On the Road: Rome & Naples II — The Coliseum & Forum and Porta Portese Market

Since this day’s highlight was an afternoon visit to the Coliseum and Forum and a guided introduction to Ancient Rome, I thought I would start off with a little background information.

A Brief History of Ancient Civilization

As far as ancient civilizations go, Rome is a relative newcomer.

Our universe emerged from its Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago. From there it took about 10 billion years for our Earth to cool and form. Primitive primates emerged from the primordial ooze about 55 million years ago with our distant ancestors walking around Africa on two legs about 5.8 million years ago.

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Anatomically modern homo sapiens – that’s us – actually emerged about 200,000 years ago. Complex human activity began only about 50,000 years ago. Civilization really started heating up about 12,000 years ago with the practice of sedentary agriculture.  The Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age, with the ability to make more complex tools, about 5,500 years ago. The first significant gathering of humans were the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. On the other side of the world, Asian civilizations began to emerge but they are a story for another trip. It’s Rome that we are interested in.

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Which actually brings us to Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Egypt began to emerge as one of the great early civilizations around 3000 BC. Ramesses II — aka Ramesses the Great, lived from 1303 to 1213 BC — a pretty ripe old age in a time when thirty-something was like today’s one hundred-something. This was also the time of the Biblical Moses and the Exodus. King Solomon’s First Temple in Jerusalem dates to 957 BC.

In here came Greek civilization — an important influence on Rome. Greek civilization traces its roots to the 8th Century BC, reaching its territorial pinnacle with Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BC. A year later founded the eponymous Alexandria  – a city that reached a population of 500,000 within 100 years, second in size in the Western world only to Rome. Alexander the Great also installed a new line of Greek-descended Egyptian rulers — the Ptolemies. Cleopatra – Queen of the Nile and Egypt’s final pharaoh, was the end of this line.

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For nearly 500 years Rome had been governed as a Republic with shared institutional powers and checks and balances. In 48 BC, the Roman conqueror Julius Caesar, intent on annexing Egypt to the vast Roman empire, met Cleopatra in Alexandria. There she convinced him to take a much friendlier approach. Julius Caesar lingered with Cleopatra in Egypt through 46 BC. On his triumphant return to Rome, with Cleopatra in tow, he was declared dictator of the Roman Republic by the Roman Senate. The Senate took that as an honorific title but became concerned that Julius had other ideas. On the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by Brutus as in “Et tu, Brute?” Cleopatra joined with Roman Mark Anthony to fight Egypt’s final battle against Rome’s Octavius in 30 BC. The victorious Octavius returned to Rome assuming the title of Caesar Augustus — the first and considered perhaps the greatest of Rome’s autocratic rulers who would lead Rome through a period of great growth and prosperity and ultimate ruin. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra had less glorious ends.

Which brings us to the Forum.

The Coliseum & Forum

Our guide met us at our hotel at 2PM. A brief cab ride took us to the Coliseum. Despite Rome’s size, historic Rome and the Vatican are all within a fairly narrow area of just a few square miles.


The Coliseum is massive. The three story structure was started in 70 AD and completed eight years later — nearly 2,000 years ago and as Rome approached the height of its power. The Romans were first and foremost master builders. While they used carved tufa, travertine and marble, they never became the great carvers that the Greeks were. In fact, much of Rome’s carved stones were carved by Greek slaves. What made the Romans great builders was their development in the use of concrete. While the Coliseum was clad in marble, the underlying structure was concrete and that is mostly what you see today. Most of the marble was re-purposed through the ages.


Photos cannot adequately convey the scale of the structure. Elliptical in plan, the Coliseum is about 600 feet long by 500 feet wide and fifteen stories high — nearly two football fields in length and nearly as wide. With 80 entrances to the seats, you are still able to make-out the section designations carved above the entrances. The upper exterior arches housed more than 160 larger than life marble statutes. Below grade was a complex of paths and chambers that enabled the channeling of various and sundry gladiators and beasts on to the floor of the Coliseum for the spectacle which typically ended in multiple deaths of said gladiators and beasts. Because Rome had more than a million citizens and the Coliseum could seat “only” 55,000, spectacles lasted for days, weeks and months in order to accommodate the demand for seats.

Of note, the Coliseum was not the location of the great chariot races of Ben Hur fame as it was not large enough for that. Those races typically took place at the nearby Circus Maximus. Circus Maximus was about 2,000 feet long, 400 feet wide and could seat 150,000! Rome’s Nascar.


A short walk from the Coliseum brought us to the Forum. The Forum was the civic, social, spiritual and commercial heart of ancient Rome. It was as if in Philadelphia one site housed City Hall, Rittenhouse Square, the Church of Sts. Peter & Paul and the Reading Terminal Market. Though it was eventually superseded by grander forums, this is where it all began. To stand there is a transcendent experience, in part, because you have a sense that you know the characters who walked here so many years ago. While literature and Hollywood have certainly glamorized and distorted our vision of Rome and Romans, it has enabled a certain familiarity.


The overall scale is stunning when you consider when this was built.


The elaborate triumphant Arch of Septimius Severus is made entirely of carved travertine and marble and is six stories high. Through this arch marched Rome’s legions upon return from battles near and far. The city of Rome was built and sustained by conquest and its harvest of slaves and the bounty of its colonies. Estimates are that between 25 and 40% of Rome’s population were slaves. At one point Rome considered dressing slaves – who performed all manner of tasks — in a uniform, as slaves dressed no differently from non-slaves of the lower class. But it was decided that if slaves realized their numerical advantage they would rise up and revolt against their masters. Rome’s citizens were divided between the plebians — the lower caste and the patricians, the upper class. In early Rome the patricians — descendents of 100 “fathers” of Rome appointed by Romulus — had all of the power. As time passed and Rome democratized, the power of the plebians increased and diluted the power of the patricians.


In the distance is a three story shopping mall. That’s right, a multi-level shopping mall predating our modern shopping malls by nearly 2,000 years. As Rome grew in size, this forum was replaced or augmented by a near-by larger forum not preserved. In the end what is remarkable about walking in the forum are the ghosts. You get a palpable sense of people walking here two millennium ago — of what took place here — the daily life of Rome, haggling over the price of wheat, the courtroom drama, hanging out on a cool spring day, acts of kindness and barbarism, of triumph and tragedy.


Departing the forum, we headed up the back side of the Monument of Victorio Emanuelle (see photo above) with a bit of the forum in the mid-ground. Beyond you get a sense of the color and scale of Rome. In the foreground are the iconographic Pines of Rome — a tree that you see throughout the city. Respighi’s symphonic poem depicts the so-called umbrella pines in different locations in Rome at four different times of the day.


The gargantuan modern monument to Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel, sits at the nexus of Capitoline Hill — one of Rome’s seven — and the large Piazza Venezia. The monument is 443 feet wide and about half again as high. Dubbed “the Wedding Cake” because of its stark white marble and elaborate decoration, its official name is Altar of the Fatherland. Until 1861 when the King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was named King of Italy, Italy consisted of a series of small and independent and often quarreling city-states. The monument was designed in 1885 with construction beginning in 1911 and completed in 1925. The white marble of ancient Rome was mined in quarries primarily from Luni — what is today Carrara, in Tuscany. Ancient Roman marble had a creamy warm tone. The colder, bright white marble of Victor Emanuelle was mined in Brescia.

Sunday Morning — Porta Portese Outdoor Flea Market

On a two-week trip you get two Sundays. And since the following Sunday we planned to be in Naples and since Rome’s largest outdoor flea market is a Sunday-only event, I needed to drag my jet-lagged body out of a very comfortable hotel bed and make my way to the 7AM to 2 PM Porta Portese Market. Like a kid in a candy store  – outdoor markets are my candy — and I did not want to miss the chance to visit this largest of Rome’s outdoor markets.


From our hotel, I worked my way through historic Rome’s ancient streets and across the Tiber River.


The Tiber is a modest river — murky and of indeterminate color. Rome itself is strategically located about twenty miles from its port city of Ostia and connected by the Tiber. Ostia is Latin for mouth and it was located at the mouth of  the river.


The Tiber is named for the ancient king Tiberinus Silvius. According to myth, this king urinated in what was then called the Albula River and, in his honor, the river was renamed. This may be more than you want to know. The key is that the Tiber provided convenient access to the sea but also enabled Rome an in-land domain protected from ill-spirited seafaring enemies looking for settlements to sack.


It is also of note that the seven hills of Rome provided not just nice views for Rome’s first residents, but the strategic high ground and protection from threats — be they human or the flooding Tiber.


The market is located at the southern end of the Trastevere neighborhood. As with any city, Rome is a collection of neighborhoods. Unlike nearly every city, Rome’s neighborhoods date back more than 2000 years!

Trastevere is located on the west side of the Tiber River and roughly translates as “across the river.”  As such, the neighborhood stands outside the original area of Rome enclosed by the Servian Wall. The Servian Wall was built in the 4th Century BC to prevent a repeat of the sacking of Rome by the Gauls some years earlier.  That wall  served Rome well including frustrating  Hannibal, his elephants and his Carthaginian army around 210 AD. Nearly 700 years after construction of the Servian Wall,  a much larger wall — the Aurelian Wall was completed in  275 AD to encircle a much larger Rome and prevent new threats from the Germanic tribes. A gate in a section of the Aurelian Wall  — Porta Portese — pictured above, provides the entrance to the market. The wall ultimately proved no match for the Visigoths, who in 410AD, succeeded in sacking Rome and ushering in the long so-called Dark Ages. Some of the Servian Wall and much of the Aurelian Wall exists in today’s Rome.


The walk was much longer than I expected. I just didn’t look so far on the map!


And what I found when I got to the market was not what I expected.


There was almost no food at the market and food is my holy grail. The market was a nearly endless line of stalls on both sides of a wide aisle. The stalls’ wares consisted mostly of clothing — from inner ware to outer ware — and accessories for bargain-hunting Romans. Lots of shoes. My guess is that 95% of what was sold in the market was made in China.

What was most interesting at the market were the faces of Rome — not the stuff, but the people wandering through the stuff. Overwhelmingly Romans have shades of dark hair and generous facial features. The vendors themselves tend toward darker skinned with the darkest skinned Africans improvising little retail islands of cardboard specializing in counterfeit premium products.


With spring in the air, the seed stand was doing a brisk business.


The ceramic fruits and vegetables were non-seeded varieties.


Thinking that I might find a pot of gold — as in some fresh produce — at the market’s end, I kept drudging along to no avail. Just more of the same. When you finely reach the end of the market there is no way out so all you can do is turn around and retrace your weary steps out. I was disappointed but not entirely sorry for my effort. Had I lingered in bed I would have been certain that skipping the Porta Portese Sunday market would have been a fatal lapse in tourist judgment. But knowing this, my counsel to you would be to roll over and sleep in.

Graffiti Along The Tiber

When I travel I am always on the lookout for interesting street art — aka graffiti. Unlike many other European cities, central Rome is largely devoid of graffiti.


However, along the wide walking path adjacent to the Tiber — a path that sits well below the street level, the retaining wall is lined with graffiti.


The path itself is generous for the occasional walker, jogger and bikers early Sunday afternoon as I returned from the Porta Portese market.


A large wall makes for a generous artist’s canvas.


Some images of faded mirth.


While others vivid menace…perhaps a Visigoth?


… or exuberance.

Sunday Dinner at Fortunato

At the end of our first full day in Rome my wife Christina and I were tired. Very tired. (Having been wise enough to skip Porta Portese, Christina was perhaps a touch less tired.) We asked our hotel for a restaurant recommendation not too far a walk. They they suggested Fortunato. There is a maxim that one should be suspicious of restaurants that have a wall of framed photos of famous people who have dined there and so the photos of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton should have been a tip that Fortunato was one of those places. One wonders the numbers of times unsuspecting visitors to Philadelphia were directed to Bookbinders?


Other than the aforementioned photos, Fortunato’s decor was perfectly warm and charming though its service was less so.


Dinner was very traditional — all fine and good, and uninspiring — not so good.  Our dinner included Fried Anchovies, Gnocchi with Ragu, Spaghetti Carbonara (above), Meatballs with Artichokes, and Tongue with Green Sauce. Despite our determination to drink local wines, we had to settle for a Gavi di Gavi from the Piedmont and and Montepulicano from Tuscany.

While dinner was nothing special, as our first full day in Rome ended I began to have an idea of the feast that awaited us in the days ahead.

Next up: The Church of Rome and the Vatican Museum. A wonderful dinner at Fiametta.

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