23 Aug From Pilgrim to Tourist
Rome, 23 September 2017. Our pilgrimage is over, but we still wake up at around dawn when we would’ve set out on our day’s trek. I don my sandals and we set off sometime after 08:30. We have breakfast in one of the markets near our hotel. Choosing not to sit down anywhere, we have a large cup of fruit. The sweet freshness immediately banishes any sleepiness. We follow this with some frizzante, and we’re good to go. *
Our first stop is the magnificent Pantheon (a combination of “Pan” and “Theos,” making it a temple to all gods). It has withstood the rigors of time, due to the architectural and technical ingenuity behind its construction, based on the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. It was also saved because the Roman Catholics repurposed it as a church, dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs in the 7th century.
As an architectural feat, it is as yet unparalleled. It remains the largest unsupported dome in the world. When Michelangelo saw it the first time he described it as “built by angels, not by men.” I can see why it is regarded as the eighth wonder of the ancient world.
On the way to the Colosseum, we pass the enormous monument to the Fatherland or Altare della Patria, very dramatically situated between the Piazza Venezia and the Capitoline Hill. We stop briefly at the ruins of Emperor Trajan’s Column and his Forum, as well as the Forum of Augustus. As with many ancient buildings, materials are either in decay or were recycled in other buildings.
Moving closer to the Colosseum we are accosted by guides who want to take us on tours through the site. Since I’m with Niels who has a vast knowledge of things Roman, and he has been to this neck of the woods before, I don’t need a guide.
One asks me, “would you prefer any language other than English?”
“Any language?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, “even Mandarin.”
I ask, “How about Afrikaans?” Her dirty look works on me because I feel bad for my snarky question. After all, these people make their living this way.
The queue takes nearly an hour. Our tickets also include a visit to the Palatine Hill.
It’s hard to believe that the Flavian Amphitheatre, as it was first known, was completed in 70AD. It’s even more remarkable to think that what remains of the construction is only about one-third of the complex as it was in its heyday. Seating capacity was reportedly anywhere between 50,000 to 87,000 people.
The Colosseum fell into disuse more or less at the same time the Western Roman Empire collapsed. It has been ravaged by earthquakes, fires, and looting of raw materials. Perhaps the saving grace was that the Roman Catholic church stepped in to stop the plundering by deeming it a sacred site. It was done because Christians were martyred and executed in the arena. From the 19th century, archaeological findings lead to renewed interest.
Scenes from that time flash through my mind, almost too vivid to be imagination. There were bloody gladiatorial contests, executions, and animal sacrifices to gods known and unknown. According to historian Dio Cassius, over 9,000 wild animals were slaughtered during the inaugural games. There were enactments with full décor to recreate forest scenes and episodes from mythology. I get goosebumps looking into the underground guts of the Colosseum where gladiators, slaves, and wild animals were kept.
The Palatine Hill
Our tickets to the Palatine Hill allow us to skip the queue. It’s much quieter than the Colosseum. Tall trees create an atmosphere of peace. Just imagine these ancient palaces in their former glory. It’s easy to see how this area could be the domain of Emperors ruling over the mighty Roman Empire.
Interestingly, the English word “palace” derives from “palatium” in Latin, which specifically refers to the Palatine Hill where the Emperors lived. However, people have been settled on the Palatine Hill since around 1000 BC.
The Palatine Hill is a place of myth and legend. This is where Hercules slew the terrible Cacus, a ferocious fire-breathing cannibal giant, who would terrorise the people living on the Aventine Hill. It is also where the brothers Romulus and Remus, founders of ancient Rome, were found after being fed by Lupus, the she-wolf. Recent excavations have reportedly discovered the cave where this happened.
Many Roman Emperors lived on the Palatine Hill. It was home to Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, as well as Domitian. The dreaded Emperor Nero lived here when he looked down on how Rome was burning. Caligula was assassinated in the cryptoporticus – a tunnel beneath the palaces on the Palatine. Cicero and Marcus Antonius also had homes on the hill.
The Forum Romanum
At first glance, the Roman Forum or Forum Romanum looks like a chaotic array of ruins. Before the Etruscans and Romans, it was a disease-ridden swamp. The Etruscan dynasty of Tarquin Kings helped clear the marshland by building the Cloaca Maxima (sewer). The Etruscans used it as a burial ground.
Rome became a republic in 509BC. The Forum became the heart of the Roman Empire. It evolved into the commercial, political and philosophical hub of the world. It was once the centre of an empire that wrote the history of the world. And so it remained, for a thousand years until the fall of the Roman Empire. More than 2 millennia ago, Julius Caesar walked here. I wonder if I’m looking at the spot where he was assassinated.
On our way back to our hotel we have lunch. It’s Saturday afternoon. Rome is quiet. Perhaps the Italians and tourists are resting up for party time tonight.
Lost in thought I can’t help but wonder, is my pilgrimage really over? I sense a strange feeling of incompleteness. When will my pilgrimage end? Tomorrow, when we see the Piazza di Popolo where St Francis entered ancient Rome? Monday, at the Vatican?
* I won’t give too many details about the sites we’ll visit today because there is more than enough information to be found by clicking the links in the piece itself.