This week’s journey takes us back to the alluring and endlessly fascinating sights of Rome, Italy. We begin on the banks of the Tiber at Castel Sant’Angelo, wander through the ruins of the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, and finish with a visit to the bustling square of San Pietro in Vatican City. This is also little A.’s first appearance on our blog!
Known as the “Eternal City”, Rome is one of the most significant cultural and historic centers of the world, due to the incalculable immensity of its archaeological and artistic treasures, as well as for the charm of its unique traditions, the beauty of its panoramic views, and the majesty of its magnificent parks. The entirety of the historic center of the city – including the Colosseum, Pantheon, Roman Forum, and properties of the Holy See – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering a truly unparalleled glimpse into three millenia of continuous but ever-transforming human history. It is the most visited city in Italy, and the third most visited in the European Union, welcoming 7-10 million visitors per year (pre-COVID).
In June 2018, we traveled to Rome from our (then) home in southern Germany with T.’s mom, a beloved family friend, and 4-month-old little A. This trip was only three days long – two of which were largely dominated by travel – so our sightseeing time was confined to a short 24-ish hours. We had lots to fit in, but were up to the challenge!
Given our limited time in the city – and somewhat limited mobility, on a hot summer’s day with an infant – we opted to do our sightseeing on a Hop On Hop Off bus. The bus stop was a short walk from our hotel in the Borgo district, a stroll that also took us through Piazza di San Pietro en route to the banks of the Tiber River and imposing Castel Sant’Angelo (also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian). Originally commissioned by Roman Emperor Hadrian between 134 and 139 AD to serve as a mausoleum for himself and his family, most of the tomb’s contents and decorations were lost following the building’s conversion to a military fortress in 401. The structure acquired its present name in the late 6th century, when legend states that the Archangel Michael appeared atop the building, signaling the end of the plague of 590. A marble statue of Saint Michael was thus erected to surmount the fortress in 1536, and replaced by the current bronze version in 1753. The erstwhile mausoleum has seen varied use over the centuries since as a papal palace and refuge, as well as a prison, before its conversion to a museum in the early 1900s.
Hadrian also ordered the construction of the Ponte Sant’Angelo (also known as the Pons Aelius) in 138, to span the River Tiber in five arches. The ten marble sculptures atop the ponte represent angels holding aloft instruments of the Passion of Christ, and date to the 17th century.
We hopped on a bus shortly after 10am and enjoyed an hour-long drive around the city, stopping – but not disembarking – at several notable sights, including Circus Maximus, Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Fontana di Trevi. We had previously visited all of the these locations on prior trips to Rome, and wanted to spend as much time as possible that afternoon in and around the Colosseum.
Construction began on the Colosseum – the largest ancient amphitheatre ever built – under Emperor Vespasian in 70-72 AD, and was completed by his son and successor, Titus, eight years later. The massive structure is built of travertine limestone, volcanic tuff, and brick-faced concrete. At various points in its history, it could hold an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 spectators, and was used for gladiatorial contests as well as public spectacles, including animal hunts, executions, battle re-enactments, and dramas based on Roman mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment purposes in the early medieval era.
The present Colosseum only bears some resemblance to the original, as large segments of the structure collapsed – and were quickly pillaged – throughout the centuries. The surviving part of the outer wall’s monumental façade is comprised of three superposed stories surmounted by a tall attic. Two hundred and forty mast corbels were positioned around the top of the attic and originally supported a retractable awning, known as a velarium, that kept the sun and rain off spectators. This consisted of a canvas-covered, net-like structure extending over two-thirds of the arena, sloping down toward the center to catch the wind and provide a breeze for the audience. Spectators were given tickets in the form of numbered pottery shards, accessed the arena through one of 80 ground-level entrances, and seated in a tiered arrangement that reflected the rigidly stratified nature of Roman society. The arena itself was comprised of an 83- by 48-meter wooden floor covered by sand, arranged atop an elaborate subterranean network of tunnels and cages – designed to hold gladiators and wild animals before combat – known as the hypogeum. While little now remains of the original arena floor, the hypogeum is still clearly visible, and is featured in our photographs below.
After spending an hour or so exploring inside the Colosseum, we headed in the direction of Palatine Hill, stopping for several minutes to admire the remarkable craftsmanship of the nearby Arco di Constantino (Arch of Constantine). Built in 315 AD to commemorate Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, this triumphal arch is the largest in the Roman Empire. While dedicated to Constantine, much of its decoration consists of statues and reliefs – the content of which evokes images of a pious and victorious ruler – physically “borrowed” from earlier monuments dedicated to Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.
At this point, little A. was still bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to keep exploring!
We also stopped at Arco di Tito (how could we not?) en route to Palatine Hill. Located on the Via Sacra, the arch was built in 81 AD by Emperor Domitius to honor his late father Titus. The arch contains panels depicting the triumphal procession of Roman soldiers following the fall of Jerusalem in the year 71 AD.
Our next stop was Palatine Hill. Archaeological excavations of this area indicate human activity dating back to the 10th century BC, consistent with the origins of Rome itself. The first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, built his palace here in 27 BC, and the hill gradually became the exclusive domain of emperors. Indeed, the ruins of the palaces of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), Tiberius (14-37 AD), and Domitian (81-96 AD) can still be seen. After the Empire’s fall in the 15th century, a series of wealthy families established villas across the hilltop. Today, most of the site serves as an open-air museum, and offers spectacular views back toward the Colisseum and across the city.
Our last stop of the day – as dark clouds began to gather overhead – was the Roman Forum. A rectangular plaza established in a small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, the Forum was for centuries the center of day-to-day life in Rome: the site of triumphal processions; the venue for public speeches, elections, and criminal trials; and the hub of the city’s commercial affairs. Indeed, it has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world. Today, the ruins of some of the oldest and most important monuments of the ancient city are found on or near the Forum, including the Temple of Saturn, Arch of Septimius Severus, Basilica of Maxentius, and many others.
Rain drops started to fall as we wandered through the Forum, and little A. needed to stop for a meal, so our time in this stunning area was unfortunately cut short. We headed back in the direction of the Colosseum before hopping on the bus and returning to our hotel… with one very tired wee baby!
We had a little less than two hours the next morning before needing to head to the airport, so we left our hotel on foot and headed in the direction of Vatican City – a short 10 minute walk away. The previous evening’s clouds had departed, and we were left with lovely blue skies and sunshine over Piazza di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square). The square, located directly in front of Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica), includes several notable features in addition to the church, including a red granite Egyptian obelisk, colossal Doric colonnades, and the Papal Apartments of the Apostolic Palace.
We had both visited the Vatican on previous trips to Rome, and didn’t have time to include a lengthy exploration on this occasion, but were happy for little A. to add a new place to his growing list of countries and territories visited.
Thank you for joining us on this short but magical Roman holiday! -T. & B. June
Our next journey: Conwy and Caernarfon Castles – Wales