Art & Culture (le cose belle) / Historical Sites (l'antichità) / Opinion & Comment (pensieri e perplessità)

In which we stand where the gladiators stood. I’m so not kidding about this.

Or, if you want goosebumps on a startlingly hot Roman Sunday afternoon, this is how you get them.

Constantine

The Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum – how The Roman Guy showcases the Roman Empire.

Let me get this out of the way, YiR-ers: nobody pays us to write reviews. Writing reviews isn’t even the artery of YiR, which is actually that we just love to ramble. Kidding! We do this because we love this city, we love to write, and we love to share it with you. We know Rome is chaotic and that in a beautiful, tangled, impatient capital such as this one, it is surprisingly easy to lose your footing if you are not from here, or sometimes, even if you are from here. Since, for us, Rome is one of the ways that we keep time with our hearts, it makes us unbearably sad when people come here and do not love it. Because of this, in what little way we can, we gift her to you, in the form of recommendations, advice, personal expressions of love and frustration. I know my country does not always work so well. But whether you live here or are on a whirlwind vacation, if there is a moment where you are standing very still and all of a sudden you are overwhelmed with the sheer reality that you are walking where the Caesars walked, in a place that once owned most of the modern world, where the greatest poets and rulers are buried and which is paid homage to even in the words of the English language that we speak every day, then Rome has found her place in your heart. In the hopes that you can find that moment, in your own way and your own time, if we stumble across something particularly good, we’ll let you know about it.

In this case, in comes The Roman Guy, a tour company that specializes in trips all over Italy. They can tell you the details better than I, so you can check out their website here if you’d like to. We took their Colosseum Dungeons tour, because, with a title like that do I need to explain our reasoning? Most tours of the Colosseum will absolutely not take you to the restricted areas, which are, by the rules of the universe, always the ones you really want to see. Allow me to clarify. When I say we embarked on a tour of the Colosseum, I mean the entire Colosseum, which is unheard of – including the dungeons, the arena floor, and the third level (the tippy top). We walked the bowels of one of the most feared, dangerous places in the world (if you lived during the Roman Empire, which, bear with me here, we totally did between 2 and 5 pm this afternoon), stepped uncertainly out onto the arena floor where wild animals and humans once faced each other as enemies, and then, two massive wrought-iron gates later, walked up onto the last level of what is left of the Colosseo. So when I say we toured the Colosseum, what I actually mean is, I’m a gladiator.

all the way to the bottom

The sun outside was causing everyone to simmer at a slow boil, but the underground was quite cool (ghosts! Kidding. Or am I?), almost shiveringly so, and as you walk down deeper, it becomes more difficult to place yourself. Our guide, Eva, who was lovely and well-informed, cheerfully told us that this is where the gladiators, slaves, and animals found their way into the arena. She walked us to the entrance of a long tunnel, and then she said, picture yourselves there. And so we did, and at about step three, you go from thinking that you’d like a nice sandwich to realizing that thousands of years ago, thousands of men took these very steps, some of them slaves and some of them free men (and is that what makes the difference). At the end of these steps, where I will turn to the sun and smile, some of them died. Most of them. Were they scared? They must have been. Were they angry, were they defiant, were they beautiful? Is that the essence of a man, when he stands against a beast or even another man (or is that the same thing sometimes), and he reacts? Is this, then, what it is to be brave? What about when you put a helmet so heavy on a man that he can barely breathe, and so he that survives is he who is the quickest? And what of when the chosen, who survive, are actually just the ones who would be too expensive to kill off?

In the footsteps of the ancient

In the footsteps of the ancient.

Eva tells stories. I won’t tell you all of her stories, because that wouldn’t be fair, but I will tell you that she told us of a hundred lions lifted up onto the platforms at the same time, in one single roar. Of staged fights between bulls and elephants, of a tiger so vicious he killed as many men as came before him, but who loved his trainer so much that he would lick his hands. There is a lesson there somewhere, I think. You could fill the Colosseum with water and stage naval battles, although that was mostly done in Circus Maximus. Animals were brought in from all over the world, and nobody had to pay to see these gruesome games. The Colosseum was where the Roman emperors played out their greatest card, their sheer power. Look what I bring you, what I can gift you for free, simply for being a Roman, how kind an emperor I am. And also, Roman, now you are a spectator, but if you defy me, you may find yourself in the arena. These are some of the tales that Eva weaves for us, and then, as if in protection of her people (and of mine, and I am grateful), she reflects that amphitheatres such as this were copied all over the world, that today’s corrida is not, after all, so far from this. So lest you think that the genius barbarians were only the Romans, we have pages of history of many cultures to flip through.

Inside the very top

Inside the very top

I don’t want to spoil the rest of the tour for you, because it’s worth it to go and take those steps. Suffice it to say that we walked through the Palatine Hill, where it is fabled that Rome has its origins, and which is both the center of its seven hills and the etymological origin of the present-day word ‘palace’. This residence of the most high had heated walls, floors, thermal baths, countless comforts and luxuries that we still use today in our own homes. We ambled down through the Roman Forum, stood where the ashes of Julius Caesar were scattered. We talked about how thinking, dreaming, free time itself was a privilege of the upper classes, that which separated a free man from a slave. That water was free for all Romans from the public fountains, but that to have water privately accessible in your own home you had to have the blessing of the Emperor. Gardens flourished only where he said they could, and this, also, was a form of wielding power.

From the arena...

One of the last things we discussed, on a great road down along the Forum that still has the original stones, and so, literally, we take the same steps as our ancestors, is how the Roman Empire fell because it failed to renovate itself. This gives me pause, because I fear Italy is repeating this mistake, but, pardon the terrible pun, this is not the forum for this sort of thought.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

If you’re looking for a beautiful way to spend an afternoon in Rome, steeped in a place that lends itself gladly to stories of roaring lions, with a guide who will also know how to make you laugh and not make it all sound like a history lesson, then The Roman Guy tour is a fantastic option. The administrative staff is professional and friendly (hi Nina!), they don’t treat their guests like just another number, and their prices are super reasonable for what they’re offering. All of this being said, YiR-ers, if you have gone on a Roman Guy tour, or go on one in the future, we want to hear what you think! Send us your thoughts, as always, at younginrome@gmail.com.

At about 5:30, when the three-and-a-half-hour tour is over, I walk back up Celio to head home. I turn and look down at the dirt, scuffing my sandal, and then look up at the mammoth of the Colosseo in front of me, so out of time, so perfectly centered. For a moment, I think I can hear the whisper of a legend speaking of friends, Romans, countrymen, and I roll my eyes at my own cliché. But I can hear the rattle of the chariots, the cries of merchants as they sell their goods, dust swirling around cloaks dragging through the earth. In that second, I feel nostalgia for a time that is not my own, caught up where Rome veils her time very thinly. The laugh of a tourist running by brings me back to the 2014 that surrounds me, and as I hear the yells of vendors selling water and panini, and the hustle and bustle of the city around me, calling in celebration people from all walks of life, I wonder if that much has really changed after all. And I am so joyful to be home.

from the 3rd level

2017 update: Guys, if three and a half hours is a bit too much of a time commitment for you, TRG now also offers an express Colosseum Arena Floor Tour, which focuses on the VIP Colosseum access and doesn’t explore the Palatine Hill (although you can opt to end the tour inside the Forum, so you can have a wander on your own after the tour wraps up). This option is two and a half hours, and leaves more time for gelato.

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