By Classics MA student Klara Hegedus
Last year I visited – and fell hopelessly in love with – Rome. Rome present and of course Rome past. This led (via a series of events that I will not bore you with!) to my starting A863 this year.
I am 48, married, with 2 kids aged 12 and 9 and we travel together with all that that entails. We take quite a lot of guided tours, or do a site’s own audio/ video guide as it is a way of keeping the kids engaged and getting a good chunk of information into us, within the 2-3 hours that seem to be our family attention span.
Last year’s visit covered an intro to the “big sites” and then went a bit renaissance arty. This year focussed on the ancient.
Someone told me that this course would teach me a changed way to think – and how right they were. Yes, my thinking is more critical, but I also felt an almost childlike excitement seeing the ruins of a world that I now know to be “real” in a more direct way than it was before, when I was just looking at them with a tourist’s eye. I kept emailing Cora Beth about them, I needed to TELL someone about what I was seeing.
[This is a personal account of our trip and I have not investigated or verified the information that we received from tour guides, museum notices or guide books.]
On arrival, we went for a wander around the area of the Forums, Trajan’s Column and Market and up to the Capitoline Museums. I was so over excited, a whole week to look at this stuff, to learn more about it. I wanted to know and to understand it all, NOW!!
By the next day, I’d calmed down a bit and we headed to the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre) for a tour of the underground and top floors. We saw the narrow corridors that the “backstage” slaves etc. would have worked in and the replica winch that would have moved “sets” and wild animals up to the stage level. Although open to the light now, the corridors gave a sense of the darkness that people would have been working in. There were niches for oil lights, but they were small. There must have been such an atmosphere of fear, of excitement, of the opportunity to make your name through gladiatorial victory and maybe hopelessness if your role offered no such opportunity.
Then a long stair climb up to the top level (passing Cate Blanchett in crazily OTT sunglasses) and the most incredible view over the Colosseum and beyond. Here in the cheap seats, you could imagine citizens having what must have seemed a perfectly normal “day out” to them, however alien the concepts of slavery or public executions are to us today.
Our tour continued into the Forum and to where Cicero walked and where Julius Caesar was cremated. The ancient world felt so real and so tantalisingly close.
The next morning, we walked to Largo Argentina to see the ruins of four temples and a wall of a theatre where Julius Caesar may have been assassinated (many sites seem to claim that fame).
We walked on to Piazza Navona, relatively quiet just after breakfast time. The sun shone so beautifully on the Piazza and its fountain (horse carved by Bernini), that we could even overlook the crazy price of a cappuccino in the cafes that surround it.
After a necessary diversion to a shop selling Harry Potter memorabilia, we went underground to the remains of the Domitian’s Stadium that the Piazza stands on. The archaeology there was wonderful, with walls, an entrance arch, stairs and some statuary still in situ. This was a site for running races and other physical feats. Musical contests were held in an Odeon nearby.
We saw, though couldn’t go into, Augustus’ mausoleum, but we did visit his Ara Pacis. What an incredible memorial. Reclaimed from where it had subsided below the ground, it had been built to celebrate peace following victories over Spain and Gaul. Friezes along the external walls, show the imperial family in a victory procession, others show botanical subjects and of the founding stories of Romulus and of Aeneas (making a sacrifice). There is a beautiful frieze of a goddess, amongst signs of abundance (possibly Tellus) and one, very fragmented, of the goddess of Rome.
The introductory video of its history and rediscovery was set to a continual background soundtrack from Gladiator. Reception does pop up in odd ways.
We spent the next day at Ostia Antica. Whilst I’d appreciated its importance as a gateway for Rome’s food supplies from the provinces, I’d had no idea how much of it remains or of its previous grandeur. Alongside the mosaic floors showing what shops had stood there, were remains of tombs, great bath houses and the theatres and libraries that were part of them. A large bakery can be seen and you could imagine the donkeys working the millstone, blindfolded so that they didn’t get dizzy.
The small museum held some gorgeously detailed sarcophagi, busts and a large statue of Mithras in his usual bull sacrificing pose.
Remains of a temple to Rome and Augustus showed the development of the emperor deification cult and how tightly Augustus sought to tie his own reputation into that of Rome itself.
Our afternoon was spent in the Capitoline Museums. The restaurant on the top floor has the most incredible view over the city. The next two and a half hours were a blur of marble beauty. We saw pieces of colossal statues we’d only previously seen in Roman documentaries, statues of gods, of emperors, philosophers and gentry, pieces by Bernini and a figure of Venus. Whatever your thoughts on the founding myths, it was lovely to see the iconic statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the wolf.
To me, the most impressive piece was the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, depicted as victor, man of peace and bearded, showing a link to the philosophers of Greece. It was a marvellous piece of propaganda.
Day 5 saw us on a tour of the Caracalla baths. The remaining walls were tall and gave an idea of the monumental size of these spas. I forget the figure our tour guide gave of the litres of hot water used daily, but it was huge.
The baths had two libraries, one of Greek books and one of Latin ones. We were told that they were stored to protect them from humidity, though it seemed strange that one of these libraries was then located close to the vast cisterns of the site.
Our tour then walked us past the Circus Maximus which still looks impressive in shape and scale although only a few stones remain. Interestingly it was used as a farm at one point and a medieval watch tower remains, built by the family who farmed it.
On the way home, we saw the “Mouth of Truth” stone which for €2 paid to the Vatican, tourists can still put their hand in as people once did to “test” the authenticity of their words. It is now believed that the stone was in fact a drain cover and the face on it was that of a pagan god of some drainage aspect of life. After all, there were gods in charge of most things.
We carried on past the Theatre of Marcellus, still used as housing with apartments on the top floor, and to the remaining insulae located next to the steps of the Capitoline Museum. Our guide was insistent that Michelangelo had stayed there whilst painting the Sistine Chapel, which was such a “coincidence” that it may show just how important citations and peer reviewed research is when trying to get to the truth of anything…
We finished off back at Trajan’s Forum and Market. To be honest we were probably too tired to take as much in as we should have done, but the views across the Forums was fabulous in the late afternoon sun and you could really get an idea of how they all sat close to each other, a mass of gardens, temples and Fora. It also became clear how the building of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument may have damaged the Forum archaeology that still existed.
Day Six took us to Hadrian’s Villa and the Villa d’ Este. Hadrian’s Villa was huge and you got a feel of how sumptuous it must have been. Huge halls, dining rooms and more libraries were in evidence, but the main feature now is the beautiful gardens, with views across the valley. Caryatids next to a huge pool, brought a flavour of Greece from across the empire and a stone alligator suggested Egypt. I thought that there were stone turtles too, but they turned out to be real.
We then went to the renaissance house of Villa d’Este. With its terraces and apparently endless fountains, it was quite ridiculously beautiful.
We had to leave the following day, but before we caught our train, I popped into the Museo Nazionale Romano. I went mainly to see the statues, including one of Augustus dressed as a priest, portrait busts of many noble family members and a wonderful second century CE copy of Myron’s discus thrower. However, the second floor was a revelation of frescoes and mosaics. The colours are quite incredible, strong and bright, a miracle of survival.
I left Rome very tired and very inspired. I hope that I return soon.