Discovering Ancient Rome
I’m an amateur archaeology junky, the type that browses the internet lured by any article using the worlds “lost,” “temple,” or “civilization.” Needless to say, any trip I take to Italy involves some serious archaeology trolling. (To any Italian art authorities reading this blog – please note I am not actually digging illegally. I just mean that I drag my traveling companions to any Ancient Roman site.)
The Roman Forum
I like to believe I’m not alone in this. I’ve met far too many people whose ears prick at the word “Archaeology” and talked to too many travelers who want to see as much of Ancient Rome as they can. So I’m making it my mission to provide you with a few blog entries on the sites you need to see in Rome, beginning with the main excavation: The Roman Forum.
The Forum straddle the Via dei Fori Imperiali, Mussolini’s greatest contribution to the modernization of the triumphal procession major thoroughfare, and truthfully also lie beneath the modern-day blacktop. On the East side of the road, you can look down upon the Imperial Forums, in a state of archaeological exploration. Several forums, like Trajans, are fairly well preserved, while others like the Forum of Peace are still mostly to be uncovered. Almost any day of the week, you can see archaeologists at work with their little trailers set up nearby for shade from the summer sun. You can enter Trajan’s Forum if you visit before 1 pm, though often the entrance is closed.
While the Imperial Forums have been restricted for the scholarly visitor, the Roman Forum has always been more of a democratic opportunity. In years past (indeed even last year!), wandering the Forum was as easy as walking through a park. With multiple entrances and no tickets required, visitors strolled in at their leisure, picking their way around the Sacra Via on the way to the Colosseum. In March of this year, Forum entrances suddenly became controlled. There is now only 1 entrance to the Forum (midway along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, where you must stop to purchase tickets (if you don’t know the secret for avoiding lines!)
Still the Roman Forum is well worth a long visit. Plan to spend some serious time wandering with a trusty map or guide. Even to the most knowledgeable Roma-phile, the Forum can be a challenge. There are few signs, lots of similar looking ruins, and overgrown roads bound to cause confusion. If you really want to go it alone, try to do some research prior to the trip, otherwise you’ll find yourself walking through a mere pile of rocks on a bumpy pathway.
The Palatine Hill
If your travel companions have not revolted, then you should take this as a good sign and head off the beaten path to the Palatine Hill, a site commonly missed by most tourists. Once Ancient Rome’s most sought after residential area, the Palatine Hill overlooks the Roman Forum covered with well preserved villas and shady trees. Most interestingly, the Palatine Hill is also on the front page of most archaeology news media nowadays due to the happenings around the original Caesar’s Palace.
Augustus Caesar’s palace has just reopened to the public and is viewable as part of your visit to the Palatine. Though you may have to wait in line (entrance is restricted to 10 people at a time), upon entering you’ll be astounded by the recently restored frescoes which rival those of ancient Pompeii. Immediately adjacent to the palace scientists have recently been investigating a cave believed to possibly have been the place where Romulus and Remus were nursed by the wolf (not currently open to the public).
The Capitoline Museum
From the Palatine you can easily pick out your next stop for the day — the Capitoline Museum (or Capitolini). Located on the Northern edge of the Roman Forum, the Capitoline is home to a fabulously organized archaeology collection (including the original depiction of said wolf, adoptive mother to Romulus and Remus). The museum’s administration have created several displays to help you understand what life on the Capitoline Hill was like. Plus as an added bonus for those Renaissance aficionados, the piazza in front of the museum was designed by Michelangelo. Grab a gelato before climbing the hill and then spend the afternoon avoiding the heat inside the museum.
Triumphal walks are highly overrated, but I truly believe you need at least a small triumphal moment after convincing your travel companions to excel in their Ancient Rome sightseeing. For me there is no better place than the back of the Capitoline Hill to the left of the museum’s courtyard. From this vantage you can stand by the railing and look over all of the Roman Forum and Imperial Forums beyond. Impress everyone by pointing out the Mamertine Prison, whose famous inmates included St. Peter and St. Paul. You could even tell the story of how the Capitoline Hill was the place that saved Rome, when the sacred geese of Juno warned the city of the impending Gallic army set on sacking the city in 390 BC. But for those geese, there would have been no Rome and alas no ruins to have spent all day wandering. Won’t your travel companions be happy to learn that!