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.

Magnificent Roman Skyline from the Hotel Raphael Rooftop

La Terrazza Bramante, a garden restaurant on top of the Hotel Raphael provides panoramic views of the eternal city.

While enjoying a refreshing glass of Frascati wine at a small outdoor table near the Piazza Navona last September, I couldn’t help but notice the tall and lush Hotel Raphael across the street. The entire facade was covered with ivy and purple wisteria. As my eyes traveled from the front door entrance up the building to the top, I noticed some large umbrellas and wondered if it had a rooftop restaurant. I questioned my waiter about it and was told that it did. It was then I decided to enter the hotel and make my way to the top. I could only imagine the views of the city from this vantage point.

Golden lamplight spilled through the entrance toward the street as I entered the Raphael. The impeccably dressed gentleman at the front desk took a copy of my identification and told me how to reach the elevator.

La Terrazza Bramante, the rooftop garden restaurant, was more exotic than I imagined it would be. I had stepped off the elevator and into a multi-level terrace that offered elegant dining among tall fan palms.

Large umbrellas provide shade for diners. This is what attracted me from the cafe across the street.
A scattering of diners begin to arrive as the dinner hour approaches.

A handsome young waiter approached me and inquired if I would like a table. I accepted a menu from him and scanned the pages. A nice selection of gourmet organic, biodynamic vegetarian Mediterranean cuisine was on offer along with some of the best wines in Italy.

I wasn’t hungry for dinner yet, so I declined but asked if I could take a moment to enjoy the Roman skyline. He smiled and encouraged me to take my time.

The fading light over Rome inspires me to linger just a bit longer
The fading light over Rome inspires me to linger just a bit longer

The nearly 360 degree view of the eternal city at dusk was intoxicating. The restaurant faces the Bramante cloister in the church of Santa Maria della Pace. The terrace overlooks several architectural wonders of Rome, including the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the National Monument of Victor Emanuel II.

The dome of Santa Maria della Pace to the left and St. Peters Basilica in the center.
St. Peters Basilica to the left and Victor Emanuel II on the right with the quadriga, or chariot of horses, on top
The bell tower of the Church of St. Mary of the Soul, built in 1502.

The building of the Hotel Raphael itself seems to have been around for hundreds of years. Its believed that a fresco in the Vatican Museum clearly shows the building already in existence in the sixteenth century city. Florentine developer Spartacus Vannoni remodeled the interior into The Raphael, a luxury hotel with two lower level floors, seven upper floors, a multi-level rooftop terrace and a restaurant in 1963.

The 5 star luxury hotel is also a veritable museum of sorts. Artwork in the form of paintings, sculptures, antiques and a collection of Picasso ceramics are on public display throughout the building. American architect Richard Meier designed two of the executive floors which are of a modern decor.


Entrance to the Raphael

The ambience of the Hotel Raphael and La Terrazza Bramante rooftop restaurant left me with a yearning to return. In addition, the waitstaff were exceptionally friendly and cheerful. The hotel is nicely located and within walking distance to the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Vatican.


News From Rome! Gladiators To Fight Again

Colosseum Today
Colosseum Today

News from Rome! Gladiators are coming back to the Colosseum to entertain the crowds nearly 2,000 years after the last bloody contest took place. Plans are in the making for a complete restoration of Rome’s most famous fighting arena. Gladiators will once again take up the trident, nets, swords and daggers in realistically choreographed battles. Not intended for very young children, these fighters will appear and act as they did in the first century, without the show of blood.  According to Umberto Broccoli, head of archaeology at Rome’s city council,”…the gladiators themselves were vulgar. They were sweaty, they stank and they swore.” His plans are to re-create “the sights, sounds and smells” of ancient Rome. But first, a badly needed restoration must take place.

The Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheater, was inaugurated in 80 AD by Emperor Titus. Large enough to seat 50,000 inhabitants, the Roman populace were entertained by gladiatorial contests, savage animal hunts, and mock sea battles. Incredibly, the arena was capable of being flooded to enable ships to float. Many stage hands were responsible for operating the show. Several worked from high above where a huge awning could be pulled to cover the Colosseum during the heat of the day. Many others operated the maze of underground tunnels and chambers where gladiators prepared for battle and animals were kept to be hoisted up in wooden cages to the arena floor. It was truly a major accomplishment in technology.

Gladitorial Exchange
Modern Gladiatorial Exchange

Traditionally, pop concerts have been held here in the amphitheatre until recently, when chunks and pieces of rock began falling from the structure. Additionally, the thrumming of the nearby subway consistently vibrates the foundation. It has been recently discovered that the Colosseum tilts 16 inches on its southern side, which is possibly due to flaws in the original structure.

Colossuem Interior
Colosseum Interior

Italian tycoon Diego Della Valle’s plans are to finance a $32 million project ( by some reports) to restore the foundation of the ‘leaning Colosseum of Rome.’ However, work has been delayed on the three-year restoration project because of court challenges to the contract bidding process.

Is this a good idea for the  Colosseum of Rome to be rebuilt? It would change the present structure drastically, using modern material.  Is it better to leave the old monumental ruins as they are?

This has been a disturbing matter for me. I love Rome and all of its antiquities, but  the Colosseum, magnificent as it was in 80 AD, was a realm of horrors. Because of its hideous past, I’m personally concerned with the idea of reinstating these gladiatorial battles that are intended to honor and elevate gladiators of the past. Truth be known, many were criminals, almost all forced into battle as slaves or financially in need. They were trained to brutally kill man and beast.

Do we seriously need to make the Colosseum more ‘thrilling’, resurrecting the past stench of Rome?

I sincerely hope that we simply keep the Colosseum a well-preserved major historical ruin and reminder of the Roman civilization entering its ‘prime.’

How do you feel about the restoration of the Colosseum? What do you think of the re-enactment of mock gladiatorial battles? Do you see this as elevating an evil from the past? Or of value historically? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

*Umberto Broccoli

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