Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Vatican

On Friday, we went to the Vatican. We met at St. Peter's Basilica in the morning, went through security (Rome's major basilicas have metal detectors), and then got to enjoy one of the most fabulous churches in the world. St. Peter's has been built and rebuilt several times over the centuries, and there are several interesting things to see inside. Everyone's favorite is, of course, St. Peter, whose foot is starting to look a little bit worn out because pilgrims like to rub and even kiss it:

There are also several other hidden gems scattered about the place, such as an altar to Gregory the Great, who has a special place in history and in my heart as the first truly papal Pope. There are also some VERY interesting paintings on the ceiling if you look closely. This one is part of a set that is supposed to represent the four corners of the earth, and probably symbolizes Africa. It's weird to see stereotypes from another era living on in the current one... although not as surprising as I would like.

And I haven't even mentioned the Pieta, which remains a real showstopper. It's hard to get close to really examine it, which is kind of a shame because it's such a masterpiece. I guess it's not that different from trying to get a good look at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre:

After our contemplation of St. Peter's Basilica, we got to take a tour of one of the holiest sites for Christians: The Vatican Necropolis, where the alleged bones of St. Peter have been venerated for centuries. To see the bones, we got to go underground, below St. Peter's itself, to wander through some ancient tombs and finally get to St. Peter's burial place. It was a bit gross down there because they keep it at 95% humidity, but it's otherwise a fantastic experience.

Alas, photographs are not permitted, so if you want to see, you'll have to come to Rome and take the tour yourself. I highly recommend it. Our group split into two groups to take the tour, and it's clear that different tour guides emphasize different aspects of the site and also put personal spins on whether they believe the bones are authentically St. Peter's. For me, it doesn't really matter whether they are "really" his—what matters is that people think they are, and choose interesting ways to pay their respects.

Once we had reemerged above ground, we went to the Vatican Museums, which are always worth a visit. The Vatican has so many treasures that the exhibits are haphazard, overwhelming you with how many precious and interesting items there are to see. As part of the AAR program, we were able to access a gallery that isn't typically open to the public and see Augustus of Prima Porta, probably the most famous depiction of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

We then wandered around enjoying incredible classical sculptures, and we took a trip to see the School of Athens in person before heading to the Sistine Chapel. The guards in there had a heck of a time trying to maintain silence and prevent people from snapping photos, but it is probably a lost cause. As a teacher, I deeply sympathize. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


You hear a lot about Pompeii and Herculaneum, but there is also a very cool Roman city that is very well-preserved and that can be easily reached using public transportation: Ostia. Ostia was Rome's big port city (although the shoreline has receded a bit since then), and the site contains many buildings and items of interest—so many that it would take several visits to the site to really feel like you'd seen everything.

Ostia is particularly exciting for people who study Roman baths because it contains many of them (Pompeii only has a handful, comparatively). The Baths of Neptune have lovely floor mosaics, which are still in place.

One of the most interesting things about Ostia, though, is its preservation of artifacts of multiple religious traditions in the area. It preserves an ancient synagogue and there are some churches on the outskirts. Our guide led us to one Mithraeum but said that there are several more. Mithras was a Persian god who was particularly popular with Roman soldiers and who was worshiped via a mystery cult—you had to be initiated. Most images of Mithras are small and have very standard features, but the one we saw at Ostia was larger and more unusual-looking.

For the record, images of Mithras usually look more like this:

If you will look carefully, Mithras is still sacrificing a bull in this image, but he has some animal friends to help him, including a dog, a snake, and a scorpion. Yes, the scorpion is pinching the bull's testicles. That bull does not get to die with dignity, sorry to say.

The highlight of our day in Ostia, however, was our time spent in the Amphitheater. Participants were encouraged to perform there together, which led to great things. Two of my friends, roommates with a love/hate relationship, redid some Sonny and Cher lyrics to create "I Hate You Babe." Another hero performed an amazing rendition of the monologue from Gladiator. Then we all sang a Disney song together, because everyone knows the lyrics to those! It was a really fun moment together that we'll be grinning about for years. And even though we got some weird looks, we didn't feel too bad about it—we'd spent the morning in the wake of a German tour group that seemed to spontaneously burst into song in places that were decidedly not theaters.

I would have liked to spend more time in Ostia. Maybe one day I'll get my chance.

Road Trip

Last Tuesday was an exhausting day. We took a bit of a road trip along the path of the ancient Via Appia—a major road that connected several important places in Italy.

Our first stop was the Baths of Caracalla. I've been in several Roman bath houses at this point, but the baths of Caracalla are huge. The baths are often used for modern musical performances, including operas. But given how hot it was, I wished that the natatio, or swimming pool, was still in use. It was clearly enormous, and at one spot along the side, someone etched in a game board so that people could relax in the water and play poolside.

We also saw the remaining part of the Aurelianic Wall, built by Emperor Aurelian, as well as the tomb of Caecilia Metella and the Villa and Stadium of Maxentius. Two of the other sites we saw, however, really took the cake.

As part of our road trip, I got to take my first trip down into Roman catacombs, which was fascinating (if somewhat claustrophobic). There aren't any bones remaining there, though. Human remains had to be removed after tourists started to take little pieces as souvenirs. Gross. Unfortunately, we were not permitted to take photographs inside of the catacombs, which was extremely disappointing for me. There were some very interesting inscriptions and paintings that I would have liked a record of for later. I guess that's what libraries are for. I did sneak in one picture before I was scolded for breaking the rules (I swear I didn't know!).

I am a criminal. 
The other big showstopper was the Villa dei Quintili. In its heyday, this villa was a personal paradise with its own bathhouse, fancy sculptures, and gorgeous marble floors. In fact, it was so desirable that Emperor Commodus had its owners put to death and took the villa for himself. I'm sensing a new series on HGTV—House Hunters: Imperial Edition.

Because the Via Appia was such a major thoroughfare, it was a great place to build if you wanted people to notice how awesome you were. Want to be remembered after your death? Build a mausoleum along the Via Appia. Want people to notice and enjoy your monumental bathhouse? Via Appia. Want to have a nice home away from the city, but still be able to go into town without too much trouble? Via Appia. Just make sure you don't attract too much attention... unless you're the Emperor.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Trajan's Markets + Domus Aurea

Yesterday was exhausting, but amazing. We started off with a visit to Trajan's markets. The buildings have been in use for centuries, so there has been a lot of building and rebuilding, but it is amazing to walk around in the ruins and wonder how things used to work. The area is large and you're left to your own devices, wandering in and out of shady corridors and now-empty shops.

The museum that is attached to the markets, the Museo dei Fori Imperiali, is a real gem. The way the exhibits are put together is so thoughtful. Mirrors are carefully placed to allow you to see all sides of the artifacts, and there are little fun interactive elements that make the museum more engaging. We were particularly fond of collecting stamps throughout the museum. Ancient craftspeople branded their work with stamps, just like modern companies at their logos to their products. The museum lets you run around collecting ancient stamps, which you can then compare to the real deal!

But the real highlight of the day was our trip into the Domus Aurea—the house that Nero built after he fiddled while Rome burned in 64 AD. Nero died before the building was finished, and some of its building materials were pillaged for other projects. But much of the structure is still intact, and on Saturdays and Sundays, you can sign up to take a tour. The Domus Aurea tour was amazing for a number of reasons. Not only is the Domus itself a stunning place to visit, but on a scorching hot day in Rome, it's blessedly cold in there—so cold that you'll want to wear a hoodie. A/C is hard to come by in the eternal city, so the natural cool of the Domus Aurea was a welcome change of pace. The building is huge, and only some of it is open to the public.

We all had to wear hard hats inside, just in case, but honestly I felt safe in there. It was stunning to get to walk around a building constructed for a rich Roman, with its high ceilings and impressive decorations (even though they weren't finished). The dining room, with a high domed ceiling, was amazing. I would certainly want to host a dinner party in there.

If you are in Rome, you must tour this building. Not only will you get a look at decorations that date all the way back to Nero's day, but your admission fee goes towards continued excavation and restoration that will make the building safer and even more accessible to future tourists. I'm so excited I got to see this.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Lovely Villas

Yesterday was long and involved a lot of walking, but it was well worth it. We went to Tivoli, where our first stop was Hadrian's Villa. The complex is huge and impressive, which I suppose you would expect for a Roman emperor. Hadrian was known as a relatively scholarly emperor, so one of the funnier aspects of the site is that whenever someone doesn't know how to identify a room, it's called a library. This led to lots of moments where someone would look at the site map, ask where we were, and be told, "Oh, we're in the library."

Hadrian was also seriously into Egypt. There's a Serapeum (worship space for the Egyptian god Serapis) on the property. We also have some of the remains of the Antinoeion, a temple/memorial to Hadrian's younger lover, Antinous. After Antinous's death by drowning in the Nile, Hadrian memorialized the boy by assimilating him with the Egyptian god Osiris.

Most lovely, however, are the many pools around the property. Hadrian and his guests had lots of places to chill out by the water, which seemed like a great idea yesterday! The sun was beating down pretty hard, and I was starting to get jealous of the turtles and fish that inhabit the pools today.

After our stroll through Hadrian's Villa, we went to the Villa d'Este. It's not an ancient villa, but it's a beautiful one! Getting to walk through the gardens and get splashed by icy fountain water was a huge relief from the oppressive heat of the afternoon. The house itself is lovely, but trust me, the gardens are the really exciting part.

One thing that amazes me most about these kinds of properties is how much cooler you can feel, even without air conditioning, with the right combinations of water and shade. The Villa d'Este even had small caves you could step into that were so cold even though it was a scorcher outside. I'll have to remember this when I have my own villa someday. (I wish!)


Tuesday was our day to enjoy being at the AAR, learning the traditional way. After a morning of interesting lectures and a delicious lunch, we had a short lesson on epigraphy (= inscriptions). I am no expert on epigraphy, so learning common abbreviations was tremendously useful for me. Even more fun, though, was making rubbings.

To make a rubbing—and thus have a record—of an inscription, you affix tracing paper to the wall around the inscription. Then, you get a piece of carbon paper, press it to your tracing paper, and rub the back of the carbon paper with a cloth. If you work thoroughly, you can transfer a pretty readable version of your inscription to paper that you can take with you. (Mine might end up in my classroom next year!) It was a lot of fun to do something "hands on" that I've never gotten to do before. If I can figure out how, it might be fun to try a version of this with my students.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Early Imperial Forum + Colosseum

Today we went back to the Forum Romanum, which remains gorgeous. The best part, though, was that we got to take a special tour of the houses of Augustus and his wife, Livia. Although Augustus is famous for being a relatively humble emperor, he and his wife were definitely living in style. Check out Augustus's awesome study!

Augustus's original name was Gaius Octavius, then Octavian. He was the nephew heir of Julius Caesar. When his uncle was assassinated, Octavian proclaimed him as a god and buoyed himself politically by stirring up outrage over his death. Before long, though, Augustus gained momentum from his own achievements, and became Rome's first emperor. He spent the rest of his life delicately balancing his authoritarian position with an image of appreciation for Rome's traditional (Republican...) values.

Livia's house is similarly majestic. As an avid fan of I, Claudius, I like to imagine her plotting the demise of Augustus's heirs in her luxurious digs.

Livia has gone down in history as a wicked plotter and potentially a murderer. But she was also an important woman in many ways. The senate even voted her a triumphal arch, even though she was a woman and no woman had ever had an arch before. She also helped Augustus, her husband, to form a public image of his family that gave moral superiority and a sense of "Roman-ness" to the first family—a major part of Augustus's legacy as emperor.

After a lovely morning in the Forum, we went to the Colosseum, the center of Roman entertainment after it was built by the Flavians. Although you may be imagining Nero feeding Christians to the lions in the Colosseum, that is not actually possible. There was no Colosseum at the time Nero was emperor, and there are actually no recorded Christian martyrdoms in the Colosseum itself (although they may have been killed as part of the afternoon public executions that often took place on show days). The sands of the Colosseum were, however, the site of many epic gladiator battles, and possibly a ship battle for which the entire arena was flooded. (One ancient author says so, but it's not entirely certain that it really happened.)

Compared to other ancient arenas, the Colosseum truly is enormous. I like to walk through it and imagine what it was like in its heyday—people everywhere, food vendors hawking their wares, people spraying perfume to cover the rampant B.O. I bet it was awful and amazing and unforgettable.

Near the Colosseum is one of my other favorite monuments, the Arch of Constantine. Constantine was the first Christian emperor, but he was still very Roman—he built himself a classic triumphal arch and maintained a cozy relationship with the sun god, Sol Invictus. People are complicated, and that's what makes history so interesting.