An important archaeological documentary on Ancient Rome (in English), written and directed by Gigi Oliviero, with spectacular 3D graphic reconstructions of the main monuments.
In the second century A.D. Rome was a city immense for its time, active and chaotic, beautiful and regal, the true capital of the ancient world. The heart of the city was the area over which we are now flying and today it is occupied by the remains of the Roman Forum, the Imperial Forums, the Palatine and the Colosseum.
This is the center of the public life of the city, where the Senate gathered, where the great public trials took place and where the spectacular games and events were organized. This part of the city was also where the Emperors, the all-powerful men of that age, resided. But perhaps it is better to come down to ground level and explore things more closely… We are in the heart of ancient Rome, at the foot of the Campidoglio, inside the Tabularium, the State Archive of the Roman Republic; all the important secrets and documents relating to the politics of this time were conserved in these rooms.
This building was the only construction of the Republican age which has survived. It was erected by Quinto Lutazio Catullo in 83 B.C. during the dictatorship of Silla. It was built interely of tufa and peperino and must have been very impressive with its 73 metres of lenght. The building was placed in the hill of the Campidoglio, and included several floors: the gallery of the first floor was made up of twelve doric pillars, all connected with the backwall by round arches. The architrave was in travertino and above there was a doric frieze with metope and triglyphs without basreliefs. The top floor collapsed during Medioeval times. This must also have been very spectacular and consisted of a 13 metres high gallery supported by 12 massive Corinthian columns. It was from this terrace that che powerful men of the age must have watched the important historical events which took place in the large square of the forum below.
It could seem strange, but in this part of antique Rome, close to the palace where the Emperors lived and where all the public functions of State took place, the Romans also came to play. Yes, here in this great building, the Basilica Giulia, events occurred which interested the simple cityzens who where always in search of scandals. And because there were long pauses between one case and another, many models of chess and other games had been carved on the steps. These we can still see today. This big building was the Basilica Giulia, ordered by Cesare himself. It was destroved many times by fire, but it was always rebuilt even more magnifically than before. But come, entrance is free…
The name “Basilica” can be misleading. The roman “Basilica” had nothing to do with the large Christian churches which would follow. They were large buildings dedicated mostly to public functions, first of all the administration of justice. The romans, although they were so organized and modern (for the age of which we are speaking) were extraordinarily litigious. And in this building the most important law cases took place. There, in fact, the Tribunal of the Centumvirs operated; thanks to various partitious (which divided the large space) it was possible to deal with four cases at the same time. As we said, the cases were public and especially when important people were involved, a large number of people attended them. The building was really enormous: 5 naved divided by 36 pillars built of bricks and recovered with marble. The large central hall (which was more than 80 metres long) was surrounded on four sides by two further archades and the central hall must have had three floors. The public litterally surrounded judges and the accused; it was necessary for late arrivals to sit in the tribunes on the first floor and in the side naves. We can easily imagine the confusion that such an overcrowding caused. But may be it’s better to leave… Today there is an important meeting of the Senat.
This is the Curia, seat of the famous roman Senate, something similar to our Parliament. This also was erected by Cesare and was an important place in the life of the city. Here various sacred ceremonies took place and sometimes even death sentences. The building was austere and magnificent. The lower part of the facade was decorated with slabs of marble, and the higher part with stucco imitating marble.
In the Curia there were three large buildings and a large bronze door. The one we see today is only a copy of the original which in 1600 was moved to the entrance of the San Giovanni in Laterano basilica. Let’s try to enter…
There were only 300 seats, for an assembly of 600 members, divided into three sections of tribunes. From this we can imagine that the plenary assemblies were excessively crowded and chaotic. What we see today must be very similar to the way the whole building appeared after the last reconstruction ordered by Diocleziano. It is the result of a restoration accomplished during this century, when all the medioeval elements, which had rendered the building a church dedicated to Saint Adriano, were removed. The whole hall was majestic, even if somewhat simple. It was more than 20 metres high and paved in marble. On the wall there were several niches, with columns at the sides, resting on shelves containing statues. It is here that, during the republican period, the decisions that brought Rome to dominate the world were taken, and it was in front of this building that the fundemental events for the future of the city took place.
We have seen that this part of Rome was probably the most crowded and chaotic of the city. Nonetheless not far from here there was a place where no roman would dare to enter. This is the Temple of Vesta, probably the most respected sacred place of the city. Inside it the sacred fire would perennely burn on the tripod. It was made out of a podium of roughly 15 metres in diametre, covered by marble, at the centre of which a cell surrounded by Corinthian columns was placed. The roof was in the shape of a cone and open in the centre to allow the smoke to disperse.
This is where the “Vestali” operated; they belonged to the only roman female sacerdotal college. According to a very old tradition, in fact, the delicate assignement of keeping the sacred fire was given to six young girls, chosen in tender age among patrician families. Their activity was to last for thirty years; they had to keep their virginity or they would be condemned to die. In exchange they had financial benefits and enjoyed great prestige; they had places of honour during shows, and tombs placed inside the city. Tradition had it that a condemned person could receive grace if he had fallen in with one of them. This is the big entrance hall situated in the centre of the house where the Vestali resided. It was a rectangular garden, surrounded by a two level columned arcade. At the centre there were three basins, whereas under the porch there were many statues of the Great Vestals, meaning the senior members of the college. All around there were rooms, a kitchen, numerous bathrooms all equipped with heating systems. One could say a luxurious environment when compared to the austerity of our cloisters.
We have seen that the house and the Temple of Vesta were without a doubt the most reserved places in Rome. However the area surrounding them was probably the most frequented by the roman people. The forums, in fact, were born with a precise urbanistic plan. The aim was to create centres where the people could participate activly in the public life. Therefore then can be considered very precious to the powerful man of the age who could easily exercise their power and influence the masses. It must not therefore seem strange that personages like Caesar or many other emperors spent great sums of money to purchase land and to build superb constructions. It was August, the first emperor of Rome, to want a Forum for himself. To be more precise, the forum was built after a vow was taken many years before (42 B.C.) on the eve of the battle of Filippi, where Bruto and Cassio, Cesare’s murderers, where killed. The forum of Augusto was inaugurated in 2 B.C. It wasn’t as majestic as the one that Traiano was later to build, still it boasted a splendid temple dedicated to Marte Ultore, which means vendicator. The dimensions of the temple were considerable. As is shown by three of the eight original Corinthial Columns, 15 metres in hight! In this temple the priests of Marte celebrated various rites, whereas in apposite rooms senators kept their belongings in safes. The whole complex, in any case, was born as a representative centre, serving the main purpose of glorifying the emperor and his might. This is where the Senat gathered to make declarations of war and peace; on its altar the governors would carry out sacrifices before leaving for the provinces; and finally statues of successful generals were erected, with the caryated symbolizing occupied territories. We must, however, wait for the following century to see the most spectacular of the forums.
When Trajan decided to create a space which would surpass in stateliness all constructions, the first problem to face was that of finding an appropriate area. As was true of Trajan’s very strong personality (which had brought immense success to the empire) he did not hesitate to eliminate an entire hill, the one deviding the Campidoglio from the Quirinale. The exploit was immense, considering that the level of the hill flattened (as shown by an inscription placed at its foot) is of the same hight of the famous storied column which is still standing: 30 metres height! The expense must have been enormous, but it was paid, it seems, whit the profits of the emperor’s victorious military operations.
The Forum of Trajan is built around an enormus square 300 metres in lenght and 185 in width. It resembles a roman military camp. Because of its majesty, it soon became one of the main administrative centres of the city. Laws were published here, foreign delegations welcomed, elaborete imperial and religious cerimonies were carried out and, of course, conferences were held.
As we said before, the jewel of the forum is the famous Colonna Traiana, destined to keep in a golden urne the ashes of the great Emperor. The enterior is empty, and a winding staircase takes one to the top which is adorned by a statue of Saint Peter’s, whereas, in the time of the Emperor, it naturally contained its statue.
The column is one of the best preserved roman monuments and must have been truly magnificent if one considers that the 2.500 figures engraved were all beautifully coloured. The column is completely envelopped by a freize of 200 metres, along which there is an extraordinary representation of scenes from the two wars against the Daci who inhabited what is now Romania. Both wars were won by Trajan. A sort of “marble movie”, as defined by Italo Calvino, a sculptural masterpiece which allows us to relive, as if in a mervellous ancient documentary, the various phases of the campaign.
At that time the column was surrounded by several buildings, a big temple dedicated to Trajan (even if erected after his death) and two libraries, from the windows of which it was possible to admire the scenes storied on the column. But the most important edifice closing the square was the Basilica Ulpia, built by famous arch. Apollodoro di Damasco.
The Basilica Ulpia was the largest in Rome. In fact it measured 170 by 60 square metres, and the structure of its facade is shown on this coin, which was minted by Trajan himself. The building was divided into three parts. A huge frieze in relief (representing Trajan’s triumphs) decorated its upper part. Let us now go in….
Unlike the futur Cristian churches, the entrance of the Roman basilicas was usually located on their long sides. The interior was magnificent indeed. It was divided by a nave and two double aisles and was marked by four rows of columns. In the central nave the latter were higher and made of marble, whereas the others were in cipolin. In the interior a big sculptured frieze represented Victories sacrificing bulls or decorating candelabra with garlands. The floor was splendid, alternating harmoniously discs of green and red marble. The ceiling was covered with thin bronze layers.
Also this basilica (as we have already pointed out with regard to the Julia basilica) did not serve religious purposes. Mass religious ceremonies in pagan Rome took place in the open, whereas such buildings were meeting and entertainement places, and were assigned especially to fulfill judicial functions. On the smaller side of the basilica Ulpia there was an exedra, where the peculiar ceremony for the liberation of the slaves was held.
The last basilica tht we want to visit is certainly the most famous one among those existing today. Also this time we find ourselves facing a magnificent building, whose construction was started by a mediocre Roman emperor by the name of Massenzio, who had self-proclaimed himself emperor in 306 and was displaced by Costantine in 312, after the battle at the Milvius Bridge.
It was Costantine himself who completed it and he did it in a superb way. The building occupied an area of 100 by 65 sq. metres and could be reached through a grand entance located on its southern side and made up of a portico that had four big porphyry columns, which was accessible by a flight of steps. In order to support the huge cross vaults of the central nave, some ingenious buttress systems were devised, whereas the roof was covered with tiles and pantiles. Come on now, let’s go in…
The central nave was more than thirty meters high and was covered by three huge cross vaults resting on columns almost 15 meters tall. Like other great Roman monuments, this huge building became one of the most plundered guarries for building materials in the Middle ages and the Renaissance. Even the last of these columns was remuved in 1613 by order of Paul the fifth, and was placed in the square of S. Maria Maggiore where it can be admired today.
The northern side of the nave ended with an apse, supported by two columns and having various niches filled by statues, which were framed by small columns resting on sculptured corbels. Like other basilicas in the city, its entrances were situated on its longer sides. It was only during the Christian era that a new triumphal entrance was built on its facade.
The interior was then completed by two side aisles, each one made up of three rooms, covered with strong caissoned barrel-vaults…The floor was splendidly decorated with polychromatic marbles… On the two floor rows there were huge windows for lightening the room. An enormous statue of a seated Constantine, probably made up of various materials, was located in the western apse. The body must have been in bronze, while the head, hands and feet in marble. To have an idea of its huge size, the head, which can now be seen in the Capitol, is almost three meters high. We can thus easily image the effect it must have made. It’s late and it’s time we went up to the Palatine. We have even been invited by the Emperor and we can’t keep him waiting…
After Nero’s violent death the new dynasty of the Flavian emperors decided to restore order to Rome and its Empire. So it was in this period (i. e. the second half of the first century B. C.), that Vespasian started the building of what was become the grandest royal palace of the Roman era. On this site there already was the house of Augustus, who was born on the very Palatine, but the palace under construction was to be one of the most spendid of all Roman times.
This magnificent complex was designed by the great architect Rabirio and later evolved into two distintic parts: the Domus Flavia, which was destined to entertainement, and the Domus Augustana, which was the true residence of the Emperor and its following. It was an enormous and eztremely rich building, complex that prompted the satirical writer Material (who did not spare stinging remarks against the Roman society) to say that it represented “the most beautiful thing on earth, a massive mole composed of seven hills, one on top of each other, which reached the sky”! Here lived the emperors for almost four centuries, even when the capital was moved elsewhere.
This was the facade of the Domus Flavia, that is the wing of building destined for entertainement, where the emperor usually received guests and delegations. The guests came in through a room which was used as a guardroom for the pretorians, i.e. the emperor’s private guard. The emperor then received the homages of the salutatores, friends, courtiers, various guests (among which ambassadors), in this temple-shaped building which evoked a sacred architecture. It was the so called “royal hall”, decorated by 16 white marble columns and by numerous statues in black basalt.
Next to this hall there was the so-called basilica, which also had an apse and was divided into three naves. It was actually an auditorium, where the trials that the emperor reserved for himself were held, as well as the meetings of the imperial council. The destinies of the empire and thus of the whole world were decided within these walls… The important guests then passed into a large peristyle surrounded by a colonnade of Numidian marble, that is yellow with red veins. This great open air hall was embellished at its center by an octagonal pool, in which a labyrinth of small walls created a nice geometric effect. From the peristyle, finally, the important guests reached another room, which was paved with polichromatic marbles and corresponded to the triclinium, i.e. the dining room, or the so-called “Cenatio Iovis”. This was the room where the sovereign offered dinners to the most distinguished guests with a pomp easy to imagine. As many other rooms in the palace, the hall was paved with a double floor, through which flowed hot air to ensure a perfect heating, while on the side walls two large panoramic windows gave into two symmetric rooms that were decorated with oval fountains.
The emperor sat in a higher loggia in order to dominate the whole assembly.
It’s late now. We must hurry to the Coloseum. The most important spectacles are about to start. Let us first pay homage to the Gods. We have the chance to do this in a really extraordinary temple,
This is the Temple of Venus and Rome. It was personally designed by Hadrian, who inaugurated it in 135 A.D. The work must have not been appreciated by the great architect Apollodorus, (the designer of Trajan’s Forum), who dared to criticize openly the emperor and was therefore exiled and later killed. With its exceptional dimensions (145×100 metres), it was the largest temple in Rome. Unique example of Roman architecture, the temple consisted of two cells that were oriented opposite to each other, with adjacent botton walls. The reason must have been symbolic, as it represented the approach of the Goddess Roma to the great progenitrix of the City and the Empire. The image must have been both powerful and spectacular: it was in fact the only temple that had ten huge marble columns on its front, which supported vaults decorated with stuccoed caissons. Splendid polichromatic marble floors completed the ensemble. But let’s go in. The interior is worth a visit… The temple’s shape is typically Greek, accordin to the Hellenistic fashion followed during Hadrian’s time. On the podium’s long side, two double colonnades encircled the sacred area, opening at the centre into two proplylaea. This was the apse, where the statue of the goddes was placed. The walls are marked by large prophyry columns. Other smaller porphyry columns frame some niches meant to hold other statues. The floor is particularly rich and spectacular and is made for splendid polichromatic marbles. The ceiling, decorated with stuccoed caissons, and the apse’s basin make the room really solemn and spectacular and is made of splendid polichromatic marbles. The ceiling, decorated with stuccoed caissons, and the apse’s basin make the room really solemn and spectacular. Now we must really get going, or we shall miss the best places…
The Flavian amphitheater, whose construction was ordered by the emperor Vespasian and was inaugurated in 80 a.C. by his son Titus, was the heart of the city and because of its beauty it was destined to become the very symbol of Rome’s grandeur. 100.000 cubic meters of travertine were needed to build it, and a caravan of more than 200 carts a day shuttled in and out from the distant quarries of Tivoli for five years in a row. And yet the builders could finish this enormous task in only eight years. No expenses were spared to embellish this monument. The outer ring is almost 50 metres high and is decorated with hundreds of arches, each one of which was adorned with a statue. The aesthetic care shown by the unknown architects who conceived it was accounted by the various styles of the capitals of the semicolumns that closed the arches of the first three floors: the first was a stylized Doric style, the second an elegant Ionic style, and the third a refined Corinthian style.
It’s time for us to go in. The show is about to begin…
The interior was really magnificent and up to its fame. Its dimensions are exeptional considering the time when it was built. It is oval-shaped and the maximum diameter of the ellipse measures 188 metres, whereas the smaller diameter is 156 metres long. The stairway’s vaults were painted in gold and purple, the passages were paved with marble and decorated with several mosaics, the partition walls were even set with precious stones, while the curtains and the pillows were made of silk.
According to calculations the amphitheater could hold more than 50.000 seated spectators, who could have left the place in a few minutes in case of an emergency.
The uge cavea was divided in four rows of tiers, which were all carefully numbered and divided according to social status: from the imperial platform to the sectors assigned to the senators, the knights, the vestals and so on to the common people. Women occupied the higher part of the tiers, perhaps to avoid a promiscuity that might have led to serious disorders.
Nowadays some inscriptions still testify to the seats reserved to various social groups. Notwithstanding the large size, the view from all seat rows was perfect. A high net protected the spectators from possible assaults by the wild animals.
During sunny days the whole amphitheater was covered with a hude “velarium” that provided shade and collness to all specators.
Its unfurling required a tremendous effort, even though its mechanism is clouded in mystery. Probably a big metallic ring was lifted by hundreds of ropes that pivoted on poles placed on the external perimeter’s top. Large cloth “sails” were then unfolded with a grand collective procedure performed by more than a thousand expert sailors that were expressly sent from Misenum, which was the seat of the imperial fleet of the Thyrrenean sea.
And while the spectators were excited by the performances of famous gladiators, a dramatic and frantic underworld organized the next spectacle just below the immense wooden platform covered with sand, which made up the arena. Considering the technology of those times which could count only on human labour, it may seem incredible today that surch a multitude of wild animals could be handled symultaneously. The animals were conveyed in groups by means of hoists and chutes, to get them to the arena, where they arrived in a state of fright. Once they reached their inevitable destiny, they were carried away and eliminated with the same efficiency and organization.
In order to ensure such impressive organization, the entire arena was surrounded by a great number of facilities capable of providing all kinds of services: barracks for the gladiators, armouries, warehouses, besides of course an infirmary and the inevitable morgue…
What the Romans perhaps never saw were the much recalled martyrdoms of the chirstians, who were never sacrificed in this arena. But thousands of gladiators died here. They were real war and death professionals, who often became the idols of the crowds and were jelously protected by their trainers, as they could make them earn a fortune… Let us leave this historical moment with the memory of these courageous men who were resigned to their destiny. A moment that belongs to remote memories, to which all mankind of our civilization owes something.