What Emperor Hadrian Lost: A Walk Through Ancient Rome
I am a ghost. Please, don’t be alarmed! Stop for just one moment. I’m quite harmless, and, well, you want to see Rome, right? You may think of me as a tour ghost. There will be plenty of time for me to tell you my own thrilling tale, but let’s get the pressing information out of the way first.
I shall guide you through my favorite haunts, if you’ll forgive the pun. I'll be speaking to you through your telly-ma-phone, which I see you have there. I've taken over your phone through something called VoiceMap. This uses GPS to pinpoint your location, and it lets me know when I should pipe up and start speaking. This means you can put your phone away now and relax. As we reach points where I would tell you a tale, or nudge you in the right direction, I will speak through your heady-phones directly, without you having to do a thing.
Right. Let's go! You should be standing in front of Castel Sant’Angelo. Face away from the castle and start walking along the bridge, going in between the two angel statues. Keep walking over the bridge. I'll meet you half way across.
Turn and Look Back
Now stop and turn around to regard the massive structure behind you. This is Castel Sant’Angelo, or the Castle of the Angels. It was named after the statue of the Archangel Michael that you can see at the top. It was originally commissioned in the year 135 by my lover, the Roman emperor Hadrian, to be his mausoleum. Back then, it was topped by a statue of my beloved Hadrian surrounded by cypress trees. But alas, the whole place was converted into a fortress in the Middle Ages. It served as a key point of defense in the numerous sieges that history has tested our fair city with.
But look at how splendid a structure it is, still: Hadrian did much to make this city more beautiful, and I’m afraid none of that would have been possible had I lived. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
Face away from the castle again and continue over the bridge; I shall meet you promptly on the other side.
End of the Sant’Angelo Bridge
Now cross the street in front of you. Be careful as you cross. Italians drive like demons are chasing them, so we must be most cautious when they are at the wheel of their tooting mechanical beasts. I'll wait for you on the other side.
Now turn left and continue walking, keeping the river and the castle on your left.
Head Down This Way
Turn right into this little side street and keep walking.
This street is called Via del Panico, which means the way of panic. This is most appropriate when describing modern-day traffic. In my day, the most you risked was getting a foot squished by a passing chariot, but times do change.
We will keep walking down the Via del Panico a little ways, with the Castel Sant’Angelo behind us. We will turn at the second small street to our left, but never fear, I shall tell you when it is time to turn. When we get there, we will have some time to get to know each other a bit better, for I am something of an important ghost.
Turn Left and Walk Boldly Down Via dei Coronari!
Splendid! Turn left here and walk down the narrow lane on the right of the car park. We're going to walk along this street for quite a while.
Just keep walking down this small street.
Allow me to introduce myself properly, dear friends. My name is Antinous, and I am a touch under 2000 years old, give or take 100 years or so. I know, I hear you – what’s a hundred years, when I look so vibrant and dashing? Well, the secret isn’t just Rome’s crisp air. I died quite young, in the year 130, when I was twenty.
I was the favored lover of Emperor Hadrian. Of course, taking lovers was an accepted public practice back in my day, particularly if you were a person of high rank. Never heard of me? Don’t worry, I’m not offended – history has not been kind to me, nor unveiled all of my story. I do not wish to bore you, so allow me only to say that I lived to serve and to love Hadrian. I was present when it was prophesied that what he loved most had to die, or he would never rise to greatness. He scoffed - but I, and everyone else, knew it to be true. It was widely known that Hadrian prized me above all else – I say this not to flaunt it, but because it is the truth. I became obsessed by the idea that the man whom I served would trip over his empire in the very effort to preserve my life. And so I arranged my own death as a human sacrifice. I could not allow him to fail because of me, do you see? I don't think he ever forgave me, but I also never recovered from losing him – and this is why I still wander the city that was his own.
But enough of my sad tale! Let us continue down this noble road. You are going in exactly the right direction.
The Five Good Emperors
Keep walking, my new friends, as we proceed deeper into Ancient Rome.
Sorry, what did you say? Why am I an important ghost, you ask? Oh, that's only my little joke. Hadrian had me deified after my death. I became something of a god, a being worthy of worship. He founded a cult for me, games in my honor, and a city in my name – but of course, all things fade, with time, and today I am no one at all.
Please don't look sad – I haunt a most beautiful city. Even after all of these years, I am able to visit some of the most important landmarks of my era, changed though they may be. And there are still people, such as your good selves, who are interested in my story, and the contributions of my emperor and his rule. But enough about me – let me fill you in on the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. By the way, keep walking straight - you’re doing splendidly.
Hadrian was emperor from the year 117 until his death in 138. He is considered one of the Five Good Emperors. I do not say this because I am biased – history has named them so. Machiavelli himself coined the term. The Five are Nerva, Trajan, my own Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. These are the emperors who are known as having governed the empire justly, although admittedly I use the term “justly” a bit loosely. Murder and deceit were regular companions back then. It is agreed, though, that they left Rome mightier than when they rose to the title. I assure you, this is no small feat, considering some of the riffraff that bounced around with the title of emperor. But I digress!
1[Hadrian is perhaps best remembered for building Hadrian’s Wall, marking the northern limit of Britannia, and for rebuilding the Pantheon, among many other feats. We will be visiting the Pantheon on our walk together.]
2[Hadrian is perhaps best remembered for building Hadrian’s Wall, thus marking the northern limit of Britannia, and for rebuilding the Pantheon – which I shall take you to shortly. He also designed and inaugurated the Temple of Venus and Roma, which was the largest temple of Ancient Rome in our time. The temple is a point on our second tour, so we can visit it together, should you choose to join me for that one as well.]
Continue straight. I will meet you at the end of this narrow passage.
Cross the Road
Here we are!
Cross the road to the right, towards the building with the hideous blocky square columns. I shouldn’t say hideous, but I have never been partial to Fascist architecture, myself.
Once you reach the square columns, turn so that they're on your right. Then walk straight down the road.
Rome at Street Level
Stop here for a second. On your right is a hole in the wall with a rail around it. Look down over the railing. This is where the ground level of Rome was in my day. See this ancient, weathered arch that the Fascist building has been built practically on top of? That arch is what remains of the stadium of Emperor Domitian from the 1st century AD. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
When you're ready to move on, keep the arch on your right and walk a few more steps down the road to the corner. At the corner, turn right and keep going.
On your left is a gelateria called Grom. Is it warm? Ghosts are rather impervious to weather conditions. If it is, I'm told they make the best gelato in Rome. When you're done, keep walking down the street to the square ahead.
To the Fountain!
Welcome to Piazza Navona! Walk straight down the left-hand side of this long area, with the busy square on your right.
I'll tell you more about the historical aspect of Navona in a moment, but for now, indulge in the pleasure of being in one of Rome's favorite piazzas. By the way, the word "piazza" is Italian for "square". Here you can truly revel in the hustle and bustle of the city. I can promise you, it has been this way for ages. Rome has never been a quiet city, but she has always had the magic of causing you to want to slow your steps. There is always something interesting going on in the piazza, whether it be the artists setting up, or the occasional market.
But ah, some advice - do not eat in the restaurants that border the square. They are very expensive, and are - what's that word I learned recently? - ah yes. Tourist traps.
Keep walking straight. I'll meet you before you reach the tall memorial you spy ahead.
Stop here for just a moment.
Before I tell you about the piazza, look to your left. This narrow street, host to another building with square columns, will be where we go next.
Now that you know, look back to the piazza and take in the sights and sounds. Feel free to wander around, but don't forget which road to return to!
Piazza Navona was paved in 1485. It is now a Baroque square, built on top of the ancient stadium with the arch that we just saw embedded in the wall.
Have a look at the fountain in the middle of the square, in front of the huge church. This is Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, which dates back to 1651. The four men around the fountain represent four great rivers around the world.
The obelisk on top is ancient Roman, but it was carved to look Egyptian. Can you see the dove at the top of the obelisk? That’s the symbol of the family of the Pope who constructed it.
When you're ready, head back to the road which I just pointed out. If you've forgotten, it's the one opposite the church, with square columns down the right hand side. Walk straight through it to the road on the other side. I'll meet you there.
A Big Modern Road that will Lead us to Other Places
Here we are. Now let's turn right, and walk down the road.
I can tell you a few things about some of the things you saw at Piazza Navona as we walk. Along with the Four Rivers, the square has two other fountains. It has the Fontana del Moro on the southern end, sculpted by the infamous Giacomo della Porta in 1575. Bernini added a statue of a Moor 100 years later. On the other side is Porta’s Fountain of Neptune. There are, of course, countless other things that make the ancient square extraordinary. It has seen countless feats and tragedies, from ancient games to the martyrdoms of Christians to the burials of Vestal Virgins.
Keep walking straight. I'll catch up with you in a minute.
Cross the Street - Straight Ahead for Coffee
Turn left here and walk down the narrow alley. When you cross the street, watch out for those infernal automah…aut…bamile… The mechanical beasts.
Keep walking straight down this new road, new friends! All the way to the end.
Piazza di Sant’Eustachio for caffè
Ahem. Stop here for a moment. A note about modern-day Italians: they take their coffee extremely seriously. Luckily for you, I know where the very best coffee, or caffè, can be found.
Kindly look to your right, at the large building made of dark stone. Just to the left of the main doorway is a small coffee shop. Do you see the sign above it that says, “Sant’Eustachio il caffè”?
Make your way over there now.
Stoppin' for Coffee
This café has been here since 1938. It's widely considered one of the very best places in the city to partake in the drink that everyone seems so fond of nowadays.
If you'd like to give it a whirl, feel free to do so now.
Before you disappear inside, let me show you where to meet me. If the cafe is on your right, you'll see a fork in the road ahead. Take the left one. Then walk straight down the street, staying on the left-hand side.
Here we are! Now turn left and follow the street.
We are only a few minutes away from the mighty Pantheon, and the road from here is clear.
Walk to the end of the street, staying on the right. I'll meet you on the other side.
Now turn right!
I can be rather bossy, can’t I? I believe I took my fall harder than I thought. I used to have the ear of the most important man in the known world. Now, I've spent the last two thousand years being walked through by people who pretend not to see me. Do you know, sometimes they just step on my feet! Ah, I apologize. I rarely have anyone I can speak to.
Keep walking straight.
To the Pantheon
The huge structure in front of you is the Pantheon. Head into the square on your left for a good view of this behemoth from the front!
The Pantheon. No Joke, This is the Real Thing.
Stop in the square for a while, and drink in the magnificent Pantheon.
This is potentially my favorite of Hadrian’s structures. The Pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, in the first century BC. Hadrian rebuilt and re-dedicated it about 200 years later.
Do you see the huge inscription on the very front? It says, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, made this”. A humble little signature. The fact that Hadrian left it there made for some confusion, I assure you. History tends to forget Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon at all. But Hadrian always dedicated the monuments he rebuilt to the original donor.
If you have time and it's open, do go inside, as it is quite grand. The peculiar dome and large round skylight make for one of Rome’s most impressive sights. Feel free to have a look around while I tell you a little more about it.
The Pantheon you see today is actually the third model. The first and second both burnt down. The first met its end during the great fire of 80 AD. It was rebuilt by Domitian, who we talked about when we went to see Piazza Navona. Alas, this version was struck by lightning in 110 AD. And yes, in case you are wondering, marble does indeed burn. Fun fact: the Romans made concrete by burning marble down to obtain lye, which is the binding agent in concrete. Hadrian’s model has stood the test of time – so well, in fact, that even today the Pantheon still holds the world record for having the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Let me show you where to go when you're ready. Facing the Pantheon, turn left. Can you see the large, light-coloured building? The one with the ground floor made of large bricks? There's a street to the left of it. Go that way, and I'll meet you when you get there.
Walk Down Via Dei Pastini
Now keep walking straight. The road splits ahead, but just stick to the wall on the right and walk down the narrow lane ahead. We're going to follow the cobbled path embedded into the ground down this small alleyway.
What’s that? What is the Pantheon today? Good question. Actually, since the 7th century it has been used as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. And, if you went inside, you will have noticed that it is also the burial ground of some of Italy’s most famous. Among those buried there are the Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II, and Umberto I and his queen. Of course, the famous Renaissance painter Raphael and his fiancée are buried in the Pantheon too.
Keep walking straight.
Keep Walking Straight
Perfect, you are doing marvelously. Keep walking straight and continue to follow the alley as it veers slightly left.
The area of Rome we're in now includes the Pantheon, as well as the Temple of Hadrian, which is where we're heading. In ancient Rome this area was known as Campus Martius, or Field of Mars. It was a publicly owned space, always of importance. In the Middle Ages it went on to be the most populated in the whole city.
Continue walking down this narrow, whimsical side street.
You're on the Right Path
Keep going, we are heading in the right direction! We will continue to follow this path – sorry, street, as you call them today. Stick to the pathway embedded in the floor, ignoring the lane going to the left.
The Temple of Hadrian
Here we are! A beautiful piazza, is it not? One of the favorite squares of the Romans.
Now, stop and have a look at the impressive structure on your right. What you are seeing is the surviving side colonnade of the mighty Temple of Hadrian. It was built by his adoptive son and successor, Antoninus Pius, in 145 AD. Alas, most of the temple is now gone, and we are only left with these columns.
Look at the wall behind the columns. Notice all the holes in the wall? This is where iron pegs held on the marble that made this temple sparkling white. Everything was ripped away over time and used as building material for other, more modern, creations. But if you seek an idea of what it would have looked like, turn around. With the columns behind you, cross the square. Look out for the little window in the opposite wall that displays a model of the Temple, as well as a bust of Hadrian. If you're facing away from the Temple, it's a little to your left.
When you're ready to move on, cross the length of the square, to reach the corner straight across from the one we entered through.
Straight out of the Square
Great, now head straight through the little street ahead, out of the square.
Turn Right Here
Now turn right, and walk down the street. This is the infamous Via del Corso. We will proceed straight until we reach Piazza Venezia. Don’t worry, you can’t miss it – the road leads right into the square.
Longest Road in Rome
That's it, just keep walking straight.
Brace yourselves, for I have very exciting news: we are currently walking down the longest street in Rome – no no, don't worry, we have entered more than halfway through, so it is not too far of a walk.
Today, the Via del Corso is well-known to Romans and tourists alike for its shopping opportunities. It's also a well-respected playground for the time-honored activity of taking a stroll, or, as the Italians call it, a passeggiata. However, the street has a much grander place in history: it links Piazza del Popolo and the northern gate of the city to Piazza Venezia and the Capitoline Hill, where we're heading. Both the Piazza Venezia and Capitoline Hill have been integral to life in Rome since its founding. Some call it the heart of the city.
Keep walking down this epic feature from the depths of history. I'll catch up with you in a moment.
Great! Continue walking down this historic street.
Now, picture this: you are an ancient Roman soldier. As such, you would have marched from the fortress to the capitol along this very road. You would have trooped through the gates at Piazza del Popolo - which is behind you – and then out into Italy to conquer Europe. You also would have returned down this same road, laden with treasure and slaves.
Also, perhaps even more excitingly, the road was used as a racetrack in the 15th century! This only happened during the Roman Carnival, and was known as the race of the barbarians – picture bareback riders! Heaving masses! Wild excitement as the horses tear down this road as though their lives, and the lives of their riders, depended on it!
I’m sorry, I do tend to get a touch overexcited.
So now you know that the steps you are taking at this very moment have a very important place indeed in the history of Rome. You must be overwhelmed with this knowledge, positively laden with all of the history and – oh? You want to go shopping? Oh well, yes, of course, no I don’t mind. I’ve only been around two thousand years after all, what are a few more minutes of solitary waiting? I am joking!
When you're finished, keep walking. I shall meet you at the end of this street, where we will make our way to Piazza Venezia and say our goodbyes.
Wonderful. We have reached Piazza Venezia, our destination. Let me lead you somewhere slightly more comfortable, where you can enjoy the piazza in relative peace. Kindly turn left and walk to the pedestrian crossing a few meters down the road.
Cross the Street
Fantastic. Now turn right and cross the street again at the pedestrian crossing. Then go around the corner and keep walking straight, towards the huge memorial building ahead. Follow me along this busy route; we shall persevere!
Cross the Street.. Again
Now turn right and cross the pedestrian crossing towards the path between the two segments of grass. We will be able to have a nice chat there.
Piazza Venezia, Where we Say our Goodbyes
Ah, the final point on our tour! Truthfully, I am saddened that the time has come for us to part. But before we say our farewells, let us pause here for a moment, and I will tell you of the wonder that is Piazza Venezia, where you're standing now.
This square is one of the hubs of the city, and several important roads meet in this busy spot. The imposing structure at the end of the square is the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of Italy. It is the largest act of architectural commemoration ever accorded to an Italian ruler. The locals largely think of it as ostentatious and too new to deserve respect. It was inaugurated in 1911, which is fairly recently by Italian standards. Part of what makes up the monument today is the site of Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as the Museum of Italian Unification.
Allow me to keep you for one moment longer, to tell you a quick story about Piazza Venezia, and my emperor Hadrian. In 2009, when excavations were underway for the new metro line, something unexpected was found - just there, on the left-hand side of the piazza. Well, obviously I knew it was there, but I suppose you can’t expect everybody else to know. What was found were the remains of a school - a school for literary and scientific ventures, founded by Hadrian. It was known as the Athenaeum, named after the city of Athens. In my time, Athens was considered the model for intellectual endeavors. The school was just one more way that Hadrian left an impressive mark on Rome. It is with his help that Rome still stands grand and proud. Ancient Rome, she is still just below the surface, no?
If you wish to continue exploring, I would recommend you take the street to the left of the monument to the king – this is is the beginning of the Roman Forum, which leads directly to the Colosseum.
2[Of course, this doesn't have to be the end. If you would like us to have some more time together, there is a second tour that begins just here. We will go on a thrilling journey to the Capitoline Hill, to see one of the most beautiful views in all of Rome. Then we'll go down to explore the Temple of Venus and Roma, which, as I've mentioned before, was the largest temple of Ancient Rome in our time. If this is of interest to you, simply choose the tour from your cellymaphone now, and this will not be the end after all. However, if other adventures await you and we must part, I understand.]
I truly hope that you enjoy the rest of your visit. As the Italians say, a presto – we shall meet again soon.