All Roads Lead To Rome

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Travels in Italy (Part 4 ? Concluding part)


At the height of the Roman Empire, Roman power stretched from British Isles to Africa, from Spain to Persia and all over Europe. To expand the empire and to maintain control over such a vast territory, roads were extremely important. Ability to move large armies in rapid speed was vital to maintaining the power structure of Rome and in retaining the allegiances of the conquered people. Romans were very good engineers and architects; they built excellent network of roads all over the empire with bridges, rest stops and other facilities. About two thousand years ago, Roman road network spanned over 50,000 miles.


Romans were good in perfecting the art of building and then standardizing the methods and techniques. They had building codes and manuals for the builders to follow. Augustus Caesar in 20BC, set up the golden milestone near the temple of Saturn in the middle of the Roman Forum. All roads were considered to begin from this point; and vice versa, lead to this point.  Thus the phrase "All Roads lead to Rome".  The ancient Roman roads are still in many parts of the old Roman Empire, such as in England, Spain, and Middle East etc.


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Map of Rome (Courtesy: Lonely Planet Website)


In the last part, we covered the left side of the River Tiber; specifically the Vatican, which is an independent state with St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums. In this concluding article, we will cover the sights on the right side of the river, which consists of the heart of the city of Rome and is full of great, historic monuments. Rome was built originally on seven hills and these hill locations give an ideal viewing point of the great monuments and other sights. Most of you probably have seen the movies that have made the Roman history and the sights world famous; movies such as "Roman Holiday (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), Three Coins in the Fountain, La Dolce Vita (Anita Ekberg) and Gladiator (Russell Crowe).


PANTHEON


Pantheon in Rome was built by Emperor Hadrian between 118 AD and 128 AD.  It was built as a temple for all Gods and was actively used for services by the citizens of Rome ever since its original construction. The temple was later converted into a church in 609. The Pantheon contains the tombs of famous artist Raphael and several Italian Kings.


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ROMAN PANTHEON


The Pantheon is a very impressive, majestic structure. We stumbled upon it during our night walk; around the corner of a cobble stone alleyway that suddenly opened up into a plaza, and wow, there they were, the majestic gray marble columns (a total of 16) of the Pantheon, standing in front of us like some mythical giants, lined up in a row. In later reading, I found out that these columns are truly special. They are huge; each one is 39 feet tall, five feet in diameter and 60 tons in weight. Emperor Hadrian had these columns quarried in Egypt, dragged on wooden sledges to the Nile, floated by barge to Alexandria and put on ships for a trip across the Mediterranean to the Roman port Ostia (see reference on the map above). From there the columns were barged up the Tiber river and then onto the site.  The construction of the dome is equally or even more fascinating. It is a massive dome constructed with concrete.  Its weight is estimated at 5000 tons. To support this massive weight, the thickness of the dome wall varies with 21 feet at the base of the dome and about 4 feet thick at the top center. Also, to distribute the load for enhancing structural stability, heavier type of concrete is used at the base and a lighter type at the top. The dome shape is an exact semisphere. The diameter is equal to the interior height of 142.5feet.  The height from the floor to the ceiling is also 142.5 feet; in other words the interior space dimensions are that of a sphere. This architectural specialty is not visible in my picture; it is tough to capture the whole building, because of the limitations of panoramic space to take a bigger picture that captures them all.  Another very interesting feature of the dome is a large circular opening at the very top center. This is the only opening for natural light to come inside the Pantheon. There are 22 small holes on the marble floor below to drain away any rainwater that comes in through the hole. This dome is one among the top most engineering marvels of Roman construction.


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TREVI FOUNTAIN


Trevi is one of the most romantic fountains in all of Italy. Visitors have been coming here in millions and throwing coins to the pool below the fountains in the hopes of revisiting Rome. This fountain has been made famous by many popular movies as listed above. Again similar to other great monuments, this beautiful sight appears suddenly and feels like it showed out of nowhere. You start hearing the water rushing and gurgling from a distance and then quickly around the corner (from any one of several side streets) you suddenly see the large crowd and the magnificent fountain. The central figure of the fountain is Neptune, god of the sea. He is riding a chariot in the shape of a shell, pulled by two robust sea horses. Each sea horse is guided by a Triton. One of the horses is calm and obedient and the other one is fierce and restive. They represent the fluctuating moods of the sea. On the left hand side of Neptune is the statue representing Abundance and on the right side, the statue representing Salubrity. The water at the bottom of the fountain represents sea. According to folklore, if you throw a coin into the water with your back to the fountain and over your shoulder, you will return to Rome. We did not want to question the credibility of this saying; we both threw our coins, hoping to come back.


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PIAZZA NAVONA


This beautiful large Piazza is probably the most popular place in Rome to sit around (hang around); people watch and savor a variety of Italian foods.  There are numerous outdoor cafes, restaurants and nightclubs around the Piazza and more in the neighborhood. This place is close to the Pantheon as well as to the Trevi Fountain. There was an ancient arena on this site. The Piazza stands on its exact site and has stayed that way for centuries.  The Piazza is really famous for the three great baroque fountains. I have a nighttime picture of one of the fountains. Other ones were being cleaned up and fixed with scaffolding surrounding them. The fountain in the middle was built by Bernini and is knows as the Fountain of the four rivers. They are supposed to represent four great rivers from four continents. Ganges for Asia, Danube for Europe, Nile for Africa and Rio della Plata for the Americas.  


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MOSES BY MICHAELANGELO


This magnificent statue of Moses sculpted by Michaelangelo is in the Church of St. Peter in Chains. There is quite a bit of unique history to this church and it is well worth visiting, especially to see the above sculpture. Originally Michaelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to design and execute the Pope’s sepulcher (burial chamber). But many unplanned events intervened in the execution of the original plan, except that the masterpiece of Moses statue was completed. This is a mighty powerful figure, 7 feet and 9 inches tall, over 3 feet wide at the base and 3 feet deep. An interesting Hollywood trivia here is that Cecil B. deMille is said to have convinced Charlton Heston to play the role of Moses in "The Ten Commandments", based on Heston’s physical resemblance to this Moses by Michaelangelo. Here eventhough the Moses is represented simply, you can see him exuding the feeling of majesty beyond words, and the supreme and calm strength from the divine, biblic episode at the Mountain of Sinai.


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VICTOR EMMANUEL MONUMENT


This monument does not blend in with the rest of the historic sights that we have been discussing so far. Romans have mixed emotions about this construction, especially its place in the center of historic Rome. One useful purpose is that it stands out and is a good reference point for all other sights. This monument was built as a tribute to Victor Emmanuel, the first King of United Italy. It was in 1861 that the forces of Victor Emmanuel and Garibaldi joined together and defeated the papal army and declared Italy as a country with Victor Emmanuel as its King.  Very important archeological sights in the Forum were damaged during the construction of this more recent monument. This building is also nicknamed as ‘typewriter’ and ‘wedding cake’.


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EQUESTRIAN STATUE OF MARCUS AURELIUS


Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the empire from 161AD until his death in 180AD.  He was considered as one of the last of the good emperors of Rome. He was a philosopher king, who believed in the people and that the ultimate authority should really belong to the citizens and not to a dynasty. As Roman history was full of wars to expand the empire and as well as for preventing rebellions and revolts from far-flung colonies, his period was no exception. The period was marked by wars in Asia against a new and stronger Parthian Empire and with the Germanic tribes across the river Danube. Marcus Aurelius is the character played by Richard Harris in the Hollywood movie, Gladiator (2000); the beginning sceneries depict the barbarian rebellions across Germany and the king and his armies with his son Commodus and general Maximus (played by Russel Crowe) are in the battle.  A bigger picture is that Marcus Aurelius was a king who loved his Rome and who wanted to return the power back to the Roman republic. The above statue is in a highly important location (in Capitoline hill), surrounded with current capital buildings which is the hub of the administrative structures of Italy and Rome. During the campaigns, he wrote his classic book, Meditations, which is still considered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty. The only surviving complete copy of this book is in the Vatican library. The famous British philosopher, John Stuart Mill in his Utility of Religion, compares the Meditations to the Sermon on the Mount.


ROMAN FORUM


The Forum was the capital of the Roman Empire for many centuries. It was the political, social and religious center for the empire.  It is a major archeological site in the world that is full of the remains of basilicas, temples, triumphal arches and palaces. With some knowledge of Roman history and with good travel literature and respect for ancient civilizations, the place comes to life. This is the place where the Etruscan Kings ruled Italy, The Roman republic flourished for many centuries until Julius Caesar in 49 BC declares himself as the "imperator" (sole dictator) and in 44 BC, the Roman Senators revolted and murdered Caesar on the senate steps. This is the place where Cleopatra arrived from Egypt with all the gold and treasures of the ancient Egypt. This is the place where Augustus (63 BC ? 14AD) declared himself as the First Roman Emperor and then successive emperors ruled the mightiest empire on earth until 5th  century AD. This is where the modern day Calender (Julian calendar) got its start, The Roman Law was codified, The Roman legions were sent to far flung areas of the known world, and yes all roads radiated out of this center. For a historian of human civilizations, this seemingly rubble of stones and marbles and bricks, is a vast golden treasure full of precious insights into a significant period of human history, that is the "Glory of Rome".


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ROMAN FORUM AS SEEN FROM CAPITOLINE HILL


We had formal guided tours by local historians of this area. After that on our own, we walked up to the Capitoline hill and went to the backside of it where the entire vista of the Forum opens up. We must have stood there for several hours, referencing to the monuments and the travel literature.  In the above picture, top right hand side, you notice the equestrian statues (dark blue color on white top building)..that is at the top of the Victor Emmanuel building that was described earlier. The brick buildings on the background are the capital buildings that are the current political and civic administrative head quarters. On the right-hand side in the middle, partially covered by greenery is the Arch of Septimius Severus.  This whole sight is a highly active archeological site. Current diggings are going on and new insights into history are found on a regular basis.


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THE FORUM WITH THE COLOSSEUM IN THE FAR BACKGROUND


I would like to refer you to an excellent book on the Forum and the explanation of every monument with pictures of how it looks now and the way, it looked during the glorious days of the empire. The book is by Giuseppe Gangi and titled "Rome, then and now, in overlay".  With this book as reference, you can identify the place of Roman Senate, the Temple of divine Julius, Temple of Venus and many other temples, Temple of Romulus, the first king of Rome, The Forums of Caesar, Augustus and many other emperors.


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ARCH OF SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS


This arch was erected in 203AD in celebration of the triumph of Emperor over the Parthians (modern day Iran).  As you can see, this is a three way triumphal arch, measuring approx.70 feet high and 77 feet wide. This is one among the few well-preserved monuments. The common theme of the decoration is the wars in Parthian and the triumphal celebrations. One of the panels shows the attack on the city of Seleucia on the River Tigris, with the Parthians fleeing on horseback. While studying history in the early grades in India, mostly everyone studies about the conquests of Alexander the Great and the name of one of his general who stayed behind to manage the conquered territories was Selecus. The city Seleucia was named after him.


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ARCH OF TITUS


This arch was erected in 81 AD to celebrate the victory of the Romans over the Judeans and the conquest of Jerusalem. On the triumphal arch, you can see the Silver Trumpet and the seven Branched candlestick, brought from Jerusalem. This is the most ancient existing representation of the famous " Minorah". The original inscription on the top is very significant also. It reads
"Senatus Populus Que Romanus?(SPQR)" . With these letters, Romans have set their seal and testified to their power, their achievements and their sense of rights and duties of the Roman citizen throughout the territories within the reach of the Roman Legions. These symbolic letters are still used in the Roman/ Italian official statements and documents.


THE COLOSSEUM


As well known, this is THE hallmark monument of Rome and also of Italy. It is one among the most known structures of the ancient world. No visit to Rome is complete without a visit to the Colosseum. 


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THE COLOSSEUM


The Colosseum is about 2000 years old. It was built during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69?79AD), founder of the Flavian dynasty, and for many years it was known as "Flavian Amphitheatre". The construction was completed in 80AD by his son, Emperor Titus.  A giant sized statue (over 130 feet tall) of Emperor Nero stood in this area and the colossal proportion of that monument lead into the name for this new complex as ‘The Colosseum". This is an immense elliptical shaped building, measuring 600 feet long and 500 feet wide. The four-story construction is made of marble, iron, bronze, cement and bricks. The sizes of the marble stones are enormous. There are special techniques used to fit them securely together and unique designs were used to protect it from earthquake damages. Above the ground are four stories, the upper story contained seating for lower classes. The lowest story was preserved for senators and other prominent citizens. Seats were preassigned. With a seating capacity of over 50,000, the special design provided for speedy evacuation of the entire stadium within 15 minutes. The Colosseum reaches a height of over 160 feet. The Colosseum was covered with an enormous awning known as the velarium. This protected the spectators from the heat of the sun and rain. A team of some 1000 sailors was used to install and manage the operation of the awning.


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INSIDE THE COLOSSEUM


There were no entrance fees or any charges to the spectators. The Emperors used it to entertain the public. This was one of the many ways to keep the ordinary citizens occupied and happy and to prevent uprisings and revolts. Games were held for a wholeday or several days in a row. It was usually fight to the death between animals and the gladiators or between gladiators. Gladiators mostly were prisoners, condemned men for variety of acts against the state or against the emperor. The animals were brought from all over the empire, primarily from North Africa. These games went on for over 100 years and the major animal species of North Africa were wiped out in the process of supplying the games at the Colosseum with fierce and exotic animals. It is said that only one in seven or so captured animals made it alive to the Colosseum; rest of them died during transportation due to sickness and fights with other animals or any number of other reasons.  You can see the underground structures with many tunnels and spaces to stage animals and gladiators before the show. There were passageways from here to the Gladiator quarters.


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INSIDE THE COLOSSEUM


The two-story structure beneath the Colosseum called the Hypogeum added an extra dimension of excitement and terror to the games in the arena. Within it a system of elevators and trap doors enabled lions and tigers and armed gladiators to suddenly pop up through the floor and slaughter their unexpected victims. The materials used in the Colosseum for seating was also indicative of class ranks. Marble seats with preassigned and inscribed names for the Emperor and his connections and to the Senators;  on the other extreme wooden seats for the commoners on the upper most floors. During the subsequent centuries Gladiator battles and killing of the animals were discontinued and the Colosseum was used for a variety of other purposes, such as for housing, shopping areas, religious activities and many other programs. Today, this is an ancient relic, respected for its historic significance and marveled for its architecture and engineering accomplishments. It probably is the most imposing monument that remains of ancient Rome.


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INSIDE THE COLOSSEUM (OCTOBER 20, 2006)


During our travels and in the process of writing and publishing this four part series, we have covered a major part of Italy. I have tried to walk you through some of the important highlights of over two thousand years of Roman history. As mentioned earlier, this was an escorted, guided tour and we were free to concentrate on seeing the sights, listening to the guides and writing a lot of notes. In the above picture, you see Hilkka and me, inside the Colosseum, listening to our local tour guide on the audio sets. After returning home, in the process of writing this travelogue, I had to constantly refer to Hilkka’s notes and memory also (which is far sharper than mine) regarding the sequences and the facts that were explained. In addition, I have used as resources many travel books, history books and Internet sites to cross check facts and to provide reliable information. I enjoyed doing the research and writing this series and I hope you had fun reading them. Good bye, for now…Arrivederci.


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 J.M. Bhandary

Author: J. M. Bhandary- USA


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