Roman Forum
Pantheon
Colosseum
Tevi Fountain
Turtle Fountain
Spanish Steps
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Ancient ruins show that art, architecture, and culture have long histories in Italy’s capital city

Thousands of years of history are visible today in the ancient ruins found throughout the contemporary city of Rome. Modern western civilisation has been moulded immeasurably by the ideas, events and architecture that emerged from this place. As a tourist, the limit to what you can learn is only bound by curiosity.

A walking tour of Rome is simple. All you need is a map. There are ruins and historical sites everywhere. The centre of the city encompasses most of the key tourist sites, including the Roman Forum, Pantheon and the Colosseum. These are within walking distance from modern focal points, such as Roma Termini (the city’s main railway station) and the National Monument.

During my recent visit to Rome, walking was the best way to see most of the city. It seemed every corner I turned, there was an ancient ruin and a historical site of significance. The following sites were some of the many I found most memorable and interesting.

Roman Forum

Rome was founded in 753 BC. For the first 200 years, it was ruled by Etruscan kings. The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation that emerged from an area around Tuscany. In 509 BC, the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown. Power shifted from the monarch to two annually elected magistrates called consuls. The Republican government expanded militarily, which led to cultural growth. But five hundred years proved the limit of the republican form of government, as it was unable to handle the sustained expansion. Julius Caesar changed all that by initiating a civil war when he crossed the Rubicon River with one of his legions. He won that war and in 45 BC crowned himself dictator of Rome. He was murdered a year later, but his great-nephew and adopted heir, Octavian, was able to consolidate power, becoming the first emperor of Rome in 27 BC. Imperial rule lasted until the decline and the eventual fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD.

The Forum is in the valley between the seven hills of Rome. After the swamp between the hills was drained in the seventh century BC, it became the centre for commerce, religion and politics. At first, it was neutral ground for Romulus, the first king of Rome controlling the Palatine Hill, and his rival, Titus Tatius, who occupied the Capitoline Hill. The area grew as an open-air market, a place for political speeches, civil trials, and other public affairs. During the Republican period, the area was dominated by temples and the Senate House. Later, monuments began to appear. During Imperial rule, the economic and judicial business transferred away from the Forum. The last significant Forum complex completed was Constantine the Great’s Basilica of Maxentius in 312 AD.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, the city’s population shrank dramatically, and the Forum fell into disuse. Over time, valuable building materials were transferred to build churches, feudal towers, and castles. Not until 1898 did the Italian government officially begin proper excavations and preservation efforts.

Today the site is an open-air museum of fragments of ancient temples, basilicas, and triumphal arches. A knowledgeable guide or guidebook is invaluable to understanding the history of the many various structures that once stood strong in this open-air museum.

Pantheon

The Pantheon was built by Emperor Hadrian in 125 AD. It was a replacement for two previous Pantheons that were destroyed by fire. It is now the oldest building in continuous use in Rome.

Originally it was used as a temple to all the gods, hence the name which is derived from ancient Greek “Pantheion” which means relating to all the gods. A reason it has survived and was not destroyed or cannibalised for its building materials was that it was converted into a Christian church in 609 AD when the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave it to Pope Boniface IV. It was then consecrated as St. Mary of the Martyrs church.

Architectural features and building techniques make this building remarkable. The dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. At that time, concrete was a new invention, and the builders ingeniously changed the ingredients so that the concrete at the top of the dome was lighter than that at the bottom. The builders also left an 8.8-metre hole in the roof called the oculus. When the sun shines, a circle of light travels down one side, moves across the floor and makes its way up the opposite side. When it rains, the water flows off the slightly convex floor to the still-functioning Roman drainpipes.

Although the building is remarkably intact, it has lost its marble facade. The dome also lost its bronze covering, and the bronze doors have lost their gold plating. The Pantheon remains a functional church and houses the tombs of the Renaissance artist Raphael and King Victor Emmanuel II, who united Italy in 1870.

Colosseum

The Colosseum is not only Rome’s most monumental ancient ruin; it also has one of the most interesting stories surrounding its origin.

It begins with the infamous Roman Emperor Nero. Nero’s infamy came from his insane and brutal leadership. He had his mother executed and initiated the Roman Empire’s first massive persecution of Christians, ordering their deaths in gruesome ways. The instability caused by Emperor Nero’s excesses threatened the stability of the Roman empire. This led to a revolt that successfully ousted Nero from power and forced him to kill himself.

After Nero’s suicide, there was a civil war as various factions struggled for power. A quick succession of three emperors followed. Their terms were short and their ends were bloody. Vespasian, who had returned to Rome after military triumphs abroad, was able to build alliances and trust so that in 69 AD the Roman Senate elected him as emperor.

Emperor Vespasian united the people by embarking on a construction campaign that provided employment. Vespasian’s military successes included crushing the Jewish revolt in Judea. The spoils from the sacking of Jerusalem helped to pay for the construction of the Colosseum, which he commissioned in 72 AD. He was also able to raise funds by successfully implementing tax reform, which included a tax on urine collection.

Vespasian was able to distance himself from Nero by building the Colosseum on the foundations of Nero’s palace. The scale and technical requirements of this large building required significant innovation in building techniques. The weight-saving use of 240 arches enabled the construction of the tallest ancient Roman structure, the invention of red brick and concrete allowed for standardisation, and a gigantic block and tackle crane system enabled the lifting of heavy building materials.

The design of the Colosseum provided for eighty entrances, 110 drinking fountains, sufficient restrooms for 50,000 people and a drainage system that could accommodate any storm. Using sailing technology, they were able to devise a retractable awning called a velarium that could create shade and a circulating updraft to provide air-conditioning type relief from the summer heat. The stadium entrance was controlled with numbered ceramic tickets that matched entrance numbers and exiting could be done in thirty minutes. It remains a blueprint for modern colosseum design.

Originally the amphitheatre was designed to flood, so full-sized naval battles could be recreated. But the crowds soon grew bored with this, so the flooding infrastructure was replaced with the Hypogeum, a two-level subterranean network of tunnels, shafts, elevators, trapdoors, and animal pens. This remained in place until the last games were held in 404 AD. Over 400,000 people, including many Christians, and one million animals were killed during its 400-year run. The Colosseum was a symbol of Roman society, culture and life and was a continual reinforcement of segregated social structures.

The fall of the Roman Empire left many structures in disrepair, and thereafter the stadium fell into neglect. Earthquakes in 847 and 1231 caused major damage. Later, marble, iron and anything else of value were stripped away for other building projects. It was only in the last century that this ancient monument was considered valuable enough to preserve. Today, five million people annually visit this iconic symbol of Rome.

Trevi Fountain

One of the primary reasons why the Roman Empire was successful was its ability to divert and transport water from the countryside into the city. Roman aqueducts provided a flow of water into public fountains that provided free distribution of water for the city’s inhabitants.

Eleven aqueducts supplied the ancient city of Rome. The twenty-one-kilometre Aqua Virgo aqueduct was constructed by King Agrippa in 19 BC. In the fifteenth century, Pope Nicholas V initiated a complete restoration of the ruined ancient Aqua Virgo aqueduct and renamed it Acqua Vergine. The water from this supplied many fountains including the Trevi Fountain.

The Trevi Fountain is a Baroque masterpiece conceived in 1732 when Pope Clement XII commissioned Nicola Salvi to create a grand fountain. Salvi based his design on one proposed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the previous century. Salvi died before it was completed in 1762, leaving Giuseppe Pannini to receive final credit.

Trevi Fountain is twenty-six metres high and forty-nine metres wide. Today eighty million litres of recycled water flow through it daily. It is dominated by the Pietro Bracci statues of Oceanus atop a seashell pulled by a sea horse resisting his triton on the left and an obedient sea horse on the right. They symbolize the unpredictable and peaceful nature of the sea. The highest point of the statue is the coat of arms of Pope Clement XII, a reminder that the Pope was the civil and religious leader of Rome during the Renaissance period.

Turtle Fountain

Turtle Fountain also received its water from the Acqua Vergine aqueduct. The wealthy and influential Muzio Mattei convinced authorities to terminate the water channel at Piazza Mattei. In exchange, his family agreed to pay the cost to maintain the fountain.

The architect Giacomo della Porta designed the fountain in 1581. Mattei commissioned sculptor Taddeo Landini to create bronze statues of young men and dolphins. The water was supposed to flow from the mouth of the dolphins into the basin. Unfortunately, there was not enough water pressure, so the dolphins were removed; the water instead bubbles into the basin and is drained out the mouths of the babies cast in the relief of the basin. One hundred years later Bernini cast turtles to fill the space left by the removed dolphins.

Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps connect the French church Trinità dei Monti at the top of the hill with the Spanish Square at the bottom. The name comes from the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See located on the square. The stairs were built at the request of Pope Innocent XII, designed by architect Francesco de Sanctis, financed by French diplomat Étienne Gueffier and constructed between 1723 and 1725.

At the foot of the stairs, you will find the Fountain of the Old Boat by Pietro Bernini, father of the more famous Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The fountain depicts a sinking ship and recalls the historic flood of the River Tiber in 1598, but many suspect the sinking boat was a work-around to overcome the low water pressure problem.

As an interesting side note, in 1986 the first McDonalds restaurant in Italy was opened near the Spanish Steps. Protests there against fast food led to Carlo Petrini founding the international Slow Food movement three years later.

Text Martin Wray / Photos Cammy Yiu