Roman Tunnels Open to Public

A vast underground passageway that allowed Rome’s Emperors to pass unseen from their hilltop palaces to the Forum has been opened to the public for the first time.

Ancient Roman imperial tunnels are open to the public for the first time in history.

Ancient Roman imperial tunnels are open to the public for the first time in history.

The 2,000-year-old “imperial ramp” descended from the top of the Palatine Hill, where successive Emperors built lavish palaces, down to the temples, market places and courts of the Forum in the valley below, from where the Roman Empire was governed. Lit by flickering torches and protected by Imperial Guards, the high-ceiling passageway was so vast that Emperors could have comfortably passed through it on horseback. Originally more than 300 yards long, it consisted of seven zigzag ramps, four of which remain today. The rest are believed to have been destroyed in an earthquake in the ninth century.

The covered walkway, which is enclosed and would have been invisible to the soldiers, slaves and plebeians going about their business in the Forum, was first discovered in 1900. The tunnel was partially excavated but was then abandoned for another century until archaeologists embarked on a major restoration project a few years ago. It has now been completed, allowing tourists to walk in the footsteps of the Emperors.

“For centuries, this was the entrance to the Imperial palaces on top of the Palatine Hill,” said Francesco Prosperetti, the cultural heritage official in charge of the project. “When it was discovered, this was a little-known corner of the Forum.”

Once tourists climb to its highest point, emerging from the arched passageway into the daylight, they have a panoramic view of the ruined temples, marble columns and ancient streets of the Roman Forum. The entrance to the Imperial ramp was a huge gateway which has been reconstructed using pieces of the original marble architrave. The gate led to a reception hall which was converted into a church during the Middle Ages.

The walls are still decorated with frescoes of “the 40 martyrs,” Roman soldiers from the XII Legion who converted to Christianity and were then made to stand in a lake, naked, on a bitter cold night until they froze to death. Halfway up the steep passageway archaeologists found the remains of a latrine, built from stone and marble which would have been used by Imperial Guards.

Frescoes of “The 40 Martyrs” still adorn the walls.

Frescoes of “The 40 Martyrs” still adorn the walls.

“The ceilings are 36 feet high, so it really is a big structure,” said archeologist Patrizia Fortini. “We don’t know whether carts would have travelled up and down it with supplies, but certainly horses would have been able to.”

Rooms that lead off the ramp, possibly used by detachments of guards, have been converted into a mini-museum of Roman artefacts found close to the passageway. They include an exquisite statue of Hercules, his shoulders wrapped in the pelt of a lion and a marble statue of a child sacrificing a rooster, which was found close to a nearby sacred spring.

The Palatine, a hill that overlooks central Rome, was first settled 800 years before Christ. Successive Emperors built huge palaces on top of it until the entire area became one interconnected Imperial complex.

The covered ramp was commissioned by the Emperor Domitian in the late first century AD, at the height of his reign. He constructed a vast new palace on the Palatine, which is the origin of the words “palazzo” and “palace.” The extravagance of the complex did the Emperor little good in the end – he became paranoid and reclusive and was assassinated by courtiers inside the palace in 96AD, at the age of 44.

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