Bitter Roman lives?


The center of the world. Well, the western world anyway. It was a humble city state like many others, but arose in a few centuries to be the capital of one of the largest terrestrial empires known to man. Until the Mongol hordes came along… but that would be a different story.

Rome sights

It is important to note that while a great part of the archeological structures were left intact, many were “re-discovered” only in the last 150 years. These discoveries led to the entire center of Rome in and around the Vatican to be exempted from developments of all kind. In fact, Rome has many World Heritage sites, with the city granted a Cultural heritage site (due in part to the numerous ancient structures).

Roma Arch of Constantine1
Many triumphal arches

In last decade, fiction movies such as “The Gladiator” has glorified the histories of Rome. But was it all true about the blood and gore? Was such a terrible state of existence the fate of the plebian folks who lived during those centuries of Roman ascendency? That, was the reason we spent a full four days in the eternal city to find out.

Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city remained a prize for the various marauding barbarians that came in waves, each occupying and then sacking the city in turn. Despite all that destruction, the city has retained one of the most intact archaeological collections of buildings and structures from that era. Imagine stumbling upon a 2,000-year structure in the middle of a street without even knowing it exists! This was our experience in Rome.

But with so much to see and do, where is one to start?

Fountains of youth?

Now one of the most visited places in Rome must be the Trevi fountain. Toss a coin in the fountain and you will surely come back to see Rome again. Over the years, the fountain has accumulate such a huge quantity of coins that there are two scheduled cleanups per day – removing what amounts to a tiny fortune in coins from all around the world to be given to charity. The next time you visit Rome, make sure you toss a coin into the fountain. We did and we intend to be back.

Roma Trevi3
Don’t drink from here though

But our story isn’t just about the Trevi fountain. You see, when we meet with friends we are often told that we have not changed much in physical appearance over the years. Suan in particular, retained quite a youthful look with persona to match. So the inevitable question would boil down to “how do you do it?” – ie how did we seemingly retained our youthful looks?

Roma Trevi1
Did you throw a coin to return?

The story goes like this.

We were wondering well beyond the Pantheon, far from the Trevi fountain. There we chanced upon Piazza Navona. In the summer time (July it was), the day was hot. Very hot. We were cheapos, not willing to shell out too many of our precious Italian liras for bottled water.

And the blazing Roman sun was beating us into a near pulp when we found this little fountain at a corner of the piazza. An old woman gestured to us two parched souls in Italian, and we understood her as she meant for us to take some water from the fountain to quench our thirst.

And so we did. The water tasted sweet and came just out of a pipe in the wall. Just like any public water fountain right?

Roma Piazza Spagna2
Fountains even at the Spanish steps

The next day when we went to the same spot, that pipe was nowhere to be found! Could we have mistakenly wandered to the wrong place? No way. The main Fontana del Moro is right there where we were looking at it in the same angle where we took the water the day before. What the h…? Since that time, we’ve been told that we did not seem to have aged a single day.

Maybe it was the lack of stress from having children… Anyway, you get the picture and believe it or not. Perhaps someday we will solve the mystery when we return to Rome for a second dose and take photo if we find that tiny fountain, again.

Civic district of the ancient Romans

Roma Imperial Foro 3
Folks did business here!

If you have limited time in Rome, what would you do? Fret not, for many of the monuments are all within walking distance from each other as you might have noticed in the map we swiped from the internet and presented earlier in this essay. The Foro Imperiali, Forum, Coliseum and Capitol buildings are all within a kilometer’s radius from each other.

And we start with the Forum.

Today, forums may not be physical place where political business is conducted, but it continues to describe the exchange of ideas. Interesting how the meaning of words descend from these ancient times huh? And today though we now have internet-based forms of the ancient practice in our modern era. Same concept, different media.

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This Roman Forum was not just a place for the completion of commercial transactions. It was also a public space where temples and the site of important and impressive government buildings. Built over by successive regimes from the republic to the imperial era, the forum is also the site where triumphal processions came to an end point. To the extent huge and intricate arches were built such as one from the Emperor Constantine.

Roma Victor Emmanuel 1
A monument to Italy’s reunification hero!

Today just north of this ancient forum is yet another monument testament to the politics of the times. That is the Victor Emmanuel monument, built to commemorate a newly united Italy’s first King in well near 1½ millennia.

As one makes one’s way down, one would see the Palatine hill. Here we saw many folk painters using water colors. Bargained really hard with one who was in Roman costume for two pieces of his art. And we can imagine why they come here to paint. Look at the ruins. Don’t they just inspire your imagination? Ok, so they too need to make a living but we do admire them for doing what they do…

But the ancient Romans,

They make MMA look tame

And just as we have our distractions today, an average Roman’s life was also filled with activities ranging from vice to entertainment. In fact, being a Roman citizen had its privileges. Slaves and foreigners (such as barbarians) are not entitled to many of the benefits of freebies from the government, much like today.

Do you know the origin of the term “bread and circuses”?

It was a reference to the times when Roman governments had degenerated, trying to keep its populace happy through freebies as we referred to. You see, the empire had ceased expanding and the citizenry was no longer gripped by the euphoria of foreign conquests. The ruling regime resorted to keeping the citizenry distracted, engrossed if you will on other things other than political activism. And so the Coliseum was a place of entertainment to divert attention. See? Politicians since ancient times have been using such diversionary tactics to keep themselves in power. Either that, or war (what is it good for? Absolutely nothing…).

A place where plebian crowds would be placated. So now you know. And as long as the money lasts.

The structure is very complex, as you can see in the pictures. A series of chambers and passages line under the coliseum, facilitating the movement of people and animals alike. Imagine the heat, the sweat, the flies… Crowds thronging the Coliseum in those days, chanting for their favorite “Gladiator” as they fought each other to the death! Now that is really blood sport. MMA fellas, you ready for this?

Just as it would have been yesteryear, today it is equally hard to get into the Coliseum. Battle hard against tourists from all around the world to get onto a queue that seem to snake on forever. We were fortunate, that as part of a tour group had the privilege of a pre-booked entry time. For independent travelers, one would have to be careful with scammers offering you “priority” access in addition to the many creative ways pickpockets seem to have a field day, every day.

Roma Piazza Spagna1
Running the Spanish Steps

For us these four days took us from the shopping at Piazza Spagna to the Foro and Coliseum. We tasted water from fountains and visited what were previously Roman pagan temples. We cannot conclude that the lives of the ancient Roman plebian folks were gripped with misery during the height of the empire. Perhaps the story was different in the years when the Roman empire began decaying.

It seems that our research was not complete. We will need another four days or more to do further extensive ‘studies’ into the lives of the ancient Romans. Perhaps the lives of modern Romans give us a clue.

Roma Pantheon
The Parthenon was converted to a church

Remember only this. If you come in the height of summer be prepared to be roasted. And if you ever use public transport, make sure you get whatever you bought stamped to prove you’ve paid. Buying a ticket without it validated could still invite a fine from one of them vigilante inspectors!

This journey was made in Jul 2001

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