A brief history
He fiddled while Rome burned
According to the legend, Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus. For a long time, Rome stayed an insignificant town. Gaul invaders ruined the city in 390 BC, but Rome was rebuilt quickly. During the Punic Wars (264-146 BC), Rome started to grow into a metropolis. The people of Rome began to colonise Spain, northern Africa and Greece.
At the time Rome was devastated by the fires of 64 AD (supposedly emperor Nero played his lyre while watching the city burn), it was considered the capital of the world. The emperors succeeded each other in a speedy rhythm, each of them marking the city with monuments we can still witness today. The city lost its status in 330 AD, when Constantine the Great called out Constantinople as capital of the Roman Empire. Rome was plundered by invading German tribes in the fifth century and stayed relatively trivial for the next centuries. The city blossomed as it was made Papal capital, but the Renaissance finally brought the colour back to the Roman faces. Near the end of the 15th century Rome went beyond Florence as centre of the Renaissance.
The French took Rome in 1797, but the Pope recaptured his position after the Italian nationalists ‘liberated’ Italy in 1815 from the Napoleonic forces. The Papal States lasted until 1870, when Italian king Victor Emmanuel II annexed Rome. The Pope was granted the papacy Vatican City as an independent nation-state (officially not before 1929). In the next year 1871, Rome was appointed capital of new Italy. In World War II, Rome was one of the cities that was not bombed. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city was gathering place of rightwing terrorist groups as the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigade), responsible for the death of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.
Rome wasn’t built in one day
”It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than of the Empire”
Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Its large history has supplied Rome with lots of significant monuments. An overview:
- The Coliseum (Colosseo in Italian, after a statue of the Colossus) is an amphitheatre where battling gladiators and Christians running away from lions entertained the Roman spectators. The enormous building was built by emperors Vespasian and Titus, being finished in 82 AD. The stadium contained 50,000 seats. Despite its serious decline over the centuries, the Coliseum is still a majestic construction.
- When I visited Rome a few years ago, I was especially impressed by the Forum Romanum and the Palatine. This complex of ancient buildings used to be the centre of the Roman Empire more than two thousand years ago. The forum in the middle of the city – next to the Coliseum – started off as a single building, but Julius Caesar and his successors kept on expanding. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the forum was destroyed. Walls and roofs were used as construction material for churches and the entire forum complex even got buried twelve meters under the ground, as new buildings were erected on top of the ruins. In 1871 archaeologists started to rebuild the Forum Romanum, now resulting in one of the most significant visible leftovers from Roman history.
- The Pantheon was built under Emperor Hadrian's reign, from 125 to 126 AD. The original temple was built by Agrippa in 27 BC, but it was burned down in 80 AD, restored and burned again. The current construction is Hadrian’s. After Rome’s conversion to Catholicism, the Pantheon was made a Catholic Church. Today, the Pantheon is probably the best preserved of all Rome’s ancient buildings, with religious services still held in it. The Pantheon also contains the grave of artist Raphael. I was rather disappointed by the Pantheon ‘though, which was partly due to its location in a dreary and crowded city area.
- St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican hill is the centre of the Roman Catholic world. The church building was constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, offering room to 50,000 people. Usually one of the most crowded places on earth is the St. Peter’s square in front of the basilica. Since 1870, the Vatican uses this location for Papal ceremonies, such as the Urbi et Orbi message at Easter. By the way, did you know that the word Urbi in the term (meaning "for the city and for the world") refers to Rome? Urbi et Orbi signifies that a papal document is addressed not only to the city of Rome but to the entire Catholic world.
- Built between 1475 and 1483, the Sistine Chapel originally served as Palatine Chapel. Rectangular in shape, the chapel has purposely the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon as given in the Old Testament. Celebrated Renaissance artists as Piero di Cosimo, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio executed the wall paintings. Michelangelo repainted the ceiling, completing his massive work between 1508 and 1512. The centre of the ceiling contains one of the most famous paintings of all time, The Creation of Adam. He painted the Last Judgement over the altar between 1535 and 1541. The Sistine Chapel now is part of the Vatican Museum.
- Circus Maximus has been called the largest spectator venue ever. The huge stadium allegedly held 250,000 people, although the remains suggest that there may have only been 150,000 seats there. Presumably a large number stood, and a greater number sat on the hills surrounding the circus. Remains of the seating can still be seen, with the Palatine hill in the background.
- Other major tourist attractions include the baroque Trevi Fountain, the rococo Spanish Steps near the Piazza di Spagna, and Villa Borghese.
All roads lead to Rome
Rome is situated in a region called Lazio, in the west of Central Italy. Eastwards lies the Apennine mountain range, while twenty kilometres west of the city centre you’ll encounter the Mediterranean Sea. Rome is capital of the Republic of Italy and also of the province called Rome. The city is built at the eastside of the river Tiber, on the seven hills of Rome (Aventino, Capitolino or Campidoglio, Celio, Esquilino, Palatino, Quirinale and Viminale), all between 45 and 65 metres high. West of the Tiber rests the Vatican.
The huge city is built around the historic centre (Centro Storico). All main monuments are west of the Central Station (Stazione Termini).
When in Rome, do as the Romans do
- Befana on January 6 is an alternative to Santa Claus, or as we know in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas. The good witch Befana gives away presents to the children of Rome on this day. Centre of the festivities is Piazza Navona.
- On April 21, the birthday of Rome is celebrated. Each year the Romans rejoice the fact that Remus and Romulus allegedly founded Rome in 753 BC. The Romans place candles on the Aventine hill, with fireworks at the Tiber.
- The city locale Trastevere parties for a week in July when it’s the Noantri Festival. A statue of Lady Madonna is the centre of the festivities. Once upon a time found in the nets of fishermen, now the Vergine del Carmine is paraded through the streets, accompanied by food and drinks, street theatre and fireworks.
- In September Rome celebrates its International Theatre Festival. For four days, the city is one bigger-than-life theatre piece with acting societies performing all over Rome.
- A true Roman Catholic Christmas is probably best practised at St. Peter’s Basilica. Reservations at the Vatican Tourist Office are an absolute necessity of course.
The Flag of Rome
The Flag of Rome has its own specific historical meaning. The ancient Roman emblem, the flag of Rome (with the letters SPQR) was called the "fascii". From that Benito Mussolini took the name of his plan for political power, fascism.
The current flag of Rome was adopted in 1860 and is dark red and yellow (tending to gold) in vertical halves, as is embodied in the kit of the city’s key football club AS Roma. The ancient flag was also red by the way, with the letters SPQR in yellow. The emblem resembles this, but contains a gold crown above it.