Ruined Rome -- The "eternal city" (12/07/03)

Last updated 12/22/03                                                                                                                                

Senators in togas, Julius Caesar, the Pope tooting around in the PopeMobile (TM) and Russel Crowe as "the gladiator" are just some of the images that Rome invokes in my mind. The city, once home to two great empires - the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, manages to combine ruins which are a couple of millenia old with a bustling metropolis at the forefront of the European Union. Although I prefer the bricks in Siena and the canals of Venice to the ruins of Rome, I appreciate its significance to Western Civilization and I sensed its majestic past as I wandered the streets.

While the origins of Rome may be traced back to Etruscan, Latin and Sabine settlements in the region, the legend of Romulus and Remus must be popular among Italians because they have raised raised statues of a she-wolf nursing two babies throughout their cities. The story goes that the twins were raised by a she-wolf and that Romulus killed his brother and then established the city of Rome. The little I know of this legend already makes it more fascinating than the idea of another city founded due to fertile soil and a prime location near a river (the Tiber) -- I'll take humans with wolves' blood killing each other and then founding an empire any day.

Now you must be wondering, what do you do when in Rome? The answer is obvious: you do as the Romans do! But seriously, there's a lot to do in this place, and it generally centers around looking at a lot of old stuff, religious stuff, or old religious stuff. First off I'll go through some of the "old stuff" you can see next time you happen to be passing through Rome and have some time to kill...

When it comes to old, you can't get much older than the Roman Forum -- all that's left is a couple of columns and a few walls, which are simply there to tell you that you're in a place that is OLD (actually there is a bit more there, but I'll get to that shortly). The Forum, once the commercial, political and religious center of ancient Rome, still plays a central role in the city -- at least geographically (it's actually pretty much in the middle of a map of Rome). The area was once a major site of political rallies, public ceremonies and senate meetings, and with a little imagination you'll find yourself amidst the grandeur of ancient Rome. The ruins were excavated during the 18th and 19th centuries and contain several interesting sites: the Arco di Settimo Severo, erected in 203AD to honor emperor Settimo is considered one of Italy's major triumphal arches (I suppose there was a time when countries were big on such things: Arc de Triomphe and India Gate come to mind). The ruins also include the Templo di Giulio Cesare (Temple of Julius Caesar) where Mark Anthony read his famous speech. One thing you discover after walking among ruins for a couple of minutes: they all look the same. If you've seen a tiny portion of a wall, or a broken column, seeing the same sight played out throughout a region gets boring real fast.

For something a bit newer, how about the Colosseum, originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, which dates from 72 AD. It's in much better shape than the Forum due to reconstruction efforts (seems like cheating to do this to me, but I guess you gotta protect your cash cows). The area was the site of bloody gladiatorial (is that even a word?) combat to the delight of 80,000 screaming fans, and nowadays you can still find gladiators outside the Colosseum, though the only thing they do is pose for pictures. The ruins of the arena are complicated by the fact that it was used as a fortress during the Middle Ages, and also as a quarry for travertine and marble. So if you find yourself scratching your head wondering what use underground passages might have in such a structure remember that it had multiple uses (not simultaneously of course) which resulted in various architectural changes, and you're just seeing the odd leftovers...

When you're done looking at all that old stuff, you can soak in religion at the some of the local churches.While St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican is probably the most famous and most visited church in Rome (perhaps the world), the city which is the heart of Catholicism offers many other impressive churches for the interested visitor. The 5th century Santa Maria Maggiore has an impressive baroque facade and a nativity scene with a crib that dates from the 13th century. The oldest Christian basilica in Rome (4th century) was rebuilt in the 17th century into the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, which has an  impressive set of statues on the rooftop consisting of Jesus and the apostles. This cathedral was the primary church in Rome before the construction of St. Peter's basilica. Most Romans would make a 5km trek to San Giovanni from the Vatican after receiving a blessing from the pope.The most "fun" church has to be Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which, apart from being one of the finest medieval churches in Rome and having a beautiful floor of Cosmatesque inlaid marble, also has the Bocca della Veritá (Mouth of  Truth). Supposedly if you put your right hand into the mouth and tell a lie, it will snap shut. I joined other tourists in taking pictures with our hands in the mouth, but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut at the time.

Vatican City, the smallest country in the world due to the Lateran treaty signed by Musollini in 1929, is fairly self sufficient. It has its own postal service (including stamps which are only valid for mail originating from the Vatican), train station, and army of Swiss guards. There is also intense security with X-ray machines and metal detectors, so you really feel like you're going to a new country (or at least entering the airport at one). Despite its impressiveness (and St Peter's is pretty impressive -- in larger than life kind of way), I didn't really get much of a holy feeling while visiting the cathedral. It had the atmosphere of a tourist attraction rather than a church. I think that other visitors had this feeling as well, for there were many situations which seemed to confirm this: large groups of people moving through the church talking loudly and pointing at the "marvles", some recording it all with their camcorders while providing a monologue for the entire experience, and yet others who stopped to pose for pictures with the alter or the multi-lingual confessionals. We even saw a little baggage tram with several carts in tow go right through the church. These sights combined with the colossal size of the church (it really felt like a Costco, and not a place of religious service) left me with an odd, not-quite-right feeling about the most famous of churches. Still, as with most things on this trip, it was something worth experiencing for myself.


This is the most common sight in Rome -- RUINS. The Roman Forum used to be a commercial, political and religious center of ancient Rome and was the place where the Senate gathered. Now its the place where groups of guided tourists gather to play amateur archeologist.

The Roman Colosseum, site of bloody gladiator combat which spawned a recent Hollywood flick, is the most famous monument in Rome (you can buy tons of tourist kitsch involving this thing). It's almost 2000 years old, being constructed in 72AD, and would've completely fallen apart by now if not for all the reconstruction efforts (can't let the cash cow die you know).

The Pantheon is the best preserved building of ancient Rome due to its conversion from a temple dedicated to Roman gods into a Christian church.

Vatican City = the smallest country in the world (thanks to Mussolini).

Rome is chock-full of churches of all sorts (Catholic/Christian mostly). Nearly every church keeps a treasure of some sort (eg: mosiacs on the floor, chains of St. Peters, piece of Jesus's original baby crib, gigantic statues on the roof, or "the mouth of truth" which clamps down on your hand if you tell a lie). I stuck my hand inside the mouth of truth, but wisely kept my own mouth shut during the picture.

The touristy things to do in Rome -- get your portrait painted by a local artist on the Spanish Steps, and throw TWO coins into Fontana di Trevi (the first one doesn't grant you a wish, only your return to Rome).

Some random sights from Rome, including a tiny car (Smart Car) -- typical European-sized car, the courtyard of our hostel (Lilliput Hostel), Circus Maximus - where chariot races took place, the San Angelo bridge over the Tiber river that snakes through Rome, and a beautiful palace which now of course happens to be a museum.