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Big Changes in Ancient Rome

By Judith Geary

View from the Farnese Gardens into the Forum

It goes without saying that Cicero would have difficulty recognizing his old haunts. But even if it's been only a year or two since your last visit to the eternal city you'll notice some changes in the way the city's ancient ruins are to be experienced. Some of these changes appear due to increasing sophistication in controlling and servicing the tourist hordes, but others reflect significant changes in the philosophy toward conservation and interpretation of the city's heritage. Most are positive.

Temple of VespasianThe visitor's first clue to the changes will likely come when you visit the Forum. The entrance down the hill between the Palazza Nuova and the Palazzo Senatorio is closed at the stairs, though it still provides a viewing platform and access to the Tullanium under the Chiesa di San Pietro in Carcere. Access from the Campidoglio is now through a doorway between the Palazzo Senatorio and Palazzo dei Conservatori on the southwest side of Michelangelo's pavement, and the Via di Tarpea. A new entrance on the Via dei Foro Imperiali is served with a small book store and toilets. The entrance on the Colosseum side seems unchanged from recent years. Ticket booths are staffed, for information only, so far, though few visitors would complain about contributing to the conservation and restoration of this center of western civilization.

Inside the Forum itself, other changes are apparent. The podium of the Temple of Vespasian shows a sort of “progressive reconstruction” (see photo above) from the tufa blocks of the core to the few remaining marble of the facing. Between, brickwork and giant “puzzles” reconstructed from broken marble illustrates more about what the temple must have been like than the bare remains.

The visitor has more access than in previous years to the east, or Basilica Julia, side of the Forum, to the base of Septimius Severus' archways at the Palatine (see below), though barriers still restrict walking to the Via Sacra and other roadways. In this area, a “service entrance” to the Cloaca Maxima will be of interest to those interested in the mechanics of ancient life.

A major source of frustration, representing negative change from the visitor's perspective, are the ubiquitous metal barriers of various heights, designs, and degrees of permanence that seem to shift like annual plantings. You see something, or see a spot where you could see it, but you aren't allowed to get there. (And try to step over even a low barrier and you'll find that uniformed Italians materialize, seemingly from nowhere.) The barriers that bar one from the House of the Vestals appear temporary, unsightly pipework strung with wire fencing, but they've been in place for at least the past several years. Likewise, on the Palatine Hill, apparently temporary fences far the visitor from the House of Livia, the Huts of Romulus, and parts of the Farnese Gardens (including any spot where one could see down to the site of the House of the Vestals. One can hope these restrictions are due to excavation or conservation issues and will someday be lifted.

The Capitoline Service entrance to the Cloaca Maxima
The Capitoline.  A view of the Capitoline with the Arch of Septimius Severus on the right, the rostra in the center, the Temples of Concord and Vespasian at the base of the cliff directly under Sulla's Tabularium. To the left foreground is the Temple of Saturn. One now enters the Forum from the upper left, between Saturn and Concord to about the center of the picture. Service entrance to the Cloaca Maxima.  I think it's in the podium of the Basilica Julia. Certainly it's nearby on that side.
Arch of Septimius Severus Palace of Septimius Severus
Arch of Septimius Severus (203 CE).  For a number of years, and as late as last summer, entry to the Forum was down steps from the Capitoline and through this arch. Now it's down the Via Tarpeia (or Via Sacra), visible to the left of the picture. Palace of Septimius Severus.  This substructure extended the Palatine in the direction of the Forum. It's part of the area opened up on the "Basilica Julia" side of the Forum.

Perhaps the most exciting new discovery awaiting the visitor to ancient Rome is the Museo di Crypta Balbi. Located in one corner of what was the Crypta (monument in an enclosed porticus) constructed, along with a theatre by Lucius Cornelius Balbus (a friend of Augustus), the museum combines the latest in design and interpretation technology with admirable preservation of its location in an actual archaeological site.

Displays trace the architectural and cultural development of the area from the marsh that became the Campus Martius to the 21st century. Unlike the nearby Largo Argentina, where in the 1930s a Medieval church was demolished to gain access to the temple remains of the sacred area, the Crypta Balbi Museum preserves and interprets the entire history of the site, using text and pictorial displays, videos and computer models and well as a guided walk through the subterranean remains (primarily on elevated catwalks.) Limited restoration of an original wall gives visitors an idea what marble and tufa construction looked like before the weather and medieval “clamp miners” took their toll. Copies of documents and reconstructions of deposits of coins and everyday objects found in drains, rubbish dumps and tombs give insight into the everyday lives of the people who lived and worked there over the ages. Other rooms contain materials from other museums and sites in Rome, including pottery from the Forum and artifacts from a Mithraem. English translations are limited to the text on most of displays. Videos, computer models, a few displays and the live guides use only Italian as of March, 2001, although this may change. Visitors with limited or no command of Italian may wish to pick up the English edition of the excellent museum guide, available at the Capitoline Museum bookstore as well as the Crypta Balbi itself, and familiarize yourself with the sections on the physical evolution of the site in order to better understand the guided tour.

Locating the museum is a matter of knowing what you're looking for. So new it doesn't appear in the millennium edition of Dorling Kindersley's excellent guide, the front also doesn't scream "museum" to the American eye. The building has a modern glass-fronted facade with a white marble altar displayed in a window. A modest sign beside the door includes the designation: SUPERINTENDENZA ARCHEOLOGICA DI ROMA, and MUSEO NAZIONALE ROMANO DI CRYPTA BALBI. It's on Via delle Botteghe Oscure about a block off Largo Argentina toward Piazza Venezia. Hours are generous, approximately 9:00 am. to 7:00 pm. and admission reasonable, approximately L8,000—around $4.00 as of this writing.

Largo Argentina area sacra Largo Argentina area sacra: This is "Temple B" in Largo Argentina. Built by Quintus Lutatius Catulus in 102 BCE and dedicated to "Fortune of the Day." Just beyond is another temple built by another Lutatius Catulus in 241 BCE at the end of the Second Punic War. Immediately behind this temple block was the latrine for the Teatro di Pompey—and the site of Caesar's assassination. Nearby is the Museo di Crypta Balbi. With cats—if you look closely.

Gary the guideThe area sacra in Largo Argentina certainly deserves more than the paragraph most guidebooks give it. Limited restoration of pavements temple podiums and columns distinguish the four visible temples and remains of the furthest extensions of the portico of Pompey's Theater. It seems that archaeologists working on the site are in conflict with the residents of a cat sanctuary and their protectors currently housed in the southernmost of the temple remains. Free tours in English are offered on Sunday afternoons at 3:00 pm. (5:00 pm. in summer) The guide, an American who identified himself only as Gary (see photo right), is a cat sanctuary volunteer, but also quite knowledgeable and well-equipped with visual aides to interpret the temples. The virtual visitor can view movies of both the ruins and the cats, learn about the work of the cat sanctuary and adopt a cat or make a contribution at The 21st century has truly arrived in this spot in ancient Rome.

 Even the venerable Museo Vaticano is noticeably changed. The Vatican Museum's new entrance, around an inside corner from the old one, still on Vialle Vaticani, is reminiscent of an airport, complete with x-rays for bags and computer displays listing which galleries are open or closed and extra exhibits or performances. Long known for a lack of labeling beyond numbers keyed to minuscule entries in drab guidebooks, now placards labeling nearby exhibits (still by the numbers) in both Italian and English appear around many rooms and some, notably the Etruscan Collection, have been given extensive re-interpretation. Michelangelo's double spiral ramp, long the museum's trademark inside the entrance, is now the visitor's exit.  

Other changes may be less dramatic, but in general represent increased accessibility for the visitor to the lives of the ancient Romans and the ages that both preceded and followed. Inside the Colosseum, “bridges” put the visitor in a position to peer down into famous sotto arena passageways.

Bridge across the Colosseum floor Inside the Colosseum
Bridge across the Colosseum floor Inside the Colosseum
[Editor's Note 8/31/2001: The Colosseum, a new multi-level site.]

Nero's Domus Aurea reopened last summer after a 16-year hiatus. You may want to rent the audio guide since the walk through itself isn't interpreted and there are no labels. In museums, the trend continues toward more extensive labeling, more English translations on those labels—and occasional German and Japanese. Free tours at the open sites like the Forum and outside the Colosseum are “come-ons” for paid tours to other sites, but in general are informative and worth your time. And you don't have to tip the guide, though you'll probably want to. The city itself is brighter, as the major cleanup and restoration efforts for the millennium retain their glow.

In short, whether your last visit to Rome was last summer, or only in the pages of a book, it's time to plot your return, to discover your own surprises.


Tully and me Judith Geary lives in Boone, NC where she is variously a writer, editor and adjunct faculty member at Appalachian State University. The material for this article was gathered during an independent visit March 9-17, 2001. She also is editor at High Country Publishers, Ltd.

Other articles by Judith Geary:
The Palatine
In the Steps of Julius Caesar
the little house in Pompeii held a grand illusion
Republican Roman Construction
Buildings of Artificial Stone 
Republican Roman Names

© Judith Geary 2001
Gladiator photo © Irene Hahn

Ancient Rome as seen in the year 2001

for articles click here
by Judith Geary & Verda Ingle

Irene's Travelogue: Roman Germania 1999

gladiator image, click here for travelogue

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