So an Ancient History Class Begins…

Buongiorno, Roma! A brisk Roman morning to wake up to! Bellissimo! The first thing I do is to look out the window to see how things have changed from the night scene. A narrow cobbled streets packed with tightly parked cars with a few cars managing to navigate this chaos. One is parked right at our door and it has probably brought our breakfast! I wish I could wake up every morning like this – carefree and ready to let travelling do what it does – transform me with new beautiful knowledge and probably make me look back on what is already the past. Delicious coffee and croissants and friendly staff got my morning started. It was going to be a scorching sizzling day as we were setting on our tour of the heart of the ancient Rome, which was just a short walk from our hotel.
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There is something beautiful about every morning spent in a new place, but there is extra something about the Roman morning especially when high up the road there is the… Colosseum! It’s not what you imagine it to be when you see it on countless photos and there is a slight fragility about it as you would expect of something that has been there since 80 A.D. and it is really mind-boggling just thinking about it! Can we even believe life existed back then?! Do we even exist as we are now about to become part of what was more than ages ago?
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After a short brisk walk we find ourselves right in front of this postcard image of Rome. Except that a significant part of the “building” is under reconstruction. It looks a lot smaller, but you can’t fail to see the legendary arches and how meticulously they are held together. One must really be able to step back in time in order to appreciate the engineering prowess of that era. We were expecting to be stuck in a overwhelmingly long queue to enter, but it was surprisingly easy to get inside. As you are standing there, you can’t really take in where you are.
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We go up the railing and here it is! Some people might not be curious about what the Colosseum is like from the inside, but I believe this is where you can at least make an effort to imagine how the colossity of the building must have felt to about 50,000 spectators that the arena could house. Of course it wasn’t light-hearted fun and entertainment, the building was designed with a political and social agenda in mind.
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The smell of sweat perspiring over a gladiator’s skin (that in a lot of people’s imagination would look like Russell Crowe in his star role in the film“Gladiator”), wild animals entering the arena roaring, spectators screaming as their thumbs go up or down… It all seems too long ago to be believed… We stroll around for a bit in the increasing heat and wish we had taken our hats with us. The place is getting filled with people who also seemed to be struggling to imagine what looked so elaborate and spectacular in movies. Just walking this area, I knew I was making up for my poor Ancient History education because even if it was hard to believe, I was part of it just like everyone else confusingly walking by.
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After a while, we got up to the upper level where there used to be cheap seats that gave a better view of the arena which was now being reconstructed. It was even hotter up here and this is where it hit me how huge emperors’ egos were and how they might have been standing here overlooking the arena. Creating an empire that large would require a big ego even though it wasn’t always the case for the Roman emperors. The fact that we might fail to see the grandeur and colossity of the Colosseum now shows what a long way we have come…
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Only a third of the original building remained and I see it as a privilege to go back in time (or at least make an effort to) and would love to believe that preserving it is more than just about generating revenues and making profit… The sun was beating up and having enjoyed a few more emperor-like moments, we went down to the Colosseum museum. Of course you might be tempted to scratch your name on one of the bricks and that would be deemed as a criminal offence. But it’s totally legal to put your hand on the brick and feel in touch with what is still unknown to you… I almost stumbled down one of the stairs of the inside area and I was aware of the significance of this moment. We saw a number of ancient objects on display and we were going to see a lot of them through the course of our trip. Yes, we’ve done that, we’ve seen the Colosseum and there is so much more!
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It was a midday and the streets were getting crowded. The next stop was the Roman Forum. Before that, we needed to cool off a bit and decided to have some gelato and the view we had was so magnificently ancient. My sister went to get it and I was sitting there admiring the Colosseum on the right and the Arch of Constantine on the left. That was the most breathtaking view I’d had so far!
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I’m not religious but I realize how important this arch is for Christianity. It was built about two hundred years later than the Colosseum but to us it all blurrs into an ancient infinity. That was an extraordinary ancient spot with two siginificant buildings adjoining each other in the centre of a modern European capital. There must be more to it than just a tourist attraction. I wonder what Italians think about ancient buildings making up an immense part of their cities. Does this feel like something counterbalancing hectiс modern lives? The History of the Roman Empire arguably pertains to more than the history of one country but the rest of the world as well. I was taking in the view watching people dressed up as gladiators and a few Americans goofing around who I guess weren’t aware of me understanding them until I started smiling. There was some couple speaking Spannish next to me. Were we all just spectators at that moment regardless of background and nationality? My sister finally came back with a large gelato and other Americans sitting close by made a comment that it was something that had to be tried. So off we went to the Roman Forum. It was getting boiling hot and the area we were about to tour looked impressively large! No wonder it did because the Roman Forum was the centre of the political and social life of the city. What we saw might have seemed just like a lot of grass and piles of rubble…
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What I instantly recognized was the Arch of Titus. My imagination was more fueled by heat than the ancient world I was submerged to. I was listening to an audioguide I had downloaded back home and it still wasn’t making sense. I was trying to imagine a bustling city centre, people gathering on the Via Sacra, but all I could feel was that I was hot! The only way I could think about Julius Caesar who might have walked this very area of the pavement where I was standing dripping in sweat was that he might be passing by for real. Yes, it felt as if I was hallucinating in this heat! We kept looking for a place to recharge and reflect. I’d failed this part of my Ancient History class and I realized we should have booked a tour of the Roman Forum instead. The area was too huge and poorly marked for us to navigate our way. There was one thing we were happy to find and that was a public fountain. We have ancient aqueducts to thank for that, a little salvation in the heat of a summer Roman day…
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Now that my consciousness was clearing up a bit, I was ready to take in the view we had from up where we were. An extensive green area, that was a chunk of the ancient Rome I wouldn’t have pictured back at school. We had no more physical energy for the Pallatine Hill. It took us a while to find our way to the exit and we knew we were there when we heard a man in a language very familiar to us saying that there it was… We enjoyed stunning views of the Colosseum from here and took some photos. I don’t know whether it was Roman heat or my growing awareness of the ancient times but I was starting to lose track of time…
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We headed back to our hotel having to open our umbrellas to protect us against the sunshine and had a gentleman commenting that it wasn’t raining… Well, it was too hot for us to care really! We got stocked up on some takeaway pizza in a lovely place right across the road from our hotel. We munched on our pizza back at our nice hotel room as we were reflecting on advantages and disadvantages of living in Italy after we saw that one of the women working in this place was of Slavic origin and spoke some Russian. Does working here right near the Colosseum make things easier for you..?
After having a break from the smouldering heat of the Roman Forum, we continued our Ancient History class as we headed to Capitol Hill (Campidoglio), the religious centre of the ancient Rome. We walked along Via dei Fori Imperiale, a road built by Mussolini to connect Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum with a few ancient structures demolished in the process. So I had mixed feelings walking it but the views I had were a treat! It was like walking an ancient alley of fame. Trajan’s Forum looked a lot more comprehensible than the Roman Forum and I loved panoramic views of it.
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I was enjoying standing there halfway between the ancient and medieval Rome. Originally we had difficulty finding the Capitol Hill and no one we asked seemed to know where it was. We were so desperate that we ended up asking a fellow Russian for directions in English! It turned out to be just across the corner from the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, an immense white monument dominating the Roman landscape celebrating the Unification of Italy.
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I recognized Capitol Hill and it was breathtaking to be walking up the Michaelangelo stairs to get to the Capitoline Museums. We were at the top of the hill in Piazza del Campidoglio with a replica of the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the centre of it. All I could say was “Beautiful!”, the word I would be saying a lot on this trip.
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The ancient and medieval worlds colliding was spectacular up here! We entered the first building of the museum (Palazzo dei Conservatori) to see a replica of the statue of David by Michaelangelo. A lot of tourists got inside for a sneaky photo.
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While in Rome, you find yourself bundled in layers and layers of history and that was just a beginning for us. There were remains of the statue of Constantine – his head, hand and foot. I never knew I could develop love for sculpture but something inside me was saying otherwise.
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It was an early evening and there weren’t crowds of tourists and touring this museum was one of the best museum experiences I’d had! It was queit and peaceful. The original of the statue of Marcus Aurelius was a centerpiece of one of the rooms and it looked incredible as I was sitting taking it in in a room with just a few people except us. I was overwhelmed with the amount of things I had yet to learn as I looked at all these sculptures, perpetually frozen pieces of life.
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The remains of the Temple of Jupiter got me in a pensive mood as well.. How come a city as superstitious as Rome used to be came to become the centre of Christianity…? With these things in mind, I left this part of the museum planning to check out the second one the next day.
Piazza del Campidoglio is a bellissima public space (as the name “piazza” suggests)! I felt a bit like a goddess sitting on top of Capitol Hill overlooking a busy city. People we saw coming out of a posh café looked as if they had just stepped out of a movie set or a fashion commercial. The Italian sense of fashion is internationally reverred and I could certainly see why. Eye-catching but not showy… A beautiful woman accompanied by a beautiful man… That was another facet of Italy I was yet to marvel at. Yes, from up here going to Rome seemed like the best thing we’d ever decided to do!
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It was time for an evening walk (passegiata) when we watched the sun set over the snow white National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II sometimes referred to as a “typewriter” or a “wedding cake”. It had a different energy to it but it didn’t seem to contradict the ancient Rome we’d been exposed to that day…
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The Trajan Forum views were stunning and I knew I was smart to agree to take this Ancient History lesson.
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Another bellissima meal, a walk back to the hotel, a late night gelato.
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Can I cheekily turn away to have another look at the Colosseum? Bonne Notte, Colosseo! Bonne Notte, Roma!

Author: Olga

An English teacher and translator, a keen traveller

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