Rome Travel Journal – Day Three Part Two

2nd Oct 2014

After an incredibly busy day and a short rest I head off for what will be a highlight of my entire trip.

My birthday is in October and as I often choose October to travel my gifts usually include euros or expeditions. Last year I spent my birthday exploring the ruined Graeco-Roman city of Butrint in Albania. This year my husband bought me a moonlit tour of the Colosseum. We booked through City Wonders.

The tour meets at the opposite end of the Forum to the Colosseum and we’ll take a leisurely stroll past some historic sights on the way. The ancient centre of Rome is beautifully illuminated at night as I remember from a night time tour my husband and I took together in 2007. Back then I had a tiny point and shoot camera that I kept firmly on the ‘auto’ setting, so I’ve been practising with shutter speeds et cetera with the camera my brother has lent me and I’m hoping that my photos don’t turn out to be too abysmal. I meet up with the group and our guide Gabriele. We’re handed ‘whisper’ head sets so that Gabriele doesn’t have to yell above the din of traffic and we head off.

Here are my best attempts!

The Altar of the Fatherland AKA National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II AKA The Wedding Cake AKA The Typewriter

The Altar of the Fatherland AKA National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II AKA The Wedding Cake AKA The Typewriter

The Altar of the Fatherland AKA National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II AKA The Wedding Cake AKA The Typewriter

The Forum of Trajan

The Forum of Trajan

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Trajan's Column

Trajan’s Column

Trajan's Market

Trajan’s Market

Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill

Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill

Fountain of the Goddess Roma on the Capitoline Hill

Fountain of the Goddess Roma on the Capitoline Hill

The Forum of Julius Caesar

The Forum of Julius Caesar

The Temple of Venus Genetrix

The Temple of Venus Genetrix

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The Arch of Septimius Severus

The Arch of Septimius Severus

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The Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine

My photography isn’t perfect but it is definitely better than my 2007 attempts!

Eventually we arrive at the Colosseum. Gabriele and the other guides evidently work on a smooth yet strict system and route so that each group has each stop point to themselves. Anyone who has been inside the Colosseum during normal opening hours will understand what an absolute treat it is to see the interior without hordes of other tourists jostling you for space.

This trip also marks my first opportunity to visit the Hypogeum (underground level) and the reconstructed arena floor section so I am doubly excited.

Gabriele, who has up to this point been accurate in his stories, decides to up the melodrama in his speeches. I understand why as the rest of the group who aren’t lifelong Classics nerds are lapping it up. Most of the statistics he’s spouting are dubious or blatantly wrong. Gabriele states that 95% of gladiators died in the arena, most on their first bout. This is, frankly, bollocks and there are dozens of studies disproving this. It makes for a dramatic tour and the rest of the group dutifully gasped in horror, but I wish Gabriele had taken the opportunity to dispel some misconceptions.

Excavations of gladiator graveyards such as the one in Ephesus show many skeletons displaying healed wounds that would have required professional medical attention. The majority of gladiators were trained professionals. They were expensive to train and keep. They were also famous superstars. It makes simple business sense to keep your assets alive for as many bouts as possible to maximise income. We have proof from gravestones of retired gladiators who sometimes became trainers.

Georges Ville discovered that in a period of the 1st century AD it was actually only 19 deaths out of 200 competing gladiators.

Gabriele did dispel the thumbs-down-means-death myth but that is now so widely discredited that it hardly still counts as a myth. I’m aware that his usual demographic don’t have the same level of nerd as I do (he’d previously chuckled when I had asked him to point out the Tarpeian Rock – he’d never been asked for that before) but I couldn’t help being disappointed. His delivery was, to me, unneccessarily tragic and squeamish (although I have to confess I suspect that if I had been born a couple of millennia ago I would have been an enthusiastic spectator at the Games, confirmed by the excitement I felt earlier this year watching the Britannia gladiatorial re-enactment group perform at the Kelmarsh Festival of History.) So I admit that Gabriele was demoted to white noise as I concentrated on enjoying being (almost) alone in the moonlit amphitheatre instead.

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We call the amphitheatre the ‘Colosseum’ because a colossal statue of Nero stood just beyond these trees. The statue was 30 metres high and once stood in the vestibule of the Domus Aurea (Golden House) – a HUGE palace Nero built for himself. Following the assassination of Nero there was a bit of a scuffle for power known as the Year of the Four Emperors. The eventual victor was Vespasian who founded the Flavian Dynasty. When he drained Nero’s ornamental lake Vespasian used the site to build a grand amphitheatre. So Romans would not understand you if you asked them for directions to the Colosseum, they knew it as the Amphitheatrum Flavium (Flavian Amphitheatre.) The amphitheatre was completed by Vespasian’s son Titus in 80AD and was inaugurated by 100 days of Games. The statue of Nero was rededicated as Sol and moved to the spot by the modern trees by Hadrian, eventually giving the amphitheatre its modern nickname.

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Naturally I did the "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius" speech as I walked onto the area floor...in my head, obviously.

Naturally I did the “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius” speech as I walked onto the area floor…in my head, obviously.

A Galdiator's-eye view of the seating.  I think the sand colour for the synthetic reconstruction of the arena floor is a nice touch.

A Galdiator’s-eye view of the seating. I think the sand colour for the synthetic reconstruction of the arena floor is a nice touch.

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Looking out onto what should be the rest of the arena floor. We get the word ‘arena’ from the Latin ‘harena,’ which was the fine sand used to cover the floor of the amphitheatre and absorb the blood.

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Gladiators obviously wouldn’t have been able to peer into the hypogeum like this. It is bloody awesome, though. The hypogeum was added by Domitian.

Down in the hypogeum, below the arena. Gabriele confirmed my suspicion that the Romans would not have bothered facing these behind-the-scenes surfaces. So these blocks are exactly as gladiators saw and touched them.

Down in the hypogeum, below the arena. Gabriele confirmed my suspicion that the Romans would not have bothered facing these behind-the-scenes surfaces. So these blocks are exactly as gladiators saw and touched them.

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Gladiators and exotic beasts weren’t kept in the hypogeum permanently. Tunnels led to the stables and the Ludus Magnus gladiator school so that they could be brought to the amphitheatre quickly and easily shortly before their bouts. Props and equipment could also be stored here before Games. Tunnels also led to the Sanarium for emergency medical care. There was even a secret private tunnel for the Emperor and Vestal Virgins so that they could avoid the crowds.

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We head up to the seating levels to swap viewpoints from gladiator to spectator…

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The teeny part of reconstructing arena floor felt massive when I stood on it, from here it looks so teeny compared to the unreconstructed space. The arena measures 287 ft long and 180 ft wide.

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The Colosseum could seat up to 80,000 spectators.

Whether or not I agreed with the angle given by the tour guide, I can’t deny that the tour was an absolute treat. It wasn’t cheap and I doubt I could have afforded it if a) my husband hadn’t bought it as a gift and b) I had been travelling with companions. Still, it was an experience I shall never forget.

I had idly scheduled a day time visit for later in my trip if I had the time (having visited in daylight in 2007) but in the end I had neither the time nor the need.

After a sprint to catch the last Metro to Ottaviano I collapse gratefully in to bed, safe in the knowledge that I’ve sensibly scheduled a lie in for Day Four…

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One response to “Rome Travel Journal – Day Three Part Two

  1. Pingback: Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Verona Day 2 | Tales From A Tour Guide

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