Have you heard the story of Romulus and Remus? No? Well, Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, thrown into the Tiber River as babies. A she-wolf somehow found them and suckled them, saving them from starvation until they were then found be a shepherd and his wife, who raised them. When they grew up, the brothers laid out a plan for Rome – which was then unnamed, but which was eventually named for Romulus after he killed his brother quarrelling over who should be the king of this land.
The Romans ruled most of Europe around two thousand years ago. In 117AD, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain to the Middle East. Today the same area includes more than 40 countries! The Roman Empire lasted nearly 500 years.
Is Rome really all about ruins? Well? Yes. Mostly. Of course there’s some great food and other stuff, but the ruins are why we are all here. Let’s be honest.
After a bit of a botchy start to the day, we arrive at the Colosseum. Unfortunately there isn’t enough time to go right now because of our next appointment, but we stand gaping at it’s immense size for a while, snapping photos, before ascending the hill behind the Colosseum to find the Domus Aurea.
Haven’t heard of this one? Well, listen in.
Back in the day, wealthy Romans would own a large townhouse, called a domus. The domus was plain on the outside, but super luxurious on the inside. It featured a grand space in the centre called an atrium, with an open roof that let the light in. At the centre of the atrium was a rain water pool. This area was where guests to the domus were greeted. These domus’ were well ahead of their times, containing running water and underfloor heating.
Today, we are visiting a domus – in fact it was the domus belonging to Emperor Nero – Domus Aurea, the Golden House. Nero began building the incredible villa in AD54 (yes, AD54!!!!) by damming the Aniene River to create not one, but three lakes below his patio. It featured a monumental bronze statue of Nero (103 feet high, only 7 feet short of the Statue of Liberty) and more than 150 lavishly decorated rooms and public areas.
Domus Aurea was found by mistake in 1480 by a few excavators digging around Oppian Hill when one of them fell through the dirt and found himself looking up at stunning frescoes. Upon further investigation, one can only imagine the wonder they beheld as they surveyed the ruins. One historian described it like this:
“Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long. There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adored with gems and mother of pearl. There were dining rooms with fretted ceils of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water. When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.”
Nero was a bit of a nasty fellow – ordered his first wife dead, kicked his second (and pregnant) wife to death, saw to the murder of his mother and, and not to forget, he also possibly murdered his stepbrother. He forced his mentor to commit suicide, castrated and married a teenage boy and presided over the wholesale arson of Rome in AD64 only to blame the Christians for it. That’s probably not all, but I’m not sure you could paint a worse picture of the guy at this point.
After his death in AD68, the next few emperors reconfigured it, but after that, it lay forgotten for the next 1400 years. The boating venue was drained shortly after Nero’s death to make way for the Colosseum.
Domus Aurea was closed to the public after a partial collapse of its roof in 2010. In fact, I had read about the closure in an old copy of National Geographic some months back and was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see it. But, by chance, I discovered that Domus Aurea had in fact recently reopened, although in a limited capacity (weekends only and only by guided visit) and we just happened to be in Rome on such a day, so we couldn’t miss this incredible opportunity.
What you see inside the Domus Aurea today is somewhat of a mongrel version of it. You see once the time of Nero was over, history was to be erased. The Flavians wanted to build straight over the top of it, and to do so, they had to create walls within the rooms of the Domus Aurea to create foundations to backfill and do so. So you see plain Flavian walls and also some of the decorative original walls of the Domus Aurea. It’s unfortunate that much of the building was ransacked and raided, but incredible that some of the frescoes are still here to be seen.
Unfortunately what they thought was a rotating dining floor, is not as such. It was found elsewhere in Rome.
You’ll notice big holes in the ceilings as you go through the Domus Aurea – these holes are where people – in particular artists such as Raphael and Michaelangelo – climbed through to check out the art and whatnot. They never knew exactly what it was they were climbing into!
An absolutely incredible visit and if you happen to be there at the right time – make sure you book in to do the tour in advance! Restoration work continues and your visit helps to pay for it.
Now it’s time for a squiz inside Rome’s most dominating ruin – the Colosseum. Constructed in AD72-80, it was originally known as the Flavian Ampitheatre, as it was built by the Flavians. It was possibly renamed after that giant bronze statue of Nero that stood where the Colosseum stands now.
It was an incredible feat of engineering for the time, with elaborate pulley systems between levels for the use of transporting caged lions and other goods between the basement and the stage for entertainment purposes. It surprises me that they let so many people in here to trample all over it, especially when a lot of tourists seem to have no regard for the magnificence of the building and the fact that it’s still here – rather more keen to get there selfies no matter what they are leaning or standing on!
A bus ride through the streets of Rome brings us to the back of the Spanish Steps. I’m sure we’ve passed some amazing sights, but I’m guilty of having nodded off on the bus. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today – I have no fuel left in my tank, so to speak. Slightly revived with a banana cocktail and a caprese salad, we head off to find the steps, brushing off vendors trying to see us roses in the heat of the day.
The Spanish Steps are Rome’s most beloved rococo monument. Francesco de Sanctis designed the steps in 1723-6 for King Louis XV, and their true name in Italian is Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti after the church at the top.
In May, they are supposed to be covered in azaleas, however the Spanish Steps have been closed for renovation since October 2015 as part of a restoration project funding by luxury jeweller Bulgari. Expected to be finished by Spring 2016 (not finished at the time of our visit) at a cost of 1.5 million euros, the works include re-leveling of the steps, maintenance of the rainwater drainage system and restoration of the original lamps that light the steps at night. I was that unimpressed that I simply took a photo of the crowd looking at the steps rather than the scaffolded steps themselves.
The repairs have taken place in response to the Italian governments plea for help to restore heritage monuments – Tod’s (luxury shoe maker) is financing works at the Colosseum an Fendi is refurbishing the Trevi Fountain.
Which, is a stones throw away. Tradition holds that if you throw a coin backwards over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will ensure a return to Rome. Well, there were so many people surrounding the fountain it was hard enough to get a good photo, let a lone toss a coin in there!
That’s it. All I can manage for today. A late afternoon nap is calling me (yes, I know! The nap on the bus didn’t help at all!) and I can’t resist, so I give in.
A couple of hours later, we find a little restaurant nearby to our hotel and take a seat on the sidewalk. Amid the damned street vendors who are still following us with their endless selection of scarves, sunglasses and other stuff we are already wearing, we chat to fellow diners and laugh with the wait staff. We end up having a lovely evening with a great meal and wine which is a great way to finish the day.
Ahhhh, one more day to go.