From the partially reconstructed stage, you’ll get a feel for the gladiators’ experience: the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd reverberating off the marble, the blowing sand which covered the arena (better for soaking up blood), the senators and Vestal Virgins studying your every move from their oval-side seating. Even the emperor is watching, perched in his box. On the present-day second level, admire the Colosseum’s cutting-edge structure of arches and vaults ideal for quickly moving people in and out of the stadium.
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Dig in on Via del Colosseo, the narrow street that leads to the Colosseum. Your guide, aka Indiana Jones, will show you evidence – a temple’s ancient column here, a Roman-era wall there. You’ll look down on the Colosseum from what seems like a hill. Wrong. Under your feet are Renaissance Rome, medieval Rome, ancient Rome.
Descend to the Colosseum, the city’s level in 80 AD when the world’s largest amphitheatre was inaugurated. This remarkable structure stands tall after 2000 years, whereas most modern stadiums last a few decades. Discover the arches built without mortar, remnants of flushing toilets and evidence of the retractable roof. Only in person can you appreciate this monument to engineering, architecture – and power – since slaves did the back-breaking work.
As you gaze at the arena, your guide will bring to life the spectators’ experience, from the senators in the VIP section to the women in the nosebleed seats. The free entertainment came with a price: your vote for the generous emperor. After all, this is the birthplace of “bread and circuses”. Later, on the arena stage, feel the rush that gladiators felt. Rising from the underground backstage via lifts, they popped onto the stage from trap doors to the deafening chants of up to 70,000 people.
The Roman Forum is your next destination. Walk along Via Sacra, the main road taken by victorious Roman soldiers returning home from conquests. You too will pass triumphal arches, including the Arch of Titus commemorating Vespasian’s and later Titus’ victories over Judea. The story (one-sided, of course) comes to life in intricate carvings depicting Victoria, the goddess of victory, next to Titus and soldiers bearing a menorah and other sacred war spoils.
You’ll be astonished by the fourth-century AD Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. What remains of this enormous public building are soaring concrete vaults, remarkable for their ability to support weight. More than a century after it was built, Michelangelo and Bramante studied the building while designing St. Peter’s Basilica. Equally impressive are the Temple of Romulus with its bronze door and precious porphyry stone columns and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Both were converted into churches, protecting them from medieval looters who, you’ll see, nevertheless tried to abscond with materials.
Check out the brick-faced, first-century BC Senate House, repeatedly rebuilt over the years. Shakespeare might claim that Caesar was murdered here, but the Bard is wrong. Learn where Caesar met his maker and then pay your respects at the altar where he was cremated. Scholars have doubts that this is the original altar but that hasn’t stopped visitors from leaving fresh flowers every day. Hail, Caesar!
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Imperial Rome’s largest surviving triumphal arch was built to commemorate Emperor Constantine’s victory over rival Maxentius in a 312 AD civil war battle. But, in reality, the arch decorated with colourful stone is political propaganda at its finest, heralding the great Constantine. Many elements are recycled from other Roman monuments.
Ancient Rome’s Beverly Hills or Kensington, this was the posh, hilltop neighbourhood where emperors built lavish palaces with private but also important public quarters. The Roman Empire’s real wheeling and dealing probably took place inside these majestic ruins. Check out the remains of the Domus Flavia’s opulent audience chamber used for paying respects to the emperor.
The arch, built in circa 81 AD, commemorates Vespasian’s and later Titus’ victories over Judea. The war spoils are depicted in bas-relief, including a menorah that researchers have recently discovered was originally painted a deep yellow. The arch was the inspiration for Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.
The well-preserved, third-century AD monument honours Emperor Septimius Severus and his sons’ victorious campaign over the Parthians. In the 18th century, only the arch’s upper half was visible; the rest was buried under sediment from frequent flooding in the forum – nature’s own protection.
During the centuries when Rome was Caput Mundi (capital of the world), the forum was the Roman Empire’s political, social and commercial heart. Senators, slaves and commoners alike crossed paths in this bustling city centre, visiting the district’s courthouses, temples, government offices and shops. The only residents were the Vestal Virgins.
The forum’s largest and tallest building served as a courthouse and the prefect’s offices. An architectural and engineering masterpiece, the remaining three concrete vaults feature honeycomb-like coffers that helped keep the soaring structure from collapsing under its own weight. The niches held statues and pieces of a gigantic statue of Constantine were found at the site.
Augustus began construction on the temple atop a raised platform after the Senate deified his father. Completed in 29 BC, it is dedicated to the cult of a comet, which appeared following Caesar’s death and was interpreted by the common people as the leader’s soul being received by the gods. In the front of the temple’s ruins, an altar marks the place where Caesar’s body was cremated.
Begun by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the boxy, brick-faced building was the official seat of the Roman Senate. A coin minted in 28 BC depicts the Senate House with a veranda held up by columns. Damaged in at least one fire and repeatedly rebuilt, the building appears as it was in the fourth-century AD. Mussolini finished the restoration in the 1930s.