ANCIENT and OLD ROME TOUR
Piazza Navona – Pantheon – Piazza di Pietra/Temple of Hadrian – Trevi Fountain – Piazza Venezia – Casa Romana dell’Ara Coeli - Capitoline Hill – Roman Forum
1) Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona is one of the most picturesque and important squares in the historical center. This is actually a Baroque or 17th century square, sitting on top of something ancient. Wherever you go in modern Rome – and modern can be anything from the 1400s on to the present – you have to remember that there is ancient Rome beneath you. On average, there is about a 20 foot (6-7m) difference between the ancient ground level and the modern level. Does anyone know what accounts for this changing of the ground level? It was the river. The Tiber river used to flood pretty frequently (at least a few times per century), and when it did, the water would come into the city, depositing all kinds of silt and sediment that was never cleared away, so in the Middle Ages, when nobody cared about archaeology, the monuments of ancient Rome just got filled in. In fact, even today, only about 35% of the ancient city has been excavated, the rest is lying beneath squares like this, your hotels , and so on.
The shape of Piazza Navona, like many spaces in the modern city, is determined by what lies beneath it, so if you look at the shape of this square can you guess what sort of structure might have had this shape in antiquity? A chariot race track? Did you SEE the movie Ben-Hur? They needed a lot more space than we have here. So yes, this does have the same shape as a circus, but it’s a lot smaller. This wasn’t where chariots raced but where … people raced, on foot! Yes, this was where the Romans had their Olympic events (which were of course invented by the Greeks, but the Romans copied almost everything that the Greeks invented), their athletic competitions, or track and field the running races, the throwing of the discus, the javelin, etc. This was called the Stadium of Domitian, built in the 80s AD by the emperor Domitian, and it could seat about 25,000 people. The word stadium is derived from the Greek word “stade,” which was the name of the dash, or short distance race – “stadium” just means “place of the stade.” The stadium was in use for about 400 years, but then after the fall of the Roman empire it was sort of abandoned, and allowed to fill in, and then in the Renaissance, builders made use of the solid foundations already here, so the apartment buildings and churches you see here today are all resting on the bleachers/stands of the ancient place of competition. And if you don’t believe this, there are still some ruins visible around the back of that building at the very end of the square.
So, that’s the ancient history here. Now, as for the modern, Piazza Navona got most of its decoration in the 1650s, during the height of the Baroque. There used to be a very wealthy family living on this square; they were called the Pamphilj, and their old palace is now the Brazilian embassy. Now, the Pamphilj, like many of the wealthy families of the period, produced a pope from among their family members. In those days, you see, you didn’t necessarily have to be holy to become pope – you just had to have a lot of money – amazingly, sons of the aristocracy were becoming cardinals at the age of 15!
So anyway, the Pamphilj produced a pope, Innocent X, who wanted to embellish this square, which was basically his front yard, and so he commissioned the best artists of the day to create the fountain in the middle of the square and the church just in front of it . Now the number one, most important artist of Baroque Rome was Gian Lorenzo Bernini , and he created this fountain in the center of the square, called the Fountain of the Four Rivers, or, more properly in Italian, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Each of the figures on the four corners of this fountain is in a reclining position – whenever you see reclining figures in art, you’re looking at a water god of some kind. So each of them represents a river in a continent over which the Catholic religion had been spread. The figure closest to us is the Danube, representing Europe; to the right is the Ganges, representing Asia ; back to the left is the Plata for South America (as the Amazon was not known to Bernini), and then on the other corner, out of our view, is the Nile, representing Africa.
At roughly the same time Bernini was working on the fountain, Innocent X had contacted another Baroque architect, Francesco Borromini, to design the façade of this church. Now, it was no secret that Bernini and Borromini were not the best of friends, but that was the whole point: commission two rival artists to work 100 feet apart, and they’ll produce the best possible artworks in their efforts to outdo eachother. The scheme worked, because both men produced masterpieces.
Borromini’s church, called Sant’Agnese in Agone, is a wonderful example of a Baroque façade – it’s dynamic, with all kinds of curves and countercurves, theatrical, and monumental. This was a time when the popes were trying to convince the masses that the Catholic church was still a good thing (following attacks by Martin Luther and co. during the Protestant Reformation), and so the architecture of the day was designed to attract people. Many Baroque facades are concave, so that as you walked by, you would be almost drawn in by the shape of the building, following the curve until you reached the front door. The church here is dedicated to St Agnes, who was a Roman martyr, a girl about 14 years old who was Christian in the days when Christianity was still illegal. Her religion was discovered, and the pagan persecutors decided to publicly humiliate her by exposing her nude, here, in what used to be the old stadium, in front of thousands of spectators. When they tore off her toga, her hair came miraculously undone from the bun it was held in, and covered her exposed flesh. Then they tried to burn her alive, but just as the flames got going, a miraculous wind picked up and blew the flames out. At that point, they decided just to decapitate her, and that is in fact how she died. And, her head is actually on display inside the church today! The rest of her body lies several miles away in a church called Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, or St Agnes outside the Walls, built over the catacombs where she was originally buried, head and all, along the via Nomentana, northeast of the center. When burials were allowed in the city, they started bringing the body parts of some of the saints back to the center, and Agnes’s head was brought here. The name of this church, Sant’Agnese in Agone, means “in competition,” why? For the ancient competitions that took place here in the old stadium, where she was killed.
Now if you look back at the fountain, you might notice that none of Bernini’s river gods is facing the church in front of them: this is said to be not accidental, but Bernini displaying his contempt for Borromini’s architecture in front of him. The hands of the Plata are raised, it is said, because Bernini feared the church structure would fall, but the Plata would be strong enough to protect the fountain down below. This is a great legend, repeated over and over by many tour guides, but it is, in fact, just a legend. When Bernini finished his fountain, in 1651, Borromini had not even begun construction on the façade (he took over in 1653) – so in fact if there’s any bad blood between the two structures, it’s on the part of Borromini, who put a statue of St Agnes at the top of the façade, on the right, next to the belltown. Look at the way she’s standing, with her gaze turned down the length of the piazza, her hand over her heart – it’s as if she’s just caught sight of this pathetic “lawn ornament” down below, and is about to feel sick.
One other thing to mention – this granite spire on the top of the fountain – anyone know what this is called? An obelisk, yes. And where do obelisks come from? Egypt. And while there is a total of 13 obelisks around Rome today, only 9 are actually Egyptian, and the other 4, including this one, are fakes, made by the Romans from blank pieces of Egyptian granite, but whose hieroglyphics talk about the deeds and glories of the emperors, not the pharaohs. This obelisk, we know, was made in the time of the emperor Domitian, in the first century AD, but later it was moved to the Circus of Maxentius, a chariot race track on the ancient Appian Way, where it lay in ruins until the time of Innocent X and Bernini, and it was transported here and incorporated into the fountain design.
By the way, the name Piazza Navona is derived from the Greek “platea in agone,” or “place of competition,” named for the Olympics that took place here in antiquity. Over time, the Romans started slurring their words, and “platea” became “piazza,” and “in agone” became “nagona,” and finally “navona.”
2) The Pantheon
The Pantheon is the best preserved ancient Roman building anywhere in the world. As you may or may not know, the Roman Empire stretched as far east as Iran, north to Germany and Britain, south to north Africa, and west to Portugal. And in every territory they conquered, they built, but in none of the lands that used to be part of the Empire is there anything as well preserved as this building here… which just happens to be in Rome. So, as you can see, the Pantheon is quite a treasure.
The Pantheon was built from 118-125 AD, and in ancient times it functioned as a pagan temple to all the gods – the word pantheon, in Greek, just means “place for all gods.” And since the Romans had all the same gods as the Greeks (they just changed their names) and the Etruscans, and then they also deified emperors… by the height of the Empire there were over 200 gods that needed worshipping, and if you had to build individual temples to each and every god, well, that would be a lot of temples, and there wasn’t much room left in Rome. So, they did the smart thing and built one temple to all of them, so the Pantheon was one-stop worshipping. The building was in use as a pagan temple until the end of the Roman empire, and then in the 7th century (609 AD) the Pantheon was reconsecrated as a Catholic church, and so it’s been in use almost continuously. Its being made into a church is one of the main reasons it’s so well-preserved today: if it had just remained an abandoned pagan temple, it would certainly have been dismantled by the popes, and its building materials used to make other churches out of, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The main thing that’s different about the Pantheon today versus 1900 years ago is the level at which we approach it – remember that the ancient level is about 20-25 ft below the modern level . So, the Pantheon was built on a high podium (like all Roman temples) and in antiquity would have been approached by a monumental flight of stairs. Halfway up the stairs was an altar, where you would sacrifice a lamb or something before entering the temple (sacrificial animals were a sort of entrance ticket to the temple). Once up the stairs, you entered the porch (technical term is pronaos) – which still consists of its original 16 monolithic Egyptian granite columns, 40ft/13m high, Sixteen SOLID shafts of pink or grey granite. What they would have done is put an order in with the stone-cutters of Egypt, who then had to quarry the granite, shape the rough blocks of it into columns, turning them on a lathe to make them smooth, and identical, SIXTEEN times, and then they would ship the columns up to Rome. The columns were packed in lentils to keep them from chipping each other, and to protect the hull of the ship. The ancient sources record, however, that the first shipment of columns for the Pantheon sank on its way to Rome, and is still lying somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea. So, they had to start all over again. Once the columns reached Rome’s port, Ostia, they were then transferred onto a river barge and towed by oxen up the Tiber to the city. Then they were unloaded from the barge, and dragged through the city over wooden rollers to the building site, on streets that were narrower in those days even than they are today.
The Pantheon only has columns across the front, which is typical for Roman temples, unlike Greek temples, which had columns all the way around. Across the top of the columns is the inscription (the bronze letters are restored, not original, but they could tell by the attachment holes which letters were where, and by marks that the metal left on the marble), which reads M AGRIPPA LF COS TERTIUM FECIT, which means Marcus Agrippa, the son of Lucius, in his third term as consul, built this. If you knew your Roman history, you would know that Marcus Agrippa was consul for the third time in 27 BC, which doesn’t match up with the date that I told before – 118-125AD – for the building’s construction. The story here is that Marcus Agrippa DID dedicate a temple to all the gods – that is, A Pantheon – on this spot in 27 BC, but his temple looked nothing like this. It was rectangular, a lot smaller, faced the other direction, and was destroyed by a fire in the 80s AD. About 30 years later Hadrian comes along and wants to rebuild the temple, but his architecture would be much more daring and monumental, but when he finished building the new Pantheon, he didn’t put his name anywhere on the building, instead he returned the original inscription to the new façade, giving Agrippa all the credit. (For centuries, historians and architects were baffled by the inscription; they couldn’t figure out how in 27BC this sort of architecture could have been realized – there simply weren’t the advances in engineering yet. Today, the Hadrianic date is known by the manufacture stamps on the bricks in the main body of the Pantheon – Roman brickmakers put the date of the manufacture on all their bricks, which is incredibly helpful for archaeologists. ***The inscription underneath is from the 3rd century AD, from the restorations carried out by Septimius Severus and Caracalla.)
One more thing to point out before going inside the Pantheon – if you look at the triangular face at the top of the building, that’s called the pediment, or the tympanum, and as you can see, it’s covered with holes. Any idea what those holes are from? Barbarians! Those holes are where pieces of metal were stuck into the stone, and from which sculpture used to hang. The sculpture might have been of a mythological scene, made of marble, bronze, ivory, or gold – we don’t know, as it’s long gone, and the lead and iron hooks that held the sculpture in place are long gone as well – yanked out of the stone by the barbarians and melted down to make weapons. So, whenever you see small holes like this on an ancient Roman building, it’s evidence of Barbarian pillaging in the Middle Ages.
The interior of the Pantheon, the sacred part of the temple (technical term is cella), looks pretty much as it would have looked 1900 years ago. A lot of people are surprised to see just how colorful things were in ancient Rome, but these marble panels on the walls, under our feet, are all original to the 2nd century AD. The Romans would use marble from the far-away territories of the empire as a way of demonstrating their power over the world. ( The white and black veined marble is pavonazzetto, fromGreece; the yellow is giallo antico, from Tunisia (ancient Carthage, thus very significant to use this marble); the purple is a granite, called porphyry, from Egypt, and the green (on the walls) is serpentine, from Egypt.)
This is what the interior of many Roman buildings would have looked like – if any of you have been to Pompeii, you’ll recognize this color scheme from the frescoes at Pompeii. The Roman color palette was made up of rich, saturated colors, not pastels. Unfortunately, hardly any of these rich interiors are preserved, as they were dismantled and used for other building projects over the centuries. But, since the Pantheon was made into a church so early on the interior has been well preserved. Remember, the best thing that can happen to a pagan building is if the popes come along and put a cross inside!
And, this being a church, you’ll now see sculptures and frescoes of Christian themes around the niches of the building today where there would have been statues of pagan gods in antiquity, but those statues were taken away (not known exactly what happened to them, or who was represented where; Jupiter probably occupied the main niche where the main altar is, flanked by Juno and Minerva, and there were probably statues of the other main gods – Venus, Mars, Vesta, Vulcan, Mercury, Diana, etc – around the other niches.). But since there weren’t nearly enough niches for all the 200 gods that the Romans had, many were worshipped through the ceiling.
The dome of the Pantheon is really the most impressive thing about the building. It is an unreinforced poured concrete dome, 43m/143 feet in diameter, and the height of the building is the same exact dimension – 43m/143 feet, so the dome itself has the shape of a perfect hemisphere. (The dome was poured IN PLACE – for some reason a lot of people think it was lifted up there somehow — over a pre-fabricated wooden mould. To give it some structure they built sixteen masonry ribs up to a certain height, over which to pour.) The hole at the center of the dome is intentional; it’s called the oculus, which means ‘eye’ in Latin designed to be not only a source of light for the temple, but also a way to communicate with the gods in the heavens. The shape of the dome itself was meant to mimic the shape of the heavens, the vault of the sky. The oculus measures 9m/30ft in diameter, and there is no glass up there – never has been – so what happens when it rains in Rome? It rains in the Pantheon. We get a big shower in here. In fact, if you look at the center of the floor, there are little drain holes for when it gets wet in here. On the more important Catholic holidays, when they have mass here, they sometimes send firemen up to the top of the dome, who pour buckets and buckets of red rose petals through the oculus, fluttering down and covering the Pantheon with this blanket of what seems like red velvet.
If you look at the shapes in this building, from the dome, to the walls, to the floor, the two shapes you see over and over are the circle and the square. Many of you are probably familiar with this drawing, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. It’s a Renaissance drawing but an ancient concept — that is, that a human body, with limbs extended, most naturally occupies a circle and a square. And those are the shapes that govern the building – when you walk through the doors, you’re immediately surrounded by your most natural environment, circles and squares wherever you look. So, it’s an incredibly sophisticated architecture.
Since this is a church today, there are some people buried here, the most famous of whom is the Renaissance artist Raphael, who died in 1520, at the age of 37, on his birthday, April 6. Raphael’s friends knew how much he loved the Pantheon, so when he died, they arranged to get him a burial plot inside the Pantheon – his tomb is over there (point) under that statue of the Madonna and Child. Behind a glass panel, there’s a simple marble sarcophagus.
There are other Renaissance virtuosi buried here, including Perin del Vaga, Baldassare Peruzzi, and Flaminio Vacca; there are plaques recording their tombs in the Chapel of the Virtuosi, the first rectangular niche to the right of the door (if in the center of the building; to the left if you’re walking in). While there’s no visible record of it, the guy that Caravaggio killed in 1606, Ranuccio Tomassoni, is also buried here.
The most visible tombs here are those of the first kings of Italy, the Savoia monarchs. The first king of Italy, Victor Emanuel II, is over there ; Vittorio Emanuele II, Padre della Patria (father of the nation). His son, the second king of Italy, Umberto I, Re d’Italia, is over here . Under his tomb, in the porphyry box on the floor, is the tomb of his wife, the queen Margherita, who got a pizza named after her.
Another great admirer of the Pantheon was Michelangelo, who isn’t buried here, but who loved the building so much that when he was commissioned to design the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican, he deliberately kept his dome 1.5m/5ft smaller than that of the Pantheon to show his respect for the ancient builders. Michelangelo was a classy guy. (Brunelleschi, who designed the dome of the duomo in Florence, also knew about the Pantheon, and he deliberately made the dome of the duomo bigger. Not as classy.) So, the Pantheon’s dome is still the largest in Rome, in terms of diameter, and is still to this day the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture.
3) Piazza di Pietra/Temple of Hadrian
Here we have come across yet another piece of antiquity, just sitting here on our way toward the Trevi Fountain. This is what’s left of ancient Roman temple, dedicated to the emperor who built the Pantheon Hadrian, right. Many of the emperors were made gods when they died (you can throw in the words ‘apotheosized,’ or ‘deified’ as you see fit)… all that had to happen, technically, was you had to die, and someone had to witness your spirit flying to the heavens on the back of an eagle. So, it was pretty easy, you know, the Romans had lead in their pipes, which made for good hallucinating. Someone always saw the eagle.
So, Hadrian died in 138 AD, he flew his eagle, and his successor, Antoninus Pius, built this temple here to honor him (it was finished in 145 AD). What we can see here is just the northern wall of the temple, which would have looked like that model in the window over there . The temple was east-facing, so there would have been a flight of stairs at that end to approach it. Like a good Roman temple, it was raised on a high podium, but unlike a good Roman temple, it had columns on all four sides, which is more of a Greek temple characteristic. Most Roman temples had columns at the front only, like the Pantheon. These columns that we see here are different from the Pantheon’s in a number of ways, first of all the material: this is marble, not granite. Secondly, these are not monolithic columns like the Pantheon’s, but drums or cylinders stacked one on top of the other. And finally, these are not smooth like the Pantheon’s, but fluted . The fluting helps disguise the fact that the columns are not monolithic. But we can see the seams very clearly today. And if you notice, wherever the seams are, we see big holes in the stone. Now these holes are different from the ones we saw at the Pantheon – holes like this indicate where there used to be pieces of lead or iron fixed INSIDE the blocks, acting as clamps, and keeping the column drums from slipping and sliding around. But the barbarians knew about this building technique, and they went around tapping on the marble, trying to find where the lead might be, and when they found it, they dug right in and took it out, not caring that they were compromising the building’s structural integrity in the process – they were barbarians, after all!!
4) Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain is the most famous and largest of Rome’s fountains, but definitely not the oldest. It’s only 250 years old, which is nothing by Roman standards. It was commissioned in 1732 and finished in 1762 – so it took 30 years to build this fountain. Compare that to the 7 it took to build the Pantheon! (The fountain was commissioned by a pope, Clement XII, hence the papal coat of arms at the top of the fountain, but he died halfway through construction, and his successor, Clement XIII, saw its completion.) The fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi, who didn’t live to see his masterpiece completed. He died in 1751, eleven years before the water started flowing here. ,( the artist who succeeded Salvi was Giuseppe Pannini, but it’s not clear how much he altered the original plans.) One of the reasons why the fountain was built here was to commemorate the recent restoration of an ancient aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo/Acqua Vergine, which dated back to 19 BC, and flowed in this part of town. (One of the reasons why the fountain is sunken in the piazza is because the aqueduct, originally designed to serve the much lower ancient level, wouldn’t have had enough water pressure to serve something elevated, at the 18th century level.) There are a lot of different elements to the decoration here, but there’s nothing really heavy or symbolic in the art – it’s part of the late Baroque fashion of decorating for decoration’s sake, beautifying parts of the city that didn’t yet have something pretty to stumble upon. The fact that the fountain is so big, and the piazza so small, was part of the design – the Baroque is all about drama, surprising you as you walk around town.
Now do you see on the far side of the fountain basin that piece of stone coming up above street level? Well there’s an interesting story here. When this fountain was being built, not everyone in the neighborhood was thrilled about the idea of a big fountain coming in and spoiling their quiet little piazza. One outspoken critic, a barber, whose barber shop was where Hand Bags is today . Well, I guess he complained one too many times about this fountain, and Nicola Salvi got sick of him, and he made him pay. What he did was he built a wave, in travertine , coming up out of the base of the fountain and blocking the view from the inside of that barber shop. And as soon as that wave was in place, that barber lost all of his customers, who instead took their business to Caffe’ Roma , which in those days was a barber shop as well, with a clear view over the fountain. But the most famous legend about the fountain is the one about the coins. If you want to come back to Rome at any time in your life, you MUST throw at least one coin into the fountain. With your back to the fountain, take a coin in your right hand, and throw it over your left shoulder, across your heart . Any currency will do, any denomination, but you have to throw in at least one coin if you ever want to see this city again! (the fountain gets vacuumed up about once a week and the money goes to Caritas, which gives to various charity organizations).
5) Piazza Venezia
This busy traffic circle we’ve just made our way through is called Piazza Venezia, the most central traffic hub in the city. The square is named for Venice of all places because that building over there (and make sure you indicate clearly which is Palazzo Venezia, because they’re often looking at the wrong building or façade), is called Palazzo Venezia. It was built in the 1450s to be the residence of a pope, Paul II, who came from Venice, so he named the building after his hometown. (If they have good eyesight they can make out the words “Paulus Pont Max II Venetus” above the windows.) Palazzo Venezia was the first large-scale Renaissance building in Rome, but you can still see some architectural elements left over from the Medieval period, in the crenellations across the top and the tower on the side. (Opposite Palazzo Venezia, and built to mirror it, is the Palazzo delle Assicurazioni Generali, late 19th century.) More importantly, and more recently, this building was used in the 1920s, 30s, and part of the ‘40s as the headquarters of the Fascist regime. This was Mussolini’s headquarters. That balcony in the center of the façade, facing the square (make sure they see which balcony you’re talking about, as they often expect the balcony to be much bigger), is known as Il Balcone, the balcony, from which Mussolini would make his most important speeches, to crowds gathered by the thousands in the square below. So if you’ve seen any old footage with Mussolini making a speech, it’s probably from that balcony there. In the Fascist period, Piazza Venezia was called Foro d’Italia, and it was a great center for the transmission of Fascist propaganda. Mussolini had two new roads built from here. One, going in this direction (point in the direction of via dei Fori Imperiali), was called via dei Monti (street of the mountains) and was designed to link Rome with the Alban hills to the south. The other, in this direction (point towards via del Teatro di Marcello) was called via del Mare, designed to link Rome with the sea at Ostia. If all roads led to Rome in antiquity, Mussolini wanted them to lead to his Foro d’Italia. Now you might have noticed as we crossed the street (or on Sundays, ‘you notice at the end of the street’) that there’s a perfect view of the Colosseum at the end of the road. Did anyone notice that? (A few will have, but most were probably too worried about crossing the street to have noticed.) Well that’s not accidental. Mussolini wanted to create a link with his reign and that of the Caesars, so he cleared away everything that stood between his balcony and the Colosseum, the ultimate symbol of the power of the emperors 2000 years ago. This meant that an entire medieval neighborhood was demolished, and the people that lived there had to find somewhere else to live. Also in the process of paving this thoroughfare, many ancient Roman monuments were knocked down or buried. Nevertheless, it creates an impressive view on both sides of the ruins of ancient Rome, a showcase of the ancient empire. So, Mussolini quickly renamed his via dei Monti, via dell’Impero (street of the empire – -because he too was going to be an emperor, of Fascist Italy…), which has now been renamed via dei Fori Imperiali, or street of the Imperial Forums.
So, that’s the most important history on this square, but the most eye-catching thing here is of course this huge white thing behind me. This is called the Victor Emanuel monument, or the Vittoriano, or the Altare della Patria (altar of the nation). This was built from 1885-1911, making it by far the newest monument in the center of town. It was built to honor and glorify the first king of unified Italy, Victor Emanuel II (Vittorio Emanuele II), who died in 1878, and whose tomb we saw in the Pantheon. Since Rome was the capital of unified Italy, it seemed appropriate to build this monument to him in the new capital. Fine. But when the Romans saw this finished product, they said, “did it have to be so big? So bright? And so RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR ALREADY-WELL-ESTABLISHED TOWN!!?!?” To this day, the average Roman doesn’t like this building, and they have a couple of disparaging nicknames for it. They call it the torta di nozze, or wedding cake, the macchina da scrivere, or typewriter, or the dentiera, dentures. While out-of-towners are usually pretty impressed by the monument, the locals consider it an eyesore, and a waste of perfectly good marble. You of course can make your own opinion about it, but Romans wouldn’t want you to leave their city thinking that this is emblematic of Rome. It’s just a little over the top, even by Roman standards.
Besides being a monument, it does have a few functions. It’s the home of the Tomb of Unknown Soldier from WWI (point to where the guards are, and the flame), and underneath the middle level is a museum dedicated to the Risorgimento, the movement to unify Italy in the 19th century. There’s also a spectacular view over Rome from the upper terraces, so if you have any extra time or energy while you’re in town, you can climb up to the top – it’s free – and get a great view, since you’re so central and so high, and the Vittoriano itself isn’t spoiling the panorama! There’s also an open-air café at the midway point, on the left.
But to give you an idea of just how huge this monument is, take a look at that bronze statue in the center, of the king riding a horse… See that? Well, that horse is so big that they held a banquet for 20 people inside the horse’s belly when the building was inaugurated in 1911.
6) Casa Romana dell’ARA COELI
Ancient Rome was incredibly densely populated, so as the population grew, they built up, just like any modern city today. These apartment buildings were called insulae, or islands, because they occupied an entire city block. The ground floor consisted of shops opening on to the street and above the shops were the loft apartments where the shopkeeper and his family lived and then above that, there were three-room apartments for Roman families. This building would have been five stories tall, and accommodated about 400 people, but there were some insulae in ancient Rome that were ten stories tall. They were often built in a rush, and badly, to get rent-paying tenants in as soon as possible, but the hasty workmanship showed itself more than once, and Roman historians have recorded several disastrous collapses of insulae in ancient times. So, it’s actually quite unique that this particular insula is still standing. And, this is the only example of domestic architecture that we will be seeing on the tour – everything else is a public monument or temple of some kind. If any of you are going to (or have been to) Pompeii or Herculaneum, you see a very different kind of housing there. Those towns were wealthy suburbs, so people lived in big villas, with central courtyards, fountains, gardens, etc. In the urbs (city) of Rome proper, it was of course a very different situation. The population of the city of Rome at the height of the empire was over 1 million and in the same area that used to be the ancient city (more or less the centro storico) only 125,000 Romans live today.
THE C7) The Capitoline Hill
Now, we’ve reached the top of the Capitoline hill, the most important of the original seven hills of ancient Rome. In fact, there were actually two summits of the Capitoline, the arx, which has disappeared under the church of the Aracoeli and the Vittoriano (point), and the Capitolium, which we’re standing on here. (The slight saddle between the two summits was called the asylum.) It’s hard to imagine it today, but the Capitoline was totally isolated in ancient times – it was a spur of rock that really stood out from the surrounding topography — and its western face was a sheer cliff face, which made the hill ideal as a citadel for early Rome. The Capitoline Hill in ancient times was home to some of the most important temples in the city, including the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which was the largest and richest temple in the city. It used to be over there but only a few of the foundation stones are left. (Imagine the temple, facing west, looking out over the Tarpeian rock!! The hilltop was also the observation point for the augurs, who watched the flight of birds for omens.) There was another temple on the arx , the temple of Juno Moneta (Juno was the wife of Jupiter, equal to the Greek Hera; moneta means ‘giver of advice’ or ‘admonisher’), which was guarded by a flock of sacred geese. These geese were apparently the best guard animals you could get. (People usually laugh at this concept of guard-geese. But it’s true, when the Gauls tried to attack Rome in the 4th century BC, the geese woke up and sounded the alarm and saved Rome.) Juno’s temple was so well-guarded, and in such a high position up there on the arx, that the first mint in Rome was built next to the temple of Juno Moneta, and in fact the word moneta, or money, derives from this, which originally just meant, ‘admonisher.’ Unfortunately, those temples didn’t survive the barbarians, the popes, and the Middle Ages all that well, so not much was left up on the Capitoline but the ruins of once-great buildings, and the hill became a pasture for goats. By the Renaissance, the city fathers wanted to give the Capitoline – which had been so important in antiquity – new dignity, so they commissioned a certain Michelangelo to design this space we see here today, called Piazza del Campidoglio (Campidoglio is just a corruption of Capitolium). (The pope who commissioned M. was Paul III Farnese, so Michelangelo designed the piazza to face the papal city, and the Vatican area. While the piazza today is very much as M envisioned it, the construction wasn’t finished until the middle of the 17th century, 100 years after his death.)
The piazza consists of the Palazzo Senatorio , which is the mayor’s office, or city hall, today, and the two wings of the Capitoline museums , which house the city’s collection of ancient art, as well as some important Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures. Underneath the mayor’s office is an ancient space called the Tabularium, or the archive hall of ancient Rome, which dates back to 78 BC. That hall is now open to the public, and part of the Capitoline museums. So when you go to the museums, you enter over here , then when you’re finished there, you pass underneath here in the Tabularium, and there are AMAZING views of the Forum beyond, and then you come out over here , where the majority of the ancient sculpture is housed. Now in case you couldn’t tell, I really love these museums and I recommend them highly. Best of all, there’s a café built behind this wing , out on the terrace above the Tarpeian Rock, the same cliff face where they used to hurl traitors and prisoners off in ancient Rome (and actually again in the Renaissance). You can also go to the café even if you don’t go to the museums – just walk along the building on the right side toward the back. The museums are open Tues-Sun 10am-7pm.
Turning your attention back to the piazza in general, the Marcus Aurelius statue:
Now back to the piazza itself… Does anyone know who that is on the horse? Marcus Aurelius, yes. That statue we see here today is a copy, made in the 1980s, of an original bronze work that dates to the 170s AD. Since the original is over 1800 years old, and in perfect condition, the city wants to keep it in good condition for centuries to come, so it’s now in a glass enclosure inside the museums here (ground floor of Palazzo Nuovo). Now how on earth would this statue have survived? Being made of bronze, and actually covered in gold leaf, why was this statue never melted down? Well, when the statue was found, by Christians in the Middle Ages, it was believed to be the emperor Constantine, the emperor who had legalized Christianity. So the Christians, believing it to be the emperor who gave them their churches and stopped the pagan persecutions, saved the statue. In fact, they enshrined and protected it in the courtyard of the first church in Rome, St John Lateran. Only in the Renaissance was the true identity of the statue discovered – that it was Marcus Aurelius, not Constantine – but by then Romans were past the stage of melting down everything, and it was placed here at the order of Paul III by Michelangelo. If the statue had originally been identified as Marcus Aurelius, a pagan philosopher emperor, when it was first found, it would most certainly be shrapnel by now. (The original was actually here in the middle of the square until 1981 – amazingly enough never vandalized, considering the graffiti that’s all over the rest of the centro storico.) This copy was computer-generated in the 1980s, and even though it’s supposedly 100% faithful to the original, there’s something more powerful and majestic about the original bronze that you have to experience firsthand. (how the Romans knew it was Marcus Aurelius? Well, at that time, many ancient Roman coins were coming to light, with depictions of the various emperors on them well-preserved, so art historians began to be able to tell who was who in statuary by matching up hairstyles, beards, etc, with the coins that they were finding. It turns out that this curly hairdo, with the full beard, was typical only of Marcus Aurelius, and would never have been worn at the time of Constantine (150 years later). Constantine had a slicked back hairdo, and a clean shaven face. So if you spend enough time around ancient Roman portraits, you can tell the time periods very easily. It’s kind of like how we can flip through our photo albums and look at the styles and know the decade… ‘oh, THAT was the 80s,’ etc…) (The location of the statue in antiquity is unknown – maybe in the Roman forum, or maybe at the temple of the Antonines near modern-day Piazza Colonna.)
The Roman Forum:
The Roman Forum is the center of civic, religious, and commercial life in ancient Rome. This was not only the symbolic center of the city, but the physical one as well, lying in a natural valley between the seven hills of ancient Rome. The Palatine hill was the western boundary, the Capitoline was the northern boundary… the Esquiline lay to the east, beyond the modern street (Via dei Fori Imperiali), and the Velia, where that single marble arch is in the distance, was the southern extremity. (The Velia, the little crest where the Arch of Titus sits, is not actually among the ‘original seven’, but the Celio beyond – past the Colosseum – was. The other ‘original seven’, because people will occasionally ask, are the Aventine, beyond the Palatine, and the Quirinal and the Viminal. The Viminal is the least recognizable today – it’s up by Santa Maria Maggiore between Via Nazionale and Via Cavour.) The Forum wasn’t any one single building (people often think it was), but this entire space, where people passed through every day, to shop at the markets, meet at the assembly halls, hear speeches, or worship at the temples. Not only was this the heart of the city of Rome, you have to imagine that this space was pretty much the center of the world for 700 years (the period of Rome’s domination was from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD).
Before they developed this area, the Forum was just a swampy valley, with malarial air, but since this was the center of their seven-hilled city (septimontium) they decided that they wouldn’t let a little malaria stop them – so they devised a way to drain the excess moisture from the valley, and built a sewer called the Cloaca Maxima (509 BC), which connected the Forum to the Tiber, and it still works today! So once the Forum valley was dried up, they started building here… The earliest buildings in the Forum date from the 5th century BC, and the latest are from the 4th century BC (the latest are actually from the 7th, like the Column of Phocas, but that was way past the time of Roman power) – I think it’s totally amazing to think that even in antiquity, there were buildings 1000 years apart in date in use at the same time!
But, the Forum, as you can see, is in ruins. And it’s not just Mother Nature, and the passage of time, that has reduced this space to what you see today – with just a few columns sticking up here and there. This was mostly done by human hands, and moreso by popes than by barbarians in this case. These buildings, that once used to tower over us (if inside the Forum) were torn down deliberately in the Middle Ages – the stones of imperial, pagan Rome went to the construction projects of papal Rome. It was an obvious way for the popes to demonstrate their power over a city that used to oppress and persecute Christians.
In its heyday, this is more or less what the Forum would have looked like. The best preserved structures in the Forum today tend to be the temples, but that gives you the false impression that the Forum was a mostly religious space – in fact, there were small shops (tabernae) built alongside the temples, where commercial activity took place, and large meeting halls called basilicas, which unfortunately are hard to make out today, but that used to dominate the long sides of the Forum square.
Also, keep in mind that until 100 years ago, the Forum wasn’t even excavated – the ground level here had risen the same 25 feet as in the rest of the city, and up until the end of the 19th century, the ground level was… , and there were some columns sticking out here and there, but everything else was covered. Nobody really cared about the scientific and systematic investigation of these ruins until 100 years ago. In fact, the Roman Forum was known as the Campo Vaccino, or cattle field, up until the 1800s, because they used to graze and sell farm animals here!!! Certainly, the area had been ransacked by amateurs in search of sculptures that could be sold to the popes or wealthy art collectors, but in terms of trying to study the space, and reconstruct its architectural history and function, that didn’t start until relatively recently, and they are still conducting peripheral excavations here today.
Back side of Capitoline hill;I find this is interesting to point out, because on one façade you can see the Tabularium (which you mentioned before, but mention again that it’s the archive building of ancient Rome), dating to 78 BC; to the right is a 13th century tower; and the top half of the façade is the Palazzo Senatorio, from the 16th century. So on the side of what appears to be one building, there are actually three totally separate time periods, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance. This is a great illustration of how Rome was not built in a day, but often times the multiple layers of Rome’s architectural history are not this well-exposed. .
Lacus Curtius – This only works if you decide to go down the western side of the square. I only add this if I have time to fill, which is rare. Anyway, the legend is that in the 5th century BC, a bolt of lightning struck the Forum square, and a great and bottomless crevice opened in the pavement, which of course was very dangerous for people passing by. When the augurs consulted the gods on how to resolve this problem of the crevice, the omens told them that Rome would only be saved ‘by throwing her greatest treasures’ into the gaping hole. Well, this posed a problem, because the Romans didn’t exactly want to throw their gold and jewels into a big hole in the ground… but luckily they didn’t have to, because a man named Marcus Curtius came galloping through the Forum on a horse, shouting, ‘Rome has no greater treasure than a brave citizen!’ and rode straight into the crevice. He disappeared into the abyss, and the crack closed, and Rome was saved. There is a relief here (a copy of an original now in the Capitoline museums) that records his heroic ride.
Temple of Saturn* — Imposing ruins here, but not all that interesting, in my experience, to spend a lot of time on… Eight columns remain of the temple, which was originally built in 497 BC, but this is a reconstruction. How do we know? It says right across the top SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMANUS INCENDIO CONSUMPTUM RESTITUIT, which means, the Senate and the People of Rome, after a fire consumed it, restored it (the temple), so it’s telling you that it can’t be original, and in fact this restoration is from the 1st century BC. The temple (to Saturn, equivalent of the Greek Kronos, father of Jupiter/Zeus) was the site of the yearly Saturnalia, a 12-day festival (around our modern Christmas-time) when the Romans really let loose – slaves became masters, and vice versa, wives exchanged husbands, gifts were given, feasts were had, costumes were worn, etc. In the podium of the temple was the Aerarium, or gold treasury of the state.
Temple of the Flavians* — I usually mention this if only to reiterate that temples are recognizable by their high podiums, and to show yet another example of emperors who were deified, flew eagles to the heavens, etc. The temple was dedicated to the first two Flavian emperors, Vespasian (69-79 AD) and Titus (79-81 AD). The third Flavian emperor, Domitian (81-96 AD) was not deified. Instead, he was given the damnatio memoriae (which you can also mention at the Arch of Septimius Severus) – that’s when the emperor dies, and he’s not well liked at all, and the Senate issues a decree proclaiming that wherever the emperor’s name or face is written, sculpted, or painted, must be scratched out and any public record of his ever having existed erased. (!)
Milliarium Aureum — Not much to see or say here, but you can mention this as the ‘point of origin’ for all the roads that famously led to Rome – all distances along the vie Appia, Salaria, Flaminia, etc, were measured from here, the Golden Milestone. The pillar here, which was gilded bronze, was melted down at some point in the Middle Ages.
Umbilicus Urbis Romae – Ditto as with Milliarium Aureum (as in, something just to mention in passing); this was the spot that the Romans determined was the spiritual center, or omphalos, of the city.
Arch of Septimius Severus; Important to dedicate several minutes to this, since it’s one of the better-preserved monuments in the Forum, and serves as an introduction to the other triumphal arches you’ll be seeing later (Titus, Constantine). This is an example of a uniquely Roman monument (as opposed to something borrowed from Egyptians, Greeks, or Etruscans), a triumphal arch. The Romans built these arches when, in the course of their military campaigns, they won a battle, and not only that – in the course of that battle, they killed at least 5,000 people. That’s what constituted a triumph. This particular arch is called the Arch of Septimius Severus, built by the emperor Septimius Severus in 204 AD to commemorate the wars against Parthia – which is modern-day Iran, to give you an idea of how big the Roman empire was getting. (Although that would be the last major expansion of Rome… soon they would enter the ‘troubled’ second half of the 3rd century, and begin to lose control of some of the more far-flung territories.) This is pretty typical as Roman triumphal arches go – there will always be some depiction of the specific war, key episodes that ultimately led to the Romans’ victory. Here, those battle scenes are depicted in the reliefs above the small arches, left and right. But, since they’ve been exposed to the elements for the last 1800 years, the detail is worn away. Something else that you’ll always see on triumphal arches is a representation of the goddess Victory, who appears here in the spandrels, or triangular sections above the central arch (make the shape of spandrels to help them see what you’re talking about). You can recognize Victory by the fact that she’s female, and she has wings. In Greek she’s called (anyone know?) Nike… And the Nike that we know so well today got its ‘swoosh’ logo from the wing of the goddess of victory. You can also talk about the inscription across the top, which basically gives the name of Sept.Sev. and all his titles and lineage, etc. But notice how the 4th line has been scratched out and rewritten? That’s because the fourth line used to say something about SS’s two sons, Caracalla and Geta. Now, when SS died in 211 AD, he left the empire to both his sons – he couldn’t decide which to name as his successor. Well, this didn’t sit well with the brothers, who basically hated each other. Caracalla, in fact, arranged to have Geta killed, and afterwards, he pronounced a damnatio memoriae (explain what that is if you haven’t already – see Temple of Flavians above) on Geta’s name, which meant that his name had to be scratched out from the inscription on this arch. Caracalla had the fourth line rewritten to say “OPTIMIS FORTISSIMISQUE PRINCIPIBUS” (“to the best and strongest of the princes”) which of course meant, Caracalla himself! Finally, you can point out the column bases, with their depictions of the barbarian prisoners being led away by the Roman soldiers – you can tell the Parthians by their ‘smurf’ hats (actually called Phrygian caps, typical headgear of easterners in those days) and different clothing.
This really stands out because it’s the most intact structure in the Forum. You’ve mentioned before at the Pantheon (have you?) that the best thing that can happen to a pagan building is if it gets turned into a church, so when you’re in front of the Curia, you can ask the group, any idea why this structure is so well-preserved? If they’re attentive, they’ll respond ‘because it was turned into a church’. Good – the curia was turned into the church of Sant’Adriano in Curia after the fall of the western Empire (5th century AD). They like to feel like they’re actually learning something and not just hearing a lecture. Depending on crowds, do your explaining of the Curia either inside, or outside, then send them in to have a look on their own. The main point to make, above all, is that this was the Senate house, begun by Julius Caesar and finished by his adopted heir, Octavian Augustus, in 29 BC. People always say, “oh, the Senate house! This is where Julius Caesar was killed!” No, this hadn’t been built yet in 44 BC, when Caesar was stabbed. In fact, Caesar was killed at a different Senate house, the Curia of Pompey (not Pompeii!), which is today lost underneath the number 8 tram at Largo Argentina. *If you have some sharp ancient history buffs on the tour, they might ask, where did the Senate meet throughout the Republic, which was when the Senate actually had power (from 509 BC-mid 1st BC)? Good question, but you will be prepared with the answer. The Senate could meet in any consecrated space, any templum, so any of the temple in Rome would have been suitable for their assemblies. There are a few things to say about the outside of the building – the holes above the door and below the windows are where beams used to stick out to support a porch-awning. The oblong cut-outs on the sides of the doorway are where tombs were removed during the course of excavations in the early 20th century. Remember, this was a church from the 5th century AD until the 19th century, and as the ground level rose, what was once the floor of the Senate eventually became the crypt of the church, and what do you put in crypts of churches? Bodies! The small holes near the ground level are where marble panels used to be attached to embellish the otherwise boring brick façade. You’ve talked about this kind of hole before so they should be able to tell YOU. Notice how at the top of the façade, right underneath the pediment, there are traces of stucco work, finished to look like marble blocks? Roman trickery! Where they could, the Roman builders would cheat and use stucco, cheaper than marble, and who could really tell from that far away anyway?!?! Inside, obviously, it’s important to have them look at the opus sectile (inlaid marble) pavement, which will help remind them, like the Pantheon, of how colorful decorations were in ancient times. The three steps on the long sides are original, where the seats of the 300 senators would have been placed. You can also make a joke at this point about how Caligula named his horse a senator, so there had to be room for a horse somewhere here, too. The platform in the back was the platform of the president of the Senate, and there used to be a statue of the goddess of Victory placed there, now lost. The headless (acephalous) statue you see there today is either of Trajan or Hadrian – archaeologists can tell by the way the toga is folded – and does not belong here; it was found elsewhere in the Forum and simply put inside here to keep it out of the rain. The two reliefs set up on the steps are important to mention, too. They’re called the anaglypha traiani or Plutei of Trajan, and they depict scenes of ceremony in the Roman Forum at the time of Trajan, early 2nd century AD. Having these images, with the buildings of the Forum depicted in the background, is like having a 1900 year-old photograph. From this kind of artwork, archaeologists can reconstruct what these now-fallen buildings once would have looked like. *This is an important thing to explain because it will help lend credibility to the images you might be showing the group of what the Forum used to look like. Also, point out the remnants of the pavonazzetto marble on the walls, and have them imagine that the entire interior would have been covered with that in antiquity. Finally, while they’re in there, have them look at the photo panels set up on the left side that show what the Curia looked like on the inside when it was a church, with all those arches and baroque embellishments. That would have been the appearance of the interior until the dismantling began in the early 1900s. Do mention that the windows, the upper portions of the brick walls, and the roof are all restored. The bronze door are not original, but fascist-era copies of the originals, which do exist, but now hang on the main entrance of St John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome. There is a small inscription on the base of the door that says FVSE (cast) A XVII (year 17 — of the fascist era, calculated since the March on Rome in 1922 – so the doors date from 1939).
This was the speechmaking platform of the Forum. You’ll have to explain it well because it’s kind of hard to make out. Refer to the long brown wall facing the Forum square, explain that there used to be a stage across the top. This is where Mark Antony said something like “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” during the funeral oration of Julius Caesar. It’s called the rostra because of the prows (rostra, or rostrum, singular) of enemy ships captured in naval battles that used to be mounted across the front. That’s what all those holes are from, where the bronze prows used to be attached. It may help to get a picture of a rostrum to help them picture what this looked like. Also explain how having all these bronze prows poking out at the public below, the speechmaker would feel powerful and invulnerable up on the stage.
Column of Phocas
I don’t know why people make such a big deal about this. It wasn’t
here for most of the Forum’s history, and it’s just a single column! Placed here in 608 AD to honor the Byzantine emperor Phocas, who donated the Pantheon to the popes.
People will always ask what ‘those catacombs’ are… So even though they aren’t technically part of the Forum, you can mention them, and also say a few general words about the Palatine while you’re at it. ‘Those catacombs’ are just the substructures of one of the imperial palaces built on the Palatine Hill. Tiberius (14-37 AD) wanted his house to be perched right over the Forum, so he had all this brickwork constructed to extend the platform of the Palatine hill toward the Forum. The empty spaces (arched areas) that resulted in the construction may have been used for storage or slave quarters. While you’re here, you can mention that the Palatine was the exclusive residential real estate of imperial Rome, the Beverly Hills of antiquity. In the earliest days of Rome’s history, the entire city was contained on the Palatine (it was here that Romulus killed Remus, remember?), but then as the city grew, it became increasingly residential, and by the time of the Empire (1st century BC), only the emperors and their families lived here. Today it’s an archaeological park that’s well worth a visit, especially on a nice day. The palaces aren’t all that intact, but the ruins are still impressive and unique, and it’s nice to be up there above the traffic and crowds of the city. Admission is included on the Colosseum ticket (8 euros), and the hours are the same as for all the archaeological sites of Rome – 9am until one hour before sunset (but the entrance gates close TWO hours before sunset).
Temple of Divus Julius
An exception to the if-you-can’t-see-it, don’t-talk-about-it rule. This is important because if there’s one personality everyone has heard of from ancient Rome, it’s Julius Caesar. And more than that, almost everyone knows about his assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Here is where you can bring closure to the whole episode by pointing out to the group where he was cremated. All that they can see today is the base of the temple, which was built on top of the altar of his funeral pyre. Normally, cremations didn’t take place inside the city, but the after Caesar’s assassination, the masses basically crowded the Forum so that his body could not continue on its processional way out, and the funeral pyre ended up being right here. People would show their mourning in ancient Rome by bringing what few furnishings – tables, benches, togas – they had, and throwing them on the fire, as a way of losing something of themselves alongside the loss of a loved citizen. So with all the wooden and cloth items that were brought here, Caesar and his bloodstained toga burned for 7 days. On the seventh day, the flame finally went out, and a miraculous thing happened – a comet was seen going across the sky. But of course, that was not interpreted as a comet, instead it was believed to be an eagle, illuminated by the soul of Caesar, which he carried on his back. So, Caesar was deified (in fact, he is the first example of this in Roman history), and a temple was eventually built to him on the spot where his spirit rose from. The temple was built by Augustus, dedicated in 29 BC. Show them the picture of how it used to look. Explain that we know that it looked like this from coin evidence – there was a coin that was widely distributed by Augustus when he built this temple. It said Temp. Div. Iul. (Temple of Divus Julius) across the top, and For. Rom. (Forum Romanum) across the bottom, with a simple drawing of a hexastyle temple in the middle. Many examples of this coin have survived, and that’s how we know what the temple looked like! Have them look behind the tufa wall that protects the actual altar—there are usually flowers placed there, and sometimes pieces of fruit, or sonnets!
Temple of Castor and Pollux
Not something I spend a lot of time on. Yes, the columns are big and pretty, but by now you’ve pointed out plenty of temples. Here, there’s not that much of interest besides the aesthetic (these columns were called the tria columna by the Romantic poets who saw them). Experience has taught me that the story behind the temple (dedicated to the twins who reported an important victory for the Romans at Lake Regillus) is not at all captivating for the tourists, and therefore not worth telling! So, I usually just say something like, ‘those three columns are from the Temple of Castor and Pollux, from the 5th century BC,’ and leave it at that.
Arch of Augustus
Just something to mention while walking toward the Temple of Vesta… all you can see are the marble blocks that formed the base of the arch (29 BC), but the battle it was built to commemorate was pretty important: the battle of Actium (31 BC), in which Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra, resulted in the Roman conquest of Egypt, which was key for the grain supply, not to mention the use of all those beautiful colored marbles and granites!
Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina
This is important to talk about because it’s the best-preserved temple in the Forum. At this point, the group is usually able to identify what kind of building it is, since you’ve mentioned that things raised up on high podiums are temples, so you can do a little quiz here. Once they’ve guessed that it’s a temple, you can tell them that it was dedicated to an emperor and an empress, and then ask the group why they had a temple built to them. Someone will always say “because they flew an eagle up to the heavens.” This was dedicated to the emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina (she died in 141 AD, and he died in 161 AD, joining her in the temple 20 years later) – which the inscription across the top clearly records “DIVO ANTONINO ET DIVAE FAUSTINAE EX SC” (“to the god Antoninus and to the goddess Faustina, at the order of the Senate”) Now this is the best preserved temple in the Forum – as you can see, it still has all its columns (you can also mention that it’s a good example of a Roman prostyle temple, with columns only on the front porch). But that doesn’t mean that someone didn’t try to tear it down at some point in history. These columns are made of a special kind of marble called cipollino, from the Italian word for onion, cipolla – see the onion-skin grain of the stone? And this was a very coveted kind of marble in the Middle Ages. So, you see those grooves cut in the tops of the columns? That’s where ropes and cables would have been placed when they tried to yank these columns down, unsuccessfully, though — as you can see, the temple is still standing. So when they weren’t able to tear the temple down and make a church out of its materials, they figured, what the heck, we’ll just build a church right on top of the temple… and that’s exactly what they did – the church is still here today, as you can by the cross on top – it’s a Baroque church dedicated to San Lorenzo, one of the patron saints of Rome – anyone know how he was killed? (They often don’t.) He was grilled alive in the 3rd century AD, so for that, he’s also the patron saint of outdoor cooking. But you see that green door on the church? Any idea why it’s so high? Yes, exactly, that’s where the ground level in the Forum had risen to by the time they built this church, so one of the reasons why they couldn’t get the columns down is because they were very well anchored in the dirt!
Temple of Romulus
I hardly ever mention this, because by this time they’re all templed-out, but it does have its original bronze doors, and those nice porphyry columns. The temple was dedicated in the early 4th century AD to the emperor Maxentius’s son, Romulus – no relation to Romulus of Romulus-and-Remus fame.
Basilica of Maxentius
The basilica makes a strong impression after you’ve taken them to see a lot of half-preserved columns and temple bases… It’s also good as a reminder that there were other buildings besides just temples in the Forum. To really impress the group you’ll definitely need one of those before-and-after books. The three vaults here are stunning, but seeing what the whole thing would have looked like will really make their jaws drop. Find a spot in the shade – or sun if it’s cold! – where they can see the three vaults well, as well as the spot where the colossal statue of Constantine used to be (basically, stand in a position that corresponds with the perspective of the before-and-after shot). This structure, which is only 1/3 intact, is called the Basilica of Maxentius, built in the early 4th century AD by the emperor Maxentius, making it one of the newest buildings in the Forum. What you have to imagine is that this (referring to the three vaults) used to look like this (show them the picture from the before-and-after book). This usually impresses them beyond belief. And the whole thing was covered with colored marbles. Now we don’t know exactly what the marble decoration looked like, but we know that there was marble decoration because of the small holes you see in the brick walls. Here I often mention the put-log holes in the walls (the rectangular holes at a regular height), where the scaffolding to build the brick walls was put. Whenever they see holes like these, it’s from scaffolding, or more often, where beams of wood were put to support an upper story of a building. Back to the basilica itself.. Just imagine how cavernous and huge this space would have been. Look at where the springing of the central vault is (point). At the one end of the central aisle would have been a colossal statue of the emperor Constantine (who later renamed this the Basilica of Constantine). The remnants of that statue (whose body was of wood = doesn’t survive, and whose appendages were made of marble) are now kept in the Capitoline museums. If you’ve seen postcards of a big marble foot, or a big marble hand, with a cat curled up, that’s from this statue. It was hard to imagine back when we were in the Forum square, but there would have been buildings like this, though not quite as big, along both sides of the Forum square, but those are now reduced to a few stumps of marble… I often talk about the word basilica, which people justifiably think means “Christian church,” when in fact it started out as a pagan place of meeting. When Christianity was legalized, there had been no prior architecture for what a church building should look like, so the early Christians adopted the floor plan of the basilica for their meetings – you could get a lot of people inside, orient them toward a focal point, an altar, etc… The word “basilica” actually derives from the Greek “basileos”, which meant “king,” because the kings used to hold audiences for their subjects in halls like these.
Arch of Titus
This arch marks the southern boundary of the Roman Forum. It was erected in 81 AD to commemorate a triumph won in 70 AD, that is, the sack of Jerusalem, led by the general Titus (later to become emperor Titus of the Flavian dynasty). Point out the reliefs inside: on the one side, the Roman soldiers bringing the spoils of the sack of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod to the city (notice the seven-branched candlestick and the silver trumpets). On the other side, the victory procession, with a four-horse chariot (quadriga), always indicative of victory in art, driven by Titus (though his head is missing) and accompanied by (who?) Victory herself, with the wings… And if you look in the center of the vault of the ceiling, there’s a square panel… what do you see there? An eagle… with a human passenger on its back.. That’s the deification of Titus, represented in art. (This eagle business sounds silly when you talk about it at first, but when they finally see it on a 1900 year-old arch, they’ll believe you!)