In this week's historical city travel guide, we journey back 2,000 years with curator Francesca Bologna to visit the capital of the Roman Empire.
From witnessing edge-of-your-seat chariot races, to relaxing in the baths and sampling the local delicacies, we explore what not to miss in the vibrant world of 1st century AD Rome.
Historical city travel guide: Rome, 1st century AD
Rome in Latium, central Italy, is the capital of the Roman Empire. The great city is said to have been founded by Romulus, who was raised with his brother Remus by a she-wolf. He was a descendant of the prince Aeneas, who escaped his home city of Troy after it was sacked by the Greeks. However, the city's origins are likely to have been slightly less romantic, developing in the 8th century BC through the merging of several villages.
Spanning seven hills on the left bank of the river Tiber, Rome is located about 22 km (14 miles) inland from the Mediterranean Sea as the crow flies. The area is suitable for farming and characterised by warm weather, but the plains between the hills were originally swampy and subject to flooding. That is why, initially, different villages developed on the hilltops rather than in the Tiber valley.
The city now sits at the centre of an empire which stretches from Spain to Syria and is rapidly growing.
It is not without good reason that gods and men chose this place to build our city: these hills with their pure air; this convenient river by which crops may be floated down from the interior and foreign commodities brought up; a sea handy to our needs, but far enough away to guard us from foreign fleets; our situation in the very centre of Italy. All these advantages shape this most favoured of sites into a city destined for glory.
Livy, History of Rome, 5, 54.4
The saying 'all roads lead to Rome' is true. A complex network of roads connects the whole empire to Rome, so wherever you're coming from you can be sure of finding your way into the capital.
According to Roman custom, all burials take place outside the sacred boundary of the city, so don't be surprised to see elaborate tombs, memorials and mausolea lining the roads as you approach – they have been set up by wealthy families to commemorate their loved ones. Some have inscriptions asking travellers to respect and pity the dead, while other incorporate benches and invite you to take a rest on your journey.
The city can be reached both by sea and by land. The river Tiber is navigable and, where it meets the Mediterranean is the city of Ostia, which acts as the sea harbour of Rome. The emperor Claudius has recently built an artificial harbour called Portus, 2 km to the north of Ostia. This artificial harbour is connected to the river Tiber by a canal and to the city of Rome by road (Via Campana/Portuensis).
Members of the upper classes often use litters to move around the city, but most people walk or use carriages.
Traffic congestion is a real problem in Rome, and to limit it, heavy vehicles cannot be used within the city from sunrise to late afternoon (exceptions are made for constructing temples or other public works, religious festivals or if you are a priest, Vestal Virgin or triumphing general). As a result, most business deliveries are made at night – if you are staying in the centre of the city you may be kept awake by the sound of wheels and hooves hitting the streets, the loading and unloading of carriages, and the occasional shouts and bickering among coachmen.
Things to do
The capital is full of incredible monuments and buildings. We recommend taking your time and just walking around the city. Here are a few things not to miss:
Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus
This temple, dedicated to the 'Capitoline Triad' (the gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) on the Capitoline Hill, is the most important temple of the capital, completed at the beginning of the Republic in 509 BC. It was destroyed by fire in 83 BC, but reconstructed in 69 BC, and recently restored by the great Emperor Augustus. According to Plutarch, the assassins Brutus and Cassius locked themselves inside this temple after killing Julius Caesar.
The forum is the main political, ritual, and civic space in the city, located in the valley between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills. The forum has existed since Rome's early history and it is here you can really experience the hustle and bustle of city life. It has a number of temples, which are worth visiting (Temple of Saturn, Temple of Concordia, Temple of Vesta, Temple of the Castors). There are also some of the most important political buildings of the city, the Curia (the council house of the Roman Senate) and the Comitium (the meeting space for the public assembly).
On the western side of the square is a speaker's platform (the rostra), from which the emperor addresses the people and welcomes foreign rulers.
Make sure to keep an eye out for the great and the good in the Forum, if you enjoy a bit of celebrity spotting. As well as the emperor, powerful senators and skilled orators frequent the Curia, and the Vestal Virgins, Rome's most important priestesses charged with keeping the sacred fire alight, live behind the Temple of Vesta.
The Sacra Via
The Sacra Via, a sacred route used for important ceremonies, passes through the forum square and leads to the Capitoline Hill and the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This is the route taken by Roman Triumphs – processions held to celebrate and sanctify the victories of Rome's military commanders, which comprise sacrifices and dedications to the gods, feasting, and public games. Triumphs are rare, so count yourself lucky if you manage to see one during your visit.
The Campus Martius can be found right outside the city walls next to the River Tiber. In the past this area was used for assemblies and as a military exercise ground, however, since the end of the Republican period new temples have sprung up as well as a circus (Circus Flaminius) for track racing. Today, it is largely covered by public buildings, including the Ara Pacis, an altar dedicated to Pax, the goddess of peace.
If you want to treat yourself to a spa day during your visit, there are plenty of public and private baths to choose from. If you're lucky enough to know a wealthy city dweller, you might be invited to bathe at a private heated bath house – there are nearly 200 throughout the city. Alternatively, try the public baths built by Agrippa in the Campus Martius in 25 BC, or the even more spectacular baths of Nero nearby.
Men and women bathe separately, and you can enjoy a hot steam bath, a cold swim and an oil rub. The entrance fee is minimal, and you might even get in for free on a public holiday.
Entertainment is a central part of Roman life, and nowhere is this more evident than in the capital. Romans certainly love a good time! Throughout the city there is plenty to keep you entertained. There are lots of circuses, where you can see the celebrities of the chariot racing world compete in edge-of-your-seat spectacles. Charioteers belonging to four different factions (the Red, White, Green, and Blue) who race against each other on two or four-horse chariots (bigae and quadrigae). If you're feeling lucky, take a bet on your favourite team. The Circus Maximus, which can be found in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine Hills is perhaps the most impressive – it can seat an incredible 150,000 spectators!.
Gladiatorial games and hunts (venationes), sometimes including exotic animals, can also be seen at the amphitheatres, mock sea-battles are staged both on the Tiber and on natural and artificial lakes, and comedies and tragedies are recited in theatres.
Food and drinks are served during these events, sometimes loudly advertised by sellers moving among the stands. Don't expect to sit with the rest of your group and forget about a front row seat – these are reserved for senators and Vestal Virgins. The rest of the seating is structured in line with Roman society, with the wealthiest nearest the action, then Roman citizens in order of status, and finally the poor, slaves and women right at the back. You can also expect audience participation – spectators will encourage their favourites athletes and actors with cheers and applause and shout out comments during performances. Entertainment in Rome is not a quiet affair!
Where to stay
Rome has around 1 million inhabitants. Its rapid growth means that some parts of the city can feel chaotic and overcrowded.
Emperor Augustus claimed that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble, but this only applied to main buildings and public spaces, most of the city is still haphazardly built of wood and other less-than-sturdy materials.
The 'posh' areas where the social elites live tend to be found on the hills, while the lower classes live in the valleys of the city, which offer less valuable real estate. The hills are more salubrious, with the wind offering some relief during the heat of summer and they remain mostly untouched during floods that the city is prone to, which in turn bring mosquitoes and malaria with them.
The commercial district of the city is called the Emporium, and it can be found just outside the city walls and south of the Aventine Hill. It is characterised by quays, warehouses and other buildings for the unloading, storage, and distribution of commodities brought up the river. This part of the city is constantly bustling with activity, with sailors manoeuvring among quays, porters loading and unloading ships, merchants carrying on with their trades, and imperial officers inspecting documents, ships, and goods.
In the valley between the southern end of the Viminal and the western end of the Esquiline, is the Subura, a residential and commercial neighbourhood. Its lower half, toward the Forum, is notoriously crowded, dirty, noisy, and crime ridden and may be best avoided. Roman authors have repeatedly commented on the widespread prostitution and low-quality building materials in this area.
If you want to escape from the bustle of the city, private gardens (horti) belonging to the emperor and other aristocratic families can be found on the northern and eastern borders of the city, often expanding beyond the city walls. Here there are buildings of considerable size and luxury, used as secluded residences or for private entertainment.
Food and drink
Meals in Rome are structured around key times of day, which vary seasonally. The day starts at dawn (1st hour), by the 6th hour (around noon) people usually stop for rest and to eat, while dinner typically takes place at the 9th hour (early afternoon).
Street-side bars providing food and drink (alternatively called popinae, tabernae, or cauponae) are common in Rome (as in other Roman cities). Here you can enjoy a cup of wine (which will be diluted with water) and snack on a range of food from salt-meat and sausages and peas and beans, to confectionery. Romans use different kinds of sauces to season their food, but the most common is garum, made from fermented fish (locals love it but it might not be to everyone's taste!) – watch out though, garum can sometimes be used by butchers to conceal the smell of rotting meat, so check your produce before you buy it!
These taverns are usually characterised by a wide opening towards the street and a serving counter placed at the very front, to attend clients quickly. Some of these establishments also offer rooms where customers can sit to enjoy their meal, chat, and play dice or other games. However, Roman authors warn us that these sorts of eateries are often frequented by people of dubious morals and low social standing, so keep an eye out.
Members of the Roman elite tend not to eat or drink in public. They enjoy their dinners at private gatherings, where the meal is accompanied and followed by some sort of entertainment. These dinners can often be incredibly lavish – so put on your best tunic if you are lucky enough to be invited to a dinner party during your visit.
Hosts will often go to great lengths to impress their guests with the finest delicacies they can afford. These include flamingo (especially its tongue), peacock, different kinds of songbirds, snails, and dormice, allegedly fattened up in jars. There will be cultured discussion during the meal, moving from politics, to philosophy and poetry, to current gossips, sports, how to best manage one's slaves, and the price of different goods. Entertainment is also provided in the form of music, poetry, or more extravagant activities. This can easily escalate, among the aristocratic circles, in shows of one-upmanship, with friends and acquaintances trying to outdo each other.
Wine is the main drink among the Romans, but it is stronger than the wine that we are used to drinking. Therefore, it is diluted with cold or warm water (usually one part wine to three parts water) and sometimes mixed with honey, herbs and spices (a kind of mulled wine). Many different varieties of wine are drunk in Rome, and some are particularly sought after. Chian wine is possibly the most prized Greek wine. The emperor Augustus is said to have particularly appreciated the Setinum wine produced in Latium. Falerian wine from Campania is also rated and, among imported wines, those from Spain are highly valued.
Romans use public latrines made up of long, bench-like seats with keyhole-shaped openings that lead directly into the sewer. Waste water from public baths is used as part of the flow that flushes the latrines, and they can be seen as a place to socialise, but be prepared to use one of the communal sponges dipped in vinegar to clean yourself afterwards!
The concept of weekend does not exist in ancient Rome, yet during the year there are a number of festival days (feriae) during which the gods are honoured and all business is suspended. During public feriae sacrifices are performed, accompanied by prayers, visits to temples, and sometimes feasts and/or processions. In the 1st century BC there were 49 days of feriae each year, and they have significantly increased since then.
We hope you enjoyed your visit to Rome!
In the mood for more time travelling? Read our historical city travel guide to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh.