“I found Rome a city of bricks, and I left it a city of marble.”
There is something to be said about following ancient footsteps, pathways winding between structures as immense in size as historical importance, passing marble pillars and travertine arches that still radiate power and wealth in their crumbling states. To visit Rome, is to step into the life of an empire. Even before we arrived, this city called to me, and seeing the Colosseum was #1 on my bucket list. I will forever cherish the rainy November evening when Sam and I touched down in Rome for the first time. As we entered the city, the rain slowed, and our driver kindly took the scenic route to our hotel, slowing as we passed by a lit up Colosseum, and I sat in complete disbelief. It was even more amazing than I could ever have imagined, and it was right in front of me.
Every inch of Rome is carved and ornate, every opening a window into the past. Returning here with our daughters this summer was a dream come true, and despite the heat and the excessive crowds, we shared lessons and experiences that you simply cannot get in a classroom. The Colosseum area is a visual and tactile immersion into history, a social studies slideshow come to life. From tours to tourist traps, a day here will inspire, teach and humble.
1. THE COLOSSEUM:
There is a reason that The Colosseum is one of the top attractions in Rome, and the world for that matter. Not only is it an immense and striking piece of architecture, it is an experience just to walk the steps as Romans did, thousands of years before. It is a glimpse into an era filled with heroic gladiators and wild, imported animals battling for life before 65,000 sets of eyes, including an emperor upon his throne. I found myself needing a constant reminder that we were not on a Hollywood sound stage, that this amphitheater was the real deal. Construction began in 72 AD by emperor Vespasian, and was completed by his heir and successor, Titus in 80 AD. The Colosseum was further enhanced by Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian, who added underground tunnels to house slaves and animals. It is home to every fantasy and horror story one can possibly imagine. The structure suffered major damage by fire in 217 AD, as well as a major earthquake in 443. The last mentioned gladiator fights were held in 435, while the animal hunts carried on until at least 523. The Colosseum underwent significant changes as ruler ship changed, housing a cemetery as well as becoming a fortified palace for the Frangipani family until it suffered another major earthquake in 1349 that caused the south side to collapse.
*** Rome is undergoing many historical facelifts thanks to the large fashion houses. A much needed restoration of the Colosseum was begun in 2013 thanks to a $25 million Euro donation by luxury brand, Tod’s.
We avoided what can be 2-3 hour lineups by purchasing our tickets at the little stand along Via dei Fori Imperiali (backing onto the forum grounds). You can also purchase nearby at the entrance to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, along. The tickets are good for both these areas as well as the Colosseum and the lineups are much shorter, yet a 5 minute walk away.
TIPS ON VISITING THE COLOSSEUM:
- SUMMER SEASON: High season means high temperatures. Go early in the morning if possible. Wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water. A small umbrella is handy for shade when needed as there is little in these areas. The Colosseum has a small section of “misters” that spray a cooling mist, but they are often very crowded.
- STANDARD ENTRANCE TICKETS: This allows for access to the first and second levels. Make sure to visit each of the accessible levels. The best viewpoints are on the second level and worth the climb up (you’ll find yourself pondering just how 65,000 spectators would have felt had they been forced to evacuate quickly!) This is a great vantage point for the Colosseum itself, for viewing artifacts on display as well as looking out through the arches to the world outside.
- TOURS: Be aware that there are plenty of peddlers outside offering tours. Many are not professional guides and will charge extremely high prices. We took a tour in November (without the kids) and it was very informative. Keep in mind that while it offers in depth history and detail, you are tied to their schedule, and there is plenty of standing and listening. Consider all of this when planning a tour for your family. For detailed ticket information, and tour bookings, see Here.
- There are tours which allow access to the Underground Level, the Arena Floor, as well as the 3rd Tier.
- Audio guides are an option and available for rent.
HAVE FUN BEING A TOURIST:
We couldn’t help ourselves, and it’s still a running joke between Sam and I as we recall the gladiator who called out to us with “Hey, you! Big-ga Boy!” It’s cheesy, touristic fun, and while it cost us about 15 Euros, it was worth it for the photos and the laughter.
THE ARCH OF CONSTANTINE:
Nestled between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill is the Arch of Constantine, dedicated in 315 by the Roman Senate to commemorate the victory of Constantine I over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. Standing at 21 x 26 meters, it is the largest Roman Triumphal arch. The Arch is a visual masterpiece, and one gets a unique view of it through the arches of the Colosseum.
PALATINE HILL and the ROMAN FORUM:
This was part of the guided tour we took when we were in Rome in November. This summer, due to the heat and tourist congestion, we simply strolled thru the forum, heading out the other end, so that we could point out a few things to the girls, and they could walk on the grounds of such historical significance. Palatine Hill is the center most of the seven hills of Rome, and sits 70 meters above the city, the Roman Forum, Colosseum and Circus Maximus. The views from atop Palatine Hill are spectacular.
The belief was that by living up so high, the air was cleaner, and those who lived on it would be less susceptible to the diseases of the lower areas. There is also a strong link to mythology, as it is said this is home to the Lupercal cave where the twins Romulus and Remus were found. This is the spot where Romulus decided to build the city, and thus where the story of the Roman empire begins. Palatine Hill is littered with ruins and is quite extraordinary, with fascinating history.
The lower ground between Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill houses the Roman Forum, a place also filled with impressive architecture and rich history. It was home to Roman public life as well as many important ancient government buildings, and is considered to be one of the greatest meeting places on earth.
Tradition dates the forum back to a time of rivalry between Romulus, first King of Rome, who lived on Palatine Hill, and Titus, who occupied Capitoline Hill. It is said that the cries and prayers of the women of Capitoline Hill caused the men to lay down their weapons, and negotiate. Some of the earliest temples and shrines dot the southest end, such as the 7th century BC Temple of Vesta, where the 6 vestal virgins kept the home fires burning. By taking the tour, we learned that the pillar, one of two (top left in photos below) is of a rare Egyptian marble that is now exhausted, and has an estimated worth of $120 million!
The Colosseum and vicinity are the very heart of Rome and it’s incredibly deep roots in history. While it is generally overcrowded with tourists wanting a glimpse into the realm of gladiators and emperors, it is an absolute must on any Roman travel agenda. To follow footsteps tread thousands of years before, to stand in awe of powerful and historic structures or to envision battles offering moments of both elation and anguish, is to immerse yourself in an empire that shaped our world and defined desire. Rome, quite simply, is a place to stir the soul.
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