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Palatine Hill (via di San Gregorio, 30, metro: Colosseo. Full price €9, concessions €4.50 for both tickets add a €3 supplement when temporary exhibitions are showing in the Colosseum. The ticket is valid for one entrance each to the Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and the Colosseum within a 24 hour period).
As the place where Romulus legendarily founded Rome, the Palatine Hill is a great place to start your visit to Rome. There's a good practical reason too; the Colosseum is probably somewhere near the top of your list of things to see in the city, and it is included on the same ticket as the Palatine and the Roman Forum. Plus the lines at the Palatine ticket office on the Via di San Gregorio are much shorter that those at the Colosseum, buy your ticket there and when you get to the Colosseum you can walk straight past the queues.
After the foundation of Rome by Romulus, the Palatine Hill remained inhabited for well over a thousand years. After the overthrow of the last king of Rome, and the foundation of the Roman Republic, it became the smart residential area of the city. After the Republican period, upon Octavian's creation as the first of the Roman Emperors with the title Augustus, the hill took on an important propagandistic role. Augustus began to build a palace, which he built close to the area where Romulus had founded the city. He described himself as the "New Romulus" and sought to emphasise his glorious heritage; he was the nephew of Julius Caesar, who in turn claimed direct descent from the Trojan hero Aeneas. Building his palace where Romulus had lived, he claimed a link to a family tree which saw him as part of the line which from Venus, passed down through Aeneas and Romulus. What better right to rule? After Augustus' palace was built, subsequent emperors modified and enlarged the palace buildings; most of the ruins which we see today are those of the vast and once spectacularly opulent palace which was built in the late 1st century by the mad, bad, and dangerous to know Emperor Domitian of the Flavian dynasty. A complex of great vaulted halls and open courtyards where fountains once played, Domitian's palace has long since been stripped of the coloured marbles and granites which were brought back from the far parts of the Empire for its decoration. The opulent cladding now decorates countless of the city's 957 churches, and the brickwork visible today is the skeleton of the buildings, the bare bones of the structure, never intended to be seen by Imperial eyes. From the Via di San Gregorio entrance, the steps lead to a view over the long sunken garden which was the culmination for visitors of state to the Imperial Palace (visitors originally entered from the Forum side of the hill). Because of its shape it has been called the Stadium, or Hippodrome, although it is undoubtedly far too small for horse races.
As well as offering a peaceful break from the bustle of the city, its the red-brick ruins sitting picturesquely amid pine trees, the Palatine Hill offers a good view over the Circus Maximus. Site of Ben Hur style chariot races for some eleven centuries, the Circus is now a rather scrubby piece of land, favoured by dog walkers (and all that entails). From down on the ground it is difficult to get an idea of what it must once have been like, but from up on the Palatine Hill (where the Emperors had their own private box) the scale is visible, but not the dog mess.
Continuing towards the westernmost corner of the hill, the mid-twentieth century excavations are visible. These revealed holes carved in the bedrock, which are believed to have been the supports for oval pre-historic huts, known as the Romulean Huts. Close to these excavations is the House of Augustus, where frescoes dating to the 1st century BC have been discovered. There are a number of other interior sites across the hill where Republican frescoes can be seen, including the House of Livia and the House of the Griffins. Like the House of Augustus however these are sporadically open to the public, and do not have guaranteed opening hours.
The far north-western corner of the hill offers spectacular views across the Roman Forum and to the Capitoline Hill.
Roman Forum (via dei Fori Imperiali, metro: Colosseo. Full price €9, concessions €4.50 for both tickets add a €3 supplement when temporary exhibitions are showing in the Colosseum. The ticket is valid for one entrance each to the Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and the Colosseum within a 24 hour period).
The Forum was the heart of the political, business, and religious life of Rome for over a thousand years, the throbbing heart of what was to become the largest political power the world had ever seen, with dominions which stretched from the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal in the West to modern day Iraq in the East, and from Scotland in the North, to the northernmost reaches of the Sahara in the South. Temples jostled cheek-by-jowl with traders, political meetings vied with legal cases, and milling throngs jostled for space in what must have been one of the most exciting and vibrant places of Ancient civilisation.
If you climbed the Palatine Hill, you can enter the Forum by following the steps down by the Renaissance aviaries, alternatively the entrance is on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, opposite the junction with via Cavour.
At the Colosseum end of the Forum the Arch of Titus commemorates the Emperor after his death, and recalls in its reliefs the triumph Titus led as general in 70 AD over the city of Jerusalem. From the Arch of Titus, the Via Sacra, the Holy Way and the most important of all of the Roman roads leads down into the Forum. Following the large, and uneven, stones you come to the vast arches of the Basilica of Maxentius on your right. Built and named for the co-ruler of the Emperor Constantine, who overthrew him in the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, the Basilica of Maxentius was the largest of the Roman world, and three of its vast concrete vaults survive. From the Greek meaning "royal hall", a Roman basilica was a multi-purpose non-religious building, used for meetings and the hearing of court cases. After Constantine made Christianity legal, and started building a couple of churches in Rome, he needed a practical (and non-pagan) building type for the new churches, the plan settled on was that of the basilica. Thus the major Roman churches became known as basilicas.
Past the Basilica of Maxentius, the green doors and purple columns belong to the small round Temple of Romulus, dedicated by Maxentius to his young son Romulus, after the boy's premature death. The temple has the claim to (at least Rome's) oldest functioning lock; if you ever see the bunch of keys of the warders of the Forum one is much bigger than the others, dating from the early 4th century it still works.
Further along the Via Sacra, towards the Capitoline Hill, on the right you see the white columns of the mid-2nd century Temple of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Whereas so much of the material of the Forum was stripped over many centuries in which it was little more than a stone quarry, the columns of the temple survived. A popular legend says that the grooves visible near the top of the columns are the marks left when oxen were tied to them in an attempt to topple them. So the story goes, the temple's solid construction meant that the project failed, and rather than taking the columns to build a church elsewhere, the church was instead built in the temple. The green door belongs to the 17th century façade of the 12th century church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, and reveals the massive change in the ground level in this part of town after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. The Forum was originally a low-lying area of marshland with a tributary of the Tiber running through it; drained in the 6th century BC it began to be built upon, but after the fall of the Empire, the area was abandoned, gradually reverting back to its original state. Flooding from the river had gone unchecked for over a thousand years by the time the new facade of San Lorenzo was built here, and the door marks what was once the ground level. Until the 18th century the Forum was known simply as the Campo Vaccino, the Cow Field. The excavations down to the level of the Forum during the reign of Augustus were only carried out at the beginning of the 20th century.
With the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina behind you, cross the Via Sacra to the small, partially reconstructed, round temple. This was the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The cult was a very ancient one; tradition says that Romulus' mother had been a Vestal Virgin. It was here that the Vestals guarded the eternal flame which had to be kept burning if Rome were to survive. The current structure dates from the early 3rd century, but is the umpteenth rebuilding, as the Temple was prone to burning down. Given that a Vestal who let the flame go out was punished by being buried alive, it is understandable that they tended to prefer to risk letting the flames get out of hand. Next to the temple is what remains of the House of the Vestals, rooms around a central courtyard (now planted with a few roses) where the Vestal Virgins lived. The structure we see dates from the reign of the Emperor Trajan. Other than the High Priest of the Roman religion, the Pontifex Maximus, the Vestals were the only people allowed to live in the Roman Forum. Their position was such that if a Vestal was to touch the robes of a condemned man as he went to his execution he would immediately be acquitted of all charges.
Slightly further along the Via Sacra, between the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Antoninus, is the Temple of the Divine Julius Caesar. Now little more than the rubble and tufa inner structure of the once spectacular temple, it marks the place of the cremation of Julius Caesar. Following his assassination as he attended a meeting of the Roman Senate in the Senate's temporary home at the Curia of Pompey (at modern-day Largo Argentina) his funerary procession passed through the Forum. Mark Antony's celebrated funeral oration ("Friends, Romans, countrymen…") was spoken from the Rostra (by the Arch of Settimius Severus) at the Capitoline Hill end of the Forum. Such was the public feeling that we are told that the procession halted in the Forum, instead of continuing to the planned funerary pyre in the Field of Mars, and that people of the Suburra (the slum area close to the Forum, modern-day Monti) brought furniture and all the wood they could find into the Forum and, against all of the religious rules which stated that funerals should take place outside the city of the living, he was cremated there and then. Each year on the Ides of March (15th March), Caesar enthusiasts stage a procession through the Forum, and flowers are deposited at the altar. Look behind the fenced off area of the remains of the temple under the modern roof and, depending on the time of year, you will see flowers in various states of decay.
Julius Caesar was assassinated at the temporary home of the Senate at the Curia of Pompey (by Largo Argentina), not here in the Forum, because he was in the process of rebuilding the Senate House. The large brick building further down the Via Sacra, it was completed by Augustus, and was the site of the meetings of the Roman Senate throughout the Roman Empire. Its reasonable state of repair is largely owed to its conversion into the church of St Hadrian, which saved it from the worst excesses of pillaging of materials during the Middle Ages. Apart from a few fresco fragments, barely any trace of the medieval church survives; in the 1930s Mussolini stripped it of the medieval accretions and had the Augustan structure heavily restored. The Senate is usually open; admire the fabulous floor in opus sectile, a method of inlay which here uses purple porphyry from the eastern desert of Egypt, the green serpentine from Greece, and the yellow giallo antico from North Africa.
Directly in front of the Senate House, at the time of writing work is underway on excavations in the area known as the Lapis Niger. Literally meaning the 'black stone' it was a darker area of paving which marked a lower area where early 20th century excavations discovered the oldest known Latin inscription on a block of stone. The inscription is only partial, and there are various theories of its meaning, but it is sometimes said to mark the place of the death or the burial of Romulus.
Just past the Senate House, the Arch of Septimius Severus is a commemorative arch, erected in honour of the emperor who ruled at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Father of the Severan dynasty, and originally from Leptis Magna in modern day Libya, Septimius Severus was triumphant over the Parthians (in modern day Iran). The arch's reliefs detail the triumph, and captured Parthians are shown in the reliefs beneath the columns, bowed under the weight of defeat. The inscription also refers to Septimius' sons Caracalla and Geta, who ruled as joint emperors until Caracalla murdered his brother (in front of their mother). After Geta's death, Caracalla ordered the damnatio memoriae, that all memories of his brother should be eliminated. As a result the inscription was modified and Geta's name removed from the fifth line. The bronze letters were stripped and melted down during the Middle Ages but the grooves left behind reveal the modification to the inscription.
Rising above the Arch is the Capitoline Hill, the rough tufa blocks with the arches are the 1st century B.C. Tabularium, the ancient archives. Added to during the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, the structure is now both home to Rome's City Hall and Mayor's office, and to a section of the Capitoline Museums (see below).
You can either leave the Forum by climbing up the steps to the Capitoline Hill, by the ramp by the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, or by the Arch of Titus, which leads directly to the Colosseum.
The Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum) (Piazza del Colosseo, metro: Colosseo. Full price €9, concessions €4.50 for both tickets add a €3 supplement when temporary exhibitions are showing in the Colosseum. The ticket is valid for one entrance each to the Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and the Colosseum within a 24 hour period).
If you already have your ticket from either the Forum or Palatine Hill, walk straight past the ticket line, put the ticket through the turnstile, and feel very pleased with yourself.
After the death of the Emperor Nero in 68 AD, and those of the three emperors who followed him in quick succession, the general Vespasian became Emperor. He set about destroying everything associated with the hated Nero, and in particular his vast and opulent Golden House. In a very clear political gesture, Vespasian drained what had once been an ornamental lake in Nero's palace, used for the staging of mock naval battles. In its place, he set about building a building for the people. Work began on the amphitheatre which bears the family's name in 72 and was completed 8 years later, when it was opened following Vespasian's death by his son Titus to great fanfare and 100 consecutive days of games. The site of legendary gladiatorial competitions, the amphitheatre is estimated to have housed some 60,000 spectators. As with so many of the buildings of the Imperial City, the amphitheatre was sporadically pillaged of its stone, some of which made its way to the façade of St Peter's in the Vatican.
In the shadow of the Colosseum is the Arch built in 315 AD to honour ten years of rule under the Emperor Constantine. The Empire had been sinking into decline for almost a century, a decline reflected in the quality of art of the period. Seeking the finest sculptures for his arch, Constantine set about stealing bits from other Emperors' monuments and reusing them. The statues above the columns come from a monument dedicated to Trajan, the round reliefs come from a monument dedicated to his successor Hadrian, and the rectangular reliefs along the upper storey come from a monument dedicated to the next-Emperor-but-one, Marcus Aurelius. The strip of carving above the smaller arches tells the tale of Constantine's victory over Maxentius in 312 AD at the Milvian Bridge, on the Tiber. This is the battle which Constantine legendarily fought under the sign of the cross, the traditional explanation for his decriminalisation of Christianity the following year.
This street was razed through Medieval and Renaissance districts of the city by Mussolini in the 1930s, who originally named it the Road of Empire. It now bears the name of the Imperial Fora, the extensions to the Roman Forum added by assorted Emperors. Significant sections of the Imperial Fora are visible from the road, whilst others languish beneath the cobbles and the hurtling traffic.
It was Julius Caesar (who ruled as Dictator during the late period of the Roman Republic, just before the birth of the Empire and wasn't an Emperor) who set the ball rolling, with his new Forum, behind the Senate House. The temple in his new Forum was dedicated to Venus Genatrix, a reference to Julius' grand family line which he claimed reached right back to Aeneas, the Trojan hero and son of the goddess Venus. After Julius' assassination, his nephew Octavian's rise to power culminated in Octavian declaring himself the first of the Emperors with the title Augustus. Augustus followed his uncle's lead by building an extension to the Roman Forum which would bear his name. What remains of the Forum of Augustus is a little further down towards the Colosseum, before the junction with Via Cavour, and on the other side of the road from the Roman Forum. It is identifiable by the wall made of hefty greenish blocks of tufa. In the wall grooves form a triangular shape which once supported a pediment of the Temple of Mars, the god Augustus chose for his forum, once again a reference to the family's heroic lineage was being made; Mars, the god of war, was the father of Romulus, which fitted in nicely with Augustus' claim to be the "new Romulus".
Directly opposite the Forum of Julius Caesar, towards Piazza Venezia from the Forum of Augustus, is the addition, over a century after Julius built his Forum, of the Forum of Trajan. Trajan, ruling in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, found himself needing to create a space for his Forum, which he did by removing the saddle of land which then joined the Quirinal Hill with the Capitoline Hill. To shore up the Quirinal, he built a large hemispherical terraced structure, thought perhaps to have contained areas dedicated to trade and merchant activity, and therefore known as Trajan's Markets. Ever religious, Trajan was a little concerned about having muddled with nature and the will of the gods with his massive earthwork, and as an acknowledgment of his modifications, he erected a column exactly the same height as the land removed. Trajan's Column bears carvings which spiral up, rather like an open scroll, and recount the triumphs of Trajan in Dacia (modern day Romania). The carvings are considered one of the greatest achievements of Roman art, and offer an enormously important view into military techniques of the period.
Trajan's Markets, and part of Trajan's Forum, are incorporated into the Museum of the Imperial Fora (9am-7pm Tues-Sun, €6.50/€4.50) entrance on Largo Magnanapoli where the red brick tower, the Torre della Milizie, is a reminder that the structure was converted into a fortress during the Middle Ages, one of the reasons it remains so well preserved.
At the opposite end of the Via dei Fori Imperiali from the Colosseum, the Piazza Venezia takes its name from the 15th century Palazzo di Venezia, the brown building along the western side of the square. It was built in the mid 1400s by the future Pope Paul II, who was then the Ambassador from the Venetian Republic in Rome, and bears the name of his city. During the period of Fascist rule Mussolini occupied the Sala del Mappamundo as his office. Italy's entrance into the Second World War was announced from the balcony of this room, directly over the main doorway. Part of the Palazzo is the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, entrance on via del Plebiscito (8.30am-7.30pm Tues-Sun, €4/€2) with a picture gallery, a collection of porcelain, and a collection of ancient, medieval and Renaissance carvings in the Lapidarium.
Dominating the piazza, is the incongruous white hulk of the Altare della Patria was inaugurated in 1911, and is often flippantly referred to as the Wedding Cake, for its tiered appearance, and rather fussy decoration. Built to commemorate the Unification of Italy, it houses the tomb of the unknown soldier, the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento (9.30am-6pm Tues-Sun, free) which documents the struggle for the 19th century Unification of Italy, a space for temporary art exhibitions (entrance by the Forum of Julius Caesar), and a glass lift inaugurated in 2007 (every day 9.30am-7.30pm, Fri and Sat in the summer open until 11.30pm, €7) which whisks you up to the top of the monument where you can enjoy fabulous views across the city centre, and beyond.
To the right of the Altare della Patria, a shallow flight of steps (not the really steep one) leads up to the Piazza del Campidoglio. Once the site of the most important temple of the Roman world, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, it owes its current form to 16th century designs by Michelangelo. He modified and incorporated existing medieval structures into this harmonious piazza. The central building with the bell tower is the Palazzo dei Senatori, now home to Rome's City Hall. The flanking Palazzo dei Conservatori, on the right, and Palazzo Nuovo, on the left, are home to the world's oldest public museum, first opened in 1471. Michelangelo's designs for the piazza also saw the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius moved from the Lateran palace (where it had survived the Middle Ages because it was believed to represent Constantine. Given that Constantine was considered to be the first Christian Emperor, the statue had a lucky escape, and was not melted down to make weapons). The statue which we now see in the centre of the piazza is a replica, made in the 1990s, when the original was moved inside the museum.
Capitoline Museums, Piazza del Campidoglio. (9am-8pm Tues-Sun, €7.50/€5.50; a supplement may be added to the ticket price when a temporary exhibition is showing). As well as the original statue of Marcus Aurelius, the vast archaeological collection of the Capitoline Museums contains the famous sculpture of the she-wolf which is the symbol of the city. The statue was long believed to be an Etruscan piece dating to about 500BC, although recent studies have suggested that it might in fact be a medieval piece. The discussion is still open, although there is no doubt that the suckling children, representing Romulus and Remus, were added in the 15th century. The Palazzo dei Conservatori (where you enter the museum) is connected to the Palazzo Nuovo (on the other side of the piazza) by a basement passageway with a collection of tombstones, and other inscriptions. From this passage take a brief detour to the Tabularium (the Roman archive building of the 1st BC, on which the Palazzo dei Senatori is built). From here you can admire one of the finest views across the Roman Forum towards the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. As well as a wealth of antique sculpture, the Capitoline Museums also has a picture gallery with works by Caravaggio, Veronese, and Titian, and a nice café with a great view.
If that's whetted your appetite for more ruins and ancient stuff here are some other ideas...
Baths of Caracalla, via delle Terme di Caracalla. (Metro Circo Massimo) (Tues-Sun, €6/€3. Ticket includes entrance to the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, and the Villa of the Quintili within a 7 day period). The second largest bath complex of the Roman world was built by the fearsome Emperor Caracalla in the early 3rd century (the largest was the Baths of Diocletian, most of which now lies beneath Termini station, Piazza del Cinquecento, and Piazza della Repubblica ). Centuries of pillaging have denuded it of the coloured marbles and glass mosaics which once ornamented the vast halls, but what's left gives an idea of the majesty of the structure, and how the bath complex, central to the social and business life of the Empire, worked. The imposing ruins were Shelley's inspiration for his poem, Prometheus Unbound.
The ticket is valid for three days, and as well as the Baths, allows one entrance to the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, via Appia Antica (metro to Colli Albani, then bus 660), a picturesque reminder of the vast numbers of elaborate tombs which once lined the Appian Way, and to the Villa of the Quintili, via Appia Nuova (metro to Colli Albani, then bus 664). The finest country house near Rome in the mid 2nd century, it was coveted by the Emperor Commodus (of "Gladiator" fame) who had the unfortunate Quintili brothers put to death on trumped up charges of treason so that he could claim it for himself.
Appian Way, via Appia Antica (metro to Colli Albani, then bus 660). The first section of the road which bears the name of the consul who commissioned it, Marcus Appius Claudius, was laid out in 312 BC. The first of the consular arteries to be built, it was known as the "Queen of Roads" and was subsequently extended to run 365 miles to the south-eastern port of Brindisi. It remained a fundamental part of Rome's infrastructure long after the collapse of the Empire, almost 800 years after Marcus Appius Claudius had thought a straight road would be a good idea. The urban section of the Appian Way was created as a Regional Park in 1985, and offers a calm and green oasis a stone's throw from the city centre. The sections of the Appian Way which escaped the post-war enthusiasm for reinforced concrete offer a view of what's left of the Campagna Romana, the ‘Roman Countryside' so beloved of the Grand Tourists. Take the bus 660 from Metro Colli Albani to Cecilia Metella and walk south along the road to reach a section of the road lined with pine trees and the ruins of the funerary monuments which once crowded the area, and paved with the original blocks stones which bear the grooves of centuries of wagon wheels. Alternatively take Enjoy Rome's Catacombs and Roman Countryside Tour and follow in the steps of Roman legionnaires along the Appian Way, taking in the catacombs, and the Aqueduct Park too. And all from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus; bliss!
Aqueduct Park, (viale Appio Claudio, Metro Giulio Agricola, then 10 min walk along viale Appio Claudio, free). "So the Romans built these vast bath complexes, but where did the water come from?" we hear you cry. One of the great triumphs of Roman engineering were the aqueducts, the first one was laid out in 312 BC during the consulship of Marcus Appius Claudius, he of the Appian Way, a chap full of bright ideas. Over the next 600 years they really got the hang of bringing water from the natural springs riddling the volcanic hills around the city. At the Aqueduct Park, in a residential area in the suburbs of the city, fragments of aqueducts include the best preserved section of aqueduct in the city, part of the double-decker Aqua Claudia/Anio Novo, its vast arches marching across the landscape. Built between 38 and 52 AD, this was the largest of the Roman aqueducts and is a splendid sight to behold.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Largo di Villa Peretti (Metro Termini/Repubblica), (9am-7pm Tues-Sun, €7, includes entrance to the other sites of the National Roman Museum; Cripta Balbi, Museum of the Baths of Diocletian, Palazzo Altemps within a three-day period). Light and airy Palazzo Massimo is beautifully laid out, well-labeled, and usually empty. It also has some of the most spectacular works of Roman art you'll see while you're in town. Highlights on the ground floor include two extraordinary Greek bronzes from the 3rd BC; a warrior and a boxer. The ground and first floors have a number of portrait statues, it's a great place for a crash course in Emperor spotting; you can always recognize an emperor by his haircut. The absolute jewel in the collection is on the top floor, where rooms have been built to house frescoes detached from a couple of Roman residences, the Villa of Augustus' daughter Julia at Trastevere, and the Villa of his wife Livia at Prima Porta. If all those ruins have you left a bit hazy on what things originally really did look like this is for you. The recreated frescoed summer dining room of Livia, painted with an imaginary garden which 2000 years on looks like it was done yesterday, is breathtakingly beautiful. If coins are your thing, you'll be in your element in the numismatic museum in the basement.
Museo delle Terme di Diocleziano, Piazza del Cinquecento (Metro: Termini/Repubblica), (9am-7pm Tues-Sun, €7, includes entrance to the other sites of the National Roman Museum; Cripta Balbi, Museum of the Baths of Diocletian, Palazzo Altemps within a three-day period). Directly opposite Palazzo Massimo, and included on the same ticket, the Museum at the Baths of Diocletian documents the early history of the peoples of Latium. Prehistoric burial finds, inscriptions of all sorts, and ancient curses are housed in the 16th century former monastery, carved out of the remains of the largest of the Roman Empire's bath complexes.
The church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Piazza della Repubblica (Metro: Repubblica), (8am-7pm every day, free), originally designed by Michaelangelo, but subsequently heavily modified, occupies an adjacent part of the bath complex.