Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Romans in Rome

At the Colosseo, our guide joked that the ancient Romans were military geniuses, organized, on time and very motivated, not like Italians today. The Colosseo was built in just 8 years with the "help" of tousands of Jewish slaves brought from the middle east. With so many entrances, 50,000 people with wooden "tickets", pouring in from all round, could fill the entire stadium in 15 minutes.

Going on a guided tour is often a mixed blessing. Sometimes a lot is learned and other times a lot of money is spent for very little.  At the ruins we joined a  tour group to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, walked up Palatine Hill and saw the Arch of Constantine. The guide inside the Colosseo was excellent. He explained how the building got its name. A colossus is an enormous statue, and there was one in ancient times, a 30 meter high bronze sculpture of the emperor Nero, which was modified into the Sun God, Sol Evictus, as soon as Nero was in his grave. The amphitheater known today as the Colosseum was actually the Flavian Amphitheater and got the name Colosseum due to its proximity to the colossus statue. The circular "playing field" inside was a wooden platform with a maze of pathways and trapdoors underneath for the emergence of combatants and animals. It was covered with sand, called 'arena' in both Latin and Spanish. The sand made for easy removal of blood and body parts, more sand was added for the next performance.

An archeological mix: ancient Roman Forum ruins
in the foreground, less ancient Christian churches (left)
and the modern monument to Vittorio Emanuel II, the
first king of Italy (white building) 
Palatine hill is where the she-wolf supposedly raised Romulus and Remus. It was also the site of many royal palaces and stately homes for the cream of Roman society. At the bottom of the hill, the center of Rome, the Forum, was the economic and religious center for the city which at one time reached a population of over 1 million people. Excavated ruins occupy several square kilometers and represent a long period of time. In addition to homes and shops, there are temples to Roman gods and goddesses, as well as Christian churches which sprung up or took over existing temples when Constantine became a Christian. Around the excavated ruins, which are about 6 meters lower than the surrounding city, there are many more ruins buried beneath the city. The view across the ruins clearly shows how they extend under modern buildings.

The guide explained that after the Roman Empire began to fall apart, the population of the city dropped to under 20,000 people, and much of the city was abandoned. Regular silty floods of the Tevere eventually deposited 3-5 meters of mud preserving the ruins, but also providing fertile, relatively flat land for farms and eventually new buildings. On the higher land north and east, some buildings like the Pantheon continued to be used as a temple and then a church for two thousand years. Today it is a Basilica of the Catholic Church. The technically innovative and enormous dome is still intact, with a large hole in the top and drainage in the floor where the rain pours in. It was designed this way to reduce the weight the roof must support. Inside are the crypts of various popes and the artist Rafael, as well as impressive sculptures and paintings.

Further to the north and east, there are other large and impressive ruins. One exposed section is the Largo de Torre Argentina, mentioned in an earlier post as the no-kill sanctuary for Cats.  Most of these smaller sites are not on the average tourist's radar, but things we tend to stumble across while walking or riding the public transport.

In addition, there are large areas south of the Colosseo and Forum that are full of catacombs and ancient baths. Most of the Roman settlement was on the east side of the Tevere, the Vatican occupies much of the western side along the river. Vatican City was much larger in earlier time, with a surrounding wall, a section of which can still be seen in the Trastevere neighborhood. Compared to the Roman walls and aqueduct systems, it is thin and not very defensible, an athletic teenager could climb right over it.


Long section of Roman wall that kept out
invaders and the river at one time. 

Inside the amphitheater, with a small section of platform
indicating the "floor" of the arena. Look closely for stairs
that once led up to trap doors on the arena's floor.

View of the Forum, from the Colosseum

A structure called The Basilica, for which all Basilica
Churches are named. This is only one side, it once
had a domed ceiling reaching across to an identical
structure opposite which is now gone.

The Arch of Constantine (and me)