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When in Rome: The Colosseum and The Palatine Hill

October 3, 2011

Visiting Rome and breathing its history-saturated air had been on my bucket list for a while, so when I took off for my Italian voyage this past summer, my desire to finally explore the Eternal City couldn’t be more overwhelming. I was excited to see the ancient streets and buildings where the citizens of Rome did not stop celebrating life for more than two thousand years, no matter what adversity shook its walls.

In Rome, you don’t even need a travel guide because no matter where you go, you’ll inevitably stumble across some landmark of historical significance. I devoted three days to Rome, which I know is not enough to explore every single museum, monument or square of ancient Roman heritage, but I assure you that even three days is enough for anyone to hopelessly fall in love with this gorgeous, sometimes vicious but forever invincible city.

The Palatine Hill

The legend of Rome’s foundation dates back to the eighth century BC when one chaste girl turned out to not be quite as chaste as advertised. She was one of the Vestal Virgins, an ancient order of priestesses who worshiped Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Their sole mission was to cultivate the sacred fire that would presumably keep their homeland, later Rome, prosperous and secure. They were freed from social commitments of being wives and mothers, and had to stay virgins for the rest of their lives.

However, a girl named Rhea Silvia was of the opposite opinion. She conceived, which was obviously unacceptable within the College of the Vestals. But she knew her disobedience would be considered an act of treason, and as a punishment she would be buried alive. Not willing to die, she came up with a brilliant plan. She told the College that Mars, God of War, impregnated her with twins against her will. I don’t know if the order believed her story or just chose to believe it, but they definitely didn’t want to mess with Mars, because according to legend, anyone who killed a child of Mars would be severely punished by the god.

The chief Vestal let her stay within the College and give birth to the twins, Romulus and Remus. They were later placed in a basket and sent off down the Tiber river. The Vestals avoided killing the newborns but were certain the rough water of Tiber would do it for them. However, fate had different plans. The brothers were noticed by a she-wolf that brought them to her cave on the Palatine Hill and raised them as her own.

According to another less remarkable, but more realistic version, they were raised by a prostitute. The word she-wolf translates as luppa in Italian, which also means prostitute, but I guess the Romans did not want the legend of their city’s foundation to be associated with a woman of sin so they decided to stick with the she-wolf version.

When the brothers grew up, the oracle told them that one of them would lay the foundation of one of the greatest kingdoms the world had ever seen. That didn’t go over well. After a heated argument one brother killed the other, and on April 21, 753 BC Romulus founded the Eternal City that started spreading around the Palatine Hill.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum, or Coliseum, is a place that is sure to take your breath away. It fascinates and captures your imagination, and makes you realize that your life is just a tiny grain in the sand of history. The landmark that once served as an arena for grandiose performances for Roman society and later reused as a religious institution, a cemetery, and even housing, still attracts millions of tourists who can sense the spirit of history within its walls. The origin of the amphitheater’s name is believed to be derived from a colossal statue of Nero that was erected on the Palatine Hill overlooking the amphitheater.

The impressive construction could accommodate up to 60,000 spectators who were seated strictly according to their social status in the highly stratified Roman society. The authorities understood that to keep the crowd out of the streets and avoid any kind of potential rebelling, they had to provide the public with bread and spectacles. And it worked perfectly, especially when golden coins were spread over the audience, which became a regular routine in between the shows.

The thing that terrifies me most is that watching a gladiator fight at the Colosseum was almost like a family activity on an ordinary Sunday afternoon. People came to watch other people and animals die in a bloody mess, and that’s what made them happy. On rare occasions, gladiators were able to make a career within the walls of the Colosseum, acquire fame and women’s attention, but more often they were just brutally killed for the joy of thousands.

An interesting detail I learned while touring the Colosseum was that not only could enslaved gladiators buy back their freedom, but also free citizens of Rome could become gladiators by signing an appropriate contract that would almost make them slaves. What wouldn’t one do for the sake of glory and fame!

And by the way, a popular belief that an emperor’s thumb up means life and thumb down means death is a misconception. In reality, if an emperor decided to take a gladiator’s life, he would throw his thumb to the side, symbolizing a sword penetrating his neck.

Anyways, despite all the gruesomeness this place represents, it is still an integral part of Roman history that needs to be experienced.

Tip:

There’s normally a huge line to enter the Colosseum, but to my delight, independent guides offer group tours (20-25 people) every two hours or so, and for just 25 Euros a person, they will take you through the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, accompanying the excursion with all kinds of interesting facts and legends. And the best part is skipping the 2.5-hour wait in line. It’s absolutely worth it.

Next post – the Roman Forum, the Pantheon and other significant landmarks around Rome. Swing by!

3 Comments
  1. Wow! Rome looks so different in the summer rather than the winter when I was there. Great post with lots of good information. Looking forward to the next Rome post.

  2. Thanks, Leah! It was my first time in Rome, so I don’t even know how it looks in winter =). Was it worth visiting Rome in winter? I definitely want to come back one day – such a beautiful and romantic place!

  3. Went there for a week in January, no crowds anywhere. Had many areas all to ourselves. Cool days and nights around 50 degrees. But anytime of year is a good day in Rome.

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