Standing outside the Roman Coliseum, you can almost hear the echoes of ancient crowds roaring through the ages. The mammoth amphitheater is one of the empire’s many architectural achievements whose remains lend an unparalleled historic depth to today’s Rome. This arena stands four stories tall and is graced by 80 entrance arches. In its day, it could accommodate a crowd of 50,000 spectators who rooted for man to slay beast, for beast to slay man, or for men to slay each other. The arena’s bowl could even be flooded with water so that Roman citizens could witness mock sea battles.
It’s hard to believe that such a place could have been imagined in the ancient world, never mind constructed. That’s the wonder of exploring the millennia-old sites of Rome. Their power and their glory transcend the city itself, rising above today’s modern bustle to whisper and shout all at once that this is where a great arc of history began.
The past is palpable here. Along the byways of the ancient Forum—called by historians the most celebrated meeting place in the world and in all of history—triumphal processions marched to proclaim Rome’s latest military victory … public speakers rattled on about the latest current events … senators debated the latest laws … and merchants traded goods with vendors from faraway lands. Of course, it’s not just the social and political buzz of history that makes this place so spectacular; the Roman Forum is a living museum of architectural splendor.
The Temple of Saturn is, for many visitors, the most prominent of the remains. Rome’s trusted financiers walked through its eight towering columns—all that remains of the once-grand building—to gain access to the city’s treasury of gold and silver. Saturn was the logical god to look over it all because he ruled during the Golden Age and was closely associated with wealth.
Also impressive, the Arch of Septimus Severus, a hulking and incredibly preserved structure, has stood here since its completion in the year 203. It commemorated the victory of Severus over the Parthians. It is so well preserved for two reasons: First, it was incorporated into the structure of a Christian church by Pope Innocent III in 1199. When the church moved, the arch stayed. Second, in the Middle Ages, flooding deposited debris and silt into the small valley that the Forum occupies, leaving the arch half-buried.
There’s another monument to Rome’s rich past that is admittedly harder to find. (Here’s a hint: It’s next to Arch of Septimus Severus.) The Umbilicus Urbis Romae, or Navel of the City of Rome, is little more than a plaque that marks the symbolic city center. You might think such a marker insignificant, but to ancient Romans it meant everything. Rome was, after all, the center of the world. And so distances to and from every outpost of the Roman Empire started and ended at this point. All roads did indeed lead to Rome.
One road—the Via Triumphalis—led to the Navel of Rome via the magnificent Arch of Constantine. This remarkable gate, adorned with bas reliefs, commemorates Emperor Constantine’s defeat in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312. The arch was built to straddle the Via Triumphalis, the road on which emperors made their ceremonial entrance into the city after a victory. The structure was so admired that it served as the inspiration for arches built all over the world in the coming centuries.
The Pantheon predates the arch by at least 200 years, yet it is the most complete building from ancient Rome. This majestic monument to Roman engineering was originally built as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome. Today, it serves as a church, making it one of the city’s oldest structures in continuous use. Its circular room is topped by the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The oculus at the apex of the dome bathes the rotunda in rays of sunlight. The massive gray-granite columns on the rectangular porch were quarried in Egypt, transported here down the Nile River, across the Mediterranean Sea, and up the Tiber River.
It’s easy to see why all roads lead to ancient Rome. Ingenuity seems to have been born here, and inspiration lives in the brilliance of its architecture 2,000 years later.