Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)
Rome has many layers—modern, Baroque, Renaissance, Christian. But let’s face it: “Rome” is Caesars, gladiators, chariots, centurions, “Et tu, Brute,” trumpet fanfares, and thumbs-up or thumbs-down. That’s the Rome we’ll look at. Our “Caesar Shuffle” begins with the downtown core of ancient Rome, the Colosseum. This was where Romans—whose taste for violence was the equal of modern America’s—enjoyed their Dirty Harrys and Terminators. Gladiators, criminals, and wild animals fought to the death in every conceivable scenario. After the Colosseum, a logical next stop is the Roman Forum, just next door (and covered in the following chapter).
(See “Colosseum” map, here.)
Cost: €12 combo-ticket covers both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum/Palatine Hill; also covered by Roma Pass. The combo-ticket is valid for two consecutive days, but once you use your ticket for either the Colosseum or the Forum/Palatine Hill, you can’t reenter that sight (even the next day). The Colosseum is free the first Sunday of the month—and mobbed with people.
Hours: The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill are open daily 8:30 until one hour before sunset: April-Aug until 19:15, Sept until 19:00, Oct until 18:30, Nov-mid-Feb until 16:30, mid-Feb-mid-March until 17:00, mid-March-late March until 17:30; last entry one hour before closing.
Restoration: The arena is being cleaned from top to bottom, given permanent lighting, and outfitted with new shops and services. Plans include building a freestanding ticket booth/visitors center outside the Colosseum. These ongoing renovations, scheduled to last several years, may affect your visit.
Avoiding Lines: Crowds tend to be thinner (and lines shorter) in the afternoon (especially after 15:00 in summer); this is also true at the Forum.
You can save lots of time by buying your combo-ticket at a less-crowded ticket office, buying and printing an online ticket, having the Roma Pass, booking a guided tour, or renting an audioguide or videoguide. Here are the options:
1. Buy your combo-ticket (or Roma Pass) at a less-crowded place. First check the Forum/Palatine Hill entrance facing the Colosseum. If that’s also crowded, try the entrance 150 yards away, on Via di San Gregorio (facing the Forum, with Colosseum at your back, go left down the street). You can also buy a Roma Pass at the green kiosk in front of the Colosseo Metro station, the information center on Via dei Fori Imperiali (see here), or other sights around town. It should cost the same no matter where you buy it.
2. Buy and print a combo-ticket online at www.coopculture.it (€2 booking fee). The “free tickets” you’ll see listed are valid only for EU citizens with ID.
3. Pay to join an official guided tour, or rent an audioguide or videoguide (see “Tours,” later). Tell the guard at the ticket-holders entrance that you want to sign up, and they’ll let you march right up to the Colosseum’s guided visits (Visite didattiche) desk, thus bypassing the ticket lines. Even if you don’t actually do the tour, the extra cost might be worth it just to skip the ticket line.
4. Hire a private walking-tour guide. Guides of varying quality linger outside the Colosseum, offering tours that allow you to skip the line. Be aware that these private guides may try to mislead you into thinking the Colosseum lines are longer than they really are. For more on this option, see “Tours,” later.
Warning: Beware of the greedy gladiators. For a fee, the incredibly crude, modern-day gladiators snuff out their cigarettes and pose for photos. They’re officially banned from panhandling in this area, but you may still see them, hoping to intimidate easy-to-swindle tourists into paying too much money for a photo op. (If you go for it, €4-5 for one photo usually keeps them appeased.) Also, look out for pickpockets and con artists in this prime tourist spot.
Getting There: The Colosseo Metro stop on line B is just across the street from the monument. Buses #51, #85, #87, #118, #186, and #810 stop along Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum entrance, one of the Forum/Palatine Hill entrances, and Piazza Venezia.
Getting In: The entrance is divided into two queues: those who need to buy a ticket (the longest line), and those who are already ticket holders (combo-ticket, online ticket, Roma Pass, or signing up for a tour). There’s also a separate entrance for groups, so be sure you follow the signs to get in the right line.
Information: Tel. 06-3996-7700, www.archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en.
Tours: A fact-filled audioguide is available just past the turnstiles (€5.50/2 hours). A handheld videoguide senses where you are in the site and plays related clips (€6).
Download my free Colosseum audio tour.
Official guided tours in English depart nearly hourly between 10:00 and 17:00, and last 45-60 minutes (€5 plus Colosseum ticket, purchase inside the Colosseum near the ticket booth marked Visite didattiche; if you’re lost, ask a guard to direct you to the desk).
A 1.5-hour “Colosseum, Underground and Third Ring” tour takes you through areas that are off-limits to regular visitors, including the top floor and underground passageways. While interesting, this tour certainly isn’t essential to appreciating the Colosseum. Although it’s possible to sign up for the tour at the Colosseum’s guided-tours window, it’s strongly advised you reserve at least a day in advance, either by phone or online (no same-day reservations). The tour is operated by CoopCulture (€9 plus Colosseum ticket, www.coopculture.it). Call 06-3996-7700: Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat 9:00-14:00 (closed Sun). After dialing, wait for English instructions on how to reach a live operator. Without a reservation, you can try to join the next available tour on-site (may be in Italian): Once you have your Colosseum entrance ticket and are at the turnstiles, look for the tour meeting point just past the ticket desk; pay the guide directly.
Private guides stand outside the Colosseum looking for business (€25-30/2-hour tour of the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill). If booking a private guide, make sure that your tour will start right away and that the ticket you receive covers all three sights: the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill.
Length of This Tour: Allow an hour. If you’re short on time, you can basically see the entire interior with a single glance. It’s not necessary to go upstairs or circle the place.
Baggage: Larger bags and backpacks are not allowed, and there is no bag check. Travel light to avoid being turned away.
Services: A WC (often crowded) is inside the Colosseum. For more tips on where to eat, drink, and find a WC in the area, see the sidebar on here.
Nearby Eateries: For restuarants near the Colosseum, see here.
The Tour Begins
(See “Colosseum” map, here.)
✵ View the Colosseum from the Forum fence, across the street from the Colosseo Metro station.
Built when the Roman Empire was at its peak in A.D. 80, the Colosseum represents Rome at its grandest. The Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum’s real name) was an arena for gladiator contests and public spectacles. When killing became a spectator sport, the Romans wanted to share the fun with as many people as possible, so they stuck two semicircular theaters together to create a freestanding amphitheater. The outside (where slender cypress trees stand today) was decorated with a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of Nero that gleamed in the sunlight. In a later age, the colossal structure was nicknamed a “coloss-eum,” the wonder of its age. Towering 150 feet high, it could accommodate 50,000 roaring fans (100,000 thumbs).
The Romans pioneered the use of concrete and the rounded arch, which enabled them to build on this tremendous scale. The exterior is a skeleton of 3.5 million cubic feet of travertine stone. (Each of the pillars flanking the ground-level arches weighs five tons.) It took 200 ox-drawn wagons shuttling back and forth every day for four years just to bring the stone here from Tivoli. They stacked stone blocks (without mortar) into the shape of an arch, supported temporarily by wooden scaffolding. Finally, they wedged a keystone into the top of the arch—it not only kept the arch from falling, it could bear even more weight above. Iron pegs held the larger stones together; notice the small holes—the result of medieval peg poachers—that pockmark the sides.
The exterior says a lot about the Romans. They were great engineers, not artists, and the building is more functional than beautiful. (If ancient Romans visited the US today as tourists, they might send home postcards of our greatest works of “art”—freeways.) While the essential structure of the Colosseum is Roman, the four-story facade is decorated with mostly Greek columns—Doric-like Tuscan columns on the ground level, Ionic on the second story, Corinthian on the next level, and at the top, half-columns with a mix of all three. Originally, copies of Greek statues stood in the arches of the middle two stories, giving a veneer of sophistication to this arena of death.
Only a third of the original Colosseum remains. Earthquakes destroyed some of it, but most was carted off as easy precut stones for other buildings during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
✵ To enter, line up in the correct queue. Remember, there’s one for ticket buyers, one for ticket holders, and a separate entrance for groups. The visit begins once you show your ticket and pass through the turnstiles.
INSIDE THE COLOSSEUM
Once past the turnstiles, signs direct you on a suggested (but generally not mandatory) visitors’ route: first, you go upstairs, see a small permanent exhibition of artifacts, survey the arena from the upper level, descend to ground level, and exit. It’s a fine route, but really, you’re free to see the place in almost any order you’d like (though some staircases are one-way). Since the whole arena is visible from everywhere—there wasn’t a bad seat in the house—most of this chapter’s descriptions can work wherever you may wander.
The Permanent Exhibition
Upstairs is a display of old artifacts with good English information. You’ll see cracked columns and busted busts, plus diagrams and reconstructions showing how the Colosseum once looked.
Especially interesting are the terracotta plates—Romans loved to eat (chicken wings and olives), drink (wine), and play board games while they watched. A fine mosaic depicts a tiger being herded into battle by his handlers. Models illustrate how the wild animals were raised on elevators to arena level. And you’ll see the bones of some of the animals used in the games—horses (which some combatants rode), bears, boars, ostriches, and lions.
✵ From the turnstiles, follow the flow of traffic, making your way into the arena.
Entrances and Exits
As you walk through passageways and up staircases, imagine being an ancient spectator arriving for the games. Fans could pour in through ground-floor entrances; there were 76 numbered ones in addition to the emperor’s private entrance on the north side. Your ticket (likely a piece of pottery) was marked with your entrance, section, row, and seat number. You’d pass by concession stands selling fast food and souvenirs, such as wine glasses with the names of famous gladiators. A hallway leading to the seats was called a vomitorium. At exit time, the Colosseum would “vomit” out its contents, giving us the English word. It’s estimated that all 50,000 fans could enter and exit in 15 minutes.
✵ Soon you’ll spill out into the arena. Wherever you end up—upstairs or downstairs, at one side of the arena or the other—just take it all in and get oriented. The tallest side of the Colosseum (with the large Christian cross) is the north side.
The games took place in this oval-shaped arena, 280 feet long by 165 feet wide. The ratio of length to width is 5:3, often called the golden ratio. Since the days of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, artists considered that proportion to be ideal, with almost mystical properties. The Colosseum’s architects apparently wanted their structure to embody the perfect 5-by-3 mathematical order they thought existed in nature.
When you look down into the arena, you’re seeing the underground passages beneath the playing surface (which can only be visited on a private tour). The arena was originally covered with a wooden floor, then sprinkled with sand (arena in Latin). The bit of reconstructed floor gives you an accurate sense of the original arena level and the subterranean warren where animals and prisoners were held. As in modern stadiums, the spectators ringed the playing area in bleacher seats that slanted up from the arena floor. Around you are the big brick masses that supported the tiers of seats.
A variety of materials were used to build the stadium. Look around. Big white travertine blocks stacked on top of each other formed the skeleton. The pillars for the bleachers were made with a shell of brick, filled in with concrete. Originally the bare brick was covered with marble columns or ornamental facing, so the interior was a brilliant white (they used white plaster for the upper-floor cheap seats).
The Colosseum’s seating was strictly segregated. At ringside, the emperor, senators, Vestal Virgins, and VIPs occupied marble seats with their names carved on them (a few marble seats have been restored, at the east end). The next level upheld those of noble birth. The level tourists now occupy was for ordinary free Roman citizens, called plebeians. Up at the very top (a hundred yards from the action), there were once wooden bleachers for the poorest people—foreigners, slaves, and women. While no seats survive and you’re likely viewing the arena from what was a passageway that ran under the seats, you can imagine the scene.
The top story of the Colosseum is mostly ruined—only the north side still retains its high wall. This was not part of the original three-story structure but was added around A.D. 230 after a fire necessitated repairs. Picture the awning that could be stretched across the top of the stadium by armies of sailors. Strung along horizontal beams that pointed inward to the center, the awning covered only about a third of the arena—so those at the top always enjoyed shade, while many nobles down below roasted in the sun.
Looking into the complex web of passageways beneath the arena, you can imagine how busy the backstage action was. Gladiators strolled down the central passageway, from their warm-up yard on the east end to the arena entrance on the west. Some workers tended wild animals. Others prepared stage sets of trees or fake buildings, allowing the arena to be quickly transformed from an African jungle to a Greek temple. Props and sets were hauled up to arena level on 80 different elevator shafts via a system of ropes and pulleys. (You might be able to make out some small rectangular shafts, especially near the center of the arena.) That means there were 80 different spots from which animals, warriors, and stage sets could pop up and magically appear.
The games began with a few warm-up acts—dogs bloodying themselves attacking porcupines, female gladiators fighting each other, or a one-legged man battling a dwarf. Then came the main event—the gladiators.
“Hail, Caesar! (Ave, Caesar!) We who are about to die salute you!” The gladiators would enter the arena from the west end, parade around to the sound of trumpets, acknowledge the Vestal Virgins (on the south side), then stop at the emperor’s box (supposedly marked today by the cross that stands at the “50-yard line” on the north side—although no one knows for sure where it was). They would then raise their weapons, shout, and salute—and begin fighting. The fights pitted men against men, men against beasts, and beasts against beasts. Picture 50,000 screaming people around you (did gladiators get stage fright?), and imagine that they want to see you die.
Some gladiators wielded swords, protected only with a shield and a heavy helmet. Others represented fighting fishermen, with a net to snare opponents and a trident to spear them. The gladiators were usually slaves, criminals, or poor people who got their chance for freedom, wealth, and fame in the ring. They learned to fight in training schools, then battled their way up the ranks. The best were rewarded like our modern sports stars, with fan clubs, great wealth, and, yes, product endorsements.
The animals came from all over the world: lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!), crocodiles, elephants, and hippos (not to mention exotic human “animals” from the “barbarian” lands). They were kept in cages beneath the arena floor, then lifted up in the elevators. Released at floor level, animals would pop out from behind blinds into the arena—the gladiator didn’t know where, when, or by what he’d be attacked. Many a hapless warrior met his death here, and never even knew what hit him. (This sometimes brought howls of laughter from the hardened fans in the cheap upper seats, who had a better view of the action.)
Nets ringed the arena to protect the crowd. The stadium was inaugurated with a 100-day festival in which 2,000 men and 9,000 animals were killed. Colosseum employees squirted perfumes around the stadium to mask the stench of blood.
If a gladiator fell helpless to the ground, his opponent would approach the emperor’s box and ask: Should he live or die? Sometimes the emperor left the decision to the crowd, who would judge based on how valiantly the man had fought. They would make their decision: thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Consider the value of these games in placating and controlling the huge Roman populace. Imagine never having seen an actual lion, and suddenly one jumps out to chase a prisoner in the arena. Seeing the king of beasts slain by a gladiator reminded the masses of man’s triumph over nature.
In an age without a hint of a newsreel, it was hard for local Romans to visualize and appreciate the faraway conquests their empire was so dedicated to. The Colosseum spectacles were a way to bring home the environments, animals, and people of these conquered lands, parade them before the public, and make them real. And having the thumbs-up or thumbs-down authority over another person’s life gave the spectators a real sense of power. Imagine the psychological boost the otherwise downtrodden masses felt when the emperor granted them this thrilling decision.
Did they throw Christians to the lions as in the movies? Christians were definitely thrown to the lions, made to fight gladiators, crucified, and burned alive...but probably not here in this particular stadium. Maybe, but probably not.
Rome was a nation of warriors that built an empire by conquest. The battles fought against Germans and other barbarians, Egyptians, and strange animals were played out daily here in the Colosseum for the benefit of city-slicker bureaucrats, who got vicarious thrills by watching brutes battle to the death. The contests were always free, sponsored by the government to bribe the people’s favor or to keep Rome’s growing masses of unemployed rabble off the streets.
Modern Amenities in the Ancient World
The area around the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill is rich in history but pretty barren when it comes to food, shelter, and WCs. Here are a few options:
The Colosseum has a crowded WC inside. A WC is behind (east of) the structure (facing ticket entrance, go clockwise; pay WC is under stairway). If you can wait, the best WCs in the area are at Palatine Hill—at the Via di San Gregorio entrance, in the museum, and in the Farnese Gardens. The Forum has WCs at the entrance on Via dei Fori Imperiali, near the Arch of Titus (in the “Soprintendenza” office), and in the middle of the Forum (near #6 on the map on here).
Because the area’s eating options are limited, consider assembling a small picnic. The Colosseo Metro stop has forgettable €5 hot sandwiches. Snack stands on street corners sell overpriced drinks, sandwiches, fruit, and candy. If you prefer to dine in, you’ll find a few restaurants behind the Colosseum (with expansive views of the structure but high prices and mediocre food), and several recommended places are within a few blocks (no views but a better value—see here). The characteristic Monti neighborhood, with a number of recommended eateries, is just north of the Forum’s Via dei Fori Imperiali entrance (see here).
To refill your water bottle, stop at one of the water fountains in the area. You’ll find them along a few city streets, as well as inside the Forum and Palatine Hill.
A nice oasis is the free information center located across from the Forum entrance on Via dei Fori Imperiali and a bit east, toward the Colosseum. It has a small café, a WC, and a few exhibits (daily 9:30-19:00).
If your sightseeing takes you as far as Capitoline Hill, you’ll find services at the Capitoline Museums, including a nice view café (see here).
Several public buses (#85, #87, etc.) traverse Via dei Fori Imperiali between the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia, making it easy to hop on for a stop or two. If you need a taxi, use the stand near the southeast corner of the Colosseum. The taxis parked near the Colosseo Metro stop (on Via dei Fori Imperiali) have a reputation for being sharks.
✵ With these scenes in mind, wander around, then check out the upper level. Stairs are on both the east and west sides, with an elevator at the east end (only accessible to those who really need it). The upper deck offers more colossal views of the arena, plus a bookstore and temporary exhibits. Wherever you may Rome, find a spot at the west end of the upper deck, where you can look out over some of the sights nearby.
Views from the Upper Level
✵ Start your visual tour with the big, white, triumphal arch.
Arch of Constantine
If you are a Christian, were raised a Christian, or simply belong to a so-called “Christian nation,” ponder this arch. It marks one of the great turning points in history: the military coup that made Christianity mainstream. In A.D. 312, Emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in the crucial Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The night before, he had seen a vision of a cross in the sky. Constantine—whose mother and sister had already become Christians—became sole emperor and legalized Christianity. With this one battle, a once-obscure Jewish sect with a handful of followers became the state religion of the entire Western world. In A.D. 300, you could be killed for being a Christian; a century later, you could be killed for not being one. Church enrollment boomed.
The restored arch is like an ancient museum. It’s decorated entirely with recycled carvings originally made for other buildings. By covering it with exquisite carvings of high Roman art—works that glorified previous emperors—Constantine put himself in their league. Hadrian is featured in the round reliefs, with Marcus Aurelius in the square reliefs higher up. The big statues on top are of Trajan and Augustus. Originally, Augustus drove a chariot similar to the one topping the modern Victor Emmanuel II Monument. Fourth-century Rome may have been in decline, but Constantine clung to its glorious past.
Looking southwest, beyond the Arch of Constantine, you see Palatine Hill, dotted with umbrella pines. To the right of the Arch of Constantine is the road called Via Sacra (“Sacred Way”), once Rome’s main street. It heads west up an incline toward the Arch of Titus (you can just make out its white top from here). That marks the head of the Forum, the religious, political, and commercial heart of ancient Rome (covered in the next chapter).
The Colosseum was built between three of Rome’s legendary seven hills: Palatine (to the southwest), Esquiline (to the north), and Caelian (to the south). The Colosseum stands on land where the notorious Emperor Nero once had his sumptuous Golden House, which stretched from the Arch of Titus, across the valley, and up onto Esquiline Hill. After the house was replaced by the Colosseum, Nero’s statue (or colossus) became the Colosseum’s 100-foot-tall doorman.
✵ Looking west, in the direction of the Forum, you’ll see some ruins sitting atop a raised, rectangular-shaped hill. (You can recognize the hill by some door-like openings cut into the hill’s support wall.) The ruins—consisting of an arched alcove made of brick and backed by a church bell tower—are all that remain of the once-great...
Temple of Venus and Rome
At 100 feet tall, this temple atop a pedestal was one of the most prominent temples in Rome—and also its biggest. The size of a football field, it once covered the entire hill. The style of the temple was Greek—surrounded by white columns and topped with a triangular pediment above the entrance. Today, the perimeter of the complex is still visible, marked by a few massive white columns, six feet thick.
The main ruin in the center—the tall brick arch with a cross-hatched ceiling—was once the cella, or sacred chamber of the temple. Here sat two monumental statues, back to back. Venus, the goddess of love, faced the Colosseum. The goddess called Roma Aeterna faced the Forum. The pair of statues symbolized the birth and eternal destiny of the race of people meant to endure forever. The goddesses’ Latin names were written in the twin cellas. On one side it read “Roma” and on the other, “Amor.” Roma and Amor—a perfectly symmetrical palindrome, showing how Rome and Love were meant to go together. In ancient times, newlyweds ascended the staircase from the Colosseum (some parts are still visible) to the temple to ask Venus and Roma Aeterna to bring them good luck. These days, Roman couples get married at the church with the bell tower to ensure themselves love and happiness for eternity.
The temple was designed by Hadrian, the second-century emperor and amateur architect who also designed the Pantheon. Hadrian’s design was critiqued by Rome’s best-known architect, who complained that the huge statues would be so cramped they’d bump their heads if they stood up. Hadrian listened patiently to the criticism...then had the architect killed.
For a closer-up look at the Temple of Venus and Rome, you can access the ruins from within the Roman Forum.
THE COLOSSEUM’S LEGACY
With the coming of Christianity to Rome, the Colosseum and its deadly games slowly became politically incorrect. However, some gladiator contests continued here sporadically until they were completely banned in A.D. 435. Animal hunts continued a few decades longer. As the Roman Empire dwindled and the infrastructure crumbled, the stadium itself was neglected. Finally, around A.D. 523—after nearly 500 years of games—the last animal was killed, and the Colosseum shut its doors.
For the next thousand years, the structure was inhabited by various squatters. It was used for makeshift apartments or shops, as a church, a cemetery, and as a refuge during invasions and riots. Over time, the Colosseum was eroded by wind, rain, and the strain of gravity. Earthquakes weakened it, and a powerful quake in 1349 toppled the south side.
More than anything, the Colosseum was dismantled by the Roman citizens themselves, who carted off precut stones to be reused for palaces and churches, including St. Peter’s. The marble facing was pulverized into mortar, and 300 tons of iron brackets were pried out and melted down, resulting in the pockmarking you see today.
After centuries of neglect, a series of 16th-century popes took pity on the pagan structure. In memory of the Christians who may (or may not) have been martyred here, they shored up the south and west sides with bricks and placed the big cross on the north side of the arena.
Today, the Colosseum links Rome’s glorious past with its vital present. Major political demonstrations begin or end here, providing protesters with an iconic backdrop for the TV cameras. On Good Friday, the pope comes here to lead pilgrims as they follow the Stations of the Cross.
The legend goes that as long as the Colosseum shall stand, the city of Rome shall also stand. For nearly 2,000 years, the Colosseum has been the enduring symbol of Rome, the Eternal City.
✵ The Roman Forum is 100 yards to the right of the arch. You can go in through the entrance across from the Colosseum, the entrance on Via dei Fori Imperiali, or the entrance along Via di San Gregorio—see the map on here. If you’re ready for a visit, turn to the next chapter.