The Trippiest Places for a Classicist to Go in Italy
By Rebecca Onken
Many classicists, when they begin their careers in a Latin 100 or Greek Civilization course, have never visited the sites of their interest. American classicists even have a whole ocean separating us from the locations, monuments, and historical artifacts that we study. When we finally do visit these locations, we are both tourist and aspiring local; we are overly informed about the places we visit (sometimes to the detriment of the family and friends we bring along) but also starstruck by them: the things and places that were in our textbooks seemingly leap out of those pages into the real world. Even more stunningly, these classical relics belong to the modern landscape. They are no longer static on a page or in a documentary reel; we see that they have instead changed with time, just as humans have and do.
That was how I thought about Italy when I went there this summer. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get rid of the infectious, giddy feeling that I get when, in real life, I encounter something I have read and heard so much about. And I don’t want to!
This brain-melting, thrilling effect is what I term “The Trippy Factor.” In this article, I will list the five trippiest places for a classicist to go in Italy, obviously biased towards where I personally went. It is complete with photos and a certified Dave Score. The Dave Score is a point system out of ten for each location by my brother Dave, who was on the trip with me but is decidedly not a classicist. His score should help you gauge how fun these locations will be for the friends and family who we drag— ahem, no, invite, to them.
1) The Forum
Hey, you know I had to say it. It may seem expected, it may even be overrated, but that doesn’t change the essential awe at the heart of the Forum.
This. Place. Is. Crazy.
It has everything: Vestal Virgins, temples refurbished into churches, giant arches, Roman imperial iconography, ancient storehouses, and a lot of birds which are more than happy to nibble on the food scraps left by tourists. The main obstacle to a truly trippy feeling is the throng of people— more than 4.5 million visit every year. Also, it’s hard to miss the construction going on at the moment near the Colosseum; the Metro’s C Line is expanding so that it can put a stop near the Forum. This expansion (which is touch-and-go since they keep finding artifacts that must be preserved) has resulted in a lot of noise and people jostling around the construction barricades. Still, what classicist would pass up the chance to see the heart of Roman culture in all its brutal, fascinating glory?
I would also recommend visiting the Palatine Hill if you have time. It’s not as dramatic as the Forum or Colosseum, but it still has a lot to offer, like a sacred olive tree, the house of Augustus, and a public water fountain in a neat alcove. It’s also very quiet and serene compared to the rest of the Forum.
The Dave Score: 8/10. Very nice, especially if you get off the beaten path. Go up the hill! Get away from the people!
Statue of Emperor Trajan in the Imperial Forum
Pictured: Seagull hanging out at a column remnant in the Basilica Aemilia. Not pictured: The pizza crust that this seagull was trying to scarf down.
Interior of early 4th century Temple of Romulus, canonized as Sancti Cosma et Damianus in the 6th century
The public water fountain on the Palatine that I spoke about
Me, taking in a moment of no people and all plants on the Via Sacra
2) Musei Capitolini
Perched above the Forum on the Capitoline Hill are the Musei Capitolini, the Capitoline Museums. This squad of three museums were first constructed in 1471, and currently house some of Rome’s most important artifacts. For instance, here you can see the Fasti, a consular calendar of Rome from the early fifth century BCE to the reign of Augustus. In the basement, you will find epitaphs for the dead as well as an unparalleled view over the Forum. There are several courtyards in the museums; in one, you will find a giant Neptune reclining over a fountain, and in another, there are shattered parts of a colossus found near the Forum. Throughout the museums, you can find neoclassical and classical marble sculptures sitting in picturesque galleries.
The trippy factor here rests in how all these aspects fit together— it feels like walking through a story of classics and classical reception. As a field, classics encompasses archaeology, philology, numismatics, literary theory, translation study, theology, and much more. These museums, through their wealth of artifacts, attest to the incredible scope of our field.
The Dave Score: 8/10. This is the kind of place you go to when you want to see the authentic artifacts, but in the end, it’s still a museum, so not very interesting for travelers looking for something that has a high impact.
The Fasti; every few minutes, a presentation comes on that points out dates of note
View of the Forum from the Capitoline Museums’ balcony
A 1st or 2nd century Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic original statue known as Cupid and Psyche
View from one of the upstairs galleries to the surrounding buildings
Me with Marforio, one of the talking statues of Rome; the original marble statue is Roman, 1st century, possibly of Neptune or some sort of river god
Foot of the Colossus of Constantine, an early fourth century statue that was commissioned by Emperor Constantine to depict himself
Right hand of the Colossus of Constantine; the statue stood forty feet high
3) Pompeii (and the Amalfi Coast)
Let me tell you about the Circumvesuviana train. This train runs from Naples, along the edge of Pompeii, right to Sorrento, a small, tourist-overrun seaside town on the northside of the Amalfi coast. The fare is only three euro and twenty cents. That’s… almost irresponsibly cheap. However, this train has a reputation for being crowded, hot, and littered with pickpockets. So, if you’re a classicist on a budget, keep your bag strapped to you and a fan in hand!
Still, not even the almighty number of people on the train could lessen how extraordinary it is to walk the streets of Pompeii. It’s one thing to hear about a preserved Roman city and another to see it firsthand. The graffiti on the walls, the frescoes in the intact domi, and the grooves in the stone from carriage wheels make the city feel lived in. If not for the way everything seems bleached, you might think a Roman vendor is going to walk out of their store at any moment. Trippy.
Personally, just staring at Vesuvius from Sorrento was sufficiently astonishing. While I was taking pictures, sipping on the very strong limoncello they brew there, I thought of how, across the bay, at Misenum, Pliny the Younger had seen the volcano erupt in 79 CE. He, like the people in Sorrento at the time, watched Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other seaside resort towns be buried under ash, wondering all the while if they would be next. But when I was there, the day was so clear and the water so soothing that if I had not seen Pompeii myself, I would never have guessed what had happened two thousand years earlier. The whole concept of that rates pretty high on my “unreal experience” scale. Maybe it will do the same on yours?
The Dave Score: 6/10. I say this because Sorrento comes across as an authentic seaside town, but news about it has definitely gotten around. Still, the number of tourists doesn’t change the picturesque, Italian-countryside quality of the town. On the other hand, the train has nice views, but again, it’s crowded as hell. It’s a mixed bag, really.
Collection of small statues unearthed at Pompeii
Reconstruction of a Pompeiian mosaic; the inscription, cave canem, means “Beware the dog”
A rose blooming in the peristyle of a Pompeiian domus
Sea level view of Vesuvius from Sorrento
The stop on the Circumvesuviana for the main entrance of Pompeii
View of Vesuvius from an outlook in Sorrento that shows the docks and coastline too
4) Terme di Caracalla
Back in Rome, a sadly overlooked location is the Terme di Caracalla, the Baths of Caracalla. Completed around 216 CE by, of course, the Emperor Caracalla, this public bathhouse was the second largest in Rome. That all sounds ordinary, but once you see it in person, you won’t believe it. This place is huge! You can walk inside the sprawling structure like a Roman would have. You can visit the frigidarium (cold room), the tepidarium (medium-heat room), a massive circular caldarium (hot room), accompanying laconica (saunas), and two palaestrae (gyms). The whole way through, you are treated to extraordinarily well-preserved mosaics. At the edge of the large natatio (swimming pool), there is a board game carved into the stone. It’s a tropa, or hole-game, where the object is to get marbles or knucklebones into the holes in a certain order (though the exact rules of the game still escape us). When I saw that, I thought of how I would play tons of games at the swimming pool when I was a kid— kind of trippy to think that some things never change, right?
This entry is lower on the list because the structure dates from the later empire and therefore is not nearly as popular, but it still provides a remarkable experience. The sheer size of the place and how it illustrates all the parts of the Roman bathhouse that were once outlined in my history textbook made it more than worth it for me!
The Dave Score: 9/10. This score may surprise you, but in my opinion, the Baths are a great example of how many interesting architectural elements the Romans had on hand (as an engineer, that intrigues me more than the mosaics). This and a relatively low population of people make the location pretty good!
The tropa at the swimming pool; the carved inscription reads, “You do not know, you cry, you move, you will be careful.”
Me with some of the well-preserved mosaics
More mosaics! This time with fish
Listen, this place is full of ruins; here, old remnants of the bathhouse rise out of the ground like jagged teeth
An alcove that demonstrates some of the epic overhead domes that made up the bathhouse
Some mantle detailing, along with nature’s detailing, a persistent little bush
5) Florence (Duomo di Firenze and the Galleria degli Uffizi especially)
If you leave the south of Italy and visit more northern cities, you might find that classical artifacts are overshadowed by medieval and Renaissance ones. At first, you might think, “Well, I don’t want that.” However, this last entry on the list is meant to convince you that these cities and their melding of classics with later eras can also be trippy.
Florence, in particular, has a gravitational force to it, attracting tourists like planets around a sun. This gravity is earned, though, by the power of its locations and monuments. For one, Duomo di Firenze, the Florence Cathedral, really is a feat of engineering and art. While construction on the cathedral began in 1296, it would not be fully finished, dome and all, until 1436. A hundred and forty years of construction yielded a structure unlike any other. In the basement, you will find crypts that relate the lives of their occupants in Latin. Upon the walls and ceilings, you will find awe-inspiring mosaics and frescoes. My personal favorite is actually in the Battistero di San Giovanni, the baptistery that sits in front of the cathedral. Here, Dante Aligheri and members of the Medici family were baptized under a stunning mosaic ceiling depicting the Last Judgment. I mean, just look at it. Trippy.
There’s more to Florence than Il Duomo, however. Be sure to swing by the Galleria degli Uffizi, the Uffizi Gallery. This is where the Medici collection of art resides. Boticelli’s Primavera is housed in the side room of a hall filled with classical busts and sculptures. Here, I forced my brother to pose with the head of Caracalla , the emperor we met before. Downstairs, there’s a room occupied by 16th-century Medusas: Carvaggio’s and another whose painter is unknown (it was perhaps Da Vinci). As a classicist, it’s hard not to feel a kinship with these artists who found classical stories as compelling as we do. That’s trippy in and of itself, so give Florence (and other northern cities like Verona and Venice) a chance!
The Dave Score: 7/10. Not as high as you’d expect due to it being a major Italian city that’s well-known and choked with people. However, you might remember that this is the setting of the seminal RPG of 7th generation consoles, Assassin’s Creed II (2009). When you visit this city, you can follow the path of the game’s dashing protagonist, Ezio Auditore, on his exploits through the scalable metropolis of 15th century Firenze (in case you’re wondering, yes, I made Rebecca listen to all of this while we walked around).
Ceiling of Battistero di San Giovanni
Pictured: a tomb in the Crypt of Santa Reparata below Duomo di Firenze. Also pictured: Dave’s shoes.
View of Il Duomo from a street, complete with Florence’s characteristic mass of tourists and vespas
Part of the structural groups known as “Niobe and her Children in the Mirror” that reside in a room aptly named the Niobe Room
A hall filled with classical busts and sculptures
Dave posing like Caracalla with a mask playing the part of the beard
One of the 16th century Medusas; this one’s artist is unknown, but has been posited as Da Vinci
So, What’s So Great About Being Trippy?
At the end of this trip, I was tired, a little dehydrated, running out of clean clothes, and desperate for some air conditioning. My phone told me that, in a week, I had walked an average of almost ten miles a day (I am not an active person by any measure, so this was an achievement and also pretty frightening). I had stayed in Airbnbs that weren’t all they had purported to be, gotten stuck in Switzerland because of a delayed flight, stood in the Forum while it rained just to avoid hordes of people, and earned a killer sunburn while reclining on a chair, staring at Vesuvius. However, I did and saw many things that made this trip memorable. I saw places that I had only heard about before, I learned more about them as I walked around than I ever could have just from a book, and I met Italians who were warm, welcoming, and kind.
Something that was unexpectedly impactful for me was how I felt as I provided free-of-charge (albeit brief) tours to other tourists at each of these locations. In those moments, I was given the wonderful, unique feeling of security in the path I had chosen for myself. It was like a little voice saying, “Hey, maybe I really do know some Latin, and maybe this historian career is actually the right one for me.” That’s a good feeling, and it’s one that I try to hold onto when finals and deadlines and stress come around.
Beyond that personal feeling, though, what made this trip most trippy to me was how it affirmed that what we do as classicists does have consequence. The field of classics may have millennia between it and its subjects, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks importance. Through our study and our very interest in these artifacts and monuments, we find ourselves participating in a continuum of human experience. This continuum involves me, giving out free tours and contemplating Pliny the Younger, but it also includes the people who live in Italy amongst these reminders of history, the artists who have performed classical reception through the ages, the classicists who are working today, and even the well-meaning tourists who try to understand it all. On this trip, I came to recognize just how much the past that we study is linked to the present of our world, whether that be through a video game, a prophetic warning about the destructive power of volcanoes, or a metro line’s beleaguered construction.
Will the Metro C stop at the Colosseum ever be finished? Will we ever stop translating classical Roman texts? Will Medusa ever stop being painted? Will we ever figure out the rules to that game inscribed on a slab of limestone at the swimming pool? I don’t know. We might never know. We might find out tomorrow.
Pretty trippy, right?
Rebecca Onken (she/they) is a Post-Baccalaureate student in Classical Studies. She recently graduated from University of San Diego with a BA in History and International Relations with a minor in Classical Studies.