On July 18, 64 AD, in the high heat of summer, a terrible fire blazed through Rome, the biggest metropolis of antiquity with its approximately one million inhabitants. The flames would destroy entire neighborhoods. Yet the Rome that was then reconstructed (first by Nero and then by Vespasian and his sons) was a city with a new urban plan, enriched with new architecture, precious marbles and an amphitheater for gladiatorial games, the Colosseum. We invite you to join our Semi-private tour, unique for its content and the sites it explores, which now covers completely the recently-opened underground portions of the Colosseum (we guarantee entrance with one of our guides), the internal levels (including the third tier, also recently opened), the valley of the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, once the beating heart of ancient Rome and now grand archaeological parks. Concentrating our attention on the city as it was when it caught fire in the great blaze of 64 AD, we will trace the spread of the flames through the various quarters of the city beginning with the area of the Circus Maximus. From Nero's controversial attitude and the aid he provided, the accusations against the Christians, and all that we know now thanks to the chronicles of historians of the time, we will take you through the streets of ancient Rome to discover where and how they lived. We present an exciting way to explore the homes and furnishings, shops and businesses, the ideas and daily life in a monumental, overpopulated, rich and controversial city, bringing you through its changes over time. It's a path that unfolds up high, from dozens of viewpoints from various angles of the sites we explore one by one
The Colosseum (Underground and Third Tier included): the Machines of Death
After seeing the fourth century Arch of Constantine, which marks the mysterious start of a new era for Rome and for the empire with the reuse of friezes taken from important monuments of antiquity, we turn our attention to the Colosseum. With our licensed guide, we enter immediately (without the entrance line and thanks to a special reservation) into the tunnels of the underground section, descending below the arena in order to discover the backstage area of the gladiatorial games and the massive organization and techniques put to use, analyzing the highly efficient machines of death, which left incredible archaeological remains. We stand in the narrow spaces where the gladiators could peer one last time at the ferocious animals in cages, and could feel the Colosseum around them as if they were in the neck of a funnel (the imposing heights of the stands, filled at the time with thousands of spectators, came together over the arena creating a veritable abyss). Here we understand why the games became so popular: the underground tunnels (at the time illuminated with hundreds of oil lamps, now partially preserved) preserve clear signs of the incredible trapdoors, elevators, winches and balances that guaranteed a dizzying and dramatic viewing of the battles.
The grooves of the strings in the travertine pillars, the original bronze fixtures for the axles of the elevators, the thickness of the massive walls that withstood amazing forces... all make us understand the dynamic of the games, and how it was possible to unleash chaos in the arena by catapulting new fierce animals onto the sand, to the crowd's awed roar. In the depths of the Colosseum, we also find answers about many hypotheses about the games. We find answers about the naval battles (Navalia) that happened there, on the Emperor Nero's lake at the center of his palaces (a poorly-channeled part of the stream Clivus Labicanus still runs there today), as well as answers about the subsequent collapses that caused the progressive burial (and hence the surprising preserved state) of the underground in the fifth century. We also learn the purpose of the many tunnels that branch out and lead to the various buildings that supported the games (either buried or still visible, like the Ludus Magnus). Among these tunnels is the famous "passage of Commodus" where an attempt was made on the gladiator-emperor's life.
Resurfacing into the light of the first and second levels, we will fathom the fortunes in life and in death of the gladiators. We will discover who they were, how they ended up in the arena, forced or by choice, and how they were trained (a key point that is often overlooked). We will follow an entire day of gladiatorial games, step by step, and we will discover who the Romans were (from the sewage systems we even have evidence of what they ate) that arranged themselves on those stands or on seats that still bear their names. Senators, knights, magistrates, etc. sat according to a hierarchy that reaffirmed the social ladder. We will see the places of women and slaves (with some exceptions) on the last level (the rafters in our theaters), according to laws on promiscuity. We'll see the emperor, the Vestal Virgins and finally the gladiators that paraded in triumphal procession before their great challenge. It was a challenge to the death that they fought for the crowd, and a challenge that the frenzied crowd welcomed with horror and awe at the sacrifice of many, and with praise at the almost immortal strength that bestowed honor and fame to the victors. But these widespread and universally accepted spectacles of death drew people together as well as served as propaganda and exercises of imperial power in the complex, multi-ethnic society of the time. These are aspects that we explore in depth, together with other unique aspects of the Colosseum, like the love stories around the arena, documented by ancient writers, and the religious origins of the games.
The Third Tier of the building alone would be worth the visit: the plunging views of the interior give the sense of abyss that sucked the spectators in, and at the same time the view shows us the architectural complexity of a building completed, surprisingly, in just over ten years. The view from above stretches over the Arch of Constantine, Via Sacra, the giant system of columns and structures of the Temple of Venus and Roma, the remains of the Meta Sudans and the axis of streets, filled with tiny cars, of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, inaugurated by Mussolini in 1933. From on high, we comprehend the urban plan of ancient Rome, how this plan changed over time and how its current form has been patched over it by the great events that have marked the city.
(For more information on the underground and third tier of the Colosseum, please see our article The Colosseum's Underground and Third Tier: Archaeology from the earth and from the sky.
The Roman Forum: the Men and the Spaces of Politics and Religion
In the Forum, a series of temples and public buildings including the Senate (la Curia) accommodated the majority of political, religious, and administrative activity in the city. The great square in the central area was destined for assemblies of the people, who were addressed on various occasions by the Magistrates, speaking from the podium constructed for that purpose. In this great and suggestive puzzle of imposing ruins of successive eras, one of the fundamental aspects of our guided visit will be to show how the original buildings, in their form, function, and meaning were integral to the Roman system of laws, institutions, and religious practices. Precisely in these spaces that gave place to crucial passages of history, we will also retrace the lives of the great men of the time, from Cicero to Julius Caesar, from Marc Anthony to the many emperors, including Augustus, Hadrian, and Constantine. These magical places preserve a tangible memory of events presented in the form of lasting physical impressions. For example, here on the Via Sacra you can see that the stone blocks still carry the imprint of the ruts from the metal carriage wheels that passed down this street centuries ago, and on the steps of the Basilica Julia the engraved traces of ancient game boards remain. By way of such important sites as the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Senate, the House and the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of the Divine Julius, and others, we will immerse ourselves in the history and the public life of ancient Rome and the surprising development of its empire that extended, by the end of the first century AD, from Africa to the North of England, and from Spain to Turkey. From the far reaches of the empire, merchandise, techniques, ideas, and wonders never-before-seen were brought together in Rome.
The Palatine Hill: The Houses of Powerful Men and Their Gods
In the broad and beautiful spaces of the Palatine hill, with a breathtaking view of the entire city and not far from the original site of huts inhabited by the founders of the city more than 2,700 years ago - as deduced by archeologists from the form of funerary urns in the shape of little huts - we will walk in the footsteps of the emperors who made this hill their home. We will visit the house of the emperor Augustus, not so small in dimensions (prior to recent archaeological excavations it was thought to be so) and with extraordinary frescoes (because of the microclimate and the fragility of the frescoes, only five people are admitted at a time, and the site is subject to frequent unannounced closures), and the grand palaces the subsequent emperors constructed and inhabited in extreme displays of luxury and power, often comporting themselves as actual divinities. The imposing architecture of multiple levels, from the enormous convivial halls like the Triclinium, to those dedicated to recreation like the Stadium, together with the majestic structures of the Severian Baths and the Claudian aqueduct will permit us to investigate the private dimension and daily life of the Roman rulers and people. The habits, the food and wine found on the tables of the emperor and the great aristocratic families, the technological skills that gave rise to nine active aqueducts in Rome by the end of the first century AD, the heating systems for heating some of the rooms, and the spread of the baths will be other subjects for discussion. We will also encounter the fascinating world of Greek and Oriental myths whose recurring presence in Roman culture is documented in the decoration of the temples and in the statues we will see in the Palatine museum, and in the temples of Apollo and the goddess Cibele, whose cult originated in Asia Minor but was extremely widespread in Rome. These objects that remain also show us the complexity of the culture, a culture much more faceted with more subtle and diversified symbolism than is suggested by the oversimplifications that circulate. To give just one example, there was a widespread diffusion of imagery and inscriptions with which the emperors constructed the myth of their presumed divinity, which included a hairstyle worn by women of very high society, among other things. They wore an elaborate arrangement with the hair forming a refined crown, what today we would call sixties style (you can see fine sculptural examples of this in our tour of the Capitoline Museums. Even certain slaves followed the fashion of the times, as is evidenced by a funerary monument of the first century AD in which two slaves show off a hairdo of curls in the manner of the adored Nero, a hairdo obtained by the laborious application of a hot iron to the hair. Finally, from the grand terraces facing the Circus Maximus, from which the emperors presided over the games in a position of absolute dominance, it will be easy to comprehend the strategic nature of the location and the urban development of Rome, from its origins to the centuries of maximum splendor (1st-2nd c. AD) and from there to the phases of extreme decadence anticipating the political and territorial decline of the empire-subjects absolutely fundamental to the understanding of Christian Rome risen in the Middle Ages from these ashes.
The Cryptoportico of Nero
No less fascinating and unique is the feeling that is provoked by a walk down the tunnel (about 130 meters) of the Cryptoportico of Nero, where large fragments of one-of-a-kind wall decorations and floor mosaics and a mysterious atmosphere bring us back to the controversial nature of this cursed emperor. The tunnel leads to the gardens of the Farnese family, who appropriated the land in the Renaissance and built their wonders on the remains of the Domus Tiberiana. From this place, your gaze falls on the splendid panorama of the valley of the Roman Forum and the entire city. Here it is easy to understand the fate of the hill and of its immense marble treasures and works of art in the rediscovered enthusiasm for the ancient world that would animate European culture from the Renaissance onwards.
The Coenatio Rotunda of Nero's Golden House
Entirely exclusive to this tour is our stop at the archeological dig under way at the site of what is presumed to be the Coenatio Rotunda of the Golden House, the fantastical room with a rotating ceiling that simulated the movement of the stars, built after the fire of 64 by the emperor Nero. Here, like a new Sun God, he received his illustrious guests under a continual shower of rose petals. Diligently searched for in different areas of the Palatine, based on the description of literary sources, this gem of imperial technology could be located right in this neglected corner of the hill with a wonderful view of the valley of the Colosseum. Here we are in the Vigna Barberini, two words that give us clues on the purpose of this area: in the Renaissance, the word vigna came to mean a garden of antiquities, a natural environment of great beauty where ancient works of art taken from the ground were gathered in the open. This garden was the property of the Barberini, an important family in the Renaissance. The glorious past of the hill, its story and its wonders, was slowly rediscovered, studied and admired. That process of continuous discovery is still in progress and happens still today, here, beneath our and your eyes.
For a complete visit of the city, we recommend our semi-private tour of the Vatican Musems and Saint Peter’s Basilica , and our private Underground Rome tour.