6 Historical Sites In Rome You Must See To Believe
Rome is one of the best cities in the world for anybody interested in history and culture. Italy’s capital is full of buildings and sites that have a lot of history to tell. It will come as no surprise that Italy is the country with the most World Heritage Sites, with many of them being in Rome. Are you interested in the Rome that was the centre of the Roman Empire? Or perhaps you love the Medieval Period when Rome flourished as the heart of the European Christian world? And what about the modern Italy? There really is something for everybody who has a thing for history! Here a list of the best historical sites in Rome and their historical significance!
Pantheons can be found all over the world. This is because the Greek word ‘pantheon’ literally means ‘a temple of all gods’. It can be an overview of a culture’s gods and goddesses. Pantheons have been part of Greek, Islamic, Celtic, Chinese and numerous other culture’s traditions. In the Roman Empire, it was mostly referred to as a temple or sacred building that was dedicated to all sorts of deities. This was necessary because the Roman Empire was (geographically speaking) immense and therefore included many cultures and traditions.
The original Pantheon was lost in a fire, but it was quickly rebuilt in the 2nd century under Emperor Hadrian. This is when the building got its round shape. After the fall of the Roman Empire, many non-Christian buildings were completely demolished. But not the Pantheon. It had been donated to Pope Boniface IV in the early 7th century and he turned the building into a church, which pretty much saved it from destruction. That does not mean, however, that the building is still in its original state. Over the centuries, most of the marble and bronze that once decorated the walls has been taken off. The bronze was melted down in the 16th century and was used for new statues in Saint Peter’s Church. This ‘lending’ of material for new purposes was common throughout history.
A really interesting thing about the Pantheon is the way is was built. The impressive dome is 43-metres wide and also 43-metres high. This means the dome is a perfect half sphere. Comparing it to other historical domes, it is substantially larger than anything built before. More specifically, it still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. It is mind-blowing to think about how the Romans could make such a building in the 2nd century, with a dome that is only supported by itself. Think on this when you stand in the middle of the building, looking up at the ceiling, where you will see oculus – the opening to the sky.
The Colosseum is probably Rome’s most iconic ancient building. Built in the 1st century, it is the largest amphitheatre ever built. It was uncommon to built amphitheatres in the middle of the city, but Roman Emperor Vespasian decided to give the space back to the people. In the decades before, Emperor Nero had taken the area pretty much to himself after the Great Fire of Rome had burned the region down in the year 64 CE.
Now, with slaves doing most of the work, the great amphitheatre was erected in the heart of the city. It is estimated that the theatre could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 people, divided between the three levels. Underneath the stage, a section with tunnels and cages was built – the latter of which was used to keep wild animals, which were frequently part of the spectacle. The Colosseum was used for animal hunting, executions, drama, gladiator fights and even mock sea battles! Some of the executions involved Christians and therefore the Colosseum also plays a part in the history of the Catholic Church. Sadly, over the years, the stadium was damaged by earthquakes and storms. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it ceased to be used for entertainment. Instead, it was used as a market, a Christian shrine, a fortress and as a quarry for other buildings.
Yet still, the Colosseum is an incredible building. Make sure you buy the ticket to see the inside because it is overwhelming, and also, the ticket grants you access to the nearby Forum Romanum as well!
Baths of Diocletian
Throughout the city of Rome, you can find several thermae, which is Greek for ‘bathing facilities’. In the Antiquity, bathing was a common ritual available for everybody; whether you were part of the elite or the common people. Obviously, Emperors had their own private bath-houses. Most Roman cities have baths and they played an important role in socializing and politics. You could compare them to today’s community centres, but with a thermal spa and gym added to them. People invited their friends over and threw dinner parties here. The baths were supplied with water that came from a nearby lake or river through aqueducts, heated by water boilers. These bath complexes always had a double set of baths, for men and women. They also had dressing rooms, massage rooms and exercise grounds.
The Baths of Diocletian complex – built by Emperor Diocletian built in the 3rd century – is a great site you can visti to get to know Ancient Rome’s bath culture. This is an incredibly big complex with many rooms and pools. It was thought that over 3,000 people could bath here at the same time. Like most bath complexes, the baths of Emperor Diocletian have a hot-water pool, a warm-water pool and a cold-water pool. The building is cleverly built in a south-west orientation, so the hot water areas would be warmed by the sun and the cold water area would remain cool in the shade. The walls most likely depicted aquatic scenes, through mosaics and frescos. Around the building, there were gardens and running tracks. The Romans would bath multiple times a week and combined this with massage and exercise.
Like many other ancient buildings, the fall of the Roman Empire took its toll on the Baths of Diocletian. When you walk through this building now, you can see how the ceilings have collapsed over time and how the main room had different roles as a palace, church and – at present – part of a fantastic museum. Like I mentioned earlier, baths were built in almost every Roman city. So, whether you live in the UK, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Hungary, the Netherlands, or Austria, there is most likely a Roman bath excavation in your area you can visit.
The Vatican is probably one of the best known areas in Rome. In the early history of Rome, the word ‘Vatican’ simple referred to the west bank of the river Tiber. Following many centuries of conflict and different roles for the popes of Rome, it was in the Renaissance that popes began to exercise real political power, as well as spiritual power. City states were common in this era in the Italian peninsula and slowly the Vatican also developed into a small city state – as a rare example of a non-hereditary monarchy – ruled by popes who actively intervened in European politics. Sometimes, this led to conflicts between kings and popes, which is where the Swiss Guard comes into the Vatican’s story.
In the early 16th century the Vatican Museums as we know them today started to come into being. It was Pope Sixtus IV who presented himself as a big patron of arts as he initiated creation of the Vatican Archives and sponsored the building of the Sistine Chapel. He brought together many Early Renaissance artists to work in Rome and build the image of the papacy and the Vatican. The Catholic church was rich and attempted to combat growing Protestantism by showing the glory of God through gold, gems and paintings. Pope Sixtus and his successors added many incredibly famous works to the archives, the library and the museums. It would take centuries for the museums to get where they are today, but it is absolutely worth a couple hours of your time. During your visit you can lay your eyes upon well known statues from the Greek and Roman antiquity, the breathtaking Sistine Chapel and even the Pope Mobile!
Another famous building in this small city state is Saint Peter’s Basilica. Mind you, this is not a cathedral! Cathedrals are churches where a bishop resides and a basilica is simply a very important church. The Saint Peter’s Basilica we know today is not the first church that was built on this site. The Old Saint Peter’s church was built in the 4th century, during the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. He is still a very important figure in the Christian faith because it was he who ended Christian persecutions in 313 AD and laid the foundations for the Christian phase of the Roman Empire. The church was built over the place where the apostle Saint Peter had been buried, who was crucified in 64 AD. Sadly, when the Roman Empire was losing its power, the place was sacked and ruined. It wasn’t until the 16th century that another Renaissance church father Pope Julius II, nephew of the earlier mentioned Sixtus IV, decided to rebuild the basilica. It took over a century to complete the building, which was worked on by Rafaël, Michelangelo and Bernini. Many popes were buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica, so that even after their death, their bodies would be close to the grave of Saint Peter himself.
Even today, the Vatican is writing history. In 2013, Pope Francis was elected because Pope Benedict XVI abdicated. This was quite a special event since it has happened only twice before in history that a pope has resigned. Pope Frances is also the first Jesuit pope AND the first pope from the Americas.
Altare della Patria
This altar, dubbed ‘Altar of the Fatherland’ in Italian tells us the story of modern Italy. Located between the Piazza Venezia and the Capitoline Hill, this building honours Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of modern Italy. He was crowned king in 1861, when all the Italian cities and regions were in the process of the ‘Risorgimento’, meaning ‘resurgence’. King Victor Emmanuel II ruled a united Italy – the first of its kind since the 6th century – and would until his death in 1878. This monument, which houses the Museum of Italian Unification, was built in the decades after his death. It is 70-metres high and over 130-metres wide! On top of the building there are various statues, representing Italy’s past. On the left and right you will spot statues of Roman goddess Victoria on a chariot. Other statues represent unity (Unità) and freedom (Libertà). The two fountains – on the left and the right side of the monument – represent the Adriatic Sea and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
For the construction of the Altare della Partia, an entire medieval neighbourhood had to be destroyed, which caused quite a stir in the Italian capital. The monument is clearly not popular with everybody. Many Romans claim that the incredibly bright white marble does not match with the rest of Rome’s buildings. It has now several nicknames, such as ‘la dentiera’(the set of false teeth) and ‘la torta nuziale’ (the wedding cake).
The Queen of the Long Roads
The Appian Way is a road. Yet, it is not just any road. The Via Appia was one of the earliest roads of the Roman Empire! It is named after an important Roman, Appius Claudius Caesus, who initated the project for military purposes in 312 BCE. On hard roads, it was much easier to transport goods and troops. Rome had expanded its road network throughout the Italian peninsula and later all over the Roman Empire, which at its height contained every region around the Mediterranean Sea. Soldiers from one side of the Empire would find themselves stationed in remote areas of the Roman Empire, often very far from home. This is extraordinary because most people in this period of history hardly ever travelled.
The Roman roads were a success. Along the Appian Way you can find a lot of Roman history. In the year 71 CE, rebels and slaves from Spartacus’ army who had been captured by the Romans were crucified along the 200km Via Appia. There are also many temples, tombs and catacombs. Another exciting thing to see here is the ruined Circus of Maxentius. It is one of the best-preserved circuses in the region, yet it was used only once during the inauguration. You can visit this circus and still see the running tracks, watch towers and starting blocks.
Roman roads can still be found all around the Mediterranean Sea. I have personally seen Roman roads in Italy, Great Britain, Morocco and even Jordan. It really gives insight in how incredibly big this empire was and how far Roman influence stretched. It is mind-blowing to realize that all these regions once belonged to a single empire.
If you are interested in history, start in this fantastic city because in the end all roads lead to Rome!