As soon as I walked off the plane I knew I was going to fall in love with Rome. It’s a beautiful city and a must do on any travel bucket list. We arrived at the hotel mid afternoon so there was plenty of time for a quick freshen up before heading out to start discovering this ancient city. There’s so much to see here that it was going to be impossible to do it all in the two days we had but I can say we gave it a good go! These are my “must see” highlights, I’ve split them into two posts because there was so much to write about.
One of Rome’s most famous attractions was commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian in AD72. This great amphitheatre was built on the marshy site of a lake in the grounds of Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea. The arena was used to stage deadly gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights for the emperor and the wealthy citizens of Rome. Built to a practical design the Colosseum has 80 arched entrances, which allowed easy access to the 55,000 spectators. Brick formed the inner walls while the outer walls were made from travertine, during the Renaissance stone was taken from the facade and used to build several palaces, bridges and parts of St Peter’s.
During the 19th century excavations exposed the large network of underground rooms where the animals were kept before being released into the arena. The Colosseum is an incredible sight and wandering around it in the footsteps of the Roman people from thousands of years ago was quite something.
In ancient Rome the centre of political, commercial and judicial life was the Forum. Its largest buildings were the basilicas where legal cases were heard. As Rome’s population increased, the Forum became too small so in 46BC Julius Caesar built a new one, starting a process that would be followed by emperors from Augustus to Trajan. Triumphal arches were also erected by the emperors to themselves, some of which can still be seen.
The Forum is spread over quite a large area with lots to see and you could easily spend a full day here. I would recommend getting a good guide or guidebook. There are too many interesting buildings and remains to show them all here so I’ve chosen some of my favourites.
The Temple of Antoninus & Faustina
The Baroque facade of the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda is a strange sight in the Forum as it rises above the porch of a Roman temple. The temple was first dedicated in AD141 by Emperor Antoninus Pius to his late wife Faustina then, upon his death, was rededicated to them both. In the 11th century it was converted into a church as it was believed that San Lorenzo (St Lawrence) had been condemned to death there. The church that is seen today dates from 1601.
House of the Vestal Virgins
Once an enormous complex with about 50 rooms on three levels all that remains today are some of the rooms around the central courtyard that would have overlooked the ponds of water lilies and goldfish. Along this part is a row of eroded, and mostly headless, statues of senior Vestals, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. One of the pedestals has had the inscription removed, it is thought to be the disgraced Vestal Claudia, who betrayed the cult by converting to Christianity.
Column of Phocas
The Column of Phocas is one of the Forums youngest monuments having been erected in AD608 in honour of the Byzantine emperor, Phocas, who had just visited Rome. It is thought the column was placed here as a mark of gratitude to Phocas for giving the Pantheon to the Pope.
Temple of Saturn
The Temple of Saturn consists of a high platform, eight columns and a section of entablature. It is known that there was a temple dedicated to Saturn on this site as early as 497BC, the current remains date from 42BC. Saturn was the mythical god-king of Italy, said to have presided over a prosperous and peaceful golden age from which slavery, private property, crime and war were absent. Every year between 17th and 23rd December, Saturn’s reign was remembered in a week of sacrifices and feasting known as the Saturnalia. During that week normal social order was turned upside down with slaves allowed to drink and dine with their masters. All courts of law and schools were closed and no prisoner could be punished or war declared. People also celebrated in their own homes by exchanging gifts and playing games. Today many of the rituals and spirit of the festival have been preserved in the Christian celebration of Christmas.
Arch of Septimius Severus
One of the most striking and best preserved monuments in the Forum, this triumphal arch was erected in AD203 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the accession of Septimius Severus. The largely eroded relief panels celebrate the emperors victories in Parthia – modern day Iraq and Iran – and Arabia. The original inscription along the top was to Septimius and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, however after Septimius died Caracalla murdered Geta and had his brother’s name removed.
Temple of Vesta
One of the Forum’s most elegant buildings was the Temple of Vesta, a circular building originally surrounded by a ring of twenty fine fluted columns. It dates from the 4th century AD although there had been a temple on the site for far longer. The temple housed the sacred flame of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and six Vestal Virgins were required to keep the flame alight. Any Vestal who allowed the flame to die was whipped by the high priest and dismissed.
Temple of Castor & Pollux
Three slender fluted columns are all that remain of this temple but what’s left is possibly one of the Forum’s most beautiful ruins. The first temple here was thought to be dedicated in 484BC in honour of the mythical twins and patrons of horsemanship, Castor and Pollux. The temple was rebuilt many times and the three surviving columns today date from the last time it was rebuilt by the future Emperor Tiberius after a fire in AD6. The temple also housed the city’s office for weights and measures and was also used by a number of bankers.
The Arch of Constantine
Next to the Colosseum is the beautifully detailed Arch of Constantine, a triumphal arch that was dedicated in AD315 to celebrate Constantine’s victory three years before over his co-emperor Maxentius. The arch is covered in beautiful medallions, reliefs and statues, most of which were taken from earlier monuments and include statues of Dacian prisoners taken from Trajan’s Forum.
Forum of Caesar
This was the first of Rome’s Imperial fora and was built by Julius Caesar. He used money acquired in the conquest of Gaul to buy up and demolish houses on the site. The centre piece was a temple dedicated in 46BC to the goddess Venus Genetrix, from whom Caesar claimed descent. The temple contained statues of Caesar and Cleopatra as well as of Venus. All that remains of the temple is a platform and three Corinthian columns. This area is closed to the public although you can see most of it from the street level viewing platforms.
This is one of Rome’s most relaxing and tranquil historical sites. The area is dominated by the ruins of the Domus Flavi, the official part of the palace and the Domus Augustana, the private residence of the palace that was built by Domitian at the end of the 1st century. It became the main Imperial palace and remained so for 300 years.
The Stadium on the Palatine was laid out at the same time as the Palace of Domitian although it is not clear if it was a public stadium or private track for exercising horses. The alcove in the eastern wall possibly held a box from which the emperor could have watched races.
The Farnese Gardens were one of the first botanical gardens in Europe and were laid out in the mid 1500’s when Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, bought the ruins of Tiberius’s palace on the Palatine. The ruined building was filled in and the architect Vignola was commissioned to design a garden.
Terraces stretch from the House of Vestal Virgins in the Forum to the Palatine’s Germalus peak. The gardens were dug up during the excavation of the Palatine and have since been re-landscaped but they are a pretty place to relax and tend to be less crowded than the other main tourist areas.
More to follow…