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ROME TRAVEL GUIDE
Rome wasn't built in a day, and you won't see any substantial portion of it in 24 hours (although you can try, using one of our walking tours).
Ancient temples and forums, medieval churches, Renaissance basilicas, Baroque fountains, 19th-century museums and Fascist architecture all cluster together in a city bursting with masterpieces from every era of Western civilization. Rome is possibly the greatest exposition of human endeavor on the planet. Enjoy.
No matter which sights you choose to see, there are a few general pieces of advice that pertain to many of them. First and foremost, most sights are best visited in the morning - the earlier, the better. Not only do you avoid the crowds, but in the summer you miss the crushing heat that descends upon the city.
During the afternoons, you can visit some of Rome's countless galleries and museums, or do as the Romans, and take a siesta. Remember that most churches are only open from 8:30am - 12:30pm and from 4pm - 7pm, so plan accordingly.
If you are planning to visit one of the city's countless churches or Vatican City, remember to dress appropriately or you will be asked to leave. For women, this means no shorts or miniskirts (above the knee), sleeveless shirts, or sundresses. For men, no shorts or hats. Jeans and t-shirts are permitted.
A final note about site-seeing in Rome: hours of operation are always subject to change - nation-wide strikes, a proprietor's whim, and everything in between can and will thwart your plans, so be ready to throw your hands up, let out a yell of frustration, and go buy some gelato.
In the midst of the countless, scattered stones, walls, and columns of the Roman Forum and the Palatine stands a small, truncated column.
This spot was the Umbilicus Urbis, the "navel of the city", marking the geographical center of the ancient city. More than any other monument in Rome, it symbolizes the city's past status as the ombelico del mondo - the center of the West's political, economic, social, and religious life.
Despite the ravages of time, the glory of Rome's history is still palpable. In a relatively small area, one can see the venues of Roman government, religion, entertainment, privilege, and even sanitation.
Over the millennia, much of Rome's ancient heritage has been built upon, built over, reused, and modified; as a result, the ancient city presents visitors with an organic whole, where residences rest on ancient theaters, churches on ancient temples, and excavations proceed everywhere.
Exploring the ancient city is time-consuming and involves a great deal of walking; give yourself a full day to visit the Forum, Palatine, and Colosseum thoroughly.
The forum - once a marshland prone to flooding and eschewed by Rome's Iron Age (1000 -900 BC) inhabitants - spreads from the Colosseum west toward the Capitoline Hill. Today, many of the Forum's structures are reduced to piles of jagged rocks, and the locations of many sites are uncertain.
In the 7th and 8th centuries BC, Etruscans and Greeks used Tiber Island as a crossing point for trade and the Forum as a market.
Rome itself was founded as a market town for sober farmers who came to trade and perform religious rites; the Romans were peacefully dominated by the more advanced Etruscans until 510 BC, when the Republic was established.
The Curia, the meeting place of the Senate; the Comitium Well, or assembly place; and the Rostra, the speaker's platform, were built here to serve the young government. Across Via Sacra, Rome's oldest street, temples to Saturn, Castor, and Pollux were dedicated in honor of the revolution. The conquest of Greece in the 2nd-century BC brought new architectural forms to the city.
The lofty Basilica Aemilia was used as a center for business and judicial work before Christians transformed it and many of the existing structures in the Forum into churches.
The Forum was never reserved for any single activity. Senators debated the fates of far-flung nations over the din of haggling traders. The Vestal Virgins kept the city's eternal flame burning in their house on a street full of prostitutes.
Elsewhere, priests offered sacrifices in the temples, generals led triumphal processions up to the Capitoline, and pickpockets relieved tourists of their possessions. Some things never change.
The Forum witnessed political turbulence in the Republic in the first century BC. Cicero's orations against the antics of corrupt young aristocrats echoed off the temple walls and Julius Caesar's dead body was cremated, amid rioting crowds, in the small temple that bears his name.
Augustus, Caesar's great-nephew and adopted son, exploited the Forum to support his new government, closing off the town square with a temple to the newly deified Caesar and building a triumphal arch honoring himself. His successors followed suit, clotting the old markets with successively grander tokens of their majesty (often looted from the monuments of their predecessors).
The construction of the imperial palace on the Palatine in the first-century AD and of new fora on higher ground to the north cleared out the old neighbourhoods around the square, so that, by the 2nd-century, the Forum, though packed with gleaming white monuments, had become a deserted ceremonial space.
A century later, emperor Constantine's Christian city government closed the pagan temples. By the 5th-century the looting of the Forum by barbarians attested to Rome's dramatic decline.
In the Middle Ages many buildings were converted to churches and alms houses; the Forum gradually became Campo Vaccino, a cow pasture, with only the tallest columns peeking through the tall grass. The last bits of the Forum's accessible marble were quarried by Renaissance popes for their own monumental constructions.
Excavations since 1803 have uncovered a vast array of remnants, but also rendered the site extremely confusing - the ruins of structures built over and on top of each other for more than a thousand years are now exposed to a single view.
Completed in 179 BC, the Basilica Aemilia was the judicial center of ancient Rome. It also housed the guild of the argentarii (money-changers), who operated the city's first cambiomat and provided Roman denarii for traders and tourists (doubtless at the same great rates found today at Termini).
The basilica was damaged several times by fire and rebuilt; in the pavement you can see bronze marks from the melted coins lost in these blazes.
In AD 410, the basilica received its death blows from Alaric and his raiding Goths, and the broken bases of columns are all that remain of the interior. The foundations of the row of tabernai (shops) that once faced the Forum are still visible along the path. In the back right corner of the basilica are reliefs of the Rape of the Sabine Women and the Death of Tarpeia.
Mussolini's restorations revealed an inlaid marble pavement and long steps where Roman senators placed their own chairs for meetings; even prior to this work, the Curia (to the left of the Balilica Aemilia as you face it) enjoyed the distinction of being one of the oldest and most significant buildings in the Forum.
Tullus Hostilius, the third king of Rome, started putting marble in place for the first Curia, but the current building dates toe Diocletian's reign (AD 283). In 630 it was converted to a church.
The stone base shows where Augustus' legendary golden statue of Victory rested until the end of the 4th-century, when Christian senators irked by paganism had the statue destroyed.
The Cureia also houses the Plutei of Trajan, two sculpted parapets that decorated the Rostrum, depicting the burning of the tax registers and the distribution of food to poor children. To the left of the Curia is the Church of Santi Luca e Martina, once the Secretarium Senatus.
Farther up the hill, below the Church of San Guiseppe dei Falegnami, is the 2nd-century BC Mamertine Prison, where St. Peter is said to have been imprisoned and miraculously summoned water to appear in order to baptize his cellmates.
The broad space in front of the Curia was the Comitium where male citizens came to vote and representatives of the people gathered for public discussion. This space was also home to the famed Twelve Tables, bronze tablets upon which the first codified laws of the Republic were inscribed.
To the left of the Arch of Septimius Severus is the large brick Rostrum, or speaker's platform, erected by Julius Caesar in 44 BC (just before his death).
The term rostra refers to the metal ramrods on the bows of warships. Rostra from warships captured at Antium in 342 BC decorated the platform. The literal rostrum is gone, but regularly spaced holes in its platform remain.
Senators and consuls orated to the Roman plebes from here, and any citizen could mount to voice his opinion (theoretically, at least). After his assassination, Cicero's head and hands were displayed here as a warning to those who practiced unbridled free speech.
Augustus' rebellious daughter Julia is said to have voiced her objections to her father's legislation promoting family values by engaging in amorous activities with Augustus' enemies on the spot where the laws had been announced.
ARCH OF SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS
The hefty Arch of Septimius Severus stands between the Comitium and the slopes of the Capitoline Hill. Dedicated in AD 203 to celebrate the emperor's victories in the Middle East, the arch is covered with reliefs that depict the imperial family.
After Caracalla, Severus' restless son and successor, grabbed the thron by killing his brother Geta and scraping his name and portrait off of the arch.
Directly behind the arch the grey tufa walls of the Tabularium line the rear of the Forum. Once a repository for the Senate's archives, this structure now serves as the basement of the Renaissance Palazzo dei Senatori.
The original market square (in front of the Curia) was occupied by a number of shrines and sacred precincts. Immediately down the stairs from the Curia lies the Lapis Niger (Black Stone), surrounded by a circle of bricks.
Republican Romans believed this is where the legendary founder of the city, Romulus, was murdered. Modern scholars now think the Lapis was actually an early shrine to Vulcan.
The shrine was considered passe even during the Republic, when its statuary and columns were covered by gray pavement. Below the Lapis Niger rest the underground ruins of a 6th-century BC altar, along with a pyramidal pillar where the oldest known Latin inscription in Rome warns the public against defiling the shrine.
In front of the Rostrum, half-way between the Curia and the Balilica Julia, the Three Sacred Trees of Rome - olive, fig, and grape - have been replanted by the Italian state (never mind that grapes grow on vines).
The "newest" part of the Forum is the Column of Phocas, erected in 608 to celebrate the visiting Byzantine emperor, Phocas - a sacrilege that would have probably made early Republican Romans roll over in their graves.
The marketplace may also have been home to three important markers: the Umbilicus Urbis, the Golden Mile-stone, and the Vulcanal. The exact locations of these, which not only marked the center of the city, but also that of the entire Roman world, is a matter of speculation.
TEMPLE OF SATURN
Eight columns mark the Temple of Saturn, one of the first buildings constructed in Rome. The Romans believed that Saturn had taught them the art of agriculture, and filled his statue inside the temple with fresh olive oil.
The temple was the site of Saturnalia, The Roman winter bash that signified the end of the year. During this raucous party, class and social distinctions were blurred as masters served slaves.
Behind the temple are (left to right); twelve columns of the Portico of the Dei Consentes dedicated to the twelve most important Roman gods; the three Corinthian columns of the Temple of Vespatian, completed by his son Domitian; and the foundations of the Temple of Concord, which was built to celebrate the peace between patricians and plebeians in 367 BC.
Around the corner to the left of the Temple of Saturn, rows of deserted column bases are the sole remains of the Basilica Julia. Begun by Julius Caesar in 54 BC, completed by Augustus, and restored by Doucletian, it followed the same plan as the Basilica Aemilia on a larger scale.
The central hall, flanked by three rows of columns on each side, was used by tribunals of judges to lay down the law. Look for grids and circles in the steps where anxious Romans, waiting to go before the judge, played an ancient version of snakes and ladders.
If you've had your fill of culture, the end of the basilica opposite the Temple of Castor and Pollux is part of the Cloaca Maxima, the huge sewer which drained from the Forum directly into the Tiber. Do not try to avail yourself of this resource.
TEMPLE OF CASTOR & POLLUX
At the end of the Basilica Julia, three white marble columns mark the massive podium of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, dedicated in 484 BC to celebrate the Roman rebellion against their tyrannical Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus.
The Romans attributed their victory over the Latins at Lake Regillus in 499 BC to the help of the twin gods Castor and Pollux, who outflanked the mortal Etruscans.
Legend says that immediately after the battle the twins appeared in the Forum to water their horses at the nearby Lacus Juturnae (Basin of Juturna).
Now marked by a reconstructed marble aedicula to the left of the gods' temple, the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua is the oldest in the forum, dating to the 6th-century.
TEMPLE OF THE DEIFIED JULIUS
Across from the Temple of Castor and Pollux is the rectangular base of the Temple of the Deified Julius, which Augustus built in 29 BC to honor his murdered adoptive father and to proclaim himself the son of a god.
The circular altar of rocks housed within the temple marks the spot where Caesar's body was cremated in 44 BC, and where Marcus Aurelius gave his famous funeral speech. Little remains of this temple beyond the altar and its surrounding enclave which are now covered with a tin roof.
Wistful monarchists leave flowers here on the Ides of March. In his own modest glory, Augustus built the Arch of Augustus, a triple arch (only the bases are visible now) that straddled V. Sacra.
TEMPLE OF VESTA
The circular building behind the Temple of the Deified Julius is the Temple of Vesta, originally built by the Etruscans but rebuilt by Septimius Severus at the end of the 2nd-century AD. Designed after a Latin hut, the temple was the home of the Vestal Virgins, who tended the sacred fire of the city, keeping it continuously lit for more than 1000 years 9when it went out in the 4th-century, things started to go badly for the Romans).
Within one of the temple's secret rooms, visited only by the Vestal Virgins, stood the Palladium, the small statue of Minerva that Aeneas was said to have brought from Troy to Italy.
Behind the temple, between the House of Vestal Virgins and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, lies the triangular Regia, office of the Pontifex Maximus, Rome's high priest and titular ancestor of the Pope. Long before the first Pontifex (Numa Pompilius) took it over, as early as the 6th-century BC, the Regia was the site of sacrifices to the gods of agriculture (as well as Mars, Jupiter, Juno, and Janus).
One of the rites performed was the October harvest ritual, in which the tail and genitalia of a slain horse were brought to the Regia in an offering to the god of vegetation. Sadly, this ceremony has been discontinued.
HOUSE OF THE VESTAL VIRGINS
The sprawling complex of rooms and courtyards behind the Temple of Vesta was the House of Vestal Virgins. here, in spacious seclusion in the shade of the Palatine, lived the six virgins who officiated over Vesta's rites, chosen for their purity and physical perfection and ordained at the age of seven.
As long as they kept their vows of chastity, the Vestal Virgins were among the most respected citizens of ancient Rome; they were the only women allowed to walk unaccompanied in the Forum and could protect or pardon anyone.
This easy life had its price; if a virgin strayed from celibacy, she was buried alive with a loaf of bread and a candle on the assumption that the sustenance that it provided would give her time to contemplate her sins during her prolonged death. Only a handful of women met this fate.
Off-and-on restoration often means that visitors can only peer through the iron gates surrounding the House of the Vestal Virgins. still, there is a view (head up to the Palatine to get a really good view) of the central courtyard where statues of the priestesses who served between AD 291 and AD 364 reside, including one whose name was scraped away (8th on the left as you enter the courtyard).
The erased priestess is thought to have been Claudia, the Vestal Virgin who, at the end of the 4th-century, converted to that new-fangled religion from the south, Christianity.
TEMPLE OF ANTONINUS & FAUSTINA
Back on V. Sacra is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (opposite the Temple of Viesta, to the immediate right as you face the entrance ramp), whose strong foundation, columns, and rigid lattice ceiling have preserved it unusually well over the ages.
In the 7th and 8th-centuries, the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda was built in the interior of the abandoned temple. the temple's columns and frieze were incorporated into the Christian structure. This is not to say that the Christian rulers didn't try to destroy the pagan temple: the deep grooves at the top of the columns show where cables were tied in attempts to demolish this steadfast symbol of pagan worship.
The original building was constructed by Emperor Antoninus and dedicated to his wife Faustina (his name was added after his death in AD 161).
In the shadow of the temple (to the right as you face it) is an archaic necropolis, with Iron Age graves dating to between the 10th and 18th-centuries BC, which lend credence to Rome's legendary founding date of 753 BC. The bodies from the ancient graveyard were found in hollow tree trunks. The remains are visible in the Antiquarium.
TEMPLE OF ROMULUS
Farther up V. Sacra stands the round Temple of Romulus, which retains its original bronze doors, with a working lock, from the 4th-century AD.
The name of the structure, however, is misleading for tow reasons. First, the "Romulus" in question here was probably the son of the 4th-century emperor. Maxentius, not the legendary founder of Rome. Second, the temple probably wasn't a temple at all but an office of the urban magistrate during the Empire.
The temple now houses the Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. Across V. Sacra from the structure, remains of fortifications from between 730 BC and 540 BC have been discovered.
Behind the temple, recently excavated ruins of Vespatian's Forum Pacis (Forum of Peace) are visible along V.d. Fori Imperiali, beginning just past the main entrance.
The Colosseum is the enduring symbol of the Eternal City - a hollowed-out ghost of travertine marble that dwarfs every other antiquity in Rome by reputation, if not by sheer size alone.
Recently completed renovations have cleaned the exterior and reconstructed several missing sections (in brick instead of marble, unfortunately) to give a better sense of what the ancient amphitheater looked like, although the interior is still barren.
Use your imagination (or Scenes from Gladiator), or pick up an audioguide (telefonini on steroids) to make the visit more interesting.
The city of Rome does its part to make the Colossium come alive by hiring poor souls to dress up as gladiators and centurions outside, as well as the occasional historically inaccurate but provocatively dressed gladiators. They're amusing enough to look at, but what they want is to have their picture taken with you. Enter on the lowest level of seating (the arena floor is off-limits) and take stairs to the upper
The term "Colosseum" is actually a nickname for the Amphitheatrum Flavium, which Vespatian began building in AD 72 to block out the private lake that Nero had installed. The nickname derives from the colossal bronze statue of Nero as sun-god that used to grace the area next to the amphitheater.
The Colosseum was completed in AD 80 by Titus, with spoils from the emperors' campaigns in Judaea. Titus allegedly threw a monster bash for its inauguration: a 100-day fete that saw 5000 wild beasts perish in the bloody arena (from the Latin for sand, harena, which was put on the floor to absorb blood).
Though the maximum capacity is still debatable, it is thought that the Colosseum was capable of hosting crowds of at least 50,000. Because the Colosseum events took place for the "public good", tickets to see the slaughter were always free.
Chances are that the house was packed for Trajan's celebration of his Dacian victories, when 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 beasts duked it out for a month.
Over the centuries, it wasn't only gladiator fights that filled the arena: in the mornings, as a warm-up for the evening's battles, exotic animal hunts were a huge draw. It's also said that the elliptical interior was flooded for sea battles, although some archaeologists and native Romans insist that it would have been impossible, citing the Circus Maximus as the more probable locale.
Gladiatorial games were suspended in AD 438 by a Christian-dominated empry and Senate, and animal hunts soon bit the dust as well.
the Colosseum was used briefly as a fortress in the Middle Ages and as a quarry in the Renaissance, when popes, beginning with Urban VIII, pillaged marble for use in their own grandiose enterprises, including St. Peter's Basilica and Palazzo Barberini.
The former pagan symbol became the site of Christian liturgical rites in the 17th and 18th-centuries, and a chapel and rows of crosses were eventually built on the north end of the hollowed-out amphitheater.
The crosses were removed in the 19th-century when excavations began on the Colosseum, leaving the structure, with the exception of the ongoing exterior renovations, as it is today. The outside of the arena, with the layers of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, was considered the ideal orchestration of the classical architectural orders, from the most staid to the most ornamental.
On the outer side opposite the entrance, look for five marble posts on the edge of the pavement. These posts are remnants of anchors for a giant velarium, the retractable shade that once covered the amphitheater.
During each game, 1000 naval troops operated the velarium. Inside, the tremendous wooden floor is gone, revealing brick cells, corridors, ramps, and elevators that were used to transport wild animals from their cages up to the arena level.
Note the large cross across from the side entrance. It symbolizes the Colosseum's escape from total destruction at the hands of pillagers by a lucky mistake.
The Pope, in order to commemorate the martyrdom of the thousands of Christians supposedly killed in the amphitheater, declared the monument a sacred place and forbade any more demolition. Since that time, it has been discovered that no Christians had been killed in the Colosseum. These days, in fact, the Pope holds occasional masses there.
Additionally, in the summer of 2000, the Colosseum was used as a stage for several Italian TV variety show extravaganzas as well as Greek drama and classical music performances.
Organizers bragged that it was the first time in 15 centuries that it had been used as an entertainment venue, though the maximum audience of 700 for these events paled by comparison to the arena's former glory.
ARCH OF CONSTANTINE
Between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, marking the tail end of the V. Sacra, is the Arch of Constantine, one of the latest and best-preserved imperial monuments in the area.
The Senate dedicated the arch in AD 315 to commemorate Constantine's victory over his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvan Bridge in AD 312. The arch's friezes show how heartfelt that dedication actually was: one side's images depict life in Constantine's camps and images of war; on the other side, the images depict life after Constantine's victory and the virtues of peace and humanity.
There are a few rough 4th-century friezes that demonstrate just how much Roman sculptural art declined form the onset of the millennium, but otherwise the triple arch is cobbled together almost entirely from sculptural fragments pilfered from earlier Roman monuments.
The four sad-looking men near the top, for example, are Dacian prisoners taken from one of Trajan's memorials; the medallions once belonged to a monument for Hadrian and include depictions of his lover, Antinous; the rest of the scatterings celebrate the military prowess of Marcus Aurelius.