Source: Croatian Traveller
We all know the story from elementary school textbooks: twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned by their mother on the river Tiber. They were raised by a she-wolf and later founded a city on the seven hills. With its history that is richer and more turbulent than that of any other city in the world, the Rome can rightfully be called one of the most beautiful ones. Although the magnificent buildings were torn down, and only a few things kept their original appearance, you can easily feel the spirit of the ancient Rome by walking the ancient streets, whose paths were laid more than two thousand years ago. Let us start, where else, but in the Colosseum. Located between the Traiano Park and the historical Palatine Hill, surrounded by Via Celio Vibenna, Via Labicana, Via della Domus Area (the list is really long because many roads in Rome really lead directly to the Colosseum), it inspires deep awe.
For a long time it was the largest building in the world. One of the seven new wonders of the world was originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre. Its construction was started under Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty, and was completed by his son Titus eight years later. The name Colosseum was derived from the colossal sculpture of Nero that stood in front of the building. The sculpture is long gone, but the name stayed. Everyone knows that the amphitheater was the stage for gladiator fights (back then, they were popular like football players are today) and that wild exotic animals were fed slaves, Christians and those condemned to death, in front of the roaring masses.
Colosseum could seat 45,000 spectators, who were sitting on the bleachers, strictly separated according to status. The best seats were reserved for the emperor and the Vestals (virgin priests). The senators occupied the first rows, while the class gradually decreased towards the top, with common folk sitting in top rows. The Colosseum had something that modern day stadiums today lack. The organization was so great that in case of emergency evacuations, the fully packed Colosseum could have been emptied within ten minutes. The fights were held for more than 500 years. Just cast a glance at the underground rooms, or should we say cages, in which the gladiators awaited their fights.
They are open today (the soil was devastated long time ago), but you can’t walk around these ghostly rooms. You can take a look at them only from the stands. The Colosseum was dilapidated for a long time, but believe it or not, its stone was used in the 15th century as construction material for other monuments in Rome. This was stopped in the 1780 by the Pope, who pronounced the location holy. It took a while before the Romans in charge realized the importance of their most famous landmark. This is made obvious from the quote by Venerable Beda: “Rome will exist as long as the Colosseum does; when the Colosseum falls so will Rome; when Rome falls so will the world!”
The admission fee for the Colosseum is 12 euro, and it includes a visit to the Forum and the nearby Palatine Hill, where you can walk for hours along the remains of the imperial palace and other old buildings. The queues at the counters are a given because the Colosseum is visited by four million people every year. A trip to the counter will last at least half an hour (mostly because of bad organization. I visited the Colosseum three times, and there were never more than two counters open).
Beneath the Palatine Hill stood the center of imperial Rome and the lifeline of what was once the most powerful empire in the world – the Forum. It was used to hold elections, it was the meeting place of the senate, some of the most famous speeches were held there. This is also where the army leaders returned triumphantly from their conquests… There is not much left of the forum today. The square is strewn with temples, churches and numerous triumphant arches. The triumphant arches were erected by the emperors to celebrate great military victories. There were three of them. Augustus’ triumphant arch did not remain, but the other two did. Titus’ arch celebrates the victory of Romans over the Jews, and the third arch is that of Septimius Severus.
The most famous temple is Saturn’s temple, and the most famous church is the ancient San Lorenzo church in Miranda. This is why they call Rome the “Eternal City”: this is where the eternal flame was kept – in the temple of Vestals. These Roman priestesses were picked in the age between 6 and 10 by the emperor himself. It was a great honor to be picked, and it brought privileges unavailable to other women. The service lasted 30 years, and the priests were obliged to live as virgins during that time. Their chief obligation was to preserve the eternal flame in the temple at Forum. Interestingly enough, the legend has it that the parents of Romulus and Remus were the Vestal Silvia and Mars, the god of war, who violated her.
There is one architectural monument of the ancient Rome that remained almost completely preserved – the Pantheon. It is half an hour away from the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, on Piazza della Rotonda. It dominates this small square, and is surrounded by small streets filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, ice cream parlors and so on. You can have lunch or dinner there at affordable prices, enjoying the atmosphere of being surrounded by the “temple of all gods”. Not many buildings have survived what Pantheon has survived. Built in the 1st century out of marble and bronze, it was later reconstructed and destroyed many times. Over the years, everything was stolen from it, even parts of the ceiling. Most of the bronze was melted away and used for cannonballs in the Papal castle Castel San' Angelo!
Pantheon means “the temple of all gods” in Greek. This was its main purpose. You guessed it right, it became dilapidated with time. In the 7th century, it was saved from oblivion by being transformed into a catholic church. Its dome was the biggest dome in the world until mid 15th century, when the cathedral in Florence was built. The admission is free, and when you peek inside, you might be surprised by the 8 meter wide opening in the middle of the Pantheon. The idea was to let the light through, thus helping to relieve the pressure of the dome at the same time. Today, more than a half of the multicolored marble slabs are original ones, and the rest are careful reproductions (as is the case with the floor). Along with the royal tombs, the Pantheon also holds the tomb of Rafael, favorite Roman renaissance artist who died when he was 37 years old.
If you head west towards Tiber, you will find even more ancient landmarks, like the monumental castle of Sant'Angelo. It was built by Hadrian to be a mausoleum, but with time it became a part of the city walls. It was then converted into a fort, until finally it became a papal residence. However, this was not the end of changes, because it was used at one point in time as a prison, only to be converted into a museum, something that it remained to this very day.
It saw its glory days serving the Papal state. Used as a sanctuary in case of danger, it was connected to Vatican with a secret passage, Passetto di Borgo. In 1527, this passage was used as an escape route for Pope Clement VII, running before the army of Charles VIII who invaded the city. Running away, the majority of the Papal army, the Swiss Guards, died defending the Pope. Members of the Swiss Guard are sworn into service on 6th May, the day this event occurred, in rememberance of this tragic event.
The top of the castle is adorned with the monument of an angel. According to a legend, an angel appeared miraculously in this place in 590, as a sign of the end of plague. After this event, the building was renamed to Castel Sant'Angelo. If you have time, pay those few euro and visit the Castel. If for nothing else, do it for the fantastic view of the Vatican and the bridges on Tiber.
The list of ancient landmarks is very long: Diocletian’s baths, the column of Marcus Aurelius, Nero’s Golden Palace, Largo di Torre Argentina, Marcel’s Theater... No doubt, there are more than enough reasons to make a somewhat different city break in the Eternal City.