8 Places You Must Visit in Rome: the Beginner's Guide to the Eternal City
You don’t have to be a student of Classics to know that there’s nowhere on the planet quite like the city of Rome.
Founded in 753 BC according to the legend of Romulus and Remus, the Italian capital is blessed with a long and vibrant history, many layers of which are awesomely on show in this incredible city to this day. You can scarcely turn a corner in Rome without finding the remnants of ancient civilisation, from the famous places tourists flock to or part of a millennia-old temple sitting apparently unremarked in the middle of a roundabout. A trip to Rome makes the ideal starting point for a study of the Romans, so we’re going to take you on a journey to the ‘Eternal City’ in writing, introducing you to some of its most famous landmarks and some of the fascinating stories behind them.
1. The Colosseum
You don’t need us to tell you that the Colosseum is Rome’s most well-known landmark; it’s the number one spot to which tourists flock in their millions each year. But did you know that this infamous site of gladiatorial battles and animal slaughter wasn’t actually called the Colosseum in Roman times? It all started before it was built, when the Emperor Nero commandeered large tracts of the city for the building of his vast palace, the Domus Aurea (Golden Palace).
Contemporary writers tell us that “all of Rome was turned into a villa”; and the people resented it. They resented the fact that the water from their aqueducts was being diverted to fill a huge pleasure lake for Nero’s gardens, and they resented it even more when Nero had a huge statue built outside his palace, of himself as the sun god Apollo; his implication that he held the power of a deity reminded the people of Rome of their much-hated monarchy (overthrown centuries before in favour of the democratic Republic, which limited the power held by one man by having two Consuls in power, elected each year). And the name of that statue? The Colossus. So how did that give rise to the name of the huge amphitheatre?
Well, in AD 68 Nero was at last driven out of power, and after a period of political turbulence during which Rome saw four emperors in the space of a year, the Emperor Vespasian came to power and calmed things down. The new Flavian dynasty was determined to give Rome back to the people, and one of the ways they did that was to build a huge amphitheatre, completed in AD 80 and dedicated to the enjoyment of the people. Symbolically, it stood right on the spot where Nero’s pleasure lake had been. The Colossus was moved from the palace entrance to next to the amphitheatre, its features recarved so that they no longer resembled Nero, and there it stayed for many centuries afterwards. It wasn’t until AD 1000 that the amphitheatre itself became known as the Colosseum, owing to a mistranslation of an epigram by the Venerable Bede, which was actually referring to the statue and not the amphitheatre. That’s why scholars call the Colosseum “the Flavian Amphitheatre”, after its original Latin name, Amphitheatrum Flavium.
2. The Forum
From the Colosseum we move to an older part of the city, the Forum, which is just over the road in the modern city layout. The Forum, a sort of piazza, was the city’s nerve centre, its symbolic heart, and it was here that the basilicas, senate house, law courts, archives and other administrative buildings were situated. Successive emperors each added their own mark to this area of the city, and the first, the ‘Forum Romanum’ was added to with additional fora by Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nerva, Vespasian and Trajan. These would have been a hive of activity, with court cases held here, as well as commercial, banking and business activities.
It was also in the Forum that speeches were held, on large rostra, or speaking platforms, which were often decorated with the prows of captured enemy ships. Even today, you can still see the platform upon which Cicero, the famous Roman lawyer, philosopher, writer and consul, once addressed the people. Also notable in the Forum are two triumphal arches, the Arch of Titus at the Colosseum end and the heavily carved Arch of Septimius Severus at the other. These marked major military victories, and would have had bronze statues of the emperor in a horse-drawn chariot on the top of them. The scenes on the arches depict the victories and spoils of war; for example, the Arch of Titus, commemorating the Flavian victories in the Jewish Wars, shows a triumphal procession carrying spoils such as the Menora from the temple in Jerusalem.
3. The Palatine Hill
Towering over the Forum Romanum is the Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s famous ‘Seven Hills’. It was here that the Emperors made their home. It was a well-to-do area in the days of the Republic, allegedly because the air was purer on the hill. When Augustus became emperor he lived in what was famously a “modest dwelling”, but several emperors later, and the entire hill had become a giant imperial palace complex with each successive addition and modification. Indeed, it’s from the word “Palatine” that we get our word “palace”. These days it’s a shadow of its former self; there’s plenty to see structurally, but it’s the remains of its many water features that give the most striking impression of what it would have been like. They’re everywhere, though sadly now dry; they were a status symbol, because in a generally hot and dry climate, the plentiful water, which acted as a form of air conditioning, was a powerful symbol of power and control over the environment.
4. The Capitoline Hill
At the other end of the Forum Romanum is another of Rome’s famous hills, the Capitoline (nowadays called the Campidoglio). This was highly significant in Roman times, and was the location of several important temples, including the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest and the Temple of Juno, the latter of which stood on the spot now occupied by a church, Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The Temple of Juno was home to a gaggle of sacred geese. It’s said that during a Barbarian attack on the Capitoline, the geese alerted the Romans to the incoming invaders from Gaul, saving the day.
It was also on the Capitoline Hill that the infamous Tarpeian Rock could be found; it was off this rock that traitors of Rome were unceremoniously flung to their deaths. These days the Capitoline enjoys less grisly scenes, as tourists wander up the hill on steps designed by Michelangelo, and saunter in and out of the Capitoline Museums admiring the bronze equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The one in the square today is a replica of the original, which is housed in the surrounding museum and was moved to the Capitoline Hill in 1538, after centuries of standing outside the Lateran Palace. The statue survived the Medieval period where many did not; many such statues were melted down because they were viewed as pagan idols. This one does depict a pagan emperor, but by lucky chance it was mistaken for the Christian emperor Constantine and kept. It’s now the only complete surviving bronze statue of a pre-Christian Roman emperor.
5. The Circus Maximus
Not far from the Capitoline Hill, you’ll find a large, sunken grassy area, a view of which is best admired from the Palatine. This is what’s left of the Circus Maximus, a chariot-racing stadium that would have accommodated 150,000 spectators in seating all around its perimeter. Down the middle of this huge stadium would have been a spina, a marker around which the chariots would race; this was decorated with sculptures, and in the centre was the Egyptian obelisk that now sits in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. In Roman times, chariot racing enjoyed similar popularity to that of football today, with Romans supporting particular chariot racing teams (distinguished by their faction colours, of which there were four: Red, Green, White and Blue), and the charioteers themselves basking in a similar status to modern footballers.
6. St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums
The Basilica di San Pietro – St Peter’s Basilica – provides us with a bridge into a later part of Rome’s history. St Peter’s lies on the other side of the Tiber, on what was once the site of Nero’s Circus (another chariot-racing arena). St Peter was an important figure in the establishment of Christianity, and in AD 64, he was martyred in the centre of the circus, near another Egyptian obelisk (which now stands in St Peter’s Square). His remains were buried close by, and in the coming years a small shrine grew up on the site of his simple grave. A basilica was constructed there in the 4th century, which, having fallen into near-disrepair, became the subject of a grand, 120-year rebuilding plan in the 16th century, the result of which you see today.
The Basilica is the world’s largest Christian space, and the centre of the Catholic church. It sits in what is now a separate country, the Vatican City, and its Michelangelo-designed dome is an instantly recognisable feature on the Roman skyline. To the side of the Basilica are the world-famous Vatican Museums, home to innumerable priceless artefacts and paintings, notably a series of frescoes by Raphael. The pièce de résistance, however, and the reason many people queue for hours to get in, is the Sistine Chapel. Its lavish ceiling is the product of the multitalented Michelangelo, who reluctantly got involved in this vast project at the request of Pope Julius II. The work took him four years, from 1508 to 1512, and he later completed the Last Judgement fresco over the altar as well. The ceiling is covered with over 5,000 square feet of frescoes and primarily depicts nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. Its most famous image is that of Adam reaching out to God; all over the city, you’ll see tourist reproductions of their hands almost touching, and it’s one of the most celebrated images in the whole of art history.
7. The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps dominate what was once Rome’s ‘English Quarter’, the part of Rome to which English aristocrats, artists and writers flocked during the height of the 18th century ‘Grand Tour’. The steep set of steps, the widest in Europe, can be found in the Piazza di Spagna, and are topped by the church of Trinità dei Monti. Completed in 1723-25, the steps were a popular spot for local people to come and wait, hoping to be selected as artists’ models. The steps are flanked on both sides by buildings with strong English connections: to the left, as you look at the steps, there’s Babington’s Tearooms, established in 1893 by two English women to cater for the English demand for tea; and on the right is the Keats-Shelley House, where the poet Keats stayed (and died) during his time in Rome. It’s now a museum to the two poets and the many other English poets and writers who made Rome their second home.
8. The Trevi Fountain
One of Rome’s most romantic spots, and also its most crowded, the Trevi Fountain is probably its best-loved non-Roman monument. Tradition has it that travellers to Rome must throw a coin in to make a wish and ensure their return to Rome, and it has played an iconic part in many films, notably Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It took several decades to build the Trevi Fountain, and it drove its architect, Nicola Salvi, to an early grave. Work began in 1732, but it wasn’t completed until 1762, with another architect, Giuseppe Pannini, stepping in after Salvi’s death. It’s supplied by the water from the Aqua Virgo, a restored Roman aqueduct that brings in water from 20km away.
There are so many incredible monuments and buildings in Rome that this small selection of some of the most famous barely scratches the surface. If you’d like to learn more about the civilisation that gave us Rome, Classical Civilisations is one of your subject options when you attend our Broadening Horizons course.