Saturday, 12 January 2013

Travels with Li Dongni - Rome, Italy (October 2005)

My recent trip to Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum put me in a rather reminiscent mood about a trip to Rome I made some years ago, and it seemed wrong that this blog, which contains a fair amount of posts pertaining to Roman archaeology, didn't have anything from the Eternal City itself.

The trip was an unashamed tourist trip, and an attempt to cram in as many famous sites as possible.  What does seem incredible, seeing as the trip was only 7 years ago, was how few photos it now appears I took, even though at the time I remember it feeling like thousands.  How things move on...

The Colosseum

How could I begin anywhere else?  I'm sure everyone remembers their first view of the Colosseum.  Its one of those heritage sites that lives up to every inch of your expectations.  One 1843 guidebook even says, 'there is no monument of ancient Rome which artists and engravers have made so familiar to readers of all classes ... and there is certainly none of which the descriptions and drawings are so far surpassed by the reality.'  
Of course, on this trip there were some differences to a visit today (7 years later), like dodgy 'gladiators' hanging around harassing tourists.  In fact, if you look closely, you'll also see a few stones still attached that have probably fallen off by now too...

The Forum Romanum

The heart of the Roman Empire, but a difficult site to interpret from the remains on the ground. I challenge anyone to keep track of every bit of building, or remember exactly which temple each isolated column belongs to.  Still, despite being built on a swamp, the Forum still manages to exude a tangible sense of history, when you think just how many legendary Roman figures lived out their political lives here.

Capitoline Museums

One of Europe's great collections, the Capitoline Museums contain the cream of the crop of Roman marble sculpture, including some of the most ultra-iconic pieces from the Roman world.  With apologies to the Louvre, between this and the Vatican, I'm not sure if there's any other 'art museums' you really need to see...

The Vatican

The ultimate symbol of the ridiculous wealth of the Catholic church, its hard to know whether to be impressed or disgusted by the Vatican as you think of how many starving children would benefit from the millions of pounds worth of treasures inside.  Still, those treasures are there, and they are certainly a fantastic collection, which includes famous sculptures such as the Augustus of Prima Porta and the 'Laocoon group'.


One of Rome's most famous architectural gems, the Pantheon still retains the record for being the single largest unsupported concrete dome in the world.  Although the name means 'all the gods', there is uncertainty as to whether the temple was indeed intended to be a shrine to honour every single god in the Roman world (of which there were an almost incalculable variety), or whether the name referred to the dome, which reflected the heavens.  Ironically, there even seemed to be confusion about this in the later Roman Empire.  Another thing that often confuses people is that the Pantheon is famous for being built by Hadrian, but the inscription over the entrance clearly proclaims that the temple was built by Marcus Agrippa (a friend of Augustus, who lived around 160 years before Hadrian).  The reality is that Agrippa's temple was rebuilt by Hadrian, but the original dedicatory inscription retained.

Since AD609 the temple has been used as a Christian church, hence the interior looking rather more baroque than Roman.

Mamertine prison

Not a major site on the tourist trail, but one I made a point of visiting.  The Roman legal system didn't use imprisonment as a punishment, relying instead on financial penalties, hard labour, capital punishment or, worst of all, banishment from the Empire to live among the barbarians.  The Mamertine prison is therefore a unique site, used it seems as a short term detention cell.  Its dingy interior makes you glad you're not the one being thrown in there for any length of time.  Note the Christian altar - legend has it that St Peter was held there and the prison has been used as a chapel since the Middle Ages.

Baths of Diocletian and the National Roman Museum

The Baths of Diocletian (built between AD298 and 306) were the grandest public baths in the city.  Although subsequent use of the buildings has left the ancient remains looking impressive but much changed, the site's main function is now as the home of the National Roman Museum.  With this name in mind, it is somewhat surprising that the museum contains displays of epigraphic inscriptions and pre-Roman culture rather than larger scale Imperial statuary and the like.  Surprising, but in no means disappointing, as the variety of the displays made this one of my favourite museums in the city.

Trajan's column and market

Trajan's column is rightly famous as one the best contemporary sources of the Roman army 'in action'.  Although built as a triumphal monument for Trajan's campaigns against the Dacians, it is often forgotten that the monument also serves as Trajan's tomb, as his ashes were later interred in the base.

Near to the column, and still part of Trajan's forum, are the surprisingly lesser known remains of Trajan's market.  This multi-storey complex seems to have contained shops and administrative offices, and is a wonderful maze to explore.

Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus now pales into comparison with the Colosseum as a visitor attraction, but in its day it was the larger and possibly even more prestigious of the two.  Chariot racing has never caught the modern imagination in the same way as gladiatorial combat, but was hugely popular in the ancient world.  The Circus Maximus held around 150,000 spectators compared with the Colosseum's comparatively paltry 50,000.  Nowadays it is actually a nice place to have an after-dinner wander, in the shadow of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine hill.

No comments:

Post a Comment