Our expert guide, Mary Beard, offering a fascinating insight into ancient Rome
Our expert guide, Mary Beard, offering a fascinating insight into ancient Rome

Rome with Mary Beard

Ancient Rome in four days might sound like a visit too far, but when you have Professor Mary Beard to guide you for one of those days – as well as a host of specially arranged privileged visits – it turns into a unique opportunity to experience the Eternal City. Two groups of Andante guests were privileged enough to have done just that, getting to explore both the obvious and the hidden around Rome.

"There’s just one more little thing I’d like you to see," said our enthusiastic guide as we completed a very special visit to the Vatican Secret Archives. He had been careful to stress that ‘secret’ really meant private, and that Dan Brown made most of it up, but the concrete ‘bunker’ that housed centuries of Vatican papers and the long climb up to the Tower of the Winds with its spectacular view over Rome and the illuminated dome of St. Peter’s had honestly been gripping enough. The "one more little thing" was even more so. Opening the door of a wooden cupboard, there was the threatening letter from Henry VIII to Pope Clement VII, asking for a divorce. Resplendent with its 80-odd seals and famous signatures, this was one of the documents that set off an earthquake and changed the world forever.

That evening we ate dinner in the theatre of Pompey the Great, the restaurant built underground into the buried vaults of the mighty building dating to 50 BC, in whose specially created senate house Julius Caesar was struck down by the conspirators at the foot of Pompey’s statue.

This was just the beginning of our underground experience. We were given a tour of the Colosseum, including its sinister underground service tunnels, where man and beast awaited slaughter and the very uppermost rows of galleries once thronged with shouting Plebs. This was contrasted by the unexpected drama of the descent into the mysterious levels below the 12th century church of San Clemente. After dinner entertainment was a private visit to the Capitoline Museums. We were able to wander through the empty, almost eerie spaces of the Renaissance building designed by Michelangelo with their frescoed walls that depicted the glories of the Roman past en route to see the actual glories, some of the iconic masterpieces of ancient art in the city of Rome’s own collection: The bronze bust of Junius Brutus, the Capitoline Wolf and the original lists of Roman Consuls, saved from destruction by a whisker. Further on were the almost absurd portrait of the hopeless Emperor Commodus (attired as Hercules) and the restored equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius in his modern display area, alongside the battered but still impressive remains of the foundations of the temple of Jupiter, Best and Greatest.

Mary Beard joined the groups to lecture to them about her vision of ancient Rome, her take on the whole issue a refreshing departure from the 'columns, togas and blood' view that still dominates many perceptions. She was able to demonstrate these ideas in a concrete form by visiting the Montemartini Museum with both groups. This innovative display, set in a renovated power station still fitted out with its fascinating engines and pumps and tangled about with contorted pipes, holds some of the best of the least-known treasures of the ancient city: the entire 4th century BC sculptural decoration of the temple of Apollo Sosianus, seemingly acquired from a shrine in Greece, as booty, or perhaps as legitimate purchase? The Barberini togate statue of a proud Republican aristocrat rather improbably holding the marble busts of his ancestors, and the spectacular black basenite sculpture of Agrippina the younger, the last wife of emperor Claudius and mother of Nero, who famously tried to kill her by using a collapsible boat.

A host of other spectacular treasures exemplifies the Romans' concern as collectors, conquerors and status obsessed social climbers, whose collective world was one where almost unlimited resources were available to throw at grandiose projects – a condition that Europe would not know again until the 18th century. The Centrale di Montemartini is well worth a visit. So, ancient Rome in four days, with a leading professor of Classics was not only possible, but an eye-opener and fun to boot! With a selection of interesting restaurants, plenty of extra things to see and the fascination of this most splendid of cities – this was most certainly a trip to remember.