Rome is so many things. Capital of a modern European country. Seat of one of the world’s largest religions. Amazing food city. But more than anything else perhaps, it is the Rome that was the ancient imperial powerhouse that people think of. Nothing symbolizes both that imperial city and Rome as a whole more than the Colosseum, one of few buildings in the world immediately recognizable to pretty much everybody. And the Colosseum is amazing, so much so that I wrote all about it here.
But to truly experience imperial Rome, one must go beyond the Colosseum. Fortunately, many of the massive building projects of the Roman Empire still exist here in some form, along with countless remnants of other aspects of ancient life. But to see these is daunting; after all, with limited time and budget, how does one prioritize? So let’s take a moments and talk about some of the most popular imperial Roman remains, and some that might be a bit more off the normal tourist path.
The “Big Three”
This is purely my definition, and I’m sure others would disagree, but for me, after one considers the Colosseum, there are three other major building projects of imperial Rome that one might want to think of visiting. Let’s start with the Roman Forum, since if you enter the Colosseum, your admission gets you same-day access here.
The Forum was the commercial center of Rome in imperial times, with much of the daily business of the city happening here. Think of it as Main Street, but of course – in true Roman style – with much more pomp. Major religious temples were along the Forum, highlighted by the Temple of Saturn, some columns of which remain today. Triumphal arches dedicated to the military victories of various emperors are all over the city (more on one in the next section), but a couple are here, as well, so that Romans would pass by regularly.
Almost nothing in the Forum is complete; all that remains is bits and pieces. Over time, some buildings collapsed. Others were disassembled for their materials. Still others were turned into churches, like almost everything in Rome. Signage is decent, but the best part of a Forum visit is just to wander and marvel at the largest remaining segment of imperial Rome.
Second of my Big Three is the Pantheon. This might be my favorite building in all of Rome. Originally built by the emperor Hadrian in 126 CE, the Pantheon is a huge – by any standard, let alone in the day – domed concrete building with an oculus in the center of the dome. It is remarkably well preserved, due mainly to its being in constant use, as it is one of the buildings turned into a church. The original pagan use of the building has long since been removed or covered over, and one is left with Catholic altars, burial places of the first two Italian kings (read more about Italian unification and the monarchy here), and the remains of Raphael. Entry has a fee as of 2023, a small €5, but lines can back up both for ticket purchase and entry, so be prepared.
Finally, Castel Sant’Angelo, which dominates the riverfront between the old city and the Vatican. It is thought of mainly as a papal fortress, as this is where the pope would take refuge when things got a bit rough in Rome (or the city was sacked). In fact, Castel Sant’Angelo dates to much earlier. Originally built as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, this building held the cremated remains of emperors from Hadrian on through much of the pre-Christian empire. Only later did it become a castle, papal residence, and prison. As with the Pantheon, it is so well kept up due to constant usage. The view from the top is one of the best of the Vatican, and is an added bonus to admission.
Arches and Columns
There are a ton of arches and columns all over the city, remnants of any number of Roman imperial buildings. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m speaking specifically of epic columns and triumphal arches, like that in the Forum from Septimus Severus or Titus. So let’s start with the Arch of Constantine, which sits just outside the Colosseum. Built in 315 CE, this is the largest of all the Roman triumphal arches, and is free to access and see! While one of the main friezes depicts Constantine’s victories over Maxentius to claim power, many of the reliefs are of a historic (as in pre-dating Constantine’s life) variety, which makes this arch unique.
Free monuments are all over Rome, but two grand columns (similar in scope to the triumphal arches but in a different shape) tell the stories of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, respectively. In fact, they are called triumphal columns. They are basically the same size (the latter of Marcus Aurelius was modeled on the former, so that isn’t really a shock) at 90 or so feet in height, plus a pedestal and capital, and depict scenes of military victories by the respective emperors. Trajan’s is mainly the campaigns against the Dacians between the years 101 and 106, while that of Marcus Aurelius celebrates victories over some of the tribes across the Danube. Trajan’s Column sits just below the Capitoline Hill, while the Column of Marcus Aurelius is on your way to the Pantheon.
Romans loved their bathhouses, and no Roman city would be complete without several complexes dedicated to this sometimes-daily ritual. (Romans were much cleaner than pretty much anyone in Europe until more modern times.) Rome had a number of bathhouses, and two are worth seeing for different reasons.
First, the Baths of Diocletian, built right around the year 300, is the largest bathing complex in the Roman world. Spanning 32 acres, this was a truly monumental building project. Sadly, little remains, as portions of the complex became all sorts of other buildings, like churches. Remember, Roman building techniques and materials were better than anything the western world would be able to produce for more than a millennium, so repurposing Roman buildings was a commonplace act. Today, portions have been reconstructed, and it is a cool place right near Termini Station to pass an hour.
For a more unique experience at a Roman bath, visit the Baths of Caracalla during July and early August for the Caracalla Festival. Here with the ruins of the bathhouses from the early 200s in the background, I was lucky enough to get tickets to see Rigoletto, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. If you come to Rome in the summer, try to participate in this amazing event. If not, you can still visit the baths, although the collection of terrific statuary from here is on display mainly at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
The best part of experiencing imperial Rome is the chance encounters with something cool. The more you walk around Rome, the more things you will just run across. Some have signs, while many do not (although Google maps does a decent job telling you what things might be). So whether it is random columns that were once a temple, or the gorgeous Teatro di Marcello (which is one of the buildings locals will point out as Not-the-Colosseum), just give into your sense of meandering wanderlust and walk up to any building that might look old and cool. It doesn’t really matter what it is; that is the beauty of Rome.
Imperial Rome is all over, but many tourists see the Colosseum and then move on. That’s a shame, because with monumental building projects, cool triumphal arches and columns, bathhouses, and just random ruins, the glory of Ancient Rome truly lives on in the Eternal City!
Like it? Pin it!