Must See Archaeological Sites and Ancient Ruins in Rome Italy
Updated: Jul 4
view of Rome from Castle Sant'Angelo
Here's my guide to the must see ancient ruins and archaeological sites in Rome Italy.
Rome is a magnificent and chaotic tangle of ancient sites. As you stroll through the city, you're transported to yesteryear, right and left. It's overwhelming. If you listen closely, you can hear Julius Caesar and his ilk speechifying, promenading, and leading victory parades through the Roman Forum.
2,000 years ago, Rome was synonymous with "civilization." You were either civilized or you were a barbarian to be defeated. To attest to their then-civilized nature, ancient Romans left a raft of fascinating ancient buildings, temples, forums, and sculptures.
Some are hulking ruins. Others are well preserved and offer a secret peak into Rome's tumultuous past and controversial rulers. Let's take a tour of the most interesting ruins in Rome that should be on your Italy bucket list. I've included links so that you can tour them virtually online from home.
the Octagonal Room of Domus Aurea with its niches and oculus
The Best Ruins and Archeological Sites in Rome Italy
1. Domus Aurea: Nero's Underground Golden House
Nero's Golden House was once the grandest building on earth. It's not your typical Roman tourist site, and is an overlooked hidden gem in Rome. Domus Aurea is an excavation in progress, one of Rome's best archaeological sites.
Built by Emperor Nero between 64-68 AD in the heart of imperial Rome, the sprawling property covered up to 300 acres. The facade and walls were adorned with frescos, gold leaf, glass mosaics, pearls, and marble. In natural light, it had a golden hue.
But little of this wealth survived Nero's rule. As Nero's extravagance and tyranny spun out of control, rivals condemned both his reign and his emblematic palace. For a decade after his death, the palace was looted, destroyed, and filled in with brick. But the vivid frescos by the artist Famulus couldn't be pried off the walls.
At the end of the 15th century, the Domus Aurea was discovered by accident when a young man fell into a crevice. To his surprise, he found himself surrounded by paintings. At first, the palace ruins were thought to be caves or grottos. Artists like Michelangelo and Raphael flocked to see the ancient frescos.
In the 18th century, proper excavation of the Golden House began. Now, you can visit (with a hard hat) on the weekends. The crown jewel is the Octagonal Room, which represented a revolution in architectural style and technique. Here's my compete guide to Domus Aurea.
Thanks to YouTube, you can also take a virtual tourof the ruins of Domus Aurea, still an excavation in progress, and see how it would've looked looked almost 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome.
marble floors from Nero's Domus Transitoria
2.Domus Transitoria, Nero's First Palace
Before there was Domus Aurea, there was Domus Transitoria. Nero's first palace was built between 60 and 64 BC. The palace had a short life. It was destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 BC.
Like Domus Aurea, Domus Transitoria was a massive and lavishly decorated palace, connecting the Palatine Hill and Esquiline Hill. It was dubbed the Transit House. According to Seutonius, Domus Transitoria was characterized by all the pomp, gold, and luxury one typically associates with grandiose Neronian architecture.
Domus Transitoria was just opened in April 2019. You can only visit it with a S.U.P.E.R pass. You enter anddescend a staircase to inspect the site underground.
Virtual reality headsets bring the dank place to life, allowing visitors to see vignettes of the palace in its former glory. You can take this YouTube virtual tour to see the ruins and a glimpse of what the palace looked like in ancient Rome.
the Pantheon and the Fountain of the Pantheon with an Egyptian obelisk
3. Pantheon: Rome's Most Perfect "Ruin"
Without a doubt, the Pantheon is the best preserved building from ancient Rome. You'd don't have to wrinkle your brow or struggle to conceptualize anything, as with many ruins. It's all before you.
The Pantheon was a temple dedicated to all of the gods. It was originally built by Augustus' right hand man, Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC. The pediment still proclaims that "Marcus Agrippa, three times consul made this." But Agrippa's version was destroyed by fire.
In 120 AD, the Pantheon was rebuilt by Hadrian. The well traveled emperor, a true Grecophile, reimagined it as an oversized Greek temple -- with 40 foot tall Corinthian granite columns from Egypt, a pediment, and portico. It was considered a masterpiece of engineering and mathematical precision.
dome of the Pantheon
The Pantheon's most emblematic feature is its perfect unsupported spherical dome. At the time, it was a major architectural breakthrough. The dome became the model for Michelangelo's dome for St. Peter's Basilica and for Brunelleschi's dome for Florence Cathedral.
The dome is made of lightweight concrete, a Roman invention. The concrete gets increasingly thinner as the height of the dome increased. The coffered ceiling also reduced the weight without compromising the dome's structural integrity. At the top is the oculus, or eye, which is the Pantheon's only source of natural light.
After the fall of Rome, the Pantheon became a Christian church, which helped save it from looting at first. But eventually the interior, marble, and gold were all looted in the 7th century, although the marble floor is recreated. The Pantheon is filled with tombs of important Romans, including the artist Raphael.
You can take a 360 tour of the Pantheon here. And here's a fantastic video from Smarthistory with shots of the Pantheon and an explanation of its importance.
ruins of the Baths of Diocletian
4. Baths of Diocletian: Largest Baths in Ancient Rome
Rome took its baths seriously. They were places to swim, bathe, and socialize. The Baths of Diocletian were built by Emperor Maximian to honor his co-Emperor Diocletian. Constructed between 298-306, the Baths of Diocletian were Rome's largest bath complex. They were meant to surpass the Baths of Caracalla and could accommodate 3,000 citizens.
Ironically, Diocletian never saw the baths. Diocletian was a colorful man with a big ego, who thought he was a living god. Having successfully divided the empire to make it easier to manage, he governed in the east or camped out in his swishy palace in Split Croatia.
The baths were built using the typical bath design of Roman times -- with a frigidarium (cold), tepidarium (warm) and caldarium (hot), large bathing chambers, and gymnasiums. There were smaller rooms for private bathing, changing, and meetings. On the ruins of the frigidarium, Michelangelo was commissioned to build a church, the Basilica of Santa Maria deli Angeli e dei Martiri.
Today, the Baths of Diocletian are part of the National Roman Museum. The baths aren't particularly conveniently located. They're in northeast Rome near the Termini station. The upside is that you can experience ancient ruins without the crowds.
I advise having a guided tour for the Roman Forum. It's vast and there's not much signage. It will be difficult to divine what you're looking at without a guide to decipher the lovely rubble.
The forum is a rectangular valley running from Arch of Titus to the Capitoline Hill. The main road is the Via Sacre.
The forum was the beating heart of Rome, the seat of power, and its central showpiece. It was a grandiose district consisting of white temples, grand basilicas, and vibrant public spaces. The Forum was the scene of political upheavals, funerals, and triumphant parades. Before the Colosseum was built, it even hosted gladiatorial battles.
ruins of the Temple of Julius Caesar
Stroll by the Basilica of Constantine, the Temple and House of the Vestal Virgins, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the Basilica of Constantine, and the 3 columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
You'll also find the ruins of the Temple of Caesar. It was built by Augustus after Caesar's assassination. Inside, in a small apse area, is a mound of stone and dirt covered with coins and flowers. This is the altar holding Caesar's ashes and marks his grave.
the Colosseum with a view of the underground basement, the hypogeum
6. Colosseum: Into the Gladiators' Lair
Formally named the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum has stood in Rome for almost 2,000 years. It's the most instantly recognizable monument from the classical world. Despite the ravages of time, the Colosseum is an incredibly well-preserved piece of Rome’s fascinating history.
Emperor Vespasian began constructing the Colosseum in 72 AD. It was finished by his son Titus in 80 AD. Domitian subsequently added the hypogeum, or basement.
In its glory days, the Colosseum was a vivid white with painted trim and frescoed hallways. There were monumental statues of the Greek and Roman gods in the arches of the middle two stories. The top story had a retractable canvas awning to shade spectators.
The Colosseum hosted the popular "games," a form of ancient theater re-creating far flung lands and mythological themes for the masses. There were many variations. The spectacles pitted men against men, men against beasts, and beasts against beasts. There was a menagerie of beasts -- lions, giraffes, crocodiles, dogs, rhinos, elephants, etc.
The best way to visit the Colosseum, and go behind the scenes, is on an Underground Colosseum Tour. You'll visit parts not accessed by the standard tickets, like the hypogeum and third ring. Here's my complete guide.
Located in the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood of Rome, the Theater of Marcellus is easily overlooked by most tourists. But I walked past it everyday on the way home to my Air Bnb in Trastevere on my last visit. The monument isn't far from the gigantic white Monument of Victor Emanuel. And it looks like a mini-Colosseum.
The Theater of Marcellus is truly ancient. Julius Caesar launched construction and his heir Augustus inaugurated it in 12 BC. It could seat 20,0000. As you walk around it, you'll see both Doric and Ionic columns. There are ruins piled up all around it.
Unfortunately, you can only admire the exterior and walk along the amphitheater edge. In the 4th century BC, the theater started to crumble. Thereafter, it was used as a stone quarry and repurposed, like so much else, for other buildings in Rome. In the summer, there are sometimes concerts outside.
Today, the Theater of Marcellus is a building that's half private and half public. If you look at the photo, you'll see luxury apartments lining the top.
Augustus' Mausoleum, buried under debris, it looked like a hill
8. Augustus' Mausoleum: Family Tomb of Julio-Claudian
Augustus' Mausoleum is the family tomb of Rome's first emperor. As mentioned above, Augustus ruled between 63 BC and 14 AD and was the great nephew and heir of Julius Caesar. His mausoleum was built around 28 BC after the Battle of Actium. It was inspired by the mausoleum of Alexander the Great in Egypt.
The mausoleum was a burial place for Augustus, his wife Livia, and the other Julio-Claudian emperors. Not much has survived from its former grandeur and it's original appearance is unknown. The mausoleum is closed to the public.
Though it was in ruinous condition, a 6.5 million euro restoration began in 2016 and was only recently finished. 50% of the structure is long gone -- pillaged and destroyed. But the renovated monument is due to open to the public in 2020 with a 3D experience, much like Domus Aurea.
Here's a YouTube video of Rome's mayor showing off the restored mausoleum.
ruins of Ostia Antica
9. Ostia Antica: an Alternative to Pompeii
Founded in 4th century BC, Ostia Antica is an ancient harbor town about 40 minutes outside Rome. It's a pretty adorable town too, with warm orange stone buildings. In ancient Rome, Ostia served as a naval base. Later, it became important commercially. This was where food and grain supplies arrived to feed Roman citizens.
There are some impressive preserved ruins. It's similar to Pompeii -- the excavation of an entire ancient city.
You get to wander around the ancient town at will. Along the way, you'll see a necropolis, an amphitheater, ancient temples and gates, the Baths of Neptune, statues, mosaic floors, and the forum. Mosaics were used to inform illiterate Romans about the purpose of a given building -- tavern, baths, brothel, etc.
The Baths of Caracalla were inaugurated by Emperor Caracalla in 216. The massive complex is one of Rome's best preserved ancient sites. Construction began in 206 AD, under the direction of Emperor Septimius Severus. His son, Caracalla, finished it 10 years later, after killing his brothers to seize sole power.
The baths could accommodate 1600 people. The original brick walls are still standing, a towering shell. They were once covered in stucco and marble. But that was long ago carried off by looters.
The sculptures and mosaics from the Baths of Caracalla have been moved to museums. The famous Belvedere Torso is now in the Vatican Museums. The Farnese family pillfered and excavated the baths. The Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules are in Naple's Archaeological Museum. Two fountain shaped bathtubs are now in the Piazza Farnese in Rome.
the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican Museums, formerly in the Baths of Caracalla
The large rooms at each end of the structure were used for exercise. In between was a long pool flanked with changing rooms and decorated with mosaics. You can still see the black and white floor mosaics. To keep cool in the summer, the Romans played games in the pool on tables.
Tourists can even visit the underground tunnels of the bath complex, where slaves kept the baths going. You can also don virtual reality googles.
Every summer since 2014, the Baths of Caracalla are the backdrop for open air opera performances. You can read about it and see shots virtually on Google Arts & Culture. You can also take a 4D tour of the Baths of Caracalla on Rome's Coop Culture website.
ruins of the House of Augustus on Palantine Hill
11. House of Augustus on Palantine Hill: Best Preserved
Frescoes in Rome
The home of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, is located on the most sacred area of the Palatine Hill, next to the Temple of Apollo. Archaeologists believe that there was once a tunnel or passageway connecting the house to the temple.
The House of Augustus was modest by imperial standards, especially given Augustus' enormous wealth. But he didn't want to appear as an over the top tyrant. He slept in the same small bedroom for 40 years and had his family weave his clothes.
The House of Augustus is nonetheless celebrated for its lavish red Pompeian frescoes. They were first unveiled to the public in 2014, the 2,000 year anniversary of Augustus' death, after years of restoration.
The most exquisite frescos are in the Pine Room, the Room of the Masks, and the Room of the Perspective Paintings -- so named for their recurring motifs.
wall frescos in the lower cubiculum of Domus Augustana, with a theatrical inspiration
the painted ceiling of the Ramp Room, designed to look like a coffered ceiling
The western end of the house held the domestic rooms. The eastern end held the public reception rooms. By far the most elegant room is the Emperor’s Study, where Augustus burned the midnight oil. Protected behind glass, the walls are beautifully decorated with stylized winged obelisks, gryphons, and floral elements. The colors are bold -- green, black, green, and yellow.
You can only visit Domus Augustana with a special ticket and a reservation. It's not included in the standard ticket giving you access to Palantine Hill. Access is via small groups of 20 on a 75 minute guided tour, with specific time slots on certain days. There are informative audiovisual and laser displays.
Here's a YouTube video on the House of Augustus and the House of Livia (discussed below). Here's my complete guide to the House of Augustus.
House of Livia, Palantine Hill
12. House of Livia, Palantine Hill
If you book a special ticket to see the House of Augustus, you'll also see the House of Livia. Livia was Augustus' third wife. When Augustus fell in love with the beautiful young woman, they both divorced their respective spouses to marry. Livia's son from her first marriage, Tiberius, became Augustus' heir and the second emperor of Rome.
First excavated in 1839, Livia's House was attributed to her when her honorific name was found stamped on a lead pipe. Built in the first century BC, Livia's house was actually a bit larger and grander than her husband's house.
The best preserved section is the atrium and three adjoining rooms. The central room (the tablinum) was the most richly decorated. Known as the Room of Polyphemus, it had mythological frescos showing Mercury kidnapping the nymph Io.
garden fresco from the House of Livia
In the dining room, there was a stunning garden fresco that made the walls almost disappear. The fresco has flowering trees, blossoms, and flying birds in all varieties of nature. The colors are delicate in faded purple, blue, yellow, and white. The original of this fresco was moved to the Palazzo Massimo all Terme museum. An replica is now in the House of Livia on Palatine Hill.
Here's Smarthistory'svideo about the magnificent garden fresco.
Domitian's Palace on Palantine Hill
13. Domitian's Palace on Palantine Hill
Domitian's Palace was built circa 81 AD. Domitian hired master architect Rabirius to create a massive imperial palace. It was so grand that one poet remarked that it "made Jupiter jealous." It was the residence of Rome's emperors for three centuries.
Unlike previous emperors, Domitian wasn't interested in public architecture. A megalomaniac, he viewed himself as "lord and god" and wanted the public to know it. The palace contained many large spaces, including a basilica, receptions rooms, an audience hall, a stadium, a sunken garden, peristyle courts, and baths.
The part of the palace above the Circus Maximus was added by Emperor Severus. The Circus Maximus was a long oblong course for chariot racing. If the gladiator show at the Colosseum was sold out, the citizens would come here for entertainment.
Inside, the palace was decorated with reflective surfaces, probably white marble or selenium. A paranoid Domitian wanted to be able to spot any potential enemies and see what people were up to. Each public room had apses, where Domitian could sit on a throne and be worshipped.
14. Arch of Constantine: Symbol of Christianity
The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Constantine the Great. It represents a seismic shift in history, when the western world became Christian. Until 312 AD, Rome was a pagan empire. But a small, obscure, and previously persecuted sect was becoming more popular, Christian monotheists.
In 312, Emperor Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky. The next day, he defeated his rival Maxentius, becoming sole emperor. His first task as an agent of change was to legalize christianity.
The Arch of Constantine is on the Via Triumphalis in Rome, between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. It's approximately 21 meters high and 25 meters wide. It's decorated mostly with recycled carvings from other buildings and from different times. Because of this, some art historians have criticized the arch as poor craftsmanship.
But Constantine deliberately wanted reliefs from other great eras. To unscore this point, there are statutes of the great emperors on the arch, putting Constantine in good company. As a usurper himself, it was important to also be a symbol of reverence.
You can take a 360 tour of the Arch of Constantine here.
the inner arch of the Arch of Titus, which marks the entrance to the Roman Forum
15. Arch of Titus
This intricate triumphal arch marks the entry into the Roman Forum. Emperor Domtian built it to celebrate his brother Emperor Titus' destruction of Jerusalem in 71 AD. The reliefs inside feature scenes of the Roman troops sacking Jerusalem, soldiers carrying bodies and taking items from the Temple in Jerusalem, and the first depiction of a menorah.
It was a terrible monument for Jews. In antiquity, Jews refused to walk under the arch because of it subject matter. You would think the monument was anti-Semitic. But at the time, it was just business as usual -- Rome putting down a rebellion, which was more about taxes than religious differences.
the Castle Sant' Angelo near the Vatican, also known as Hadrian's Mausoleum
16. Castle Sant' Angelo: Fortress Museum
Castle Sant' Angelo is also known as Hadrian's Mausoleum. Hadrian built it on the banks of the Tiber River in 139. He also erected the Bridge of Angels, which connected central Rome to his mausoleum. The bridge is now lined with 10 angels, designed by Bernini and commissioned by Pope Clement IX. Each statue holds an object of Christ's passion.
The cylindrical castle was richly decorated. Originally, it was faced with travertine marble, pilasters, and bronze. By the 5th century, the mausoleum was converted into a miltary fortress. It was renamed Castle Sant' Angelo in the 5th century. Legend holds that the Archangel Michael appeared above the castle, sheathed his sword, and magically put an end to the plague.
frescos in Castle Sant' Angelo
"grotesque" frescos in Castle Sant' Angelo, patterned after those found in Nero's Domus Aurea
In the 14th century, Castle Sant' Angelo was turned into a papal residence. A covered corridor connected it to St. Peter's Basilica. Popes fled there during sieges.
In the 15th century, at the direction of the notorious Borgia pope, Alessandro VI, the castle became battle ready. He also installed sumptuous papal apartments decorated with frescos by Pinturicchio, who also decorated the Borgia Rooms in the Vatican Museums.
In 1536, a marble and bronze statue of Archangel Micheal was perched on top. There are gorgeous 360 views of Rome and St. Peter's Basilica from the Terrace of the Angel. The museum also has a bar/coffee shop with splendid views.
You can take a virtual 360 tour of the Castle Sant' Angelo here or check out this BBC documentary on the famous Roman monument.
the Mouth of Truth -- sculpture, drain cover, or fountain decoration?
17. Mouth of Truth: Put Your Hand To the Test
This sculpture is a Pavonazzzo marble mask called la Bocca della Verita, the Mouth of Truth. It has the ambiguous face of an unknown pagan god with an open maw. It's located in the portico of Santa Maria Church.
Legend holds that, in medieval times, the carved mask was a device for determining whether a person was telling the truth. Suspicious people were brought to the sculpture. They took an oath and put their hand inside the gaping mouth while being interrogated.
If the detainee was being truthful, the mouth wouldn't moved and you could keep your hand. If you were lying, the mouth would slam shut and bite off the hand. The legend became famous via Hollywood. In the 1953 film Roman Holiday, the Mouth of Truth was used as a storytelling device.
I'm not sure this sculpture is worth a trip in and of itself. It's been theorized to be a possible drain cover or fountain decoration. And the line for testing your hand can be long.
the ruins of Trajan's Market
18. Trajan's Market: World's First Shopping mall
Trajan's Markets is a large complex of ruins that was part of Trajan's Forum. This forum was the largest and most advanced of six imperial forums in Rome, as befitting Rome's most popular and powerful emperor dubbed the "best leader."
Trajan's Market was built in the 2nd century AD by Trajan's favorite architect, Apollodorus of Damascus. It's affectionately called the world's "first shopping mall." Trajan's Market was a dense complex. It was once 6 stories with 150 shops and offices, set into the side of Quirinal Hill.
The structure is remarkable. It shows that Romans didn't just build with columns and pediments. Powered by concrete, this urban structure was light filled, with windows and atriums.
Now, you can take an amazing virtual tour of Trajan's Market from your couch.
the remains of the Basilica Ulpia and Trajan's Column in the ruins of Trajan's Forum
19. Trajan's Column: War Diary
Trajan's Column was part of Trajan's Forum. It's probably the best preserved victory column in Rome, though it's similar to the column for Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colonna. Built in 113 AD, the column was a tour de force of Roman propaganda art.
The column celebrated Trajan's defeat over the Dacians. It depicts the campaigns he fought against them, the fortifications that were built, the Dacian themselves, and their weaponry. The column consists of 22 layers, one yard each, spiraled around a 125 foot high column. The emperor's ashes were buried in the foundation after his death.
You wouldn't know it, but there's a staircase inside that takes you up to the top. Atop the column, there's a statue of St. Peter. During the Renaissance, it replaced a statue of Trajan.
Here's a great video showing and explaining Trajan's Forum.
20. Catacombs of Priscilla
Dating back almost 2,000 years, the Catacombs of Priscilla are a series of catacombs built by early Christians. Known as the "Queen of the Catacombs" since antiquity, the catacombs house the bones of early popes and many Christian martyrs.
The Catacombs of Priscilla are considered one of Rome's most interesting underground sites, hidden away under Villa Ada Park. After five years of conservation and restoration, the Priscilla Catacombs opened to the public in 2018. Lasers were used to clean the religious frescoes on the walls.
A new function on Google Maps allows you to take a limited tourof the of the vast complex. You can also see the frescos on this Smarthistory video.
ruins of the Maritime Theater in Hadrian's Villa Adriana
21. Hadrian's Villa: an Easy Day Trip From Rome
Built in 118-133 A.D, Hadrian's Villa is an important archeological complex. It's the largest and most spectacular villa of ancient Rome, three times the size of Pompeii. It reflected the power and glory of ancient Rome and one of that world's most important leaders, Emperor Hadrian. And it was designed by Hadrian himself, just like the Pantheon.
Hadrian's Villa is a sprawling luxury palace. It was designed on a vast scale to reflect the power, elegance, and excess of the Roman Empire. Though it's called a "villa," Hadrian's Villa is more accurately a miniature Rome that covers nearly 300 acres. It's dotted with 30 large structures -- palaces, libraries, baths, living quarters, dining pavilions, and sculptural gardens.
Hadrian's Villa was originally intended as a secret escape from the political complexities of a bustling Rome. But Hadrian loved his villa so much that he moved in and used it as the seat of government in his last decade, much like Louis XIV governed France from Versailles.
Here's a great Smarthistory virtual tour of Hadrian's Villa.
the Arch of janus in the square of the Palazzo Rhinococros
22. Arch of Janus
The Arch of Janus is the only surviving four way marble arch in Rome. It's close to the Mouth of Truth, if you're visiting that. Built in the 4th century, the arch has four facades. It was supposedly built from pieces of other ruins.
The Arch of Janus is built over an ancient drain to the Tiber River. It's thought to have been a boundary marker, rather than a triumphal arch.
The Arch of Janus now stands in front of the Palazzo Rhinococros. In 2012, the building was purchased and restored by Fendi heiress, Alda Fendi. It's the newest hotspot/art space in Rome, with cultural and residential spaces that opened in 2018.
A resin sculpture of an endangered white rhino now stands guard in the square, symbolizing the union of the old and the new. Inside the palazzo art gallery, there's a Michelango sculpture, Crouching Boy, on loan.
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