When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do. They are very lively, they look well, they dress well, they eat well and they love well. They live fast and they drive fast, but from what one sees in the city, besides the lively living, they focus on the dead. It is a city of grand stone-clad monuments, all very impressive and rather imperial, but in the end all of them focus on some aspects of death. The Romans see life, but they also see the end of things, which is death. They realize that life is short, that life is beautiful but they are not completely starry-eyed and they also see that life can be harsh and brutal, and that the end of it all is leading to death. They acknowledge that truth and they incorporate it into their splendid modern and ancient stonework monuments, which are the pride of their capital city.
Above all, or rather below all, there are the ancient catacombs.
Along the ancient Appian Way, to the south-east of the city, there are the catacombs, the underground graveyards, all very historical and interesting, and certainly worth a visit. There is even a small set of Jewish catacombs, but they are unfortunately not open to the public, except by special appointment, that takes a long time to organize and it is rare to get permission to visit them. The restriction is annoying to a short-term visitor, but it is eminently sensible, to avoid possible anti-Semitic acts of vandalism and destruction.
Easiest to visit are the catacombs of San Callisto, an early Christian martyr, off the Via Appia Antica. They run underground for dozens of kilometers and contain hundreds of loculli (niches for the dead), as well as several arcosilia (larger crypts that were used for family interments).
One walks along rows and rows of the loculli in the dark and damp passageways, being careful not to trip and fall and thus not disturb the last resting places of the dead, though now the remains have all been removed and the spaces are clean, clear and sanitized.
Yet the aura of death remains, it is still a gloomy location and a depressing place as one walks along the hundreds of loculli, depressing to think of so many dead bodies that had lain here – so depressing that in the end it is a great relief to get past the niches, to see the light and to get back up several staircases and into the fresh air. The intricate alleyways you have to walk along are lengthy and random and it is imperative to have an expert guide (to be paid for) to avoid getting lost. For who would want to be lost and wandering unknowingly for long periods in this underground necropolis? Then there is the Pantheon, one of the most perfectly domed and rounded structures in the world. The dome is a flattened hemisphere whose diameter of 43 meters exceeds that of the nearby St. Peters Cathedral by one meter. Internally it is a vast empty space with plentiful light from a high-level oculus, an open central eye, open to the sky and nine meters in diameter, which, interestingly, defies the rain because of the warm air rising from the interior. But the seemingly empty Pantheon also houses many unseen and unmarked tombs, that of the first king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel and his son Umberto, and that of many artists, such as Baldassari Peruzzi, Annibale Carraci and the most famous of all, Raphael Sanzio, who worked in Florence but was buried here in 1520.
The Termi di Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla) are also splendid, even in their ruined state. They were begun by Caracalla in 21 CE and completed twenty years later by Alexander Severus. Water was brought to the site by aqueducts and the baths could accommodate one thousand and six hundred potentially eager bathers. Today we see only the vast brickwork walls and groundworks but in their heyday they must have impressed all newcomers with their facilities and provided the necessary functional spaces for their naked bathing bodies.
They started by warming up with gymnastics and physical exercises, then took a steam bath in the laconicum to increase perspiration, proceeded to a hot bath in the caldarium, followed by a warm bath in the tepiderium.
Finally they went to plunge into the cold waters of the frigidarium and relaxed with long naked strolls in the gardens round about. Everything was shielded from the prying eyes of the public by the high surrounding brick walls and extensively wide lawns, still visible and beautifully manicured today. It seems that some of the clients did not survive the rigorous program and extensive treatments of the baths, as archeological excavations on the site in the sixteenth century found several funerary urns and an underground temple to the god Mithras.
THE GREATEST of all the Roman monuments, in size as well as splendor, is the Colosseo, or Coliseum, built from 72 to 82 CE by Vespasian and his son Titus,. Its length is 527 meters. Every visitor thinks he or she must see it and, as a result, one must queue for tickets, queue to get to the actual entrance, queue for the view of the interior and of course queue for the toilets, even off-season. Grand in scale, it boasts several levels of activity, from the double underground animal cages to the top story of the audience galleries, sheltered from the sun and the rain by suspended canvas awnings. The structure could house 46,000 spectators – all of them with an excellent view of the proceedings.
It was the classic example and epitome of the Roman sport of bread and circuses. Gladiators were fighting gladiators, and gladiators were fighting common criminals, and gladiators were fighting and wrestling with wild beasts, and wild beasts were attacking other wild beasts – every encounter resulting in the death of the defeated, and every death applauded by the enormous excited audience. The Coliseum was completed in 80 CE and marked by a festival of 100 days, organized and overseen by Titus, when 5,000 wild beasts were killed and hundreds of gladiators lost their lives.
The bowels of the Coliseum contained many private niches, retiring rooms and private cells where the privileged had their own permanent access before and after the spectacles. In one of them is a very faded fresco of Jerusalem, the picture unrecognizable, but with the title “Gerusalemme” clear and unfaded. Beneath it runs a description, a frank and open statement, that the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus had taken the gold and other precious metal artifacts of the Jerusalem Temple and used them to raise the money to pay for the building of the Coliseum.
What an admission, and how true it must have been to extract such a statement.The writer is a Senior Fellow at the W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.