The line extended as far as the eye could see. Despite it being early January – low season we naively thought – we were going to spend most of our first full morning in Rome standing in a queue. I know this is supposed to be a national pastime for the British, but Lucy’s offer of a discount on a guided tour, enabling us to skip this line, was just too tempting. We eagerly followed her to the booking office.
The morning had started with a walk down the Via del Corso, Rome’s main shopping street, to the Victor Emanuele Monument. This grand 19th century edifice was built to commemorate the unification of Italy and named after its first king. The monument marks the entrance to the main ruins of ancient Rome.
We strolled past Trajan’s Column, Markets and Forum on our way to the original Roman Forum, which is where we encountered the long queue.
On the tour we had just signed up to, our first stop was the Colosseum. We quickly realised that the tour didn’t completely absolve us of queuing. The line for the security checks was long enough, not helped by some people at the front unable to understand why they shouldn’t take knives inside. The wait gave our guide Sarah time to inform us of a few basic facts on the arena we were about to enter.
The Colosseum is the prototype for all modern sports stadiums. Originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre, construction begun under the Emperor Vespasian in the year 72 AD and took about 10 years to complete. The stadium had a capacity of around 60,000 and had canvas awnings to protect spectators from the rain. Entrance to events was usually free, but seating was allocated according to social rank. The more lowly you were, the higher the tier you were in, ensuring slaves would be furthest away from the action. It is well known that the arena was used for violent gladiatorial combat, which included men fighting men and men fighting animals. A lesser known fact is that it was used to re-enact sea battles. The stadium had a waterproof floor and could be flooded with the help of a nearby aqueduct. Run off canals enabled the water to drain away. Other events that took place in the Colosseum included public executions and mythological plays.
When we made it inside, the immense scale of the construction became apparent. We could see the labyrinth of tunnels below the surface area, from where trapdoors used to enable animals to enter the arena. The seats of course have long gone, but we spent some time gazing in awe, thinking of how they managed to build such a massive stadium with the technology available nearly 2000 years ago. F didn’t say much, but she was impressed enough to take countless photographs. The only Roman amphitheatre we’d seen previously was at Caerleon in South Wales, with a capacity of 6000. The one we were in now was 10 times the size! It was in constant use for 4 centuries before it began to fall into disrepair.
We left the Colisseum and passed one of numerous triumphal arches in the area, this one dedicated to Constantine. The Roman emperors loved this way of commemorating their achievements, which usually meant military victories. Napoleon copied this in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe, maybe because he wanted to be like a Roman emperor. Barcelona also has one, but I think that’s just because it wanted to be like Paris.
Next up was another security check, which of course meant another queue. This time, it was to get onto the Palatine Hill. In the days of the republic before Julius Caesar, the hill became the most desirable residential address in Rome, so much so that it gave its name to the word “palace”.
When we came to the huge Domus Augustana, we had extensive views over the Circus Maximus, the chariot racing arena that held an incredible 400,000 people. Used as the private home of many emperors, the building provided probably the grandest executive box at any sports ground.
From Palatine Hill, we were shown great views of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Once the centre of the ancient world, the Forum was laid out in the 7th century BC. Over the years, temples, monuments and public spaces were added, along with those triumphal arches. The site became overgrown after the fall of the empire and was even used for pasture land. Major excavations were begun in the 18th century, to reveal the ruins on display today.
After the tour finished, we descended to have a look at the Forum by ourselves – well, after taking a wrong turning and reaching a dead end. The sheer number and density of the ruins was quite mind boggling. This was clearly the place to build for those who wanted their monuments bang in the centre of town. It’s almost surprising they didn’t manage to invent skyscrapers.
While later admitting that this tour was her highlight of the trip, by mid afternoon F was ready to go. Leaving the site in search of refreshment, I noticed there was no queue at all at the ticket office. Clearly, this was the time we should have arrived!
Rome is the capital of Italy, about half way down its west coast
Termini station is the main rail hub, with good links to cities in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Rome’s largest airport is Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci), which has an express train link to Termini and slower services to other stations. Buses and fixed rate taxis are also available to central Rome. Ciampino Airport is connected by bus and taxi to the city centre
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Click the link for information on Rome. A single ticket can be bought for access to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. It is valid for 2 days, but only allows one entrance to each site. Advance tickets can be purchased online, but free children’s tickets can only be bought in person at the ticket office. Numerous tour companies can guide you around the sites, partially avoiding the queues