Nov. 7th: Roman Forum, Colosseum

Today was our final day of oral presentations, our final day in the Roman Forum, and our final day of class within the city of Rome. Thus, today was imbued with a definite sense of finality, making it a very bittersweet day. On the one hand, we finished our presentations with skill and verve, ending on a high note; but on the other hand, we would no longer wander sites among the Seven Hills as a class, the realization of which left us sad and nostalgic already for the heady days of tomb exploration in Etruria.

We began at the apex of the Sacred Way through the forum, at the Arch of Titus with Yuhang’s presentation. Thankfully, the Forum was not as busy that early in the morning, so we were able to walk around the triumphal monument more or less unimpeded by tourists and tour guides. We saw the treasures of Jerusalem carted off to Rome in a triumph, with Titus at the head of his procession, and subsequently carried to the heavens on the back of Jupiter’s eagle.

From there, we climbed the Palatine hill and entered the palace of the Emperor Domitian. This man was quite the colorful emperor, given to fits of paranoia and jealousy, and one continuous fit of supreme megalomania. He insisted on being called “dominus et deus”, or “lord and God” by everyone around him, and built reflecting pools in his dining area so he could watch behind him for assassins. Little good it did him, considering he was assassinated in 96 CE. Anyway, Kathleen, in trademark bubbly and excited fashion made yet more bubbly and excited by her love of Domitian and his architecture, presented the palace. We sat where Domitian’s throne would have sat in the main reception hall; we wandered through the dining halls, past silent skeletons of fountains, and over the giant stadium-shaped garden. It was an amazing palace, made only more impressive in its time when it would have shimmered and shone in the evening sun sheathed in its skin of marble.

We then skipped ahead a century in time to the late 2nd Century CE and Lucas’ presentation of the Arch of Septimius Severus. Depicting Septimius Severus’ major victories in Parthia (modern day Iran), the triple bayed arch springs across the western end of the Sacra Via, connecting it to Titus’ Arch across the Forum. Domitian may not have liked older brother, Titus, but Septimius Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta, loathed each other. This fact is remarkably represented on the Arch, which is awesome (from a historical perspective). Caracalla, upon assuming the Imperial throne in 211, had his brother Geta murdered and his name subjected to the rite of damnatio memoriae, striking every reference of him from records and monuments across the city. Up on the “attic” of the Arch (the highest section, above the column capitals and entablature) contains a lengthy Latin inscription showing signs of extensive reworking. Archaeologists believe that Geta used to be mentioned, along with Caracalla, on their father’s monument to his successful sieges of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, but had his name gauged out on Caracalla’s orders. Caracalla would later go on to build the most impressive bath complex in Rome, a titanic achievement of sublime beauty and spectacle. Then, he would be assassinated himself while on campaign in the East. Those who lived by the sword in ancient Rome often did die by the sword, it seems.

We then rushed over to the magnificent Basilica Nova, also called the Basilica of Maxentius, or the Basilica of Constantine. The naming confusion arose when the structure was completed in 312 CE, when its patron, the Emperor Maxentius, drowned in the Tiber during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge with Constantine, who would put his name on the basilica to take credit for Maxentius’ truly awe-inspiring achievement. Three transverse naves cross and buttress the enormous central cross-vaulted nave, the largest of its kind. Beautiful coffering covers the vaults, lessening the weight of the structure, allowing for thinner piers that give the impression that the arches soar effortlessly from pier to pier so high off the ground. Though we only had a few minutes within the structure, it was clear from the remains that this gigantic basilica was truly a marvel of architecture in its time, and still challenges architects today to match its accomplishment.

We hurried down the Sacra Via to get inside the Flavian Amphitheater, or Colosseum, before it stopped letting visitors inside. Clearly Fortuna was on our side, since we made it in the nick of time, allowing Jiyoung to give her presentation from within the remains of the seating areas of the ancient amphitheater. It’s one of the largest, most complicated, and most famous structures anywhere in the world, with four enormous levels on the façade; five seating areas that could seat 70,000 Romans in total; a huge hypogeum (substructure) that held beasts in cages, scenery, and equipment; and a huge retractable awning system called a velarium. It’s amazing to reconstruct how it would have looked in Domitian’s time, when the hypogeum was finally completed, since it would have been opulently decorated, with a large sandy arena hiding trapdoors in the center of the massive towering oval ring of seats, filled with screaming, bloodthirsty Roman citizens.

Finally, with our feet aching and our eyes drooping, we stumbled back to the apartment for some much-needed R&R before tomorrow’s trip to Ostia and our next (and final) paper.

 

Tiredly yours,

Thomas Rover


Photos alla Yuhang:

Casual Column of Trajan sighting on the way to the Forum.
The Arch of Titus and the Colosseum: the respective starting place and ending place of today's adventures.
Yuhang leads us in our academic exploration of the Arch of Titus.
Can you find the reconstructed areas? We can.
The Countess is not amused.
Kathleen Wahl, our own personal tour guide for Domitian's Palace.
Jiyoung “Sing-Me-A-Song” is definitely the most photogenic of our group.
Confusion over roofing in the Aula Regia. So many opinions on the matter…

Fountains next to the Triclinium— don't worry, Domitian has got that covered.

To barrel vault or not to barrel vault? That is the question.

Private quarters of Domitian's Palace.

They call this the “Stadium,” but it's most likely a garden and fountain space.

Lucas lectures to the group on the reliefs on the Arch of Septimius Severus.

Majestic clouds behind the Temple of Saturn.

It's a quick visit to the Basilica of Maxentius and then we're off to the Colosseum.

Jiyoung provides a historical background for the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater, otherwise known as the Colosseum.

Glimpse of the Via dei Fori Imperiali from the upper levels of the Colosseum.

The Colosseum in the afternoon light.

 

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