All roads lead to Rome
More steps lead still further underground. Deep down in the earth is another layer of history: complete rooms that date to thetime of the Flavian Imperial dynasty. These 2,000-year-old chambers are thought to have been part of the Ancient Rome Mint. In the dimly lit rooms, a rushing underground stream is audible – and visible, through a hole in the wall. And yet there’s more. A few steps away is one of Rome’s most enthralling sights, a pre-Christian temple, with an altar that depicts the god Mithras killing a bull.
Back above ground, Via di San Giovanni in Laterano continues, innocuous, an attractive but unprepossessing street sloping down towards the Colosseum. It’s quietly busy with its restaurants, clothes shops, a vinyl record store. There’s no inkling of the street’s secret underground life until the end of the road, where some excavated ruins are visible in a large dip. This is what’s left of Ludus Magnus, the gladiator school that fed the great arena.
Barbara Nazzaro is the architect overseeing the Colosseum’s newly opened underground and uppermost sections. Walking down to the lower levels, Barbara describes the scene: ‘The underground was a sort of backstage, the place where all the preparations were made for the show.’ There was a varied programme at the arena: the first show was hunting, with real wild gladiators at lunchtime. The underground passages were frantically busy, as everyone worked to bring the scenery (real bushes and trees) and the animals onto the stage via a complicated pulley system.
Before the arena was built, Emperor Nero had used the water in this area to create a lake in the grounds of his hugely ostentatious palace, the Domus Aurea (House of Gold). Nero’s monuments were destroyed in order to build the Flavian Amphitheatre, as the Colosseum was then known. The new Flavian emperors wiped out the memory of the old and replaced it with the new in a symbolic, people-pleasing gesture. The water sources that fed Nero’s lake still flow away beneath here.
Layer upon layer upon layer: Via di San Giovanni in Laterano allows a rare glimpse of the many strata of history that lie beneath the surface of the contemporary city. And this is not only the story of a street, but of Rome.