6th Oct 2014
Today is Monday, a day where most museums in Rome are closed. It’s a strange concept to me, no British museum would ever dream of losing an entire day per week of revenue. I am suitably jealous of my Italian museum-floor staff counterparts for their guaranteed day of rest!
Thankfully, I have studied my guidebook in advance and have already planned a rewarding, museum-free day that will nevertheless keep me busy for hours.
First stop of the day is to reacquaint myself with the Circus Maximus. During my 2007 trip I’d walked past it, gazing in, but not actually stepped down into the stadium itself. Time to rectify that! Bonus, unlike 2007, it wasn’t raining!
There was a race track on this site from the 6th century BC, at various points being enlarged and rebuilt. The seating capacity was up to 250,000. To put this into context, the peak population of the ancient city is estimated to be about 1 million people.
There were four racing teams to root for, identified and known by their colours of red, green, white and blue. There were tense rivalries between athletes and fans just as there are at modern sports events. Usually each team would race a couple of chariots at a time, drawn by four or more horses. A typical race would last seven laps up and around the spina, a raised length running along the middle of the stadium that eventually displayed obelisks from Egypt.
The charioteers were usually slaves, but if they were successful they could earn huge fortunes with which to buy their freedom and luxuries to last the rest of their lives. They were also worshipped by adoring fans wherever they went, even the Emperor Nero copied their hairstyles.
The last race was held by Ostrogoths in 549AD. It may be less intact than the nearby Colosseum, but the Circus Maximus was used centuries before the Colosseum was even dreamt about, was in use for racing 55 years after the final gladiatorial fight ended at the Colosseum and could seat maybe as much as 5 times as many spectators.
The Colosseum may be a brash and bold icon of ancient Rome, but the Circus Maximus even now has quite the impact.
Heading west towards the Tiber, the Forum Boarium is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Circus Maximus. The Forum Boarium was a commerical hub in the ancient city and was known for the cattle market there. It is believed to also be the site of the first ever gladiatorial bout in 264BC, as a funerary rite.
Even earlier, the Forum Boarium is traditionally the site where Hercules slew a monster named Cacus who was terrorising the early inhabitants of the Palatine Hill before the founding of Rome. The site became sacred to Hercules as a result and a temple was built to him in the 2nd century BC.
The Temple of Portunus also stands in the Forum and like the Temple of Hercules dates from the Republic. Portunus was the patron god of livestock, among other things, making the Forum Boarium a perfect place to erect a temple to him.
Just beyond the Forum is the Arch of Janus, which, bless it, looks a bit worse for wear but has a certain faded charm that appeals to me. Younger than it looks, it was constructed int the 4th century AD, later being turned into a fortress in the Middle Ages by the Frangipane family.
I have just enough time for a quick drink before I head for my pre-booked tour of the Domus Romane (Roman House) beneath Palazzo Valentini, just around the corner from Piazza Venezia. Timed tours are obligatory for this attraction and it’s fairly new, but I’ve heard great things about this high tech tour. I’m not disappointed. The group is led underneath the government building into the basement, where archaeologists have uncovered the remains of ancient homes. Glass walkways keep you quite a few feet above the excavations, giving you a bird’s eye view of what is left. And there is so much left! Baths, rooms for entertaining, alleyways between properties… There is still marble on the walls and floors in beautiful intricate patterns. Most of the tour is conducted in the gloom with lights highlighting particular areas of interest synced up to a narration. Coloured light projections fill up empty spaces to fill in the blanks of what is missing or destroyed. Frescoes are reimagined and sound effects transport you back 2,000 years. As a bonus there is a 3D movie at the end explaining the reliefs on Trajan’s Column next door. Only after the lights come up afterwards do you realise that the glass floor hovers above a gigantic fallen column, thought to belong to the lost Temple of Trajan. I cannot recommend this tour enough. As a treat, we were shown (and allowed to take a picture of) the Column from the unique perspective allowed from what I think is a fire exit.
Time to leave ancient Rome briefly. The museums may be closed, but the Vittorio Emanuele monument is open for business, begging me to climb up to the top.
I’d only glanced at the monument in 2007 and was eager to actually go inside. The official name “Altare della Patria” (Altar of the Fatherland) sounds grander, although foreigners refer to it as “the Wedding Cake” and locals disparagingly refer to it as “The Typewriter.”
Romans don’t tend to like it, deeming it too large, too Teutonic and and generally garish. I’m reminded though, that Parisians initially detested the Eiffel Tower. It may take slightly longer, but the Vittorio Emanuele monument will no doubt grow to be an internationally recognised icon of Rome and grudgingly appreciated by the local populace.
It is admittedly ostentatious, but there is a brash beauty to it. I am niggled by the knowledge that historic parts of the Capitoline Hill were demolished to create the monument, but the more time I spend here the more I like it.
It was inaugurated in 1911 and completed in 1925, becoming home to the the Italian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921.
Continuing up the steps there is a level with an exhibition that I admittedly didn’t bother with, but follow the sign around to the back of the monument and you will reach a glass elevator that will whisk you to the very top level. The charge is 7 euros but is worth every cent. You are rewarded with panoramic views of the city that are spellbinding. I easily spent nearly an hour, staring at my favourite ancient sites from above.
Having reluctantly come back down, I had a much needed drink at the cafe situated at the back of the monument, which itself gives some lovely views…
From the cafe there is a short-cut back down towards the Forum. I only have one last place to visit today as the light is fading. Walking down the Via Dei Fori Imperiali I catch a bus heading east at the Colosseum, alighting early, distracted by the obelisk outside San Giovanni in Laterano.
The obelisk originally stood outside the Temple of Amun in Karnak, erected by Thutmoses III in the 15th century BC. It was brought to Rome by Constantius II and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 AD, close to another Egyptian obelisk placed on the stadium spina by Augutus in 10 BC. It was moved to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano by Pope Sixtus in 1588.
Talking a quietly pleasant walk further east leads to Porta Maggiore, a large gate built by the Emperor Claudius in 52 AD to provide support for the Aqua Claudia and the Aqua Marcia aqueducts. Later it was incorporated into the Aurelian wall in 271 AD. The gate stands astride two ancient roads out of the city. The Via Praenestina leading to Praeneste (Palestrina) and the Via Labicana that seems to have led to Tusculum in the Alban Hills.
Just outside the gate is the unique Tomb of the Baker.
Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces was a baker at the end of the Republic. He may possibly have been a freedman and nevertheless did rather well for himself to afford such a tomb. The cylinders and recesses allude to the kneading machines and grain measures of his trade, and the inscription EST HOC MONIMENTVM MARCEI VERGILEI EVRYSACIS PISTORIS REDEMPTORIS APPARET translates roughly to “This is the monument of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, baker, contractor, public servant, obviously!”
Mary Beard discusses this tomb in her “Meet the Romans” series and you can see the clip here.
I’m tempted by the nearby Nymphaeum of Alexander Severus, but the light is going fast and to be honest, I’m knackered. Time for a well earned Abbacchio alla Romana (Roman style roasted lamb, it has to be tasted to be believed) and bed.