Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
If the Roman Empire is not the largest empire that ever existed, it is the longest-lasting and its impact on the western civilization to this day is incommensurable: from Roman languages such as Spanish and French to name the most spoken ones, to the Christian religion the empire adopted, from principles of modern law and the concept of republic to architecture, without mentioning the engineering prowess from aqueducts to roads and baths, and even the modern western calendar – a refinement of the Julian calendar of Julius Caesar – and the way we count hours.
With such an influence on our modern world, exploring Antique Rome, the founding capital of the empire, is a marvellous time-travel. However, with traces of the grandeur of the epitome of the empire at almost every street corner in town, it can be overwhelming! Here are picks for the best experience.
Pin it for later:
Grasping the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum
The Palatine Hill
According to the legend, it is on the Palatine Hill that Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded the city of Rome in 753 BC Thanks to archaeologists, myth meets reality with the uncovered remains of Iron Age (800-400 BC) settlements dating back to the earliest days of Rome on the same hill.
Site of important city cults, the Palatine Hill became the residential district of the Roman aristocracy between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Starting a tradition, Rome’s first emperor Augustus had his lavish imperial residence built on the hill. The house of Augustus takes life in a light show focusing on its exceptional pictorial and floor decorations and giving only a small idea of its luxury and refinement.
Other emperors followed, leaving ruins of their own domus on the hill (Domus Tiberiana, Domus Transitoria, Domus Aurea and Domus Flavia also known as Domus Augustana) amongst olive trees that have been an integral part of the Palatine Hill landscape since Antiquity – and paramount to the Roman Empire’s economy with its culinary light, cosmetic, medicinal, and mechanical applications.
Topped off by temples, connected by richly decorated underground corridors, and dotted with five monumental Roman forum squares for celebrations to exalt the figure of the emperor, no wonder why the word “palace” is directly derived from “Palatine”!
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum – originally covered by a swamp – remained the centre of public life in Rome for over a millennium, hence the centre of the most powerful empire in the world for more than 400 years.
From the late 7th century BC, the Roman Forum had expanded starting with essential political, religious and commercial buildings, and adding civil basilicas for judicial activities during the 2nd century BC. With a fast-expanding capital, by the end of the republican age, the ancient Roman Forum had become insufficient to serve as the administrative and representative centre of what was to become the vast Roman Empire (encompassing no less than 40 modern countries!). Julius Caesar ordered the construction of a new and better adapted forum: the Forum of Caesar inaugurated in 46 BC.
Four emperors mimicked him:
- The Forum of Augustus: in 42 BC before the battle of Filippi, Octavian (Julius Caesar’s adopted son, known later as Emperor Augustus) made a vow to Mars the Roman god of war to build him a temple should he win over Brutus and Cassius, Caesar’s murderers. So did he: the temple to Mars closing the Forum of Augustus was inaugurated in 2 BC. As Augustus put it himself: he found a city of bricks and turned it into one of marble, giving an idea of the splendour of the forum.
- The Temple of Peace: built by Vespasian in AD 75 after the conquest of Jerusalem.
- The Transitional Forum, later called the forum of Nerva (AD 97).
- The Forum of Trajan: built in 113 with the spoils of war from the conquest of Dacia (today’s Romania) and expanded with the Market of Trajan. Long believed to be world’s oldest shopping mall, archaeologists believe that the well-preserved multi-level Market of Trajan was also the administrative offices of the namesake emperor.
If they did not build forums themselves, most emperors left their trace by embellishing the area by adding prestigious monuments named after them such as the monumental Arch of Septimius Severus (203 BC) to celebrate the emperor’s victories over the Parthians.
In the early 7th century, part of the area was gradually buried under silt, turning to meadow, and some monuments survived only because they had been converted into churches such as the Julia Curia. It was not until the unification of Italy in 1861 that the first systematic excavation work was carried out in what is today called the Roman Forum.
The Colosseum was called the Flavian Amphitheatre as its construction was ordered by the Flavi family. It was inaugurated by Titus in 80 AD. 188-meter long (620 ft), 156-meter wide (510 ft) and over 50-meter (165 ft) high (as tall as a 15-story building), it was gigantic and hosted 40,000 to 70,000 spectators! It is still the largest known amphitheatre in the Roman world.
Spectators who were seated based on their social position attended these spectacular shows for free, as they were funded by influential families during the republic, and later by the emperor or by senators. On a hot or rainy day, 1,000 sailors would mount the velarium, sort of a sail above the amphitheatre to protect the audience from the elements during gladiatorial fights and exotic animal hunts, the most praised shows. Leopards, lions, panthers and hippopotamuses emerged from the centre of the arena as the stage was moved by hinges and counterweights. Gladiators would then magically appear through systems of trap doors, pulleys and inclined stages for exciting fights, leading to either death or glory.
- For the best experience, and access to otherwise close sites, make sure to get a Forum Pass SUPER ticket. The various proposed audioguides are far from being engaging, so read this article and explore!
Symbol of the power of Rome, the AD 180 bronze equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ victory over the German tribes is the only surviving one from imperial times. It was triumphantly placed in the centre of the Piazza del Campidoglio as the focus of Michelangelo’s project when he designed the square and steps leading to it.
Today, it is showcased in the Capitoline Museum on top of Michelangelo’s stair to be sheltered from the elements next to the touching Boy with Thorn. This precious collection of bronze sculptures also encompassing the world-famous Capitoline She-Wolf, was donated to the Roman people by the pope Sixtus IV in 1471, starting the world’s first museum. The early 5th century BC She-Wolf with the twins Romulus and Remus suckling her milk has become the symbol of the city. After killing his brother, the King Romulus founded Rome on the Palatine Hill in 753 BC, 7 centuries before the start of the Roman Empire.
Today, from the terrace of the Capitoline Museum, the panoramic view gives an idea of how the city grew from its initial settlement on the hill along the Tiber River. More importantly, the Capitoline Museums showcase Rome’s ancient memories and focuses on its imperial grandeur.
- When visiting the Capitoline Museums, make sure to check out the terrace for beautiful views on Rome.
- The Capitoline Museums are wonderful for their Antique Collections. For paintings, we would favour the Barberini Palace.
Via Appia Antica
The Via Appia Antica is the first Roman highway, the Queen of Roads. Away from the touristy centre, the Via Appia is a must, ticking all of the boxes: race tracks, villas, statues, mosaics, sepulchres, baths, and more. For the whole experience, check out this article and hop on a bike: whether you are a history buff, nature enthusiast or the outdoorsy kind in search for a nice workout, you will absolutely love it!
The Centrale Montemartini Museum
When Rome became the capital of Italy in 1870, many new real estate development projects contributed to unearthing more antique sites. Later, Mussolini reshaped the city with the rational architecture in an attempt to restore the Roman Empire, digging some more. Many of the antique statues that have been found then and since have been showcased in the Centrale Montemartini.The massive 1912 electricity power plant was turned into a jewel of a museum amongst retired machines, engines and boilers. Interestingly, there is a very strong topographical connection between the museum and its art, making it very special.
Some of the highlights are the delicate mosaics, the tombstone of the late 11-year-old Quintus Sulpicius Maximus on which his contest-winning poems were engraved by his grieving parents, the red marble Marsyas depicting the skinned man of the Greek mythology, a sarcophagus with intact treasures such as an AD 150 articulated ivory doll and a mineralized vegetal crown…
The symbols of the “Roman dream” from the simple baker who left a majestic mausoleum for him and his wife to posterity or the 1st century shoemaker Caius Julius Helius who prospered with the laced-up sandals for soldiers and poses proudly bare chested on his tombstone bear witnesses to the modernity of the Antique Roman society and fit in perfectly in what used to be the most powerful pre-war power plant of the Italian capital.
- The Centrale Montemartini is a bit out of the city centre, and the easiest way to get there is by Vespa. Refer to Easy Bike Rent Rome.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
For more in Italy, click on these images: