Find the ancients in Rome

Where to find the ancients in Rome: Tunnels, tombs and terrible history

In Art & Architecture, City Breaks, Europe, Travel Inspiration by Donald Strachan

Roman ruins in Rome Italy

Ah, the romance of Rome. Those Spanish Steps and art treasures of Renaissance popes; the kooky cachet of films like Roman Holiday; a stolen kiss on the Ponte Sisto or a moonlit walk on the cobblestones of Trastevere.

But the reason it’s all here in the first place? That stretches a lot further back in time. For a few centuries, Rome was the centre of the Western world. Romans ruled over land from Scotland to Syria, and all the wealth of their Empire paid for the upkeep of one of the finest cities on Earth: Rome.

Thankfully, when it came to building, the Romans knew what they were doing. Much of their glorious ancient city survives.

Donald Strachan does Ancient Rome

Arch of Constantine, Rome, Italy

Republics and Empires: Rome is famed for its Republic, an elite sort-of-democracy, where power rested with a few toga-clad Senators. However, the Senate’s importance dwindled after the fall of the Republic in 27 BC. Most of what you see today dates from the Empire or later. The Colosseum was built during the reign of emperors Vespasian and Titus, around 80 AD. Trajan’s Forum, Column and Markets date to the 2nd century, and the Arch of Constantine was erected in 312 by Rome’s first Christian emperor. One exception is the Pantheon, completed in 27 BC. But even this building, with its record-breaking dome, was extensively altered in the 2nd century AD under Emperor Hadrian (yes, the Wall guy).

Ruins of Stadium Domitanus at the Palatine Hill, Rome, Italy

Take a walk: Context Travel runs some of Rome’s best walks, both above and below ground level. Private guide Agnes Crawford can design detailed itineraries around the Rome of the ancients, including the Forum, Colosseum and imperial palace of the Palatine Hill.

Roman reading: Reams of text have written about the stones of Rome and a little reading ahead of arrival will enhance your stay. David Watkin’s The Roman Forum traces the rise and fall of the ancient city’s heart and busts a few myths in the process. (Spoiler: it’s not all as old as you think).

Top places to find the ancients in Rome

The Coliseum at sunset
San Clemente Rome

San Clemente

Nowhere else in Rome can you so tangibly peel back layer after layer of history. At ground level, San Clemente appears a fairly straightforward 12-century church, with early Renaissance wall paintings by Masolino and medieval mosaics decorating the apse. But there’s more… head downstairs to wander the floorplan of an much older church, built in the 4th century and destroyed in the Norman ransack of 1084. But even this church was built on top of something else: two Roman buildings (you can walk the alleyway between them) and a small temple dedicated to Mithras, subject of a weird cult with mysterious origins in Persia. The entire lower level echoes to the sound of running water, from ancient plumbing that still works.

Stay at Centro Storico, Rome
Caracalla springs ruins view from ground panoramic at Rome Italy

Baths of Caracalla

Amidst tough competition, Emperor Caracalla might just be Rome’s most sadistic emperor. To win the top job, he had his brother Geta murdered in their own mother’s arms. Caracalla also liked a clean citizenry; his public baths complex, completed around 217 AD, is monumental in size, and at its peak served 1,600 bathers at a time. Baths were open to all walks of life (though men and women bathed separately). Uniquely, you can walk through subterranean tunnels here used by workers to keep the waters flowing and each pool heated to just the right temperature.

Trastevere area holiday homes
Catacombs of St. Callixtus

Christian catacombs


Christians who didn’t fancy becoming gladiator fodder or lion food – though the latter is probably a myth –had to worship in secret. One important contrast with official Roman religion was Christian burial, where bodies had to remain intact awaiting resurrection. (Here they were often stashed in niches carved into miles of underground walls.) Rome’s underground catacombs are mostly south of the centre, beside the Appian Way, and were used between the 1st and 5th centuries. You can roam the labyrinthine tunnels on guided walks, including the Catacombs of St. Calixtus (burial site of 3rd-century popes) and of St. Sebastian, named after a soldier martyred during Emperor Diocletian’s enthusiastic persecutions.

Holiday homes close to the Catacombes
Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica

Thousands of visitors every year make an exhausting round trip between Rome and Pompeii, but there’s an intact Roman town just beyond the end of the city’s Metro’s B line. Ostia was the ancient city’s seaport, until it silted up and was surpassed after the 1st century AD. Streets and alleys remain intact, as do the Forum and several temples and the baths and theatre alongside Ostia’s decumanus (“main street”). Arrive early in the day and you’ll probably have Ostia to yourself, aside from a handful of feral cats that live among the stones.

Holiday homes in Ostia Antica
Ancient Rome

The museum trail


Rome’s museums are stuffed with Roman artefacts dug up over the centuries. Best among the less well-known collections is the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Here you can get up close with several imperial notables – their marble portrait busts anyway – including emperors Vespasian, Nerva, Domitian and Hadrian.

Holiday lettings in the Termini area

Donald Strachan is a travel journalist who’s written for National Geographic Traveller and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Check out his latest adventures on his website.

Ancients reanimated in Rome

Context Travel  Understanding Rome

Revive ancient Rome

Unearth a holiday home in the ancient world

Click here

Share this Post

About the Author

Donald Strachan



Donald StrachanWhere to find the ancients in Rome: Tunnels, tombs and terrible history