Rome, Italy wasn’t always just a city. Once upon a time, it was an empire. An empire with a bloody, brutal history. Who hasn’t heard of the gladiators fighting to the death in the Colosseum? Or Christians being fed to lions? Or that Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by members of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March? Nero probably didn’t “fiddle while Rome burned,” but he did some other pretty awful things, including killing his mother. I know history isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you certainly can’t say that Rome’s history is “boring”.
I dig ancient history, so my priority for my limited time in Rome was to visit the sites where so many pivotal moments in history took place—to walk in the footsteps of people like Caesar, Claudius, Augustus, and Marc Antony. As someone who lives in a country with only hundreds of years of history, I am always blown away when I visit places that go back thousands of years. It puts things in perspective.
The trio of ancient sites on my list were the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and Palatine Hill. I’d venture to guess that most Americans, without doing any research prior to their trip, have only heard of the Forum and the Colosseum. If you’re wondering “What the heck is Palatine Hill?” don’t feel alone. You’re not the first person to ask that question, and you won’t be the last.
Palatine Hill is one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome. It is considered the birthplace of Rome. It has its origins in the legend of Romulus and Remus, as the location where their wolf-mother found them and nursed them as her own. Fast-forward to adulthood, when Romulus killed his brother, took control of the region, and gave Rome its name.
Palatine Hill was where the Roman ruling class lived in palaces, overlooking the city. It has great views of the Forum, Circus Maximus (where the chariot races took place), and the city of Rome. Visiting Rome without visiting one or more of these historic sites would be a tragedy, in my opinion. But if you’re going to visit them, you need to be prepared.
Everyone will tell you that the lines to enter the Colosseum are incredibly long. Everyone is right.
If you don’t want to wait in line for two hours, there are ways around this:
- Sign up for a guided tour;
- Buy the Roma Pass and make the first 2 sites you visit the Colosseum and the Forum (your first two sites are free with the Roma Pass, so you don’t have to purchase a ticket for those two places); or
- Go online and purchase a combination pass that’s good for all three sites (one admission per site) over a two-day period.
I chose the third option. This allowed me to bypass the ticket-buying line and enter the Colosseum directly. The cost of this combo pass is 13.50 Euros if you buy online. You print it up on your computer at home and bring it with you. Just show it to the staff and go inside.
Because the ancient sites are in the center of Rome, they’re easy to get to by hop-on, hop-off and city buses, metro, and on foot. If you have no mobility problems, it’s walkable from many places you’d consider staying. I was staying at a hotel near Termini train station, and I took two different routes to get here: The first day I walked down Via Cavour (a street which might not have seemed so very long if I hadn’t been awake all night on a redeye flight). The next day I took Metro Line B to the Colosseo stop, which was much easier.
The approach is magnificent from any direction, but there is something more dramatic about taking the Metro station. As you exit the station, there it is, looming large in front of you: The freaking Roman Colosseum. It kind of takes your breath away.
The entrance to the Roman Forum is located on Via dei Fori Imperiali, and the Colosseum is located at the end of the Via. The entrance to Palatine Hill is on Via di San Gregorio. Access it by walking away from the Colosseum, past the Arch of Constantine (built by Rome’s first Christian emperor), and follow the crowds.
It’s impressive how much of the ruins you can actually see without paying an admission fee for anything, though. If you’re really on a tight budget or timeline, you can get some decent views of the ancient sites by just walking around the area. (Though you might want to read up a bit on what it is you’re looking at.)
It’s remarkable that these ancient sites are still around at all, let alone in a shape that they can be toured. Standing in the Colosseum, I ran my hand over the rough stone and tried to conjure up the past. There I was, with hundreds of other tourists, leaning against stone walls built over 1900 years ago, taking advantage of photo opportunities where Roman citizens used to come to enjoy the spectacle of death. I tried to imagine the bloodthirsty crowds cheering on as men died, and wondered what kind of society thinks that’s entertainment.
All in all, I’m rather glad people are more obsessed with non-fatal sports these days.