December 31st, 2014


Rome, Part 2: Saturday, December 13


We left the terrible apartment, went to the Radisson, ate breakfast there, and then went back to get a tour of the Colosseum.

The Colosseum

It's immense, impressive, and depressing on multiple levels. First, to see something so grand in ruins. The brick pillars with concrete cores that remain were once covered in limestone and marble, and not simply covered, but ornamented and adorned, probably with the same kind of beautiful detailing that buildings like the Parthenon had. It must have been magnificent.

And now it's a gigantic ruin. It's like walking around in a skeleton, and mourning the person it used to be. A dozen or so marble seats survive in the lower tier (for the nobles). There isn't any other marble or limestone left. It was all quarried to build later structures (like St. Peters.) The arena floor is gone, revealing the underground section where the animals had been kept and the gladiators waited. They've replaced a small section of the floor, to give an idea of it, perhaps. You can walk around the upper tier, reached by one restored staircase. All the other stairs are still in ruins. It's impressive that this much survived. The tour guide told us a saying: "If the Colosseum falls, no one in Rome will shed a tear -- because no one else will still be alive to tell." After two millenia, you gotta believe what's left is pretty stable.

For all its architectural triumph, the games held in it were hideous. Tour guide history time! Probably somewhat but not perfectly reliable. the Colosseum was used for only a few kinds of "entertainment". The worst is probably what they did to criminals: flaying them alive or setting wild animals on them to kill them. While the crowd cheered. Apparently this happened to corrupt politicians, too. The gladiators were mostly slaves, who could go free if they won 18-20 times. IIRC more than 95% died. Some were free men who volunteered to be gladiators for the money and prestige, apparently because the other options for poor men in Rome sucked as much or more as a good chance of getting killed in the Colosseum. Gladiators fought against both other gladiators and wild animals. The animals were generally starving and maddened by being kept in cages underground, tormented by their keepers, and given neither food or water for days before they fought. Even when they were used to kill criminals, the animals were managed with chains to keep them from eating the criminal. The gladiators generally preferred fighting other gladiators, but they didn't get any say in the matter.

They did have some entertainment that was just "show off exotic animals" -- not just the lions, tigers, and bears that were used to fight or execute, but elephants, ostriches, giraffes -- whatever animals were in a region Rome had conquered that weren't native to Rome. Of course, half the animals died en route to the Colosseum. So still sucky.

The games stopped sometime after Constantine legalized Christianity and it grew to become the dominant religion. The Colosseum fell into disuse after that. Seems a shame they didn't use it for some less grisly sport instead.

After the Colosseum tour, we had a couple of hours before the Palantine Hill tour, so we took a cab to the Baths of Caracalla.

The cab was incredibly sleazy. It was a "white cab", so purportedly one licensed by the city. But the meter was rigged to run too fast (we were charged 18.80 euros for a ride of less than a mile, where other cabs for rides of over a mile charged 8 euros). The driver took us the wrong way and pretended it was due to a poor grasp of English, and didn't correct until M pointed it out repeatedly. Then, at our destination, M handed him a 20 and he palmed it to show M a 5, pretending that was what M had given him. I missed some of this byplay -- I couldn't see the meter and winced when I saw M hand over a 20 'cause I'd already pegged the driver as unlikely to give change. I didn't realize how much he'd overcharged until we were out of the cab. M did, but figured it wasn't worth a confrontation that might go more sour still. Still, if we'd been more on the ball, we'd've gotten his license plate. Even if we didn't want to deal with filing a police report, a complaint to the white cab company might've gotten action -- either him fired, or if he was impersonating their service, perhaps charged for that. He sure made Rome look bad. (And was one of the reasons I was skittish when getting into a cab on Sunday morning. You don't think about the kind of danger a cabbie could put you in until you run into a bad one.)

We wanted to see the Termi di Caracalla because we'd watched a video about its construction (part of a series on Roman technology) on the flight from London. Like the Colosseum, it's just a husk. You can still see parts of the original mosaic floor in the ground, though, and they have pieces from the second floor mosaic leaning against the walls of the ruins. The roof and upper floors are totally gone otherwise. There had been an underground section originally, where the furnaces to heat the water were kept. The structure had been large enough for three thousand visitors a day, and included three different types of pools (cold, warm, hot) as well as a sauna and a gym. Nothing exactly like it in the modern world, although some modern gyms aren't wholly dissimilar, come to think of it. Without all the grandeur and ornamentation though. You look at what some ancient buildings were like and you realize how plain and boring ours are. Even Donald Trump's ostentation seems to pale in comparison.

We went back to Palantine Hill for the 3PM tour, given by a Canadian woman who was a historian of the classics, studying for her doctorate. She gave a fanciful account of Rome's early origins, including the legend of Romulus and Remus, but got more practical as she moved forward in time.

The Palantine Hill tour covers the old Roman forum: its original marketplace. Napoleon had started excavating it in the 19th century. The two main roads, the Via Sacre and Via Nova, had been dug up, the stones removed and set aside, and then put back in random order. So the stones were still the original paving stones, but the construction technique was vastly inferior to real Roman roads. You could walk on them as you toured the forum. More ruins, a few mostly-intact buildings. Of 36 triumphal arches, only 3 remain. The latest, Constantine's, is amusing. Constantine won a civil war against his brother and former co-emperor (yeah, that never goes well). He converted to Christianity during the war (ostensibly because of a vision, and very probably because most of his troops were Christian), and moved his capitol to Constantinople afterwards. So he wanted an arch, but he also wanted to move artisans and craftsmen to his new city as soon as possible. So it's got the usual Latin inscription of the victory, but instead of the various scenes on it being depictions from the war, they're just plaques looted from other structures around Rome and slapped on it. Where Constantine himself appeared, they'd cut off some other statue's head and slapped his on in its place. The arch is like a 3D version of Photoshop. It's pretty cheap. And it's one of only three left!

After that, we went to the Castel Sant'Angelo, aka Hadrian's Tomb. This is a tomb that was turned into papal headquarters (at a time when the pope ruled the Papal States of Rome) and then turned into a fort. And then the fort got layered on a bunch more. It is very schizophrenic. There's an outer wall with arrow slits and porticos, and then the inner fort/residence/tomb which just LOOMS. It has a very few doors at the bottom (perhaps only one originally) and few windows. It's huge and uninviting. It looks unimpregnable.

Today, it's full of museum stuff, an eclectic selection of military relics, paintings and sculptures of a religious nature, and artifacts of papal history. We spent two hours there and I'm not sure we made it to all the rooms. Some of the chambers had beautiful 16th-century frescoes, now faded. There's a room high in the tomb that used to be the papal treasury, and then was later used as a prison. So much history, use, and re-use.

The whole is topped by a statue from 1753 of the Archangel Michael, sheathing his sword, in commemoration of the vision at the bridge. It's at least the fifth angel statue to top the castle/tomb. One was struck by lightning, one was wooden and decayed away, one was bronze and melted down for cannons, and the 1746 statue was replaced bt the 1753 one, and eventually relocated to a sort of courtyard (five or so stories up in the tomb, but still open to the air.) I can see why they replaced it quickly: the 1753 statue looks much better. And has held up well over time!

It was almost 7PM when we left, and I was done. We had seen all the attractions we'd tried and failed to see on Friday. We caught another cab (with a perfectly nice and honest driver -- we had six drivers this trip and only one was fraudulent, so he's not a representative sample), got close to the hotel, then got out in a shopping area to have dinner and gelato. The gelato reminded me of soft-serve ice cream in texture, although higher quality and in an ice-cream-parlor variety of flavors.

We had some difficulty getting room keys at the hotel (our rooms had not been ready when we left after breakfast at 11AM). Once we got that straightened out, we found the rooms absurdly warm (80F). This despite the fan being off in my room and the temperature at the lowest setting. Fortunately, the rooms had balconies with sliding glass doors, so we opened those to cool off.

And that's the tourist-in-Europe section of my trip. The next day I left very early for a long flight to Toronto.