Towns / Cities Visited: 154
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 28,713
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,894,864
Our first day of exploring Italy’s famed capital came with an early start, not only because the city and its surrounds are chock full of historical sites but because we had sensibly booked an in-depth tour at arguably the most recognisable of all of them, the Colosseum. Reasoning that walking is always the best way to see new places, and get a true feel for life within them, we had a quick bite to eat and set off into the crisp morning air and warm sun to begin the hour walk to our destination. Just like the previous day, the traffic flowing through the streets did so at a rather terrifying pace, and with seemingly little to no care for road rules or pedestrian safety. Figuring we would save swimming through the heart of the city for another day, we instead chose to follow the river along and skirt around. Passing streets filled with cars parked so close together that it would be literally impossible to get any of them out, we eventually knew we were drawing near when the density of camera wielding tourists speaking in multiple languages spiked noticeably. Rounding a corner, we managed to catch our first glimpse of this truly colossal landmark. As impressive as it is as a structure, it is now somewhat minimised by the fact that office and residential buildings are much larger these days. Still, there is a timeless stoic beauty to it, as crumbling as parts of it are.
Now, if having your personal space violated isn’t a favourite pastime for you, then attempting to get anywhere near the front entrance of the Colosseum will certainly not be your cup of tea. People swarm around this place in alarming numbers, and where it isn’t tourists, or horse drawn carriages, it’s an irritating amount of scalpers trying to convince unwitting visitors to purchase questionable tickets from them. Luckily for us, we neither had to make it to the front gate, nor purchase a ticket, and making our way around the edge to the back entrance, we managed to find the window at which to check in for our pre-booking. Hovering around with like-minded groups, we waited for our time slot whilst snapping a few shots of the towering walls in all their weathered, and somewhat mismatched glory.
Before too long, our perky female guide turned up, handed out headsets so that we could hear her without her having to yell, and gathered us together to give us a brief history of the site. For those of you who don’t know, the Colosseum was built in 72 AD under the direction of Emperor Vespasian, but wasn’t completed until 80 AD under the following Emperor, Titus. It functioned as a great way for the Emperors to show off their power and prestige, whilst also keeping the masses happy by providing free entertainment. Eight years may seem like a long time to build something until you consider the fact that this goliath was the largest amphitheatre ever built at the time of its construction and could hold between 50,000 to 80,000 spectators. It was built on top of the site where the cruel Emperor Nero (yes, the one who famously played the violin as Rome burnt) constructed his own personal palace and gardens after said fire destroyed the previous buildings in the area. The amphitheatre has withstood a lot in its life, from a massive fire in 217 which destroyed the wooden upper levels, to earthquakes in the 14th century. There used to be an all-encompassing outer wall, but much of it has collapsed over the years and now only the northern section remains. The entire site may have fallen into complete ruin if it wasn’t constantly in use in one way or another over the millennia, and if it hadn’t been for Pope Benedict XIV who convinced the city the site was sacred due to it being a place where early Christians were martyred. There isn’t actually any evidence that this is true, but either way, it meant that the Colosseum survived. Following popes also did their part in protecting the site by initiating stabilisation and restoration works. If nothing else, this fact explains why there are numerous plaques dedicated to said religious leaders donning the outer walls.
Finally, our time had come to enter, and in we walked, through the tunnel under the seating to the viewing platform. As we looked across the expanse of the interior, we were more than pleased that we afforded the extra cost of a guided tour, not only because we were getting a full education and would be granted access to restricted areas, but because the adjacent viewing platform on the far side was absolutely crammed full of tourists all jostling for a photo. Looking around, it was hard not to be gobsmacked by the sheer size of the place; trust me, Colosseum is a perfectly apt name for a place this colossal. Of course, it takes a little imagination to picture how this place must have looked in its glory days, what with much of the tiered seating crumbling from age, and the arena floor being non-existent. As we gawked at it all though, from the brick upper levels, down to the complex hypogeum which once hid below the floor, but now sits exposed, our guide went on to explain the many uses the site has had. Most people know of its initial history as a place for gladiators to do battle, but in the beginning it played host to most of the city’s major entertainment, from mock sea battles (yep, before the hypogeum was changed to include mechanisms for showmanship, the stadium floor was able to be filled with water), to animal hunts, executions, battle re-enactments, and drama productions. In the early medieval era, it stopped being used for entertainment, and instead had a wide array of uses, from housing, to the quarters of a religious order, a fortress, and even a quarry.
After being allowed enough time to snap plenty of pictures, we were led downstairs into the maze of the hypogeum and its strong stone arches which once held the massive weight of the stadium floor. Only a small section is open to explore, but as out guide showed us around, she shared with us just how intricately organised the shows here were. It wasn’t just a competitor coming in either side and fighting to the death, the hypogeum served as a place to hold the wild animals, slaves, and other fighters, before they met their demise or won their freedom. It even played host to a couple of rather impressive, of not a little rudimentary, lifts which harnessed a system of weights and pulleys in order to lift the competitors up through the floor and out into the arena, and of which there is a replica on display now. Much thought and preparation went into each show, with entertainment and awe being at the forefront of the entire situation, and it was down there from where the production of each show stemmed.
With our subterranean exploration complete, we next headed up and up to start our tour of the multiple levels of seating which offered the perfect view of the entertainment in years gone by. We swam through the general public at this point, until we reached the next exclusive tour area. Passing through the locked gate into the upper seating levels, the guide took the opportunity to explain the ins and outs of the fighting back in Roman times. Despite how it is so often portrayed on the big screen, only a small portion of the entertainment was made up of slaves fighting each other for death or freedom. The other battles were fought by the many factions of fighters, mostly known broadly now as Gladiators (although Gladiators are technically only those free men who fought other free men in armed combat). Despite the broad term, there were actually multiple different types of fighters, all with their own titles dependent on their weapons, armour, or opponents, or any combination of these. The famous fights with exotic beasts like lions, for example, were fought by a special group of fighters called Bestiarii, although this term was also used for the unfortunate slaves and criminals who were placed in the arena to be executed rather violently by said animals. Cestus were fist-fighters who used a sort of knuckleduster known as a cestus and wore no armour, Retiarius fought using a trident and a net, and a Sagittarius fought on horseback using a reflex bow. Why would people risk their lives in such violent events, I hear you ask? Well, as it has been throughout history, testosterone fuelled men sought glory and fame, and the most accomplished of them garnered just that.
Regardless of who was fighting, the result was generally gory, and, as such, the seating here was separated into different areas. When you also take into account the fact that the upper echelons came to the arena more to be seen than to actually watch, the audience structure makes perfect sense. Unsurprisingly, the more power and money you had, the closer you were placed to the action, and the special VIP area which was once used by the emperor and other upper class is still easy to spot my way of its bright white stone steps. The lower levels were set aside for traders and diplomats, especially those local aristocrats were trying to impress; the middle level was were the common folk enjoyed the show; and the upper level was set aside for the ladies, so that their delicate sensibilities wouldn’t be offended by all the high definition horror. Although much of the arena is damaged, you can still see where much of the seating was once covered from the sun, and as you reach the highest traversable areas, which even include the remnants of brick ovens once used to provide food to spectators, you are gifted with a stunning view not only over the arena, but also out to the Roman ruins of Palatine Hill, our next destination after the Colosseum.
The tour came to an end, and as we were released to explore the rest of the arena which you can access on a general admission, we chatted happily about all we had just learnt, marvelling at the architecture a little longer before we ducked back out, via the gift shop, of course. Returning to the open space in the front, we took a moment to admire the Arch of Constantine, the massive triumphal arch built in 315 AD to commemorate the victories of Emperor Constantine I. Considering its age and its exposure to the elements, the carved reliefs have survived incredibly well.
We had set aside the rest of the day to explore Palatine Hill, but first we needed to put a little fuel in the tank, so we braved the crowds and headed up to the street to find some food. Spotting a small café which sold take-away paninis, we grabbed a quick bite, took them outside, and found an enviable perch from which to eat and admire the Colosseum from a different angle. Bolstering our sandwiches with muesli bars and a packet of Fonzies (which for my fellow Australians are basically cheese Twisties by a funnier name), we were soon on our way to continue our adventure.
Before we dive in, let me give you a brief overview of Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum at its base. Now, despite looking like little more than a jumble of unrelated ruins in varying states of decay, this area has been settled since the 10th century BC. It was once the nucleus of the Roman Empire, which originally housed the homes of the rich, but later, in imperial times, was the site of multiple palaces. Later, in the 16th century, the private owners of the land built their own villa on the once imperial hill, but the area now sits as an open-air museum which displays not only the ruins of previous buildings uncovered here, but also other ruins transferred from local Roman historic sites.
First off, after walking in under the Arch of Titus, we decided to head up to the ruins of one of the many temples which were once dotted around the landscape and offered a place to worship the Roman gods. This temple, which offers a pretty stunning panorama of the Colosseum, was dedicated to the goddess Venus, and although not much of it remains, the back wall from behind the altar gives an idea of how large it must have been. From here we followed the numbered map around the other, at times hard to recognise, ruins in the lower section. From the arched side wall of the Basilica of Maxintius, to the ruins of a good handful of other temples, a smattering of gravity defying columns, and the jumble of carved stone remnants which now fill the open space of the old piazza.
Wanting to move out of the masses, we decided to follow the path that heads off round the bottom of the hill and enjoyed the quiet as we admired the haunting beauty of the overgrown brickwork which was once part of the residences here millennia ago, as well as the ancient baths. Once we finished the full circuit, it was time to head up the hill to the palace ruins. On the way up we passed the remnants of an ancient horse training track, which makes sense in a city which was once known for its chariot racing.
At the peak sits a mixture of Roman ruins, as well as later remains of the private villa which once stood here. The main attraction, and feast for the eyes, comes in the form of the gardens, with its grottoesque fountain, and stunning marble statues. When you finally manage to pull your eyes away from the immediate beauties, the visit is rounded off by a perfect view down over the entire historical site.
With the sun sinking low, and our legs aching from our rather strenuous day, we began the long trek home, naturally stopping for gelato along the way. Eventually we made it home, thankful that the tiny elevator meant we didn’t have to traverse the stairs up to our apartment. Now, my brother might not have come along for the adventure, but he made himself useful by cooking pasta and meatballs for dinner; something I think all three of us were more than grateful for. As I settled my weary self down on the couch to flick through my photos ofthe day, my imagination wandered, picking up the tumble of stones and putting them back together like Lego. I daydreamed myself back to a time when fighting people to the death was a genuine way to get out of slavery, killing now endangered species with rudimentary weapons was a way to certain glory, and gods were multitudinous. To be honest I’ve always found the idea of multiple gods to be far more interesting than monotheistic religions. The idea that instead of one all-knowing deity, there was instead an entire team of gods and goddesses each with specific areas of expertise, always makes it seem as though your problems are far more likely to be granted divine attention. As I pondered this, I did have to wonder, which gods did the slaves pray to as they swung their swords? Did they pray for strength from Mars and Bellona, the god and goddess of war? Did they pray for wisdom from Minerva, or for healing from Apollo? Did criminals facing the jaws of lions pray to Diana in some vain hope that the goddess of wild animals and the hunt might sway the beast to spare them, or did she only listen to the pleas of the Bestiarii and turn a deaf ear to the sinners? Instead of salvation, did they all simply pray for a seat among the gods should their next breath be their last? If you listen hard enough, can you still hear whispers of their names in the stones of this city? Perhaps tomorrow I would find out.