As far back as the first century BC, ancient Romans referred to Rome as the eternal city. For them, what ever happened in the world, how ever many Empires came and went, the city of Rome would go on forever. Later the Victorian novelist Hall Caine used the nickname for what would become his most successful novel, a somewhat predictable romance set in Rome, called The Eternal City published 1901 and adapted for the big screen in 1915, and again in 1923 when it was filmed on location in Rome. And the enduring power of the city continues to this day as one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. The archaeology of those ancient Romans is certainly part of the lure.
Most people on their way to Rome have seen pictures of the Colosseum and have some real appreciation of just how big the amphitheatre still is nearly two thousand years on. I had not fully grasped that the monument is sited in a low point on the cityscape, and kept looking out for it without much success. Heading down Via Cavour, and then turning left into Via Dei Fori Imperiali, there it was quite stunning and much as I expected. Even the Roman Forum was much as I expected. I do not mean that in a disappointment sort of way. These were the ruins I was expecting to see, certainly in the middle of a city the size of Rome, a city that has witnessed significant history over the last 2,000 years. What I was not expecting were the ‘ruins’ of the New Basilica. Approaching the Basilica from the Roman Forum ensures the size of the monument is kept from full view until you are in what would have been the central nave looking at the three arcades that make up the northern aisle (see the photograph above). The coffered, barrel vaults are 25 m high! The sheer size of this monument, and the well preserved semi-domed ceilings some 1,700 years old, genuinely took my breath away.
And this happened to me again and again. After the New Basilica, I wandered over the Palatine Hill towards the hippodrome and the baths of Trajan and Hadrian. These ruins are impressive enough themselves, certainly seeing them on the Palatine Hill. But, the vaulted chambers constructed against the hillside to create the platforms on which these baths and palaces were built (best viewed from Circus Maximus) are quite spectacular. By the time I visited the Baths of Caracalla, several sites later, I had run out of superlatives to describe my surprise at the size of these places. So, despite being very well prepared for the archaeology in Rome – in terms of the number of sites – I really was quite taken by the size of some of these ancient Roman sites.
One of the great things about the archaeology of Rome, besides the size, is how close together most of the principal sites are. It really is not that far to walk directly from the Colosseum to the Baths of Caracella for example, and on the way there are a number of things to see. It goes without saying then that any number of less direct routes between the Colosseum and the baths take you by many more temples, arches and walls. This is certainly a bonus if you enjoy walking and you only have a limited time for the archaeological sites.
Of the archaeological sites in Rome, I would not miss these:
- The Colosseum – definitely worth going in
- The Baths of Caracalla – for the size, if nothing else
- Ostia Antica – a 20 min train ride from the centre of Rome
- The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill (these two can be taken in together)
Besides these and many more archaeological sites, there are also a number of interesting museums and art galleries. The Capitoline Museums for example are a must – advertised as the oldest public collection in the world.
It was an earthquake in 847 AD that is thought to have reduced the New Basilica mentioned above to just the one aisle we see today. Thankfully of all the sites in Rome, it was only the Baths of Caracalla that were damaged as a result of the recent earthquake near l’Aquila in 2009. Not only is the continuing work of archaeologists very evident at many of the major sites – work which can in some cases mean that certain sites or areas within a large site are inaccessible to the public – so too are the extraordinary efforts of archaeo-engineers to make safe these amazing structures that are around 2,000 years old. Rome, it seems, was not only the ‘Eternal City’ for ancient Romans and Caine’s lovers, it is also an eternal archaeological city, and one that will continue to captivate its visitors for many more years to come.
Archaeology Travel Tips for Rome
Three travel tips to consider if you are going to Rome and wish to see as much of the archaeology as possible:
First, get yourself a Roma Pass. These last for three days and not only provide free or discounted entry to over 30 participating archaeological sites, museums, art galleries, and other attractions, but you can also avoid the queues. The pass also allows the holder free use of public transport for during those three days. The Roma Pass also includes transport and entry to Ostia Antica.
Second, to be able to get to grips with the archaeological sites a decent archaeology guidebook is essential, as opposed to one of those generic city guides. Information panels at the various sites vary in quality, quantity and consitency, and are often non-existent. If you are looking for a specific and extensive archaeological guidebook I highly recommend the Oxford Archaeological Guide to Rome by Amanda Claridge (read a review, but the book is available on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.)
Third, check out my list of the top attractions to visit in Rome.
These are just a handful of the photographs I took.