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Five Feminine Highlights of Ancient Rome

This is a guest post by Susan Van Allen, author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go, who has come out with a guide for Italy’s Big Three: “50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go.”  It takes you to dazzling places in Italy and highlights details that glorifies females. It’s a lovely read and will have you packing your bags to Italy!

“Italy seems to be custom made for women,” says Van Allen. “From ancient temples and Renaissance masterpieces that glorify females, to wine bars, caffes, shoe stores, gardens, spas, and cooking classes, we find ourselves immersed in an atmosphere where we feel so at home!

Here, in an edited excerpt from 50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go, Van Allen guides us to:

Five Feminine Highlights of Ancient Rome:

1. The Campidoglio

Venus Pudica in the Capitoline Museums in Rome | BrowsingRome.com

Venus Pudica in the Capitoline Museums. Photo credit: Susan Van Allen

The Michelangelo-designed piazza is a perfect place to begin, where Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, Rome, and War, sits on a throne holding her mighty spear—just behind Marcus Aurelius on his horse. To either side of Minerva are the Capitoline Museums, packed with sculptures of characters who once roamed the area surrounding you.

2. The Palazzo Nuovo (Museum to the left of Minerva) is where you’ll find The Capitoline Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty. She was worshipped as The Grandmother of All Romans.

Here she’s featured in a sunlit niche, posed as Venus Pudica (modest Venus), with one hand over her breast, the other covering her Cupid’s cloister. Yes, she’s modest, but also teasing, as if to say: “Look what I’m hiding…”

3. Santa Maria d’Aracoeli (Saint Mary of the Altar of Heaven)

Up steep steps from the Palazzo Nuovo is this red brick church, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was built over a temple that was dedicated to Juno (Goddess of Marriage).

The legend goes that in ancient times a Sibyl, (wise woman prophet), appeared here to Emperor Augustus and foretold the coming of Christ. The stairs were called The Stairway to Heaven in Medieval times, when women wanting a child or husband would climb them on their knees.

Santa Maria d’Aracoeli | BrowsingRome.com

Santa Maria d’Aracoeli. Photo credit: BrowsingRome.com

4. The Temple of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum

The Cult of Vesta, Goddess of Hearth and Home, was the oldest of the ancient world. Some say this cult still exists in modern Italy, where la famiglia remains the country’s core. Back then, girls from the ages of 6 to 10 were chosen from patrician families to become Vestals, taking vows of chastity and service for 30 years. They tended the flames of this temple, made salt cakes, and were the only women presiding at rituals in the Forum and beyond.

The upside for the Vestals, in a time when women didn’t have that much freedom, was that they could come and go as they pleased and got perks all over town, like special seats at games and festivals. The downside was gruesome: if they let Vesta’s flame go out they’d be flogged and if they had sex with anyone they’d be buried alive.

Temple of the Vestals in the Roman Forum | BrowsingRome.com

Temple of the Vestals. Photo credit: BrowsingRome.com

5. Casa di Livia, on The Palatine Hill

Above the Forum, you come to the pretty Palatine Hill, where Romulus (great grandson of Goddess Venus) chose to begin the city. It went on to become the Beverly Hills of Ancient Rome, where noble palaces were built.

As for those palaces, the Home of Augustus and his wife Livia’s house (Casa di Livia) is finally open to the public after years of restoration. To enter, you must make a special reservation by phone (39 06 399 67700), or show up at the Via Sacra Gate entrance to the Forum, (the ONLY entrance where you can make such a request), and make a reservation for an extra 3 euros to see these houses. Arriving around 2:30 pm in October, I had about a half hour wait after I bought the ticket, and then was escorted over with just three other people.

The Palatine is a great place to fantasize about the grand days of Livia and Augustus, who ruled Rome for forty-five years, bringing the city into its Golden Age. The frescoes in the restored homes are breathtaking!

Casa di Livia on the Palatine Hill. Photo credit: Susan Van Allen | BrowsingRome.com

Casa di Livia. Photo credit: Susan Van Allen

As you wander through, here’s some back story: In 39 b.c., just after Julius Caesar’s assassination, Livia was a beautiful nineteen-year-old, married to the much older Tiberius Claudius Nero, and pregnant with their second child.

Along came handsome, young, Octavius (soon to be Augustus), a rising star on the military scene, married with a pregnant wife. Octavius fell in love with Livia, divorced his wife the day she gave birth, and married the pregnant Livia. Livia’s old husband gave her away at the ceremony, even throwing in a dowry. It turned out to be a good political move for all involved and in those days the citizenry didn’t even blink over it.

Octavius became Emperor Caesar Augustus and ruled Rome with his perfect mate Livia, who took charge of all the biz at home when he set off to conquer distant lands. Livia was an exemplary Roman wife. She was famously chaste, “worked wool” (made her husband’s togas), and never showed off with fancy jewelry or dress.

Casa di Augustus in the Palatine Hill. Photo credit: Susan Van Allen | BrowsingRome.com

Casa di Augustus. Photo credit: Susan Van Allen

The couple lived simply here throughout their fifty-one years of marriage, with Livia putting up with philandering Augustus, who was known for his S&M exploits. Together they revived Rome, restoring monuments in the Forum and building new ones throughout the city.

Livia has become famous in fiction, particularly through Robert Graves’ I Claudius, where she’s portrayed as a conniving woman who poisoned potential heirs to make sure her family line would inherit the throne. Whatever version of the story you believe, Livia’s descendants did end up ruling Rome. She died at the ripe old age of eighty-six and was honored as Diva Augusta. Her image was revered in the streets that surround you, carried in celebrations by elephant drawn carriages.

Here’s a video I took, ECSTATIC to be all alone in Livia’s house!

Capitoline Museums: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00am-8:00pm, www.museicapotolini.org

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill: Daily, 8:30 until one hour before sunset. For opening times of House of Augustus and Casa di Livia: go to www.coopculture.it. For reservations for the House of Augustus and Casa di Livia, call 39 06 39967700 or make them when you buy your ticket at the Via Sacra Gate of the Roman Forum. or ma

For Private of Group Tours, I recommend Context Travel, www.contexttravel.com

50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go is available at The Almost Corner Bookstore in Rome, on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

For more info about Susan Van Allen and her books: www.susanvanallen.com

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