Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ancient Romin'

As you approach the city of Rome by train you look out the window (assuming it isn’t blocked out with graffiti) and see the vineyards pile up and the electric lines start to converge. Then you see massive arches crossing these fields and weaving through the lines. The ruins of the Eternal City’s Aqueducts. Josh and I started to get giddy. We were actually rolling into the ancient capital, the city that once lent its name to the entire Mediterranean. We would soon be Romin’.

I had been warned that the city was a little chaotic with insane traffic and a lot of grime. Whoever told me this had never been Naples. In comparison, Rome was a neatly ordered city with respected crosswalks and the rare cigarette butt. What garbage there was in the street was made historically interesting by the sewer grates beneath:

SPQR: Senatus Populus que Romanus or The Senate and the Roman People, the slogan of the Roman Republic and Empire (even if the Senate lost most of it's power after the rise of the Caesars).

We dropped our luggage at the hostel after waiting for a trio of Boy Scouts to figure out how to divide by three. (Sometimes I wonder about that Eagle Rank.) Then we grabbed our maps and dove into the ancient world. Hiking along the wide boulevards, we drummed up some pizza and suddenly glimpsed a familiar pile of brick arches: The Colosseum. I almost didn’t want to get closer. I didn’t want to discover this was a real, potentially disappointing place. But of course I was drawn on. It was real. It didn’t disappoint.

We circled the exterior admiring the no-nonsense architectural feat that is the world’s most famous theater (sorry La Scala and Sydney Opera House).

We had to fend of legionnaires who wanted us to take a picture with them, and tour guides who really wanted us to take a tour with them. We opted for neither, diving into the massive halls that were reminiscent of every stadium I’ve ever entered (especially The Shoe). This is appropriate since the Flavian Amphitheater (the original name) is the model for them all. Really, there aren’t that many ways to cram 50,000 people together for a bloody spectacle in 80 B.C. (For everyone paying attention that’s the year after Pompeii was buried alive.)

Thousands of animals, slaves, and captured prisoners were put on display in the arena (along with the occasional clown) reenacting scenes from mythology and history. Someone charged with playing Hercules would hunt the Namean Lion for it’s skin. Archers would hide behind trees lifted from below the stage to kill exotic creature and each other. These walls were built for pure, bloody spectacle.

The site is actually sacred to Christianity as a location of several martyrdoms in the first few centuries Anno Domini. Now there’s some debate over the martyrs’ presence, with historians citing documentary evidence of martyrs sacrificed elsewhere in the Empire, but maybe not here. Whatever, it’s still a horrifying scene to imagine people cheering on the gore, but it also makes for some great stories.

If you want to watch, it's the fight from Gladiator that features probably the most realistic reconstruction of both the building and the spectacle you're likely to find (it's a little bloody):

We spent our time walking along the different levels, spotting a cat pretending to be a lion in the maze of passages under the stage, and thousands of tourists striking gladorial poses. I still couldn’t be sure I was actually here, in this iconic building that would have remained fully intact in Medieval Romans hadn’t hauled off the stone blocks for their homes and marble for their palaces and churches. I guess recycling is a solid policy, but imagine this place in one piece!

Then it was off to the Forum. Weirdly neither of us broke into Sondheim. I think we were too immersed in the actual history of the site as we walked past the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Tiberius, and finally the nerve center of Roman politics and history. Here was the site where Julius Caesar’s body was burned.
Flowers are still left on the site where Julius Caesar's funeral pyre burned. So many people gathered to build the flames up in respect for the man, that they worried the whole city would go up.

Here is where the Senate met to declare Cincinnatus their Dictator in the Curia. Here is a temple built by Augustus, the emperor who found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Palatine Hill. The Aventine…wow.
The Forum. The Curia - Senate House - is the boxy building left of center.

Constantine's Arch, one of the last great works erected in Ancient Rome.

This is the epicenter of us, of our culture. Sure the Greeks figured out democracy and philosophy, but that only lasted for so long. The Romans took those ideas and expanded them across the known world along with concrete technology and a sense of decent hygiene.

The gargantuan footprint of the Imperial Palace where Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and co. settled in for the good life at the head of the Empire.

After wandering the ruins of the ancient palace and swinging through the Forum one more time on the hunt for Romulus’s tomb, we were back on the street. It was time to see the Pantheon and to give Josh a break from my geeking out (the man really is in a class of his own for putting up with my indecisiveness and lectures that go on longer than these blog posts).

Trajan's Column which is carved with intricate bas-reliefs of Emperor Trajan's victories in the Dacian Wars near Romania.

We walked past Trajan’s column and a Neo-Classical Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy. It’s carved into Capitoline Hill and is called the “Typewriter” for good reason:

Unfortunately our ambitious quest to see all the really important ancient sites were quashed by a music concert being held under the Pantheon’s Dome. We caught glimpses and vowed to come back (we also took the opportunity to eavesdrop on the guides who surrounded us).

You get just a teaser of the Pantheon, too. Stay tuned for a full view.

It was time for dinner. At the hostel we found out there would be an English showing of “Angels and Demons” at a movie theater nearby, so we didn’t have a lot of time. We went in search of a traditional café recommended by Lonely Planet, but were stopped in our tracks by a bustling restaurant that crawled with harried waiters and huge pasta plates. As we sized it up, a French tourist turned to us and said helpfully, “Yes, this is the place you hear about.” That seemed like a solid recommendation, even if we hadn’t heard of it.

We were swept into the establishment and squeezed against the wall at La Montecarlo where the wine prices made us giddy and the food prices actually made us laugh. We’d hit jackpot. Plus it looked fast so we could catch the movie. Over the roar of the other diners, we ordered and savored the atmosphere. The food took a while to arrive and we had to bolt it down, grab our stressed waiter to pay and begin a pasta fueled run across the city for the movie theater. It was opening weekend and we had no idea how crowded a movie showing in Rome and set in Rome would be on a Thursday night. It was a tough jog. I prefer not to eat within three hours of running, and I was hauling a bucket of pasta carbonara in my stomach with a little white wine. We made it, a little sweaty and with a little indigestion.

In Italy when you get a movie ticket, it comes with an assigned seat. The same is true in many countries across Europe. It means there’s not much of an advantage to getting to the theater early so you can sit in the dead center, and guarantees you a spot with the people you buy your tickets with. It also saves the audience from the awkward I-have-to-go-to-the-bathroom-and-want-to-save-my-spot-but-don’t-have-a-jacket conundrum. You just look at your ticket and sit.

Unfortunately, not everyone understands the drill. As soon as we sat down, the group next to us started worriedly whispering to each other. In American accents we were asked “Um, do you think you guys could move down two spots? We have some friends who are coming a little later.” Well, we didn’t want to just say no. The seats two down from us were free, but watching the house fill, I thought we would probably cause some problems. I didn’t want to be in Rome and not do as the Romans do, but I also didn’t want to cause undue stress to the Americans next to us.

We moved and people-watched. The group had clearly met at a hostel. Everyone was psyched to be in Europe, but some seemed more psyched than others. We could hear dissention in the ranks as some wanted to sleep in the next day and others wanted to get an early start. Then the extra two people arrived and hopped into the seats with the Borths Brother names on them. We were deemed “So cool” for moving down. Then two more people arrived. The two who had our seats. Now we were caught in the middle, but I felt vindicated. This is why we do as the Romans do. Everyone found their correct spots and the movie rolled.

The movie was fun, especially since we could use the locations to help map the city would continue exploring the next day. Really, globe trotting movies like Angels and Demons are best enjoyed as a brief vacation to an exotic destination without the plane ticket, so maybe there was something a little perverse about being in Rome and watching it on screen. Regardless it was a fun ride.

The group next to us disagreed. The guy who came in late unfolded himself afterwards and declared, “That was so bad! It was nothing like the book!” I believe there is nothing that designates you a poorly-read barbarian (something you don’t want to be in Rome) faster than this statement. Thousands of books are made into movies and none of them are like the book. That’s because they’re movies. Personally I think I liked the movie better than the book because the main character was actually vaguely interesting, as opposed to Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon who is merely a one-dimensional engine who advances the plot with necessary exposition.

But enough about immature American movie-goers in Rome. We had to find a bar to discuss the flick and continue our rigorous people-watching regime. With a final goodnight toast to the Eternal City we returned to our hostel, ready to transform from history buffs to humble pilgrims. The next day was Vatican day…

P.S. Okay, so maybe something funny did happen on the way to the Forum:

No comments: