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 info.roma.it
- 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 www.arteingioco.com
For information on visiting the roman houses on Monte Celio, visit www.caseromane.it