelangelo). The Museum was founded in 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated several bronze statues to the Roman people. During the mid 16th century, other works of sculpture were placed in the Campidoglio, and in 1538, Pope Paul III requested that the Lateran (the first Roman Church) buy the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. During the second half of the 16th century, Pope Pius V decided to “free the Vatican from ‘pagan’ images” and donated works deemed pagan to the Museum. The Museum was not opened to the public until 1734, when Pope Clement XII inaugurated it following his acquisition of the collection of statues and portraits of Cardinal Albani, making the Capitoline Museum, the world’s first public museum. Be sure to check out the view from the Caffetteria dei Musei Capitolini (apparently they have really good coffee as well, which I think we will absolutely need to get through this day without drifting off; also when do we say no to coffee).
The Palazzo dei Conservatori’s first floor houses classical statues, the second floor houses the Renaissance paintings, and on the ground floor there is a room just off the courtyard that houses a collection of Egyptian statues found where there was once a temple to Isis. A tunnel links the Palazzo with the Palazzo Nuovo, where more classical sculptures are on the two main floors, and it takes you past the 2nd Century BC temple dedicated to Veiovis and the Tabularium, the Roman public record office, built in 78 BC by Consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus. [One of the best views of the Forum is from a window in the Tabularium]. The most notable statues in the dei Conservatori are:
- The Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, which was probably commissioned in AD 176 as a tribute to the Emperor’s triumphs over the Germanic people. It was forced inside after the City noticed serious corroding issues and a copy was made to stand in the original’s place. Unlike other statues of Roman emperors, which typically were idealized, this statue is very lifelike.
- The Lupa Capitolina: The twins Romulus and Remus were added later (probably in the 15th century) by Antonio Pollaiuolo. The wolf itself can be traced back to Etruscan or Mango-Greek workshops in the 5th century BC, and therefore, originally the wolf had nothing to do with the Roman Foundation Myth.
- Spinario: a 1st century bronze of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot.
- Bernini’s Bust of Medusa: based on Ovid’s descriptions of Medusa, Bernini captures Medusa during the transitory moment of her own metamorphosis into marble after she was tricked into looking into a mirror. Ugh. Gives me the heebeegeebees just thinking about having snakes as hair. I know I’m a Slytherin and should be super cool about snakes, but no. Just no. And we all know how Bryan feels about snakes…It’s like dealing with Indiana Jones over here.
- The Pinacoteca is home to two Caravaggio’s:
- St. John the Baptist (1602), which was commissioned by the Mattei, a noble Roman family and supposedly inspired by the Ignudi of the Sistine Chapel; and
- Gypsy Girl, which legend has it that Caravaggio painted this girl as a statement that art could depict real life, not simply copy classical models.
Most of the works in the Palazzo Nuovo are Roman copies of Greeks. Romans did not have very active imaginations, as is evident from their appropriation of Greek gods, art, scholarship, and pretty much everything else. These works include:
- Capitoline Venus: a sculpture of Venus emerging from a bath;
- The Faun: found at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, the work is sculpted in marble and is a copy of a Greek original. (Emperor Hadrian had a thing for anything and everything Greek);
- The Foot of Constantine I was once part of a 40 foot (no pun intended) tall statue of Emperor Constantine I, but only it, a hand, and a few other body parts have survived;
- Wounded Warrior (Monnot, 18th century); and
- The Gaul: this sculpture is of a wounded Gaul and was probably commissioned to celebrate the Roman victories over the Galatians. It was thought that it was a sculpture of a gladiator, and as such, it inspired Lord Byron’s “The Coliseum”:
AND here the buzz of eager nations ran,
In murmur’d pity, or loud-roar’d applause,
As man was slaughter’d by his fellow-man.
And wherefore slaughter’d? wherefore, but because
Such were the bloody Circus’ genial laws,
And the imperial pleasure.—Wherefore not?
What matters where we fall to fill the maws
Of worms—on battle-plains or listed spot?
Both are but theatres where the chief actors rot.
I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his droop’d head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him—he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.
He heard it, but he heeded not—his eyes
Were with his heart, and that was far away:
He reck’d not of the life he lost nor prize,
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother—he, their sire,
Butcher’d to make a Roman holiday—
All this rush’d with his blood—Shall he expire
And unavenged?—Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!
But here, where Murder breathed her bloody steam;
And here, where buzzing nations choked the ways,
And roar’d or murmur’d like a mountain stream
Dashing or winding as its torrent strays;
Here, where the Roman millions’ blame or praise
Was death or life, the playthings of a crowd,
My voice sounds much—and fall the stars’ faint rays
On the arena void-seats crush’d—walls bow’d—
And galleries, where my steps seem echoes strangely loud.
A ruin—yet what ruin! from its mass
Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been rear’d;
Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass,
And marvel where the spoil could have appear’d.
Hath it indeed been plunder’d, or but clear’d?
Alas! developed, opens the decay,
When the colossal fabric’s form is near’d:
It will not bear the brightness of the day,
Which streams too much on all years, man, have reft away.
But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air
The garland forest, which the gray walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Cæsar’s head;
When the light shines serene but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls—the World.” From our own land
Thus spake the pilgrims o’er this mighty wall
In Saxon times, which we are wont to call
Ancient; and these three mortal things are still
On their foundations, and unalter’d all;
Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill,
The World, the same wide den—of thieves, or what ye will.
Also located on the Hill is the Tarpeian Rock, which is named after Tarpeia, the daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a Roman soldier who defended the Capitol in the 8th century BC Sabine War. The Sabines bribed Tarpeia to let them up on the Capitol, claiming that they would give her “what they wore on their shield-arms.” Typically, Sabines wore gold bracelets and jewelled rings on their left hands. True to their word, the Sabines crushed Tarpeia with their shields, literally giving her what they wore on their shield-arms. They were unsuccessful in overrunning the Capitol though because the Sabine women interceded. From then on, the Tarpeian Rock was used as a place of execution – traitors and other criminals were thrown over the sheer face of the rock.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli (at least the 6th century) is the church of the Roman Senate. It occupies the space that was once the Temple to Juno, and its 22 columns were taken from various other ancient buildings. The Church’s ceiling commemorates the Battle of Lepanto (1571), and the frescos in the first chapel on the right were painted by Pinturicchio and depict St. Bernardino of Siena. The church is most famous for an icon, known as Santo Bambino, that is made from olive wood and said to have healing powers, but the original was actually stolen in 1994, and a replica is now in its place.
Finally, the Mamertine Prison is located beneath the San Giuseppe dei Falegnami church, this was (according to legend) where St. Peter was imprisoned. Also, the valiant and resilient King Vercingetorix was executed here, after he was defeated by Caesar, who had to encircle his first wall with a second wall to defeat Vercingetorix’s stronghold. (To hear a great podcast about this moment in history, check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History).
That’s it for today folks!
2 thoughts on “Honeymooning in Rome: Day One, Ancient Roma.”
Great post thanks 👏👏
Rome is like one big open-air museum and Colosseum is such a fantastic bucket list attraction yet I don’t think I could be able to fight trough the tourist crowds – from what I’ve heard, Rome gets extremely large visitor crowds.