Friday, June 23, 2017

Final Day: The Vatican

Just part of our group after a very full day in the Vatican.

It is hard to believe that our three-week adventure is coming to a close. I started the day, as I like to when I can, with an early run. In addition to the exercise, it allows me to cover a lot of ground I might not otherwise get to. This morning I ran to the Tomb  of Hadrian (Italian, Castel Sant'Angelo) and along the Tiber River.

 As a group, we had a "late" start, not having breakfast until 7:30 or 8:00, and leaving the hotel at 8:40. Once we got going, however, it was a full day. We spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon in the Vatican Museums. After visiting St. Peter's Basilica, we broke for lunch and/or gelato. We then had a most interesting tour of the scavi, or excavations, under the basilica.

The Vatican Museums

The sprawling Vatican Museums are a treasure that one cannot possible absorb no matter how long, or how often, the visit. That said, it is a difficult place to do "museum work" in. The crowds are so great, and the press so tight, that one can hardly pause to really examine or enjoy the artifacts. Still, we saw some stunning items even if we did not get to everything on our lists. And to the Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern, and Classical holdings, we added the magnificent Stanze of Raphael and, of course, the Sistine Chapel (no pictures allowed in the last, however).



The Nebuchadnezzar Cylinder

With the Prima Porta Augustus, the first emperor being my favorite Roman figure
Roman copy of the Doryphporus
The Nile

Achilles and Aias Playing Dice
Raphael's Disputà
Raphael's School of Athens

St. Peter's Basilica

While St. Peter's is not the seat of the pope as the bishop of Rome (that honor is held by St. John of Lateran), because of its connection with the tomb of St. Peter, it is arguable the holiest church in the Roman Catholic Church. It is also the most famous. Because of time constraints tonight (I need to pack for an early flight in the morning), I will again refer you to the Wikipedia link for more background.


Michelangelo's heart-rending Pietà

The Scavi

With a special reservation, we were admitted to a private side door of the basilica, which led down into the archaeological excavations, or scavi, that have been done beneath the basilica. Pictures were not allowed here, but some interesting images can be found at the official web site.

In short, today's Vatican City includes the old Vatican Hill. Its slopes included both an imperial circus, or race track, used by both the emperor Gaius (Caligula) and Nero, and a necropolis, or "city of the dead," that is a cemetery. The Jewish philosopher Philo encountered Gaius here while the latter was dressed up as the sun god Helios, and early Christians persecuted by Nero may have met their end here (the Flavian Amphitheater, or Colosseum, was not built until the Flavians).

By tradition, the apostle Peter was buried here, and the emperor Constantine later honored him by by building Old St. Peter's here. In the process, the top of the Vatican Hill was leveled, the race track filled in and the obelisk that was in its center moved (it is now in the middle of St. Peter's Piazza), and the necropolis covered over.

Artist's rendition of the Old St. Peter's
Beginning in the fifteenth century, Old St. Peter's was demolished and the new, grand Renaissance (and in some places Baroque) church was built over the foundations of the original. As a result, the site has three levels: the original necropolis, the level of Old St. Peter's, and the floor of the current basilica.

We had a fascinating tour of the lowest and some of the Constantinian levels, which appear in blue and red in the schema above. Since the earliest burials were pagan, much of what we have been studying on this trip all came together here. The tour ended at the site of the traditional burial of St. Peter's. What our guide said at the end was stirring. "Whether the bones that were found were actually Peter's is not what is important for my faith. What is important is the evidence that we have here for the worship of Christians for almost two thousand years."

Final Dinner

We then walked to a fun restaurant in Trastevere for our final group meal.

How I will miss this group! We have had some great experiences together. And thank you for joining us for so much of it.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ostia, Catacombs, and St. Paul's

Our group in front of St. Paul's outside the Walls at the end of the day that started in Rome's ancient port and included visiting catacombs.

Today we started by taking the train to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, came back to Rome and took a bus out the old Appian Way to visit some early Christian catacombs, and then visited the traditional burial site of the apostle Paul.

Ostia Antica

Part of the group at an observation point in Ostia Antica.
Early in Rome's history, in fact, purportedly during the reign of the legendary king Ancius Martius, the early Roman city-state expanded down the Tiber River and reached the sea, where it established its first "colony" building a port between the early course of the Tiber and the original coast line. The name "Ostia" comes from the Latin os, ostis or "mouth," meaning the mouth of the Tiber River. Over the course of the history of ancient Rome, Ostia became a bustling, busy port, serving as the gateway to Rome until the emperor Claudius built a second port, named Portus, north of the Tiber's mouth.

OstiaAntica-SchemaRegioni.jpg, public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Because the remains of Ostia have been so well preserved, the site has sometimes been called "Rome's Pompey." We arrived just as it opened and spent the better part of two and a half hours wandering the site, visiting its tombs, baths, theater, temples, and houses. Open and not crowded, it gave us in many ways a better feel for what like was like in the Roman Empire than the magnificent monuments of the capital itself did.

Here is a fun little video skit that some of our women did, ad libbing the "Hercules Zero to Hero" animated movie:


A well-preserved (and a carefully restored) thermopolium, or "cook house," where hot and cold food and drink was sold to Ostia's citizens.
Here we do a little skit where I illustrate how one of Ostia's food "fast food" restaurants worked, recreating my old "Hunts on Site" YouTube series:

Ostia's Capitolium, a temple to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva that echoes the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome.

Some of my students look spooked in the grotto of a Mithraeum.
One of the sites we visited was a Mithraeum, or temple to the Persian god Mithras. A god of light whose might was illustrated by his slaying of a sacred bull, the worship was brought to Rome by returning soldiers among whom he was quite popular. The cult of worship included mystery rites, somewhat like those of Eleusis. See these short video clips for a further description:


Catacombs of Saint Sebastian

After breaking for lunch, we took a bus out the old Via Appia, a road originally built by the Roman censor Ap. Claudius Caecus in 312 B.C. Although the old Roman stones have been mostly covered over, the bricks used to pave over it made it pretty almost felt like the original road!

We arrived early for our appointment at the Catacombe San Sebastiano, so we had to walk a bit farther down the Via Appia Antica so that we could see the famous tomb of Caecilia Metella, a noblewoman from a prominent Roman political family who was married to M. Licinius Crassus, one of the richest men of Rome.


We also saw some of the buildings of a summer palace of Maxentius, the rival of Constantine.

We then took a tour of the catacombs that begin and end at the Basilica of San Sebastiano.

No photography is allowed in these catacombs, but I found the following public domain images in Wikimedia Commons:

Papal Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls

Because one of the things that brought us to Rome, in addition of course to the great Classical monuments, is its connection with early Christianity, I was eager to help underscore the role of the apostle Paul (we will be talking at length about Peter when we visit the Vatican tomorrow). To that end, I took the students to the traditional site of Paul's burial, which is commemorated by a massive church, one of the four "special" papal churches that are technically part of Vatican City.



Final Day: The Vatican

Just part of our group after a very full day in the Vatican. It is hard to believe that our three-week adventure is coming to a close....