This is my second post in a series where I will take you on a walking tour of some of the most popular cities in Europe. I hope you enjoyed taking a walk with me through Prague, but this time we’re going even more ambitious: Today, we’re tackling ROME!
Rome is one of the biggest cities in Europe, so big, in fact, that it contains an entire independent state within its city limits! Yes, I know you know it’s the Vatican, but I’m going for dramatic here, okay? And in any case, I won’t talk about the Vatican in this post. Okay, I’ll say just one little thing: Don’t bring a bag to the Vatican Museum. The tours start at the museum but finish up at St Peter’s Square. If you bring a bag you will have to check it, and it’s a good two kilometer walk back along the wall to collect the bag once your tour is finished. A small handbag should be fine, but no backpacks. Also, you won’t be allowed in unless you are covered from shoulders to knees. It’s a respect thing. Just in case, bring a scarf to tie around your shoulders or waist, and you’ll be grand.
Listen, there is SOOOO much to see and do in Rome, you could live there a lifetime and not cover everything. I may as well write a whole series of books, it would be the “Song of Ice and Fire”-series of travel books, if I were to cover it all. Well, I don’t think I have that level of dedication and commitment in me, so I won’t. What I WILL do is give you an idea of how you can see as much as possible in a single day of exploration, ticking off the major highlights of Rome, leaving you time to visit everything else (Vatican Museum, Castel Sant’Angelo, Borghese park and villa, Trastevere, the Catacombs, the Jewish quarter, daytrips, etc etc etc – THERE’S SO MUCH TO CHOOSE FROM!) during the rest of your stay.
Rome is a big city, but luckily most of the ancient monuments are collected in a relatively small area. The route I am suggesting here is approximately 5 km long, and includes approximately 1,5 hours of straight out walking, but calculate 3 hours including stops (unless you stop to eat. Italian food deserves to be savored, so food stops aren’t included in the 3 hour estimate).
If you’re not used to walking, don’t be alarmed, and don’t be discouraged, there is lots of stops along the way, there’s usually about 5-10 minutes’ walk between each stop. And you can eat SO MUCH GELATO! Plus, you’re on vacation, if you want to skip a stop or visit a museum along the way, or split the tour in two and do the Roman Forums and Colosseum separately another day, who’s to stop you??
You rebel, you!
So, let’s start! Obviously, the map is just meant as a general guide, you will probably use a map-app (google map lets you download maps so they’re available offline, another good option for that is an app called maps.me), and there’s plenty of signposts along the way, look for the brown/burgundy signs, they point to attractions.
We will start at Piazza Spagna. This is where you find the Spanish Steps, the beautiful marble staircase made famous through various movies. It’s very easily accessed by the metro stop Spagna. Btw, the metro system in Rome is super-easy! Just two lines, one running north to south (Blue Line), the other east to west (Red Line), and the two lines meet at the central station, Termini.
Spagna is on the Red Line. Word of warning, though, hold on to your belongings, there’s a lot of pickpockets operating at this stop, especially around the ticket booth, so just be a little careful.
You’ll exit the metro stop in a narrow little street that leads straight onto the Piazza, a large square that was formally the site of the Spanish Embassy (hence the name). The staircase is up on your left, can’t miss it! See the church at the top? The Spaniards at the embassy wanted an easy way to reach it, so the first staircase was built back in the 1600’s, but in the 1720’s, the pope of the day (Pope Clement XI) started several beautification projects in Rome, and the staircase was one of them. The architects and builders were summoned, and they created what is still the widest staircase in Europe, with 135 steps top to bottom (though, there are a lot of different counts, I’ve heard everything from 132 to 148. I’m pretty sure the last one was still drunk from the night before though. But walk the steps and count them yourself! Some say there’s a different number on the left and on the right-hand side, some count the bottom “step”, others don’t…you decide for yourself. But the “official” number is 135).
In the spring, they decorate the steps with huge flower displays, it’s a stunning sight and has inspired a lot of artists (and movie makers) over the years. One drunken tourist drove a car down the stairs back in 2007! The carabinieri (police) were not amused, he was arrested and heavily fined.
In 2008, an artist released half a million little red balls down the stairs as a political statement. He claimed each ball represented a lie told by a politician. You should definitely google it, the pictures are pretty epic!
The balls all gathered at the little fountain at the foot of the stairs. This fountain is older than the staircase, it’s called the “Fountain of the Old Boat” and was built in the late 1620’s as a collaboration project between Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father.
Listen, the name Bernini WILL come up while you’re in Rome, so super-quickly:
When it comes to Italian sculptured, we all know about Michelangelo, right? Pieta, David, he was the master! Fun fact, by the way, he never wanted to paint the Sistine chapel! He was a sculptor, not a painter, but there was politics and rivalry involved and he was pretty much strong-armed into it by the Pope. But he signed the contract “Michelangelo the Sculptor”, and then he showed the Pope his butt…
Anyway, the point is, Michelangelo was in a class of his own! A true genius, and when he died in 1564, there were nobody that could come close to fill his shoes. Until, in 1598, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born. The Bernini family were artistic, but when people talk about “Bernini”, there’s only one they mean. And this fountain was the very start of his career. It was built to commemorate a flood where a boat was washed from the Tiber River all the way to the spot where the fountain is found. The water is safe to drink, by the way, so feel free to fill your water bottle here.
Later on the tour you will see another work by Bernini, and if you visit the Borghese Villa you will see many of his sculptures there. I mean, the man was amaaaaaazing!
Okay, so now you know who Bernini was. Movin’ on.
Directly across the street from the Spanish Steps is a street called Via dei Condotti. This is one of the main shopping streets in Rome, so if that’s what you’re after you’re in the right place! You’ll also find Caffe Greco here, one of the oldest café’s in Rome.
If you’re standing at the bottom of the staircase, facing it, to the left there is a famous teahouse, Babington. It was opened back in the 1890’s by a pair of English women who were just about dying for a cuppa! But at the time you could only buy tea in a pharmacy. No self-respecting English woman could stand for such travesty, so the only option was to open their own tearoom. It’s still going strong today. It’s not cheap, but it is very pretty inside (and they are usually nice about letting you use their toilet, if you ask very politely and offer to purchase something).
About public toilets in Rome, there pretty much aren’t any. There’s supposed to be some on Piazza di Spagna, you’ll see the signs, but I have yet to see them actually open to the public. Never visit a café or restaurant without taking advantage of the facilities!
Aaanyway, once again, facing the stairs, turn right and walk in the direction of the large column with the four hooded dudes at the base and the Virgin Mary at the top (you’ll pass the Keats Shelley house just to the right of the stairs, where the famous English poets lived back in 1820. Nice museum inside, worth visiting if you’re interested in poetry and/or literature). This is the Column of the Immaculate Conception, dating to 1857. It’s named for a Catholic dogma that had just been adopted, that while all humans were born with original sin (until Jesus died on the cross for those sins), Mary was born without original sin, because God made an exception since she was to be the mother of Jesus. So, I guess a kind of back-dating? It’s a very complicated issue that divided the church for centuries, but that’s basically what it boils down to.
Anyway, the column. Mary at the top usually has a wreath hanging over her arm, and it was meant to be placed there by the Pope. But one of the first things you notice about the Pope is…he old! So nowadays a fireman is nominated to do it instead.
You will walk straight past the column down the street to the left, where you see the McDonald. This was the first McDonald opened in Rome, and local mothers protested the idea of “fast food” by handing out free pasta outside for months after is opened.
Walk straight and you’ll come out on a main road called Via del Tritoni. Turn right and go down to the bus stop. There you’ll cross the street to the little square (see the ATM on the left? Slowest ATM in Rome!), and you will walk down the street diagonally on your right, Via della Stamperia. Follow it straight, and it will take you straight to the Trevi Fountain.
Guys, I have already said everything there is to say about the fountain in this post, so I won’t repeat myself. Just a tip: it gets VERY crowded around the fountain, but if you’re an early bird, we’re talking before 7 in the morning here, you can still get gorgeous pictures with no people crowding in around. Plus, Rome is a lot cooler in the morning, so an early start is a definite plus.
Now, if you’re standing facing the fountain, immediately on your left is a road, Via delle Muratte, that’s the one you want. Walk straight (past another McDonald, they make a pretty good landmark cause they’re so visible. Plus, free wifi!), you will reach a main road, Via del Corso, cross it and continue straight until you come out on a little square, Piazza di Pietra.
On your left, you will see a row of columns. This is all that’s left of a great temple that stood here, the Temple of Hadrian. You know, Hadrian’s wall in Britain, built to defend the Romans against those vicious Scots? That Hadrian. It’s a good example of how old and new blends in Rome, cause the building behind the columns today? That’s the Stock Exchange.
But look up to the left, there’s a little sandwich shop there called Il Panino Ingegnoso. This is just one of many sandwich shops scattered around Rome, and if you’re starting to feel a little peckish, this is a great place to grab a snack. I recommend the Roman staple, Porchetta.
Porchetta is a pork sandwich, and it’s deliiiiiiicious! The recipe dates back to Roman times, to a small place just south of Rome called Ariccia where they’ve been making it for 3000 years! It’s a pork roast rolled up with salt, garlic and a special herb blend, slow cooked for 8-12 hours, and then served thinly sliced on plain bread. The Romans are all about simplicity when it comes to Porchetta, they don’t want anything else but meat and bread so as not to compromise the flavor, but they will make allowances for tourists if you ask nicely for some mayo.
Okay, back to the walking tour (I’m seriously getting hungry! I’d kill for a Porchetta.)
Keep walking straight past Hadrian’s temple, following Via dei Pastini, you will pass several nice restaurants, but since you’ve just had a snack we won’t linger. Keep walking straight until you come out onto Piazza della Rotonda, and you have the Pantheon on your left.
This is my favourite building in the whole world!
Honestly, I love this building so much, it’s just…I want to hug it! You know those weird people who marry the Eiffel Tower? I’d marry the Pantheon. I mean, it wouldn’t be a physical relationship, maybe some light petting but no sexy-play-time. I’m not a weirdo.
Shut up, I’m not.
But this building is so amazing that I really hope I can convey it to you properly.
Okay, here goes (way to put pressure on myself):
We know there were temples on this site even before the current building was created back around 100AD. That means that the current building is over 1900 years old! I know it says Agrippa on the front (specifically, it says “Agrippa made this”), but that’s a reference to the original temple on this site, the current building was built by Hadrian. The guy from the temple we just came from, remember?
From the outside it can look deceptively small and simple, and part of that was intentional, it’s thought that they wanted to create an optic illusion that deceived you into thinking it was smaller than it is so that you were surprised and amazed by the space you entered when coming in. In fact, the building was set on a kind of plinth, so you couldn’t see the dome from the ground level, it was a surprise when you entered. The reason the building isn’t elevated now isn’t that the plinth was removed, it’s just that the street level of Rome has RISEN since Roman times. Some places by as much as 16 meters! Rome is built on Rome, as they say. So the ancient romans would have walked on streets that are several meters below those you walk on today. But even today, the Pantheon is impressive, though that optical illusion can easily trick you into thinking it’s not that big a deal. To really understand just how big the building is, take a look at it from roof-level:
Pantheon means All the Gods. In most temples in ancient Rome, only the priests or priestesses could actually enter the temple, but in the Pantheon, everyone could enter and worship. Though the building is used as a church today, the floor and ceiling, as well as the alcoves around the walls, are original to the building. There would likely have been a statue of Jupiter, the main god, in a central spot, and then a minor god in each alcove.
I have to mention the floor! When we talk about roman flooring, we usually picture intricate mosaic tilework, and yes, they are works of art. They were also fairly cheap! That’s strange to us today, but think about it. The mosaics were made up of chips and offcuts of the marble quarries up in Carrera, 380 kilometers away. The chippings were easy to transport. It was the big slabs of marble that were expensive, because of the work involved with quarrying them, shaping and transport all the way to Rome.
I mean, we’re talking this distance here:
So, when you walk across the floor that’s been there for almost 2000 years, I hope you’ll bear that in mind.
Now, the floor is flat. Honestly, you’d expect that after 2000 years there would be grooves or something where so many people have walked over it, but there isn’t! It’s flat, you’d swear to it, yet if you put a marble anywhere on the floor, it will unerringly find its way to these little holes, spaced out all over the floor.
These holes are part of a drainage system underneath the building. It’s needed because if you look up you will see the oculus, the eye, of the great dome, directly above you.
The oculus is 9 meters in diameter, that’s big enough that two double decker buses can drive side by side through it! This is the only source of light inside the building, but thanks to the shape of the dome, it’s enough. But on a rainy day, the water will fall right in.
Not a problem! The drainage system leads the water away. And I imagine it would have been very useful back in Roman times, when worship often meant some form of animal sacrifice. Self-cleaning floor!!!
Back to the dome, though. It’s what the building is famous for, after all. It is 43,3 meters tall, and 43,3 meters in diameter (that’s 142 ft, in case you were wondering), and form a perfect hemisphere. Honestly, it’s so perfect that WE DON’T KNOW HOW THEY MADE IT! We THINK they built some elaborate scaffolding, but how were they able to be so exact without the modern technology we have today? It’s SO precise, it should not have been possible, yet here it is!
The decorative indentations not only help spread the light from the oculus, it also keeps the weight down (it still weighs over 4500 metric TONS). The brick walls are 6 meters thick to support the weight of the dome. And, this is going to blow your mind: To this day, it is STILL the largest unsupported concrete dome IN THE WORLD!
Okay, we have talked about the dome, we have talked about the floor, let’s talk about the Pantheon columns. For some reason, that’s my favorite bit (there’s a phallus-joke in there somewhere).
The Corinthian columns (that means they have floral decorations on top. Need an easy way to remember the different types of columns? Just look at those proud erections and think “dick”! Or rather, D-I-C. Doric is the plainest, with just a minimalist flat top. The I stands for Ionic, and they have scroll-decorations on the top, and finally Corinthian are the most elaborately decorated, with flowers.) are all original, apart from the three on the left hand side, they were replaced in the 18th century due to damage. They are made out of SINGLE SLABS of grey or pink granite, they’re not stacked columns like so many you see. Each column weigh 55 metric tons, yet (another mind blowing fact!) the stone doesn’t come from Italy!
The columns were quarried in EGYPT, then transported all the way to Rome!!!
Let me put this into perspective for you. In 1833, Egypt “gave” France two 3000 year old obelisks. The first one was transported over, it’s still found on Place de la Concorde in Paris, and transporting it was so difficult that they were like “Um, you know what? Why don’t you keep the second one? Yeah, totally, it’ll be great. Twinsies!”
Seriously! Yet the Romans didn’t seem to have any trouble 1700 years earlier!
That was my mind being blown all over again. Not an easy sound to spell.
One final amazing thing about the Pantheon (I know, I’ve gone on and on, we’re almost done, I promise. And then there’s ice cream!) is this: The pantheon is built from different types of concrete, made with a cement using limestone and volcanic ash, which was incredibly strong and durable. And after the fall of Rome (or the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern lasted much longer) in the 5th century, WE FORGOT HOW TO MAKE IT!
Seriously! This was a technique that played a huge part in making Rome what it was, and the knowledge of it was just LOST! It took a THOUSAND years before we came up with cement and concrete that could rival that of the Romans. And the dome?? It wasn’t until the mid-1400’s that anyone even TRIED to match the splendor of the Pantheon. Brunelleschi in Florence was given the task to build a dome on the great cathedral in Florence (which had been under construction since the 1290’s, so about time they finished it), and the first thing he did? He came to Rome to study the Pantheon. But he couldn’t build the same kind of dome in Florence, because THEY DIDN’T KNOW HOW THE ROMANS DID IT! Like I said, we still don’t, so he had to come up with his own technique.
Michelangelo, when given the task to build the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica for the Vatican? The first thing he did was study the Pantheon. Then he studied Brunelleschi’s dome, which is slightly bigger than the Pantheon (44m in diameter against the Pantheons’ 43,3. It’s a brick dome though, not a concrete one). Michelangelo had been ordered to build a bigger dome for the Vatican (cause the Pope had to have a bigger one than the Medici upstarts of Florence), but his respect for the architects of the Pantheon (and Brunelleschi, whose achievement really was the start of the Renaissance), led him to create a dome that was “only” 41,5 meters in diameter. Remember I mentioned that he had a slightly confrontational relationship with the Pope?
And I mean, what were they gonna do, pull it down and build another one?
Anyway, I’m sure you’re sick and tired of me talking about the Pantheon, and I like to THINK that I’ve covered the most important stuff. I mean, I could list some of the famous people buried inside, I could give you the details about how it was taken over by the Catholic church, and how it used to be covered in marble and bronze which was taken and used for other buildings around Rome, or that the bronze door is also original to the building though it was “renovated (read:de-pagan’d) in the 1500’s, but if I don’t shut up now I may as well rename this a Pantheon-tour.
So instead, GELATO! There are maaaany gelato shops around the Pantheon (or indeed all over Rome), but the quality varies wildly. Top tip for determining if this is a good gelato-shop is this:
First, check the pistachio-flavor. If it looks very green, then they most likely use artificial flavorings with green colorant. It should look dirty green, with a hint of yellow.
Second, any reputable gelato-shop will let you taste flavors, usually 3 different types, before you decide what you want. Try the raspberry! It’s a flavor that you just can’t fake, it WILL taste too sweet and artificial, almost soapy, if they don’t use real raspberries. And if you DO get it right, it’s yuuummm!
My first go-to gelateria near the Pantheon is Della Palma. The quality is very good, but you go there as much for the sheer volume of flavors! There’s 150 different flavors of gelato to choose from! 150!!! They have all the normal ones you’d expect, but also olive oil flavor, they used to have a beer flavor, though I haven’t seen it in a while. I’ve seen tomato flavor and garlic flavor. The basil flavor is not too out there (it’s delicious combined with lemon sorbet and mint chocolate chip! Try it!), and they also have a good selection of soy-gelato, great for vegans and lactose intolerants. AND, there’s a toilet in the back! Use it!
An ice cream as big as my head? Why not. No shame in the gelato game!
The second place I have to mention is Giolitti, supposedly the oldest gelateria in Rome. Very upscale and fancy, it’s more artisanal than Della Palma, their fruit flavors are great. It’s a classic in Rome, but the lines can be quite long.
By the way, standard gelateria rules are, you go to the till first, say how many scoops you want, pay, and they give you a receipt which you take to the counter before you make a decision on flavor. Don’t say you will sit down to eat, not even outside, because they WILL charge extra for it! Instead, get the gelato, walk back to the Pantheon and sit down by the fountain to eat it. Yum!
Next stop is Piazza Navona, the most beautiful square in Rome. It’s big, and you’ll see that it’s almost horseshoe-shaped (looong horseshoe, but still). This is because it used to be a race track in ancient Rome! Now the piazza is dominated by two small fountains at either end, a big fountain in the middle and the huge marble church just off the center.
The church is called Sant Agnese in Agone (not agony, though she was a martyr. She was just from a place called Agone). Agnese was an early Christian woman who, despite having many suiters, wanted to dedicate her life to God. This (after complaints from one of her suitors, the bastard!) eventually led to her being dragged naked through the streets of Rome to a brothel on the site where the church now stands. While she prayed, her hair grew unnaturally fast to cover her nakedness. Men who tried to rape her were struck blind, so eventually they gave up and she was killed.
Here’s the thing, though. The church was built by an architect called Borromini (not a Lord of the Rings character, despite the name), BUT another artist wanted the job.
Remember Bernini??? The dude with the boat-fountain by the Spanish steps? Well, HE wanted the job of designing the church, so when it went to Borromini, he was not a happy camper.
As a consolation price, he was given the task of designing the fountain in front of the church (with the big obelisk on top. You know, they say there are more obelisks in Rome than there are left in Egypt. There’s another cool example behind the Pantheon, it’s another Bernini-statue, this one of an elephant, with an obelisk sitting on his back atop a saddle. Because of reasons. At least the Catholic church didn’t destroy them when they moved in, they just plopped a religious symbol on top, usually a cross or a dove. I guess they felt that counteracted the pagan symbols below), the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
The four men on each corner each represents what at the time was thought to be the biggest rivers in the world. Ganges, Nile, Danube and Rio de la Plata. At the time, they didn’t know the source of the river Nile, so he has his head covered. But take a look at Rio de la Plata. You can’t miss him. He’s the guy facing Borromini’s church, cringing and lifting his hand in disgust to shield against the sight in front of him.
Well, yes. Yes it is. The fountain was actually completed before the church, so it’s highly unlikely that it was done deliberately, but there’s a little part of me that wants to believe that Bernini did it deliberately, just to be a dick.
Also, take a look at the lizard-like creatures. They were supposed to be crocodiles, but Bernini had never seen one so he designed them based on descriptions alone. Turns out, that’s not an easy thing to do.
The smaller fountain on the north end is the Neptune fountain, but walk down to the south end, past the fountain of the Moors (or as I call it, the fountain of the delectable butt), and from here you will make your way down to Largo di Torre Argentina. The name comes from “Argentoratum”, the roman name for the city of Strasbourg. Nothing to do with South America.
We’re over halfway, guys, well done for keeping up so far!
Largo di Torre Argentina is a large square, from here you have easy access down to Campo de’ Fiori, the Jewish quarter or you can cross the river to Trastevere.
However, we’re focusing on the square itself, which is actually the site of 4 roman temples, a roman political meeting place AND an 18th century opera house. There used to be an ancient roman theatre here, but you can’t really see it. In the middle ages the stones were used to erect other building around the square, so nothing remains of the original structure.
You will see the ruins as soon as you enter the square, and once again you can see how the street level of Rome has risen since Roman times.
This was the Curia of Pompey (nothing to do with Pompeii. I know, it’s confusing), and here people came to worship at the temples, and the men gathered for political debate. This is said to be the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated, stabbed in the back by his close friend Brutus (whose mother was Caesar’s mistress, and some sources say Brutus might have been Caesar’s son! Oooooh, that’s some serious soap opera material!) because Julius Caesar was positioning himself to be Emperor, which would be the end of the Roman Republic (that’s right, up until then Rome had essentially been a democracy. Sort of. I mean, only a few, wealthy (male) landowners had a vote, but still, it was a republic and they were as fiercely proud of it as any American is of theirs today. Yet the assassination of Julius Caesar sparked a civil war which ended with Octavian (Julius Caesar’s nephew) as the very first Roman Emperor (he changed his name to Augustus, but it’s the same dude), and the start of the Roman Empire.
Okay, history lesson over. Here’s the main reason to visit Largo di Torre Argentina: The cat sanctuary! It’s right at the edge of the ruins, it’s free to visit and you can go help socialize the cats!
The cats love the ruins, probably because tourists can’t enter them (they are closed, I’m afraid), but you CAN stand at the edge and count cats. My record was 14, but I’ve also walked away after seeing NO cats out in the ruins. You’re more likely to see them at night, during the day they are likely to sleep in the shade, so they are harder to make out. In the 90’s, Italy passed a law that said that if 4 or more cats inhabit a structure, they can’t be evicted, so the cats are essentially squatters. Love it!
It’s a no-kill sanctuary, so do visit to support the cause, they really do need the money. Like I said, it’s free to visit, but you can support them by buying something from the shop.
Okay, if you can tear yourself from the fur balls, make your way down towards Piazza Venezia. I suggest you follow Via del Plebiscito until you enter the square. This was my favorite route as a tour leader, because you round a corner and get a proper WOW-moment. I would literally stop and listen for the gasps, and I was rarely disappointed.
It really is impressive, as you enter the square the Victor Emanuel II Monument towers over you, white marble gleaming and at night it is lit up beautifully. I call it a monument, but it is a huge structure, there’s a museum inside dedicated to the unification of Italy (Short version: Napoleon happened, he pretty much went to war on Europe and he was VERY successful for a while! When he lost the battle of Waterloo (cue the Abba song) in 1814, a lot of countries realized that the old ways of having countries loosely made up of independent city states wasn’t strong enough. Another Napoleon might come along, and this time who knew if they could win? So changes were made, and in Italy this process of unification lasted for decades until 1861 when Rome was declared the capitol of the Kingdom of Italy, with Victor Emmanuel the 2nd being the first king of a unified country. If you are facing the monument look up directly to the left. See the big building there with the winged lion? That is the symbol of Venice (Venezia), and this was the embassy of the Republic of Venice! Until they joined the Kingdom of Italy they were an independent nation with an embassy in Rome, which is why this square is called Piazza Venezia. In fact, Venice didn’t join the kingdom until 1866, 5 years after the rest of the country).
The monument was built in 1911, 50 years after the unification was a fact. The monument is 135 meters wide, and Victor Emanuel on the horse is HUGE, it is said that his moustache alone is 2 meters side to side. I have never actually measured it, but I believe it. When the statue was created it was the largest bronze statue in the world. The plinth is hollow, and contains a table with 12 chairs around it, it has been used for political meetings and parties. Legend has it that Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s HIGHLY controversial former prime minister would hold “bonga-bonga”-parties (parties where he famously had underaged prostitutes attend. Interesting character, look him up) inside the plinth…
There is also an eternal flame at the front, dedicated to the “unknown soldier” who fell during WWI.
However, impressive and beautiful as the monument is, the Romans themselves aren’t big fans. Locally the structure is known as the Wedding Cake or the Typewriter. You can kind of see why…
Now we’re on the home stretch. Turn left and aim for the path between the green area past the Momument to Victor Emmanuel the 2nd, and the big catholic church (Santa Maria di Loreto). You will see a tall, intricately decorated column.
This is Trajan’s column. Trajan was a Roman emperor from 98 to 117AD, and the column was erected to celebrate a great military victory (the Dacian wars). You can see the story of the campaign in the carvings, with the Emperor the recurring figure. The column is 35 meters tall (including the plinth) and 4 meters in diameter, but the really cool thing (I think so, anyway) is that it’s hollow! There’s an internal staircase that leads to the top. See the little holes? They provided light to the stairs inside. It’s also a memorial, Trajan’s ashes are buried under the column.
The statue on the top of the column isn’t Trajan, he was replaced with the current statue back in 1587, so the figure you see is Saint Peter.
You used to be able to climb the column, but with so many tourists visiting Rome every year (over 12 million every year!), it was just too much wear and tear on it, so they closed it off a few years back.
Trajan was a great emperor, the Empire flourished under his rule. He also invented something that I, and every other woman out there, can be hugely grateful for!
He invented the shopping center! See that massive half-circle shaped multi-story building towards the left? That’s Trajan’s Market, and was an indoor market place, like a Roman Forum but indoor. It’s likely that parts of the building was also used as administrative offices for Trajan’s staff, but you are basically looking at the world’s very first shopping center. It was 6 stories high and contained 150 different shops, offices and apartments.
There’s a museum inside, Museum of Imperial Forums, and from here you can visit parts of the market. Very interesting, and a lot less crowded than the Colosseum…
Now, if you turn around so you have your back to the market, there is a little pathway that will take you over the Trajan forum and back to the main road. This road is called Via dei Fori Imperiali, and Mussolini had it built back in 1932, supposedly so he could have a view of the Colosseum from his office window. Cause he cray cray. I mean, he demolished large parts of the forums, this was a heavily populated area so in the process of building he destroyed several tenements, making almost 1000 people homeless. At least three convents/monestaries were demolished for the construction, and so much archaeological data and historical artifacts were lost that a poor history lover could weep.
Because he wanted a VIEW!
Still, it makes for a nice walk, I guess. Just know as you’re walking down the road towards the Colosseum that you are literally walking over history.
Okay, rant over.
So, as you might have understood, there are actually MANY forums (fora? Fori?). A forum was a place for people to come together, to shop, socialize, worship and discuss the issues of the day. Back in the day they would have been teeming with life. This will give you an insight into what the forums would have looked like:
As we are walking towards the Colosseum we are passing several different forums, dedicated to the Emperor who had it built. Trajan’s forum was the last great forum created, around 113AD. We can’t know why they stopped building forums after this, but it could be as simple as they ran out of room! Or money, the empire did start to decline after Trajan.
As you come back to Via dei Fori Imperiali and start walking down, the first forum on your right is the Forum of Caesar. There’s a statue of him in front there, I always think it looks like he’s taking a selfie. Just pop a phone in his hand and he’s good to go. This forum was an extension of the Roman Forum (which isn’t part of the Imperial Forums, since it was built before Rome became an empire), around 40BC. As mentioned, Caesar was never actually emperor himself, but he was well on his way to becoming one when he was killed. The placement of this forum was no coincident. It is nestled in behind the Victor Emmanuel-Monument, which is actually built on one of the Hills of Rome, Capitoline hill. It’s not very visible now, but as I’ve mentioned before, the street level in Roman time was lower than what we have today so it would have been more prominent 2000 years ago. And Capitoline Hill is where we get the word Capitol from, since this was the site of the Curia, one of the ruling bodies of ancient Rome.
Now, stretching from Caesar’s forum, along the edge of the Trajan Forum, all the way to the tall buildings over on the left, you have the Forum of Augustus.
Be aware that the view might be blocked by outdoor seats. This is part of a really cool film-project that runs until November 11th, where you can sit outside and watch a movie about the old forums reflected on the buildings themselves. It really makes history come to life, I’m a huge fan!
This site has all the details, including the times for the show, and tickets.
(My favorite is the Forum of Augustus show, but it’s worth getting the combination ticket and watching both. The shows are in the evening after dark, so bring a coat or scarf since the temperature will drop.)
Augustus was , as mentioned earlier, the first Emperor of Rome, and the nephew of Julius Caesar. This forum had a great temple in it, the Temple of Mars (Roman god of War), since Augustus became emperor when he and Mark Antony (the dude from Cleopatra! You know? Classic movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? If not, shame on you! Go watch it immediately!) won the battle of Philippi, defeating Cassius and Brutus, and avenging the murder of Caesar.
Not much remains of the Forum of Nerva, which is the next one you pass. It was a very small forum, used mainly to connect the other forums which is why it is often called a transitional forum. It was built between 85-97AD, Emperor Domitian started the build, but it was completed by his successor Nerva, who gave his own name to it.
Via dei Fori Imperiali runs right over the forum, covering most of it, but we do know that there was a temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva here. She was the Roman goddess of wisdom, arts and strategy. She had a fondness for spinning and weaving, and one of the stories about her tells how she came upon a mortal woman, Arachne, who was a very talented weaver. So talented, in fact, that the goddess grew jealous, and turned Arachne into a spider, forcing her to spin and weave in dark corners. Minerva’s followers would always leave a tiny flaw in their art, so as not to make the goddess jealous.
Aaaaand on the right, you will now have the Roman Forum.
This is a pretty big and confusing area, I can only recommend that you take a guided tour to really understand what you’re seeing here. Where the other forums were built on the orders of a specific emperor, the Roman Forum began long, long before this. All the way back to around 750BC! That’s when it’s believed that this area was drained (it was a swamp at the time) to create a meeting place for two settlements, one on Palantine Hill (you can see it towering over the forum in the background), ruled by Romulus, founder and the first king of Rome, and the other on Capitoline Hill, ruled by Titus Tatius, ruler of Sabine and later joint ruler of Rome.
Over the next 700 years the forum changed many times, buildings going up and being torn down, so there are many, many layers of history to explore here.
I literally cannot cover everything there is to say about the forum in a blog post, not even one that’s looking more and more like a novel, so I will just list a few sites you can look out for:
The Via Sacra:
This is an ancient road that runs from Capitoline hill through the Roman Forum, to the Colosseum. It passed some of the most important sacred sites in ancient Rome, hence the name. When the roman army returned from campaigns abroad, the triumphal parade would follow the Via Sacra through the forum. It dates back to approximately the 5th century BC.
Look at the picture of the forum above, it’s right in the center. Only 8 ionic (See the scroll decorations at the top?) columns remain of this temple, dedicated to Saturn, one of the head gods for the Romans. His father was the god of the sky, his mother was the goddess of the earth, and he himself fathered many gods you’ve probably heard of, like Jupiter (who became king of the gods), Neptune and Pluto, to name a few.
Every December the Roman’s would celebrate him with a weeklong festival called Saturnalia, which involved lots of food, gift-giving and partying. Sound familiar?
While the temple dates back to approximately 500BC, in front of it you will see a covering which shields the Altar of Saturn. This pre-dates the temple by at least 100 years, and was used to offer sacrifices to the god. This may have included human sacrifice, but more likely it was simply a place to light candles and kindling (the written records refer to a sacrifice of “phôta” which can mean either man or light).
Vesta was another of Saturn’s children, she was the goddess of family, hearth and home. She was also a virgin, and her priestesses had to be too. On pain of death! Her circular temple could only be entered by the Vestal Virgins (priestesses), who tended the sacred fire within (her hearth), which could never be extinguished. She was a hugely popular goddess, and some say she was the origin of the Virgin Mother, Maria, in Christianity. I mean, stories about her include that she miraculously impregnated a human virgin by making a penis appear in a lit fireplace…
Anyway, the Vestal Virgins were selected from the upper class of society, and had to stay absolutely chaste for 30 years. They were full-time priestesses, if they allowed the sacred fire they tended go out, they would get whipped. If they were discovered to be less than chaste, the man would be exiled from Rome but the priestess would be buried alive in a field called the “field of wickedness” …
Behind the temple, there is a row of statues, marking the site of the House of the Vestals, where the Vestal Virgins lived when not performing their duties at the temple. We don’t know when the first house was built, since it was destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64AD and since rebuilt. In fact, the latest addition of the house was used as a residence long after the fall of Rome, all the way up until the 11/12th century.
This is one of the most visible remains in the forum, the three remaining columns are so tall they really stand out. The temple was built in 495BC, dedicated to Castor and Pollux, twin brothers, probably better known under the name Gemini. This mythology was adopted by the Romans from Greek mythology, so the lines of who, what and where are a bit blurred, but basically: They had the same mother, but different fathers (hey, if cats can do it, why not gods?), Pollux was the son of Jupiter (Zeus, in the original Greek version), which Castor was the son of the King of Troy, making one twin divine and the other mortal, but they were so close that when Castor was killed, Pollux pleaded with his father to let him share his divinity with his brother, binding them together forever.
According to the mythology, the twins were raised in Sparta, in the household of Castor’s father, and this gave birth to the Spartan tradition of dual kingship, so if the country went to war, one king would go to battle while the other would stay behind to rule. Because of this, Gemini (or Dioskouroi, as they were also known), were named the protectors of Sparta.
This is a great landmark in the Roman Forum, very visible and intact. It is one of the newer monuments on the site, dating back to approx. 200AD. It was built to celebrate the Roman triumph over the Parthians back in the 190’s AD (there were two campaigns, I could list the exact dates but would you remember them? Honestly?).
Severus had two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who also fought in the campaign, and originally both their names were inscribed on the arch, but after Severus’ death they ruled as joint emperors until Caracalla had Geta murdered, and every mention of his name deleted from all monuments and buildings. You thought you had sibling issues??
It’s a stunning monument, very elaborately decorated with no less than three archways (Severus and his two sons), not to be confused with the Arch of Titus, down next to the Colosseum, with “only” one arch.
As we walk down the Via dei Fori Imperiali in the direction of the giant red brick building on the right hand side, look up towards Palatine Hill. This was THE address in ancient Rome. If you were anyone of any import, you had a villa there. In fact, Palatine is where we get the word “palace” from (think “palatial” and it makes more sence). This was where the original settlement of Rome was, and it’s where the origin story of Rome takes place.
So the story is that a Vestal Virgin was visited by the god Mars, and hanky panky was had (BAD Vestal Virgin). She had twins, and because she happened to be the daughter of a former Latian (pre-Roman) king, that kinda-sorta made them demigod princes, which made the current king kinda grumpy. So grumpy, in fact, that he ordered them killed.
BUT, the servant given the job of killing them instead took them to the river Tiber and abandoned them on the banks, where the river god, Tiberinus, found them and rescued them. He gave them to a she-wolf, and the most famous symbol of Rome is the twins suckling the wolf.
Later, though, they were adopted by a shepherd. BUT, one day Remus was captured by the Grumpy King (his name was actually Amulius, but I like Grumpy better), who suspected their identity (not sure how, I would imagine they had changed a little since newborn). Romulus joined forces with their grandfather (father of mummy Vestal not-quite-Virgin) to rescue Remus, kill Grumpy and reinstate grandpa as king.
After all this, Romulus and Remus wanted to have a city of their own, but they couldn’t decide on where to build it. Romulus wanted Palatine Hill, Remus wanted Aventine Hill (south of Palatine), and this led to a massive game of “anything your Hill can do, my Hill can do better”, which ended with Remus being killed.
So Romulus got his way, and Rome (yes, he named it after himself) was founded on Palatine Hill.
Anyway, if you have the time and you’re interested in history, you should definitely take a guided tour of Palatine Hill, it’s pretty amazing! Just wear good shoes and bring plenty of water. There’s quite a bit of walking involved and it gets pretty hot, depending on the time of your visit.
Now, SUPER important tip coming up, so pay attention!
After you pass the Roman Forum, but BEFORE the big church next to the giant red Basilica, there is a little slip road down to the left. You will see a little ticket booth. Do you see it? Do you? WELL, this is where you buy tickets for the Roman Forum. BUT, what a lot of people don’t realize is that they also sell tickets for the Colosseum. Since the Forum’s are a lot less visited than the Colosseum you can save yourself a LOT of time queueing by getting your ticket here rather than going down to the main Colosseum ticket office!
Okay, and on we go.
That big red brick building I’ve mentioned several times already is the Maxentius Basilica. It is HUGE and was built in 312AD, so relatively late. The arches inside are massive, it’s truly awe inspiring to step inside. I mean, these architects and engineers had SKILLS! Behind it, but not visible from the road is the ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome, which was the largest temple in ancient Rome. Dedicated to the goddess of love (Amor) and the goddess of Rome (Roma, amor spelled backwards), it was built around 120AD, but all that remains is one apsis. Still, the size gives a truly incredible impression of the size of the original building. While you can’t see it from the road, you can see it from the Colosseum, so look out for it!
They are doing some restoration and reconstruction of the site at the moment, so I am honestly not sure if it is open to visitors (it can change from month to month), but at least you know what it is as you pass on your way down to the main event: The Colosseum!
Finally, last stop on this walking tour! Are you still with me? Exhausted? Ready for a giant pizza or plate of pasta?
Well, I won’t write a whole book about the Colosseum, mainly because a lot of people have beaten me to it, so this is just a short-ish introduction. I’m assuming you will all take guided tours anyway, so this might be a waste of time but I’ve gotten this far so I may as well finish.
Big breath, and here we go!
Once upon a time there was an emperor. His name was Nero, and he was kind of a dick. In fairness, his mother was totes cray-cray. Her brother was Caligula, the mad emperor, said to have had an incestuous relationship with his sisters. She had a son, Lucius (who would become Nero), but it’s unknown if the father was Caligula or her husband, who died shortly after anyway. She later tried to kill Caligula, but the plot failed and she was exiled instead. When Caligula was eventually killed she returned to Rome and tried to seduce the (married) future Emperor, who would have nothing to do with her. So she remarried to someone else, but her new husband died too, rumors said she’d killed him for his estate, and left her a very wealthy woman. She then seduced one of the Emperor’s advisers and had him put her forward as a candidate of marriage for the new (and newly widowed) emperor.
Who was her uncle, by the way!
So, she married her uncle and became empress of Rome. She then went on a bit of a murder spree, killing anyone who might oppose her, while manipulating her uncle/husband to adopting her son and making him his successor. Once done, she murdered him. Guess it wasn’t a love match.
So now Lucius becomes Emperor Nero, and he soon begins to resist his mother’s control, until finally, he kills her.
So yeah. Happy families. No wonder Nero was a little messed up. He was massively unpopular, although probably not as bad as rumors would have it. I mean, sure, he killed his mother and had a DEEP hatred of all Christians (he’s said to have stated that Rome’s streets would always be lit as long as there were Christians to burn…).
He was also a performer, though not a very good one. He needed Simon Cowell to take him down a few pegs, but nobody will tell a man who can literally have you killed that his performance stinks. So he performed as a poet and musician and actor to great applause and quiet groans and eye-rolls. He started massive building projects all over the Roman empire, and paid for it by raising taxes (not a great way to gain popularity). There’s lots of stories about him, like how he made his favorite horse a senator, or how he would celebrate Saturnalia by crouching in a cage covered in animal skins. When let lose, he would attach the genitals of men and women bound to stakes around the room.
He married a male former slave, taking the role as the bride, and doing the bow-chicka-bow-wow in open view of everyone, which outraged the people (they weren’t opposed to homosexuality, as such, but to take the role of the bride meant he was submissive in the union (so, the bottom), and for an emperor that was unheard of).
Rumors also said that he started the fire of Rome in 64AD, and then sang while the city burned. Some say that he played the fiddle, but that’s an instrument that hadn’t been invented yet, so the singing is more realistic, though in reality he probably wasn’t even in the city when the fire happened.
Did I say that this was going to be short? Yeeeeah, I lied. Also, that’s not really a picture of the fire in 64AD, in case you were wondering. It’s another lie. I’m deeply ashamed, only not really, lol.
ANYWAY, so this fire, it eradicated huge parts of the city, 60-70% of the city was just laid to waste completely. Nero, attempting to shift blame away from himself, blamed the already unpopular Christians, but this backfired since his hatred of the Christians were well known so they were too convenient a scapegoat.
He then made the tactical error of declaring that instead of rebuilding houses in the most densely populated areas right by the Roman Forums and the foot of the Palatine hill, an area where over 20 000 people had been left homeless, he would have the area cleared and build a new palace there.
Not a good move!
Resistance started getting fiercer, fighting broke out in the outer parts of the Empire, including Germany and Spain, and rumors started that Nero was to be declared an enemy of Rome. He fled to a villa outside the city, where he received a letter saying that armed soldiers were on their way to arrest him and have him dragged to the senate where he would be beaten to death.
The letter was false, the senate hadn’t issued any such orders, but Nero believed it, and he ordered his servants to help him commit suicide. He fell on his own sword, and supposedly, his last words were “What an artist dies in me!”
This led to a political vacuum which again led a very tumultuous year, 69AD, where no fewer than 4 different emperors took and subsequently lost the throne.
The last of the four was Vespasian, he stuck and ruled for ten years.
Now, Vespasian had a challenge. Emperors weren’t exactly popular by now, people were being extremely vocal about politics, which no politician enjoys, and he was establishing a while new dynasty with no ties to past rulers. That’s a pretty big marketing-challenge, right there.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE COLOSSEUM????
Yeah, I hear you, and I’m coming to it, promise!
So, Vespasian started many propaganda campaigns to increase his popularity, then he started constructions. One challenge was what to do with the site of Nero’s palace. Obviously he couldn’t finish it, but he needed something, so BRAINSTORM!
Why don’t we take 2 Greek amphitheaters and put them together to form a giant oval? Insta-Roman theater!
Construction started in 72AD and took 8 years to complete. It was called the Flavian Amphitheater (Flavian was Vespasian’s family name), was 48 meters tall, could seat 55000 people and it was AWESOME!
I mean, there’s so many cool things about this building! Unfortunately, fires, earthquakes and, well, let’s just say that they weren’t very sentimental about ancient monuments in the middle ages, has led to the interior of the Colosseum to be in pretty poor shape, but if you look at this photo of another (much smaller and only two levels) Roman theater in Turkey, where the interior is in much better condition, it should help you visualize what the Colosseum would have looked like:
The Colosseum is 189×156 meters long/wide, it’s three levels tall and each level has 80 arches. The upper levels would have statues in each archway, and they would have removable heads and arms so they could change identity and stances. They would also be dressed up in the armor of the most popular gladiators of any given time, so it would be like a window to the games happening inside.
The ground level arches are all exits and entrances, sometimes called vomatoriums because when over 50 000 people were exiting they would essentially spew out of every opening.
Every been to a stadium concert or event? How long did it take to exit?
The Colosseum could be emptied completely in less than 8 minutes!
The lower ranked you were, the higher up you would be seated (so farther away from the action), with senators and ruling classes seated at ground level, free men and merchants on the middle level and women and slaves aaaall the way to the top. And by now I am sure you’ve experienced the heat they would have endured on a hot day.
But they had a solution for that too! You see, they brought in sailors to install a massive awning (called a velarium) that could be pulled out to provide shade for the people sitting below. Ingenious!
It was free to enter the arena, and free bread was handed out to the spectators, so you could essentially camp out there on game days.
The ground in the arena was covered in sand to absorb the blood of the gladiators. Gladiators were mostly slaves, but there were often cash prizes, and while slaves’ winnings were taken by their owners, free men could also sign up. They had to undergo training at gladiator schools (had to make sure they could provide a show!) and sign a document saying that they didn’t mind being killed by any number of weapons. It’s interesting, though, that though a lot of the fights were to the death, there was also a lot of theater going on, much like modern wrestling. For example, you were unlikely to be killed by a sword, a spear was far more likely. The swords were banged together to create “battle-noise”, essentially the soundtrack for the fight, but this would leave the swords blunt. The gladiators would also wear very distinct leather armor, so people could identify their favorite from afar. The armor was definitely for show rather than protection, the Romans knew that sex sells!
But there would be little hiding places under the armor, and the gladiators would have little bags made from animal intestines filled with animal blood hidden in strategic spots, so if the fight was getting a little boring, they could puncture one and “get hit”. A little blood spurt, and suddenly the audience wakes up again.
And it was important to win the favor of the audience, because more often than not, the winner of the fight wasn’t the last one standing, but the fighter gaining the most support and applause.
Have you seen the movie Gladiator? I won’t say that it’s historically accurate, but it gets some things right. Like the gladiator fights where suddenly hatches open up and wild animals spring out? That really did happen. And the animals were imported from the far reaches of the empire, which meant they were a lot more valuable than the gladiator! If the gladiator didn’t gain supporters and win money for their owner, they could very well end up as animal food.
There were whole cults around the gladiators, their supporters were as rabid as today’s football fans. Women would pay outrageous sums to spend a night with their favorite fighter, and if they performed particularly well, the emperor could grant the gladiator freedom, usually accompanied by quite a bit of money and land.
While Vespasian built the Colosseum, he died the year before it was completed, and it was actually his successor Titus who held the inauguration games in 80AD. It lasted over 100 days, and over 9000 animals were killed as part of the games. There would also have been gladiator combat and executions, but no records say how many were killed.
A lot of Christians were killed in the Colosseum, and because of this, the Catholic church view it as a martyr memorial site, and while a lot of monuments around Rome were raided for marble and bronze (the name Colosseum comes from a “colossus” statue of Nero that used to stand on a site right next to the Colosseum, but the statue was melted down for the bronze in the middle ages) and other material that was since used to build the Vatican and other buildings around the city of Rome, the Colosseum would likely not be as well preserved as it is today without the church’s intervention over the last 1500 years.
And that’s it! I mean, there’s lots more I can say about Rome, so many more sights and information I would love to give you, but we are at over 10 000 words and this post is already 3 weeks late in the making, so I think I’m going to have to stop here. If you have any questions or there’s anything that’s unclear, please do leave a comment below, I will do my very best to answer.
Enjoy your visit to Rome, the eternal city!