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Updated by Archaeology Art on Nov 24, 2020
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Top 10 Ancient Sites in Rome

Here are the top ancient Roman sites to visit in Rome, Italy. The Roman Emperor Augustus famously declared, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”

1

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

This was the nerve centre of ancient Rome, the gathering place where emperors and generals paraded in triumph with their spoils of war and their prisoners in chains, where great orators such as Cicero harangued the courts, where Mark Antony made his famous speech after Caesar's murder, where patricians and senators rubbed shoulders with the populace, where the Vestal Virgins kept the sacred flame burning, that homely symbol of the continuity of the Roman state.

The paving stones of the Via Sacra (Sacred Way) are still intact and archaeologists have laid bare the foundations of many important buildings of the Republic and Empire.

As you enter, on the right are the remains of the Basilica Aemilia dating from 179 bc. In Rome a basilica was a public building used for transacting business, as a court of law, and simply as a meeting place where the cool marble halls provided welcome relief from the heat of the summer sun. The basilical plan later became the architectural prototype for the first great Christian churches.

Nearby stands the Curia, or Senate House. The present building dates from the 3rd century ad, but legend has it that the original Curia was founded on this site by Tullius Hostilius, one of the Kings of early Rome. The Curia was used as a church for many centuries until its restoration in the 1930s, which accounts for its preservation. The triumphal arch of Septimius Severus which stands at the North end of the Forum was erected by the Emperor in ad 203. Another smaller arch stands at the opposite end of the Forum - built by the Emperor Titus to celebrate his capture of Jerusalem in ad 70. On the inside of this arch you can see Roman soldiers carrying off the loot from the Temple, which was jealously guarded here in a specially built Temple of Peace until it was again stolen and lost to posterity after a sack of Rome by the Goths 340 years later.

In the centre of the Forum stands part of a small white marble circular Temple which was one of the key shrines of the Roman religion. It was dedicated to the cult of the sacred fire which symbolised the perpetuity of the Roman State. The goddess Vesta's fire was kept burning by six priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins who lived a cloistered but privileged life next door to the Temple in the Atrium Vestae (Vestal's House);. Around the courtyard stand the pedestals of statues of Head Vestals from the 3rd-4th centuries ad. The institution survived by several decades the introduction of Christianity as the official religion ofthe Empire.

6

Colosseum

Colosseum

The ruins of this majestic building are one of the best known sights of Rome, though its present state belies its former magnificence. Originally the entire structure was lined with travertine, a local limestone, but over the centuries this was plundered for use elsewhere.

What we see today is a handsome ruin - the preserve of feral cats and wild flowers - bounded by a hefty curtain wall in four tiers and with a large pit at its centre.

There were 80 arched entrances to the building: 76 for the public, two for the Emperor’s entourage and two for the gladiators. Of the latter, one was for those who managed to survive to return to their quarters, while the other - named after Libitina, goddess of death - was used for the removal of the corpses of the defeated. Inside were three main areas: the pit, the arena and the auditorium. Oval in plan, the ‘pit’ was once covered by the floor of the arena and is all that remains of the building’s labyrinthine undercroft (Colosseum Underground) in which the wild animals and prisoners were housed.

Built by Emperor Vespasian in AD 72, on the site of a drained lake in the grounds of Nero’s palace, the Colosseum could hold 55,000 spectators and was the scene of the Roman Games and gladiatorial combats. The arena was extremely versatile: for animal combats it was planted with trees and scattered with rocks, and for the naumachiae it could be flooded to create a ‘sea’ on which battles between opposing ‘navies’ could be held. Realism was such that, if a scene in a play called for, say, the burning of Hercules on a funeral pyre, a convict played the part and was burnt alive.

Colosseum Opening Hours : 08:30 am-7:15 pm

7

Pantheon

Pantheon

From Piazza Minerva one proceeds to the nearby Piazza della Rotonda, where stands the Pantheon, one of the most famous monuments of Roman art. The name indicates that this was a temple dedicated to all the gods. It was built by Marcus Agrippa, as can be seen from the inscription on the entablature outside, but altered at the time of Hadrian. It is an example of Roman art in the Hellenistic style, with a genuine sense of classical architecture, as can be seen in the various architectural features and in the spirit which pervades the whole building. The outside is seen as a large circular mass, with a pronaos in front, resting on columns and surmounted by a large gable. The inside is circular in form with a dome, thus creating a clear, spherical space, at once confined and majestic. The interior receives light through a single aperture in the centre of the dome ephasizing the coffered decoration and above all creating a luminous effect which stresses the harmonious blending of all the parts.

In Christian times, the Pantheon was turned into a church, which undoubtedly accounts for its excellent state of preservation down to our own time. A number of works of art are to be found in the chapels inside, and in addition the tombs of important personalities of Italian history and art, among them that of Raphael.

8

Vatican City and Museums

Vatican City and Museums

The Vatican State, one of the smallest in the world, is unique in that it is the spiritual centre of the Roman Catholic religion. It emerged as an autonomous State, independent of Italy, on Febraury 11, 1929, as the result of the conclusion of the Lateran Pact. Its history, however, goes back to the Emperor Constantine, who wished the first great early Christian Basilica to be built on the spot where St. Peter met his death, and where so many Christians had been persecuted. From that time, events connected with the Vatican are closely bound up with the history of the Papacy.

Photo Credit: Muze Biletleri Vatikan Muzesi

9

Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant'Angelo (also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian) dates from the imperial period, the second century A.D., and was to serve as the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian.

The Emperor Aurelian had it made into a fortress and connected to the walls built by him for the defence of the city. Castel Sant'Angelo has always been closely con- nected with the history of Rome; many important personalities were imprisoned here, and it served as a place of refuge for Popes and rulers. Only in this century has it been completely restored, and it now houses a Museum with collections of armour and do-cuments referring to the history of the Castle itself, its construction and its restorations.

All the rooms can be visited, from the prison to the Papal apartments and the many fine halls with their beautiful decorations, all of them connected with noteworthy historical events or important figures.

10

Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus

The ancient and much rebuilt Circus Maximus (begun c 326 BC) could hold 300,000 spectators for the chariot races. The stands, on the sides of the Aventine and Palatine hills, lined two long tracks of sand.

The imperial box was on the Palatine slope with the general seating below, senators at the top, lesser types on wooden seats below that and hoi polloi standing at the bottom. Dividing the track lengthways, but leaving enough room at either end for the chariots to make their mm, was the spina on which were an obelisk (now in Piazza del Popolo), statues, seven wooden eggs and seven dolphins. The chariots raced round the spina, an egg being removed or the position of a dolphin changed each time a lap was completed.

2

Imperial Forums

Imperial Forums

Many Emperors vied with their predecessors in their desire to leave lasting evidence of their wealth and power. Augustus claimed he had found Rome made of brick and left it marble - not an empty boast in terms of public buildings. Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva and Trajan all built vast precincts or Fora to the northwest of the original Foro Romano. The site of these Imperial Fora is bisected by the triumphal way constructed by Mussolini, the Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Forum of Augustus: lies on the right hand side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali going from the Colosseo to the Piazza Venezia, and can be identified by a huge tufa wall which divided it from the crowded and noisy Suburra quarter of the ancient city. The massive Corinthian columns are all that remain of the Temple of Mars the Avenger built by Augustus to commemorate his victory over Caesar's murderers at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi: The Palace of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem was built into the ruins of the Forum in the 12th century and later remodelled by a Renaissance Cardinal. It can be visited with the same entrance ticket and provides an unforgettable balcony view over the whole area of the Fori Imperiali. On the ground floor one of Augustus' porticoes is now a chapel.

Forum of Caesar: Foro di Cesare lies on the left ha'nd side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali going up towards Piazza Venezia. Only about a quarter of the area has been excavated but you can see the remains of a temple of Venus, and nearby a bronze reproduction of the original marble statue of the Dictator of Rome to be seen in the Musei Capitolini. The dreaded Mamertine prison where the ancient Romans strangled, beheaded or starved their public enemies to death was sited here. St Peter spent part of his imprisonment here and the adjacent church S. Pietro in carcere (St Peter in prison); commemorates the event.

Forum of Nerva was erected just to the south-east of the Foro di Augusto. Little remains except two large Corinthian columns known as the colonacce and the base of the Temple of Minerva which remained intact until relatively recently. It was dismantled by Pope Paul V at the start of the 17th century to build his monumental fountain the Acqua Paola on the Gianicolo.

3

Palatine Hill

Palatine Hill

Enter through Foro Romano in Via dei Fori Imperiali. the Palatino, one of the original seven hills was inhabited from prehistoric times. In the days of the republic it became the equivalent of what we would call a smart residential area; later it was taken over by the Emperors for their own residences. After Decline and Fall had set in, part of the Palatino became a pleasure garden of the Farnese family. Vineyards and vegetable plots nourished among the ruins. Now it is almost the only part of central Rome which gives you an idea of the rusticity of the city which lasted for many centuries until modern urban sprawl began to swallow up the past.

The general impression of the Palatino is more important than its archaeological detail which is difficult for the layman to decipher. The Palatino can conveniently form the subject of a separate visit from the Foro Romano but if you can only spare the time for one visit, do at least climb up to see the exceptional view over the Foro from the north-east corner of the hill. This is not far from the point where the legendary she-wolf was supposed to have suckled Romulus and Remus. In ancient times a shrine marked the spot. In modern times a rather seedy she-wolf was kept in a cage but someone forgot to feed her. The cage has now been empty for many years.

Tiberius was the first emperor to build his palace on the Palatino. The ruins of Domitian's residence are the largest single group of archaeological remains. They include a private stadium and Domitian's dining-rooms. Septimius Severus built baths as well as a palace here. There is a fine view to be obtained from the ruins of the former Imperial box overlooking the Circus Maximus racetrack. Try to visualize the scene below the garlanded Emperor as he presided over a day of hectic chariot races. If you find this difficult, fill in the details for yourself with a book called Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino, a former director of the French Academy in Rome, who gives a rich and detailed picture of what life must have been like in the ancient city.

Before leaving the Palatino do not fail to visit the Casa di Livia (Livia's House) to see some fine examples of interior decoration of a Roman house. The contrast between the delicate fresco painting and the grandiose ruins around could not be more striking. If Augustus and his Empress did not actually live in this house, this was the sort of decor with which they were familiar.

4

Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla is One of Rome's great contributions to civilization was the invention of the public baths. These terme were built in the reign of the Emperor Caracalla between ad 212-17 and functioned for about 300 years until invading Goths cut the aqueducts supplying the water.

Over 1500 bathers at a time could enjoy the ancient equivalent of the Turkish bath, the sauna and the hot tub. The baths were decorated with rich marbles - later looted by the Farnese family.

Two enormous granite tubs from the baths today form fountain bases in front of the Palazzo Farnese. There were spaces for exercise as well as bathing, and the complex was serviced by an army of slave bath attendants.

There were libraries, art galleries and gardens for bathers to unwind in after passing Gazetteer 93 through the calidarium, the tepidarium and plunging into thcfrigidarium, the cold water swimming pool. In summer open air opera performances take place in the ruins. The stage is constructed over the ruins of the former calidarium. The classic opera to see here is Verdi's Aida with cast of hundreds supported by horses, chariots and sometimes elephants and camels.

5

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Probably the best known of Rome's piazzas, it owes its curious elliptical shape to the original Circus Agonalis or athletic stadium built by the Emperor Domitian. The name Navona is a corruption of the Latin n'Agona. Some of the ruins of the stadium can still be seen in cellars. Have a drink at the enacoteca (wine shop) on the Piazza and ask to visit their cellars.

There are also ruins in the tiny Via del Circo Agonale, halfway up the square on the right. During its long history, the Piazza Navona has been the scene of feats of athletic powers, medieval jousting tournaments, water festivals (by flooding the formerly concave piazza) and pilgrimages to the scene of the martyrdom of St Agnese; whose church dominates the left hand side of the Piazza. It was also the scene of parades of elegant ladies and their gentlemen, a fruit and vegetable market and a Christmas fair that has now degenerated into a commercial festival. Hippies and drug addicts now frequently congregate in the square. The imposing Fontana dei Fiumi (Fountain of the Rivers) 1651 is the creation of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The rivers represented are the Nile (whose face is covered, signifying the unknown source of the river when the fountain was built) the Ganges, the Danube and the Plate. The sculpted details of the lion, the palm tree, the horse and the various flora are worth observing.

The Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) at the southern end of the piazza was sculpted by Giacomo della Porta in 1575, but the central figure of the Moor was added by Bernini the following century. The Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) at the north end of the Piazza was completed only in 1878. The banning of traffic has added considerably to the enjoyment of the Piazza.