Tag Archive: Ancient Rome

In the first century, the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in southern Italy were the Roman equivalent of Malibu or Beverly Hills. They were established towns filled with the huge vacation houses of Rome’s wealthy elite. Of course, they also had sizable populations of regular people too. Those towns, along with the modern mega-city of Naples, rest on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, among the most famous volcanos in the world. In 79 AD, a huge eruption sent avalanches of molten rock and poisonous gas that killed everyone who remained in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It also buried those towns in 70+ feet of ash, effectively wiping them off the face of the earth.

15 centuries later Pompeii was rediscovered. The tightly packed ash and pumice had preserved an entire roman town. It preserved the beautifully painted walls in the  houses of the rich, the streets and the buildings that remained standing after the volcano, countless Roman statues, artifacts and everyday objects- even graffiti. It also preserved the body shapes of people who died and were buried in the eruption. These were filled with plaster to create the famous body casts we see today. Pompeii has been under constant excavation for hundreds of years now and is arguably the worlds most famous archeological site. It could also be argued that Pompeii was discovered a few hundred years too early. Today, archeologists are much more meticulous and careful, and the ruins are suffering some neglect. It costs millions to maintain them, and just this last year an ancient villa collapsed in a rainstorm. It remains a hot topic of discussion in the Italian media.

I’ll post a few more articles on Pompeii in the next few weeks. For now, check out the BBC film “Pompeii: The Last Day”, which combines a very realistic reenactment of the tragic day in 79 with lots of great narrated information. Enjoy-


Roman Emperor and wise philosopher king Marcus Aurelius made what turned out to be a very bad decision before his death in 180. He named his son Commodus as his successor. Throughout the entire second century, Rome had experienced long periods of relative peace and prosperity under the 5 good emperors, all of whom where adoptive heirs chosen for their wisdom and ability to rule. It had been over 100 years since the last father/son succession (Titus and Vespasian in AD 79). The decision to make Commodus emperor had long reaching consequences. Many scholars mark his reign as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire.

Commodus was the first emperor who was born during the reign of his emperor father. He was only 18 when he took the throne. Almost immediately, he took a hands-off approach to governing, leaving the daily grind of politics and decision making to his advisors so that he could do whatever else he wanted. I remember seeing the movie “Gladiator” in 2000 when it came out, which depicts Jauquin Phoenix as Commodus. When I saw the movie, I was pretty turned off by how loose the history was for a historical epic. After doing a little research, I was shocked to find out that while the history of the movie is poor and 95% fabricated for storytelling, the craziest of Commodus’ behaviors are well documented. He was a monster who thought of himself as a god (just look at this portrait bust picture here of Commodus as Hercules), and he was obsessed with gladiatorial games and indeed loved nothing more than fighting in front of assembled Rome. Of course, he always won and even killed slaves as a warm up activity. Winning in the arena didn’t make him a hero to the people however… To the Romans, gladiators were among the lowest of the low, so it deeply offended the senators and citizens of Rome to see the emperor stoop to their level. On top of that, he required people to come to the arena and charged them money to see him fight.  Commodus survived a few assassination attempts, and became increasingly paranoid. In his madness, he renamed the months of the year for himself, demanded to be addressed as “Hercules son of Zeus” and wore a lion skin and carried a club on public occasions. On one occasion, he killed 3 elephants, a giraffe and a tiger in the ring. He also cut the head off of an ostrich, walked up into the seats and held the head over the senators,  implying that he could kill them too as he had the ostrich. In 191, another fire destroyed large parts of Rome, including the sacred temple of Vesta and the temple of peace. It was seen as a bad sign to all of Rome, except for Commodus, who saw it as an opportunity to promote himself as the second founder of Rome. He went so far as to re-name Rome after himself. Not surprisingly, he was eventually murdered in an elaborate plot. After 12 years, his reign was done and once again, Rome was plunged into a near civil war over who should succeed.

The year 193 was a rough one for Rome. As in the year 68-69 when Nero’s death sent Rome into chaos and 4 emperors ruled in one years time, Rome again was plunged into uncertainty and bloodshed. As with Nero, the problem was that there was no heir for Commodus. There was a quick move to install a man named Pertinax as emperor. By all accounts, he was a solid candidate as a respected military general and former senator. He only reigned 3 months before he was assassinated by rivals with other ideas. 3 Roman generals were all proclaimed emperor by troops who supported them, and after long peroids of battle between romans, Septimus Severus was emperor. He was ruthless in claiming power. He had the supporters of his rivals killed, including 27 senators. He raised the yearly pay for soldiers, securing their support, even has he waged brutal war in modern day Iraq. He was victorious, and continued to strengthen the military might of the empire. He  took to rebuilding much of what was destroyed in the fire of 191 under Commodus. Here’s what the ancient history says of Septimus Severus:

“He restored a very large number of the ancient buildings and inscribed them with his name, just as if he had erected them in the first place from his own private funds. He also spent a great deal uselessly in repairing other buildings, and in constructing new ones.”

Today, you can see the ruins of these many building projects. The largest is in the forum, the large arch of Septimus Severus that still stands in amazing condition and serves as a gateway into the city center. It was built to commemorate the victories in the Parthian wars in 203. Relief carvings and inscriptions on the arch are still visible. He also built a huge addition to the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, which included bumping out the hill to overlook the Circus Maximus. Today the ruins are clearly visible at the palace complex. Septimus Severus ruled for 18 years before he died of illness. In his statues, he is made to look a lot like Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius with his regal beard. Those emperors, he was not, but he did succeed in accomplishing much through the use of ruthless power. He learned nothing from history, because he named his sons co-emperors as his successors, saying to them on his death bed, “Be generous to the soldiers, and take no head of anyone else!”.

His sons were Caracalla and Geta, and the only problem was that they hated each other. Caracalla murdered his own brother within 10 months, becoming sole emperor. It was a bad PR move, but Caracalla took his fathers dying advice. He went directly to the soldiers, claimed that he killed his brother in self-defence, and then gave them an even bigger pay raise. With the army behind him, he set about eliminating all of Geta’s many supporters. In the early months of 212, as many as 20,000 people were killed in mass executions. Some courageous romans protested, and they were killed too. It sounds stupid to say it, but Caracalla wasn’t crazy (as Commodus and Caligula were), but rather insanely paranoid and ruthless. He was willing to do anything to have his way and maintain power. The names and likeness of Caracalla and Geta were everywhere on the buildings built by his father Septimus Severus. Caracalla had all references to Geta removed. Just look at this image here, a fresco of Septimus Severus and his family. You can clearly see one of the boy’s faces completely scratched away.

Caracalla was too paranoid to stay in Rome where it was only a matter of time before he would be assassinated. He spent most of his 6 years as emperor on the battlefront with the army, waging war in Germany and in the west. He had raised soldiers salaries 50%, so he had protection- or so he thought.  He was killed by one of his own bodyguards as he went to relieve himself in the woods. A glamourous way to go for a glamourous guy.

Even though he stands with the most tyrannical of emperors, Caracalla’s name marks one of the greatest Roman structures. Most likely begun by his father and completed by Caracalla, an enormous roman bath complex is among the most impressive ruins in all of Rome. To the Romans, visiting the baths was a way of life, both a cleansing ritual and a part of social society. Caracalla’s baths were one of the largest structures ever, originally decked out from floor to ceiling with precious marble and bronze, paintings and sculptures. Of course, those are all long-gone, as is the roof. Still, the shear size of the baths is mighty impressive. More to come on the baths in a later post-

Rome was governed from the year 96 to 180 by a chain of emperors dubbed the “5 Good Emperors” by Machiavelli. It has been studied and argued for centuries that Rome achieved it’s greatest heights under these emperors, who ruled with absolute power but possessed wisdom and virtue. Each was the adoptive heir of the previous emperor, which seems good evidence that choosing someone other than a full-blooded son to wield unlimited power usually led to a ruler with the people’s concerns in mind. The 5 good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

Antoninus Pius reigned for 23 years, and brought to Rome a prolonged time of peace. His adoptive son was the nephew of his beloved wife Faustina.  Marcus Aurelius assumed the throne upon his death and immediately made his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, a co-emperor. Lucius Verus died only 8 years later after suffering a stroke, leaving Marcus Aurelius sole emperor. Marcus had the heart and sole of a philosopher. He was well studied in the ways of ancient philosophy, and made many writings which have been passed down through time. Known as “the Meditations”, Marcus’ writings paint a picture of his wisdom and his preoccupation with death. Here’s a sample from the Meditations:

“The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering that it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just- though with courtesy, modesty, and sincerity.”

Marcus may have been wise with a solid understanding of his responsibility  as emperor, but that did not ensure a peaceful reign. After years of peace on Rome’s borders, all hell broke loose in the east and the north, leading to years of war. Marcus himself was on the frontlines for much of it, gone from Rome for a period of at least 8 years without returning. Eventually, the Roman armies secured the borders and won, but at great cost. They brought plague back to the capitol from the east, which raged in Rome for over 10 years. The hardest fought wars were against Germanic tribes to the north. It was here on the that Marcus Aurelius eventually died after years of illness, possibly cancer, in 180 after 19 years in power. More so than any other emperor, and due in large part to his writings which have survived to the present, he has gone down in history as a figure who embodies the best of Rome.

2 important monuments to Marcus Aurelius are found in Rome today. The first is the Column of Marcus Aurelius (also called the Aurelian Column). It stands in a piazza in the heart of modern Rome, not far from the government buildings. It is an impressive structure at 100 feet high. The form mimics that of Trajan’s column, which is found a few blocks away in the forum. Like Trajan’s column, Marcus’ column contains an incredibly detailed sculptural frieze that reads like an enormous spiral comic book. It tells the story of Marcus’ military victories in the north. At one time, it would have had a statue of Marcus Aurelius on the top. That one is long gone, replaced rather strangely with a statue of St. Paul.

The other significant monument to Marcus Aurelius is his bronze equestrian statue, which shows him heroically riding a horse. It’s made of cast bronze. At one point, there were probably many such statues in Rome, and carved bronze pieces also decorated many buildings. Those pieces are all gone forever, scavenged and melted down in the middle ages. “The Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius” survives because people in the middle ages believed it to be a statue of the Christian Emperor Constantine (more on him later). The statue was unharmed and has stood for centuries and has only recently been placed inside the Capitoline Museum at the Roman Forum. It’s near the top of the greatest works from antiquity to still survive today. It shows with amazing detail just how talented Roman sculptors were.

Marcus Aurelius was a wise man, known as the philosopher king. It’s surprising and ironic then, that he made such a poor choice for his successor. His son was Commodus, and in choosing him Marcus Aurelius became the first emperor in nearly 100 years to favor a son over an adoptive heir. Commodus turned out to be one of the worst tyrant emperors, grouped with the likes of Caligula and Nero. Like those emperors, he was obsessed with power, demanded to be worshiped as a god, and was eventually assassinated. The reign of Commodus is seen as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire. You could say that it began under Marcus Aurelius with his wars in the north, as eventually it was the northern tribes who wore down deteriorating Rome and sacked the capitol. Perhaps more on Commodus later-

For now, here’s another great SmartHistory clip with a more detailed look at the “Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius”. Enjoy-

This is the third of 3 postings on features of the Roman Forum, attempting to make some sense of the massive ruin at the heart of Rome. Click here to read PART 1 and PART 2.

The Temple of Romulus

The next building west of the temple of Antoninus and Faustina is the Temple of Divus Romulus, which was built by the Emperor Maxentius not to the legendary founder of Rome Romulus, but in honor of his young son who died. It was dedicated in 309 AD, and like most buildings that are still standing or partially standing today, was converted to a Christian church in the middle ages. It’s one of the most unusual temple structures. Most temples share a similar shape, but this one consists of a small central round structure with 2 side niches. Originally, it had a rounded front facade with areas for statues. Today, the central rotunda remains, as does the original bronze door and columns. The columns are unique, made of a a bright purple rock called porphyry. It’s rare- the columns have been valued at 20 million euros each in todays money. Maxentius apparently wanted only the best to remember his son.

Basilica of Constantine

Emperor Maxentius also began work on the largest building in the Forum in 308, but died before it was done. Emperor Constantine finished the enormous building, which is called the Basilica of Constantine. The interior was vast  and open, supported by 3 towering barrel vaults on either side. Today, the southern half is gone (collapsed in an earthquake in 847), as is the central nave, but the foundation and the northern half remain to show how huge the place was.

When it was built, it was the most advanced Roman architectural achievement.Today, it’s still one of the most impressive ancient structures.The basilica housed the colossal statue of Constantine at one end. Parts of it were found buried under rubble in the Forum, and can be seen at the Capitoline Museum on the Capitoline Hill. The statue was 40 feet high, and was probably taken apart for parts of the statue made of bronze. Today his head, hand, foot, upper arm and kneecap can be seen at the museum. The Basilica with its 3 giant vaults continues to impress. At the Rome olympic games in 1960, they held the wrestling competitions here, quite possibly the coolest venue for a sporting event ever. The space is still used for events, including musical concerts. Attempts are underway to keep what is left of the structure standing, including scaffolding, supports, and a giant cable tied around the back designed to keep it from tipping inward.

The Temple of Venus and Rome

Between the temple of Constantine and the Colosseum on the west end of the forum is what’s left of the biggest Roman temple, the Temple of Venus and Rome. It was huge, 348 by 156 feet and 97 feet tall, with huge columns supporting a large open interior. It was built by Emperor Hadrian in the second century on top of what was once Nero’s villa. It’s difficult today to tell exactly what you’re looking at when you see the ruins. 1 row of columns remain on the south side, and the rounded decorative niche that once stood in the rear center of the inside can still be seen. Since the ruin is right across from the Colosseum, it has often been neglected and used as a convenient open space in the area. It was used as a car park until the 1980s. Recently, it has reopened after 20 years of restoration. Today, the grounds are used on good Friday by the Pope as part of the stations of the cross.

There are many smaller buildings that made up the forum and the surrounding area. Perhaps we’ll come back to them later, but for now, here’s a fantastic video with a computer generated recreation of the Forum. The video highlights many of the specific buildings referred to in the last 3 postings. Enjoy-

The Roman Forum was the center of ancient Rome, and today is one of most complex ruins in the world. In this post I’ll continue to highlight selected important buildings in the Forum. Read part 1 on the Forum here.

Just across the way from the ruins of the temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals are 3 huge columns rising into space, seen in the picture above. They are all that is left of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. It was an important structure for centuries. It was originally built in 484 BC, but reconstructed a few times. These columns are from the rebuilding by Tiberius in 6 AD. In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus. Though it was dedicated a Temple, it served many other functions. It was an important meeting place for senators throughout the centuries. There was also a podium in front of the imposing temple where decrees were read aloud.

The Basilica Julia

Across from the Temple of Castor and Pollux are the foundational remains of one of the largest buildings in the Forum, the Basilica Julia. It was built by Julius Caesar on top of another huge basilica, burned to the ground shortly after in a  great fire and eventually re-dedicated by his successor Augustus 20 years later. The Basilica Julia housed the courts of law and was a space for banking and government offices. It was also a favorite meeting place for ancient Romans, with shops and gathering spaces. It was as big as a football field, 3 stories high with an enormous open space in the center. Ancient accounts describe it as a place bustling with people and noise. The entire outside was built with roman arches and decorated with statues facing the center of the Forum. It’s the place where Emperor Caligula allegedly had money thrown off the roof to the people below because he loved to watch them fight for it.

The Curia Julia

Across the open plaza from the Basilica Julia was the most important government building, the Curia or the Curia Julia, the house meeting space for Roman senators. The Curia burned down and was rebuilt many times throughout Rome’s history. Today, it is one of the only roman buildings still standing in Rome. Last rebuilt in 283 AD, it survives because it was converted into a church in the seventh century.The Curia Julia also bares the name of Julius Caesar, who commissioned its reconstruction but was assassinated before its completion. Augustus also completed the Curia. The building is an example of Roman dimensional precision in architecture, exactly 2/3 as wide as it is long with a hight equal to 1/2 of the combined length and width. The front portico is gone today, and long ago the marble facing was removed from the walls, but the intricate floor survives and is still visible. The Curia has recently been restored, and is fascinating to see.

The Arch of Septimius Severus

Directly in between the Curia and the Basilica Julia stands another well preserved distinct feature of the Forum. The Arch of Septimius Severus was built, as arches often were (see the article on the arch of Titus here), to commemorate the military victories of Emperor Septimius Severus and was dedicated in 203 AD. It’s a huge gateway into the Forum close to the Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Saturn, and remains in good shape today because it was largely buried underground throughout the middle ages when dirt filled the forum. Impressive carvings are seen all the way around it, as well as an inscription on the top. Originally, it was gilded with bronze letters along the inscription and large bronze statues on the top. When Septimius Severus died, his sons Caracalla and Geta became joint emperors. Caracalla eventually had his brother killed and erased his name and image from the arch.

More to come…



In the center of old Rome lies a jumbled mess of broken columns, foundation fragments and crumbled structures overgrown with earth. Occasionally, a row of columns or an arch remain where once the greatest complex of temples, palaces and government buildings stood. It’s called the Roman Forum, and understanding it in it’s present state takes quite a bit of imagination and understanding of what it once was. For centuries, it was the heart of the known world, the place where the greatest empire the world built grand monuments and conducted ceremonies.

It’s sometimes hard to tell now with so many buildings, but the landscape of Rome is hilly. There were 7 great hills within the city of ancient Rome, and others outside the city limits- such as the Vatican hill. The Roman Forum is situated between the Capitoline Hill on the West, the Palatine Hill on the south extends to the Colosseum on the West. Today, there is a large museum on the Capitoline Hill, with many artifacts from the ancient city and a plaza designed by Michelangelo. The Palatine Hill was important to ancient Romans. They believed it to be the spot were Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, eventually establishing Rome on the hill. Excavations continue in the Forum as they have for centuries, and digs on the Palatine have found ancient tools and evidence of an early civilization there. The Palatine is an enormous ruin today of the Imperial palaces built by Domitian and others.

The Forum is in bad shape. Workers are always trying to save what is little is left from further decay. It’s tough to fully understand all that the Forum was just by looking at it today. Even before the fall of Rome, there were earthquakes and fires that periodically leveled parts of the city. Over the centuries, the Emperors replaced decaying wooden structures with marble and other stone (Emperor Trajan), and occasionally leveled buildings built by their tyrant predecessors in order to discredit them (Emperor Vespasian). Each new building is a new layer, leaving traces of what was there first. After the fall of Rome, the city was sacked and plundered. There were more fires and earthquakes and what remained was seen as a total loss in the middles ages. Gradually, dirt filled many places in and farmers even used the area for pasture. Some of the buildings that remained were converted to churches (the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina), or used as a quarry for stone. Today, pieces of precious granite, marble, and carved columns from the forum can be found in other buildings scattered across the city. In more recent times, dictator Benito Mussolini had a huge highway built directly through the Forum called the Via del Fori Imperiali. It was built for big military parades in WWII. Today it’s the busiest road in Rome. It was built directly on top of the Forums of Augustus, Trajan and Nerva, and today archeologists continue to carefully dig under the street. For all these reasons, the Forum is like a scattered jigsaw puzzle, each piece representing a different moment in history and a specific original function. It would be almost impossible to learn everything about it, so I’ll touch on a few of the most important features of the Forum in this post and a few others.

The Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals    

The most sacred of buildings to the Romans was the temple of Vesta. It was a small round temple in the forum dedicated the the goddess vesta. The priestesses of Vesta were the vestal virgins, who took a vow of celibacy and lived in seclusion at a huge 3 story 50-room complex called the house of the Vestals.They had one purpose- to keep the sacred fire of vesta burning inside the temple day and night, never to go out.

The fire represented Vesta’s protection of Rome, so it was hugely important to the Romans to keep it going. Being a Vestal meant a 30 year term of total dedication to the temple, with harsh punishments for breaking the rules. If a vestal was found to have broken her vow of celibacy, it was Roman law for her to be buried alive. Today, the you can see the foundation and column bases were the house of Vesta was, and a small section of the Temple of Vesta stands with a few columns. This however, is a modern reconstruction, also made under Mussolini.

Temple of Saturn

Another important structure was the Temple of Saturn. Today, it’s probably the most iconic image of the forum, with 8 huge columns from the original front still standing. It’s the first thing you see when you enter on the Capitoline Hill side, and it remains grand even as a shell of it’s former self. The Temple of Saturn was one of the oldest temples in Rome, dating back to 450 BC. That structure is long gone, rebuilt at least twice after fire. The ruins today are from the year 283, and you can still see the latin inscription on the top- “The Senate and People of Rome restored what fire had consumed”.

It’s hard to comprehend how grand the Forum must have looked in its heyday. There are many resources online, including an online database were researchers are attempting to digitally recreate the entire forum with all its buildings. You can even find reconstructions of the forum within google earth to better understand the Rome that the Romans saw. I’ll discuss other important features in later posts.

Antoninus Pius was the adoptive son of the Emperor Hadrian, and became emperor himself after Hadrian finally died after a long drawn-out illness in AD 138. He would be remembered as one of the 5 good emperors, and he would reign longer than any previous emperor other than Augustus, 23 years.

His first act was to request that the senate deify Hadrian. One could say that Antoninus’ reign was all a continuation of what Hadrian put in place. Hadrian disliked war and unlike his predecessors, did not see the need to use it as a political tool. He felt that Rome’s borders were spread far enough, and he concentrated his efforts on making things better within the empire and along it’s borders. He even built a huge wall across Britain to keep northern invaders out and secure the border. All of this meant that Antoninus inherited an empire that was in pretty good shape. Like Hadrian, he resisted expanding the empire through waging war. This resulted in the longest period of peace that Rome had ever seen. Antoninus never traveled to Rome’s borders, and never led an army. In fact, he hardly ever left Rome in 23 years.

Very little is known about his biography from ancient writings, but evidence remains of his actions as emperor. We know from statues that he was bearded, a look made popular and passed down by Hadrian. By all accounts he was tall and handsome, calm and kind hearted. He was a perfect fit for what many Romans wanted in an Emperor. He was a good speaker, and he was not easily tempted (as many other Emperors were) with power and money. Instead, he seemed to understand that he was a custodian of the empire, and his only role was to keep things afloat and in good shape. He was not an overly ambitious emperor, and unlike others he was not consumed with leaving his mark on Rome. He died at the ripe-old age of 74, a hugely popular figure in Rome and was unanimously deified by the senate. His ashes were placed in Hadrian’s mausoleum, known today as the Castel St. Angelo. Today there is still a debate about Antoninus: Was he really a truly good emperor, or was his reign a lucky result of the peace brought about by Hadrian? There seems to be evidence of both- either way, Rome prospered.

Antoninus Pius was not the greatest of Roman builders, but a very important structure of his exists today in the Roman Forum. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina is a partial ruin that has been turned into a church, but you can still make out the impressive front steps and portico today.  At one time, it looked like this model in the picture to the right. It was built in 141 by the Emperor and dedicated to his wife Faustina, who had died in 140 after 31 years of marriage. She was the niece of Hadrian and Antoninus’ link to the throne. After Antoninus died, his successor, Marcus Aurelius added his name to that of his wife in an inscription across the front. In the middle ages the temple ruin was converted to the Catholic Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. Today, it is one of the strangest churches anywhere. On the forum side, the steps and columns are still visible, as is the inscription to Antoninus and Faustina, with a church roof and entry on the opposite side. During the middle ages, the forum was all under 10-20 feet of earth, so today with the ground excavated you can see the church and what remains of the original structure undernieth and behind it. It’s a weird one.

In recent news, a giant head of Antoninus Pius’ wife Faustina was found in Turkey in 2008, along with a huge bust of Hadrian, evidence that she was perhaps remembered and celebrated there as well. Here’s a link to that story with photos.


Trajan’s Column

Just up the road from the Colosseum and next to the modern city’s busiest road are the remains of Trajan’s forum, the largest of the Imperial Forums built by the Emperor Trajan. Trajan has gone down in history near to top of the list of good emperors. After Domitian was murdered in 96, Rome teetered on instability under the elderly Emperor Nerva, who was only around for 2 years before meeting his own cruel end. It was Trajan, a proud, popular, tall and supposedly good-looking general who took over. He was to bring about 20 years of relative peace and prosperity to Rome. Trajan was lucky enough to become Emperor at a time when Rome’s enemies weren’t exactly threatening the peace. Still, he was smart enough to know how to use war as a political tool.

As Emperor, he led Rome into 3 wars during his 20 year reign, 2 against Dacia in the north along the Danube river in modern day Romania. For all the good he brought to Rome, Trajan loved and gloried in war. He pressed for war as a way to keep the army employed and strengthen Rome’s borders while increasing his own popularity as victorious war hero. Dacia was eventually conquered, and vast amounts of plunder made their way back to Rome. This set financial troubles right and payed for an ambitious building campaign, furthering his legacy. Trajan was probably the greatest of the Emperor builders. He rebuilt the Circus Maximus, a huge Forum of his own, and Trajan’s market, the worlds first shopping mall.

Trajan’s Market is in pretty good shape today, built high into the hill behind it. In front of it, Trajan’s Forum has been reduced to rubble, but a very impressive monument to Trajan remains. Trajan’s Column is a 100+ ft high column, hollow on the inside with a spiral staircase to the top. At one point, the column held a statue of Trajan on top, removed a few hundred years ago for one of St. Peter.  The entire structure rests on a huge rectangular base which once held the cremated remains of Trajan. This column is a ceremonial monument and did not support any other structure.

Instead, it stood in the middle of a multi-teared building, allowing viewers to see it at different heights and angles. Imagine the large open rotunda at the mall and you get the idea. Look closely and you can see a staggering amount of detail. Here’s a image of what it would have looked like in the Forum:

The column was built from huge slabs of white marble, which were then carved by sculptors with amazing detail. A spiral begins at the bottom and wraps all the way to the top. Think of it as a huge sculpted comic book that tells the entire story of Trajan’s wars in Dacia. Today, it’s nearly impossible to grasp how detailed it is, let alone see the details at the top from the ground. In all, there are over 2,500 figures carved. Trajan himself is seen 59 times in a realistic portrait, rallying his troops in battle. Also seen is a large god figure, representing the Danube river. Trajan’s engineers had to build impressive bridges over the Danube to advance the army.

There are many fascinating things about the column, but probably none more impressive than all the figures. Trajan’s Column is sheer evidence that the Romans were amazing artists, with a firm grasp on body proportion. The amount of talent it requires to carve such realistic figures with such depth is staggering. This kind of craftsmanship is what went rejected and eventually forgotten in the middle ages, only to be rediscovered in the Renaissance. Today, the column appears white, but was originally painted in bright colors.

Here’s a great short video on the column, which moves around it a little bit to zoom in on some details:

The Colosseum

The grandest of all ancient Roman structures is the Flavian amphitheater, begun under Emperor Vespasian and finished less than 10 years later under Emperor Titus in 80 AD.  While in ruin, it remains a symbol of Rome and a very impressive shell of its former self. It was designated one of the new 7 Wonders of the World in 2007. The Colosseum is an example of advanced Roman engineering and design. When it was in use, it could hold as many as 80,000 people, and functioned in every way that a modern sports stadium does today. It was designed to move people in and out effectively, with 80 arched entrances/exits on all sides, stairs leading directly to sections of seating, and several ringed corridors on multiple levels.

It was built on the site of Emperor Nero’s man-made lake and golden house for a specific reason- to discredit the tyrant Nero and symbolically return Rome to the people in the form of a building all of Rome would make use of. Nero had also erected a 90 ft. tall golden statue of himself in the spot. Called the Colossus, Vespasian had the face altered to that of the sun-god and kept the statue. Within a few years, Romans were already calling the building “the Colosseum” after the Colossus. Today, the name is used around the world to describe large sports stadiums. The Romans began building by draining a lake (no small feat) and then used stone and concrete. A building like the Colosseum wouldn’t be possible without concrete, which was a Roman invention and a huge step forward in architecture. It allowed them to mold a foundation using wooden molds that would have been nearly impossible with stone. It also would have taken forever. They also built the entire structure using the second great Roman intention, the arch. Arches allowed the even distribution of weight to provide strength while using much less building material and opening up the space for light and air flow. The Colosseum is a ring of 80 arches 3 levels high, or 240 total. These supported a huge upper structure, which had wooden poles and elaborate rigging that allowed massive awnings to be extended out over the arena, shielding spectators from the burning sun.

The main attractions were public executions and gladiator fights, often with wild animals brought to Rome from across the empire. It’s difficult in our modern world to understand the Roman mindset concerning entertainment. They were  a bloodthirsty people who viewed killing as sport, and to them the gladiators were a lesser species all together. When the building was finally finished, Emperor Titus ordered 100 straight days of games in celebration, a horrific stretch where 5,000 people and wild animals were killed. The Romans had a knack for theater too, and would often use the arena to set up historical or mythical battle scenarios and allow them to play out. There’s evidence that they created a false landscape with dirt and trees in the center to stage a wild-animal hunt. They aqueduct was also diverted to flood the center of the arena for mock naval battles among gladiators.

Under Domitian, the hypogeum was added. Today, you can see it as a confusing maze of tunnels below ground level in the center of the Colosseum. It originally had a wooden floor built on top and covered with sand. The maze had cages for animals and slaves, and a series of pulleys and elevators could make them appear in the arena along with scenery. The Colosseum remained in various stages of use for a few hundred years until fires, earthquakes and the fall of Rome led to its decay.

During the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was used as a church, a cemetery and a fortress. In 1349 a huge earthquake caused the entire south side outer wall to collapse, which is why the Colosseum looks like an oval today. The original facade is still visible on the north side, without the many statues that used to fill the arches. There are also big holes today along the entire wall, which originally supported big brass fasteners that held great pieces of stone. These were taken and reused long ago. The Colosseum’s main use for a long time was as a quarry for stone and material. There were marble seats inside the entire structure, long since removed and reused in the building of Rome’s churches, including St. Peters. Today, only 1 small portion of the seats exists inside.

The Colosseum is a modern day roundabout for traffic in Rome, with lots of cars constantly buzzing by. Much of the restoration in recent years has been to remove the effects of pollution. Today millions tour the building every year, and more than a few modern-day Romans make a killing dressing up as gladiators for photo-ops. A huge debate rages on in Italy about the cost of restoration, as millions are needed to keep the Colosseum and other ancient ruins from further falling apart.

Here’s a fantastic site that has lots of other Colosseum info, as well as free downloadable travel movies and audio tours you can put on your iPod for when we’re there. It also has some virtual 360° shots of the Colosseum… absolutely the best resource online for this stuff. Pretty cool indeed-

Italyguides.it link

Vespasian was fortunate enough to have 2 sons, and he took steps to cement a new dynasty among Roman Emperors before his sudden death from illness in 79 AD. His oldest son, Titus, was actively groomed as his successor and even ruled with his dad in an unofficial role as co-emperor behind the scenes. Vespasian also left Titus to finish the work of defeating the Jewish revolt, seeing that is son would gain military glory. When Titus was finally emperor, many were convinced he would be the next Nero. Give credit to Titus though- his number 1 priority was to please the people and get on their good side, which he did in his 2 (yes, only 2 years) as Emperor. Two major disasters hit Rome  in those years. First, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the south. Second, another major fire swept the city and destroyed much of it. In both cases, Titus was quick to send disaster relief and begin rebuilding efforts. The massive Flavian amphitheater  (or Colosseum) which Vespasian ordered built, was completed and inaugurated with 100 strait days of games. In short order, Titus drained lots of funds but won the favor of Rome. Then, when all was going great, he died suddenly of illness at age 42, probably of malaria. All of Rome mourned, and in death Titus became something of a hero.

It should be said that these 2 Emperors remain enigmas. We know about them from the writings of Roman historians, but those are often tricky to take at face value. As each of the Emperors were glorified or reviled in death, the stories carry bias and it’s hard to know what is true. For instance, the horrible stories of Nero contain elements of truth based in real historical events,  but were written much later by historians who were out to discredit and demonize him. We must take this in mind whenever we study these figures. Titus certainly did a lot in only 2 years and went down among Romans as one of the great rulers, but it’s hard to say if he was really a decent ruler or not. The story of his successor Domitian, is one of the toughest to get to the bottom of. Over time, he has gone down in history with the likes of Caligula and Nero, but the evidence of his reign paints a more complex portrait then that of a tyrant.

Domitian was the younger son of Vespasian and brother of Titus, and since Titus didn’t have an heir he moved quick to make sure he was next in line. He was declared Emperor in 81 and began his 15 year rule in a difficult position. Many assumed that Domitian had poisoned his brother to get the throne, though there’s no evidence that he did. By all accounts, Domitian was a cold, power-hungry dictator. He saw no reason whatsoever to pretend (as his predecessors had) that the senate held any power over him, so he moved quickly to take total control. At the same time, he launched more huge building campaigns and wars on the empires outer borders. Historians paint him as unhappy, insecure and paranoid, always on the lookout for those wishing him harm. He had many prominent senators put to death or exiled. It’s never been proven, but some ancient sources say Domitian persecuted Jews and early Christians as well. In the end, he was assassinated as part of an elaborate plot. It goes without saying that the senate and other higher-ups hated Domitian for his abuses of power, but then, they also wrote the histories. For most Romans though, life was peaceful under Domitian. It would seem that for all his shortcomings, Domitian was an effective ruler who, for a time, maintained order and helped Rome to prosper.

He left his mark in Ancient Rome in the form of buildings. He restored temples in the forum after the fire of 80, and dedicated the huge arch of Titus to his late brother. Today, just west of the Colosseum and south of the Forum are the remains of the palace on the Palatine hill, the mythical hill in Rome where Romulus and Remus were nursed by the she-wolf and the location of Rome’s first settlement. Domitian had the hill leveled off and completely rebuilt with a 440,000 square foot palace overlooking the Circus Maximus on one side and the Forum on the other. It’s in pretty bad shape today, but you can still tell from the size of the foundation and wall fragments how enormous it was. The complex had many separate buildings and private residences, all painted with elaborate paintings and furnished with the finest stone from across the empire. A huge extension of the aqueduct was made to bring water directly to the palace. Domitian is said to have been so afraid of conspirators, that he had columns installed made of reflective white marble so he could always see behind him.

Domitian also built a great stadium of his own across town (as if Rome didn’t already have enough venues for chariot racing and gladiatorial fights). Today, one of Rome’s most famous Piazzas occupies the spot. The Piazza Navona, when viewed from the air, still has the elongated horseshoe shape of Domitian’s stadium. Here’s a model of what Domitian’s stadium looked like and Piazza Navona from the air: