Rome is a fascinating city with so much to see and wonderful food, wine and ice cream! On our latest visit we made it out to Ostia Antica which I had been wanting to visit for a long time. It exceeded all my expectations: a huge complex of living area stretching down to the once mighty harbour which served Imperial Rome.
The earliest traces of civilisation in Rome are located on the Palatine Hill and are almost three thousand years old, from the Iron Age. There are some fine remains here, as well as excellent views of the Roman Forum on one side and the Circus Maximus on the other - the Palatine Hill stands about 40m higher then the Forum and has extensive ruins but is also much cooler than the Forum, being greener with gardens and lots of trees and at least one cooling fountain.
The first king, however, was an Etruscan and it was during his reign in the seventh century BC that the city began to be developed.
Two and a half thousand years ago the people rose up to depose the tyrannical Etruscan king, splendidly named Tarquinus Superbus. The first Republic was established and lasted almost 500 years.
Enjoying great success in campaigns abroad the city became very rich but was plagued by internal disputes as the ruling classes maneuvered to obtain riches and influence. In 87BC a civil war was sparked when two consuls, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius, clashed over ultimate control of the city from which Sulla emerged victorious. Julius Caesar, Marius's nephew, became a great military commander and eventually he too fought a civil war in Rome against his rival Pompey. His victory led to him being proclaimed "dictator of Rome".
This so enraged those who remained true to the Republican ideal that they murdered Caesar on March 15th 44BC, on the steps of the Theatre of Pompey. The theatre abutted present day Largo di Torre Argentine where some of the oldest excavations in the city can be found. The remains of four temples, variously dating from as early as 4th or 3rd century BC, don't seem to be open to the public - we passed them several times and there was active archaeological work going on.
The murder of Caesar served to throw the city into chaos from which a triumvirate of rulers emerged: Caesar's deputy Mark Anthony, Caesar's adopted son Octavian and Lepidus. Mark Anthony married Octavian's sister, Octavia, but became fascinated by Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. She was defeated by Octavian and his general Marcus Agrippa in the Battle of Actium 31BC after which she and Mark Anthony committed suicide.
It was Agrippa who built the Pantheon in 27AD as part of his building works in the historic centre of ancient Rome, the area called Campus Martius. It is a temple which stands on the lovely Piazza della Rotunda, the most complete Roman building to remain. The inscription on the building reads: M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIUM.FECIT - M(arcus) Agrippa L(ucius) F(ilius) Tertium, fecit - Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, on his third consulship, built this. The inscription is said to have been added by Hadrian during his renovations of the building.
The Piazza della Minerva near the Pantheon has one of the loveliest sculptures in the city: a little elephant sculpted by one of Bernini's pupils, Ercole Ferrata, in 1667 bears a 6th century Egyptian obelisk on its back.
Octavian emerged as the first Roman Emperor, and was known as Augustus. He built Rome into a fitting capital of a great empire and ruled for forty years. He was succeeded by Tiberius, the eldest son of his second wife Livia (of whom more later!). He had hoped that his sister Octavia's son Marcellus would succeed him but he died young - perhaps at the hand of Livia? Augustus dedicated a theatre to Marcellus in 12BC. The houses of both Augustus and Livia are thought to be located on the Palatine Hill - the word "palace" is derived from "palatine".
After Tiberius came Caligula, assassinated after ruling for only four years, possibly mad but certainly vicious, then a reluctant Claudius who was nevertheless a rather good ruler; he was succeeded by his stepson, the notorious Nero. One of the reasons we had returned to Rome was to see the excavations of Nero's magnificent Domus Aurea, but it was closed. A good reason to come back!
The Centre of Roman Life in the Republican era was the Roman Forum, though the origins of the Forum lie back with the Etruscans, native people of the area whose influence eventually spread far into the south of Italy. In Republican times the Forum was not just a political centre but also a centre for commerce and religion. Many temples, the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Senate House (Curia), basilicas, triumphal arches - all could be found here.
The Curia ia one of the most important political buildings. It was built on the orders of Julius Caesar, though what remains is a 3rd century reconstruction. This was the seat of highest political power, where the 200 senators, appointed for life, debated and decided policies and directed military operations.
One of the most intact of the remains is the arch of Septimus Severus, erected by his sons, Caracalla and Galba, in the third century AD to celebrate their father's victories in Persia. All are commemorated in friezes though Galba's name was erased after Caracalla had him executed. Severus, and Caracalla after him, ruled Rome for seven years of terror.
Caracalla has left to posterity his Baths, which are among the few Roman remains which give some impression of the sheer size of the buildings. South east of the main city, walls rise almost to their full height, about 30m. The Baths are some of the largest ever created with facilities for 1600 people and extending over 25 acres. Anyone was allowed to use the facilities, though the poorest would have had fewer slaves to help them. The interior was quite rich, with marble paving and mosaic, gilded stucco and multi-coloured marble, porphyry and granite columns. The baths were in use until 537AD when the Goths damaged the aqueducts supplying Rome with water.
Little remains of the Rostra near the arch of Septimus Severus in the forum - this was the place where important speeches were made and probably where Mark Anthony read Caesar's will.
The house of the Vestal Virgins was built in the second century AD. Vesta was goddess of the home and very important in Roman society. The virgins served for thirty years, starting at about the age of ten. They were required to remain chaste but had special privileges and this fine palace to live in. The statues around the central courtyard are of some of these women. The round Temple of Vesta stands at one end of the palace and it is inside that the flame of Vesta was kept burning by the Vestal Virgins - one of their sacred duties.
The very last monument erected in the Forum was the Column of Phocas, an Eastern Emperor.
The Forum is fascinating to wander around. In its time it would have been one of the busiest places on the planet. It would have been crowded with people from all walks of life, all kinds of professions, and rung to the sound of debate and speeches.
The very short reigns of Otho and Vitellius - both of the order of months - followed Caracalla. Then came the Flavian dynasty, beginning with Vespasian in 69 AD, who took some of the extensive grounds of Nero's Golden House and built the Coliseum on the site of his lake. It is the largest Roman amphitheatre in the world and makes a lasting impression. Here were played out impressively extravagant spectacles - extravagant as much in human and animal life as in their expense.
The Flavian dynasty was also marked by the rule of Trajan (98-117) who expanded the empire greatly and stabilised the dominions and the city. One of the most beautiful monuments in the city is Trajan's column, 38m high and wider at the top than at the base to avoid the illusion of narrowing with height, this beautiful column depicts Trajan's wars against the Dacians in a series of finely sculpted scenes completely covering the exterior, winding up from the base to the top. Originally a statue of Trajan was placed on the top but this was replaced by the current statue of St Peter by Pope Sixtus V. Near to the column lie the excavations of Trajan's markets - about 150 terraced shops on the flank of the Quirinal Hill and a centre for the distribution of supplies.
Trajan was succeeded by Hadrian (117-138) under whose reign the empire reached its greatest extent with the conquest of Britain to the Roman Wall marking the boundary with Scotland.
There followed a relatively long settled period when the empire remained peaceful and prosperous and it must have been something of a golden age. The empire had its fragile periods but was mostly calm until 284 AD when Diocletian split it into two parts: east and west, each divided into four territories. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, moved the capital to Byzantium thus heralding the decline of Rome, hastened by the invasions of Goths and Vandals in the fifth century AD. By the sixth century it was an unrecognisable shadow of its former glory and had sunk into decay. The magnificent Arch of Constantine in the Forum commemorates his victory in 312 AD. over Maxentius at the Milvian bridge.
The rise of the papacy from the end of the sixth century returned wealth and influence to the city which prospered for hundreds of years, eventually being dominated by a few families who divided up the plum positions, including the papacy, between them. They also commissioned magnificent works of art, especially during the Renaissance, most particularly from Michelangelo and Raphael.
In the eighteenth century the influence of the papacy declined and the city was occupied by Napoleon in 1798. He declared a second Republic which lasted only 17 years when papal rule was restored. During the nineteenth century the various city states were coming together to form what would eventually become the modern country of Italy. In 1870 Italian troops finally took Rome back from the French and it was declared the capital of the new kingdom under Victor Emmanuel I. The Pope was confined to the Vatican of which he was guaranteed to remain sovereign without jurisdiction over any other part of the city, and Rome began its new life as capital of Italy.
A visit to the Vatican is essential for any art lover. From the Bernini Piazza with its beautiful colonnades to the Sistine chapel with its unbelievable ceiling, it contains uncountable works of art. St Peter's itself took over a hundred years to complete, from its beginnings by Bramante in the early sixteenth century - Michelangelo also played his part in the design of the dome. The Egyptian obelisk in the centre was brought to Rome by Caligula in 37AD, originally placed in his circus, left of the basilica.
Of the original armed regiments of the pope only the Swiss Guards remain, in their colourful uniforms supposedly designed by Michelangelo.
Inside, the basilica is massive, and the dome rises effortlessly to an immense height in contrast to Bernini's baldacchino, cast from tons of metal taken from the roof of the Pantheon, a ponderous barley-sugar twisted column affair, very Baroque.
St Peter's holds one of my favourite pieces of sculpture: Michelangelo's Pietà. When I first visited St Peter's it was possible to see the Pietà with nothing intervening but now it is defended by a glass sheet, after some madman tried to attack it.
Inside the Vatican museums there are almost always queues to see the Sistine chapel, but there are some marvellous sights along the way, not least the magnificent Laocoön. I first heard of this remarkable sculpture when reading "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (by Irving Stone), a very readable book about Michelangelo. In January 1506 the sculpture was unearthed in Nero's Domus Aurea and Michelangelo was reportedly much impressed by it. It is the work of a group of first century BC Greek sculptors from Rhodes, probably a copy of a 4th century BC piece, depicting the death of Laocoön, priest of Apollo, who had angered the god and was crushed to death, along with his two sons, by serpents.
The Raphael Rooms were originally built in the mid-fifteenth century and decorated by, among others, Piero della Francesca. It is sad that these original frescos no longer exist but their replacements are some of the most beautiful Renaissance works of art. Raphael was only a young man when he created these masterpieces, including the magnificent School of Athens. In it he peopled his painting with portraits of his contemporaries including Leonardo da Vinci as Plato and Michelangelo (added after the fresco was complete at which time Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel).
For the interpretation of the painting I have followed the Michelin Guide and the Vatican Museums website.
The Sistine Chapel paintings are some of the most impressive works of art anywhere in the world. No photography is allowed in the chapel - though this doesn't stop some people. I don't see why non-flash shouldn't be allowed - even most flash are too weak to damage the paintings at that distance I would have thought.
I'd visited the chapel many years previously before its recent restoration and cleaning of the paintings. These are now visibly brighter but I couldn't say that they were any less wonderful - some critics have complained that they have been adversely affected by the cleaning. The paintings on most of the walls were created by a number of artists including Botticelli, Perugino and Ghirlandaio - Micheangelo's teacher. But the Last Judgement, on the wall behind the altar, and all of the ceiling paintings are by Michelangelo. Probably the greatest example of western art, the detail, composition, extent and skill in rendition are just stupendous. The ceiling paintings depict scenes from the Old Testament, including the creation of Adam, the creation of Eve, the temptation and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the story of the flood, Jonah and the Whale, and David and Goliath. Michelangelo didn't actually want to do the paintings - he considered himself a sculptor, but once compelled by invitation of Pope Julius II to do his bidding, he, as always, insisted on perfection and doing what he considered best. The ceiling took four years to complete and the Last Judgement five years, all the work being completed by Michelangelo alone.
Rome has a huge amount of wonderful art. Two more of my favourite pieces are in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in the Piazza del Popolo. These are by Caravaggio: the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. Very beautiful and recognisably Caravaggio's trademark style of light and dark, these depict St Peter being hoisted into position on the inverted cross, and Paul, flat on the ground, and a horse bathed in light. In their realistic treatment of the figures they were very avant garde religious images at the time.
In 2006 we stayed in a hotel close to the Campo dei Fiori - a lovely square with a market and lots of cafés. One of the problems in Rome is that it is impossible for the underground to be very extensive - there's just too much precious archaeology. So it's usually a hike to the nearest metro station.
We walked most places and took the metro when it was convenient. We were within easy walking distance of the vast Piazza Navona for instance and excellent ice cream at Le Tre Scalini.
Also we were not too far from the Spanish Steps - named for the residence of the Spanish Ambassador in the 17th century. Beside the Spanish Steps is Keats' house where he spent the last few months of his life. The square is noted for the lovely little boat fountain at the base of the steps, designed by Bernini's father, and Keats' House where he died in February 1821 from tuberculosis.
Rome has continued to erect monuments throughout the centuries. Two of the most famous are the exuberantly baroque Trevi Fountain and overblown Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II - otherwise known derisively as the Wedding Cake.
It was exceedingly hot when we were here in 2006 - we nearly didn't make it back from the Baths of Caracalla! Refreshments in the Piazza Navona or Campo dei Fiori were always welcome though my proficiency in Italian wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped and we ended up with enormous beers on one occasion - at 12 Euros each!
We also had great ice cream at Pellachia on Via Cola di Rienzo north of Castel Sant Angelo as well as several other places in the city but we think Le Tre Scalini is the best.
We visited the museum Palazzo Massimo - we had a Rome archaeological pass and it was included otherwise we probably wouldn't have gone but I'm glad we did, if for no other reason than it had frescos from a garden courtyard where Livia, wife of Augustus, lived. She is a fascinating character. Robert Graves' books "I Claudius" and "Claudius the God" bring Imperial Rome alive and, if he is to be believed, Livia was a great manipulator of events, going so far as to poison many in the line of succession to Augustus, including Augustus himself, to ensure that her son Tiberius became emperor. I can highly recommend, too, the BBC TV series "I Claudius" - it has some great actors: Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, George Baker and a magnificent Siân Phillips as Livia.
Trastavere across the river is more relaxed than the main city. Traditionally it is an area of immigrants due to its position on the right bank of the Tiber, and now a vibrant quarter with many trattorias and a lively nightlife. It was very peaceful when we strolled through the streets one morning, visiting churches and climbing to Piazza Garibaldi for the view over the city - a bit hazy for good photography.
Santa Maria in Trastavere is particularly worth a visit, said to be the first Christian place of worship in Rome, though most of the current building dates from the twelfth century. It is famous for its mosaics, especially the Byzantine-style apse mosaics
In all my reading on ancient Rome it is rare that Ostia Antica isn't mentioned. It was the major port for the city, connected to it by the Tiber, and therefore hugely important in an era when transport by ship was the standard method for long distances. I had long wanted to visit Ostia, even though I had no idea if there was anything to see - I felt sure such an important place must have some remains. When we finally did make it here in 2006 I was absolutely blown away by the wealth of remains. This is where to come if you want to see a provincial Roman town, not as extensive as Pompeii but equally diverse in the types of building to be seen.
Founded in the fourth century BC it stands at the mouth (Ostium) of the Tiber. Originally it was important for its castle guarding the entrance to the river, and hence access to Rome. Its greatest period of prosperity was from the first to the third centuries AD. Ostia declined when its harbour silted up, so it's not possible to see anything of the actual harbour works, but the taverns and houses, shops and public buildings speak of a once prosperous and bustling city.
Before entering the city through the Porta Romana, one of the first series of well-preserved ruins are, in fact, a necropolis, on the Via Ostiense. As well as many tombs there are columbaria, with niches for urns. Roman dead were always interred outside city walls and tombs line major roads for many miles.
Ostia had a remarkable number of baths and one of the most impressive is the Baths of Neptune with magnificent black and white mosaic floors - the baths are named for the large mosaic of Neptune in a chariot drawn by hippocampi.
Of course Ostia, as a large and important city, has its Forums, theatre and temples, but it is the more humble domestic buildings which are of greater interest. For instance, some of the best-preserved latrines of the Roman world can be found at Ostia. The photograph on the left shows public latrines for men - very sociable. It is said that the hole on the front face of the latrine was for inserting a washing sponge on a stick.
There is an abundance of intact shops and bars, one of the most remarkable of these is the Thermopolium of Via di Diana. It is so complete you almost feel you could order something from the bar.
Some of the very well-preserved shops include a fishmongers on the Decumanus Maximus. The shop retains its marble table and dolphin and triton floor mosaics. It is very easy to imagine this shop busy on a normal day in Ostia, full of shoppers and the fishmonger cutting fish on the table.
We walked as far as possible along the Decumanus Maximus which runs west for a while from the Porta Roman and then south west for a distance of almost 2km. At its furthest western end it would have led to the harbour area but this is now closed off. Here, right on the road, is a bar with a fine mosaic floor of two pancratiasts (boxers/wrestlers) - Alexander and Helix. There is also a mosaic of Diana with a mirror which suggests there might also have been a room for a brothel here.
The Ostia Antica website has a great deal of information, photographs, and sketches of reconstructions.
In 2001, while we were visiting the Abruzzo, we made a two hour drive to the immense Villa Adriana just outside Tivoli, about 40km north east of Rome.
Completely deserted the day we visited - and incredibly hot as the morning wore on - the villa is an impressive collection of ruins which take some time to explore fully. It was built by the Emperor Hadrian as a retreat and for his retirement in 138AD and designed to include replicas of some of the buildings he had seen during his travels and which he most admired.
As well as the opulent palace, little of which is recognisable, it had temples, libraries, theatres, pools and baths, all adorned with colonnades, fine mosaics and statuary.
The tranquil Canopus consists of a long rectangular pool with, at one end, the arched colonnade and statues of a Temple of Serapis, a copy of the Sanctuary of Serapis near Alexandria, Egypt. Six caryatids remain along one side - there must have been many more along the length of the pool at one time.
The mosaics were particularly intact and impressive in small barrack rooms, perhaps for the more elite guard given the quality of the floors!
The Maritime Theatre is on a more human scale: a circular pond with an island in the centre on which there was a building with an atrium dining room library and small baths - a secluded retreat for the Emperor.