Historical Venues and Art in Rome

Italy’s capital Roma is grand both in size and magnificence.

The history of Rome dates back well over 2000 years. In the 1st century BC, Roman mathematician and astrologer Lucius Taruntius Firmanus put his abacus to work and established that Rome was founded in 753 BC – on the 21st April, to be precise.

Mythology has it that Romulus and Remus founded Rome, choosing the Aventine Hill on which to construct the city foundations.

Science however tells that Rome is actually even older. Its early populations, a mix of Etruscans, Sabines and Latins, blended to form the Romans. The Roman Kingdom and subsequently Roman Republic were born, before being taken over by the Roman Empire – as many of the surrounding lands far and wide also came to be.

Having conquered much of the world as the Romans knew it, their beloved city became known as “Caput Mundi” (World Capital) and “The Eternal City”.

Today, Rome is the capital city of the Lazio region as well as that of Italy itself. Well over 4 million people call Rome’s metropolitan home.

Internally within Rome is Vatican City, a country within a city (within a country). After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Pope had much control of Rome, establishing the city as the Papal States capital.

It was only the unification of Italy that saw this come to an end. Rome went on to become the capital of the Kingdom of Italy in 1871 and subsequently the Italian Republic.

Rome is home to many iconic symbols of Italy, none greater than the Coliseum. Other iconic must-see Roman sites include the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Roman Forum, the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, and a host of other breathtaking piazzas, buildings, monuments and more.

Arch of Constantine

This imposing, impressive marvel of sculpted marble was the Roman Senate’s way of saying “Thank you very much” to Constantine,

who commandeered a major victory over Maxentius (who drowned in the process) at the battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312. (The Milvian Bridge was a bridge crossing the Tiber.) This arch shows definite marks of stone recycling, as monuments honoring Roman emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were dismembered, in part, to build this arch. The Arch is a stone’s throw away from the Colisseum (in fact, there’s a great view of it from inside the Colosseum) and skirts the edge of the Roman Forum.

SPQR

Latin Senātus Populusque Rōmānus

SPQR comes from the Latin Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. This translates to The Senate and Population of Rome, the Roman Republic’s government.

Whilst the Roman Republic ceased in 27 BC, the subsequent Roman Empire took over the use of SPQR.

Use of the SPQR symbol was never abandoned. Throughout the long history of Rome, it can be found on public documents, monuments, coins and more. It is still used to this day as a symbol of Rome.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC), or Caio Giulio Cesare in Italian, was a statesman and general hailing from Rome, Italy.

He is considered as the greatest commander of all time. He also knew how to turn a phrase in his Latin language, providing him with the ability not only to rouse the troops into battle and to inspire fellow politicians, but also to write great prose that has given us much insight into his life.

In combat, Caesar won a great number of battles, expanding the Roman Republic through his various invasions and victories.

However, after the conclusion of the Gallic Wars, he clashed with the Roman Senate when they ordered him to return to Rome. Instead, he defied them and, together with his faithful troops, began a civil war between 49–45 BC that he eventually won.

This left Caesar with a great amount of power and force, which he used to take control of the government.

Caesar’s actions bought about the end of the rule of the Roman Republic in favour of the Roman Empire.

Although he was eventually assassinated just one year later in 44BC by a group of senators not so happy with his reforms, in the short time of his rule Caesar bought about a great range of changes.

Caesar enacted reforms into the government, providing better representation for the people. He helped reduce debt. He also introduced the Julian calendar (named in his honour). Although it was eventually overtaken by the ever-so-slightly different Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar was still in use in some countries as late as the 1930s, and is still utilised in Mount Athos of Greece and by the Berbers of North Africa today.

Caesar Augustus

One of Rome’s great emperors.

Born Gaius Octavius (and called Octavian) in 63 BCE, Augustus was Rome’s next (second) emperor after Julius Caesar, his maternal great uncle who named him his adopted son and heir. He came to power as part of the Triumvirate (with Marc Anthony and Marcus Lepidus, Julius Caesar’s Master of the House) who fought and defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, at the Battle of Philippi (42 BCE). After ruling jointly for many years, the members of the Triumvirate eventually fell out with one another. Marc Anthony was perceived from Rome as vying to set up independent rule in Egypt and the East. The war between Marc Anthony and Octavian ended at the naval battle of Actium (31BCE) in which Octavian’s navy defeated Marc Anthony’s and Cleopatra’s joint fleet. Octavian returned to Rome, where bit by bit he acquired more and more control over Roman politics. In 27 BCE he was given the title of Augustus, illustrious one, by which he would be known thereafter.

His powers gradually increased until they reached full control around 23BC. The titles, including Caesar and Augustus, the insignia, and the purple robe he wore would remain appurtenance of Roman emperors well into Bizantine era.

Arguably the greatest Roman emperor, Augustus greatly expanded Roman territory and secured its borders through treaties with neighboring client-states, ushering a 200-year pax Romana or Roman peace.

At his death in 14 CE, Augustus left an empire that would last until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Coliseum

The Colosseum (aka Coliseum, Flavian Amphitheatre or, in Italian, Colosseo) is one of the most splendid sites in Rome.

The first glimpse of the Coliseum in real life is unforgettable, whilst many aspects of its fascinating history are almost unbelievable.

After the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD), Nero took control over the area where the Colosseum now stands. He made some dramatic changes to the landscape, including constructing gardens and pavilions and even an artificial lake.

Eventually, this was all destroyed and Emperor Vespasian came up with the idea of building the Colosseum on the site, with building beginning around 70 AD using funds coming from items plundered during the Siege of Jerusalem. Thus from its very beginning, the amphitheatre was designed as a symbol of victory.

Capable of holding around 50,000 people, it remains the largest amphitheatre in the world.

Just a decade after building began, the Coliseum was ready for its inauguration. Alas, Vespasian had died the year prior in the year 79, so it was his son Titus who oversaw the festivities in which some 9,000 wild animals were reportedly killed. 

Vespasian’s sons Titus and Domitian added to the Colosseum, with Domitian being responsible for a viewing gallery and the creation of an underground network of tunnels and chambers where gladiators, performers, animals and the like could be held behind the scenes.

In the wake of fire and earthquake damage, Theodosius II and Valentinian III had the Colosseum reconstructed, starting a trend of damage, rebuilding and modification that continued for centuries.

For the next 500 years or so, the Colosseum was most notably used to host battles between gladiators (and occasionally wild animals like lions, crocodiles, bears, hippopotami and more), along with other spectacular spectaculars put on by the emperors to entertain the crowds.

It was also the site of executions, and even plays that ended with the real execution of a real condemned prisoner. Today, however it is utilised as the symbol of a global movement against capital punishment.

The Colosseum also housed a market, accommodation, a monastery and church (with its own cemetery) and served a host of other uses including as a fortress.

Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) saw the Colosseum as a great site to establish a wool factory where he intended to hire local prostitutes and have them turn their hands to turning yarn. His death saw the end of this plan.  

Gladiators

The unmistakable combatants of the Roman times.

The iconic figure of the gladiator dates back to Roman times, lasting through both the Roman Republic and Roman Empire periods. Gladiators would be bought out to entertain large crowds by combating against fellow gladiators, death row criminals and fierce animals in increasingly elaborate battle games.

Meaning ‘swordsman’, the term ‘gladiator’ stems from the Latin word for sword, ‘gladius’. Not all were professional fighters however – some volunteered to fight in the arena. And in return, depending on the outcome of the battles, they risked not only death, but also being segregated from society.

It is not known exactly how the gladiator tradition came about, but over time their battles served to prove the strength and capabilities of the Romans, whilst also allowing rulers to provide ‘fun’ entertainment to the population. This led to increasingly bloody and spectacular spectaculars in the arena as a show of mite and power, but also as distraction from the harsh living conditions of everyday life.

The battles took place privately at first, before gaining such popularity that they were held in public squares put on by the local government and then arenas overseen by the Emperor.

Initially the fights were to the death. If the losing gladiator did not die during the battle, it was up to a referee or even up the crowds themselves if the fighter should be spared. But over time the rules changed to allow for combatants to declare mercy on their competitor, although this was not popular with the spectators.

For over a century BC and throughout the first two centuries AD, women were able to participate in the gladiator games, not so much for feminist concerns but for the entertainment value. It is likely their inclusion was inspired by women taking part in the Antiochene Olympic Games. Still, these female gladiators were likely to have had to be some tough ladies to undergo the same training and adhere to the same rules of combat as the men.

The rules stipulated that gladiators be taken from the lowest social class. This regulation also applied to the women, who were often even imported from poorer nations.

Nonetheless, various emperors decided to use the gladiator arena as a chance to show off their muscle. Caligula, Tutus, Hadrian and a half-a-dozen others stepped out into likely highly-staged battles again gladiators or, more likely, animals.

After almost a millennium, gladiator games panned out early in the 400s, mere decades after Rome had declared itself to be Christian.

Nerone

The controversial Roman Emperor in power from 54-68.

Nerone, also known as Nero, was born Lucio Domizio Enobarbo Nerone Claudio Cesare Augusto Germanico in the year 37. His great uncle Claudius had adopted Nerone upon marrying his mother. A series of events led to Nerone eventually ruling as Roman Emperor from the year 54-68, from the ripe old age of 17 to his death at 30 years of age.

Showing much wisdom for his years, he spent time as Emperor trying to boost the culture, trade and international relations. It was said that he was popular with the common locals and some reports say he worked towards peace, with the only battles he supported being those in the sports arenas.

Still, the First Roman-Jewish War did commence during his reign and the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64 was said to have been started Nerone himself to make room for the Domus Aurea. He also executed many who went against his rule, including his own mother. It was also said he burnt live Christians in his gardens as a form of illumination. Thus there are some conflicting reports on just how much of a humanitarian Nerone really was.

Nerone had a love life worthy of a soap opera. Firstly, his mother arranged for him to marry Claudia Octavia, the only daughter of her husband Claudius, in the year 53. When Claudius died just one year later, it is likely that Nerone played some part in the death of Clauius’ son and Octvia’s brother in order to claim the throne.  As Emperor, Nerone battled much with his own mother, until he finally had her killed in 59.

Nerone is said to have found Octavia a boring wife who he came to despise. He began affairs, one of which resulted in the pregnancy of Poppaea Sabina. (Sabina had in turn been married prior to Otho, who went on to succeed Nerone as emperor.) Nerone divorced Octavia, stating her apparent barrenness as the cause, and married Sabina. The daughter that ensued was named Claudia Augusta, however she fell ill and died just three months later, with Nerone then having her declared a goddess.

Sabina passed away in the year 65. Nerone was said to have been devastated, but still took on  a mistress Statilia Messalina in the same year, who he then married a year later. Messalina was already married, but her husband conveniently killed himself so she would be free to marry Nerone. The following year however, Nerone met a man named Sporus who was said to bear an exact likeness to Sabina. He ordered Sporus to be castrated so he could marry him, from which time Nerone began calling him by Sabina’s name.

In the year 68, a rebellion saw Nero lose the throne. To avoid execution, he then committed suicide. At the time, he was the first Emperor to have done so.

The following year, 69, came to be known as the Year of the Four Emperors, during which time Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian all ruled as Emperor. Otho also killed himself, with three others also doing so in the following centuries.

Caracalla Hot Springs

Roman ruins featuring the remnants of the great baths built by (or completed under) Emperor Antoninus (198-217 CE), nicknamed “Caracalla.”

The Caracalla Hot Springs complex featured vast cold, tepid, and hot rooms, as well as a large swimming pool and two libraries, one for Latin, the other for Greek texts.  Free to the public, these baths remained in use and a happening gathering place until the 6th century when invading Ostrogoths irreparably damaged the plumbing. 

Today the archeological area is free, with operas and concerts performed here in summer.  The staple production of Verdi’s Aida always includes the presence of elephants for the great march. 

Pennsylvania Station in New York City is one of the buildings whose vaults and decorations draw inspiration from these baths.

Capitoline Museums

Roman treasures in one of the most ancient Mueum in the world

Founded in 1471, works in the Capitoline Museum form one of the world’s first public collections. Although many of Rome’s treasures have found their way to the Vatican Museum, the Capitoline does boast a very impressive collection of ancient sculpture as well as some 16th and 17th century paintings by the most famous artists of the era.

Highlights: Sculpture: The Dying Gaul An equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius Satyr Resting Boy Extracting a Thorn Fragments of the Colossus of Constantine Capitoline Wolf Paintings: Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist and Gypsy Fortune-Teller Rubens’ Romulus and Remus Fed by the Wolf Titian’s Baptism of Christ Works by Tintoretto and Veronese

Piazza del Campidoglio 1, Rome

Opening Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 9:00 am- 8:00 pm;

 Closed Monday. Also closed January 1, May 1 and December 25

Catacombs

These are early Christian burial grounds,

dating from the second century, c.e. (Rome also has Jewish catacombs, which date to about the same time.) Pagans used to burn their bodies; Christians, believing in the Resurrection, buried them. These underground cemeteries were built outside the city walls, usually along Roman consular roads, and often were a labyrinthine warren of rooms. Traces of early Christian frescoes adorn some of the walls (including a marvelous “Last Supper” at Santa Priscilla). Rome boasts at least 40 catacombs (some say as many as 60), and a few can be visited.

 

Pantheon

The Pantheon is one of the most recognisable and famous sites in Rome.

Atop of the Pantheon sits the oldest dome that is also the largest unreinforced-concrete dome in the world. To this day, it is still debated as to just how the dome was put in place without the use of steel rods or other such structural base.

What is most unusual about the dome of the Pantheon is its Oculus – the open hole, or ‘eye’ at the top.

During his period of rule (27 BC-14 AD), Augustus had Marcus Agrippa built the original Pantheon, however Emperor Hadrian then modified it in 27AD. Unfortunately this then burnt down early in the following century, before Domitian rebuilt it 3 decades later. Alas, this too also burnt down.

Whilst it was eventually rebuilt, it is much debated what alterations were made with each rebuilding. It is believed, for instance, that the portico may have been moved and the interior completely redesigned, possibly various times over.

Another aspect that has changed is the gods to whom the structure is dedicated.  A Roman pagan, Agrippa had the Pantheon constructed as a private chapel. In the 600s however it became a Roman Catholic church.  Thus it is quite fitting that the term ‘Pantheon’ has its roots in the Greek for ‘common to all gods’.  

Inside the Pantheon is quite a vast, open space. The walls are lined with the tombs of some of Italy’s most important historical figures, including King Vittorio Emanuele II, King Umberto I and his wife, Queen Margherita. Artist Raphael is also entombed here, lying eternally by the side of fiancée who passed away just prior to their nuptials.

Masses and other services are still held inside the Pantheon to this day.  

Bernini

An Italian architect and sculptor to rival even Michelangelo.

Gianlorenzo BERNINI (1598-1680) is arguably the greatest Italian sculptor since Michelangelo and one of the greatest architects of his day.

He was a key figure in shaping the Baroque style in sculpture and architecture of which he left a great many celebrated examples in Rome and elsewhere.

Bernini sculptural must-sees in Rome include Apollo & Daphne as she turns into an olive tree and his David, both in the Borghese Gallery, as well as The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in S. Maria della Vittoria. He conceived two massive fountain groups. The Triton Fountain in Piazza Barberini stands before the palace of his great Papal patron, Urban VIII (Barberini).

For the middle of Piazza Navona, instead, he designed The Four Rivers Fountain where the four great rivers (known then)—the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile, and the Rio della Plata—are personified seated among rocks below a monumental obelisk. Bernini’s papal commissions include the huge marble, bronze, and gilt canopy (baldacchino) over the papal altar inside St. Peter’s and the very grand colonnade St. Peter’s square, his last architectural creation

Trevi Fountain

The world-famous Fontana di Trevi in Rome, Italy.

Hidden amongst the streets of Rome, Italy is the iconic Trevi Fountain. So named for the Trevi district in which it is located, the famous Baroque fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi before being finished by Pietro Bracci.

The Trevi Fountain is situated at the junction of “tre vie” (three roads) where waters from an aqueduct arrived to supply ancient Rome. The water was known as “Acqua Virgine”, as according to legend, in 19BC a young local girl helped Roman soldiers find the waters. In her honour, the waters were named “Acqua Virgine” (Virgin Waters).

Pope Urban VIII in 1629 decided to renovate the pre-existing fountain there situated so as to render it more impressive. Bernini was commissioned to come up with a dramatic design, however the Pope’s death saw the project be put on hold. It was not until the almost a century later than Pope Clement XII returned to the project.

The eventual Trevi Fountain that ended up being constructed takes a fair bit of inspiration from Bernini’s design.

Construction of the Trevi Fountain as it stands today took around 30 years to complete. It is close to 50 metres in width and just over 26 metres (86 ft) in height.

The Trevi Fountain is principally made in Travertine stone that comes from a quarry just a short distance from Rome.

It has been restored several times, including in 1998 and again starting in late 2014 with a project sponsored by the Fendi family.

Although already a must-see sight in Rome, it became immortalised in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita film. It is said that throwing a coin with the right hand over the left shoulder brings good luck, with three coins guaranteeing you will return to Rome. It is certainly good luck for the poor of Rome, with the around 3000 euro collected daily used to fund a supermarket for the underprivileged.

Borghese Gallery

An extraordinary collection of masterpieces in a wonderful residency

One of Rome’s most important museums and also one of its most beautiful, the Borghese Galleries are housed in the villa that belonged to Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the early 17th century.

As a passionate patron of the arts, he amassed a marvelous collection of paintings, sculptures and antiquities now on display in their original settings. In addition to the art collection, the villa is surrounded by a large park which includes beautiful gardens and even an amphitheatre.

Highlights: Sculpture: Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne The Rape of Persephone David Canova’s Venus the Conqueror Diana the Hunter (artist unknown, 2nd century B.C.) Paintings: Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath Self Portrait as Bacchus Rubens’ Deposition Correggio’s Danae Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love.

Only 360 visitors are allowed to enter the Gallery every two hours, so all visits are limited to 2 hours.

Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5  – Rome

Opening Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 8:30 am- 7:00 pm. Closed Monday. Also closed January 1 and December 25

 

 

 

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