House of the Vestal Virgins, Open for Business

House of the Vestal Virgins, Forum, Rome

In the days of the Roman empire, you never would have been able to enter the House of the Vestal Virgins — unless you were one of the six chosen women, that is, or the Pontifex Maximus, Rome's religious leader who oversaw the cult.

Now? You can stroll right in.

After a long restoration, the House of the Vestal Virgins is open for visitors. No special status needed. (It's in the forum, so the normal forum/Colosseum/Palatine ticket gets you in).

It's a neat opportunity to access one of ancient Rome's most historic, and much-mythologized, cults. The Vestal Virgins likely dated all the way back to the Etruscans in the 8th century B.C.; they hung on right up until Theodosius, who had abolished pagan cults in 391, forcibly shut down their temple three years later.

But they weren't just any pagan cult. They were one of ancient Rome's most important… and elite. A Vestal was picked between the ages of 6 and 10 — largely for her beauty — and committed to 30 years of service: ten years learning the rituals, ten actively serving, and ten tutoring the new priestesses. Throughout that time, she had two big responsibilities. She had to tend Rome's sacred fire. And she had to guard her virginity. If either was extinguished, it was thought, Rome would fall. (In return for this sacrifice, a Vestal was one of the most powerful women in Rome, allowed to own her own property, make her own will, and intercede on any prisoner's behalf).

That's why the punishment, if they did screw up (…or screw around), was so severe. "Vestals who are guilty of lesser misdemeanors are scourged with rods," wrote Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century B.C. "But those who have suffered defilement by unchastity are delivered up to the most shameful and miserable death."

The method? Being buried alive. Eek.

(It's worth noting, though, that this terrible punishment only happened 18 times throughout the Vestals' 900-year tenure — and almost always in times of great political upheaval, making blaming-the-Vestals probably a last-ditch effort to restore normalcy in a time of crisis).

House of the Vestal Virgins, courtyard, Rome, forum Now, though, you don't have to take a 30-year vow of virginity in order to visit the House of the Vestals. Just stroll right in. The version you see today (above) dates back to the 2nd-century. (The fire that wracked Nero's Rome also destroyed the earlier house in 64 A.D.!)

As with the rest of the forum, of course, you have to use your imagination to picture what this house would once have looked like. Historians say it was up to 4 stories tall, its rooms were spacious, its decorations opulent. Evocatively, though, some of the original statues of vestals still remain, lining the courtyard.

There's not quite enough here to make a trip to the forum just for this. But if you're in there anyway, or haven't paid a visit to Rome's forum in a while, then don't miss it.

 

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This Week, the Eagle and the Dragon in Full Force

Two Empires: Eagle and Dragon teaser in the Forum, Rome Anyone who's visited Rome's Curia in the Forum over the past month has seen China's terracotta warriors, strutting their stuff across the 1,700-year-old Roman marble and porphyry floor.

But as I wrote in early October, that exhibit comparing the Chinese and Roman empires was just a taste. This weekend, the full exhibit opens at Palazzo Venezia.

[Update, Nov. 18: It's also free on its opening day on Friday and is open from 10am-7pm. Very cool!]

Opening on Friday, Nov. 19, the exhibit boasts more than 400 different pieces from the ancient Roman and Chinese empires. It's the first time the two empires have been compared in an exhibit, and it's about time: both empires were extraordinarily influential, as well as contemporaries, with their heights from about the 3rd centuries B.C. to 4th century A.D. 

It's bound to be a fascinating game of compare-and-contrast. As soon as I see it, I'll report back. In the meantime, if you can, go yourself.

The exhibit is at the Palazzo Venezia from Nov. 19 daily until Jan.9, except for Mondays, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. It's open from 8:30am-9:30pm daily. Entrance to the exhibit is at Via del Plebiscito 19; for a map, click here.

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China’s Terracotta Warriors Invade Rome

Terracotta warriors of Xian in the Curia, Roman forum, RomeIt's not every day that you see China's ancient, famous terracotta warriors from Xi'an in the also-ancient, also-famous Roman forum.

Now you can.

From now until January 9, 2011, Rome is hosting the exhibit "The Two Empires: the Eagle and the Dragon." Held in the Curia, or the ancient senate house in Rome's forum, the exhibit is the first to explicitly compare China's empire with Rome's.

But it's just a taste of what else Italy (and China) have planned.

The parallels between the countries' histories are certainly there. Both were extraordinarily sophisticated, militaristic empires. Both unified dozens of warring territories under the same political and economic systems. And both influenced all of history; just as modern-day Europe and the United States owe a great debt to the ancient Romans, so, too, do the modern-day Chinese owe the Qin and Han dynasties. (Those dynasties ruled China from the 3rd century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., a timeline that, too, parallels the height of the Roman empire).

And the artifacts that Rome's gotten ahold of for the exhibit are pretty fantastic. Most striking are, of course, the terracotta warriors, here on one of their rare trips away from Xi'an, China. More than 8,000 of them, each one different and detailed, were sculpted around 210 B.C. for Emperor Qinshihuang's tomb. Eight (plus a horse) are now in the Curia (pictured above). Seeing them in the same space as first-century Roman marble statues is striking — no less because of how much the two cultures shared in terms of their sophistication and technical skill alone.

Ancient Chinese sculpture in the Roman Curia, RomeWhile neat, the exhibit is far from thorough. It's just a teaser. And that's the whole idea. It's a preview of a bigger exhibit coming to Palazzo Venezia in November, which will boast 450 different Italian and Chinese pieces.

It also launches a long-term collaboration and cultural exchange with China, kicked off by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to Rome on October 7. That collaboration includes the participation of Italy's ministry of culture in China's new National Museum in Beijing, with a wing focused on Italian culture — and a reciprocal space for a state museum of Chinese culture in Palazzo Venezia.

So stay tuned. Update, Nov. 17: See my new blog post on the "Eagle and the Dragon" exhibit for information on the Palazzo Venezia show.

The exhibit at the Curia is open from 8:30am-6:30pm until October 24, from 8:30am-4:30pm afterward. Entrance is included in your forum/Colosseum/Palatine ticket. For more information (in Italian), click here

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The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul

Basilica cistern, IstanbulAt first glance, Istanbul appears anything but a city tied to ancient Rome. Mosques and minarets, not ancient temples, dot the Turkish capital's skyline; its forum is hard to find, most of its imperial monuments long gone.

For a city that became part of the Roman empire in 73 A.D., and was turned into the capital, and dubbed "Nova Roma," by Constantine in 330, it can seem surprising—but to find hints of the city's classical past, you have to look more closely.

Searching for Roman ruins in Istanbul? Here's where to find them. I'll post this in two sections, so look out for the second installment tomorrow (here it is!).

Medusa column, basilica cistern, Istanbul

1. The basilica cistern. Even if you're not all that interested in Istanbul's ancient ruins, the cistern (shown above) is a must-see, if only for its eeriness: Descend down 52 stone steps, and you’re suddenly in a
cavernous chamber filled with ancient columns, each lit with a dim light, echoing
with splashes, the whispers of tourists, and (unfortunately, I think) “atmospheric”
music.  

The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian I in the early 6th
century, on the same spot as a basilica that had been first built by
Constantine two hundred years earlier. More than 105,000 square feet in area
and capable of holding 100,000 tons of water, the cistern provided water
filtration for Constantinople’s palace. More than 7,000 slaves were used to
construct it.

 And all of those columns holding it up? There are 336 in
total, and they’re all ancient, too—most of them taken from even older structures
elsewhere in the empire. (Sound familiar? That kind of recycling is something
Rome, too, is known for, from the ancient Egyptian obelisks that dot the city
to, later, the use of the Roman ruins themselves in Renaissance-era buildings
like St. Peter’s Basilica). Most of their origins are mysterious, but some—like
the two upside-down Medusa heads—are particularly intriguing.

2. Column of Constantine. Erected in 330 A.D. by Emperor
Constantine to commemorate his new capital, the 115-foot column would once have
been another 50 feet tall. It also boasted a statue of Constantine on the top,
carrying an orb with a piece of the True Cross. A sanctuary at the column’s
foot included a number of relics, including an alabaster ointment jar that
belonged to Mary Magdalene, the basket from Christ’s miracle of the loaves and
fish, and a statue of Athena from Troy.

That’s all long gone, and the column
isn’t quite as impressive today
. But there's no beating it as a (conveniently central) reminder of how integral Constantinople
was to the ancient Roman empire.

Valens Aqueduct, Istanbul3. The Valens aqueduct. Spanning one of Istanbul’s main
thoroughfares, the aqueduct is such a matter-of-fact part of the fabric of
modern Istanbul that it’s easy to forget it’s an ancient ruin. But it is. Built
in 368 A.D. by Emperor Valens, the aqueduct once ran for about 3,200 feet. The
surviving section today, at 3,020 feet, is nearly as long—not bad for a 1,600-year-old
structure. Just as the popes in Rome restored ancient aqueducts, so, too, did the
Ottoman sultans in Constantinople, meaning the aqueduct remained the city’s
main distributor of water through the Middle Ages. 

Serpent Column with the Obelisk of Theodosius in the background, Istanbul4. The Hippodrome. You could walk right through
Istanbul’s ancient hippodrome—built for chariot races by Emperor Septimius
Severus in the early 3rd century, and restored and enlarged by
Constantine 100 years later—without realizing it. Today, all the seats and
most of the structures are long-gone. The only hint you have that the site once was a
stadium able to hold 100,000 spectators is in the shape and dimensions of
Sultanahmet Square, which more or less follows the lines of the ancient circus.
(Just as Piazza Navona in Rome today has the same shape as Domitian’s first-century
Circus Agonalis).

But some monuments do remain. Perhaps the
most evocative is the Serpent Column, brought by Constantine from
the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Also known as the Plataean Tripod of Delphi, the
column was cast in 479 B.C. to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians. Persian
armor and weaponry was melted down for the column, and all of the names of the
Greek city-states that fought in the battle were etched into the sides. A gold
tripod, later lost, initially sat on top, supported by three serpent heads.

For a visual of what the chariot races once would have
looked like, the Obelisk of Theodosius is a must-see, too. The obelisk itself is
actually ancient Egyptian, dating to the reign of Tutmoses III around 1450 B.C.
In Alexandria until 390, it was moved to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius
I. Underneath, a marble pedestal shows scenes including the chariot race
itself, and Theodosius giving the winner the laurel crown of victory. And then
there’s the typically-imperial inscription in which the emperor lauds none
other than himself—in this case, for supposedly moving the obelisk and
re-erecting it in just 32 days.

Here's where to find Istanbul's ancient Roman sites, part II

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Ancient and Modern at the Park of the Aqueducts


Runners in the Parco degli Acquedotti, with the Claudian acqueduct behind.
For those who really geek out on Rome's ancient past, there's no better monument to the Roman empire's engineering skill than its aqueducts.

(Okay, okay, there is the Colosseum. And the Pantheon. But to fully grasp how ancient Romans made everyday life easier for their citizens — like by bringing thousands of liters of water into the city each day — you can't beat a glimpse of the ancient aqueducts).

You can still see the Claudian aqueduct, in all its slightly-degraded glory, at the Parco degli Acquedotti, 5 miles outside the city center. The Aqua Claudia cuts right through the park as it reaches the end of its 45-mile run. Most of the aqueduct is underground; here, though, you can see it above ground in all its arch-on-arch glory. That's not to mention the technical skill it required: Romans designed their aqueducts to drop precisely 6 inches per Roman mile. Imagine doing that, for miles and miles… without computers.

The result? The Claudian aqueduct carried 2,200 liters of water per second into the city of Rome. That made it alone able to serve every single Roman district. Yet there were at least 10 other aqueducts (18 if you count the separate branches) leading into the city.

Aqua Claudia strikes history lovers for another reason, too. Some of Rome's most famous emperors had a hand in the aqueduct. Emperor Caligula started building (38 AD), Claudius completed it (52 AD), Vespasian restored it (71 AD) and Titus restored it again (81 AD).

Do the Romans still use the ancient aqueducts? Yes. And if you go to the park, here's your proof. Look closely at the aqueduct, and you can see that modern piping lays on top of it.

All that aside: Unless you love ancient Roman engineering and are really keen to see aqueducts, this isn't one of the sites I'd recommend doing if you have, say, fewer than four or five days in Rome. There's simply too much else in the center to see. But if you have a little more wiggle room, or perhaps are returning to Rome for a second or third time, consider taking a picnic lunch out to the park or doing a bike ride. The park's biggest draw, especially during high season? It's a great way to appreciate ancient Rome… but the without crowds or costs of more central sites.

The Park of the Aqueducts' Claudian aqueduct, Rome.

To get to the Parco degli Acquedotti, take the metro out to Cinecittà on the A line. For a map, click here.

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The Ara Pacis in Summer: As It Was Meant to Be Seen

Ara Pacis, colored with lasers
On Wednesdays throughout the summer, you can see the Ara Pacis — the elaborately-carved, beautifully-preserved ancient altar dating from 9 B.C. — as it was meant to be seen: with color.

It's hard enough to imagine ancient Rome as it would have been: marble temples, colossal monuments, extraordinary baths. But what most visitors to Rome don't realize is that you have to take something else into account, too. You have to imagine everything painted. That's right: everything. The monuments, the sculptures, the buildings. It wasn't all shining white marble; it was also reds and yellows and blues. And greens and purples and pinks. And….

Ara not coloredThe difference that color makes is dramatic. There may be no better example of that than the Ara Pacis. Created in honor of Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C., the monumental altar symbolizes the peace and prosperity that Ara coloredthe first emperor brought about. When you go to see it at the Museum of the Ara Pacis, it appears elegant and elaborate — but when it was painted, it would have been much more than that. It would have been striking in its vibrance.

Don't believe me? Here's the panel of Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates (the household gods), with color and without, left. The color makes a big difference, no?

From now until September 8, from 9pm to midnight (last entrance 11pm), on Wednesdays only, you can see the Ara Pacis colored as it would have been (or so the best guesses have it) with lasers. At € 8 for the entrance, it's pricier than the usual € 6.50 entrance. But unless you want to get a super-close look, you don't even have to pay: Standing outside the glass-walled Museum of the Ara Pacis might be good enough.

Either way, make sure you see it. It's a special event, and it ends soon.

For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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The Monolithic Ruins of the Terme di Caracalla

Frigidarium at the Terme di Caracalla

In a word, the Baths of Caracalla are enormous. Towering 125 feet above you, they're higher than most apartment complexes in modern-day Rome; they accommodated up to 1,600 people at a time. Today, however, there's hardly anyone there.

The baths (or terme, in Italian) date back to the early 200s A.D., when they were planned by Emperor Septimus Severus and completed by his son Caracalla. They boasted a 183-by-79-foot frigidarium, tepidarium, 115-foot-wide caldarium, natatio (swimming pool) complete with bronze mirrors to reflect in the sunlight, and two palaestras, or gyms. And that's not to mention the complex's dozens of shops and two public libraries — one with texts in Latin, one in Greek. Mosaic flooring in the Baths of Caracalla, Rome

Today, the baths' sheer size is enough to take your breath away. Experiencing that enormity and, with it, getting a sense of the monumental scale of ancient Rome's structures, is alone an excellent reason to visit. Unless you have a fascination with ancient baths, it's also pretty much the only reason: After centuries of looting and plundering, the baths are just a shell of what they would have been.

As with so many of Rome's other ancient sites, imagining the baths as they would have been requiressome imagination. (The History Channel has a short online video on the baths including a reconstruction, which helps; here is a scale drawing of the complex). If you go, remember that the entire bath complex would have been lavished with glass-paste mosaics (like that above), frescoes, and Farnese Bull from the Baths of Caracallahundreds of sculptures. 

Two of the sculptures, unearthed in the 16th century during excavations by Pope Paul III Farnese, give an idea of how monumental and lavish these decorations would have been: the Farnese Hercules and the Farnese Bull, an enormous sculpture group carved from one marble block that was probably originally a fountain (right), both now in Naples.

Visiting the baths costs € 6.00 for non-E.U. citizens; the ticket is also good for 7 days for Villa dei Quintili and the Mausoleo di Cecilia Metella. The complex is open daily from 9am to the evening (check the official Baths of Caracalla website for exact times, which vary by season), and to 2pm on Mondays. They're located just southeast of Circus Maximus, which is the closest metro stop. For a map, click here. To plot your route with public transport (official address is Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 52), click here.

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Day Trip to Spoleto, an Umbrian Hilltop Town

Picture 1514
Umbria is the undiscovered Tuscany. It has the rolling hills, medieval towns, excellent food, and artistic treasures of its next-door neighbor — but, thanks to the fact that Frances Mayes’ book was not “Under the Umbrian Sun” (although that does have more of a ring to it), tourists haven’t discovered it. Yet.

One of Umbria’s loveliest towns is Spoleto. First settled in the 5th century B.C. by the Umbri tribes, who built the fortified walls that you can still see there today, the town isn’t just beautiful; it’s rich with history.

Rocca Albornoziana in Spoleto, Umbria

Want to see ancient Roman remains? Spoleto boasts two ancient theatres and a bridge, the Ponte Sanguinario, so-called because of the killings of Christians that took place in the theatre next door. How about medieval sites? You couldn’t miss the imposing Rocca Albornoziana, a 14th-century castle, if you tried, nor the Ponte delle Torri — a striking 13th-century aqueduct that might have been built into ancient foundations (shown above).

And that’s not to mention the surprising number of medieval churches for what feels like such a small town. Most notable among them is the Duomo of Santa Maria Assunto, completed in 1227.

Picture 1284

But the Duomo’s biggest claim to fame is actually Renaissance-era: the frescoes of Italian great Filippo Lippi (right), painted in the 1460s to commemorate scenes from the life of Virgin Mary. (Lippi is buried in the church, too).

Finally: I think it’s worth noting that Spoleto boasts some particularly good dining, including one restaurant that a friend of mine likes so much he’ll drive to Spoleto just to eat there. It’s called Il Tempio del Gusto, located on Via Arco di Druso, 11. Information is available on the restaurant’s website.

The easiest way to get to Spoleto is by train: it takes just 1.5 hours, and costs €7.45 for a second-class ticket, one way. Check for times and prices at www.trenitalia.it. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, Spoleto’s a 1.5- to 2-hour drive to the north. For a map, click here. For more information about Spoleto, click here.

 

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Less than an Hour from Rome, Ostia Antica’s Ruins

Picture 381
Ostia Antica, the ancient town just 20 miles from Rome, might not have the dramatic past of its Vesuvius-vanquished neighbors to the south. But if your interest is in getting a feel for the daily lives of the Romans, not the notoriety of a particular disaster, then head to Ostia Antica.

Before being abandoned in the 9th century, the ancient Roman city had 50,000 inhabitants. Today, the vast site is chock-full
of the remnants of houses, restaurants, and bars. There’s even a hotel. It’s still two stories tall — and you’re still allowed to climb the ancient stairs to the second floor.

Picture 365Like other high-quality ancient sites, if Ostia gives you one thing, it’s the sense of how little times have really changed. Not only could visitors to town stay in a hotel (with the more expensive, seaside-view rooms those on the higher floors), but they could walk across the street for a tipple at the bar and restaurant. Here’s an image of that bar, left, complete with the marble shelving for various bottles and, above it, a fresco depicting exactly what the restaurant served — an ancient predecessor to the current menus with photos you see in Rome today. (Although, avoid those).

And you can get a sense of ancient advertising. Take this shop, its floor a black-and-white mosaic of fish and seafood. What was this shop? The fish-monger, of course.

You can get to Ostia by taking the Metro, line B, to Piramide, then following the signs to the Roma-Lido station. From there, you can get the train to Ostia Antica, using the same metro ticket. For a map, click here.

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