When in Rome...The Colosseum
The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built, remains mostly intact, and is very nearly two millennia old. A free-standing oval arena made from concrete and sand, its bowl could seat up to eighty thousand spectators who came to enjoy imperial games, spectacle and choreographed death. Three concentric outer walls each with eighty arches allowed streamlined admission, distributing every class of citizen to the appropriate tier of seating, much like a major stadium today. And the Colosseum is still a must-see on the Roman sightseeing list, having survived pillage, earthquakes and modern pollution, and getting inside is an absolute bargain. [25 photos]
Queues can be long, but on a mild morning in December take only a few minutes, and visitors are soon free to wander round the outer colonnades. Indeed there's a fair amount of freedom to follow the route of your choice, with a hike up the nearest very steep steps probably the best way to begin. A few museum exhibits in glass cases line the upper passageways, including the skulls of animals who once fought here and pips not quite consumed by spectators found in the amphitheatre's drains. But it's once you pass through the internal wall to the main arena that the stunning architecture becomes clear.
Of course everybody wants to look, so the first balcony past the stairwell gets totally rammed with people. A quick scan around the upper tier should reveal considerably more free space at the railings around the remainder of the circumference - unless you've come on one of the stupidly busy days - but tourists still fight for the premium view along the main axis of the stadium. And of course they battle to take photos. Colosseum photographers divide very clearly into two camps - those who want to take pictures of the building and those intent on capturing themselves in front of it. Rarely have I seen the selfie generation so rampantly in force, no view so amazing that it can't be improved by a grinning face or three. A lone notice outside the administrator's office warns that "the use of telescopic selfie sticks is not permitted", but nobody seems to notice, nor would they take heed if they had.
Pretty much all of the Colosseum's seats have disappeared so what you can see are the supporting structures, staircases and passageways that linked everything together. If you're so minded you can try to work out which tumbledown set of steps led where, and how those in the cheapest seats reached the very top of the bowl. But the inescapable visual draw is the arena below, just as it would have been back in the day, where countless lives expired in a variety of bloodthirsty theatrical ways. The amphitheatre floor is long collapsed, revealing an intricate double-deckerbasement used to store two and four legged participants before their appearance on stage. Your typical modern theatre with a few trapdoors in the floorboards has nothing on this.
Amongst the 21st century additions to the Colosseum is a tall wooden cross halfway along the northern rim. It seems ridiculously out of place in a building designed by a civilisation that threw Christians to the lions, but in fact that's exactly the point, and it was Pope John Paul II who insisted on the inclusion of a martyrs' memorial. More recently one end of the staging has been recreated, allowing visitors to imagine how the floor once fitted in, and those who've paid extra for a guided tour can even go and stand on it. The rest of us have to make do with walking all the way around the second level and halfway round the first, observing these amazing arches from every conceivable angle (and probably overusing our cameras in the process).
And that's just the first thing you get to see for your €12.
When in Rome...The Forum and Palantine Hill
At school you probably learned all about the rulers of Ancient Rome and the buildings in which they lived and worked. What I hadn't previously realised is that many of those buildings still exist, at least in part, within an extensive tract of land that was once Rome's civic centre. Imagine an area the size of St James's Park, and equally as central, within which no part of the modern capital intrudes. The Roman Forum is a wholly awesome survivor, indeed by rights should be long destroyed, and admission comes as the second part of your €12 Colosseo/Foro/Palatino ticket. [30 photos]
Within the bounds of the old Roman Forum are numerous pillars, columns, walls and actual structures, scattered across a sloping grassy valley. Some of the temples are entirely intact, such as the circular Temple of Romulus, while others exist only as a few pillars poking upwards like a giant wicket. Most imposing is the Temple ofSaturn, or at least its portico, sited in prime position at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. Leading down from the Colosseum is the Via Sacra, a crucial road link, and still with many of its rounded paving stones in place. Walking between raised basilica I pictured this ceremonial thoroughfare thick with victorious centurions, or deep in mud, and shivered slightly at being in what was once the centre of the entire known world.
There's tons to see, including various dead end routes that lead to empty shops and ornamental fountains. One very recent opening is the Imperial Ramp, a zigzag passageway on seven levels leading to the emperor's hilltop palace, and wide enough to ride up on horseback. In places the arched brick roof is eleven metres high, with narrow chambers to one side now filled with sculptural treasures discovered during the restoration. Avoid the small Italian children who've decided it's a fantastic slope to run screaming down, and enjoy the elevated view from four bends up, which is as far as you can currently go.
For an even better lookdown, try the Palatine Hill. This is a separate but linked zone - think Green Park relative to St James's - and was the site of the Emperor's exclusive suite of buildings. The grandest of these was the Palatium, named after the hill itself, a term later adopted by any kind of palace. As well as wandering past various walls and foundations, paths lead through orange groves and beneath sceniccypresses, and to the central museum where the history of Rome is briefly but beautifully told. Were this in Britain you'd pass cafes and giftshops along the way, but the Palatine and Forum are almost completely commercially unspoilt, with only two banks of vending machines tucked out of sight for sustenance. I'm all for that, the experience was all the better for being untarnished by future concerns.
I hadn't been counting on spending the best part of Saturday exploring this trio of historic sites, but when there's the opportunity to explore an entire ancient civilisation you grab it. I enjoyed five enthralling hours for my €12, from a spin round the Colosseum to a hike round the Palatine Hill, and could I suspect have spent considerably longer had every nook and pathway been explored. London has nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares.