In my last blog post I discussed my adventure into the depths of the Colosseum basement at midnight, following my characters footsteps through their second adventure in Rome. This time I followed my characters to a different part of the city. In Echoes of the Eternal City my team of teenage archaeologists find themselves needing to leave the city, whilst its history hangs in the balance, and head out down the famous Appian Way. Whilst they raced down the cobbled street on Vespa’s with time shifting all around them, I had an altogether more leisurely experience, walking with my husband on a hot and sunny day.
When we were in Rome 10 years ago we rather foolishly tried to do the Appian Way on our last day, wearing our heavy travelling clothes and dragging suitcases. Needless to say it did not go well! We walked across Rome, trekked about half a mile (if that) down the road that we thought was the Appian Way and eventually just gave up, both tired, hot and very grouchy as we couldn’t work out where we were. This time we were sensible and took the bus straight to the Appian Way visitor’s centre opposite the church of Quo Vadis, where according to tradition, St. Peter had a vision of Christ who told him to return to Rome (where he was fairly swiftly executed). Here we collected a very useful map.
The Appian way is still a major road out of Rome, at least it is whilst it’s close to the old city gates, a little further along the road splits and a route that looks suspiciously like the private driveway to a church takes pedestrians up the hill towards the first of the catacombs away from the traffic. And as luck would have it, right to the spot where on their return to Rome my teenage characters find themselves in the battle for Rome’s history.
From the crest of this hill it was possible to stand and see the gates of Rome to the north and the peaks of the Alban Mountains to the south, the tallest of which, Monte Cavo, is another key location in Echoes of the Eternal City. We continued southwards past the catacombs of St. Callistus, past the church of Saint Sebastian and the second set of catacombs located below the church.
Further south the road has less traffic and in some places still retains its original Roman cobblestones. We did actually watch someone carefully manoeuvre a scooter over them, all I can say having watched someone try it for real is that my fictional team had one hell of a bumpy ride!
Whilst the amble along the Appian way was itself a pleasant enough walk we were delighted to discover a number of well-preserved Roman ruins along the route, one of which was the Imperial residence of Maxentius, emperor of the early 4th century. Whilst most of the villa is inaccessible, Maxentius’ personal Circus is in a much better state of preservation than the more famous Circus Maximus in the city. Here the Spina remained standing for several courses of brickwork, gates and towers were clearly visible, as were the stands and part of the villa to which the whole thing was attached! Now I have villa envy, should I ever sell enough books to build myself a Roman villa I will now have to ensure that I have enough space for a private circus that could hold 10,000 spectators! Within the same grounds as the circus was a mausoleum known as the tomb of Romulus, built by Maxentius to house the remains of his eldest son in 309AD. Next door to this lies the large tomb of the wife of Crassus, (Crassus was one of the triumvirs with Julius Caesar and Pompey – he’s the one who led the ill-fated invasion of Parthia and came to a rather nasty end involving molten gold and his throat), like Viserys in Game of Thrones but more violent). The tomb was later used as a 14th century fortified tower. Another villa, Torre di Capo di Bove, or part of it further to the south was open to observation, with mosaic tiles still in place on the floor.
Every few hundred yards there was something to look at, be it more modern houses (people still live on the via Appia after all) or Roman tombstones from the cemetery that used to flank the route into the city. It was forbidden to bury people inside the city walls during the Roman period and so the roads outside Rome were flanked by tombs for miles in all direction, this made it a good place for thieves and murderers to hang out after dark. In fact, one of Cicero’s early orations was in defence of a man (Milo) accused of murdering another (Clodius Pulcher) on the Appian way outside a tavern. For those who have read Echoes of the Eternal City I will confess that I was enough of a Geek that the body my characters drive past in the road, is supposed to be the murdered Clodius Pulcher.
We passed a pleasant day wandering roughly five kilometres up the Appian way before heading back and investigating the first of the catacombs. The catacombs were a vast maze and without a guide we would surely have wandered there forever. I highly recommend a trip down at least one set of the catacombs, and in fact a day walking or cycling on the Appian Way itself. For those who manage to venture further along the road than I managed there are vast villas, aqueducts and plenty of mausoleums of Roman date to be seen. Should I have the chance to return to Rome I’ll be heading there equipped to attempt a hike of the whole road, perhaps I can even follow my characters and reach Monte Cavo, although there is nothing up there but an aerial mast these days, so I’m told.
For those who follow my Facebook and Twitter feeds this latest blog post will come as no surprise. I recently took some time off work to return to my most favourite place in the world, and setting of my second novel, Rome.
Rome is a special place to me, having studied Roman history all my life, the city is something of a holy grail type place. It is where huge turning points in history occurred, so much history came from, a place that essentially began life as a small tribal village on the edge of a boggy swamp and river. In fact, I once read a text book that described the founding of Rome as “seven hills and one big sewer”. But the city is special for another reason, it happens to be where my husband proposed to me 10 years ago, and no, he didn’t queue up to do it at the Trevi Fountain like everyone else, he took me to the Colosseum.
I love the Colosseum. It is a place steeped quite literally in blood, sweat and tears. I’ve seen it before, but never like this: this time it was midnight, there were only 20 people there and we were exploring the lower levels. But a little background first.
The Colosseum stands in the very heart of Rome and was built by the Emperor Vespasian who assumed the purple (became emperor) following a short civil war after the death of the unpopular Nero. Nero, perhaps most famous for burning half of Rome and blaming it on the Christians, built a huge palace for himself in the centre of Rome complete with a boating lake where the Colosseum now stands. Needless to say Vespasian tore down Nero’s golden palace and built a public monument in its place thus making him far more popular with the people of Rome than Nero had ever been. (side note: you can tell Vespasian is one of the good emperors as he’s one of only a handful not to have been murdered!). At the time the Colosseum was referred to as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the name Colosseum actually comes from a colossal statue of Nero (later, the god Helios) which stood only meters from one of the Colosseum entrances until the medieval period when the metal was stolen and melted down for other uses.
The building’s survival is also somewhat of an accident. It has long been held that this was the site of the martyrdom and murder of thousands of Christians. Actually this is incorrect – executions usually happened at the Circus Maximus. However it was due to this belief that Christian executions occurred there that the building was initially denounced and later saved thanks to the Church believing its own propaganda. As it was Papal compassion that saved the Colosseum, those of us who love Ancient Rome have to be grateful to religion for preserving such a fantastic monument, even if their reasoning was somewhat incorrect. As a side note it is not impossible that executions were carried out at the Colosseum, however there are no surviving records whilst there are a number of records survive for the executions of Christians in the Circus Maximus.
Anyhow on to my own adventure and entering the Colosseum after hours when all the tourists have gone, just like my fictional team of teenage archaeologists. Whilst they broke in through the gladiator school, I entered via a far more legal means as a small tour group.
During the day when full of tourists the Colosseum is almost as it was, alive with the sound of people talking, laughing, selling things and going about their day. At night, it is a silent, imposing building, filled with an almost hallowed hush of expectation. An empty theatre after the show. Shadows dance across the stage in the moonlight, swords and tridents appear as shadows on the walls, the battle of the gladiators can almost be heard. Yes, from the upper tiers it is an overwhelming experience as the vast expanse of the place becomes clear. We had the benefit of a full moon, which gave some of our photos the haunting feeling that outside the walls of the Colosseum Nero’s fire was raging.
The upper levels of the Colosseum though were not our final destination, we were headed where few can currently go. Into the lower levels. We were walked down some wide stairs, around the inner encircling wall and down more stairs below the losing (read dead) gladiators exit from the arena. Down we went into the darkened tunnels below. There are electric lights there now but the slaves who worked down here and gladiators waiting to go on would have been in near darkness as lamps would have been dangerous with all those wooden beams around.
We reached the base of the stairs, as chance would have it right where the passage from the gladiator school joins the underground chambers of the Colosseum. Essentially right where my team of teenagers also entered the Colosseum (although they entered onto the stage for a more dramatic literary effect). It was quiet down there and oddly cold, there was not much open for us to wander around but we were ushered forward below to a portion of the stage that currently indicates the location of the arena floor. Here was a lift. A timber framed lift exactly as described in Echoes of the Eternal City. Here before me was the spot where my characters climbed down into the lower levels where they awoke the ghastly gladiators. There would have been over 40 of these lifts below the floor of the arena for transporting scenery, gladiators and animals – those scenes with the tigers in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were not wrong!
The animal pens down there were tiny, imagine the poor giraffes and elephants stored down there in the dark. Romans had no real qualms about animal cruelty so tiny pens did not bother them. In all honesty the gladiators did not have much better accommodation anyway. Whilst below ground we could also see the channels created to deal with the latrines, the arena had thousands to cater to its immense audience, and its drains run deep, linking eventually with the sewer system and then to the Tiber via the massive Cloaca Maxima.
Finally, we were taken back upstairs, but there was one last thing to do. At midnight I stepped out onto the deserted arena floor and I believe I have never felt so tiny or closed in. To be a gladiator and walk out to a braying crowd must have been terrifying, to walk out below a full moon was moving and intimidating. It is an awe-inspiring building for all the blood soaked into its stones, a symbol of a long dead power with an infinite belief in its own hubris. Whilst it is of course physically impossible to touch and feel the past, standing on the Colosseum floor at midnight with an overactive imagination is the closest I have ever felt to the veil of time being lifted.
These later night tours of the Colosseum are expensive, but should you be going to Rome I wholeheartedly recommend it, the guides are both historians and archaeologists who really know their subject. The earlier part of the evening takes a tour around the ancient centre of Rome starting from Trajan’s Column, circling around past the Emmanuel Monument (the Wedding Cake) to show visitors the surviving remains of Roman tenement blocks, up past the Capitoline Museum (another location from Echoes) and back down past the Forum, via the arch of Constantine and Temple of Julius Caesar before heading up the main road towards the Colosseum. Our tour began at 9:30 and we left the Colosseum shortly after midnight.
We booked our tour with Viatour, see their website for info.
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.