The classic wonders of Rome
The Temple of Saturn’s front portico stands at the foot of Capitoline Hill in the Roman Forum. (Justin Foulkes)
Remnants of ancient Rome remain very much alive in the form of worship, leisure and remarkable architecture. Discover the hidden histories of the Eternal City’s extraordinary monuments, from millennia-old ruins to glorious cathedrals and Renaissance masterpieces.
When it comes to leisure, Roman tastes haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Each Sunday, thousands of the city’s residents make the pilgrimage to a huge stadium, where they chant and sing, eat, drink and gamble, and hurl outrageous abuse at each other – and at one unfortunate man at the centre of the arena. Granted, the referees in charge of Roma or Lazio’s home games aren’t ripped apart by lions should they make a questionable offside call, but there’s more than a hint of similarity between the ancient Roman games once held in the Colosseum and the football matches at today’s Olympic Stadium on the other side of the Tiber river.
‘Football is today’s equivalent,’ says Leonardo Guarnieri, an educational archaeologist at the Colosseum. This huge, half-ruined circular stadium is Rome’s most iconic structure, and it was once the home to the ruthless Roman games, in which gladiators and prisoners would battle each other – not to mention a menagerie of wild animals – for the entertainment of a bloodthirsty crowd. ‘In the same way that today fans of rival teams have battles outside the stadium before and after the match, you’d get fans of rival gladiators fighting each other,’ Leonardo says. He points to some fragments of marble. An ancient drawing of a gladiator has been carved into the rock, probably with a nail. Below it you can make out the name ‘Vindicomus’ and a Greek symbol underneath which Leonardo says means ‘must die’. ‘It’s just like a Roma fan making a drawing on a school desk saying that Lazio are rubbish!’ he laughs.
The Colosseum – or the Flavian Amphitheatre, as it was originally known – was built over the course of eight years in the first century AD. The ring of brick arches was constructed using the same techniques the Romans had perfected in the building of aqueducts, and it was completely clad in marble, now long since stripped away. The brutal games that took place made up the crucial ‘circus’ part of the famous ‘bread and circuses’ – the free grain and entertainment provided by the Roman emperors to keep the local population placid. At the games’ peak, some 5,000 lions, tigers and elephants – captured from the African and Asian reaches of the empire – were killed here each year. The side of the stadium is now darkened by pollution, and plans are afoot for a multimillion-euro makeover this year. The noise and dirt of the cars whizzing past might be a little unbecoming, but the Colosseum is not a building to be hidden away in a quiet corner. It has been a totemic presence at the centre of the Roman city for millennia, and while everything else might change, it’s not going anywhere.
- Buy a joint ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatino from the Roman Forum entrance, rather than the Colosseum – queues are usually much shorter. Or book your ticket online (£10, plus £1 booking fee).
St Peter’s Basilica
Though it is the most sacred church in the Catholic world, on this day there is a boisterous confusion of tongues in the grand forecourt of St Peter’s Basilica that makes it more reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. A cacophony of excited chatter and chanted prayers emanates from the gathered crowd, mixing with the sweet strains of Ave Maria filtering out of the Basilica. A group of nuns from Madagascar alternate between praying and gleefully taking photos in front of the grand façade. A Spanish priest, dressed soberly in dog collar and white shirt, talks animatedly with his mother and sister as they approach the huge entrance, barely able to suppress his excitement.