Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Buongiorno Italia! / Roman Adventures

Having gone literally to the other side of the world for last year's summer holiday, I decided to go a bit closer to home for my 2012 jaunt.  Hence, the beautiful country of Italy - home of pizza, pasta, the Renaissance, and smarmy Italian men on Vespa's.

Before I talk about the actual holiday, however, I would first like to mention how stressful it is to plan a holiday when you are a doctor.  First, you have to get hold of your rota for the rough time period you want to go.  Then you have to get hold of the rotas of the rest of your team.  Then you have to get hold of the rotas of everyone else on your ward, as they cross-cover when your team are all absent from the ward (annual leave, sick days, on call duties, nights, study leave, teaching etc).  Once you have identified possible dates for annual leave based on your own rota, you then have to cross reference it with everyone else's to make sure there will be adequate ward cover at all times.

The trick to this is to make sure you get your leave requests in before the rest of your team gets the chance to snatch the dates you want.  In the case of this particular holiday, there was a week of frantic texts and emails to swap an on call shift (with someone who subsequently broke his heel AFTER I'd booked the flights and accommodation, panicking me for a short while) and get everyone concerned to sign my leave forms.

You need annual leave to get over the stress of trying to organise annual leave.

So, after gaining a few grey hairs, I flew to Rome to start my summer adventure.

Most of Rome is like any other big city in Europe.  It has lots of traffic, lots of people, lots of the same high street stores, and plenty of street traders who will wander up to anyone looking vaguely touristy and attempt to sell you remarkably cheap Rolexs.  However, it is very different to any other city I've been to, as you can be wandering down a busy, shop-lined street, turn a corner and BAM!  Two thousand year old historical building.

The first stop on our rather packed Rome itinerary was the Colosseum, the largest surviving structure from the Roman Empire.

The reason for this impressive feat of architecture is purely political.

Commissioned in 72AD by Emperor Vespasian, the first member of the Flavian dynasty that ruled Rome for the next quarter of a century, it was placed on the site of Nero's palace.  Nero was the Emperor before Vespasian, and is on the whole considered to have been a bad guy (if you believe all the ancient texts recovered from the period).  As well as making weak Vanilla Lattes, Nero also executed his mother, poisoned his stepbrother, and possibly started the Great Fire of Rome to clear space for his palace.  He is widely associated with tyrannical ruling and civil discontent, but he also invested in Roman culture and promoted diplomatic relationships with other nations.

After Nero's suicide-to-avoid-assassination, there was a year of political uncertainty, before Vespasian emerged as the new emperor. Then began a programme of damnatio memoriae, or 'condemnation of memory', in which Nero's name was erased from monuments, statues of him had their appearances changed to look like other people, and his palace was demolished deliberately for Vespasian's Colosseum.  Being forgotten was believed to be the worst insult possible.

One such statue is responsible for the current name Colosseum.  Next to his palace, Nero had a giant statue of himself built, called the Colossus of Nero.  When Nero died, a sun-ray crown was added and the statue converted into one of the sun god.  Over the years the head was replaced a few times to one of the current emperor, but the statue remained called the Colossus.  It was in early Medieval times that the Colosseum developed it's current name, believed because of a shortening of 'the theatre next to the Colossus'.  It is a bit more roll-off-the-tongue than it's original name, Amphitheatrum Flavium.  

Sadly Vespasian died in 79AD, before the Colosseum was finished, but the new Emperor, his son Titus, inaugurated it in 80AD with a massive 100-day games killing 5000 animals and who knows how many gladiators.  The final touches to the building were completed by Domitian in 81-96AD.

The amphitheatre was the first of it's kind in the world, and showed extraordinary engineering.  The Ancient Greeks could only build semicircular theatres into the sides of hills; the Romans could build two theatres joined together and free-standing! (Amphi = double, hence amphibian meaning double life on land and in water.)  It was made with a base of light volcanic rock and cement, and surfaces were guilded with marble held in place with iron brackets.  The marble and iron was subsequently plundered from the structure in the Medieval period, to build new monuments and melt down for weapons, respectively.

A day of games at the Colosseum followed the same order:  firstly, the animal hunts, which included animals from all corners of the Empire, some of which had never been seen by your average Roman. This was followed public executions, preceded by a nice bout of torture, and often playing out scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.  Lastly, the gladiatorial games for which the Colosseum is most well known.

A series of understage tunnels, pulleys and lifts allowed dramatic entrances of contestants and animals.  There were even aquaducts to flood the arena for naumachi, or re-enactments of famous sea battles.  When not fighting in water, the floor of the Colosseum was covered in sand to reduce slipping and to soak up all the spilled blood.  Indeed, the Latin for sand has given us the term arena to mean any site of entertainment/sport.

The Colosseum could hold 50,000 spectators, and entrance was free, with free provision of food and wine (after all, what better way to control the masses and feed political propaganda by inviting them to spectacular events?).  There are four sections of the building - the average Roman pleb sat at the top, the citizens on the next tier, the knights the next, and at the bottom the senators.  There were special sections of this tier at each end of the amphitheatre, one for the Emperor, and the opposite for the Vestal Virgins (more on these exciting ladeez later).

There were 80 exits, which are rather hilariously called vomitoria.

The Colosseum was probably used for its original purpose well into the 6th Century.  After that it was used for many purposes, including cemetary, castle and rented housing.  At one stage it was proposed to be turned into a wool factory to employ the cities prostitutes, but this never came to pass.  It sustained significant damage from centuries of fires, earthquakes, and plundering.

In 1749 the building was consecrated by Pope Benedict XIV as the site of execution of many Christian martyrs.  There is no historical evidence that any Christians were executed there, but its sudden consecrated status was the Colosseums saviour - subsequent Popes restored the building and protected it from further plundering.  A cross still stands in the arena, and this is the starting place for the Pope's annual Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

After a guided tour of the Colosseum by a very nice Italian archaeologist who told us very little of the above, we sat in the shade of the trees now standing at the old site of the Colossus and ate a very over-priced parma ham ciabatta.  We rallied our energy, reapplied our sun cream, and moved on to the Roman Forum, conveniently next door to the Colosseum, and the subject of my next blog post.

There's only so much history one can absorb before requiring a break.

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