Rome: the modern city that sprawls around an ancient empire
A glamorous and cosmopolitan city, Rome boasts more history and art than many countries combined. Regarded as one of the birthplaces of western civilisation, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The Romans have been busy for years, continually developing modern society and social norms. With a history that spans more than two and a half thousand years, it seems obvious the city would be full of ruins and evidence of that past. For me, I was astounded by the sheer volume of Ancient Rome that is hidden in every corner of the modern city. Excitement took over as we wandered the city for the first time, blown away by things as simple as the cobblestone alleyways. As a place I have always wanted to visit, Rome certainly captured my attention.
Throughout Rome there is evidence of the ancient city that once reigned supreme. As with any historical place, there are a number of myths and legends attached which define the ancient times. The most prevalent myth I noticed was the legend of Romulus and Remus, who are believed to be the founders of Rome. The legend tells the story of Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of Mars, God of War. They were left to drown, but a she-wolf rescued and nursed the twins, who lived to eventually be the founders the city of Rome. Later, in a fit of anger Romulus killed his brother and crowned himself King of Rome in BC 753.
After only several Kings ruled the Romans themselves took over, forming a senate that proceeded to govern Ancient Rome. They appointed a consul, who ruled like a King, but he was only in power for a year to encourage fair and just rulings. During these times there were four social classes that were extremely important to the Romans. Lowest were the slaves who were owned by others and had no rights; the plebeians were next, free people who had little say or power; equestrians (or Knights) were next, the first of the rich classes; and lastly the highest class were the nobles or patricians who held majority of the power.
The gap in society continually widened and over time lead to the crumble of the once strong Ancient Rome. Julius Caesar travelled from Spain and initiated a civil war in ancient Italy, which essentially resulted in his successful appointment as dictator of Rome in BC 45. His reign lasted less than a year when he met his untimely death at the hands of his enemies. A long succession of Emperors followed, many of who met violent ends. The Roman Empire gradually disintegrated between 400 and 500 AD.
A lack of archeological evidence has made it difficult for historians to gain insight into life for Romans in the middle age, however, in the 7th century Rome was temporarily placed under protection of the Pope, who continued to rule until the 19th century. Napoleon invaded in the late 18th century and a series of great changes followed. After the capture of Pope Pius VI in 1798, the French proclaimed Rome a republic and a second capital of France. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna reinstated the papal supremacy, however, the Italian people had a newfound patriotism after the occupation of Napoleon and in 1861 attempts were made to completely unify Italy.
The Kingdom of Italy took the papal headquarters with force in 1870, ending papal rule. In 1871 Rome was proclaimed the capital of United Italy, which marked the beginning of modern Rome. What followed was rapid expansion, dictatorship under Mussolini, World War II and the consequential development of a republic that lead to presidential elections in 1946.
Today, all aspects of the history are reflected throughout the city. I have never experienced anything like it, where such incredible pieces of history co-exist with Metro stations and McDonalds. While Rome was just what I had expected, nothing could have prepared me for the integration of old and new to the extent it is throughout Rome. I was flabbergasted when I realised ‘SPQR’ stands for Senatus Populus Que Romanus, or The Roman Senate and People. This dates back to the ancient Roman Republic, where officials put the acronym on everything Roman as a way to ensure the Roman citizens felt included and secure. Today, it is still seen inscribed on many things from storm water drains to intricate pieces of artwork and architecture. Just another example of the incredibly integrated ancient world.
We stayed in a tiny studio apartment in the heart of Trastevere. While the place was tiny, it had everything we needed and was in a great location. The location makes a huge difference and can change the whole experience in the town. We were also walking distance from everything, which was a definite bonus.
After our delicious pizza in Naples we decided to try another in Rome. True to descriptions, the Roman pizza had a much thinner, crispier base than that in Naples. The simple toppings (we had a Margherita and a prosciutto pizza) were delicious. It’s interesting, after having pizza at home that is absolutely laden with topping; I have enjoyed the more simple ones on offer here. Understanding a bit more about the background of the food makes me appreciate the basic, but perfectly balanced ingredients.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Rome is an incredible city, not only are the famous buildings amazing, all the others are equally impressive; it’s almost as if they are all trying to keep up. For me, walking around the city stole my attention. I loved exploring Rome. The old buildings, cobblestones, and of course the people, created an atmosphere I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Like anyone travelling to Rome for the first time, we reached ‘master’ tourist level; wandering the famous sights, streets and regions until our feet hurt.
Quite possibly one of the most famous pieces of ancient architecture, the Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world. Commissioned around AD 70 by Emperor Vespasian, it took a mere 10 years to build, which is incredible considering the size and scale of the structure. Inside, there was seating for 50,000 people and a network of awnings that extended over the Colosseum to provide shade to the spectators. Each of these features would have made the Colosseum grandiose and an altogether astonishing place.
I was surprised to learn the entertainment often started in the morning and continued throughout the day. The main source of entertainment came from the brutal fights between gladiators. The gladiators were usually slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners of war, trained by specialist coaches. Occasionally, men would choose to participate in the gladiator fights as a way of earning fame and glory. These fights were always the main event, with wild animal fights, hunts and circus-type acts put on as part of the buildup. What further surprised me was the arena was designed to be flooded with water to allow mock naval engagements. It’s incredible to imagine the engineering required to pull off something like that and to then think the Romans managed it so many years ago.
It is thought a change in public taste coincided with the ticket price increasing, which consequentially lead to the decline of the popularity of the gladiator combats. Eventually, they stopped completely and the Colosseum was deserted. Now, nearly 70% has been destroyed and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that restoration efforts began. Regardless, thousands of people (including us) flock to the ancient grounds each year. While it is clearly ruins, it is also easy to see the rows of seating in the stadium and imagine the people cheering for their favourite gladiator; as barbaric as that seems. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size, yet another time I have been amazed by the work of those that walked this planet before us.
The Palatine Hill, or Palatino, would be famous by association even if it wasn’t incredibly historic itself. Nestled between the Roman Forum and Circo Massimo, with glorious views of the Colosseum, it’s clear to even a novice that this was a place of importance. As the most central of Rome’s hills, this was where the Roman Emperors lived a lavish and luxurious lifestyle. Archaeologists have dated human inhabitation of the area as far back as the 8th century BC and if you follow the myths, this would be where Romulus lived as the first Emperor after he founded Rome.
Today, the area is a series of ruins that expand across the hill. Evidence remains of sunken areas that are thought to have been private games arenas, complex networks of baths, and impressive fountains. A small museum on the grounds has many of the statues and pieces of marble with extensive and detailed carvings. It is clear no expense or trouble was spared; archaeologists have discovered many of the stones and marbles used were high quality, imported and often carved with intricate designs. It would have been an incredible display of ostentatious wealth before it was left for ruins.
The Roman Forum was the centre of the ancient city of Rome. All activity of any reasonable importance happened here, from the administration of justice through to prostitution. The architecture was elaborate and the area was full of statues and monuments to respect those who were considered ‘great’ during that time.
While we were exploring Palatine Hill, we spent quite some time in the gardens overlooking the Roman Forum. In my opinion, it was the best view of the area and allowed us to visualise the township, as it would have been all those years ago. I’m sure the emperors of the time must have done the same thing. As we wandered the ruins it was incredible to see the details that have been preserved, especially the elaborate columns that rise high above the ancient township. Evidence that the city that once existed here was magnificent.
Capitol Square or Capitoline Hill is nestled next to the Roman Forum and is another of the seven hills in Rome. Home to the Capitoline Muesums, Piazza del Campidoglio and several other incredible buildings, it isn’t surprising to learn the area was designed by Michelangelo. Pope Paul III commissioned the design of the square, with initial designs dating back to 1536. The design was supposed to reflect new Rome, which is evident in the symbolic way the piazza is orientated away the Roman Forum, looking across what was then the newly developed Papal Rome and St Pauls Basilica.
The square is beautiful. We enjoyed wandering both the Piazza del Campidoglio and the Capitoline Museums. The collection has been dated back to 1471 and consists of exhibits that have come from Rome. While the museum grew to include Palazzo Nuovo (as well as Palazzo dei Conservatori) in 1654, it wasn’t until 1734 that the museum became accessible to the public.
As with majority of historical art collections, I found many of the exhibits difficult to interpret. I can appreciate the beauty and sometimes the significance of the pieces but I struggle to draw much more from the artwork. What I did notice was the prevalence of art that included the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus. It was interesting to see the way the Roman legends are kept alive through art.
The Fontana di Trevi is a famous Baroque fountain in the centre of Rome. Thousands of people flock to the fountain each year, many throwing a coin into the waters. The legend ensures a return visit to Rome if you toss a coin into the waters of the fountain. After a few minutes of people watching we became inquisitive and asked the policeman next to us how often the money is collected. I was amazed to learn every morning the fountain is cleared and about 1million Euro is collected each year, the money donated to charity.
The fountain is supplied by the ancient virgo (virgin) aqueduct that is over 20km long. It was initially built by Agrippa in 19BC to supply his thermal baths in Campus Martius. In the early Renaissance era the popes began restoring some of the ancient aqueducts, elaborately decorating the ends of those chosen to be restored. While some of the earliest representations of Trevi Fountain date back to 1412, it changed several times throughout history before it was developed into the impressive structure we see today. In 1730, Pope Clemens XII held a contest for the new design of the fountain. It wasn’t until 1762 the fountain was officially reopened after several different project managers and many additions to the initial design.
As we see it today, the statue of Ocean (the personification of an immense river that flows around the earth) is in the centre; carried by a chariot with two horses jockeyed by Tritons. The statue of Abundance is to the left and she has the horn of plenty with her. To the right is the statue of Health, the goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation. The structures have been immaculately preserved and tell an amazing story. As we stood back to admire the fountain, we were instead distracted by people vying for the perfect spot to get ‘the shot’ with their selfie sticks. It was fascinating to watch the number of people who had their backs to the fountain the entire time!
Just down the road from the Trevi Fountain is the Piazza de Spagna and the Spanish Steps. Named after the Spanish Embassy, the square that lies at the bottom is home to the Barcaccia (sinking boat) Fountain. Ironically, the steps lead to Chiesa della Trinita dei Monti, a French Church commissioned by King Louis XII of France in the 1500’s. The Spanish Steps have become a famous spot for people watching and the perfect place to admire a view over Rome. Unfortunately we couldn’t appreciate the Spanish Steps at their best as the centre section was closed for maintenance.
After climbing to the top of the Spanish Steps, we ventured into Villa Borghese, the largest open park in Rome and home to the famous Galleria Borghese. While we didn’t visit the art gallery, we spent a few hours exploring the park. In true Rome fashion, there were multiple statues, villas and fountains throughout the park. It was lovely to have the opportunity to wander around without the busy city hustle.
Piazza del Popolo
The Piazza del Puopolo seems almost unbelievably large. I can’t fathom why they would need such a massive area as a square. With a beautiful fountain at either end, an obelisk in the centre, several incredible buildings and a lovely archway leading into the square, it is certainly a magnificent spot.
Yet another Piazza with yet another fountain, the Piazza Navona was another enchanting corner of Rome. The central fountain ‘Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi’ is an elaborately decorated aqueduct not far from Pantheon. It is also the place people went in Ancient Rome to watch the agones (games) and it was originally called Circus Agnolis, the games arena. As with so many other places in Rome, I was caught off guard by the inspired architecture and cobbled square. We sat and admired the area, trying to absorb some of the exuberant atmosphere.
The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved buildings from Ancient Rome. Brick stamps reveal the building was built between AD 118 and 125 and it is thought to have been in continuous use since. While the exact use of the building is unknown, it is thought to have initially been used as a place of worship.
The most exciting feature of Pantheon is the architecture; to this day it remains to have the largest unsupported concrete dome roof. While there are many examples of the use of arches throughout Rome, Pantheon proves the Romans were extremely competent in incorporating arches in their architecture. While I’m aware the structure is impeccably maintained, it was truly remarkable. There are various other parts of the interior that have been added more recently which complement the dome; however, the dome and ceiling is the true hero of this building.
Any visit to Rome would be incomplete without a trip to the Vatican. I was amazed when I visited the official Vatican website to find a (rather large) link to their Twitter account! Just goes to show even the Pope and the Vatican recognise the importance of having an online presence.
The Vatican City State as it exists today was recognised as a sovereign state under international law in 1929. It is believed to be an “instrument of the independence of the Holy See, and of the Catholic Church, from any earthly power”. Home to the Pope and 800 others who are either citizens (450 people) or have permission to live there, the Vatican truly is a city that exists within the realms of Rome. It also has it’s own currency, postal service, and army.
While we both respect and value religion, neither of us realised we planned to visit the Vatican during a Papal Mass. We thought we had arrived early, slightly surprised by the thousands of others who were already in Saint Peter’s Square. What followed can only be described as hysteria equivalent to what is displayed at a Justin Bieber concert. I was shocked by the pushing and shoving coming from mature women behind me, outrageous screaming and the ever present selfie sticks angling to get a picture of the Pope. While I’ll happily admit to minimal knowledge of the Catholic religion, seeing the Pope was a surreal experience. His security entourage was at least 20 strong and it wasn’t uncommon to see small children being passed through the crowds to be blessed by Pope Francis. An altogether fascinating exchange.
We opted to return the following day to visit the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. After lining up for well over an hour, we ventured inside the Vatican City walls. Commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV (which is where the name ‘Sistine Chapel’ derives from) in the 1475, the Sistine Chapel was completed in 1482 after only 11 months of construction. Michelangelo was commissioned in 1508 to repaint the ceiling; and to this day, the Sistine Chapel is considered one of the most impressive art galleries in the world. He was called back in 1535 (against his will) and completed ‘The Last Judgement’ on the alter wall. While famous for the majestic artwork, the Sistine Chapel is the Pope’s Chapel and continues to be the site of the Papal elections; a symbolic statement of Papal authority.
This was yet another occasion I was overwhelmed by the extensive and intricate artwork. Not only was there Michelangelo’s famous ceiling artwork, the walls were lined with Renaissance frescos by other artists. When we reached the Chapel itself, we sat quietly, attempting to take it all in. I didn’t know where to look; every inch is covered with artwork. I found my attention was constantly drawn back to ‘The Last Judgment’, which was absolutely enthralling.
If I’m honest, after our extensive wait in line and dawdling through the corridors leading to the Sistine Chapel at the pace determined by the hundreds who were ahead of us, we only had a small amount of tolerance for the crowds to allow for too much more art appreciation. With much of the Vatican Museums waiting to be explored, we decided to have a look through one portion before heading back to the apartment for lunch. After a quick lap of one of the wings, we opted to head back outside and were welcomed by a beautiful sunny springs day.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
With such a rich culture and art history, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear the people in Rome had incredible clothes, shoes and bags. The women were usually impeccably dressed with stunning coats, always wearing high heels and not a hair out of place. It certainly made me feel self-conscious in my running shoes and travelling clothes that have certainly lost whatever appeal they originally had long ago. The men were equally well-groomed, fresh haircuts, perfectly manicured facial hair and tailored clothes that again put my mediocre selection to shame.
We misunderstood the instructions from the owner of the Air BnB apartment and managed to jump on the wrong bus! This took us on a tiki tour through Rome, which was nice, but didn’t get us too close to the apartment. In the end, we jumped off and walked the remaining 1.5km.
WHAT WE LEARNT
After adding a few weeks in Europe to our few months of travel, we are slowly learning what kind of travellers we are and what interests us. While it may sound slightly ridiculous, it does take some time to realise what you appreciate and are interested in. For us, it is becoming more obvious the big cities aren’t for us. Rome was amazing and we really enjoyed exploring the city and learning more about the history, but a lot of it was lost on us. There must be hundreds of museums and galleries throughout the city and at every corner there is a historic building.
It was amazing to wander the famous attractions like the Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Vatican; and while I appreciated their beauty, I didn’t truly understand the history or interpret the art in the way it is designed to be seen. A must visit destination; it would definitely be better suited to someone who has a background in art and history, which unfortunately is neither Jimmy nor myself.
We both enjoyed the city, but most of our enjoyment came from wandering the streets and stumbling upon pieces of history without the throngs of people that come with visiting the places like the Vatican. Wandering along the Path of Gods at the Amalfi Coast was, however, much more up our alley. We are so spoilt in New Zealand and Australia with an incredible coastline and such awesome activities to do throughout both countries I think we had exceptionally high expectations coming away. With that said, perhaps if we had more knowledge of the area we would find more of the things that we find more captivating.
As expected, Rome was quite expensive. While we bought the Roma pass (which I think was quite cost effective), we still had to buy tickets to the Vatican and other odd entrance fees. It all adds up quickly! Cooking most of our meals continues to save us a fair amount and I still enjoy the challenge of cooking with minimal ingredients and utensils, although the lack of decent knives is frustrating!
Our ever-evolving plan has changed yet again. We have decided to skip Florence, instead heading straight to La Spezia to explore Cinque Terre. From La Spezia, we will head further north to Milan, Lake Como and hopefully the Dolomites before travelling across to Venice.
As always, we would love to hear your feedback and comments. Also, let us know if you have any hot tips or new ideas for us as we travel. If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it on Facebook, Pinterest or one of the many other forms of social media. To keep up to date with everything on thedustyroad, please subscribe to out mailing list. Thanks for being a part of our journey.