The best introduction to the history, architectural marvels, and landmarks of Ancient Rome is a full day spent on the Palatine Hill and exploring the Roman Forums. Whilst it’s already overwhelming just walking among the gargantuan ruins of an ancient civilization, the archaeological sites are also large, complex, and often it is difficult to identify the buildings of interest! So, I’ve decided to highlight some of the most important bits, with some extra history and mythology snippets tacked on for added interest. I fully recommend a comprehensive guide-book as your faithful sightseeing companion – see the end of this post for my top 3 ancient Rome guide-book choices 🙂
Top sights, in a nutshell:
- Palatine Hill – Domus Tiberiana, Farnese Gardens, Domus Flavia, Domus Augustana, House of Augustus, House of Livia, & Palatine Museums
- Roman Forum – Arch of Septimius Severus, Curia Julia, Temple of Saturn, Temple of Castor & Pollux, Temple of Vesta (and House of the Vestal Virgins), Temple of Antoninus & Faustina, Basilica of Maxentius, Juturna Spring, & the Arch of Titus
- Imperial Fora – Forum of Augustus, Trajan’s Forum, Forum of Nerva, and the Forum of Julius Caesar
The Palatine Hill
Il Palatino, or the Palatine Hill, is a great place to start your exploration of Ancient Rome. The very first settlement of the marshy valley and surrounding hills of Rome began here, and Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome) is said to have lived in a hut on top of the Palatine Hill. A sacred place for thousands of years, the Palatine Hill is the birthplace of Rome as a settlement, and the seat of power of one of the most powerful and inspiring civilizations of all time. The English words “palace” and “palatial” come from the Latin palatium, referring to the Palatine Hill, and its luxurious Imperial residences! It is a place of crucial importance in Rome’s history, and the setting for its founding myth.
Mythological Significance of the Palatine Hill
According to Virgil, in his epic poem The Aeneid, a Trojan soldier by the name of Aeneas fled to Italy after the Trojan war, and was the progenitor of the Roman people – and, most importantly, the ancestor of Romulus and Remus. The twin brothers were born to the daughter of a king – Rhea Silvia – who conceived the twins by the god Mars whilst condemned to serve as a Vestal Virgin by her father’s usurper.
When Romulus and Remus were born, they were abandoned to drown in the river Tiber by the usurping king, but they were miraculously carried to safety by the river, and ended up in a cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill (known as the Lupercal) where a she-wolf kept them alive until they were found by the shepherd Faustulus. Romulus went on to found the city of Rome, living atop the Palatine Hill. A pretty impressive founding myth, and quite fitting for a magical city like Rome!
Practical Touristy Stuff:
Getting in: When buying entrance tickets, you can either:
- Buy the 3-day Roma Pass and use one of the free entries for the Palatine Hill & Roman Forum – shorter lines, BUT you will still join the queue of other Roma Pass holders, so sometimes there is not much of a difference in waiting time.
- Pay for a single or combined ticket (Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, & Colosseum) at the entrance. The combined ticket is valid for 2 days, so you can do the Palatine Hill & Roman Forum on one day, and the Colosseum on the next day.
The entrance to the Palatine is on Via di San Gregorio – it’s also a useful entrance to use when the main Roman Forum entrance has exceptionally long queues!
Palatine Hill Highlights:
Domus Tiberiana (Tiberian Palace)
Every archaeological site in Rome is a strange collage of times and styles. The Domus Tiberiana is a great example of this – initially built by emperor Tiberius as his residential palace, the building was destroyed by fire, entirely rebuilt by his successors, and reconstructed greatly by Caligula and Domitian. Most of the palatial villa is only visible from the Roman Forum, but you can get fantastic views of Rome and the Forum from the top of the Palatine Hill when you visit the viewing platform on top of the remains of the Domus Tiberiana.
These delightful gardens were laid out on top of the ruins of the Domus Tiberiana in the 6th century, for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Paul III. They were intended as a symbol of the family’s wealth, and as a beautification of the formerly neglected Palatine Hill. In winter the oranges are out, and the garden smells like fragrant citrus fruits! These pleasure gardens are a surprising change from the ancient Roman ruins, and a great place to stop for a breather in-between intense touristing.
Domus Flavia (Flavian Palace)
Domitian had a truly enormous imperial palace constructed during his reign, which consisted of two distinct buildings – the Domus Flavia, which was mainly used for state business, and the Domus Augustana, which was a residential building. It must have dazzled foreign visitors in former times – its impressive size and complex architecture are all that remains, but these ruins of ruins are still indicators of how spectacular it must have been in 92 AD, when it was brand new and glorious.
The Domus Augustana gives good insight into private life in the lap of luxury atop the Palatine Hill. The Stadium is especially interesting, with its elliptical track (most likely for exercising horses), lavish gardens, fountains, and sculptures that must have made it a gorgeous, tranquil pleasure garden for the enjoyment of the palace inhabitants.
House of Augustus & House of Livia
Sadly we were unable to visit the House of Augustus and House of Livia (I think they were under restoration, it was off-season when we visited, after all), but I would highly recommend taking the time to see the frescoes! It’s on my bucket list for my next visit. Augustus was exceptional as an emperor in that he lived in a house, instead of an expensive, grand imperial palace, and would receive visitors in his own private residence.
Well worth a quick visit! There is a wealth of information on the first, ancient settlement of the Palatine Hill, a model with a short video of how the prehistoric Romans used to live, and a collection of marble sculptures that were found in the ruins.
The Church of San Bonaventura al Palatino
This little gem is quite easy to stumble upon when you’re trying to find the entrance to the Roman Forum. After walking up the hill past the Arch of Titus (on the Via Sacra), you’ll eventually reach the small Franciscan church at the top of the Palatine Hill. It looks quite humble, both on the outside and inside, but the real treasures lie in the back courtyard. If you’re lucky, you can join a short, free tour of the monastery and the “secret garden” out back. The view from the garden unfolds out towards the Colosseum, and the peace and quiet is simply beautiful. The guide only asks for donations, and it’s 20 minutes and a few Euros well spent!
- San Bonaventura (Saint Bonaventure) is well known, and loved, for saving the Colosseum from total destruction in the 17th century. He put a stop to looting and the dismantling of the structure by declaring it a holy site for martyred Christians, whom he claimed were brutally murdered in the arena. You can still see a cross in the Colosseum today, which stands as a symbol for the martyrs. Although there is no hard evidence that any Christians were executed in the Colosseum, his claim saved the amphitheatre from ruin!
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum is one of the most spectacular places I have ever had the fortune of visiting. Although the excavation site is surrounded on all sides by “modern” Rome, it feels totally different once you are walking down among the ruins. Ancient Rome seems to suck you in, and among the crumbling but still-proud buildings, it’s more intimate, and more magical, than you ever imagined. There are SO MANY things to see, and I highly recommend a good guidebook!
History Snippet – The Forum: The Meeting Place of ancient Rome
The “forum” of an ancient Roman city refers to the plaza, or public “meeting place” where the citizens would go to purchase goods at the marketplaces, meet for business, listen to public speakers, and to visit the temples. The Roman Forum in the city of Rome (Forum Magnum) was originally marshland, which was drained in the 7th century BC with the digging of the massive covered sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima. The valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills was paved and used as a public space long before the Roman Republic or Empire was founded.
By the time of the Roman Empire, the main forum wasn’t big enough for the needs of the rapidly booming population, and so a series of smaller fora were constructed by Julius Caesar and his successors. These are collectively known as the Imperial Fora – the Augustan Forum, Julius Caesar’s Forum, and Trajan’s Forum. You can access Trajan’s Markets (part of his forum) in a separate archaeological site, not far from the Roman Forum.
Roman Forum Highlights
Arch of Septimius Severus
The arch of Septimius Severus is a grand triumphal arch erected by the Emperor Septimius Severus, in AD 203, to celebrate his victories against the Parthians. There’s nothing quite like a gigantic victory monument to leave your mark on the world! If you look carefully you can see winged victories carved in relief above the arches.
The Curia Julia was the Senate House in the ancient Roman Forum. The current building was planned by Julius Caesar, and it was rebuilt according to his specifications by his successor, Augustus, after his assassination. Many history-altering decisions were made in this seemingly nondescript brick building! Sadly, you cannot go inside the building, and at the time we visited (February 2016), the area surrounding it was under renovation so it too was closed.
Temple of Saturn
The Temple of Saturn was built by the final king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, and was rebuilt and restored throughout history. The Roman god Saturn has many associations, including generation, wealth, renewal, and, most importantly, time. The Temple of Saturn also housed the state treasury, and the Saturnalia, or Festival of Saturn, was celebrated every December. Our English word “Saturday” is literally “Saturn’s Day”!
Temple of Castor & Pollux, and the Juturna Spring
The Temple of Castor and Pollux is a sacred site for the cult of the Dioscuri, the sons of Jupiter and Leda. It is said that two horsemen (the brothers, Castor and Pollux) led the Romans to victory against the Latins (499 BC), and returned to announce their victory to the city of Rome. They were seen watering their horses at the Juturna Spring (above), and then they mysteriously vanished. The water at the Juturna Spring was said to have healing properties, and was once part of a shrine dedicated to the water nymph Juturna.
Temple of Vesta
The Roman virgin goddess Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, home, and family. Her temples were always circular in form, with a fire pit in the centre for the Sacred Fire of Vesta, and a hole in the roof to let smoke escape. The Vestal Virgins were tasked with keeping the fire burning, eternally – it was believed that if the fire were to go out, it would spell disaster for Rome.
House of the Vestal Virgins
The Priestesses of Vesta lived in the House of the Vestal Virgins, next to the Temple of Vesta, attending the eternal flame. They entered into priestesshood before puberty – usually between 6 and 10 years of age – and swore to remain celibate for 30 years. When it came time to retire, they would be given a pension, and were then allowed to marry. The Vestal Virgins faced extreme punishments for allowing the sacred fire to go out, or for breaking their vow of celibacy. A failure in their duties would earn them a flogging, and sexual transgressions were punishable by execution by being buried alive.
Temple of Antoninus & Faustina
This temple was dedicated by emperor Antoninus Pius to his deceased (and deified) wife, Faustina. When Antoninus was himself deified after his death, the temple was dedicated to the both of them. The temple was converted into a Roman Catholic church, which accounts for the curious form that it has today. The high platform and colonnaded portico are characteristic of ancient Roman architecture.
Basilica of Maxentius
The Basilica of Maxentius is one of the most spectacular buildings in the Roman Forum. Its almost supernatural size, awe-inspiring architecture, and decorated ceilings make it a wonder to behold. The huge basilica (large covered public building) was begun by Maxentius, but completed by emperor Constantine I. Considering that only the north aisle of the basilica survives, it is a truly staggering feat of architecture.
Arch of Titus
This triumphal arch was erected by emperor Domitian to commemorate the victories of his recently deceased brother, Titus – including the Siege of Jerusalem (70 AD). The Arch of Titus was the inspiration for subsequent victory arches, including the Arch of Constantine, and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The imperial fora were constructed to extend the main forum, as there was simply not enough space, and therefore inadequate public buildings to serve the growing population of Rome. Each of the remaining imperial forums was created under the orders of an emperor.
Trajan’s Forum was the last imperial forum to be constructed in Rome. Trajan was exceedingly rich after his conquest of Dacia (modern day Romania), and used the spoils of war to construct a dazzling new forum in his name. The distinctive semi-circular markets are a defining feature, as well as Trajan’s column, which narrates his victory over the Dacians in a beautiful relief carving that wraps around the column. In Trajan’s day, the column was flanked by two libraries – one for Greek literature, and one for Latin literature. You can visit the Trajan Markets at a separate archaeological site near Trajan’s Coloumn.
The Forum of Julius Caesar
The Forum of Julius Caesar is home to the Temple of Venus Genetrix, the Roman goddess of motherhood and domesticity. Julius Caesar had a special connection to Venus Genetrix, as she was the mother of Aeneas, the mythical ancestress of the Julian family. By venerating the goddess, Caesar sought to further prove his legitimacy as dictator. Not much remains of the forum, but it’s worth a quick look.
Forum of Augustus
The forum of Augustus was built by the emperor, and contained the massive Temple of Mars Ultor, the god of war. It was to built to commemorate the victory over the assassins of Julius Caesar at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE.
Forum of Nerva
The fourth, smallest, and next to last of the imperial fora to be built, the Forum of Nerva was started by the emperor Domitian but finished by his successor, Nerva (hence the name). The “forum” of Vespasian was the third imperial forum, and it had the Temple of Peace as its focus. Since there is no evidence that it was used for political means, it is usually simply referred to as a temple.
There is, of course, a LOT more to see at all of these excavation sites, so I’d highly recommend having a brief flick through a guide book before your trip, and marking off a few buildings you’d like to prioritize seeing. It took me 4 visits to finally get a good understanding of the structure and function of the Colosseum valley and the hills of Rome, so don’t despair if it seems like too much to take in at once! Even a brief stroll through the ruins is magical.
Got questions? Pop them in the comments section below!
Views of the Roman Forum
All photos are my own 🙂 Carmen Anderson, 2016
Recommended guide books:
Roman Forum, Palatine, & Colosseum Guide (sold at the Palatine Hill book store, €10, edited by Claudia Costantino)
Blue Guide Rome (Kindle Edition, 2015), Alta Macadam
The Architecture of Ancient Rome, Nigel Rodgers