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Ancient Rome

Rome, Italy

We learn the story of ancient Rome from 500 BC to AD 500 — rising as a republic, peaking as an empire, then falling. Its important sights — the Forum, Colosseum, Trajan’s Column, Altar of Peace, and Pantheon — make it clear that the grandeur of Rome lives on today.

Complete Video Script

In a nutshell, classical Rome lasted about a thousand years: roughly 500 BC to AD 500. Rome grew for 500 years, peaked for 200 years and fell for 300 years. The first half was a republic — run by elected senators, the last half an empire — run by unelected emperors.

In its glory days, the word Rome meant not the just city but what Romans considered the entire civilized world.

Everyone was either Roman or barbarian. People who spoke Latin or Greek were considered civilized part of the empire. Everyone else… barbarian.

According to legend, Rome was founded by two brothers — Romulus and Remus. Abandoned in the wild and suckled by a she-wolf, they grew up to establish the city.

In actuality, the first Romans mixed and mingled here — in the valley between the famous Seven Hills of Rome. This became the Roman Forum.

In 509 BC, they tossed out their king, established a relatively democratic Roman Republic, and began what was perhaps history's greatest success story — the rise of Rome.

From the start, Romans were expert builders and had a knack for effective government. This simple brick building was once richly veneered with marble and fronted by a grand portico. It's the Curia. The senate met here and set the legal standards that still guide western civilization.

The reign of Julius Caesar — who ruled around the time of Christ — marked the turning point between the Republic and the Empire. The Republic — designed to rule a small city state — found itself trying to rule most of Europe. Something new and stronger was needed. Caesar established a no-nonsense, more disciplined government, became dictator for life, and for good measure, had a month named in his honor… July.

The powerful elites of the Republic found all this change just too radical. In an attempt to save the Republic and their political power, a faction of Roman senators assassinated Caesar. His body was burned on this spot in 44 BC.

The citizens of Rome gathered here in the heart of the Forum to hear Mark Antony say; in Shakespeare's words, "Friends, Romans, countrymen… lend me your ears, I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." But the Republic was finished, and Rome became the grand capital of a grand empire.

The Via Sacra or Sacred Way was the main street of ancient Rome. It stretched from the Arch of Septimius Severus to the Arch of Titus. Rome's various triumphal arches — named after the emperors who built them — functioned as public relations tools. Reliefs decorating the various arches show how war and expansion were the business of state. Rome's thriving economy was fueled by plunder and slaves won in distant wars.

Ancient Rome had a population of over a million at its peak. And anywhere you dig in the modern city you'll find remains of the ancient one. Largo Argentina is a modern transportation hub with traffic roaring all around some of the Rome's oldest temples.

The Capitoline Hill — which rises majestically from the busy streets — has long been the home of Rome's city government. During the Renaissance, Michelangelo designed this regal staircase. He gave the square its famously harmonious proportions with a majestic centerpiece and its ancient statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

This is a copy. The second century original — considered the greatest equestrian statue of antiquity — is showcased in the adjacent Capitoline Museum. This, like the other great statues of antiquity, is now safely out of the elements.

The museum helps you imagine life before the fall of Rome.

These reliefs show Marcus Aurelius performing the various duties of an emperor: Here, as the chief priest or "pontifex maximus" he prepares to sacrifice a bull. Here, on the battlefield, he grants clemency to vanquished barbarian leaders. And this one puts you curbside at a victory parade with the emperor — the Eisenhower of his day — on a chariot, winged victory on his shoulder, and trumpets proclaiming his glory.

The art of Imperial Rome almost always carried a message. This Dying Gaul — a Roman copy of a Greek original — was part of a monument celebrating another victory over the barbarians.

Like any good propaganda art, battle scenes stoked imperial pride. You can wander among heroic statues in grand halls… and look into the eyes of now-forgotten emperors.

And the museum also shows a more peaceful and intimate side of Roman life. Here, a boy quietly pulls a thorn from his foot.

At first glance these look like paintings, but they’re actually micro-mosaics, made of thousands of tiny chips. This mosaic hung in Emperor Hadrian’s Villa.

Romans emulated the high culture of the Greeks and when it came to capturing beauty, their forte was making excellent copies of Greek originals.

The Capitoline Venus is one of the truest representations of the concept of feminine beauty from ancient times. Like so many classical statues, this is a 2,000-year-old Roman copy of a 2,500-year-old Greek original.

The Colosseum was — and still is — colossal. It's the great example of ancient Roman engineering. It was begun in AD 72 during the reign of Emperor Vespasian when the Empire was nearing its peak.

Using Roman-pioneered concrete, brick, and their trademark round arches, Romans constructed much larger buildings than the Greeks.

But, it seems, they still respected the fine points of Greek culture. They decorated their no nonsense mega structure with all three Greek orders of columns — Doric… Ionic… and Corinthian.

Stepping inside, you can almost hear the roar of ancient Rome. Take a moment to imagine the place in action. Romans filled and emptied the Colosseum's 50,000 seats as quickly and efficiently as we do our super stadiums today.

It's built with two theaters facing each other — that's what an amphitheater is — so twice as many people could enjoy the entertainment.

Canvas awnings were hoisted over the stadium to give protection from the sun.

These passageways underneath the arena were covered by a wooden floor. Between acts, animals and gladiators were shuffled around out of sight.

Ancient Romans, whose taste for violence exceeded even modern America’s, came to the Colosseum to unwind. Gladiators, criminals, and wild animals fought to the death, providing the public with a festival of gore. To celebrate the Colosseum's grand opening, Romans were treated to the slaughter of 5000 animals.

Nearby, Trajan's Column trumpets the glories of Emperor Trajan who ruled Rome in its heyday. This is a textbook example of continuous narration. Like a 200 yard long scroll, it winds all the way to the top. The purpose: more PR… telling the story of yet another military victory.

Trajan extended the boundaries of the empire to its greatest size ever… from the Nile to the north of Britain. Controlling its entire coastline, Romans called the Mediterranean simply “Mare Nostrum”… “Our Sea.”

Downtown Rome is a kind of architectural time warp. You'll see almost nothing built post-WWII. A striking exception is this contemporary building showcasing the Ara Pacis. This Altar of Peace offers a stirring glimpse at the pride and power of the Roman Empire at its peak.

Nine years before Christ, Emperor Augustus led a procession of priests up these steps of this newly built “Altar of Peace.” Sacrificing an animal on this altar, they thanked the gods. The last serious Barbarian resistance had been quelled and now there could be peace. The empire was established and this marked the start of the Pax Romana.

The Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace," was a Golden Age of good living, relative stability, and military dominance lasting from the time of Christ for about two centuries. The altar's exquisite reliefs celebrate Rome’s success and prosperity. This goddess of fertility is surrounded by symbols of abundance. And this procession shows a populace thankful for its emperor.

The stability and relative prosperity that characterized the two centuries of the Roman Peace was due in part to a steady succession of capable rulers.

As visitors, it's our challenge to appreciate the grandeur of this incredible city built on the scale of giants. For instance, when Rome went to the races, it came here — the Circus Maximus.

Imagine, a quarter of a million Romans cheering on careening chariots and above it all, the Palatine Hill, filled with towering palaces.

And, a visit to the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo helps humanize the empire. While ancient Rome's architecture was monumental, its citizens were just people… like you and me… without electricity.

These frescoes — a rare surviving example of Roman painting — bring color to our image of daily life back then. Romans liked to think of themselves as somehow living parallel with the gods. These domestic scenes come with a twist of mythology.

And this painted garden — wallpapering a Roman villa — showed an appreciation for nature while creating an atmosphere of serenity.

Admiring the artifacts of Rome's elite, from exquisite jewelry to this delicate golden hairnet, we can only marvel at lifestyles of the rich and Roman.

Many aspects of Roman life are represented. Roman artists excelled in realism. This boxer is a picture of exhaustion with a roughed-up face and tired hands complete with brass knuckles.

The museum's collection tells the empire's story through art: Caesar Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar and the first great emperor of the Pax Romana. Looking into the eyes of the man who called himself "the first among equals," you get the feeling that the ship of state was in good hands.

But by the time this statue was carved, it's clear… the Pax Romana was finished… and Rome was falling. This boy is about to become head of state. It was a chaotic and unstable time. In fact, in the 3rd century, sixteen emperors were assassinated in a 50-year period. Surrounded by nervous senators, this child emperor is no picture of confidence.

After seeing its museums, it’s easier to envision Rome at its peak — once a metropolis of marble embellished with countless statues.

Surviving bits of the ancient empire are everywhere you look. Important squares are still marked by towering columns. Medieval Romans built with scavenged fragments of once grand buildings. Obelisks shipped from Egypt 2000 years ago still stand like exclamation points. And peel up any street or square — this is a republican era temple-and you’ll find stony remnants of Rome’s grand past, standing right next to its modern present.

Throughout the ages, people mined once glorious buildings as quarries. Imagine, they were stacked with pre-cut stones, free for the taking. Block by block, they carted away most of this temple and then incorporated what was still standing — like these columns — into a modern building.

Thankfully no one cannibalized the magnificent Pantheon, the best-preserved temple from ancient Rome. The portico with its stately pediment has symbolized Roman greatness ever since antiquity. Like the obelisks, its massive one piece granite columns were shipped from Egypt. They’re huge. It takes four tourists to hug one.

Step inside to enjoy the finest look anywhere at the splendor of ancient Rome. Its dimensions are classic — based on a perfect circle — as wide as it is tall… 140 feet. The oculus is the only source of light. The Pantheon survived so well because it's been in continuous use for over 2000 years. It went almost directly from being a pagan temple to being a Christian church.

The beauty of the Pantheon and the brilliance of its construction has inspired architects through the ages. The dome is made of poured concrete which gets thinner and lighter with height — the highest part is made with pumice, an airy volcanic stone. Pan… theon means "all gods." It was a spiritual menagerie where the many gods of the empire were worshipped.

There was a kind of religious freedom back then. If you were conquered you could keep your own gods… as long as they worshipped Caesar too. This was generally no problem. But the Christians who had a single… and very jealous… God were an exception. Because they refused to worship the emperor, early Christians were persecuted.

For a little early Christian history, we're heading outside the city for a look at the catacombs.

Rome's ancient wall stretches eleven miles. It protected the city until Italy was united in 1870. From gates like this, grand roads fanned out to connect the city with its empire.

The Appian Way — Rome's gateway to the East — is fun to explore on a rented bike. It was the grandest and fastest road yet… the wonder of its day. Very straight — as Roman engineers were fond of designing — it stretched 400 miles to Naples and then on to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Egypt. These are the original stones.

Tombs of ancient big shots lined the Appian Way like billboards. While pagans didn't enjoy the promise of salvation, those who could afford it purchased a kind of immortality by building themselves big and glitzy memorials. These line the main roads out of town.

Judging by their elegant togas, these brothers were from a fine family. This is the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, whose father-in-law was extremely wealthy. While it dates from the first century BC, we still remember her to this day… so apparently the investment paid off.

But of course, early Christians didn't have that kind of money. So they buried their dead in mass underground necropoli — or catacombs — dug under the property of the few fellow Christians who owned land.

These catacombs are scattered all around the city, just outside the walls. And several are open to the public.

The tomb-lined tunnels of the catacombs stretch for miles and are many layers deep. Many of the first Christians buried here were later recognized as martyrs and saints. Others carved out niches nearby to bury their loved ones close to these early Christian heroes.

By the Middle Ages, these catacombs were abandoned and forgotten. Centuries later they were rediscovered. Romantic age tourists on the grand tour visited by candlelight and legends grew about Christians hiding out to escape persecution. But the catacombs were not hideouts. They were simply low budget underground cemeteries.

Further along the Appian Way is Rome's Aqueduct Park and a chance to see how the ancient city got its water. With its million people, Rome needed lots of water. These ingenious aqueducts carried a steady stream from distant mountains into the city. And they still seem to gallop, as they did 2000 years ago, into Rome.

These aqueducts were the Achilles heel of Rome. All you had to do to bring down the city was to knock out one of these arches. In fact, in the 6th century, the Barbarians did just that. Without water Rome basically shriveled up.

Today, the park is a favorite with locals for walking the dog… or burning off some of that pasta.

With its imperial might and all the stories of persecutions and hungry lions in the Colosseum, it's easy to forget that the last century of the Roman Empire was Christian.

In 312, the general Constantine, following a vision that he would triumph under the sign of the cross, beat his rival, Maxentius. Taking power, Emperor Constantine then legalized Christianity. This obscure outlawed Jewish sect ultimately became the religion of the empire.

In the year 300 you could be killed for being a Christian and in 400 you could be killed for not being a Christian. Church attendance boomed and Emperor Constantine built the first great Christian church right here — San Giovanni in Laterano… St. John's.

It opened as a kind of "first Vatican." St. John's — which has been rebuilt over the ages — was the original home of the bishop of Rome, or Pope. High atop the canopy over the altar, a box supposedly contains bits of the skulls of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The church is filled with symbols of Christianity's triumph over pagan Rome: For instance, tradition says these gilded bronze columns once stood in pagan Rome's holiest temple. And what better doors for this first grand church than those which once hung in ancient Rome's Senate house.

The adjacent Holy Stairs are a major stop on Rome's pilgrimage trail. Many credit Emperor Constantine's mother, St. Helena, for her son's conversion. She brought home wagonloads of relics including these stairs — believed to be from the palace of Pontius Pilate. For 1700 years pilgrims — believing Jesus climbed these stairs on the day he was condemned — have scaled the Scala Santa on their knees.

The influence of ancient Rome is everywhere. Its noble ruins tell a tale of power, politics, and imperial egos; of pagan gods now forgotten; of public art on a grand scale; and of enduring engineering feats. It’s a story of colossal achievement and monumental failure.

By the year 500, the over-expanded, corrupt and exhausted Roman Empire had fallen. But the grandeur of the Roman Empire lived on in the Roman Church. Over time, Trajan's column was capped with a Christian saint, the Pantheon became a church, Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum became the Pope's fortress, and the tomb of the Apostle Peter, a man the Romans executed, was crowned by the grandest building in the city — St. Peter's Basilica.

Today visitors to Rome find fascinating layers of history and culture: early Christian, baroque, and modern. But it all sits upon a solid foundation of the ancient city which was, for many centuries, the capital of Western Civilization. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time… keep on travelin'. Ciao.