Category: bija-knowles - Part 11

Race to Preserve Nero’s Golden House

The Domus Aurea, also known as the Golden House, was the emperor Nero‘s grand palace, with more than 150 rooms gilded, frescoed and clad in marble. Spanning an area of eight hectares, it was built over the Oppio, Celio, Palatine and Esquiline hills in Rome in 65 AD, following the great fire that destroyed 10 of the city’s 14 neighbourhoods. When Nero killed himself just three years after its construction, the Domus Aurea was opened as a public park. Some of it was destroyed immediately and the giant lake, known as the Stagnis Neronis, was filled so that the foundations for another grand building could be laid: the Flavian amphitheatre, or Colosseum.

It wasn’t until Trajan took power between 98-117 AD that the Golden House was finally filled with earth and Trajan’s baths built on top. But this destructive act was also the palace’s saving grace. The earth-filled rooms survived intact and untouched between 104 AD until they were rediscovered at the end of the 15th century.

Renaissance artists such as Raffaello and Ghirlandaio visited the underground rooms and made copies of some of the frescoes at that time their sketches, giving rise to the grotesque artistic movement, provide important evidence of the Domus Aurea’s interior as the paintings in many of the rooms have been ruined by water seeping through the walls.

These days the structure is closed (despite brief periods when it has been open to academics and specialists). But Rome’s heritage ministry is hoping to breath a new lease of life into the site. Restoration work, costing more than 3 million Euro, began at the start of June and they hope to reopen the site by 2011. The works will include several projects for protecting the structure from water, including a complete excavation of the area above the Domus Aurea and a drainage system to divert rainwater away from the site. The site referred to today as the Domus Aurea is in fact the first floor of the original palace. The ground floor was stripped of its marble and precious adornments in the years following Nero’s death and the walls were reinforced to provide a sturdier foundation for Trajan‘s baths to be built on top. The second floor of the palace was largely destroyed to make way for the baths.

Photo by Leon Reed.

Birthday Celebrations Roman Style

Birthday Candles and Controversy

Every year on the 21st of April, Rome celebrates its own beginnings with historical re-enactments and musical events. Since the city was founded 2762 years ago it has almost constantly been the scene of political power struggles and conflict. So it seemed appropriate that, this year, the birthday celebration was itself dogged by controversy and accusations.

The highlight of the celebrations was a music and light show dubbed ‘Romagnificat’ by its organisers. To begin with, the four-lane road that Mussolini built through the Forum area was closed to traffic and, as darkness fell, the surrounding street-lights failed to blink themselves on. Thousands of people gathered in the darkness around the perimeter fences of the ancient sites between the Colosseum and piazza Venezia.

First the eerie music started up a white grand piano shone against the dark backdrop of the Trajan Markets (a semi-circular building with a double layer of arches near via dei Fori Imperiali). Then slowly, one by one, the monuments of the Forum the Basilica of Maxentius, the temple of Antonius and Faustina, the Arch of Septimus Severus, the Temple of Saturn were lit up. As far as light-shows go, this one was pretty spectacular. And, so far, nothing that could possibly stir up any trouble, surely?

The Face of Rome?

The next part of the show saw scenes from one of Italy’s most iconic films, Roma Citta’ Aperta (about Italy’s Resistance movement in the second World War), projected onto the walls of the Trajan Forum and the Trajan Markets. This too was spectacular. Unfortunately some scenes from the film show footage of Mussolini declaring Italy’s entrance into World War Two from his balcony in Rome’s piazza Venezia. This is undoubtedly a moment from the city’s rich history but some voices in the Italian press found that a two-storey high projection of Il Duce’s face onto one of Rome’s most historic buildings made them choke on their birthday cake. The next day La Repubblica reported calls from Walter Verini, the left-wing Democratic Party deputy, for the city’s right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, to apologise to the Roman people for ‘insulting the city’s memory’.

Matricide, Fratricide and Genocide

This raises an interesting question: to what extent should we edit the city’s history, wallpapering over any unsavoury characters or past events? Should we conscientiously remember the bad with the good? Maybe the Democratic Party leaders are right in finding the image of a fascist dictator inappropriate as part of a city’s birthday celebrations. It’s certainly not the image you want to send out to the rest of the world, is it? Then again, Mussolini’s story is inextricably intertwined with that of Rome.

Looking back over the city’s three millennia, its history is riddled with violence, murder, betrayal and manipulation and that was on a good day. The legend of its murky beginnings tells the story of abandoned twins, Romulus and Remus. Their mother, a king’s daughter who had inadvertently conceived them with the god Mars, left them to die on the banks of the river Tiber. All perfectly normal so far. However, they were found by a she-wolf who took them to safety. They were then brought up by shepherds and eventually founded a settlement on the banks of the river where they had been left to die many years previously. Power struggles and violence are present from the very start of Rome’s history. To ensure his own position as ruler of the new-founded city, Romulus killed his own twin.

The brutality of Roman history up until the founding of the Republic, right through to the fall of the Empire, is well documented. The Empire’s expansion was at the expense of other cultures and cities for example, 146 BC saw the city of Carthage annihilated and the majority of its one million inhabitants mercilessly killed (just 50,000 survived and were sold into slavery). This was followed by the brutal siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, in which more than one million Jewish citizens were slaughtered. Ruthless murder was notoriously rife among the ruling elite: in 44 BC, the dictator Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by his senators, while the Emperor Nero had his own mother, Agrippina, killed in 59 AD.

Culture Capital

Gratuitous violence is as much a part of Rome’s history as the finer aspects of the city’s society. Of course the Romans are remembered for their inspirational architecture, as well as their innovation in constructing roads and aqueducts. Their mastery of artistic techniques and sculpture were remarkable, as well as their development of philosophy, literature and theatre. Rome is where the seed of Christianity finally took root and flourished, changing the moral mindset of western European cultures for the next two thousand years. Where promiscuity and killing had been the order of the day in the pagan society, attitudes changed as the Romans themselves adopted the new religion Rome had its first Christian emperor, Constantine I, in 306 AD and he passed an edict declaring religious tolerance in 313 AD.

Rome has always generated power-hungry, greedy politicians, but it has also been the centre of cultural revolutions. The city, as the centre of Italy and the papal seat, also played a pivotal role in Italy’s Renaissance period. It was home to Michelangelo during his adulthood and still bears his mark in the piazza del Campidoglio, St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel as well as many other locations.

As the capital of the Italian republic (it was designated the capital of the newly-unified country in 1871), Rome has been the centre of political power, the centre of the Catholic world and the focal point of culture, arts and heritage. From the 15th century onwards, Rome has been a magnet for world-class sculptors, architects and artists.

With so many facets, Rome is genuinely a city with ‘infinite variety’, which is definitely something to celebrate on your 2762nd birthday. The only question is: do we really want to see Benito Mussolini’s face lighting up the Forum?

Getting to the Sites Other Tourists Cannot Reach

Have you ever wondered how a gladiator might have felt waiting in the wings of the Colosseum, ready for his turn to fight? Or what it might have been like to live in a Roman apartment block, with its claustrophobic corridors, precarious steps and cool marble floors? Visitors come to Rome with all sorts of expectations but it’s hard to get a feel for life 2,000 years ago when you’re competing for camera space with hoards of fellow tourists.

Of course many visitors to Italy’s capital have got different ideas of what makes a good trip. Last week 67,000 football fans descended on the capital to watch Manchester United and Barcelona battle it out in the final of the Champions League. While the English supporters left disappointed, many may have felt lucky to have escaped without a stab in the buttocks apparently the latest craze among Roman football hooligans.

More run-of-the-mill tourists are in less danger of getting a ‘puncicata’. And their expectations are easily satisfied by seeing the Roman Forum, a plate of spaghetti in Trastevere and an ice cream from the legendary San Crispino.

Hidden Rome what’s it all about?

But about the visitors who want to see something else, dig a bit deeper and experience something totally different? Well, that is what Hidden Rome is all about a week of culture dubbed ‘Roma Nascosta‘ by the organisers. It’s an initiative to help tourists and Romans get more access to the out-of-the-way places usually neglected by the masses. Thirty ‘hidden’ archaeological sites some of them rarely seen by the public are opening their gates for the last week of May. But don’t worry if you’ve missed it the week launches the summer season when many of the sites will be open periodically (visits are at set times and you need to book in advance).

Gladiator changing room small talk

One of these sites is the Ludus Magnus. Right next to the Flavian Amphiteatre (that’s the Colosseum to you and me), this is a much overlooked archaeological site sunk several metres below street level and guarded by railings, though it’s open to the elements. To be honest, it doesn’t look like much to the uninitiated eye surely just a few brick ruins, now home to Rome’s scraggier looking cats and, sadly, resting ground for decaying cans of soft drink and discarded plastic bottles. At least, that is what it looked like to me.

On closer inspection, the Ludus Magnus offers a fascinating and chilling insight into the organisation and human training that went into the bloody spectacles where gladiators were pitted against each other (or sometimes against wild animals) in the name of entertainment. Our guide, Fabiana, showed us the changing rooms is this where condemned slaves or Christians would have been handed their shield and trident before being pushed through the long dark tunnel that lead straight into the arena and to almost certain death? Or where the winning fighters would come to take off their heavy metal breastplates, stitch their wounds and douse themselves with cold water after a long sweaty fight on a sweltering summer evening, with the cheers of 50,000 Roman punters still ringing in their ears?

The original Fight Club

As Fabiana pointed out original marble steps, arches supporting water pipes and a fountain, these modest ruins started to take shape as the gym and training ground for the gladiators. The Ludus Magnus was the premises of one of the most famous gladiator ‘schools’ in the city. There were several other schools, including the Ludus Gallicus and the Ludus Matutinus. In fact, none of them were anything more than prisons with strict and exhausting physical discipline. They housed and trained up to 2,000 prisoners.

The semi-circular structure at the south side of the site was a mini arena where trainee fighters would put their moves into practice before taking part in a real battle, or where seasoned champion gladiators would perfect their net-and-dagger techniques. Most of the practice arena is now buried underneath a street of modest cafes offering beer and panini to tired sight-seers. This map shows how little of the Ludus Magnus is visible today (and how it would have looked originally). It dates back to the beginnings of the Colosseum, built after Nero’s days in the 70s AD. The last recorded gladiatorial game to be held there was in 438 AD and the Ludus Magnus would also have fallen out of use after that date.

Not just another house viewing

Another site open to the public during Hidden Rome week was the Roman houses underneath the Church of Saints John and Paul (Case dei SS Giovanni e Paolo). Just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum, this multi-storey apartment building, now below street level, is a peaceful and cool haven from the bustling crowds. Of course, we all like looking around other people’s houses after all, getting to have a nose around other people’s bathrooms and kitchens is about the only fun thing about house-hunting (or is that just me?). The houses on the Caelian hill (monte Celio) put a new spin on real-estate viewing, and they certainly provide fertile ground for our imaginations to piece together a picture of what their original occupants must have been like.

The visit starts at street level, on what would have been the upper levels of the apartment block. A rough marble floor, made of rare marble pieces from far-flung parts of the empire, suggests that the occupants had money to spend on their interiors. Some of the beautifully preserved frescoes back this up. Our enthusiastic guide Massimiliano did an admirable job of breathing life into the rooms, explaining that the site comprised houses dating over several centuries of Roman history.

The original second century AD houses were expanded and developed in the third century and eventually became the home of John and Paul, two officers in the court of Constantine I. As Christians, they were beheaded during the rule Julian the Apostate (361-363), the last Roman emperor to reject Christianity as an official religion. The martyred Saints John and Paul were buried at their home and the house became a site of pilgrimage. The Christian senator Pammachius then built a basilica on top of the house in 398 AD and the church’s foundations were driven straight through much of the building beneath, making it uninhabitable.

Fourth century censorship

In one of the upper rooms of the house, frescoes of naked men, painted in more pagan days, had scandalised the devout Pammachius, who insisted on having the naked men airbrushed almost beyond recognition. Other rooms are decorated with equally impressive frescoes. Paintings on two walls of the nymphaeum show a marine scene of Venus or Proserpina surrounded by cherubs, while the room of the Orator is decorated with impressive death masks, bizarre goat monsters and other motifs. These beautifully painted frescoes speak volumes about the tastes, beliefs and pass times of the building’s early owners. After the basilica was built on top, the house was abandoned and remained hidden until 1887, when Father Germano of Saint Stanislao excavated underneath the church, and found a series of decorated rooms dating back to the early Roman empire.

Other hidden sites in Rome

The Ludus Magnus and the Roman houses on the Caelian Hill are just two of the hidden archaeological sites of Rome that were highlighted during Hidden Rome. Over the coming weeks and months I’ll be visiting as many hidden sites as I can, so keep reading this blog for tips on seeking out Rome’s more out-of-the-way archaeological treasures. Some of the other sites that will be open for arranged visits during the summer months are listed below.

  • Mitreo di Santa Prisca a temple dedicated to the pagan cult of Mithras, beneath the Church of Saint Prisca. Visits arranged via Pierreci.
  • Mitreo di Santo Stefano Rotondo a Mithraic temple beneath the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo on the Caelian Hill. Visits arranged via Pierreci.
  • The Round Temple in the Foro Boario (the old meat market of ancient Rome), dates to the first century BC. Visits arranged via Pierreci.
  • Monte Testaccio an artificial hill made of broken amphorae, a sign of the intense commercial activity near the port of ancient Rome. Visits arranged through Zetema or
  • Necropolis of Santa Rosa two large burial chambers inside the Vatican city dating back to the early Augustan period until the late imperial age. For visits contact Zetema.
  • The Pyramid of Cestius a burial chamber and monument built in 18-12 BC for Caio Cestio, a magistrate in the early empire. Contact Pierreci for visits.

For information on visiting the Ludus Magnus visit

For information on visiting the roman houses on Monte Celio, visit