Rome in ruins: what to see and what to skip in the eternal city

written by Aimee White
updated 3/23/2021
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Not sure which ancient monuments are worth visiting in Rome? Aside from the obvious sites like the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona, you'll find distinguished tombs and painstakingly detailed frescoes to take in, too. This is a city whose stories are hidden in the details. Some secrets can be discovered by simply strolling the streets, while others need a bit more planning. With that in mind, here are five of the most intriguing Roman ruins that you should definitely make time for on your trip to Italy.

1. Roman Forum

For an insight into the Roman Empire’s sheer power and legacy, a visit to the Roman Forum is a must. After all, this was the centre of Republican-era Rome, where political and religious institutions were based. Moreover, it served as a meeting place for all, where locals did their shopping. A fire in 3 AD left the Forum in ruins, so you’ll need a good imagination to imagine its grandeur.

Many of these Roman ruins are very well-preserved: there’s the four-storey palace of the House of the Vestal Virgins, set around a courtyard with statues of the priestesses who lived here lining the pool. Diagonally opposite is the Temple of Julius Caesar; take a look at the small semi-circular green roof – the dictator was cremated on this spot. Taken as a whole, the architecture of the buildings, Latin inscriptions and layout of the Forum will give you a greater grasp of the influential system of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Forum © Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock

2. Arch of Constantine

Opposite the Colosseum and impressive in its own right, sits the Arch of Constantine. The three-arch-wide edifice celebrates Emperor Constantine’s victory over his co-ruler Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Erected in 315 AD, the arch is made up of sections "recycled" from other first and second century BC monuments, in a move to promote the “glory years” of the Empire.

With this political propaganda in mind, the attention to detail (still visible in these Roman ruins) is fascinating. There are marble panels on each side, taken from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius. These show the Emperor (refigured as Constantine) conducting civil duties. On the north and south facades are two large medallions featuring high-relief sculptures depicting animal hunts and sacrificial ceremonies. These are lifted from a monument for Emperor Hadrian. As a finishing touch: eight Corinthian columns, taken from a monument dedicated to Emperor Trajan. There is some originality to the Arch, at least: the large inscription at the centre is original, dedicating the monument to Constantine.

Arch of Constantine, Rome © ncristian/Shutterstock

3. House of Augustus

The House of Augustus on Palatine Hill was the residence of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, and gives us just a glimpse of the elegance and luxury the rich enjoyed at home in Roman times. The different names of the rooms are based on the iconic features of the painted fresco walls: the Room of the Perspective Paintings, Ramp Room, Emperor’s Study and so on. This type of Roman mural art uses the "second style", made popular in Pompeii, which focuses on architectural elements. The most striking of the rooms is the Room of the Masks, used as a bedroom. As the name suggests, painted theatrical and comical masks sit against a theatre stage setting, creating a three-dimensional illusion.

House of Augustus in Rome the first major site upon entering the Palatine Hill © David Ionut/Shutterstock

4. Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker

A little further out from Capitoline Hill in Porta Maggiore is the striking Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker. Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces was a freed slave, who became rich from running a bakery that served the Roman military. After purchasing the land just outside the gate, he positioned the tomb so that passing traffic would be able to see it. The idea was to give him and his family maximum visibility, and that's certainly still the case today. Along the top of the 33ft-high structure is a frieze depicting the bread making process and the tomb is a great reminder of the social mobility of the Roman world during the Augustan era – this makes it one of the most intriguing Roman ruins in the city.

The Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker with The Gate of Porta Maggiore © Valery Rokhin/Shutterstock

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5. Circus Maximus

The southern side of the Palatine Hill drops down to the Circus Maximus, a green strip. Once the city’s main venue for chariot races, it was used for over a thousand years. It was re-built multiple times from the period of the ancient and semi-legendary kings of Rome. At the pinnacle of Rome’s power it held up to 300,000 spectators. If it were still intact it would no doubt match the Colosseum for grandeur: the last race was held at the Circus Maximus in 549 AD. As it is, a litter of stones at the Viale Aventino end is all that remains.

The huge obelisk that now stands in front of the church of San Giovanni in Laterano (at 385 tonnes and over 30m high the largest in the world) once stood in the centre of the arena, and the obelisk now found in Piazza del Popolo once stood here too.

Circus Maximus, Rome © Di Gregorio Giulio/Shutterstock

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written by Aimee White
updated 3/23/2021
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Aimee is an in-house Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and is the podcast host of The Rough Guide to Everywhere. She is also a freelance travel writer and has written for various online and print publications, including a guidebook to the Isle of Wight. Follow her on Twitter at @aimeefw.

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