Well, Summer is fast approaching and it is time to start taking out the maps and hitting the internet in order to plan our vacations.
Italy is always top of the list and Rome is the Crown Jewel.
If you are at all interested in history, Rome is a must see as it is packed to the rafters with history everywhere you go.
Today one of my favorite history buffs, Pete Sobolev has gifted us with his brilliant guest post about one of the almost unseen wonders of Rome hidden just below one of its most recognized and best loved landmarks. Can you guess what it is?
I’ll give you a hint. Have you looked closely at the Piazza Navona lately?
The Stadium of Domitian
No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the iconic Piazza Navona, one of the largest public spaces in Rome and a favorite gathering-place for visitors and local Romans alike.
It is the home of several famous fountains including (my favorite) Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers, built between 1647 and 1651. The fountain glorifies the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.
In fact, this particular fountain is featured in Dan Brown’s 2000 thriller Angels and Demons, where it is highlighted as the fourth Altar of Science.
But to me, the most fascinating part of Piazza Navona is what cannot be readily seen, unless you know exactly where to look. Hidden 3.5 meters below the surface of the piazza are the remains of an enormous stadium having a seating capacity of 30,000 spectators. It was even larger in area than the Colosseum!
In 86 AD (right after Emperor Titus completed the Colosseum in 80 AD), Emperor Domitian built a new stadium, patterned after similar Greek stadiums, to provide a venue for competitive athletics. This stadium broke new ground (so to speak) in that it used brick and concrete for the first time in its construction: building materials that were strong, fire-retardant, and relatively cheap. The stadium was built in the area shown under the red circled “1” on this ancient map of Rome:
The ancient Romans went to the Stadium to watch the agones (games) and it was known as the Circus Agonalis (competition arena). This name was gradually corrupted into in avone, then to navone, and eventually to navona, from where the present Piazza draws its name. The Stadium was eventually abandoned in the 4th century. In 1477 Pope Sixtus IV relocated the city market to the stadium area and facilitated building over the seating area of the stadium, retaining the shape of the stadium and transforming the arena once and for all into Piazza Navona.
You can still see the remains of one of the main entrances of the Stadium of Domitian at the northwestern end of Piazza Navona. Tucked away behind a building, you can see an archway of the Stadium set back below street level.
It turns out this is part of a newly-excavated area that you can now visit. It wasn’t until the spring of 2014 that the restoration of the archaeological area of the Stadium—now a Unesco World Heritage site—opened to the public. The entrance to the associated museum is just past this archway. Here you can descend below street level, back to 86 AD, and walk amongst the remains of the great Stadium.
You can even see stamps from the original builders on the masonry!
The museum has a really informative audio guide and lots of background on the history of the stadium as well as reconstructions of its design.
You really get a sense of the layers of Rome as you look back up at the present street level from the Stadium.
You can also see a diagram of historical ground surface levels showing the surface of the stadium about 3.5 meters below the current level of the cobblestone pavement of Piazza Navona.
Be sure to visit the Stadio di Domiziano museum next time you’re in Rome!
Stadio Di Domiziao, Piazza Navona
Via di Tor Sanguigna, 3
Tickets: 8 Euro, 6 Euro for ages 12-18, free for under 12 or over 65