Palatine and Roman Forum (Rome, Italy)


The Roman Forum, as depicted by Constant Moyaux (1866). Image from wikipedia.

From the Colosseum, our guide led us on a walk through the Roman Forum, an area between the Palatine and Capitoline hills that served as ancient Rome’s commercial area. All the buildings now lay in ruins, with only pediments, partial columns, arches and fragments of floors remaining after 2,000 years. The state of the ruins, scattered over a large area, belies what must have been a magnificent civic center with grand structures and paved pathways, a tribute to the engineering prowess of the ancient Romans.

The Arch of Constantine, built by Emperor Constantine in AD 312 to commemorate his victory in battle over a rival co-emperor, marks the time when Rome converted to Christianity. It is now surrounded by a gate. As you walk past, you notice the decorations all over the arch. The marble friezes were re-used from earlier imperial monuments so that the overall impression is a lack of a coherent style.

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

The artistic style of the roundels from Hadrian's time (first third of the second century) markedly differs from the rectangular panel below (4th century)

The artistic style of the roundels from Hadrian’s time (first third of the second century) markedly differs from the rectangular panel below (4th century)

All that remains of the Temple of Venus and Roma are a row of Corinthian columns and a portion of the temple housing an impressive apse with a coffered dome. The temple is thought to have been the largest in ancient Rome.

Temple of Venus and Roma

Temple of Venus and Roma

To commemorate his brother and the victory over the Jews at Masada, Emperor Domitian built the Arch of Titus. In one panel under the soffit is a depiction of the Romans removing valuable treasure from the Temple of Jerusalem, including the menorah.

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus

Sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem

Sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem

The arch is said to be the model for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Basilica of Maxentius was the largest structure built by the Romans at the time. It used to house an enormous statue, the Colossus of Constantine, that has since been moved to the Palazzo dei Conservatori. It used the latest technology to build the vast interior space, including soaring ceilings of perpendicular, coffered barrel vaults, which can still be seen today. A 9th century earthquake leveled most of the structure. All that remains today is the north wall.

North wall of the Basilica of Maxentius

North wall of the Basilica of Maxentius

As you approach the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina,built in the 2nd century, it looks like a traditional temple with portico of Corinthian columns. But as you get closer, you realize that it is the front of a Roman Catholic church (San Lorenzo in Miranda), the temple having been converted in the 7th century.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

A temple dedicated to the twins Castor and Pollux, known as the Dioscuri, had to be rebuilt several times because of deterioration or fires that destroyed earlier constructions. The temple was used as a meeting place by the Senate as well as housing civic offices. Only a portion of the podium remains, three beautiful, fluted Corinthian columns topped by a portion of the architrave.

Three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

Three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

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The Colosseum (Rome, Italy)


It was our first stop of the day, the tour led by a special guide who later led us through the Roman Forum. Considered the greatest example of ancient Roman engineering, the Colosseum still largely stands in the center of Rome, even after several major earthquakes and the ravages of time took their toll. There were several attempts throughout the Roman period to restore major portions of it, but the Colosseum never regained its original splendor. The structure is significant because of the influence it had on later, even contemporary designs, such as the inclusion of tiered seating and the manner in which spectators were quickly and efficiently seated and evacuated from so large an edifice.

In the Roman era, it seems that the Colosseum was used for entertainment purposes, including gladiatorial combat, recreation of famous battles, animal hunts, theatrical productions and the like. It is even said that there were recreations of naval battles which required the filling of the floor with water. The entire design of the subterranean section below a wooden floor covered with sand consisted of two levels of cages and tunnels that held and ferried not only props but gladiators and animals as well. The hypogeum, as the underground section was called, can still be seen largely intact today.

The hypogeum is still largely intact

The different classes of Roman society were segregated among the three seating levels, with the north side reserved for the emperor. The Colosseum is thought to have accommodated up to 50,000 spectators.

The Colosseum’s spectator section consisted of three levels above the arena

This and other monumental architecture makes you appreciate the accomplishments of ancient peoples.

Pantheon (Rome, Italy)


The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

Walking through the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome, all we could see of the Pantheon was the portico with classic Corinthian columns that fronted a large, gray circular structure. As we stepped inside the building through the original bronze doors, we were awestruck by the sheer size of the interior, its immense and lofty dome, a marvelous feat of engineering of ancient Rome. The present structure was largely built by Emperor Hadrian, though an inscription atop the portico attributed it to Emperior Agrippa. In actuality, it has been rebuilt or modified many times.

As the name suggests, the Pantheon was probably a temple consecrated to all the Roman gods. Since the 7th century, the Pantheon also served as a Roman Catholic church, as evidenced by the addition of altars, apses, paintings and niches that contain sculptures of Christian personages and tombs. One of the tombs contains the remains of Raphael. Were it not for its conversion to a church after the fall of Rome, the Pantheon would have long ago been vandalized or stripped of its materials for other uses.

What is astonishing about the dome is that it is the largest, un-reinforced concrete dome in the world. How did the Romans accomplish this? To relieve the pressure from sheer weight, as it rises the dome tapers in thickness and employs lighter stones, with a pumice aggregate at the top. Coffering also reduced the weight.

Now, imagine a structure perfectly enclosing a sphere. This is exactly what the builders seemed to have in mind. The dome itself is a hemisphere with a diameter of 150 Roman feet and the height from floor to oculus is also 150 Roman feet. On the astronomically important dates of the solstices and equinoxes, the sun casts its light at noon on different spots in the interior. On the equinoxes, it shines along a north-south axis through the rotunda. Since our visit was but a week from the vernal equinox, we missed the centered illumination of the entryway, which faces north.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

If the enclosed sphere were intended to be a planetary object, such as the Earth or sun, and when you consider that the sun’s rays penetrate the interior of the Pantheon through the oculus (see the top of the photo below), tracing its own path along an arc as the day progresses and its positioning on the equinoctial dates, then it isn’t hard to wonder if the Pantheon had an astronomical significance, too.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael's tomb is in the center at ground level.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael’s tomb is in the center at ground level.

Filippo Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon before he designed his dome for the Florence cathedral. The Pantheon is truly one of the world’s remarkable structures.