Despite its humble beginning, ancient Rome was the cradle of Western civilization. Its rule spread over dozens of modern-day countries, with up to 100 million population. Though two millenniums have passed since its heydays, evidence of this grand city is still very much alive in remnants across the Italian capital, from palaces, and temples, to the marvelous Colosseum.
Rome originated as a string of villages on the banks of the Tiber River in 754 B.C. According to a popular myth, it was founded by two brothers – Romulus and Remus – who were raised by a wolf. The settlement was built on seven hills, reflecting the cultural influence of the Etruscans who ruled a swath of land, roughly what is now Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and even Rome itself.
By the year 509 B.C., the last Etruscan king of Rome was overthrown. The city became a republic led by the wealthiest Romans. The Senate was formed, and it decided important matters in ancient Rome on behalf of its population, albeit towards the elite’s interests. For nearly 500 years, this system worked out well. Yet a series of feuds and civil wars shattered the people’s union.
Rome was the cradle of Western civilization.
A general named Julius Caesar seized this chance to take power. He established himself as dictator for life, after his victory against the Gauls. Although his troops and many citizens supported Caesar, the Senate worried he was too powerful and wanted him gone. As a result, a group of senators murdered him on the floor of the Senate in 44 B.C., marking the end of the Roman Republic. During this period, Rome managed to transform itself from a provincial backwater into a regional power.
Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome
Despite achievements in the previous period, ancient Rome actually flourished when it became the center of the largest empire the Western world had ever seen. Augustus Caesar (27 B.C. – 14) was the first Roman Emperor. He ascended to the throne after the assassination of Julius Caesar, his great-uncle. The master strategist stamped out political infightings and helped restore peace in the city. Yet his greatest success was the conquest of wealthy Egypt which transformed Rome’s fortune immensely.
The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under Emperor Trajan (98-117) who personally led a huge expedition to the east, up to the sun-baked port of Charax (modern-day Basra) in Mesopotamia. He was followed by Hadrian (117-138) who firmly secured the frontiers during his reign. But unlike any of his predecessors, this offbeat emperor enjoyed traveling throughout the empire. He was also a keen builder, with building projects springing up in Rome, Athens, and across the Middle East.
Ironically, the size of the Roman Empire was a reason that led to its demise. Due to its vastness, ruling from Rome alone became ineffective. Therefore, Emperor Diocletian (284-305) decided to divide the empire into western and eastern halves in 285 to make managing easier. However, this led to conflicts between regional leaders, and soon civil wars broke out. As Romans looked on nervously as their empire fell apart, Emperor Constantine (306-337) took action and unified the empire under his own rule by 324.
The unification lasted for about 70 years until the western half of the empire began to teeter. Moral decay, wars, plagues, and a weakened treasury led to territorial losses. Ultimately, the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 with the fall of its capital, Ravenna. Ancient Rome suffered a similar fate. The city was ransacked by Germanic Visigoths in 410, leaving many infrastructures destroyed or severely deteriorated. The city that had taken the whole world was eventually being conquered.
1. Palatine Hill & Roman Forum
Standing at the centermost point of the seven hills, Palatine Hill is the origin of ancient Rome. It was here that the earliest settlements were founded, along with shrines of important civic cults. Between the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., the hill became the residential district of Roman aristocrats, with elegant houses characterized by beautifully painted decorations. The hill, however, turned into the exclusive domain of emperors, starting with Augustus. The first emperor deliberately chose this site for his palace, symbolizing his authority over the city.
An open-air museum about ancient Rome.
At the foot of Palatine Hill is the Roman Forum – the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of ancient Rome. Originally, it was covered by a swamp. But by the late 7th century B.C., the swamp was properly drained and the plaza began to take shape. Throughout its history, the Roman Forum constantly developed, with various monuments added over time. First were the governmental offices, followed by buildings for commerce and religious purposes. Then, the civic basilicas, used for diverse purposes, started to appear.
However, by the end of the republican period, the Roman Forum had become insufficient to represent the Western world’s most important city. Therefore, the administration was moved to the nearby Imperial Fora. Afterward, emperors only added decorative monuments to the Roman Forum. These days, the site is an expansive open-air museum that gives us a glimpse of how life was in ancient Rome.
Tips: Because Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum are linked, it’s better to get in from the former. The queue is significantly shorter. In the Roman Forum, you can get the perfect view of the Colosseum from the Temple of Venus and Roma.
2. The Colosseum
Steps away from the Roman Forum is Italy’s most renowned landmark, the Colosseum. Its name is actually the Flavian Amphitheater as emperors of the Flavian dynasty built it as a reconciliation gift to the Roman citizens. The massive stadium became known as the Colosseum because of a colossal statue that once stood nearby. The construction started in the year 70, and it took nearly a decade to complete. On the inauguration day, an elaborate campaign was announced. It involved 100 days of (free) games, presenting beast hunts, gladiatorial combats, and even mock naval battles. Those activities were the staple of public entertainment in ancient Rome, where blood and violence were celebrated.
Fit to its name, the Colosseum is the world’s largest amphitheater, with a capacity of more than 50,000 spectators. It features four lofty stories, 240 exterior archers, and 80 entrances – 76 for the patrons, two for the participants, and two exclusively for the emperors, as well as numerous sculptures of gods, demigods, and mythical heroes. The arches are particularly durable as it was made out of a unique cement that fuses volcanic ash and volcanic rocks. Interestingly, like in today’s stadium, there are separate sectors for different castes. For example, the gleaming white-marble seats which are closer to the arena floor, are reserved for the senators.
Over the years, the Romans’ interest in the games waned. The gladiatorial system was even abolished in the 4th century as Christianity forbids devaluing the sanctity of life. Afterward, the Colosseum was neglected and deteriorated. A series of earthquakes in the late 5th century further damaged the structure. By the 20th century, nearly two-thirds of the original amphitheater was in ruin. Fortunately, a restoration project that began in the 1990s has saved this architectural wonder.
With a capacity of more than 50,000 spectactors, the Colosseum is the world’s largest amphitheater.
The Back Stage
Apart from its sheer size, the Colosseum is impressive because of its capability to incorporate a complex backstage. A network of tunnels and passages hides beneath the sand of the arena, far from the eyes of spectators. It was here that the stage materials were stored, alongside the wild animals, locked in cages, for the bloody hunting scenes. About 80 minuscule elevators, operated by slaves, dotted around this area to lift everything onto the stage.
Walking through the belly of the Colosseum, I could imagine the games in ancient Rome. The gladiators would have walked from the training camps, through a tunnel into the backstage. They would follow the herringbone brick paths to their designated positions. And when the moment was right, they would rise via elevators to the arena where the roar of thousands of spectators would greet them. It was a jaw-dropping experience, but obnoxious at the same time…
Tips: Due to its huge popularity, it’s impossible to get into the Colosseum without an online ticket. The tickets are time-slotted and they are only released 30 days in advance on the website of Coop Culture (the official ticket agency). Please note that they sell out quickly, in particular the Underground Tour.
3. Imperial Fora
A collection of four monumental forums.
Separated from the Roman Forum by a tree-lined avenue, the Imperial Fora is a collection of four grand plazas built between 46 BC and 113. It was the heart of imperial Rome, where politics, social activities, and economic decisions took place. Julius Ceasar was the first to relocate the administrative offices to this area, followed by Augustus, Vespasian, Domitian (partially Nerva), and lastly Trajan.
Little recognizable remains of the original Imperial Fora, except for some columns, statues, and temples. Only the high-walled Trajan’s Market and the Trajan’s Column stand out. The marble-white structure is among Rome’s largest monuments that still stand after the crisis of the 5th century. It’s covered in meticulous reliefs depicting the emperor’s victory over the Dacians (modern-day Romania).
Another interesting feature of the Imperial Fora is that all plazas share similar characteristics, such as the enclosing walls, the colonnades, and the temples. This allows the entire sector to be considered a large singular architectural unit. Yet each forum still reflects a chapter in Rome’s long-standing history.
4. The Pantheon
Another landmark of ancient Rome is the Pantheon – the temple of all gods. Made primarily of bricks and concrete, it contains a portico with granite columns, a rotunda with a vast domed ceiling, and a rectangular area connecting the other two sections. The inner walls and floor of the rotunda are decorated with colorful marble, while the coffered dome, with its striking oculus, is a miracle. It measures 22 meters in height and 43 meters in diameter, making it the largest dome ever made without reinforced concrete. Inside, the interior is brightened only by natural light from the oculus and the entry door, possibly imitating the arched vault of heaven.
The Pantheon we see today was completed around 126, during the reign of Hadrian. It was built on the site of an earlier temple commissioned by statesman Marcus Agrippa under the reign of Augustus. The building was initially designed as a worship place for Roman gods, but since the 7th century, it has been converted into a Christan church. High altars and the apses were then added, followed by tombstones of several Italian monarchs and famous artists including Raphael. Today, the Pantheon continues to function as a church, where mass is held regularly. Meanwhile, its design is still a source of inspiration for countless architectures across the world.
5. Castel Sant’Angelo
Towering over the Tiber River, Castel Sant’Angelo is often associated with the Vatican. Its chunky round walls had protected the popes from invaders for centuries. However, the structure was not designed as a papal fortress in the first place. Instead, it was built for Hadrian and his family as their final resting places, between 134 and 139. It’s rumored that the emperor dictated the design, featuring an ornated cylinder, a rooftop garden, and a golden quadriga.
A short time later, the mausoleum was converted into a military fortress, which in turn integrated into the city’s defensive walls. Yet much of the tomb contents and decorations were lost following the sack of Rome in 410. Nearly two centuries later, Pope Gregory I turned the building into a papal citadel. He named it “Castel Sant’Angelo” after an angelic vision. The Pope also placed a statue of Archangel Michael atop the impressive rotunda.
The fortress consists of five floors which are accessed only by a spiral ramp. It first reaches the foundry and subsequently, the prison cells. The upper levels are the papal apartments which are decorated with sculptures and perfectly preserved frescoes from the Renaissance. They showcase collections of weapons, military memorabilia, and even contemporary art. Meanwhile, the terrace offers an unparalleled view of Rome and the St. Peter’s Basilica. Additionally, there is a secret passage linking to the Holy City, reserved for the popes in dangerous moments.
Facing straight onto the fortress is the five-arched Ponte Sant’Angelo, literally translated as the “Bridge of Angels”. It provides a picturesque approach from the left bank of the Tiber River or central Rome. True to its name, the bridge is adorned with ten gorgeous marble angels created by famous artists. They are holding various instruments and look quite aloof.
Tips: Castle Sant’Angelo is a famous landmark. To avoid the long queue, it’s recommended to buy the ticket online. The ticket is available at Ticktone (official ticket agency). Please note that the museum here is much smaller than others in the city. Moreover, there are a lot of steps inside, thus the castle is not suitable for people with mobility restrictions.
6. Arch of Constantine
Ancient Romans saw traditional martial values as the bedrock of their empire. They glorified the military and acclaimed violence and killing. Therefore, it’s no surprise to see triumphal arches erected all across the city, providing daily reminders of military victories. Of all the arches that are still standing today, the Arch of Constantine is the most imposing. It measures nearly 26 meters in width, 21 meters in height, and has a depth of over 7 meters.
Completed around 315, the triple triumphal arch was built to honor Constantine’s victory over his co-ruler Maxentius, ending the tempestuous civil wars of the 4th century. It was commissioned by the Senate and located on the route of the triumphal procession between the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. The arch is adorned with intricate marble reliefs depicting Emperor Constantine as the champion of Christians, as well as his inscriptions with a reference to “the divinity” rather than to pagan deities. Curiously, many sculptures and stoneworks from earlier monuments were reused in this structure.
7. The Roman Baths
Another important aspect of life in ancient Rome is the public baths. The Romans loved their baths and much of their social life centered around them. To them, bathing represented not only health but also decency. Therefore, the bathhouse functioned more like a spa or a recreation area rather than just a place for keeping clean.
The first bathhouses appeared around the second century B.C. as small gathering places like a local pub. Throughout history, they developed into large bathes with extensive facilities called thermae. Most had the same basic elements, including a changing room, a tepidarium (sauna and warm room), a caldarium (hot room), a frigidarium (cold room), and a lounge. In total, there were eleven imperial bathhouses in Rome, alongside hundreds of private baths.
However, by the 6th century, as Christianity became the dominant religion, the golden age of Roman baths came to an end. According to the Christian doctrine, the baths are associated with decadence and debauchery as they focus more on the physical body rather than the cleanliness of the soul.
Roman social life centered around the pubic baths.
Baths of Diocletian
Located in the northeastern part of the city, the Baths of Diocletian were the grandest Roman baths. It occupied up to 13 hectares and could accommodate over 3,000 patrons at the same time. The complex featured a series of bathing halls arranged around an open-air rectangular courtyard. It was named after Emperor Diocletian and operated from around 305 to 537 when barbarians cut off aqueducts to Rome.
Much damage was done to the Baths of Diocletian during the 16th century as architects and builders repurposed the architectural complex. For example, its tepidarium and the huge central hall were turned into a church. Meanwhile, an expansive cloister was erected in the ruins of the eastern part, which in turn has become a part of the National Museum of Rome. Even so, the Baths of Diocletian can still provide a great amount of insight into the scale and complexity of the Roman bathing culture.
Tips: The Baths of Diocletian is just a stone’s throw away from Roma Termini. It is huge and composed of multiple buildings. Please note that the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli which originated from the tepidarium is located outside of the museum, in front of the Republic Plaza.
Tips for visiting Rome
- Rome is covered by an extensive network of public transportation. There are 3-day, 5-day, or 7-day tickets that can be bought directly at the ATAC Office. Please note that the office at Roma Termini is always crowded. Thus, it would be better to choose another location.
- The metro system is frequent and punctual, but it doesn’t run through the city’s center (Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, etc.). Only buses can have access to this area. However, they are often delayed due to the narrow streets and the massive crowd.