In October of 2012 Matt and I travelled to Italy for our honeymoon. Our first stop was Rome which included some fascinating sightseeing. We saw some amazing things during our time there but some of our favorites were the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. These structures have been standing for roughly two thousand years. They are so ancient they were being restored in the 1500s and as you stood in them you could feel some of the many veils that hide other times from our own slipping away. These places remain vividly inscribed in my imagination and reading my travel journal and looking at photos, the strange mix of feelings comes rushing back.
The first place we visited was the Colosseum, an amphitheatre built of stone and concrete which was commissioned in 70 AD by Vespasian. Shortly before Vespasian took over, Nero was the Roman emperor and he lived a hedonistic and lavish lifestyle. He killed his mother, an ex-wife, a general who had bad-mouthed him at a party, a writer who spoke poorly of the Roman Senate and others. Nero had erected a golden palace on the site of the Colosseum and was widely believed to have fiddled while Rome burned in an out of control fire. After the Romans began to revolt Nero committed suicide and after a period of musical chairs Vespasian took over, tearing down the golden palace and gifting the site to the people with intentions to build a place that they would enjoy. The elliptical amphitheatre was the largest in the Roman Empire and now the world, and is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering. Holding between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators it was used as an arena for gladiatorial combat and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology.
The Colosseum was giant and skeletal, allowing you to stand in its ribcage and walk onto the platform on what would have been the floor of the arena. You could see into the secret labyrinth that had once held tigers, bears and traps for the men who would fight above and the iconic arches which served as entrances to stands, not unlike modern sports complexes. The walls bore traces of the time it had been converted into an ad hoc apartment/market/ neighborhood, with wooden walls constructed between the arches to make separate rooms. We also had the opportunity to go down into the dungeons and witness where they maneuvered animals and gladiators for the games. The shade felt heavy throughout the structure and it wasn’t difficult to close your eyes and imagine the cacophony of tourists were ancient Romans discussing, betting and calling for blood. We were able to walk through the same tunnel it is believed gladiators entered the arena from. We walked in the footsteps of some kidnapped, ancient warrior, walking to what would probably be their death. I wonder what they thought as they walked up the ramp. Did they drag their feet or march proudly? Were they imagining a family left behind? A hatred for the Romans? Plotting how best to survive? So many people walked here, cheered here, died here, people who had hopes and dreams, ambitions and families. People who are gone, whose tears and blood dried up over a thousand years ago. It feels as though their emotions stained the structure, in the Colosseum the history was palpable.
The Roman forum was another place that was perfect for imagination to take hold. Even with just the skeletal outline of temples and streets it was not difficult to see the temples completed and the forum bustling with religion, business, politics and people. Where only pillars remained, it felt like the bones of an ancient forgotten god’s hand were clawing up from the ground, reaching for the sky. Many of the triumphal arches stood intact and because ancient Rome was a pedestrian city, it was all the more impressive to see a military parade come through one in chariots and up the sacred road.
The Pantheon was probably my favorite place in all of Italy. Even in a world of skyscrapers and enormous buildings I walked in and felt tiny. The oculus at the top of the dome evokes this feeling that the gods are allowing this structure to stand, against all odds; that it shouldn’t be there or be able to support itself. It was packed with tourists but it was one of those places that made you feel glad that you weren’t alone there. It’s a coffered concrete dome, which at over 2,000 years old and 142 feet tall (the same size as its interior circle) is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The structure was originally commissioned by Marcus Agrippa around 25BC and rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian around 126 AD. As imperial Rome declined the Pantheon was gifted to the rising Catholic church in 609 AD. This ensured its continued upkeep and survival, making it one of the best preserved ancient buildings in all of Rome.
Walking through Rome is an interesting, almost spooky, experience. You are surrounded by these tall medieval apartment buildings, usually seven stories high. Iron railings, rust colored walls, petite doorways, very much what you might imagine. Then all of a sudden you turn a corner and there is something that has been there for 2,000 years or 500 years. Enormous and imposing structures or a delicate fountain, set apart in the middle of a piazza (or square). Sprouting out of the street are pillars so big you can’t describe it, seven stories high and wider than a car. Around another corner lie these worn marble steps that have seen more feet, across more years, than should be possible. Its disorienting to suddenly be confronted with such tangible ties to such an ancient past. Its unsettling to think you are looking at something envisioned, created, loved, and seen to fruition by eyes that died 2,000 years ago. Eyes that rotted away to less than powder a millennia ago. Rome is full of whispers about your youth, mortality, and little reminders that you are very small.0