There are remnants of the ancient Roman era all over the city, but the most concentrated and central grouping – which for simplicity’s sake we’ve called Ancient Rome – is the area that stretches southeast from the Capitoline Hill. It’s a reasonably traffic-free and self-contained part of the city, but it wasn’t always like this. Mussolini ploughed Via dei Fori Imperiali through here in the 1930s, with the intention of turning it into one giant archeological park, and this to some extent is what it is. You could spend a good day or so picking your way through the rubble of what was once the heart of the ancient world.
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The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum
The five or so acres that make up the Roman Forum were once the heart of the Mediterranean world, and, although the glories of ancient Rome are hard to glimpse here now, there’s a symbolic allure to the place, and at certain times of day a desolate drama, that make it one of the most compelling sets of ruins anywhere in the world.
The Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill
Rising above the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill is supposedly where the city of Rome was founded, and is home to some of its most ancient remains. In a way it’s a greener, more pleasant site to tour than the Forum. In the days of the Republic, the Palatine was the most desirable address in Rome (the word “palace” is derived from Palatine), and big names continued to colonize it during the imperial era, trying to outdo each other with ever larger and more magnificent dwellings.
Along the main path up from the Forum, the Domus Flavia was once one of the most splendid residences, and, to the left, the top level of the gargantuan Domus Augustana spreads to the far brink of the hill. You can look down from here on its vast central courtyard with fountain and wander to the brink of the deep trench of the Stadium. On the far side of the Stadium, the ruins of the Domus and Baths of Septimius Severus cling to the side of the hill, while the large grey building nearby houses the Museo Palatino, which contains an assortment of statuary, pottery and architectural fragments that have been excavated on the Palatine during the last 150 years. In the opposite direction from the Domus Flavia is the Cryptoporticus, a long passage built by Nero to link the vestibule of his Domus Aurea with the Palatine palaces, and decorated with well-preserved Roman stuccowork at the far end, towards the House of Livia – originally believed to have been the residence of Livia, the wife of Augustus, though now identified as simply part of the House of Augustus – the set of ruins beyond, open only at certain times. Climb up the steps by the entrance to the Cryptoporticus and you’re in the bottom corner of the Farnese Gardens, among the first botanical gardens in Europe, laid out by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in the mid-sixteenth century and now a tidily planted retreat from the exposed heat of the ruins. At the far end of the gardens are the traces of an Iron Age village that perhaps marks the real centre of Rome’s ancient beginnings.
The Colosseum is perhaps Rome’s most awe-inspiring ancient monument, an enormous structure that despite the depredations of nearly two thousand years of earthquakes, fires, riots, wars and, not least, plundering for its seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready-cut travertine blocks, still stands relatively intact – a recognizable symbol not just of the city of Rome, but of the entire ancient world. It’s not much more than a shell now, eaten away by pollution and cracked by the vibrations of cars and the metro, but the basic structure is easy to see, and has served as a model for stadiums around the world ever since. You’ll not be alone in appreciating it and during summer the combination of people and scaffolding can make a visit more like touring a contemporary building-site than an ancient monument. But visit late in the evening or early morning before the tour buses have arrived, and the arena can seem more like the marvel it really is.
Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre (the name Colosseum is a much later invention), it was begun around 72 AD by the Emperor Vespasian. Inside, there was room for a total of around 60,000 people seated and 10,000 or so standing. Seating was allocated according to social status, with the emperor and his attendants naturally occupying the best seats in the house, and the social class of the spectators diminishing as you got nearer the top. There was a labyrinth below that was covered with a wooden floor and punctuated at various places for trap doors that could be opened as required, and lifts to raise and lower the animals that were to take part in the games. The floor was covered with canvas to make it waterproof and the canvas was covered with several centimetres of sand to absorb blood; in fact, our word “arena” is derived from the Latin word for sand.