When in Rome: a new era for the city's ancient sites

A walk through the neighbourhoods of Palatino and Campitelli throws up examples of the innovative archaeology taking place city-wide — an approach that’s helping to weave threads from the Eternal City’s ancient past into modern-day life.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

I’m used to looking down when I’m at the Colosseum, but not today. Thanks to a new itinerary allowing access to its subterranean chambers, I’m looking up from the underground spaces where gladiators and wild beasts waited before entering the stadium. Walking through dark corridors, you can feel the horror and the drama that once unfurled here: the terror of the animals, the adrenaline of the gladiators about to fight for their lives, the roar of the crowds. Gazing up through the lift shafts at the seating above, suddenly the violence feels real. 

Two millennia since its heyday, the Roman Empire is constantly throwing up new surprises. The Domus Aurea, Nero’s former palace, opens new rooms as and when they’re excavated, and digs at the Circus Maximus have unearthed underground shops. In 2019, the Domus Transitoria — Nero’s other home, on the Palatine Hill — opened to the public.

It’s not just the city’s big-name attractions revealing fresh surprises, either. Earlier this summer, it became possible for the first time in centuries to walk the Aurelian Walls, built in the third century and expanded in AD 401. Seemingly impervious to attack, the fortifications were destroyed by 19th-century Romans intent on urban expansion, reducing much of the walls to fragments. 

“Lots of cities have walls, but we have the Forum and Colosseum in Rome, so people think ‘walls — meh’”, says archaeological curator Antonella Gallitto. We’re walking a newly opened stretch of the Aurelian Walls at the top of Via Veneto. As we stroll — elegant palazzos one side, the tall pines of the Borghese Gardens the other, she tells stories of the walls: how they saved Rome countless times against invasion, how 19th-century artists set up ateliers in the towers, and how 20th-century squatters tried to buy them for housing. The Aurelian Walls are anything but forgettable.

They’re just one among a flurry of new openings this year. In September, the Horti Lamiani — the gardens of emperors Caligula and Claudius — were revealed beneath an office block in Piazza Vittorio. A painstaking excavation has revealed hints of past decadence — ostrich, bear and lion bones — and some of the 90,000 pieces of painted wall have been reconstructed to form a panel depicting a port scene. “It’s a new approach, integrating the past into the modern city,” says director Mirella Serlorenzi. “We’re not taking [the remains] away to a museum. We’re giving the city back its history.”

A similar project has opened over on the Aventine Hill, home to the Roman aristocracy for two thousand years. Digs have revealed an ancient domus (mansion) below a block of flats, but instead of having the remains removed, the owners of the site donated the basement to the city. Twice-monthly tours now showcase this grand, first-century villa. 

But perhaps the year’s biggest opening was the Mausoleum of Augustus, where Rome’s first emperor was buried, along with a number of his successors, including Caligula and Claudius. I meet with Sebastiano La Manna, director of the restoration, to walk around the inner sanctum, in which the emperors were buried. The air sizzles with intrigue. “That’s Tiberius,” he says casually, pointing at a broken slab of marble inscribed with Latin. We also pass the resting place of Augustus’s sister, Octavia Minor, and his prodigy, Marcellus. “It’s emotional,” Sebastiano admits, noticing me well up. 

Guided tours of the site weave the strands of history together. We see elegant turn-of-the-century marble staircases, fascist graffiti and Roman vaulting, as perfect today as it was in 29 BC. The Eternal City is constantly changing, and this year, we’re part of it.  

How to do it: Private tour guide Agnes Crawford offers three-hour bespoke tours from £258, excluding entrance fees.

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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