October 26th, 2014
Our eventual goal for our first full day in Rome was to see the Baths of Caracalla, making our way there via a route that would take us by some of the main sights. After checking in on the cats again at Lago di Torre Argentina, we walked to Piazza Venezia and Altare della Patria. We walked by here every day during our stay, but this being our first time, we were flummoxed as to how in the world we were supposed to cross the street. There were no traffic lights, just a striped pedestrian crossing spanning multiple lanes of very fast traffic. We stood there, unsure of how to proceed as more people joined us, looking similarly confused. Finally, some confident local just stepped out in front of the traffic with hardly a glance to the side, and all of the traffic screeched to a halt. Well, some traffic did. The rest of them slowed down just enough to avoid hitting anyone, and continued along their way. Over the next few days, our resignation to this state of affairs and our confidence in Italian braking power grew. By the end of it, Stephen was blithely striding in front of dozens of speeding vehicles to get to the other side. He started to look a bit like a mother duck, since me and all of the other timid travelers scampered across in his wake. He complained and grumbled each time we approached a cross walk like this, packed with fellow tourists too terrified to cross, but I think he secretly liked playing the role of the vanguard.
We made our way across another pedestrian cross walk to the area where some of the major Roman ruins start. Today, four forums are on one side of a major boulevard, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, while the Forum of Caesar and the Roman Forum are on the other. In Roman times, all of this would have been adjacent and unified. The boulevard today covers a good portion of the ruins. Mussolini had this massive road built and didn’t take much care while doing it, destroying important ruins and not cataloging anything they found. A few days later when we took our Colosseum tour, our Italian tour guide had a quite a few not-so-nice things to say about Mussolini and his road. The first forum we saw was Trajan’s Forum, which was actually the most recently built, if you can call 100 AD recent. Trajan’s Column, built to commemorate his victory in battle, dominates the square and is the only complete structure left standing.
Right next door is Trajan’s market, sometimes called the world’s first shopping mall. It had six levels of streets with shops! I really wanted to go in and explore, but we didn’t have time.
Right next door to the market is yet another forum, the Forum of Augustus. Looking at all these ruins, it can be very challenging to visualize what it all would have looked like in its heyday. When we went to Rome, they had started a new interactive light and projection show, called Foro di Augusto: 2000 anni dopo, and we pre-booked tickets after reading rave reviews online. I really cannot praise it enough. Stephen said it was the best thing we did the entire trip. While I think Ostia Antica, a day trip we took a couple of days later, was my favorite part, the show comes in a close second. Bleachers were set up in front of the forum, and once night fell and the show started, lights and projections were used to show what the Forum would have looked like in Augustus’s day. We each got headphones and a little mp3 player to hear the commentary in whatever language you wished. This is the only video I could find, and it gives you a vague idea of what it was like. The reality was ten times better. The show is still going on, so if you are going to be in Rome, I really can’t recommend it enough. On their website, it looks like they are starting a new show at Caesar’s Forum right across the street. If you are interested, here is the website. Tickets are 15€ each or 25€ for both and should probably be bought online in advance. (Note: I am in no way affiliated with this company or get anything from mentioning the show. I just really loved it and think you might, too!)
After we had our fill of the Imperial Forums, we walked down Via dei Fori Imperiali to the Colosseum and then turned south towards the baths, passing the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus along the way. Since we took a tour of the Colosseum on a later day, I will be covering the Colosseum and the arches in another post, but here are some pictures from our walk that day.
Since the baths were just a few blocks of Circus Maximus, we made a small detour there first. Circus Maximus held chariot races and was decorated with all sorts of obelisks and statues. (The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo was originally in Circus Maximus.) Unfortunately, it was closed off and looked like it was in the middle of some renovation work. It was a little bit sad to see it looking so abandoned, although as we were leaving, we did see a girl hop a fence with her little dog and take him for a walk. For some reason this struck me as wildly funny. Coming from a country that doesn’t have Roman ruins, I can’t imagine letting my dog do his business on one, but if you live in Rome, you live side-by-side with history like this every day.
Finally, we made it to the Baths of Caracalla. It was only 2.5 miles from our apartment, but we took a good portion of the morning to get there. There was just so much to see along the way! The Baths were built by the emperor Caracalla, who by all accounts was a little bit mad. Or if not a little bit mad, then just a big jerk. He was co-emperor with his brother, but he solved that inconvenience pretty easily by having his brother murdered. He spent the rest of his reign authorizing all sorts of persecutions and massacres. In the end he was killed by his own bodyguard, probably the person you least expect to stab you in the back. Literally.
Besides being a bloodthirsty tyrant, he did do two nice things: he gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire and built the baths that bear his name. Today, 1800 years later, they still dominate the view.
During the 3rd century, they were magnificent, with beautiful statues, large, spacious entrance halls, and gilded marble. The word “baths” makes you think of either tubs or swimming pools, but they were actually a lot more like the leisure centers of today. They housed two gyms, massage rooms, three pools of different temperatures (as was the custom- the fridgidarium, tempidarium, and caldarium), an open-air Olympics-sized swimming pool, changing rooms, two separate libraries for Greek and Roman texts, and shops all around the ground floor. They also had toilets, of course, and one is at the British Museum here in London. Besides being of historical value, it is quite funny too- unbelievably, it is in the shape of a chariot!
We had purchased an audio guide at the entrance, thank goodness, because although you know that all this stuff must have been there, it would have been impossible to see or imagine it without a little help. Today, it looks like hulking masses of stone. They are beautiful, almost surreal ruins, but not at all easy to imagine as a marbled, luxurious space. This imagining is made more difficult by the fact that after the bath’s decline, all sorts of rich families and popes stole the beautiful statues and marble to use in their summer homes, stripping the place bare. Our audio guide claimed that the main waiting room in the original Penn Station in New York, with its magnificent arched ceilings and awe-inspiring proportions, was based on the Baths of Caracalla.
The Baths were lively centers of society, with people gossiping and chatting over snacks and drinks, making deals, and playing games. I had always thought of Roman baths as a somewhat muted affair, but our audio guide included a quote from the philosopher Seneca, which I liked so much that I will reproduce here:
“Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice– for purposes of advertisement– continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation. -Seneca, Letter 56.1-56.2
We finished our day with a walk down Via Appia Antica. It is one of the most important Roman roads, and parts are still paved with the original Roman stone. At the beginning of the road, we went through Porta San Sebastiano, which forms part of the Aurelian Walls, built in the 3rd century AD.
We had wanted to walk several miles down it to see the mausoleums and ruins along its sides, and I had also read that it was closed to vehicular traffic on Sunday. While this may in fact be the case, let me tell you, it was not enforced in any way on the Sunday we were there. To get to the deserted, pleasant parts, you have to walk through 3 miles of small roads, with cars and tour buses whizzing by, and no sidewalks to be found. We got a mile or so down, and decided to turn back for our own safety. I would love to go back one day, but next time I will be taking a taxi the first couple of miles!
This is my second post about our trip to Rome. If you’d like to see the others, click here.