Rome part 2 – The Caelian Hill

For the second day of our weekend in Rome I decided to introduce Lee to one of the quieter parts of the city – and one of my very favourites – the Caelian Hill, or Monte Celio, as it’s known in Italian. I generally describe its location as “behind the Colosseum”, because one usually views the Colosseum from the Forum side and the Caelian is on the other. We got the Metro to Colosseo and first walked up to the magnificent Arch of Constantine.


It’s a splendid triumphal arch – dedicated in AD 312 – that retains some of its purple marble, giving one some idea of how it might once have looked. It reuses elements from earlier Roman monuments.


While we were admiring the arch, a brass band struck up next to the Colosseum, which was rather delightful.


I took a couple of videos so you can get a sense of the atmosphere; you can see what an amazingly beautiful day it was – much warmer than the previous day.

Here’s a closer view of the band. It was such jolly music for a Sunday morning in Rome!

This was the view as we left the Colosseum – the big brick structure with the columns up on the hill is called the Temple of Venus and Roma, another of Hadrian’s creations. If I recall correctly, he actually designed it himself (he was a bit of a wannabe architect). Apparently Hadrian’s professional architect, Apollodorus, made a snide remark about it and was exiled and killed not long afterwards. And Hadrian is considered to have been one of the nicer Roman emperors!


The Caelian is one of the famous seven hills of Rome, and it’s somewhat more peaceful than the tourist traps we’d visited the previous day. With its quiet streets and lovely orange trees, it almost feels rural despite being so close to the most heavily frequented parts of the city.


Our destination for the morning was a very ancient church known as Ss. Giovanni e Paolo, originally built in the early 5th century and restored several times after various earthquakes and sackings. The Giovanni e Paolo (John and Paul) referred to in the name are said to have been two Christian brothers martyred in 362, and the church is supposedly built over their home, though this is legend. It’s so quiet that you’d never think it was only 10 minutes’ walk from the Colosseum. In this photo, spot the Roman masonry at the base of the bell tower: it’s from a Roman building associated with a long-lost temple to ‘Divus Claudius’ (the Deified Claudius), and it’s one of many, many examples of bits of Roman buildings built into later structures around the city.


To the side of the church are these rather marvellous buttresses. In a way, it’s a shame that most tourists miss some of Rome’s greatest treasures simply because they aren’t so well-known. But then I’m also glad they don’t know about them, because it makes them more tranquil for those of us who do know about them! This was certainly the case that morning; as you can see, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.


Just before the car on the right of the photo above is the entrance to the excavated Roman buildings that lie beneath the church. It costs €8 per person to get in, but it was the only place we paid to get into that weekend, and it was money well spent. It’s really quite fascinating, and well worth a visit even though it’s quite difficult to get your head round the layout of these buildings (I recommend Amanda Claridge’s Rome from the Oxford Archaeological Guides if you’re interested in that sort of thing). They would have been a quite posh apartment block, a place of early Christian worship, and I think maybe shops – all at various periods of their history. As you can see, the Roman frescoes from the house survive on the walls, giving you a feeling of stepping back in time.


I first visited this row of Roman buildings on an archaeology summer school I did with the British School at Rome in 2008, and I’m not entirely sure whether I’ve been back since, so for me, it was like stepping back in time to then as well as to Roman times. I couldn’t remember much of what I learned back then, but I vividly recalled this nymphaeum (fountain) courtyard, with its incredibly well-preserved fresco. Considering that Roman houses in the UK survive mostly as piffling bits of wall in the ground, it’s really remarkable to travel to Rome and see archaeology on this kind of scale and with this much detail intact. There are lots of rooms to explore on two floors, and you really would think that more people would visit such a thing.


Beyond the nymphaeum there is a small museum, in which can be seen artifacts retrieved from the buildings from various periods of their history. When we’d finished looking round, it felt good to emerge from those dark rooms below ground and into the blazing Roman sunshine. We unbuttoned our coats and walked round to the Circus Maximus to sit and have a rest and soak up the warmth of the sun. Chariots once raced around the Circus Maximus, but it was dog walkers and people out for a Sunday stroll who occupied it now.


We were getting a little peckish by that point, so we started heading back towards the B&B so that we could have lunch at Da Baffetto one last time before making our way to the airport. On the way there we passed the Theatre of Marcellus, which is often mistaken for the Colosseum by hapless tourists. Completed in 13 BC, it actually predates the opening of the Colosseum by nearly a century. People actually live in those apartments that have been stuck on the top – imagine having that for an address!


For my final photo of the trip, I leave you with this, captured on our way to the restaurant for our last meal in Rome: ochre buildings, shutters, blue sky, sun streaming through the side streets. Undoubtedly one of the loveliest things about Rome, and a nice memory to tide us over until the next time we visit.


If you’re ever planning a trip to Rome, do drop me a line if you’d like any advice/recommendations!

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