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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Classical Rome 1

We begin with a stroll from the Colosseum (or Coliseum, take your pick) west through the forum. It's a ten-minute walk if you move along, but we'll poke.

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Sunrise at the Colosseum. The Flavian Amphitheater takes its popular name from a long-vanished statue of Nero as the sun god. This colossal statue rose a hundred feet--about two-thirds the height of the Colosseum--at about the spot where the cypress grows today. It was made of concrete covered in bronze. Ironically, it disappeared even before the name Colosseum made its appearance in the eighth century. By then, four centuries had passed since the emperor Honorius had put an end to gladiatorial contests.

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Most of the surrounding ground is modern, but on the east side there's a patch of ancient travertine flagstones and a line of boundary stones. You can almost imagine the crowds lining up and shifting from foot to foot in their sandals.

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Just across the streetcar tracks to the east and easy to overlook: the Ludus Magnus, a mini-arena where gladiators practiced.

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The Amphitheatrum Flavium was begun by Vespasian (whose family name was Flavia) and finished by his son Titus in 80 A.D. This was the biggest theater ever built by the Romans: its footprint is 620 by 513 feet, and the facade rises 157 feet.

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The Colosseum is not only big but reveals a fundamental distinction between Greek and Roman architecture: the Greeks made columns work; the Romans frequently reduced them to decorative devices. The work of weight-bearing, at least in the imperial period, fell mostly to concrete, poured between forms of wood or brick.

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The three-quarter or engaged columns are of the Doric order on the ground level, topped by an Ionic layer and a Corinthian layer. The top layer was added by Septimius Severus in 217 and has Corinthian pilasters.

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The corbels up top provided a base and brace for vertical masts from which ropes were suspended across the vast arena. Those ropes supported horizontal sails to shade the audience. The work was in the hands of sailors in the imperial navy.

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By the 12th century, the Colosseum was a private castle. By the 15th, it had become a quarry for ready-cut travertine and tufa, hauled off to build both the Palazzo di Venezia and the Palazzo Farnese. The south side, shown here, was mined particularly intensively. By the 19th century, the weakened structure seemed about to collapse and buttresses were built by papal order.

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There's no evidence that Christians were slaughtered in the Colosseum. Still, the story was a powerful one, useful in propagating the faith. That's why Benedict XIV declared the amphitheater sanctified in 1749, and it's why Pius IX (1846-78) ordered the protective buttressing.

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Looking from the inside toward the south: the greenery beyond is the Celian hill, fenced off now but once occupied by the Temple of the Divine Claudius. The seating, for 50,000, is gone; estimates are that two-thirds of the Colosseum's masonry have been removed.

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The north side is slightly more intact, though still heavily mined. Entry is tightly regulated--and not cheap--but that's new: a century ago the arena was open round the clock. A moonlit visit would have been especially atmospheric in the 18th century, when the amphitheater was heavily overgrown. Richard Deakins' Flora of the Colosseum (1855) counted 420 species.  They were all removed in 1871.

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The arena--287 by 180 feet--was floored with wood but became so slippery with gore that it was sprinkled with sand--arena in Latin--which explains the origin of the English word. Gibbon tells of a monk named Telemachus who came into the arena about 405 and tried to separate two warring gladiators. The crowd stoned him to death. Guilt then got the better of the crowd, Gibbon writes. "They respected the memory of Telemachus, who had deserved the honours of martyrdom; and they submitted, without a murmur, to the laws of Honorius, which abolished for ever the human sacrifices of the amphitheater." Still, animal slaughter continued for another century with crocodiles, elephants, lions and tigers.

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Flanking the Colosseum on the west, the Arch of Constantine is seen here from an upper level of the Colosseum. The Palatine Hill is in the background. This is a late arch, completed in 315 to commemorate Constantine's victory in 312 over Maxentius. That was the battle where Constantine declared his faith in Christianity, but sculptors by then were hard to come by, and so, despite the importance of the battle, the relief panels lining the archway and facade at the ends of the attic were taken from a long frieze sculpted a century before. For this reason, David Watkin has described the arch as "a curious essay in historical revivalism," a practice more often associates with the Renaissance. The arch was last restored in 1989. An earlier restoration, In 1804, stripped off fortifications added in the 10th century, when the arch was part of a castle.

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Here is part of the south face. The reliefs are from a second century monument to Marcus Aurelius and show him orating. The statues of captive Dacians are even earlier, from the time of Trajan.

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Contrast them with this crude statue of Victory, sculpted for the occasion and placed close to the ground.

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Two minutes walk west along the Via Sacra we come to the Arch of Titus, dedicated in 81 to mark the defeat of the Jews in 70. The arch carries the inscription "Senatus populusque romanus divo Tito divi Vespasiani filio Vespasiano Augusto." Sorry to disappoint, but only the central part, of Pentelic marble, is ancient: the lighter-colored bordering travertine is from 1822, when the medieval fortifications of the Frangipani were removed and the whole structure was approximately restored.  Compare, for example, the inner with the outer capitals; both are composite (Ionic atop Corinthian) but the newer ones are highly simplified.

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One worn relief on the Arch shows a menorah being carried away from Jerusalem.

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Looking west from the Arch of Titus over the Roman forum. The view extends past the triple Arch of Septimius Severus, built in 203 to celebrate victories over the Parthians. On the right are the steps and massive columns of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. On the left are the freestanding columns of the Temple of Castor. In the background is the Capitoline Hill. Though destined to be the city center, the forum was originally a swamp, and it was drained early in Roman history by the famous Cloaca Maxima, which drained to the Tiber, a thousand feet off to the left. The forum was completely buried by the time of Charlemagne, but excavations began in the Renaissance and became serious business in the time of Pius IX.

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On the north side of the Roman Forum and just west of the Arch of Titus, this is the north aisle of the Basilica of Constantine, begun by Maxentius. The building was rectangular, with a central hall measuring 285 by 63 feet and flanked by two aisles. The view here is into the only surviving part, the north aisle. The surviving three arches once supported the roof of the central hall and divided the aisle into three interconnected rooms.

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The building was originally sheathed in marble and, higher up, stucco; only brick and concrete survive, along with the stone springing of arches that originally supported the roof of the central hall.

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The same building seen from the north side, along the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The maps, showing the Roman Empire at four dates, are from proudly fascist 1932, when the road was opened.

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Since we're over there, we may as well detour for a moment. The Roman Forum was too small for the imperial city, and Julius Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva, and Trajan all added fora of their own on the north side. These later additions were alternately mined and built over until revealed by excavations in the 1920s, during Mussolini's construction of the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Here, built to celebrate the victory at the Battle of Philippi (42 B.C.), is the Forum of Augustus and its commanding temple of Mars Ultor--Mars the Avenger. Only three of the temple's columns survive, but the platform they rimmed can be seen extending to the steps on the left.

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Nearby is Trajan's Column, along with a forest of truncated columns from the Basilica Ulpia. The column consists of 18 marble drums, each about 5 feet high. The spiralling frieze on them recounts Trajan's military record: impossible to see today, it was originally surrounded by stacked galleries on three sides. The culminating statue of Trajan was replaced by one of St. Peter in 1587.

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Back in the Roman Forum and continuing west: the Basilica of Constantine opened to the west from its south aisle. Here are fragments of the porphyry columns that supported the vanished portico overlooking the Sacra Via. Because of its associations with imperial purple, porphyry was a prized stone, notwithstanding the difficulty of quarrying it in Upper Egypt and getting it to Rome. For more on porphyry, see Turkey: Constantinople.

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Next to the west is the Temple of Romulus, named not for the mythical founder of Rome but by the emperor Maxentius to honor his son of that name. The building retains its original porphyry columns and bronze doors, probably because it was used from the 6th century onward as the vestibule to a church, Santi Cosma e Damiano.

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Next to the west, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, dedicated to Antoninus Pius and his wife. St. Lawrence was tried here before being burned in 258, and by the 12th century the temple was a church named for him (San Lorenzo in Miranda). The columns are of Greek marble, quarried in Euboea, but the original pediment was replaced by the baroque facade in 1602.

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The three surviving columns of the Temple of Castor, rebuilt during the reign of Tiberius. The temple honored Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus who were said to have appeared before the Romans to forecast their victory over the Tarquins in 496 B.C. The temple had 13 columns on each side and 8 front and rear.

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Next to it is this partial reconstruction of the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Originally, 20 columns framed a circular structure that echoed archaic Latin huts. The temple contained not only the sacred fire maintained by the Vestal Virgins but also a statue of Venus called the Palladium. It had supposedly been taken from Athens by Aeneas and was visible only to the vestal virgins and the pontifex maximus.The temple was rebuilt several times, finally by Septimius Severus. It was abandoned in 394 and had collapsed by the 8th century.  The site was lost until 1883, when it was identified by Italy's Minister of Public Instruction; some 50 years later this truncated section was artfully erected to suggest a ruin.

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The Arch of Septimius Severus is on the left, bordering the severe brick Curia, or senate house, built by Domitian and restored by Diocletian. The building became the church of Sant'Adriano in 630 and was restored to its ancient form in the 1930s. In the foreground are remnants of the Basilica Emilia. In the right distance is the monument to Victor Emmanuel II, which was designed by Giuseppe Sacconi and completed in 1911. It's unappreciated today, though a guidebook of an earlier era describes the building as "one of the most majestic and most beautiful in Italy." It does tend to overpower the antiquities.

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The Curia originally had a portico, and the whole structure was covered with marble, or at least a faux-marble stucco. Its bronze doors now hang a mile to the east on the Cathedral of Rome, the church of John the Lateran.

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A view south from the Via dei Fori Imperiali: the Curia is on the right, masking most of the Arch of Septimius Severus. The open space in the foreground is the Forum of Nerva, behind which is the Basilica Emilia. The Capitoline Hill rises to the right, behind the eight columns of the Temple of Saturn.

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Much the same view, taken from across the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The monument to Victor Emmanuel II rises on the right.

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The view of it from the front, at the Piazza Venezia. The image of the proud horseman, powerful in the time of Marcus Aurelius, seems mere posturing today.

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Back in the Roman Forum: the Temple of Saturn, originally built about 500 B.C. was rebuilt several times, most recently in 400 A.D. Columns were valuable property: these survive from a reconstruction done in 42 B.C., even though the capitals come from the final version.

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The Roman treasury was here, along (incongruously) with the focal point of the Saturnalia, the December holiday when slaves were briefly free.

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Nearby, the Umbilicus Urbis, the imaginary center of the city.

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Nearby, too, the Miliareum Aureum or golden milestone, from which all distances were measured. Augustus set it up, with a bronze column and distances to major cities lettered in gold.

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Looking west from the Capitoline back to the Arch of Titus in the left background. In the foreground, three corner columns (one is almost completely hidden) from the Temple of Vespasian. On the right is the Temple of Saturn, behind which are the scant remains of the Basilica Julia. In the left middle-distance is the column of Phocas, erected in the 6th century. It came from an earlier building and was partly buried until an English duchess had its base cleared in 1813. In the distance, the Palatine Hill.

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