Rome: Ancient Glory
Part one of three shows on the Eternal City, this episode resurrects the rubble and brings back to life the capital of the ancient world. Focusing on the grandeur of classical Rome, we'll admire the groundbreaking architecture at the Colosseum and Pantheon, and the empire's exquisite art at the Capitoline Museum. Then we'll head out on a bike ride along the ancient Appian Way and take in nearby marvels of Roman engineering.
This is ancient Rome's birthplace and civic center, and the common ground between Rome's famous seven hills. As just about anything important that happened in ancient Rome happened here, it's arguably the most important piece of real estate in Western civilization. While only a few fragments of that glorious past remain, history seekers find plenty to ignite their imaginations amid the half-broken columns and arches (and my free audio tours help as well).
This enjoyable museum complex claims to be the world's oldest, founded in 1471 when a pope gave ancient statues to the citizens of Rome. Many of the museum's statues have gone on to become instantly recognizable cultural icons. Perched on top of Capitoline Hill, the museum's two buildings (Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo) are connected by an underground passage that leads to the Tabularium and panoramic views of the Roman Forum.
Used as a venue for entertaining the masses, this colossal, functional stadium is one of Europe's most recognizable landmarks. Whether you're playing gladiator or simply marveling at the remarkable ancient design and construction, the Colosseum gets a unanimous thumbs-up. Entry lines can be long, though. 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.
The world's grandest column from antiquity anchors Trajan's Forum. The 140-foot column is decorated with a spiral relief of 2,500 figures trumpeting the emperor's exploits. It has stood for centuries as a symbol of a truly cosmopolitan civilization. At one point, the ashes of Trajan and his wife were held in the base, and the sun glinted off a polished bronze statue of Trajan at the top. (Today, St. Peter is on top.) The nearby Museum of the Imperial Forums, housed in buildings from Trajan's Market, features discoveries from the forums built by the different emperors.
The Ara Pacis hosted annual sacrifices by the emperor until the area was flooded by the Tiber River. Buried under silt, it was abandoned and forgotten until the 16th century, when various parts were discovered and excavated. Mussolini gathered the altar's scattered parts and reconstructed them in a building here in 1938. Today, the Altar of Peace stands in a pavilion designed by American architect Richard Meier (the pavillion's museum charges a steep entry fee, but tightwads can look in through huge windows for free).
The hill overlooking the Forum is jam-packed with history — "the huts of Romulus," the huge Imperial Palace, a view of the Circus Maximus — but only the barest skeleton of rubble is left to tell the story. Fortunately, the Palatine Museum contains statues and frescoes that help you imagine the luxury of the imperial Palatine. While many tourists consider Palatine Hill just extra credit after the Forum, it offers insight into the greatness of Rome that's well worth the effort. (And, if you're visiting the Colosseum or Forum, you've got a ticket whether you like it or not.)
National Museum of Rome
Rome took Greek culture and wrote it in capital letters. Thanks to this lack of originality, ancient Greek statues were preserved for our enjoyment today. But the Romans also pioneered a totally new form of art — sculpting painfully realistic portraits of emperors and important citizens. Think of this museum as a walk back in time. As you gaze at the same statues that the Romans swooned over, the history of Rome comes alive — from Julius Caesar's murder to Caligula's incest to Vespasian's Colosseum to the coming of Christianity.
For the greatest look at the splendor of Rome, antiquity's best-preserved interior is a must. Built two millennia ago, this influential domed temple served as the model for Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's and many others. Engineers still admire how the Romans built such a mathematically precise structure without computers, fossil fuel-run machinery, or electricity. (Having unlimited slave power didn't hurt.) Stand under the Pantheon's solemn dome to gain a new appreciation for the sophistication of these ancient people.
For a taste of the countryside around Rome and more wonders of Roman engineering, take the four-mile trip from the Colosseum out past the wall to a stretch of the ancient Appian Way, where the original pavement stones are lined by several interesting sights. The wonder of its day, the Appian Way was the largest, widest, fastest road ever, called the "Queen of Roads." Built in 312 BC, it connected Rome with Capua (near Naples), running in a straight line for much of the way, ignoring the natural contour of the land. Just as Hitler built the Autobahn system in anticipation of empire maintenance, the expansion-minded Roman government realized the military and political value of a good road system.
The road starts at the massive San Sebastiano Gate and Museum of the Walls, about two miles south of the Colosseum. The stretch that's of most interest to tourists starts another two miles south of the gate. I like to begin near the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, at the far (southern) end of the key sights, and work northward (mostly downhill) toward central Rome.
Catacombs of San Sebastiano
A guide leads you underground through the tunnels where early Christians were buried. You'll see faded frescoes and graffiti by early-Christian tag artists, as well as some pagan tombs that predate the Christian catacombs. Besides the catacombs themselves, there's a historic fourth-century basilica with the relics of St. Sebastian, the (supposedly) original Quo Vadis footprints of Christ, and an exquisite Bernini statue.
This sprawling, evocative park is a favorite these days with Roman joggers, picnickers, and anyone looking for a break from the big city. From the Appian Way, start at Appia Antica Caffè (near the Tomb of Cecilia Metella), take the bus to the Colli Albani Metro station, and catch the Metro to Giulio Agricola. (If you're coming straight from Rome, take Metro line A to Giulio Agricola.)
Church of San Giovanni in Laterano
Built by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, this was Rome's most important church through medieval times. A building alongside the church houses the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa), said to have been walked up by Jesus, which today are ascended by pilgrims on their knees.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. I'm in Rome, and this is the ancient Appian Way — Europe's first super-highway. The gates of imperial Rome are a two-mile chariot ride this way.
Rome is huge, complex, and endlessly entertaining. And this is one of three episodes we dedicate to the Eternal City. Our focus in this episode: Classical Rome, once the capital of the Western world.
We'll marvel at the biggies — the Colosseum…the Pantheon…the empire's powerful art. Then we'll go offbeat to bike the Appian Way and be inspired by Roman engineering. The story of ancient Rome can be overwhelming. We'll take it slowly, starting where the city did — in the Forum — and try to bring to life all this ancient rubble.
In a nutshell, classical Rome lasted about a thousand years: roughly 500 BC to AD 500. Rome grew for 500 years, peaked for 200 years, and fell for 300 years. The first half was the Republic — ruled by elected senators; the last half was the Empire — ruled by unelected emperors.
In its glory days, the word "Rome" meant not the just city but what Romans considered the entire civilized world.
Everyone was either Roman or barbarian. People who spoke Latin or Greek were considered civilized, part of the empire. Everyone else...barbarian.
According to legend, Rome was founded by two brothers — Romulus and Remus. Abandoned in the wild and suckled by a she-wolf, they grew up to establish the city.
In actuality, the first Romans mixed and mingled here — in the valley between the famous Seven Hills of Rome. This became the Roman Forum.
In 509, they tossed out their king and established the relatively democratic Roman Republic. That began what was perhaps history's greatest success story — the rise of Rome.
From the start, Romans were expert builders and they had a knack for effective government. This simple brick building was once richly veneered with marble and fronted by a grand portico. It's the Curia. The senate met here and set the legal standards that still guide Western civilization.
The reign of Julius Caesar — who ruled around the time of Christ — marked the turning point between the Republic and the empire. The Republic — designed to rule a small city-state — found itself trying to rule most of Europe. Something new and stronger was needed. Caesar established a no-nonsense, more disciplined government, became dictator for life, and for good measure, had a month named in his honor...July.
The powerful elites of the Republic found all this change just too radical. In an attempt to save the Republic and their political power, a faction of Roman senators assassinated Caesar. His body was burned on this spot in 44 BC.
The citizens of Rome gathered here in the heart of the Forum to hear Mark Antony say, in Shakespeare's words, "Friends, Romans, countrymen...lend me your ears; I [have] come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." But the Republic was finished and Rome became the grand capital of a grand empire.
The Via Sacra, or "Sacred Way," was the main street of ancient Rome. It stretched from the Arch of Septimius Severus to the Arch of Titus. Rome's various triumphal arches — named after the emperors who built them — functioned as public-relations tools. Reliefs decorating the various arches show how war and expansion were the business of state. Rome's thriving economy was fueled by plunder and slaves won in distant wars.
Ancient Rome had a population of over a million at its peak. And anywhere you dig in the modern city, you'll find remains of the ancient one. Largo Argentina is a modern transportation hub, with traffic roaring all around some of the Rome's oldest temples.
The Capitoline Hill — which rises majestically from the busy streets — has long been the home of Rome's city government. During the Renaissance, Michelangelo designed this regal staircase. He gave the square its famously harmonious proportions and its majestic centerpiece: an ancient statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
This is a copy. The second-century original —the greatest equestrian statue of antiquity — is showcased in the adjacent Capitoline Museum. This, like the other great statues of antiquity, is now safely out of the elements.
The museum helps you imagine life before the fall of Rome.
These reliefs show Marcus Aurelius performing the various duties of an emperor: Here, as the chief priest, or "pontifex maximus," he prepares to sacrifice a bull. Here, on the battlefield, he grants clemency to vanquished barbarian leaders. And this one puts you curbside at a victory parade with the emperor — the Eisenhower of his day — on a chariot, Winged Victory on his shoulder, and trumpets proclaiming his glory.
The art of imperial Rome almost always carried a message. This Dying Gaul — a Roman copy of a Greek original — was part of a monument celebrating another victory over the barbarians.
Like any propaganda art, battle scenes stoked imperial pride. You can wander among heroic statues in grand halls...and look into the eyes of long-forgotten emperors.
And the museum also shows a more peaceful and intimate side of Roman life. Here, a boy quietly pulls a thorn from his foot.
At first glance these look like paintings, but they're actually micro-mosaics, made of thousands of tiny chips. This mosaic hung in Emperor Hadrian's villa.
Romans emulated the high culture of the Greeks, and when it came to capturing beauty, their forte was making excellent copies of Greek originals.
The Capitoline Venus is one of the truest representations of the concept of feminine beauty from ancient times. Like so many classical statues, this is a 2,000-year-old Roman copy of a 2,500-year-old Greek original.
And this statue, called the Drunken Faun, is a playful reminder that a trait of ancient Rome that survives to this today is a fondness for good food and fine wine.
Part of your Roman experience — regardless of your budget — should be experiencing a fine meal. And we're doing that al fresco on Piazza Farnese. We're starting with a great spread of antipasti, prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, puntarelle — a local salad, and fresh mozzarella. As everywhere, eat with the season. Tonight we said, "Bring on whatever's fresh." Travelers can enjoy better restaurants without going broke by sharing an array of smaller dishes.
And now the pasta. I often find the antipasti and pasta dishes more varied and interesting than the more expensive secondi, or main courses. Even in early May, it's plenty warm to dine outside. Dinner within splashing distance of a tub from the ancient Baths of Caracalla caps a perfectly Roman day.
Rome's a big city — too big to walk everywhere. Take advantage of public transport. I like a hotel in a convenient neighborhood, near a subway stop. Rome's subway system, while not extensive, is easy to use. From our hotel, it's a straight shot to the Colosseum. Colosseo — that's our stop.
The Colosseum was — and still is — colossal. It's the great example of ancient Roman engineering. It was begun in AD 72 during the reign of Emperor Vespasian, when the empire was nearing its peak.
Using Roman-pioneered concrete, brick, and their trademark round arches, Romans constructed much larger buildings than the Greeks.
But, it seems, they still respected the fine points of Greek culture. They decorated their no‑nonsense mega‑structure with all three Greek orders of columns — Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.
Stepping inside, you can almost hear the roar of ancient Rome. Take a moment to imagine the place in action. Romans filled and emptied the Colosseum's 50,000 seats as quickly and efficiently as we do our super‑stadiums today.
It's built with two theaters facing each other — that's what an amphitheater is — so twice as many people could enjoy the entertainment.
Canvas awnings were hoisted over the stadium to give protection from the sun.
These passageways underneath the arena were covered by a wooden floor. Between acts, animals and gladiators were shuffled around out of sight.
Ancient Romans, whose taste for violence exceeded even modern America's, came to the Colosseum to unwind. Gladiators, criminals, and wild animals fought to the death, providing the public with a festival of gore. To celebrate the Colosseum's grand opening, Romans were treated to the slaughter of 5,000 animals.
Nearby, Trajan's Column trumpets the glories of Emperor Trajan, who ruled Rome in its heyday. This is a textbook example of continuous narration. Like a 200-yard-long scroll, it winds all the way to the top. The purpose: more PR...telling the story of yet another military victory.
Trajan extended the boundaries of the empire to its greatest size ever — from the Nile to the north of Britain. Controlling its entire coastline, Romans called the Mediterranean simply "Mare Nostrum" —"Our Sea."
Downtown Rome is a kind of architectural time warp. You'll see almost nothing built post-WWII. A striking exception is this contemporary building showcasing the Ara Pacis. This "Altar of Peace" offers a stirring glimpse at the pride and power of the Roman Empire at its peak.
Nine years before Christ, Emperor Augustus led a procession of priests up these steps of this newly built "Altar of Peace." They sacrificed an animal on the top, and thanked the gods. The last of the serious Barbarian resistance had been quelled, and now there could be peace. The empire was established, and this marked the start of the Pax Romana.
The Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace," was a Golden Age of good living, relative stability, and military dominance lasting from the time of Christ for about two centuries. The altar's exquisite reliefs celebrate Rome's success and prosperity. This goddess of fertility is surrounded by symbols of abundance. And this procession shows a populace thankful for its emperor.
The stability and relative prosperity that characterized the two centuries of the Roman Peace was due in part to a steady succession of capable rulers.
As visitors, it's our challenge to appreciate the grandeur of this incredible city built on the scale of giants. For instance, when Rome went to the races, it came here — the Circus Maximus.
Imagine, a quarter of a million Romans cheering on careening chariots and above it all, the Palatine Hill, filled with towering palaces.
And, a visit to the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo helps humanize the empire. While ancient Rome's architecture was monumental, its citizens were just people...like you and me, without electricity.
These frescoes — a rare surviving example of Roman painting — bring color to our image of daily life back then. Romans liked to think of themselves as somehow living parallel with the gods. These domestic scenes come with a twist of mythology.
And this painted garden — wallpapering a Roman villa — showed an appreciation for nature while creating an atmosphere of serenity.
Admiring the artifacts of Rome's elite, from exquisite jewelry to this delicate golden hairnet, we can only marvel at "lifestyles of the rich and Roman."
Many aspects of Roman life are represented. Roman artists excelled in realism. This boxer is a picture of exhaustion, with a roughed up face and tired hands complete with brass knuckles.
The museum's collection tells the empire's story through art: Caesar Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar and the first great emperor of the Pax Romana. Looking into the eyes of the man who called himself "the first among equals," you get the feeling that the ship of state was in good hands.
But by the time this statue was carved, it's clear: The Pax Romana was finished...and Rome was falling. This boy is about to become head of state. It was a chaotic and unstable time. In fact, in the third century, 16 emperors were assassinated in a 50-year period. Surrounded by nervous senators, this child emperor is no picture of confidence.
After seeing its museums, it's easier to envision Rome at its peak — once a metropolis of marble embellished with countless statues.
Surviving bits of the ancient empire are everywhere you look. Important squares are still marked by towering columns. Medieval Romans built with scavenged fragments of once-grand buildings. Obelisks shipped from Egypt 2,000 years ago still stand like exclamation points. And peel up any street or square — this is a republican-era temple — and you'll find stony remnants of Rome's grand past, standing right next to its modern present.
Throughout the ages, people mined once-glorious buildings as quarries. Imagine: They were stacked with pre-cut stones, free for the taking. Block by block, they carted away most of this temple, and then incorporated what was still standing — like these columns — into a modern building.
Thankfully no one cannibalized the magnificent Pantheon, the best-preserved temple from ancient Rome. The portico, with its stately pediment, has symbolized Roman greatness ever since antiquity. Like the obelisks, its massive one‑piece granite columns were shipped from Egypt. They're huge. It takes four tourists to hug one.
Step inside to enjoy the finest look anywhere at the splendor of ancient Rome. Its dimensions are classic — based on a perfect circle, as wide as it is tall: 140 feet. The oculus is the only source of light. The Pantheon survived so well because it's been in continuous use for over 2,000 years. It went almost directly from being a pagan temple to being a Christian church.
The beauty of the Pantheon and the brilliance of its construction has inspired architects through the ages. The dome is made of poured concrete, which gets thinner and lighter with height — the highest part is made with pumice, an airy volcanic stone. "Pan-theon" means "all gods." It was a spiritual menagerie where the many gods of the empire were worshipped.
There was a kind of religious freedom back then. If you were conquered, you were welcome to keep your own gods...as long as you worshipped Caesar, too. This was generally no problem. But the Christians who had a single — and very jealous — God were the exception. Because they refused to worship the emperor, early Christians were persecuted.
For a little early-Christian history, we're heading outside the city for a look at the catacombs.
Rome's ancient wall stretches 11 miles. It protected the city until Italy was united in 1870. From gates like this, grand roads fanned out to connect the city with its empire.
The Appian Way — Rome's gateway to the East — is fun to explore on a rented bike. It was the grandest and fastest road yet...the wonder of its day. Very straight — as Roman engineers were fond of designing — it stretched 400 miles to Naples and then on to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Egypt. These are the original stones.
Tombs of ancient big shots lined the Appian Way like billboards. While pagans didn't enjoy the promise of salvation, those who could afford it purchased a kind of immortality by building themselves big and glitzy memorials. These line the main roads out of town.
Judging by their elegant togas, these brothers were from a fine family. This is the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, whose father-in-law was extremely wealthy. While it dates from the first century BC, we still remember her to this day...so apparently the investment paid off.
But of course, early Christians didn't have that kind of money. So they buried their dead in mass underground necropoli — or catacombs — dug beneath the property of the few fellow Christians who did own land.
These catacombs are scattered all around the city, just outside the walls. And several are open to the public.
The tomb-lined tunnels of the catacombs stretch for miles, and are many layers deep. Many of the first Christians buried here were later recognized as martyrs and saints. Others then carved out niches nearby to bury their loved ones close to these early Christian heroes.
By the Middle Ages, the catacombs were abandoned and forgotten. Centuries later they were rediscovered. Romantic Age tourists on the "Grand Tour" visited by candlelight and legends grew about Christians hiding out to escape persecution. But the catacombs were not hideouts. They were simply budget, underground cemeteries.
Further along the Appian Way is Rome's Aqueduct Park, offering a chance to see how the ancient city got its water. With its million people, Rome needed lots of water. These ingenious aqueducts carried a steady stream from distant mountains into the city. And they still seem to gallop, as they did 2,000 years ago, into Rome.
These aqueducts were the Achilles' heel of Rome. If you wanted to bring down the city, all you had to do is take down one of the arches. In fact, in the sixth century, the barbarians did just that. Without water, Rome basically shriveled up.
Today, the park's a favorite with locals for walking the dog...or burning off some of that pasta.
With its imperial might and those stories about persecutions and hungry lions in the Colosseum, it's easy to forget that the last century of the Roman Empire was Christian.
In 312, the general Constantine, following a vision that he would triumph under the sign of the cross, beat his rival, Maxentius. Taking power, Emperor Constantine then legalized Christianity. This obscure, outlawed Jewish sect ultimately became the religion of the empire.
In the year 300 you could be killed for being a Christian. In the year 400 you could be killed for not being a Christian. Church attendance boomed, and Emperor Constantine built the first great Christian church right here — San Giovanni in Laterano...St. John's.
It opened as a kind of "first Vatican." St. John's — which has been rebuilt over the ages — was the original home of the bishop of Rome, or "Pope." High atop the canopy over the altar, a box supposedly contains bits of the skulls of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The church is filled with symbols of Christianity's triumph over pagan Rome: For instance, tradition says these gilded bronze columns once stood in pagan Rome's holiest temple. And what better doors for this first grand church than those which once hung in ancient Rome's Senate House.
The adjacent Holy Stairs are a major stop on Rome's pilgrimage trail. Many credit Emperor Constantine's mother, St. Helena, for her son's conversion. She brought home wagonloads of relics including these stairs — believed to be from the palace of Pontius Pilate. For 1,700 years pilgrims — believing Jesus climbed these stairs on the day he was condemned — have scaled the Scala Santa on their knees.
The influence of ancient Rome is everywhere. Its noble ruins tell a tale of power, politics, and imperial egos; of pagan gods now forgotten; of public art on a grand scale; and of enduring engineering feats. It's a story of colossal achievement and monumental failure.
By the year 500, the over-expanded, corrupt, and exhausted Roman Empire had fallen. But the grandeur of the Roman Empire lived on in the Roman Church. Over time, Trajan's column was capped with a Christian saint, the Pantheon became a church, Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum became the Pope's fortress, and the tomb of the Apostle Peter, a man the Romans executed, was crowned by the grandest building in the city — St. Peter's Basilica.
Today, visitors to Rome find fascinating layers of history and culture: early Christian, Baroque, and modern. But it all sits upon a solid foundation of the ancient city — which for centuries, was the capital of our Western civilization. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'. Ciao.