Rome is Amazing: Really Old Stuff Everywhere

We were in Rome on Easter with a new Pope and about a billion Catholics, so we skipped the Vatican altogether. Saving that for another visit that does not coincide with a religious holiday of any kind!

Other attractions were also more crowded than usual, but my brilliant husband had booked a tour in advance for the Coliseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill. So, we skipped what must have been at least a two-hour wait in the ticket line and had a very informative tour led by a charming French guide who really knew her stuff.

The Coliseum (actually the Flavian Ampitheater) is very interesting just as an engineering accomplishment <puts gearhead hat on>. It was built about 70 AD over nine years by about 100,000 workers. It could seat as many as 50,000 spectators–this was larger than most cities of that era!

Because the Romans knew that there would eventually be earthquakes, they put metal panels between the stones of the arches so that they would slide against each other. Then they strapped it all together with iron bars. It was also one of the first extensive uses of concrete in construction. Even the plumbing–there were over 100 water fountains in the theater and an unknown number of latrines–was impressive for the times.

How was all this accomplished? By sacking Jerusalem and running off with Jewish treasure, an event which is commemorated on the Arch of Constantine next to the theater.

It’s a myth that Christians were martyred in the Coliseum. This was a story cooked up by the Popes in the 18th century to keep people from quarrying stones from the theater. By adding a few martyrs to the already impressive number of animals, slaves, prisoners, and gladiators that were killed in the arena, the Church turned the Coliseum into a religious site and saved it for posterity. It is still used by the Church for various public prayer ceremonies–in fact, the Pope had conducted some kind of service there the night before we visited.

The Forum is right next to the Coliseum. It, like Washington, DC, was originally a marshy area lying between two kingdoms. After peace was declared between the two kingdoms, the area was drained in the 7th century BC with a giant sewer called the Cloaca Maxima that drained into the Tiber. Over time, this area became the “downtown” of ancient Rome. But, the surrounding seven hills of of Rome continued to erode into the valley, and the Tiber flooded it every now and then. The level of the ground continued to rise, as each civilization simply paved over the debris, until the Roman buildings were almost covered. They were preserved in this way until excavations in the 19th century. The level that we were walking on dates from the reign of Augustus (1st century AD).

The night we got to Rome, we walked to go to dinner and ran smack into the Pantheon. I’ve traveled a lot, but this was still enough to make my jaw drop. OMG, it’s the Pantheon!

This was originally a Roman temple from the 1st century AD, and another amazing engineering feat. The dome was made lighter, and therefore much larger, by the use of a unique honeycombed design. It really is very impressive, even today.

The Pantheon was given to the Church in the 7th century by a Christian Byzantine emperor. It became a church, and this consecration saved it from various sackings etc. over the centuries. The interior has been extensively redecorated to look more or less like other Italian churches–except that it is still quite clearly a pagan temple. I thought it was way cool and visited it twice while we were there, to see the different effects of the natural light from the oculus.

We also ran into other random Roman stuff as we were walking around the city–they call Rome a “lasagna” because there are so many layers of civilization there. It’s one reason why the city does not appear to be very modern. It’s practically impossible to dig anywhere without running into ruins of some kind. Romans have been quarrying their own ruins forever. Much of the stone in today’s churches came from earlier Roman structures. Sometimes, you can even see the Latin writing on stones.

Yeah. it was pretty awesome.

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