There is bang, bang, banging in the room above me, the ornate ceiling rattling as if it might come down on me soon, offset by the sound of drills into plaster, hammers against metal pipes, and the shouts of workmen. It’s just after noon, and I’m lying on the narrow bed underneath the construction zone with the worst case of jet lag I’ve ever had. Eight hours from New York without sleep, then an hour into the city on the airport express train, standing all the way. Once I crossed the threshold, I fell in a heap on the bed, my bag plopped against the wall beside me. I can’t move, can’t keep my eyes open, but I can’t sleep either with the banging, hammering, and drilling.
For a moment, it’s suddenly quiet. Then a workman calls out and another answers. Pretty soon, they’re all shouting over each other. It’s sort of like a Fellini stereotype, some combustible argument. Or, for all I know, they’re just talking about the weather or what they’re having for lunch. I need to get up, but my body isn’t cooperating. I have a reservation at the Borghese Gallery in an hour.
The morning of the next day, I’m energized. Out on the streets of Rome, it is warm for autumn, sunny. I follow the stone steps and narrow, winding alleys down to the Piazza Venezia. The Forum. The Colosseum. Ancient Rome.
Like everything in this city, it’s an anachronism. The colossal stadium of the Roman emperors is smack dab in the center of a busy roadway, little cars beeping their horns and zipping by on the Via Dei Fori Imperiali. There’s a sign to Trajan’s Market near a bus stop as if it’s directing you to a busy shopping mall. In its time, it may have been the first great shopping mall, coupled with Trajan’s Forum, the center of Roman life.
I begin the day further in Rome’s past, under the Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum. The Forum was the heart of a great empire that at its height stretched from the shores of Asia Minor in the east, to North Africa to the south, France and Spain to the west, and as far north as the British Isles. Its red brick Senate building was home to great debates and tragic betrayals among legendary figures, where republican Rome was transformed into an empire. Just outside, the Arch of Septimus Severus celebrates Roman conquests. I close my eyes and try to picture how the Forum was in its day, its sights and sounds. “Friends, Romans, countrymen …”
In the middle of the arena, gladiators fought one another,
fought lions and tigers to the roar of the crowd.High above, Palatine Hill is more subdued. In Roman times, this is where the emperors built their palaces, looking down on their people. Now all that is lost. What’s left is a quiet garden, sculptures, and fragments.
The mid-afternoon queue for the Colosseum moves much slower than on a modern match day at the Stadio Olimpico, but once inside I emerge on the mezzanine of a tremendous arena that once held the greatest spectacles of Roman times. In the middle of the arena, gladiators fought one another, fought lions and tigers to the roar of the crowd. They flooded the center to stage naval battles with great boats. Elevators beneath the ground could raise competitors to the surface, and underground in the vast catacombs, they kept animals ready and legions of gladiators awaited their call.
With the light fading, I stand in the gallery above what was once a stage for theatrical performances, while an American television crew interviews a local expert about the history of the Colosseum. Where I come from, stadiums are disposable. They build them up at great expense but soon knock them down to build the next one even bigger.
Behind me two French girls are talking; they’ve been following the same route as me throughout the afternoon. One of them asks me questions in French, pointing to her guidebook, but I don’t understand what she’s saying. “Your coat,” she says, in garbled English. “You look French.”
As night falls, I wander the Circus Maximus where the Romans held epic chariot races while the emperors watched from the balconies of their palaces. The vast circuit where Ben-Hur raced to glory is now just a dusty walking course. In the dimly lit night, I look out across the field at the lights from the more urban quarter nearby, where the modern Romans are rushing back to hearth and home after a long day.