American history, Britain history, England, English History, Great Britian, history and travel, Still Current, Uncategorized, Washington DC, World history

The War of 1812, America’s second revolution 

With most events in history nothing is as black and white as we think. The War of 1812 was one of those. While American history tends to focus on the American Revolution and Civil War it was the War of 1812 that would cause more changes in the Untied States. 

After President James Madison presented to Congress the grievances against Great Britain on June 1, 1812, Congress took up the debate on formally declaring war. It’s not clear if this was the intention of President Madison since his message didn’t specifically ask for a declaration of war. The House debated for four days before voting 79 to 49 for war, with the Senate agreeing with a 19 to 13 vote. This would be the first declaration of war for the new United States. On June 18, 1812 James Madison signed the declaration into law, formally starting a conflict that both the United States and Great Britain were unprepared for.

It was only twenty-nine years since the end of the American Revolution and twenty-three years since the U.S. Constitution went into effect. The United States was just beginning to learn what being a nation was about. Many of the nation’s policies before this war were based on fears it had from the Revolution and what the founders knew of Europe. One of those fears was not having a large standing army which could be used to overthrow the government. 

After the American Revolution Congress disbanded most of its standing army, depending instead on each state’s militias to handle the defenses, as had been done before the revolution. This reliance on state militias is shown in the Untied States Contitution’s Second Amendment which starts out, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,…” Congress even passed a bill limiting the size its federal forces. At the start of the War of 1812 the United States had less than 12,000 men in its regular army. The U.S. Congress turned to the state militias to take up arms in this first declared war, but what happened didn’t make them feel very secure. In some states the war was unpopular and they refused to call up their militias. At its beginnings the new United States saw each of its thirteen states as being more independent. A united federal style government was an unfamiliar concept, so some objected to fighting outside their own state. But the biggest drawback to the militia style of armed forces was that for the most part they were under trained and poorly commanded. These state militias would struggle against the well trained British soldiers causing President Madison to say,” I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force.” 

However on the Canadian front at the start of the war the United States did fairly well. This was mostly due to the fact that the greatest number of America’s regular trained army was already there from its involvement in the Indian wars. Another reason for the United States early successes was that Britain was a little busy with the French in Europe, and had little concern about their former colonies. Although the United States saw the War of 1812 as just its war it was in reality a true globe conflict. 

Through the first two years of the war most of the fighting took place along the northern border between the United States and Canada, and on the lower Great Lakes. The defense of Canada was done mostly by the Canadians because the British were heavily involved in the European War of 1812 against Napoleon Bonaparte and France. In fact many of the issues that caused the United States to declare war were based on what Great Britain had imposed on the U.S. due of their fight against France. These were trade sanctions and the U.S. merchant sailor “impressment.” It wasn’t until 1814 that things dramatically changed in the fighting in North America, and that many of the events that American’s hold dear came about during this period.  

On March 30, 1814 Napoleon surrendered to the British and their allies after his devastating defeat in Russian. On April 6 Napoleon abdicated his power in France, and although Napoleon would return to meet his Waterloo at Waterloo this short respite allowed Britain to turn their full attention to the war in America.  

On July 18, 1814, A British 74-gun ship of the line and its support ships sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay Maine. The small American detachment at Fort Sullivan, both out manned and out gunned, surrendered. This began the occupation of Maine by the British. At that time Maine was part of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and when Maine’s cry for assistance from their Massachusetts government went unheeded it would begin the movement for Maine’s eventual statehood.  1814 would also be the beginnings of the British offensive in America.

Although the British Navy had controlled the eastern seaboard of the United States since 1813 the war with France had limited a large land campaign. Britain now free from the conflict in Europe was ready to launch a major attack on the US cities of Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. 

The first encounter was the Battle of Bladensburg, just outside of Washington DC. The majority of American troops involved where the poorly trained state militia, while the British were battle hardened and disciplined. The result of that battle was what has been termed, “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” The American militia broke rank and fled, with some running through the streets of the nation’s Capital in panic. 

On August 24 the British army entered Washington as President James Madison and Congress fled. British troops burned government buildings, including the Capital and the President’s house. During the rebuilding of the President’s house it was found that white washing would hid the stains from its burning, hence the President’s house became then known as- the White House.

The taking of our capital would be the high water mark for England. The British army and navy then moved on toward Baltimore. They believed that American resistance would be equally as weak there as it had been in Washington. However on September 14 and 15, at the battles of North Point and Hampstead Hill, and the famous defense of Fort McHenry (Star Spangled Banner fame) they met a stronger and better trained American force of army regulars. The British could not break the American defenses so they withdraw back out to sea. Their new plan was to leave the U.S east coast and resume the offensive in the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. 

From the results of the Battle of Baltimore and also their defeat in the Battle of Plattsburg New York on September 6 – 11, the British felt that there was nothing to be gained by continuing the war. The United States also saw it as a stalemate with nothing to be gained by continuing, so on December 24 1814 the US and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, officially ending the War of 1812. However this news of the wars end had failed to reach the British fleet and army heading for New Orleans, and the American Major General that would be there to meet them.

Major General Andrew Jackson would come out of this meeting of these two forces as a national hero that would rocket him to the Presidency. But before I discuss the Battle of New Orleans I’d like to give a brief background of this man that benefited most from that conflict.

Andrew Jackson was born to an improvised family on March 15, 1767 in ether North or South Carolina. History isn’t exactly sure on which side of the state line he was born, and both states claim him for their native son. Jackson’s lifelong hatred of the British came about due his mother and two brothers dying while the British occupied the Carolinas during the American Revolution. 

Jackson studied law and was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1787. Soon after he moved to the new territory of Tennessee and became the prosecuting attorney for what would be the city of Nashville. When Tennessee began its application for Statehood Jackson helped to write its constitution. He would also be one of Tennessee’s first members to the U.S. House of Representatives. Jackson decided not to run for reelection to the house but rather for the U.S. Senate. After only a year in that seat he resigned to take a Judgeship with the Tennessee Superior Court. While a judge he was chosen to command the state’s militia, and fate stepped in when the War 1812 broke out. 

Jackson received national notice from his five month campaign against the British supported Creek Indian Nation, and his victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Although Andrew Jackson was popular from the Indian campaign it would be the battle New Orleans that would make him an American household name. 

Hearing that the British’s were sailing to attack New Orleans Andrew Jackson raced to the city’s defense. Before he left he told his wife, “I owe to the British a debt of retaliatory vengeance, and should our forces meet I trust I shall pay the debt.” 

The attack on New Orleans was part of the British’s three part invasion strategy: Plattsburg, Baltimore and New Orleans. Their success had been checked by the Americans at both Plattsburg and Baltimore; their last chance to gain anything from the war was to win at New Orleans. Having New Orleans in British control would have given them power over the Mississippi River and American’s western trade. 

The British faced a hodgepodge American force comprised of army regulars, state militiamen, free blacks, New Orleans aristocrats, Choctaw tribesmen, and Jean Lafitte’s pirates. These numbered at around 5,300 men. Jackson and the Americans faced over 6,000 well trained British red coats that had just come from the Battle of Baltimore.    

Between December 23 and the 28, 1814 there were a few minor skirmishes between the two armies. The main battle finally occurred on January 8 1815, when British commander General Pakenham ordered a two-fold attack on the American’s. The first phase was a partial success when Pakenham’s men took a small American artillery post. However when a rifle shot killed their commander, Colonial Rennie, the British soldiers panicked into a hasty retreat. That was one of the weaknesses of the British soldiers at that time; they were effective only when an officer was leading them.  

The next phase of Pakenham’s plan was to march directly against Jackson’s main line of defense with the full body of his troops. He hoped that the morning mist would hide his men’s advancement. However the sun burned off the fog leaving the British soldiers completely visible and open to American rifle and cannon fire. The British plan unraveled, and although the red coats fought bravely the American fire was too overwhelming. After 30 minutes the British soldiers retreated in droves leaving behind a field of dead and dying. Afterwards American Major Howell Tatum said of the state of the British casualties, “truly distressing…some had their heads shot off, some their legs, some their arms. Some were laughing; some crying…there was every variety of sight and sound.” In the end the British had lost over 2,000 of its best soldiers, including General Pakenham. Andrew Jackson’s losses were less than 100 men. 

Although the stunned British army languished in Louisiana for a few days after the battle, and there was an abortive navel attack of Fort St. Philip, the fighting was over. 

As the British troops were boarding their ships for England Andrew Jackson paraded into New Orleans to great celebration, rivaling any Mardi Gras, or a Caesar marching into Rome.

Battle of New Orleans and the end of the War of 1812 gave the young United States a shot in the arm of national pride and honor. Even though strategically America gained nothing, they had beaten the great British army and navy. The War of 1812 has been called our second revolution, and this one we won on our own. 

The War of 1812 had shown that the United States needed a strong national military force, the old militia system wasn’t effective. The national pride of beating the 19th century’s superpower would inspire the United States to become more globally active, it would also give drive to the nations western expansion challenging Span and Mexico. It was the war that put the United States on the road of being a major power in the world.

Of further interest: While traveling in Canada, especially near Niagara and the Great Lakes, you’ll find monuments to the War of 1812. The differences in these, as opposed to our monuments of that war, is these hail Canadian victories over the United States.

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The Church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome Italy

 

Ron Current

Ron Current

 

In an ancient and historic city like Rome there is always something right under your nose that you could miss if you don’t keep eyes open and listen to other. As tourists we sometimes only focus on the main sites and literally walk past others of equal or greater historical value.

As I had mentioned in an earlier post our hotel in Rome was the Grand Hotel Palatino on the Via Cavour. The Palatino is just a few blocks from the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Many times my wife and I would leave the hotel and walk down to those famous ancient sites, ignorant of what we were passing. At breakfast one morning another guest at our table asked, “Have you been to the St. Peter in Chains Church?” “The what,” I asked. She explained that it had Michelangelo’s the famous statue of Moses. We told her we had not and asked where it was located. Her answer makes my point, “Across the street from the hotel and up a few steps.”

 

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San Pietro in Vicoli, Saint Peter in Chains Basilica

And she was absolutely correct in her directions. Across the Via Cavour was the narrow Via di San Francesco di Paola, which was more of a walkway in that location than a street. And she was also correct about the short set of steps up. At the top steps the walkway expanded into a street that vehicles could drive on. And there, as our tablemate had said, was San Pietro in Vicoli, Saint Peter in Chains.

 

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The main alter with is its frescos

 

Built in the fifth century this minor basilica is rather unassuming on the outside when compared to Saint Peters, Sant’Agnese in Agone, or the other majestic churches of Rome. But once you enter you’ll be surrounded by the colorful beauty of its many frescos. But it’s not the frescos, or even the holy relic that this basilica is named for that brings the tourists here, it’s the statue of Moses.

 

 

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This fresco was on the ceiling of the main aisle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelangelo’s statue of Moses

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There is a wonderful history behind this work of art, but first of all it wasn’t sculpted as a standalone. Michelangelo was first commissioned by Pope Julius II to create a funeral monument and tomb for him. The original design was to be massive, with 40 statues. However Pope Julius II had a big ego, and in his drive to immortalize himself with giant projects he kept pulling Michelangelo off working on the tomb to do other projects, like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo did not consider himself a painter, but rather a sculpture, causing a deep friction between them. Because Julius kept veering off to other projects his tomb and monument was not finished at the time of his death in 1513, and so the complete monument was never finished. Julius’ well to do family had the finished portion of the monument, with the statue of Moses, moved to Saint Peter in Chains because of the Pope’s love for this small basilica.

 

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The entire portion of the funeral monument with the statue of Moses. This is just one part, imagine what the entire tomb would have looked like if finished

 

Michelangelo considered his statue of Moses to be his best work. The statues surface looks more like it was brushed on rather than chiseled. It was said that Michelangelo saw this statue to be so lifelike that he asked for it to talk when he had finished it. There is also a controversy about the statue’s horns. Moses seems to have two horns coming out of his forehead. Some scholars believe that the reason for these horns could be due to a miss translation in the book of Exodus. In the most common translation of Exodus it says that Moses came down from Sinai with two rays on his forehead. This is the translation of the Hebrew word “Karan” or “Karnaim” meaning “rays.” However the confusions by Michelangelo could have because he thought the Hebrew word was “keren” which means “horns.” No one really knows what Michelangelo’s intentions were. It is also said that Michelangelo hid his profile, and those of his patrons in Moses’ beard as a joke.

The Chains of St. Peter

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The Reliquary holding the chains that bond St. Peter

 

The statue of Moses overshadows what I think is an equally interesting and historical artifact housed in this church, and what this basilica is named and constructed to house. That would be the relic of the chains that supposedly bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem and Rome. 

The story is that Empress Eudoxia, wife of Roman Emperor Valentinian II, had gotten the chains that held St. Peter while imprisoned in Jerusalem from her mother, who had gotten them from the Bishop of Jerusalem. Eudoxia then gave those chains to Pope Leo I, who already had the chains that bound Peter while he was imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison in Rome before he was martyred. Legend says that as Pope Leo was comparing the two chains they miraculously fused together.

This relic is kept in a reliquary under the main alter. You can go down a few steps at the front of the alter for a closer look. And at peek tourist time it may be easier to view those that the statue of Moses.

So as you travel to historic cities and countries don’t forget to look across the street and up a few steps, you may be surprised what you’ll find there.

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Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain

 

 

Ron Current

Ron Current

 

My wife and I love to traveling through history. Seeing all the famous sites and learning the history behind them. And then sharing them with you, hoping that when you too visit you’ll have a deeper appreciation of what you’re seeing.

 

 

 

 

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The Trevi Fountain while under its twenty month major restoration

With so much restoration going on in Rome it’s hard to find everything you want to see when you visit open, and so it was with the Trevi Fountain. As my wife and I walked down the Via delle Muratte toward the Piazza di Tervi we were told that you can hear the fountain’s gushing water getting more intense as you drawn near it. For us, when we visited, it was only the sound of the crowds in the piazza. When we reached the piazza we found that the fountain was dry, scaffolding was up among the statues, and a plexiglass wall surrounding it.

 

This was due to a major twenty months restoration of the fountain that had begun in 2014, using a 2.2 million euro sponsorship from the Fendi fashion company. Completion, of what was to be the most thorough restoration of the fountain ever done, wasn’t until November of 2015, and our visit was in September of that year. Even with it being dry and having the surrounding wall, the fountains sheer size (161 feet wide by 86 feet high) with its classic grouping of statues makes this magnificent work of art awe-inspiring.  

 

The location of the Trevi Fountain is at the end of one of Rome’s ancient aqueducts, the Aqua Virgo. This aqueduct was built by the Emperor Augustus to feed the hot baths of Agrippa and to also provide water to Rome, which it did for over 400 years.

 

Even after the fall of Rome the aqueduct, with a simple fountain, continued to provide water to the area. It was with Pope Clement XII in 1730 that the fountain we know today came into being. The fountain was to be part of Pope Clement’s project in rebuilding the Tervi district. He knew of plans for a magnificent fountain designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was to be built there, but that project had never gotten started. After a heated contest between Roman architects the Pope gave the commission to Nicola Salvi. Salvi began his construction in 1732, incorporating some of Bernini’s original concepts into his final design. When Salvi was constructing his fountain he was bothered by an unsightly sign that a barber refused to remove, so he hid it behind a large sculpted vase. Today Romans call this vase asso di coppe, “the Ace of Cups.” Salvi didn’t live to see his fountain completed, he died in 1751. The fountain was finished by Giuseppe Pannini in 1762, when Pietro Bracci’s large statue “Oceanus” was placed in the fountain’s central niche. The Trevi Fountain remains today one of the most spectacular works of Baroque art in the city.

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The Via delle Muratte leading to the Piazza de Trevi, and its fountain. 

 

The Trevi Fountain has been made famous by being featured in the movies “La Dolce Vita” and “Three Coins in the Fountain.” I was in this last film that began the tradition of throwing coins into the fountain. The proper way is to use your right hand and throw the coins over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. It is estimated that over 3,000 Euros are removed from the fountain each day. That is why they included a recessed section of the plexiglass wall so that visitors could still tosh coins into the dry fountain during the restoration.

 

Tradition says that when you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will return to Rome, but since the fountain was not working when we were there we did to return to see it in all its glory.  

 

 

 

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Rome’s Piazza Navona, site of the Circus Agonalis

 

Ron Current

Ron Current

The one thing I really love about traveling around the world is being able to combine the history of the cities, counties and the people with how they were and how their are today.

 

Over the centuries Rome has had the ability of reforming, or reusing, many of its sites and building for different uses, so it is with Piazza Navona. Located north of the Rome Forum and just a couple of street west of the Pantheon, Piazza Navona is one of the most spectacular and famous of the many squares in Rome today.

As you enter this Piazza from one of the small streets that encircle it you’re exposed to the many different colors of the building that surround it. Piazza Navona is one Rome’s liveliest areas with its many shops, outdoor cafes, restaurants, and night clubs. The Piazza also features three outstanding fountains and the magnificent Baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone.

 

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Piazza Navona, with Sant’Agnese in Agone church and the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the background

 

The most impressive of the three fountains is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) at the squares center.  Commissioned at the request of pope Innocent X, this fountain was constructed between 1647 and 1651. Designed by Berini this fountain features four figures that are reprehensive of the rivers Nile, Ganges, Danube, and the Rio de la Plata. The four statues circle a rock that supports an Egyptian obelisk which once stood on the spina of the Circus Maxentius.

 

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The Fountain of the Four Rivers, with its Egyptian obelisk in the center. The church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in the background. 

 

The other two fountains are the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune fountain) at the north end of the piazza and the Fontana del Moro (Moor fountain) at the south end.

At the center, across from the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi is the church Sant’Agnese in Agone. This church was also a commission of pope Innocent X. The façade of this beautiful church was designed by Boromini, the Fountain of the Four Rivers designer’s ravel. The church was completed in 1670.

As you walk around this spacious piazza you’ll wonder how, in the very crowded city of Rome, that they were able to build such a larger square. And you’ll also notice that the south end is slightly curved. This is because before this was a piazza it was an ancient Rome Circus.

Built by the Rome Emperor Domitian in 86 AD, this stadium had a larger arena than the Colosseum, which opened six years earlier. First named the Stadium of Domitian, after the emperor, it was later changed to the Circus Agonalis (competition arena). As with most Roman circuses this one was used mainly for races, sporting and festivals.

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The Neptune Fountain

 

Over time the stadium began to be called ‘in agon,’ then ‘novne,’ and finally ‘navona.’ Sometime in the fifteenth century the abandoned arena was paved over to create the present square. Still today you can see remnants of the old circus. There are guided tours that take you underground to view the circuses ancient foundations.  

 

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The Circus of Roman Emperor Nero: Where St. Peter was martyred

Ron Current

Ron Current

In my post on the Colosseum of Rome I stated that it wasn’t there that St. Peter and most of the other Christians met their deaths, but rather in another location in Rome. Most, including myself, were raised believing that it was within the Colosseum that the early Christians met their deaths. Now after visiting the Colosseum I found that story to be false. In fact most of the martyring was done before the Colosseum was actually built. So how did this story get started in the first place?

 What I’ve found is that this legend of Christians being martyred in the Colosseum had begun with Pope Benedict XIV in 1749; almost seventeen hundred years after those events took place. And over the centuries this decree by Benedict became taken as fact, even though it wasn’t.  

Today historians say that most Christians were martyred, including St. Peter and St. Paul, under the reign of Emperor Nero (Emperor from 54 AD – 68 AD), who committed suicide twelve years before the Colosseum was built. So if it wasn’t the Colosseum, then where were the Saints martyred? That place, most historian agree, was in the Circus of Nero.

 

Roman Circuses where built very differently from arenas such as the Colosseum. They were oblong rectangle building with a track for racing on its floor. A long dividing wall, called a Spina, ran down the center. This Spina created two tracks running down each side. The ends of Spina were open to provide turning points at each end. The Spina was decorated with ornate statures, columns and obelisks. Seating for the audiences was along the outside length and ends of the track ascending up several rows. To visualize what a Roman Circus would have looked like think of the chariot race scene in the movies Ben Hur. Racing, both horse and chariot, was what these circuses were mostly used for. Also at times other performances and presentations would take place there.

 

These Circuses were a major staple for entertainment in the lives of Roman citizens throughout the world. Rome itself had six that we know of in the city’s history: Circus Flaminius, Circus Maxentius, Circus Maximus, Circus Varianus, Circus Agonalis, and the Circus of Nero. Because of their large size and seating the Emperors would hold public events and presentations there as well as races. And it was this use as a place for public presentations that brings us to…

The Circus of Nero

 

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The Piazza San Pietro at Vatican City as seen from the steps of the St. Peter’s Basilica. Could part of Nero’s circus have run along the left side of this photo. At the center and at the top is the Egyptian obelisk that was at the center of the circuses spina.

 

 

It is believed that the Emperor Caligula started construction of this circus in Rome at around 40AD, and then finished later by the Emperor Nero. At first this circus was used as a private race course for both Caligula and Nero, but became a public venue so that Nero could show off his racing abilities. And it was within this circus that Nero conducted the most horrific displays of murder and cruelty ever in human history. So how did these mass killings start, and what caused them?

On the evening of July 18, 64 AD, Rome experienced one of the greatest fires in history. For over six days the city burned. Beginning in the slums near the Palatine Hill the fire spread, fueled by the wooden buildings and the summer’s high winds. Three of Rome’s districts were wiped out. Hundreds of Roman citizens died and thousands found themselves homeless.  Legend has it that the fire was started by Nero himself so that he could rebuild the city; however the emperor was 35 miles away at Antium when the fire broke out.  

What it did do was give cause for Nero to suppress the growing Christian movement in the city that he felt was disrupting the Empire. Using Christians as his scapegoat for the fire he began arresting them. Nero used his Circus for the public execution of hundreds of Christians, including St. Peter. On the circuses track Christians were tortured, torn apart by wild dogs, and burned alive. Along the Spina Christians were placed up on poles and set on fire as human torches. It was also there, along the Spina, where the Crucifixions took place, including that of St. Peter.

So where was the location of the Circus of Nero? Ancient Rome records show that Caligula built the circus on the property of his mother Agrippina, and here comes the surprise, on the Ager Vaticanus (Vatican Hill). Yes, the place where the early Christians and St. Peter were martyred is the site of the center of the Catholic Church, Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Today most of the remains of Nero’s Circus are gone. Although it was moved, only the Egyptian obelisk that once stood in the center of the circus’s spina remains. It now sits in the center of Piazza San Pietro in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Looking out from the steps of St. Peter the circuses wall and track could have run along the right side of plaza and the Basilica. The drawings below give two examples of where the Circus of Nero may have sat in relationship to the Basilica and the Piazza San Pietro.

 

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One theory has Nero’s circus running through the left side of St. Peter’s Basilica and then across its Piazza. Image is listed as public domain taken from Wikipedia

 

 

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This example has the circus running along the left side and through the Basilica, and not in the piazza at all. Image is listed as public domain taken from Wikipedia.

 

 

 

When you go to Rome and visit the Vatican, and as you walk through St. Peter’s and the Piazza San Petro remember that you are walking were early Christians and St. Peter died to spread the faith of church you are standing in front of.

 

 

 

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The Pantheon of Rome: A window into ancient Roman architecture

 

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The majestic Roman Pantheon seen from Piazza della Rotonda.


Ron Current

Ron Current

As you enter the Piazza della Rotonda and first see the Pantheon what comes to mind is how good it looks. Unlike the other ancient structures in Rome, like the Colosseum and those in the Forum, that are in ruin the Pantheon looks as if it successfully survived the ravages of man and time over its almost two thousand year history. That’s because the Pantheon is the best preserved building from ancient Rome. So why was it built and how did it survive the destruction that befell the other Roman monuments?  What is the history behind this magnificent and breathtaking structure?

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Sunlight streaming into the Pantheon’s rotunda from the Oculus at the top of its dome

Roman legend says that the first temple built on that site was to Rome’s mythical founder Romulus, however most historians’ now agree that the first Pantheon was constructed by Emperor Augustus’s right hand, Marcus Vipsanius Aprippa, in 27 AD. That temple burned in 80 AD, followed by a second temple constructed by Emperor Domitian. This building also was destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning in 110 AD. The Emperor Hadrian began the reconstruction on what is the current Pantheon in 120 AD, with the Greek architect Apollodorus of Damascus, and completed it in 125 AD. Hadrian is known for rededicating buildings and monuments that he rebuilt or repaired after the original dedicator, this is why the name on the facade reads: M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, the three-time consul, made this). This facade is the only portion of the original structure remaining of the 80 AD Pantheon.

What does the name Pantheon mean? Records do not specifically state to what god the temple was built for, but the name Pantheon in Greek means, “Honor all gods.” A theory is that it was the place that the Emperors could go to make public appearances that would reinforce their divine status to the citizens. On April 21st, the date that ancient Romans consider as the founding of Rome, an amazing lighting effect occurs.  When the midday sun hits a metal grille above the door it causes light to radiate out into the courtyard. Picture the Emperor standing in the door with all the light streaming around him from inside the Pantheon; they would look like a god.

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The wondrous design and color of the interior rotunda.

How did the Pantheon survive what happened to the other buildings in Rome through time, that suffered from neglect and their materials reused for other buildings.  The Pantheon very well would have gone the same way if not in 609 AD, the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV who consecrated it as a Christian church: the Church of Mary and all the Martyr Saints, as it is still known today. This saved the Pantheon from being abandoned and ripped apart. The only losses to it were the sculptures that adorned the pediment above the front door and also Pope Urban VIII took all the bronze from the Pantheon’s dome and melted it down to be recast into canons. Another reason that helped preserve the Pantheon is that it was later also used as a tomb for the famous and the noble. The artist Raphael and several Italian Kings and poets are entombed there.

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The Oculus at the center of the Pantheon dome.

The Pantheon may be one of the first Roman buildings whose interior is more glorious than its exterior.  As you enter through the two giant bronze doors you’re told that although these doors are ancient they are not the originals, those have been lost.  Now you are in the most amazing aspect of the Pantheon, its rotunda. As I walked in what awed me was the shaft of light coming into the rotunda from the hole at top of its dome (I snapped a photo as I entered, which is the one near the top of this post).

This hole, that is open to the sky, is almost 29 feet in diameter and is called a Oculus (sky), and is the only source of light inside the rotunda. Even with this sizable hole in its roof rain very seldom falls in and if it does the floor is slanted to drain the water.

You learn that the rotunda is a perfect hemisphere, where the diameter of the room is the same as the maximum height of the dome itself. This breathtaking dome is made of concert and was covered in bronze on its exterior, this is what was removed by Pope Urban VIII. The Pantheon’s dome was the largest in the world for over 1,300 years. It still holds the record as the largest unsupported dome. Although it doesn’t look like it it’s larger the dome of St. Peter’s basilica. Comparing it to our U.S. Capitol’s, which is 96 feet in diameter, the Pantheon’s is much larger at 142 feet. It’s an amazing architectural feat done by the Roman engineers, who lighted the weight of the dome by progressively decreasing the thickness of the its walls and creating internal spaces within those walls.

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M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, the three-time consul, made this).

Everything about the Pantheon is amazing. The columns supporting the portico came from Egypt and weigh 60 tons each. They are 39 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter.

The Pantheon is not only the most perfectly preserved building from the ancient Roman period,  it is also with its magnificent dome and interior design a perfect example of the skills of Roman architects and engineers.

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Ancient Roman, history and travel, History in Time, Italy, Rome, Still Current, The Colosseum, Uncategorized, World history

The magnificent Colosseum of Rome

Ron Current

Ron Current

As you walk toward the Colosseum along the Via del Colosseo, with the crowds of sightseers and street vendors surrounding her, you can’t help but marvel at this ruined giant from a time long lost in history. Few ancient structures can identify a city and its founding people. However when you see these structures you immediately know where you are and who built them. The Parthenon identifies Athens and the ancient Greeks and the Colosseum with Rome and the ancient Romans. But very few of these sites have the same mystique of historically correct or incorrect facts as does the Colosseum of Rome. Even its modern name, the Colosseum is incorrect to what the Romans during its heyday knew it as.

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The Colosseum from the side across from the Roman Forum.

To know what is correct, and what’s conjecture about this famous and inspiring amphitheater we must look back before it was built.  We start during the time of one of ancient Rome’s most decadent emperors, Nero. His reign was nothing but misrulings, murder and the building of lavish palaces. Even after the great fire of 64 AD, where much of the city was destroyed, he built on the ashes of his people. In the valley next to Nero’s large “deomus aurea” (garden house) which was located on the Esquiline Hill, the largest of Rome’s seven famous hills, he extended his gardens and constructed a large lake in the middle. On this lake he orchestrated sea battles with full size ships for his entertainment, and that of his privileged guests. It was on this site that the Colosseum would be build.  At the entrance to these gardens, across from the Roman Forum, Nero erected a 100 foot tall bronze statue of himself as the Roman sun god.  This statue was called the Colossus of Nero.

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The outer corridor that the ancient Romans walked to get to their sections.

After Nero committed suicide in 68 AD there began a series of civil wars within the empire. During this time there were many would be emperors trying to take his place. It wasn’t until the Roman General Vespasian seized the throne in 69 AD that the empire became stable. Vespasian is best known for his military feats, mostly for putting down the Jewish rebellion and the siege of Jerusalem in 66 AD. Vespasian was the first of the Flavian emperors.  Vespasian toned down the excesses of the former emperors and restored power to the Roman courts and Senate. The Emperor also promised that he would build the greatest public amphitheater in the world for the people. Selecting the site of Nero’s gardens and lake he began construction at around 70 AD.  Work was finally completed by Vespasian’s son Titus in 80 AD. It was opened with the emperors family name, the Flavian Amphitheater.

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A cross was erected at the location of the Emperor’s box. This was placed to honor the Christian martyrs that were believed to have been killed there. Finding now show that this didn’t happen in the Colosseum.

Although it took ten years to complete construction went quiet fast for such a massive undertaking.  The Flavian Amphitheater was constructed with stone, marble, and concrete. When it was finished its elliptical measurements were 620 feet long by 513 feet wide, with its outer walls measuring over 164 feet high. Over 3,531,466 cubic feet of travertine was used in its building, and the metal pins used to hold the blocks together weighted more than 300 tons. The floor of the arena measured 287 feet by 180 feet, and had a 15 foot high wall separating spectators from the action on the floor. Below the floor were two levels: one for the animals, and one for the gladiators. Tunnels, trap doors, and elevators allowed the combatants and wild animals to enter the arena from below.

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The interior of the Flavian Amphitheater. The rooms below the arena floor can be seen.  

Seating was by ancient Roman social order, the upper classes nearer the amphitheater’s arena floor and the lesser classes going up higher. However there was little worry about not getting a seat, because the amphitheater could hold 70,000 spectators.The amphitheater also had many visionary features ahead of its time for the comfort of its audiences and performers. To protect people from the sun there were enormous awnings that were rolled out around its top. Also to protect the audience from one of the wild animals from getting out the arena it was surrounded with a metal mesh screen. The 2000 movie “Gladiator” gave a fairly good idea as to what the Flavian Amphitheater may have looked like, but in reality it was much more spectacular.

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Part of the reconstruction was building a section to show how the floor of the arena would have looked.

For many of the hunting presentations hills, forests and small lakes were constructed on the arena floor. It was written that at one hunting performance over a hundred lions were released through the trap doors into the arena, and so loud were their roars that the crowd was frightened into instant silence. There is also an account that stated that over 9,000 animals were killed during the amphitheater’s inaugural games.

Today when we think of the Colosseum we think mostly of the gladiator battles. However unlike what’s been popularized in movies these fighters were mostly freemen who were looking for fame and fortune, much like today’s pro-athletes. However some were criminals that fought to earn their freedom. Another miss conception about the Colosseum is that Christians were martyred there. This story was started by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749, and there is no historical evidence of that ever happening in the Colosseum. Christians were martyred in Rome but at an earlier time, before the Colosseum. You’ll be very surprised at what place that was, I’ll reveal that location in another post.

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Looking up at the top walls inside the arena

So when did the Flavian amphitheater start being called the Colosseum, and how? There are two theories of how this name change came about. One is because of the structures size, being so colossal. Another, and one that I think is more accurate, is due to the bronze statue, “The Colossus of Nero.” Vespasian added sun rays to the crown of the statue’s head and renamed it “the Colossus of Solis.” Later in 128 AD Emperor Hadrian moved the statue closer to the amphitheater when he began building the Temple of Venus and Roma. Because the statue and the amphitheater were so close to each other people would refer to it as the Colosseum. No one is sure when the statue vanished into history, but the Colosseum still stood for them to see, keeping the name Colosseum.

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The remains of one of the decorative statues that once adorned the interior of the Colosseum.

As the western Roman Empire declined and the public’s tastes changed the Colosseum began being less and less used until all performances ended in around the 6th century. By then the arena had suffered much damage from earthquakes, fires, and other natural disasters. When it became completely abandoned it was vandalized and it’s marble and stone used as a quarry for other building projects in the city, these included St. Peter and St. John Lateran. By the beginning of the 20th century more than two-thirds of the original structure was gone. The Colosseum’s marble seats and most of its decorative trimmings are lost. In 1990 restoration began in earnest to save Rome  most popular tourist attraction.

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Here is an example of how the builders use a brick shell filled with concrete

Today as you walk inside this great example the glorious architecture of the last imperial period of ancient Roman you can envision the masses walking along its corridors and up the stairs to their seats. And as you go out and see the remains of the arena floor and the cubicles below, you can almost hear the tens of thousands of Roman citizens cheering for their champions.

 

 

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The Colosseum from further back. It was near the grassy area in the lower left side of the photo that Emperor Hadrian moved the Colossus of Solis

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