Monday, April 25, 2011

Roman Finale

The end of our exciting three weeks of visitors, touring, and enjoying time with family and friends ended with a full day of Roman sightseeing. We'd intended to take the train up to our hotel, near the main train station, then take the train to the airport on Saturday morning. And...cue the train strike. All over Italy. Local trains, national trains, all on strike. We were forced to drive, and while our hotel was in a heavily congested area, and it took 30 minutes for my aunt and I to find the parking garage a block from the hotel while my uncle waited with the luggage on the hotel curb (lots and lots of one way streets and traffic!), it wasn't as bad as I'd expected, and we were able to set off on our touring with no stress. Another reason for our excellently located hotel was so we could take the metro to all the sites we planned to visit...and metro is on strike, too. Time to walk. Thankfully, Rome is a beautiful city. The architecture is gorgeous, and if you can take a route off of the main thoroughfares, much more enjoyable for walking. We first hit up our target - the Coliseum and Roman Forum. I thought the last week in March would still be pretty off season, but there were throngs and throngs of people. Bless you, Rick Steves, for your tips on how to avoid long lines! We followed his advice, got our combo ticket, headed back to the Coliseum and sailed past at least an hour's wait in the "buy-your-ticket" line. We'd planned to also use the Rick Steves AudioTour for the Coliseum, but messed up our route early on, and with all the people milling about, decided to just take in the view, stand in the Roman Empire's largest amphitheater, and reflect on the brutal history.

Interestingly, the Coliseum had a scale model that showed how the pulleys and floor openings worked to bring up things like stage sets and wild animals for the exciting and "fun" shows. Gladiators fought against one another and wild animals or animals fought against animals, all with adoring crowds cheering them on. Animals included (but were not limited to) dogs, bears, hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and lions - giraffes came later, too. Some of the "animals" were actually people, brought in from lands outside the Roman empire. That pulley system I mentioned would bring up little, murderous surprises for the gladiator in the ring. And yet, becoming a gladiator was a way for a slave or poor man (or woman) to become a wealthy, celebrity du jour - to overcome his or her beginnings, as in, "Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome" (you know, from the movie "Gladiator").

Whenever I feel a little hopeless about how our society seems to be sinking into more and more evil, I like to think about the horrific barbarism that was completely acceptable and government supported in Roman Empire - for example, upon the Coliseum opening, there was a 100 day celebration - supposedly, 2000 men and 9000 animals were killed in the celebration shows, although these numbers may have been stretched. One source stated only 3500 animals were killed, not 9000, so our delicate sensibilities should take heart. Now not all of the shows were killing, mauling, and maiming - the Coliseum was also home to plays and battle re-enactments. In addition, there were staged hunts, with fancy stage sets, complete with forests and lakes. Some days, those attending the fun (for free - only visitors today have to pay money to get inside) got the triple threat. A staged animal hunt in the morning, gladiator match in the afternoon, and sandwiched in between the two, the ever popular, criminal execution, generally carried out by throwing the criminal, unarmed, into the ring and releasing a wild beast or two. Enough was enough, and we headed across the street to the Roman Forum.

House of the Vestal Virgins
Just fascinating. For Americans, if you've visited the National Mall or downtown D.C., imagine it in 2000 years. That's about what the Roman forum is. There are some temples (National Cathedral), the government building where the Senate met (hello, Capitol building), some interesting arches that were monuments (Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, etc.), and the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (...ummm...I'll leave that one alone). The VVs are a big deal because their house just reopened to tourists after being closed for years. They served the goddess, Vesta, and had to keep the home fires burning - really, just one fire, and that's where all the other households could come to get fire. The Vestal Virgins were a major deal - they were chosen in pre-puberty and gave a vow of chastity for 30 years. Braking that vow meant death by live burial. For their sacrifice, they were the most revered women in the Empire, with enormous power. They could own property, vote, commute a criminal's sentence, and handle legal issues, such as wills. They lived in luxury, and at the end of their 30 years of service, they could choose to marry - but most decided to keep their life of luxury and prestige. Walking around the Roman Forum is walking around a pile of rubble, but how amazing to stop and think about what that rubble was. There is even a little memorial, complete with fresh flowers, on the spot where Julius Caesar's body was burned all those centuries ago. I highly recommend some type of detailed guidebook or actual guide. We used the Rick Steves AudioTour, successfully this time, and we appreciated the extra insight in explaining what we were seeing.
Break time at the Forum; And where do visitors take a load off? Atop some old, marble columns just lying about.


  1. I've loved reliving the trip via your daily blog. Many have asked "How was your trip?" to which I always reply "Better than I could have ever imagined." Thanks for making it so special. We love you!

  2. We're glad you came so far. It was so much fun for us, too!