Ancient Rome: A Beginner’s Guide
Most visitors to Rome want to scratch beneath the surface of the Roman Empire, probably the most important historical aspect of Rome. That’s why an itinerary exploring Rome’s ancient past is something that should be a part of every visit to Rome. Here are a few of ancient Rome’s essential highlights.
The Colosseum (Colosseo)
The most recognizable monument in Rome, the Roman Colosseum is technically known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, inaugurated in the year 80 AD. The infamous gladiator battles that the Colosseum is famous for were hosted here up until 435 AD. In modern-day Rome, the road leading up to the Colosseum is used to host a free outdoor concert in the summer, with musicians such as Simon & Garfunkel or Paul McCartney drawing crowds of around a million people.
Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea)
Built by the Emperor Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, this is a well-preserved example of ancient Roman architecture. Lavish interior decoration included gold leaf, ivory veneer and ceilings covered with semi-precious stones. The emperor’s palace was also rich with frescoes in the grotesque style that inspired Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo.
Ancient Rome’s port city (Ostia Antica)
About a half hour train ride outside of Rome, Ostia Antica is the site of ancient Rome’s harbor and was the hub of commerce during the period. On a walk through Ostia Antica one can still see examples of daily life in ancient Rome ranging from mosaics that decorated the market to public toilets. The area of Ostia Antica is three times as large as Pompeii, so it’s best to bring comfortable walking shoes.
Appia Antica & the Catacombs
Ancient Rome’s most famous road, the Appia Antica remains an excellent example of the ancient Roman style of building roads (e.g., in a straight line). While walking the Appia Antica, or perhaps riding a bike over the rough stones, you can still see the tracks left by carts that used the road for transport in ancient times. Ruins of statues and tombs, as well as the original aqueducts, line the street. Along the Appia are also various sites of ancient Roman catacombs, including San Sebastiano and San Callisto. The underground catacomb tours give visitors a look into the burial practices of the first Christians.
The Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini)
The Capitoline Museums on Capitol Hill (Campidoglio) are a great way to explore ancient Rome, especially on a rainy day when it’s not practical to be outdoors. Founded in 1471, the museums house many important sculptures and other artifacts that have come from excavations of various sites of ancient Rome. In the Hall of the Faun, you can see the statue of the faun brought from Emperor Hadrian’s villa, while the Hall of Emperors has an impressive collection of busts of Roman emperors from the Imperial Age to the late ancient period.
The Roman Forum
The heart of political and commercial life in ancient Rome, the Foro Romano still has several important archeological artifacts that have survived to this day. There are ruins of several temples as well as arches constructed by various emperors to celebrate triumphs. While many ruins are still visible, in order to fully appreciate the vast history of the Roman Forum, a guided tour is recommended.
Another of Rome’s most recognizable monuments, the Pantheon was originally used as a temple and was destroyed by fire in 80 A.D.; the structure we see today was commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian and completed in 125 A.D.
The famous ‘oculus’ or hole in the ceiling is a constant source of fascination to those who visit, and every year on Pentecost, red rose petals are released down through the oculus by Roman firefighters.
Vatican Necropolis & Scavi Vaticani
Reservations are required through the Vatican’s Excavations Office and often visitors are unable to choose the exact day and time of their visit. But if you can manage to get a ticket to either of these underground tours, it is well worth the work. The Necropolis (Via Triumphalis) tour commenced in October 2006, after three years of preparation. The area was discovered while breaking ground for a parking garage and archeologists have given it Pompeii-like status in the world of ancient cemeteries. The Scavi (Via Cornelia) tour covers excavations that were undertaken to locate the exact place where St Peter’s remains were buried, and above which St Peter’s Basilica was built.