Exploring the Eternal City: Rome for History Nerds

Rome, the Eternal City, is like Disneyland for history nerds. The Roman Empire once stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, as far north as England, and as far south as Egypt. Rome helped shape Western civilization for thousands of years, from their time as conquerors to the height of Vatican power. For better or worse, Rome changed the world, and for history nerds like me, exploring the Eternal City was a dream come true.

After breakfast at our hotel we headed to Rome’s main attraction: Il Colosseo! Built between CE 72 – 80, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheater, and one of the most recognizable buildings, in the entire world. Once used to stage public entertainments for up to 70,000 plebeian and patrician spectators alike, it showcased everything from gladiatorial combat and battle reenactments, to animal hunts and public executions; the bloodier the better for Ancient Romans. On the one hand, it’s rather disturbing to think that watching people fight to the death in an arena passed for quality entertainment a couple thousand years ago. On the other hand, beating the shit out of people is an actual Olympic sport, and we spend millions of dollars every year flocking to theaters for movies like Saw and its many sequels, or reading true crime novels about grisly murders. So it seems our humanity hasn’t evolved quite as quickly as our technology.

We arrived early and had plenty of time to admire the exterior and take pictures before going inside. That so much of the structure is still standing and intact after thousands of years being ravaged by the elements is astounding. The phrase, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” never seemed so fitting. Earthquakes, fires, rain, snow, hail, wind, war–she’s been battered, but never beaten.

We had all our documents ready when our time came to enter the Colosseum, but we weren’t sure what to expect since Italy had rolled out their new health pass. There was some confusion as to whether or not a US CDC card would be sufficient for entry to Italy’s museums and restaurants. We were pleased to learn that yes, our CDC vaccine cards with our passports were all we needed to get into everything. Europeans are now used to seeing them from American tourists, and we never ran into an issue. Though you may be slowed down if you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as they expect to see 2 doses on your card, so you will have to explain why there’s only one.

Being inside a building that was constructed 1400 years before Europeans even knew America existed is surreal. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around just how long ago that really is. 21st Century life would be unrecognizable to the men who built The Colosseum entirely by hand. No cranes. No computers. No power tools. Just human ingenuity and raw strength. Mind: blown.

Our next stop was the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Even older than the Colosseum, The Forum was the heart of Rome before Julius Caesar even walked its streets. Speeches were given, commerce conducted, trials executed, debates and tributes held there. Palatine Hill, on the other hand, held the most expensive residential property in town. According to legend, around 754 BCE, twin brothers Romulus and Remus disagreed as to on which hill to found their new city. Romulus preferred the Palatine Hill, while the Aventine was more Remus’ jam. So, being the superstitious ancient humans that they were they, “let the gods decide.” Remus claimed to have seen 6 birds from the Aventine Hill, proving him divinely favored. Romulus, not one to be outdone, said he saw 12 birds from the Palatine (totally legit, surely), declared himself divine winner (yep, because birds), and killed his brother Remus, thus making the Palatine Hill prime Rome real estate, while the Aventine became Skid Row. It’s also why it’s called Rome and not Reme. Isn’t history (mythology, in this case) a hoot?!

Once we’d finished walking through the Tribeca of Ancient Rome we were ready for some lunch. We started walking and came across a lovely trattoria with what we were all craving: pizza! We sat on the patio and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, watching as two old nuns left the convent next door for supplies, then came back oblivious to the trail of onions they were leaving in their wake. Just as we noticed them falling off their little wagon, a passerby kindly pointed it out to them. The nuns just shrugged and kept going. Zero fucks given. It was fantastic. Even more so when a car ran the onions over, moments later causing a very confused pedestrian to wonder why the street was covered in smashed produce.

Olivia has always been obsessed with France, and Paris in particular, but her favorite movie is Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. In the movie Greg takes Audrey to the Mouth of Truth. He tells her the medieval legend which says the mask will bite the hand off any liar who dares to put their hand in its mouth. It’s one of Liv’s favorite scenes from her favorite movie, so it was a must-see. The mask is located in the portico at the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and Liv was so excited and adorable as we waited in line to reenact the scene. Bonus: we all kept our hands!

On our way to the Pantheon we passed one of the spots I was most excited to see. On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar walked into the Theater of Pompey for a meeting with a group of senators. What he didn’t know was that the meeting was a ruse designed to lure him to his own murder (et tu, Brute?). Caesar entered, and the senators swarmed around him and pulled daggers from their togas. As the blows rained down on him Caesar knew he was toast. He pulled his toga over his head so they wouldn’t see his face as he died, then bled to death right there on the temple steps. His assassination sent Rome into chaos, triggered a civil war, and effectually ended the Roman Republic for good. Gaius Octavius Julius Caesar Augustus (commonly referred to as Octavian, because that name is a hell of a mouthful), Rome’s first emperor, was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and posthumously adopted son. After gaining control of Rome, he erected a monument on the spot where Uncle-Daddy Caesar was assassinated, and that spot is located in what is now an archeological site called Largo di Torre Argentina.

I recognized it right away and immediately began nerding out. I was staring at the spot where one of the most pivotal events in ancient history took place, and I couldn’t even. There’s not much left of the temple, and even less of the monument, but I couldn’t help but visualize what it must have been like as the senators fled the theater and word spread that Caesar was dead. Loved by the people and hated by the ruling elite, whatever you think of him, Julius Caesar’s fingerprints are all over our lives. He’s the man who gave us the calendar we still use today. July is named after him, August after his successor. He had an affair with Cleopatra, crossed the Rubicon, and inspired Shakespeare. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” He’s fucking legendary. So, I pulled my kimono over my face to pay homage in my own way to the OG JC.

The girls finally dragged me away from my nerd-fest and we arrived at the Pantheon, which is the best preserved ancient building in the city. Commissioned in the early 1st Century CE by Agrippa, bestie to Emperor Augustus (Octavian), but rebuilt after a fire around CE 126, its original purpose was as a temple to all the gods of Rome–and they had a lot of gods (shoe leather? Yep, there’s a god for that). Even Caesar and Augustus were posthumously deified and worshiped. Of course, the Pantheon was eventually converted into a Catholic Church in the 7th Century, but I still see it as a pagan monument. Once again, its size blew our freaking minds. Absolutely colossal. It was impossible to not feel dwarfed in its presence, and mad respect for the dudes who were up there building that roof more than a millennia ago. Unfortunately reservations aren’t possible, and the line to go inside was several blocks long. So we enjoyed the view from the fountain and then headed to one of the most famous piazza’s in Rome.

Piazza Navonna. I’ll be honest, this wasn’t a huge priority for me, but I was so glad that we went! Having been built on the site of what once was the Stadium of Domitian, Piazza Navonna is huge, of course, and utterly charming. The Baroque fountains are beautiful, as was the 17th Century church of Sant’Agnese in Agnone, but our favorite part was a man called Super Mario.

We were about to walk back to the hotel, not interested in being lured into sitting down at one of the overpriced cafes, when one of the maître d’s caught our attention in the cheesiest, most cliché way. Realizing we were Americans, he said, “My name is Mario. Super Mario!” mentioned cocktails, and we caved. When in Rome, right? This was the perk of not scheduling every minute of the day. We had the freedom to just stop, relax, listen to the old man playing a portable organ, and sip our cocktails, soaking it all in. Olivia ordered an espresso martini, while Carey and I went for the frozen mimosa, and they were absolutely divine, the perfect way to cool down on a 90 degree day. Thank you, Super Mario!

Our first full day in Rome was everything we’d dreamed and then some. After hitting so many sites in one day we were once again exhausted, but so excited to get up in the morning and head to the Mothership of Christianity: The Vatican. Come back next week to read about how St. Peter’s Basilica became a trip-favorite of us three atheists.

Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

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