At—and Under—San Nicola in Carcere, Three Republican-Era Temples

San Nicola in Carcere a church in Rome

The Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere is way more than just another cool underground site in Rome.

That's because while the church's subterranean ruins are neat—and more on them in a moment—one of the most interesting things about San Nicola is that you don't have to go underground, or even inside, to see the church's ancient origins.

Just look closely at the exterior (pictured above*). See those columns on the left (pictured again below)? Those are from the Temple of Spes, or Hope, built all the way back in 250 B.C. The two middle columns, which blend into the current facade of the basilica? They're from the middle temple, built in honor of Juno in the 2nd century B.C. and rebuilt in 90 B.C. And the columns all the way on the right? They're the remnants of the Temple of Janus, the god of gates and beginnings, dating to a restoration by Tiberius in 17 A.D.

San Nicola in Carcere, with ancient ruins, in Rome

Unlike in other churches around Rome, these columns aren't ancient because they were brought here as part of the basilica construction. Instead, they were here first. And the church was simply built right into them.

To make that all clearer, here's an overlay of the basilica with the original temples.San Nicola in Carcere with ancient temples

The church itself probably dates back to the 6th century, but it was redone a number of times, most drastically in 1599. So even though the interior is lovely (below), the really cool part of the whole thing—at least for geeks like me—is the basement.  San Nicola in Carcere

For a measly 2 euros (or, if you want a brief guided tour in English or Italian, 3 euros), you can descend beneath the altar, into the crypt… and then into rooms beyond. I visited for the second time today, and there was nothing like being alone with these ruins.

What's down there? The bases of the temples, of course! Remember that the ground level has risen in Rome—particularly here, next to the flood-loving Tiber River—so what was ground level in the first centuries A.D. is now below-ground. (That's the basis, of course, for all of the "underground ruins" here in Rome. Except for the catacombs, which were obviously dug to be underground to begin with). So it's here, not above, that you can see the actual podiums of the various temples.

Granted, that translates into big tufa blocks and brick walls, and not much else. So for artistic merit alone, sites like Palazzo Valentini and the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas still win. But here's what the San Nicola in Carcere ruins have going for them: They're old. Really old. Older than any of that stuff (in fact, they're some 500 years older than the villas at Valentini). That's because they're Republican-era temples, not Imperial—and that's pretty special to see.

San Nicola in Carcere ruins underground

My favorite part is the last room, where you can see the base of the Temple of Janus on the left and that of the Temple of Juno on the right. In between, there's an ancient Roman path that would have run between the two, complete with a series of small cells, once built into the temple's axis, that likely were ancient currency exchange offices. In ancient times, after all, this was a bustling market area: During the Republic, the three temples formed the centerpiece of the Forum Horitorium, where fruits and vegetables were sold.

Ancient temples in San Nicola in Carcere
Ah, I do love a church with ruins. Don't you?

San Nicola in Carcere is located at Via del Teatro Marcello 46, near the Jewish Ghetto, Trastevere, and Piazza Venezia. Here's a map of the location of San Nicola in Carcere. Both the church and the ruins are open daily from 10am-5pm. Visiting the underground alone costs 2 euros; they give you a basic information sheet (there's one in English, too) and there are various English and Italian informational signs underneath, so while it's much easier to have it explained to you, you could scrape by on your own if you wanted. If you want the brief tour, in (not necessarily great) English or Italian, it's 3 euros. What a bahhh-gain!

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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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Night Tours of the Baths of Caracalla, in the Guardian


Baths of Caracalla at night After posting about the opportunity to take night tours of the Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla, I took a night tour of the baths myself — and wrote about it for the Guardian newspaper. You can read my piece, which posted today, here.

And let me tell you, grabbing night photos of those ruins while following a tour guide around was not the easiest….I’m glad my forgiving editor decided that at least one of the snaps was up to snuff. Here are a couple more.Ancient ruins of the Baths of Caracalla at night. Baths of Caracalla, Rome, at night


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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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