Our last morning in Rome we headed to the roof once more for our breakfast with a view. We brought our avocado from Manja that had ripened, and asked for a knife from the kitchen to open it. I ordered my new drink: espresso dumped into a cappuccino. We were plagued by wasps this morning, which surprised us because we had not seen one at all on previous visits to the roof. At first we thought it was only one, so I trapped it beneath an empty cup and we breathed a sigh of relief for a minute till its cousins arrived. We ate as fast as we could, to escape the bees. When someone came to clear the table, I held her back till I uncovered the wasp first. Otherwise that would have been an unpleasant shock!
Our hotel was so close to the Colosseum that we didn’t even have to take the subway, and we simply walked over. We were still worried about the stories of standing in lines forever in Rome, so we had reservations for the first group of the morning and we got there early, tickets on my phone. On this trip I was again grateful for the extraordinary tool my phone has become to me. My plane tickets were on the phone. My COVID-19 vaccination card photo, the QR code verifying my completion of the EU dPLF (instead of a customs form), a photo of my passport, QR codes for all the tickets I bought, the reservation confirmations, the hotel and Air bnb reservations, camera to scan codes to get restaurant menus during a pandemic, my calendar and itinerary of the whole trip, my WhatsApp to communicate with Manja and a potential Rome tour guide, a way to edit my blog while traveling, the downloaded map of the Julian Alps we used on our hike. Can you believe how handy phones are today, compared to 10 years ago?
Oh yes, and Pedro’s phone GPS was vital (his because my phone was totally uncooperative with cell data the whole trip). We were following the phone’s directions, wondering if we were going the right way, and looked up.
I had not found time to educate myself about the Colosseum before arriving, so I didn’t really know what I was looking at, or what to look for. We relied heavily on information signs on site. I caught myself being a horrible tourist when I mentioned to Pedro that I had seen multiple Greek and Roman theatres (in Turkey and Jordan) in much better condition. Much of this amphitheatre is missing because it was heavily harvested for stone, nearly all the seats are gone, walls are topped in protective concrete. But I needed to see what was there, rather than what was not there. One of the most incredible things about the Colosseum in Rome is that it is HUGE. It is the largest standing amphitheatre in the world today. It could hold up to 80,000 but typically had audiences of 65,000. I also saw the smaller amphitheatre in Arles, but this is the only one I have been inside. Another remarkable thing about this construction (and the one in Arles) is that it is not built into the side of a mountain to help with stability, but built to stand on its own.
Around the outer part of the stadium, as you find in modern stadiums, there were wide spaces to walk, on multiple levels. Instead of stands to buy nachos and beer, however, the Colosseum is a outdoor museum, displaying many of the statues and columns and carved plaques that were found during excavations. We learned that there was a period of time when Nature had taken over the ruins and the place was a sort of garden, where one could walk and admire the greenery rooted in brick foundations. I appreciated an artist’s impression of what the old floor and caverns beneath looked like when they were used. Apparently beasts and captive humans meant for spectacle were kept beneath the floor and brought up in lifts. I learned that the floor area was set up like a scene of a play (a jungle forest, for example) for the beasts and men to fight in. The audience couldn’t see any of the mechanisms, and saw things burst unexpectedly through trap doors in the floor.
Over time, the risk of collapse and fire caused the underground area to become disused and eventually filled with earth. An earthquake in 443 did serious damage. The last spectacle was held here in 523. These underground portions were forgotten because the floor covered them until they were rediscovered in 1874.
Visitors are allowed to roam free in the Colosseum. Once inside you can go where you like and take as long as you like. We did not buy the extra pass to explore the underground levels, so we could only go up. We did climb to upper levels and got a better view of both the inside and the outside.
After we circled the entire place and went through every level we had access to, we found our way back out and headed toward the area called The Forum, next to Palatine Hill. We joined a line and this one and only time on our whole two-week trip, did we stand in line for a very long time in the uncomfortably hot sun. We waited along the Via Sacra (Sacred Street), slowly approaching the Arch of Titus. The Arch of Titus celebrates the defeat of a revolt in Judea in 70 CE by Titus and his father Vespasian. They destroyed the Temple of Herod, and looted it to bring treasure back to Rome, and used this wealth to begin building the Colosseum. Scenes from this event, and the huge parade to celebrate, are shown in the arch. However, we had been admiring the more impressive Arch of Constantine for a couple hours, so – inspired by its Italian name “Arco di Tito” – when we got to Titus’ monument, we called it a diminutive Arcito di Tito. Titus would probably find that insulting.
We entered the area beneath The Archito of Titus, and turned first to our left, to explore Palatine Hill. The rich, famous, and powerful lived on Palatine Hill back in the old days. Though only restored ruins remain, it was clear to us that this was a place where palaces and gardens and fountains used to be. Today there are several fountains that are maintained, and they often provide drinking water for tourists. The view was outstanding and it used to look out over the Tiber River. It also overlooks the Circus Maximus (a chariot racing stadium), which that day was hosting an equestrian event. We actually watched horses jump hurdles in Circus Maximus. Palatine Hill may have been the neighborhood of leaders from Rome’s earliest days. Excavations of stone huts on the hill have led archaeologists to suggest that they are what remains of Romulus’ home – the city’s namesake. Today the area is still beautiful, but it was so beautiful at its prime that our word “palace” comes from the fabulous homes on the Palatine, including Augustus Caesar’s home.
The Roman Forum is the name given to the square near the Colosseum. Just like in today’s cities, the stadium is handy to have nearby, but it’s not where everyone spends their time. The Forum was a city center for commerce, religion, politics, administration and social life. There were temples, courthouses, meeting spaces, restaurants, offices, brothels, markets, bars – whatever you needed.
Much of the Forum is missing due to its stone being harvested for other projects, such as St. Peter’s Basilica. But interestingly, much of it survives despite thousands of years, looting, earthquakes, and weather. One reason could be that companies were accountable for their construction and materials, so they did an excellent job. Today stamps on bricks can be seen, showing the name of the factory in which they were produced.
It was a good choice to explore Palatine Hill first, because from up there we got a good look at the Forum before we entered it. Once we returned to the valley, we walked from end to end, from Arcito di Tito on the East side to Arco di Settimio Severo on the West side. It was a hot and humid day and for generally fit Pedro and I, we still sought out tiny scraps of shade and a rare stone available for sitting. After two hours at the Colosseum we spent another two hours walking the grounds of the Palatine Hill and the Forum.
All the tourists were too hot and too fatigued, and we smiled at other red faces and forgave each other when we got in each other’s way. There was plenty of water, thanks to the city of Rome and to a big sign along the Via Sacra that mapped all the free water spigot sites. But it was warm (due to the weather) tap water, and at one point Pedro craved cold water from a vending machine that we found somewhat in the center of the place. We stood in line there for a good 15 minutes behind a German woman with two hot and tired toddlers, bless her heart. They were begging for chocolate and water, and it appeared that she had never used a vending machine in her life, as each attempt to retrieve an item was fraught with confusion and challenges like trying to insert a credit card into the bank note slot. Each attempt became more difficult as the children’s wails became more insistent. We waited with another couple behind the small and determined family, then finally chuckled to ourselves – glad we had no children to look after – and left them to go find another warm water spigot.
The path we had been following led us away from the Colosseum. All the way at the western end there is a type of natural stop, since the Forum is in a sort of valley bound on the south and west by hills. We climbed the rise past the Arch of Septimius Severus and up to the remains of the Temple of Saturn. Then we found a path up and out. We saw the gate was unmanned but it was the kind that was exit-only. Pedro and I glanced at each other for confirmation, and yes, we were both ready to exit and to go find a place to sit and to eat.
Then we found ourselves alone on the streets of Rome with no idea of which direction to go. But we had lots of time before our next appointment, so we were unconcerned and unhurried, and we made our way up the hill to see what else we could see. Hopefully one of those sights would include a restaurant with copious seating.