Often described as the Eternal City, it is easy to see why Rome has gained this name.
Everywhere you go, there are reminders of its incredible heritage and the construction secrets that still amaze.
Just consider the subject of concrete. Modern concrete is struggling to survive the environmental effects of just a few decades. Roman concrete buildings are still as solid as the day that they were built. At the Pantheon, the world’s first concrete dome still stands in perfect condition, over two thousand years since it was built.
Roman Concrete, Pantheon
Hundreds of acres are taken up by the massive structures to be found on the Palatine Hill, whilst, elsewhere, Roman buildings have been given new functions. Take the Castello San Angelo for example; from the outside it looks like a very solid castle, but exploration of the inside leads to a remarkable spiral ramp which dates back to the time of Emperor Hadrian; the building was originally his tomb.
Castello San Angelo, Rome
It is hard not to be awestruck when seeing the Colosseum for the first time. The sheer size and architecture are positively jaw dropping. Although you can enter the Colosseum and explore it on your own, it is worth taking one of the booked tours, such as Rome Experience: Apart from enabling visitors to jump the long queue, the tours enable you to see areas not normally open to the public.
The guides are extremely informative, providing lots of fascinating facts, some of which have only been discovered recently; such as the existence of numbers above each gate, making it easier for the Romans to find their allotted seats.
It is only possible to visit the Hypogeum, the underground area, by guided tour. Even today, this is a very atmospheric area, dark and chilly, despite the high summer temperatures outside.
The narrow corridors and the constant aura of fear would have made it a gloomy, depressing place. In fact, it would also be a dark, noisy hell on earth for the slaves who worked the machinery which brought the wild animals up from the depths of the Colosseum, the gladiators preparing for their next bout, and those awaiting public execution in the arena.
The technological skills of these ancient Roman engineers were amazing. Whatever the problem, they found answers. Sailors from the navy were brought in to use their skills in drawing sail-like canopies over the spectators, shielding them from the hot sun.
Not far away are the stunning mosaics and paintings to be seen in Nero’s Golden House, the temples, Colossus, Julius Caesar’s tomb, the Forum, market and houses of the Capitoline Hill.
Ancient port of Rome
A short train ride takes you to Ostia Antica, where the remains of the ancient port of Rome can be explored. These stretch for miles, much of them still underground. This is very much an archaeological site, as most of the walls have disappeared over the centuries. Strolling along the long avenues, it is easy to see the layout of what would have been a very busy port. It is the unexpected elements that make you aware of the sheer scale of this site. Climbing a flight of steep steps one suddenly emerges, standing on the top row of a large semi-circular amphitheatre.
People talking many rows below, on what would have been the stage, can be heard clearly, highlighting its superb acoustics. Not far away, entrance through a quiet gateway reveals incredible mosaics of Neptune and his horses, caught permanently galloping across the floor of the Temple of Neptune.
Temple of Neptune
Coach trips can be booked to take visitors to Tivoli, a site in the mountains some 45 minutes drive away. This is a town well worth a visit, since it contains two World Heritage sites, both connected to Ancient Rome. Hadrian’s Villa is the largest Roman villa in existence. It originally covered over 100 acres, now only 15 acres remain. Built between 117 and 138 AD by the Emperor Hadrian, who designed it to reproduce all of the most beautiful places he had seen during his travels.
When new, it must have been an incredible sight. Slaves and workers had to travel through a purpose built, covered tunnel to the entrance. Everything was on a grand scale. Hadrian and his empress even had their own private bathroom – an incredibly rare feature at that time. One of the prettiest parts of the site is the Colonnade, representing the Nile and the Tiber. This was used as a dining room during hot summer evenings. Food was brought by boat across the water, and guests simply had to lean over and choose what they wanted.
Hadrian’s Villa, Rome
Water features prominently in the nearby Villa D’Este, built during the sixteenth century. Virtually all of its building materials were sourced from Hadrian’s Villa, which was used as a personal quarry. The builders took all manner of items – mosaics, wall paintings, columns, roofs and stones. The result is an amazing combination of Renaissance luxury with Ancient Roman artifacts!
No visit to Rome can be complete without a visit to one of the most incredible sites of all – Pompeii. Although situated just south of Naples, it takes only an hour and a half to get to by train: You can also get coach tours which take you from Rome to Pompeii.
No imagination is needed to envisage the size of the buildings, or the community that lived there: Walls stand proud and tall, and the decorations inside are as clean and bright as the day that they were made; streets stretch out in every direction, and it is very easy to lose your way amid the confusion of street numbers.
Maps do not match up! Want to cross the road? Then be ready for steep drops onto the roadway, or wait until you reach a Roman crossing point with stepping stones several feet high. The ruts caused by carts delivering their loads to shops and houses are clearly evident. The houses open to the public vary from day to day, some in the morning, others in the afternoon. Saddest of all the reminders of this ancient civilization are tucked away in a distant garden – the agonised, crouching figures of people caught in the eruption and fossilised forever in lava.
By Angela Youngman