Guide To the Must See Archaeological Sites and Ancient Ruins in Rome Italy
Here's my guide to the must see ancient ruins, archaeological sites, and historic landmarks 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 tour 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 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 tour of 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.
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 and descend 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.
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.
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.
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.
5. Roman Forum: the Epicenter of Ancient Rome
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.
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.
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 to visiting the underground Colossseum.
You can tour the Colosseum on Google Arts & Culture, where there are over 200 photos. You can take a virtual walking tour of the Colosseum on its official website. Or take a 360 virtual tour on Air Pano.
7. Theater of Marcellus: a Romantic Facade
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.
8. Augustus' Mausoleum: Family Tomb of Julio-Claudian Dynasty
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.
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.
You can explore Ostia Antica virtually on Google Arts & Culture.
10. Baths of Caracalla, Termi di Caracalla
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 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.
Tourist 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.
11. House of Augustus
For nearly 2,000 years, the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill lay hidden. Archaeologists only discovered the ancient home in the 1960s. The House of Augustus marked the transformation of Palatine Hill from a residential area into an imperial seat.
The House of Augustus is located on the most sacred area of the Palatine Hill, near the symbols of Roman power. It was built near the Temple of Apollo (which Augustus could access by ramp from his peristyle) and on top of the sacred Cave of Lupercal, where the She Wolf of Rome nursed the twins Romulus and Remus.
Comprising two levels, the House of Augustus served as Augustus' primary residence during his reign. It was arranged around two courtyards, linked by an open promenade. Emperor Domitian, a more megalomaniacal sort, demolished much of it when he built his massive palace.
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.
The House of Augustus is most celebrated for its lavish red Pompeian frescoes. They're the best preserved frescos from ancient Rome, superior even to those in Pompeii. They're the real reason you should visit the House of Augustus.
Most of the frescos are executed in the Second Pompeian Style, called the "Architectural Style." It began in Pompeii, became the fashion, and was then adopted by Augustus.
The style emphasized architectural features and illusionistic compositions. Artists used columns, faux marble blocks, and stoas to frame fantastic images. The use of vanishing points made the walls seem three dimensional.
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.
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.
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's video about the magnificent garden fresco.
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.
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.
You can take a 360 virtual tour of the Arch of Titus.
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.