The Many Lives of the Theater of Marcellus

The Theater of Marcellus with the Palazzo Orsini above

Many people who go to Rome for the first time mistake the Theater of Marcellus for the Colosseum, and understandably so. The grandiosity of the tall arches and circular shape bears a strong resemblance, even though a good portion of it is gone. Although not as famous or well-known, the theater, which is now an archeological excavation, has its own illustrious past.

Built in the first century B.C. on the southwestern flank of the Capitoline Hill and close to the ancient forum, this immense theater actually served as the main model for the Colosseum which was built 85 years later.

Travertine arches of the Theater of Marcellus with the old Jewish Ghetto just beyond

Sprawled across the top of the theater is the two-story Palazzo Orsini. Constructed during the High Renaissance in the 1520’s by the Savelli family, it eventually became the property of the Orsini. The clash of architectural styles between the huge arches of the ancient theater and the early 16th century palazzo is astounding. The Palazzo Orsini, considered one of Rome’s most distinguished and valuable properties, has been divided into numerous apartments which are occupied by family members and wealthy tenants.

Interesting to note, during the German occupation of Rome, the maze-like rooms provided a hide-away for many people whose lives were at stake. The Duchess of Sermoneta, an antifascist who was sought after by the Gestapo, took refuge here as well as many Roman Jews.

A section of the Piazza Orsini can be seen from one end above

In the Beginning ~ Rivalry, Superiority, and Ceaseless Drama

Julius Caesar initiated the construction of the Theater of Marcellus in the first century B.C. after his victory over Pompey for the control of Rome. Pompey had a theater built previously in 55 B.C., and Caesar insisted he could build a far superior one. Ironically, it was in Pompey’s theater that Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.

Augustus, Caesar’s successor, continued construction and named it after his nephew and adopted son Marcellus who he chose to be his successor. Mysteriously, Marcellus died at age 19, with speculation that Augustus wife Livia may have poisoned him to keep her son Tiberius as the next successor of Rome.

Augustus celebrated the completion of the theater in 11 B.C. with the public slaughter of 600 tigers brought in especially for the occasion. The semi-circular theater was the largest in Rome with a base of over 400 feet and nearly 100 feet tall, seating 20,000 spectators. It continued in use for almost 400 years before it declined into a showcase for obscene spectacles and nudity. Eventually deserted, stones were removed to build Christian basilicas and churches. The theater was left missing the entire top row of arches.

The Jewish Synagogue lies directly ahead, with the Theater of Marcellus to the left

During the early middle ages it became a fortress and occupied by different families over hundreds of years.


The people in this photo demonstrate the immensity of the Theater of Marcellus

In 2012, the 11,000 sq. ft. Palazzo Orsini was advertised for sale at 26 million dollars. Featuring frescoed staterooms and a ballroom among other attractions, it circles a central garden of orange trees and fountains. A long terrace overlooks the Tiber and the city. Click here for a tour of the elegant Palazzo Orsini.

The theater is not open to the public but well worth a pass-by. It sits next to the old Jewish Ghetto with its tasty kosher bakeries and restaurants. Roman Nights at the Theater of Marcellus, summer concerts of classical music, are performed outside the theater. The backdrop of the ancient ruins is stunning.

Grab an outdoor table and enjoy fried artichokes, carciofo alla giudia, and carbonara di zucchine with vino while you ponder the massive arches, colonnades and columns of the theaters illustrious past.

Italy’s Atlantis–What Lies Beneath

Baia Sunken Nymphaeum (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer) Sodibaia)
Sunken Nymphaeum of Baiae (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer Sodibaia) off the Bay of Naples

Welcome to the ancient sunken city of Baiae (Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baiae), just 30 minutes northwest of Naples.

Seneca called Baiae a “resort of vice,” while Ovid referred to it as a “favorable place for love-making.” Famous for its prestigious baths and thermal springs, the ancient city of Baiae was a fashionable bathing and recreation area of the rich and famous. But today, much of Baiae is underwater. Remains of Roman streets, Imperial Villas and tottering statues lie submerged in just a few feet of water. Sea life weave in among the ruins, the only live occupants of what used to be the summer playground of the emperors.

Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

Parts of the ancient cities of Baia and Puteoli (Pozzuoli) became submerged during the 16th century when the ground sank and the sea level rose, known as bradyseism. Volcanic lava from underneath the ground found a way of escape, causing a drop in the elevation.

Today, hoary life-size statues tilt precariously on the sea floor, remains of ancient Roman roads lead nowhere, floors of black and white mosaic attest to a long forgotten villa, bits of ancient amphorae that once held an emperors wine are scattered across the ocean floor. The first century sunken Roman seaside resort of Baiae, built during the time of Emperor Claudius, remains today as a shrine for the fish that dart about its contours and crumpled columns.

Emperors Nero, Caligula, Hadrian and Gaius Julius Caesar once owned elegant summer villas in Baiae alongside the areas famous epicurean thermal baths. Cicero entertained them during Saturnalia feasts. Known as the ‘Italian Riviera’ of its time, the pleasurable coastal resort gives evidence of high living. Below the surface is an ancient Roman road hemmed in by taverns, leading up to Villa Protiro and its colonnaded entrance and rooms with mosaics. Claudius Nymphaeum still remains embellished by once-elegant statues now covered with algae.

Baia Mosaic Floor (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer Sodibaia)
Baiae Mosaic Floor (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer Sodibaia)

Submerged Baiae is flanked by Portus Julius, Rome’s most important fleet of the time. Commissioned into existence in 37 B.C. by the famous military leader and engineer Agrippa, remains of docks, cisterns and repair workshops are evident today.

This underwater city can be observed by glass-bottom boat or scuba as well as snorkeling from the town of Baia. Some of the water over the ruins are shallow, making snorkeling a great way to get up close and personal. As a Marine Protected Area, you are sure to notice various sea life that have taken up permanent residence in the sunken city. Notice the purple sea urchins and sleek little fish darting in and around the arches and statues.

Statue in Underwater Park of Baia-Still from Fabio
Statue in Underwater Park of Baiae- (Still from Fabio)

*Click on Related Links:

*Baia Protected Marine Area Info on Excursions

*The Underwater Park of Baia Info, Maps and Diving Sites/Excursions

Beware The Gladiators of Rome

They got me!!
They got me!!

Who isn’t familiar with the ‘gladiators’ that stand around the colosseum dressed in bright red capes and leather breastplates? They certainly look and act charming at first. However, the gladiators of Rome are anything but. Last April, a squad of 80 policemen chased out a troop for loitering around the colosseum and harassing tourists. Since 2002, the law has prohibited them from posing in costume around the 2,000 year old monumental ruin. However, it seems the laws have not been fully enforced.  If caught, they could face up to one year in jail.

While savoring my maiden experience at the colosseum one recent summer, I had an opportunity to familiarize myself with ‘gladiatorial hospitality’. Two brightly dressed contenders swaggered up beside me, brandishing swords as they took up a ‘hail, Caesar’ pose. It was amusing until we gave them a tip. It wasn’t enough. We had to walk away from disgruntled shouts that continued until we were out of sight.

La Repubblica, a national newspaper, claimed that these gladiators make a living by swindling others. It’s not uncommon for them to demand $13 to $26 and even up to $65 for a picture. Many have made this their livelihood for years and don’t want to give it up. While they have enjoyed some free reign at the Colosseum in previous years, expect to see much less of them under recent law enforcement.

Nobody loves a party more than I, and the sight of gladiators in bright red capes, laced-up sandals, plumed helmets and swords is exciting. But unless you have a firm resolve to stand your ground, just remember to keep a clear distance from them and continue on. The party just gets better from there.

Related Article:http: When In Rome Do As I Do