The astonishing architectural legacy of the Roman Empire can be found all across Italy, and a little exploration opens up a range of perspectives on the ancient society. In Rome itself, the heartbeat of political power can be felt among the towering ruins of the Roman Forum and in the cavernous center of the Roman Colosseum. Wealthy holiday homes are preserved in Pompeii and Herculaneum, both simultaneously destroyed and preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E.. And in the ancient port town of Ostia Antica, the lives of poorer Roman citizens are evoked in apartment buildings, docks and warehouses, preserved through the centuries by silt from the Tiber River.
It is in their original home that the Romans architectural legacy remains most vivid, where 2000-year-old structures share the skyline with the gleaming edifices of modern-day capitalism. Various aspects of Roman life are preserved in the city's astonishing ruins, and travelers can devote their time to whichever most sparks imagination. At the vast Colosseum, with a capacity of 50,000, one can muse on what the Romans did for entertainment, namely watch Christians and wild beasts fight to the death. Alternatively, politics, rhetoric and trade unfolded side by side in the Roman Forum, where Mark Anthony delivers his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. And Roman religion is enshrined in the magnificent Pantheon, although precisely how people worshiped there is unknown, as it is so different in shape and form to other Roman temples.
2000 years ago, Pompeii was a bustling Roman city with 15,000 inhabitants, an amphitheater, gymnasium, advanced water system and large port. Then Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., releasing lava and ash with such force and suddenness that few of the townsfolk managed to escape. Most were buried along with their homes and possessions in tephra 25 meters deep, which rained down relentlessly for six hours. Terrible as this was, it left a fascinating scene for the archaeologists who rediscovered the town beneath its tomb of ash 1700 years later. A huge diversity of objects had been preserved through the intervening centuries, providing an extraordinary insight into the life of a Roman town in the first century C.E.. Tourists today can explore the city's large theater, markets, and numerous temples, although perhaps most interesting are the town's many brothels, where, on the wall of each room, you can see a painting of a different sex act. It is presumed that these were placed there for the aid of foreign travelers passing through the city's port, allowing them to point at what they wanted without having to negotiate a language barrier.
Verona may be most famous as the setting of Romeo and Juliet, but the action of that play actually unfurls in the shadow of some of Italy's most spectacular Roman ruins. The city was a key settlement in the ancient world, located at the intersection of several roads and important trade routes. The city's strategic importance spurred Roman Emperor Gallieno to girdle it with walls in the third century, and fragments of these once mighty fortifications remain today. Built into these walls were gates to allow traffic and commerce in and out of the city, and a couple of these still stand, most strikingly the Porta Borsari, arching over a a bustling modern street. The grandest of the surviving structures is the Roman Arena, which had a capacity of 30,000 and is still used today for opera, rock and pop performances. Other sights include a bridge built in 100 B.C.E and a beautifully situated theater, created by carving seating tiers into a hillside overlooking the Adige River.
Photo by Dorli Photography/Flickr.
Ostia Antica is another wonderfully preserved Roman settlement, although its preservation occurred in far less dramatic fashion than Pompeii, a result of the gradual build-up of silt and sand from the river Tiber. The town was situated at the mouth of that mighty river, and was originally founded in the seventh century B.C.E. to defend Rome from attacks by sea. Over time, it evolved far beyond its original purpose, becoming a major port city. It remained buried and preserved until the late 19th century, meaning visitors today can gain a remarkable insight into the everyday lives of its residents. Unlike Pompeii, there are very few grand houses or opulent holiday homes; like many port cities through the centuries, Ostia was clearly a rough and real town, and its ruins enshrine the lives of ordinary Roman citizens: sailors, shipbuilders, prostitutes and traders. These are evoked in the ruins of ancient apartment buildings where poor dock workers lived, with narrow stairways and corridors stitching together tiny rooms. One can also see where these people worked in the ruins of ancient warehouses and docks. For a little more grandeur, there are two Roman Baths with beautiful mosaic floors, and a central Forum containing a Capitol and massive temple.
Herculaneum sits beneath the towering cone of Mount Vesuvius, and like its neighbor Pompeii, was also decimated by that volcano's eruption in 79 C.E. For one reason or another, it has not gained the fame or popularity of that other city, which is surprising as it is in many ways better preserved. Whereas in Pompeii roofs and buildings collapsed under the weight of ash and rock, far less tephra fell on Herculaneum; instead, it was petrified by a succession of flows of boiling mud, which buried the city's buildings from bottom up before solidifying. This caused much less damage, and consequently the town's ancient streets and structures are in many instances more astonishing than Pompeii. Wandering Herculaneum's old streets, it feels as if the past might rise up around one's feet at any moment, and Roman citizens bustle out of the town's alleys and doorways, picking up the life they left two millennia ago. Particularly evocative sights include a pair of male and female baths, both exceptionally preserved along with the plumbing system that provided hot water, and the truly stunning mosaics in the House of Neptune and Amphitrite.