Rome

Archbasilica of St. John Lateran

Rome is a city like no other - You could spend months, even years there and not even scratch the surface of everything the city has to offer.

Very few travellers however can afford to spend that much time in a city while on vacation. So if you've only got a week or two in the city, you're going to have to plan your trip wisely, right?

When planning my Roma vacation I spent quite a bit of time mapping out where I was going, when I was going and buying all the appropriate tickets.

While planning the itinerary, I made sure to add a few extra stops as 'possibilities' in case we ended up having extra time or if the weather wasn’t cooperating. 

On our last day in the city, I planned for a half-day excursion to the Roman neighbourhood of Trastevere which is just across the Tiber river and away from the main touristy areas of the city.

Trastevere is known for its nightlife, fine dining and bustling atmosphere while also being a bit more laid back and less hectic than other parts of Rome.

Admittedly, one of the main reasons I wanted to visit the area was to visit the restaurant “Roma Sparita” which was gained world-wide attention thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s praise for their unique take on Rome’s favourite pasta “Cacio e Pepe”.

Unfortunately I wasn’t really paying attention to the time, nor the restaurant’s hours of operation and we missed out on lunch service while exploring the area.

Instead we visited a random Trattoria in the area and had yet another amazing meal.

I think every meal I had in Rome was amazing though.

My original plan was to stick around Trastevere all afternoon and then head over to take some night photos of the historic Ponte Sisto bridge before heading back to our hotel.

My girlfriend however had a better idea - Looking at the list of possible places to visit, she thought that time would be better spent checking out the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. 

Oddly enough, the Archbasillica, which happens to be one of the most important cathedrals in the world as well as also the oldest public church in Rome only happens to be a minor tourist attraction compared to other destinations in the city. 

Which I'm sure you'll agree after reading this blog is a shame. 

History

Dating back to the 4th Century, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the oldest church in Rome and is also the highest ranking of the four papal basilicas. Home of the “cathedra” (throne) of the Roman Bishop, the church acts as the primary cathedral of the Catholic religion and you might be surprised to learn that it outranks St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Situated four kilometres away from the Vatican, the archbasilica’s status can be a bit confusing for non-Catholics - It is currently property of the Holy See and enjoys 'extra-territorial' status from Italy but also serves as the “Cathedral of Rome.

To put it a bit more simply: Due to a mixture of history and politics, the church is not currently home to the pope but is still owned by the Holy See but also shared with the people of Rome.

Today it is considered the “mother church” of the Roman Catholic religion and even though the Pope rarely visits, it is still the most important of the four major catholic basilicas and oddly enough its administration falls to whomever is currently the President of the French Republic.

Confused yet?

I guess to sum things up easily we can just agree that when politics and religion get involved with each other, things can be a bit messy.

The land where the archbasilica was constructed was once owned by a powerful family known as the "Laterani's" who were well-known for their service to the Roman Empire with members of the family serving under several different emperors.

Unfortunately for the family, Plautius Lateranus, was accused by Emperor Nero (who was a bit insane) for conspiracy against the empire and all of their property, which included the Lateran Palace was confiscated by the state.

Around the year 312, Emperor Constantine commissioned the construction of a basilica on a plot of land next to the Lateran palace and donated all of it to the Bishop of Rome with the intention of the palace becoming the home of the church and the clergy where they would live for more than a thousand years! 

Over that period of time the basilica has survived several fires and earthquakes and has had to be repaired and renovated on several occasions. Despite a thousand years of fixing leaks and scraping fire damage off the walls, the basilica today remains almost the same as it did when it was originally constructed. 

Two fires in the 1300s in particular though caused an extreme amount of damage to the basilica and the palace next door - The fires forced the popes, who at the time had already taken up residence in Avignon, France to make plans to move to the Vatican.

If you are unaware of the events which forced the Popes out of Rome for most of the 14th Century, you might want to read about the “Avignon Papacy”, the “Western Schism” and the “Anti-Popes”.

When the pope returned from France in 1377, Rome was a ghost town and most of the churches were in ruins. Pope Martin V and his successors started a process of restoration at the basilica which transformed the interior and remodelled the church into what we see today.

Seeing as how the leadership of the church was now living in the Vatican, they found alternate uses for the Latern Palace over the years which included a hospice for orphans, a museum for religious art and later as as storage space for overflow from the Vatican Museum Galleries. During the Second World War, the Lateran became a safe haven for Jewish refugees.

Today the archbasilica continues to play an important ceremonial role within the Roman Catholic Church and also serves as both the Cathedral of Rome and a tourist destination making it a busy place all day and night.

Visitors would do well to take notice of the giant bronze doors of the basilica which were previously used at Curia Julia (The Roman Senate) in the Roman Forum.

You’ll also want to take notice of the statues, mosaics and frescoes which decorate the walls all over the church.

You might also be interested in checking out the 'Altar of the Holy Sacrament' which contains a cedar table that is thought to have been the table used during the Last Supper.

In truth, there’s a lot to see when you visit this basilica - Make sure you have ample amount of time to enjoy your visit

Getting There

 

As I mentioned above, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran isn’t as popular as some of Rome’s other tourist hot spots. I'm guessing the reason is because of its distance from the city centre.

In truth, its only a 10-20 minute walk from Roma Termini Station, but for some tourists, that might be a bit too much. Personally, I found Rome much more enjoyable as a walking city, so I walked over from Trastevere and then walked back to my hotel.  

If you aren't interested in walking and want to get there quicker, the best way to do that is to take the Rome Metro to ‘San Giovanni’ Metro station. The basilica is more or less across the street. 

There is also a Hop On/Hop Off bus that will take you there, but it’s important to note that not all of the buses go that way, so you’re going to have to check at the bus stop to make sure which bus goes there.

Entrance to the basilica is free of charge and is open to tourists everyday before six.

It is also worth mentioning that before being admitted to the basilica you’re going to have to pass through a security check point. You may not want to bring too much with you when you visit in order to save time!

Like a lot of tourists who visit Rome, I listed St. John Lateran as a “possibility” in case I had some extra time. In retrospect, I think that the it should have been much higher on my list of places to visit. It is a beautiful church that is full of history and is coincidentally the only church on my trip where I actually saw church-related things happening.

If you’ve already finished visiting the Colosseum, the Vatican and Trevi Fountain, I recommend a stop at this beautiful basilica. The history and architecture on display at the Catholic Church’s most important basilica is something I think all tourists should enjoy. 


The Colosseum

In the seventh century English scholar, Saint Bede wrote: “As long as the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand; When the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls, the world will end.

The Colosseum has been the iconic symbol of the once powerful Roman empire since Emperor Vespasian commissioned its construction nearly two thousand years ago. in the years since, the giant amphitheatre has survived every catastrophe the world has thrown at it. Not even the fall of the Roman Empire, or the millions of tourists who now visit it every year has brought it down. 

Once a place frequented by Rome’s Emperors, Senators and Intellectuals, the Colosseum was a place where gladiators lived and died by the sword and where animals were brutally slaughtered for the enjoyment of the masses. 

Known as one of the finest Roman buildings ever constructed, the influence of the Colosseum’s design and architecture is immeasurable. The engineering skill and know-how that it took to complete a structure of its size and has allowed it to survive for as long as it has is a feat that cannot be understated.

Today the Colosseum is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and every year more than four million people walk through the gates to marvel at the sight of one of the ancient world’s most spectacular creations.

History

Seating between 50,000 - 80,000 spectators, the Colosseum is a massive structure that holds the record as being the largest of its kind not only during the Roman Empire, but today as well.

Built in a prime location in the ancient city, the Colosseum was the premiere venue for celebrations and sporting events and was regarded as a symbol of the power and prestige of the Roman Empire and legends about its size and grandeur filled the hearts of Rome's enemies with fear.  

As the symbol of Rome’s power, the Colosseum mirrored that of the empire and was known for the brutality that took place within as the grand spectacles often consisted of gruesome gladiatorial combat, wild animal hunts and public executions - with tickets always being free! 

Construction on the Colosseum commenced in AD 72 under Emperor Vespasian who commissioned it as a ‘gift to the people.’ It was completed eight years later under Vespasian’s successor Emperor Titus who officially celebrated its completion with 100 days of games.

The land where the Colosseum was constructed was previously part of Emperor Nero’s grand palace known as ‘Domus Aurea’ which burnt down in AD 64. Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty is remembered as a tyrant who lived a life of extravagance at the expense of the people and the land where his palace was built was taken from the people of Rome.  

The latter years of Nero's rule were marred by civil war which saw almost all of his supporters turn against him. With seemingly no other option, Nero commit suicide in AD 68 which started a power vacuum and a chaotic period known as the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’.

When the dust settled, Vespasian, a successful military leader and civil servant claimed victory and initiated the Flavian Dynasty. Vespasian, a populist sought to rebuild Rome after the great fire and commissioned an amphitheatre on the grounds reclaimed from Nero's palace which was seen as giving the land back to the people.

Vespasian’s successor, his son Titus, was a much loved ruler and like his father was known for his populist policies as well as his humanitarian response to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  

When the Colosseum was completed in the year AD 80, Titus endeared himself to the people yet again by inaugurating the building with elaborate shows of gladiatorial combat, wild animal fights, mock naval battles and horse and chariot races as well as offering prizes of gold, clothing and even slaves for people in the audience.

The Colosseum was actively used for over four centuries but the decline of the Roman Empire and the popularity of a 'new religion' caused the public to lose interest in the gruesome shows that were offered more or less forcing it out of business and leaving it pretty much abandoned.   

The abandonment of the building resulted in centuries of neglect and vandalism which unfortunately stripped the Colosseum of all of its decorative beauty. Later it ended up becoming a quarry which supplied Rome’s various construction projects with building materials.

In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV put an end to the usage of the Colosseum as a quarry and consecrated the building as a sacred site. The Pope argued that the building was sanctified by the blood of early Christian Martyrs who were executed on site. Despite little evidence for Christian persecution and executions ever taking place at the Colosseum, the actions of Pope Benedict XIV and the Popes who succeeded him resulted in the the building becoming protected and restoration projects were carried out to save it from total destruction.

Today the Colosseum is one of Rome’s top tourist destinations with millions of tourists visiting every year. Restoration efforts on the site are ongoing and recently tours of the top levels of the building as well as the underground hypogeum have become available for tourists.

For more detailed information on the Colosseum’s almost two thousand year old history, check out some of these resources:

Tips for Travellers

The Colosseum is the most popular tourist attraction in a city full of tourist attractions - Over four million people visit the site every year which means that on average over ten thousand people visit everyday. What does this mean? Your visit to the Colosseum is going to be shared with thousands of other people and you should be prepared to wait in long lines. 

Below are some tips that you may want to take into consideration before and during your visit which will help you save time, money and offer a more rewarding experience at the Colosseum.

Close up to the hypogeum

- Plan your trip in advance - If you are travelling to Rome, make sure to plan your entire itinerary in advance. Spontaneous travellers or people who wait for a favourable weather forecast are going to end up wasting a lot of time waiting in lines at places like the Colosseum or the Vatican. The biggest advice I can give you is to do your homework and plan your trip in advance which will allow you to save a lot of time and skip the ticket queues.

There are a few ways to take care of the ticket situation:

  1. 'Skip-The-Line' tickets are available for purchase online - Go directly to the source, the Coop Culture website, which offers a number of ticket options for tourists. The basic ticket costs €12.00 per person with a €4.00 service fee. The tickets are valid for two days and includes admission to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. There are also other options available which include admission to the hypogeum (underground) as well as the Third Ring at an additional cost.
  2. Prefer to visit with the help of a tour guide? Taking a tour led by a professional tour guide (who speaks your language) is often a popular option for travellers and at the Colosseum there are certain sections that tourists cannot visit unless they are taking part in a guided tour. The web is full of tours that you can book in advance. My advice here is to shop around to find the best price for the experience you want to have. You are also going to want to book your tours well in advance as spots fill up quickly.
  3. Roma Pass? If you are visiting Rome for a short time, you may want to consider purchasing the Roma Pass which comes in intervals of 72 and 48 hours. Each of the passes offers unlimited access to Rome’s public transport network and discount tickets to many of the city’s tourist destinations. You can use the Roma Pass for skip-the-line admission to the Colosseum as the pass offers free entry to either one or two of Rome’s museums or archaeological sites (depending on which you purchase).
  4. Need an Audio-Guide? Audio-Guides are not included with your admission tickets, so if you want to have one to better understand what you’re seeing while in the Colosseum, it would be a good idea to order one in advance with your skip-the-line tickets. The guides can be purchased for an additional €5,50 from the Coop Culture website. There are some apps available in the iTunes or Android App Store that offer audio guides and interactive maps which you may want to download before your trip.

Practicalities

  • On the day that you are visiting the Colosseum, do your best to arrive early - The gates open at 8:30am and a line will have formed well before that. It’s a good idea to visit earlier in the morning when there are fewer people which should allow you to take better photos and avoid the hot sun.
  • The area around the Colosseum is full of people busking and selling souvenirs. You’ll want to be careful about your interactions with these people as they can be sometimes be aggressive in their salesmanship. If anyone tries to hand you anything, politely refuse. If they keep bothering you, just simply walk away and they’ll leave you alone.
  • Even though there is a police and army presence on site, it is still recommended that you take extra care of your belongings, especially during the high season. Rome’s pickpockets are notoriously skilled at what they do - Don’t leave anything unattended to take a photo and don't make it easy for your wallet or your phone to be lifted.
  • Before you enter, you are going to have to pass through a security gate, much like the kind you go through at the airport. Due to global terrorism, security measures have increased which often results in delays for tourists. Visitors are not permitted to take in drinks or large bags and tripods are also frowned upon. You should pack light on the day of your visit to save time. 
  • As mentioned above, your tickets are valid for two days, but do not allow for re-entry. If you end up spending way too much time at the Colosseum and would prefer to leave the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill to the next day, that is an option. Most people however spend about three hours at the Colosseum and are still able to finish all three sites on the same day.
  • If your plan is to visit the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill on the same day, I recommend visiting the Colosseum first and then taking a break to get some lunch before continuing your day. There are a lot of food options in the area but most are overpriced tourist traps. You may want to consider taking a short walk down ‘Via die Fori Imperiali’ and turning right onto ‘Via Cavour’ to check out some of the many restaurants and gelateria’s there which will be cheaper and have smaller crowds.
  • After a long day of sightseeing you’ll probably want to have dinner and relax in a fine Roman restaurant. Don’t end your day too early though. Make sure to head back to the Colosseum to check it out after dark which provides for some great photos.

A visit to the Colosseum is a must for any traveller visiting Rome - If you visit Rome and for some reason don’t bother going to the Colosseum or checking out the Roman Forum, you seriously will have missed out and may want to have your brain examined by a medical professional.

In all of my travels I don’t think I can say that I’ve ever felt as overwhelmed as I did than when I visited the Colosseum - It should be fairly obvious why it is one of the top places to visit on any travellers ‘bucket-list' and if you have the chance to visit, you will quickly realize why it has inspired people from all over the world for the last two thousand years.