I’m a fan of Monty Python. I can recite screeds of the show verbatim, which serves no useful purpose other than quoting it to people (which is no use in India, because no-one has any idea what I’m talking about). However, as I walked through Rome, the famous skit ‘what have the Roman’s ever done for us’ kept popping up with alarming regularity. As I walked through the Colosseum, the Forum and through the history-laden streets, I learned about how the Romans built roads, irrigation systems, governed, and ran their judicial system. Because the Romans were a really advanced society and they did give so much to the world.
What Asterix & Obelix taught me about Rome (‘these Romans are crazy!’ *tap tap tap*)
Rome was founded in 753 BC by a chap called Romulus. In 45 BC, Julius Caesar became the first dictator of Rome, and for a while, this system worked well, until his mate Brutus assassinated him in 44BC. You may recall a lot of this history from Asterix and Obelix comics, as this is where I learned about Rome (before Monty Python, that is).
The Roman Empire ‘began’ in 27 BC, when Octavius appointed himself as Augustus. Then some guy called Nero burned Rome down and then blamed the Christians. Anyway, from 72 – 80 AD, the Colosseum is built, and that is where our Roma adventure started.
This is a massive amphitheatre – the largest ever built. it could hold up to 80,000 spectators, who would come to watch gladiators fight, animals hunt and kill each other, dramas, and the regular Christian killings, when they would feed them to hungry lions.
In the 6th Century, Christian- killing fell out of fashion and the Colosseum was repurposed. There was a huge earthquake in 1349 and the south side partially collapsed. It was abandoned and then the locals took advantage of the stones/ marble and a great deal of the Colosseum is now found around the rest of Rome.
It is a bigger structure than I anticipated. I hadn’t realised that under the ground, there were sections of tunnels where performers/ wild animals were held until they were called to stage. There were even elevators so that people could suddenly ‘appear’ on the surface. It’s difficult to imagine how this was built, with millions of huge heavy stones all put into place purely by manpower. If you look on the right, close to the edge of the arena, you’ll find the corporate box that was occupied by the local vestal virgins.
The Arch of Constantine
Just outside the Colosseum, you’ll find this massive three-arch structure. This triumphal arch was constructed in 315 AD to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over a guy called Maxentius. This coup was the start of Christianity’s stronghold in Europe, as Constantine’s mother and sister were Christians. His victory over Maxentius allowed him to seize total control and convert Rome to Christianity. In 300 AD, people will still being killed for being Christians… and in 400 AD, you would be killed if you weren’t.
The Roman Forum
If you look to the right of this picture, you can see a line of trees and columns. We walked up there and we arrived at The Forum. This contained the heart of ancient Rome. With important government buildings, temples, and the plaza where people could air their grievances, this was the bustling centre of business and government.
A long, sprawling walk through the ruins is like a who’s who of important Roman history. There’s the Temple of Saturn, burnt down by Gauls in the 4th Century (Asterix? Is that you?). There’s the Temple of Vesta, a curved building that housed a fire that symbolised a hearth at home. The Romans believed that as long as the fire burned, Rome would stand. As a result, six vestal virgins were hired as priestesses and their job was to keep the flame alive. Their other job was to be virgins for 30 years, from ten years to forty years old. If she was successful at not shagging, she got a load of money and was allowed to marry once her term was over. However, if you were less than successful, you’d be buried alive.
Largo di Torre Argentina
This is a square in Rome that houses the ruins of four temples, Pompey’s theatre, and… it’s the site which Caesar was killed (allegedly).
While this is all very interesting to history buffs, I am not one. I have a passing interest in Caesar. But what I am interested in, is cats. And Largo di Torre Argentina is also a cat sanctuary. The square itself was closed for preservation works (November 2017) but on one side, there are a set of steps that go down to… heaven. There are two rooms- one for the able-bodied cats, and one for the disabled cats- all have something ‘wrong’ with them, with deafness, eyes missing, or other deformities. There is a very friendly white cat in this room that LOVES cuddles.
Anyway, you can spend as long as you like down here. I would take cash with you so you can make a donation- or, you can donate online here.
Cats are very friendly, with lots of smooches.
What ELSE have the Romans done for us?
They’ve done heaps of other stuff. Rome has 50 ‘significant’ fountains and hundreds of other non-significant ones. The most significant, arguably, is the Trevi Fountain. This throngs with tourists, even late at night in the off season. I gave up trying to get a good photograph and sat on a bench and spent half an hour chatting to a local guy. He was an architect, so he explained the fountain to me. It basically is about the abundance and prosperity of the area, with so many water sources, and it’s a welcome call to travellers.
It’s certainly impressive- the carvings are detailed and beautiful, and it’s a behemoth! There is a tradition that if you throw a coin into the fountain- backwards, using your right arm over your left shoulder- then you ensure your return to Rome. I did not throw any coins- the Euro/ Rupee conversion is not favourable- but plenty of people do. The fountain is cleaned of coins every night, up to €3,000 worth! These coins are donated to local charities, so I guess you’re doing good by throwing your money away.
The Spanish Steps sound very romantic, but once again, normally the area is heaving with tourists. At about midnight in winter is actually a lovely time to go. It’s a beautiful 135 steps, linking the church above to the piazza below. Why is it called the Spanish Steps? Simply because the Spanish Embassy is also located nearby. While it’s lovely to imagine flamenco dancers or bullfighters on the steps, the concrete truth is more due to geographical proximity.
You may remember that in Naples, we went through the underground catacombs. This was very interesting but all the marble grave-markers had long since disappeared or been repurposed. Well, we found some. These were on a wall of the Church of Saint Cecilia, which is in Trastevere.
Finally, we popped by to visit the Pantheon. The first one was built around 126 AD, and it subsequently burned down. The one you see now is a replacement and it’s not known when it was built. The Pantheon was originally a Temple but has since transitioned into a church.
We didn’t take any photos on the inside, but it’s a huge dome. While the front looks very square, if you peek around the corner… it’s round!
The other thing the Romans did, and did very well, was food. So, I recommend Trattoria Pizzeria Vecchia Roma, which is miles from the tourist spots. It’s hard to find- there’s a door halfway at eye level and the restaurant itself is underground. Packed with locals, the food is fantastic and well-priced… the pepe e cacio was a winner, and the bread, and everything else… but sadly there was no room for desserts. We left with a warm sense of well being and stomachs full of pasta for our last night in Rome.