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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Classical Rome 2

Here we look around the Palatine, followed by an excursion out to the Appian Way and a circuitous stroll from the Tiber to the Pantheon.

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The Palatine Hill rises behind the columns of the Temple of Castor. Up top: the Farnese Gardens, now public. The massive brickwork underneath them once supported the Palace of Caligula; at that time the natural profile of the hill was obscured by the mass of brilliant buildings. Cicero lived here; so 500 years later, did Theodoric. From all this grandeur comes the English word "palace," but the palaces themselves decayed in later centuries.  The Farnese Gardens were established on the site in the 1530s. They were bought by Napoleon III in 1861 but became the property of the Italian government in 1870.

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On the far side of the plateau-topped hill is the Palatine Stadium, part of the Palace of Domitian.

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The stadium may have used for games but was normally a garden.

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The stadium is in the background; in the foreground is the peristyle of the Domus Augustana, identified in 1777.  It overlooks the Circus Maximus.

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The Domus Augustana and stadium from the south foot of the Palatine. In the foreground is part of the Circus Maximus. The arches at the far right were part of the baths of Septimius Severus.

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The Circus Maximus from its eastern curve. Begun by the Tarquins, rebuilt by Julius Caesar, embellished by his successors, and restored by Constantine, the circus held its last games in 549. The races were long: seven circuits. The crowds, seated in bleachers like these, exceeded 150,000.  Not much is left: the marble blocks of the once enormous building were mined for centuries.

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The Palatine received water from the Palatine Aqueduct, an extension of the 45-mile Claudian Aqueduct. Here are some of its arches on the east side of the Palatine. The structure was large, especially after it was rebuilt by Septimius Severus, who needed lots of water for his baths.

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Brickwork where the aqueduct crosses the modern Via di San Gregorio.

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Two thousand feet upstream, the aqueduct flowed over the Arch of Dolabella on the Via San Paolo Della Croce.

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A thousand feet east of the Circus Maximus, the baths of Caracalla opened in 217 and operated until Viteges destroyed their water supply during a siege of 537. Here, the original west entrance, through the arch.

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These arches supported the central hall, once a cool pool but now with grass. Through the arches and to the left, there was a cold plunge. A domed and circular hot pool, about a hundred feet in diameter, lay off camera to the right. (The bathing sequence was cool, hot, cold.) The building was huge--750 by 380 feet--and sat within an even larger architectural frame, about a thousand feet square. Here Shelley is said to have written most of "Prometheus Unbound."

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Beyond the Baths of Caracalla, the Appian Way extended south to Brundisi. It also shortly passed through the Porta Appia, a gate in the city's outer wall, the Aurelian Wall. That wall, completed in 282, was later doubled in height. It had a total length of 11 miles and enclosed about 3,400 acres. Much of it survives. Here is the Porta Pinciana, a gate in the Aurelian Wall on the city's north side. It leads from the Via Vittoria Veneto to the Villa Borghese. The area beyond the gates was desolate well into the 19th century.

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The Via Appia Antica, a few miles east of the Porta Appia. The road was constructed by Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 B.C. to Capua--and only later extended to Brundisi. Eventually it was buried and forgotten, but in 1853 it was excavated to the 11th milestone. The paving here is modern.

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Parts of the road, however, are still paved with pozzalano lava, quarried locally in the second century B.C.

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Along the road, the first-century B.C. tomb of Cecilia Metella.  A presumably conical roof is long gone.  In the 13th century the cylindrical tomb--70 feet in diameter--was converted into a stronghold by the Savelli and Caetani families.  It was Boniface VIII, of the Caetani, who added the upper battlements of lava, taken from the tip of a long lava tongue that extends from the Alban Hills.  In the background is the Caetani fortress.

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A closer view. Large travertine blocks not only faced the tomb but stabilized a rectangular base.  The stones of that base were quarried  by Clement XII, who used them to build the Trevi Fountain.

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The inscription reads: Caeciliae Q. Cretici f(iliae) Metellae Crassi. Cecilia was the daughter of Quintus Metellus Creticus and the wife of the younger Crassus, whose father was the Crassus of the triumvirate. So much for fact. Byron was here and added romance. In the fourth canto of Childe Harold he wrote: "There is a stern round tower of other days,/ Firm as a fortress, with its fence of stone,/ Such as an army's baffled strength delays,/ Standing with half its battlements alone,/ And with two thousand years of ivy grown,/ The garland of eternity, where wave/ The green leaves over all by time o'erthrown;--/What was this tower of strength? within its cave/ What treasure lay so lock'd, so hid?--A woman's grave."



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The interior is brick.

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Just to the west is the Circus of Maxentius, built to seat 10,000 but never used. Gradually filled, it was excavated in 1825 at the expense of Prince Torlonia, who owned the estate on which it stood. In the middle distance, surrounded by grass, is the spina, around which chariots were intended to race. It was once decorated by the obelisk that stands now in the Piazza Navona.

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Back in central Rome, we're looking west across the Tiber at the Castel Sant'Angelo. The core was erected in 136-139 as a mausoleum for Hadrian and his family. Like the tomb of Cecilia Metella, it was faced with marble. All the succeeding emperors through Caracalla (d. 217) were buried here. Like Cecilia Metella's tomb, this one became a fortress in the Middle Ages--the citadel of Rome. The modern name comes from the Archangel Michael, whom Gregory the Great in the year 590 is said to have seen sheathing his sword here. About 610, Boniface IV erected the summit chapel to commemorate this vision. The statue of the bronze angel (1752) replaced an earlier one of stone, which replaced a statue of Hadrian atop a smaller circular colonnade. The pentagonal wall was added in the 1620s by Urban VIII. Italy's Royal Engineers were housed here from 1870 until 1900.

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Downstream a mile but only a thousand feet west of the forum is the one remaining arch of the Pons Aemilius, built in 181 B.C. and the first stone bridge across the Tiber. The rest of the bridge was destroyed during a flood in 1598, when the vestige became known as the Ponto Rotto, or "rotten bridge."

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Bankside nearby, this is the Temple of Hercules Victor, from the 2nd century B.C. Like so many ancient structures, this was a church in the Middle Ages, which helped it survive. It was solidly built, too--of solid marble blocks, not the usual marble-slab facing. The tile roof is modern.

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Next to it: the Temple of Portunus, from the late 2nd century B.C. and dedicated to the god of harbors. Restored in 1922, it had been a church from 792 and later adjoined an Armenian hospice.

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Rising to the Capitoline, the Theater of Marcellus, completed by Augustus and named for his nephew. The rising sequence of orders is Doric and Ionic; a top tier, if consistent with the sequence in the Colosseum, would have been Corinthian. It has been privately owned since the 11th century, and its conversion to residential and commercial use has been deplored for a long time: Murray's Handbook of Rome (1894) complains that the theater is "disfigured by the dirty shops which occupy the lower tier of arches."

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The Pantheon, roughly midway between the Roman Forum and Hadrian's Tomb, was begun in 27 B.C. by Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, whose victory at Actium it was intended to celebrate. A lightning strike destroyed the temple, which was replaced by order of Hadrian, who also guided its design. The Pantheon was made into a church in 609 and lost its bronze-gilt roof tiles shortly thereafter. They were sent to Constantinople and replaced by lead.

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That wasn't the only change. Originally, metal shafts rose from the capitals to the roof, but they were hauled off in 1632 and made into the canopy supports at St. Peters.

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The ancient inscription is Hadrianic self-effacement, because it reads Marcus Agrippa, L.F. Cos. Tertium Fecit, meaning "Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, had [this building] made." The metal letters were set in 1894: we're used to them now, but they were deplored at the time. The pediment relief is long gone. The columns, by the way, are single blocks of Egyptian granite, 46.5 feet high; the capitals and bases are marble.

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The coffered dome--142 feet in both height and diameter--is of brick and mortar, not concrete. It is lit by an extraordinary 28-foot apical aperture or eye.

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The paving, including this porphyry disc, is another contribution from Pius IX.

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