For almost a millennia, Italy was Rome. Small wonder then that there’s a host of top Ancient Roman ruins, monuments and landmarks in Italy to visit today. Among Italy’s best are the Pantheon, Herculaneum and Ostia Antica, with other unmissable sites including Villa dei Quintili, the Ara Pacis Museum and, of course, the Colosseum.
We’ve put together an expert’s guide to Ancient Roman sites to visit in Italy, featuring our top 10 places to give you taste of what the rest of Italy has to offer.
The Pantheon in Rome is one of the most famous and well-preserved ancient buildings in the world. Originally built in 25 BC, the building was destroyed by the great fire of 80 AD and the structure which stands today was completed around 125 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.
Walking into the Pantheon is still a gasp-worthy moment: 2,000 years old, it remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built and the shaft of light that streams in illuminating the tombs below feels almost like a kind of divine light.
Herculaneum was a port town established by the ancient Romans in what is now modern Ercolano, Italy. At its peak, Herculaneum would have had around 4,000 citizens and served as a holiday town for wealthy Campanians and Romans.
Like nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum was engulfed by the lava and mud which spewed from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and as a result, much of the town was preserved throughout the centuries.
Herculaneum arguably withstood the natural disaster better than Pompeii since many of its upper floors are still intact. This, combined with the fact that Herculaneum is less crowded and easier to walk through, makes it a great site to visit.
3. Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica is an extraordinary Roman site in Italy that contains the ruins of the ancient port town that served as the gateway to Rome. Tracing its roots back to at least the 4th century BC, Ostia Antica served as Rome’s principle port for hundreds of years, a witness and monument to the rise of the ancient superpower, its dominance and eventual decline.
Just half an hour from central Rome by train, Ostia Antica has all the inspiration of Pompeii without the throngs of tourists. If you want to examine well preserved Roman ruins in peace and quiet with time to contemplate the ancient world, you will be hard pressed to find better.
4. Villa dei Quintili
Villa dei Quintili, translated as the Villa of the Quintili, was one of the most lavish homes along the famous road that leads to Rome: the Via Appia. Incredibly well-preserved, today the Villa remains a tranquil escape from the city’s main tourist spots and provides a unique glimpse into the immense luxury and power of ancient Rome’s elite.
In 151 AD, the main part of the Villa dei Quintili was owned by the senior officials, the Quintili brothers. Consuls under the rule of Marcus Aurelius, the Quintili brothers built their luxurious villa, complete with thermal baths, in the countryside of Rome.
However, when Emperor Commodus came to power the brothers fell from favour and Villa dei Quintili became his property. It is said that this infamous emperor actually executed the brothers in 182 AD specifically so he could get his hands on their villa…
5. The Colosseum
The Colosseum is a site like no other. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing represents the sheer power and magnificence of the Roman Empire like this stunning piece of ancient architecture.
The Colosseum, or ‘Colosseo’ in Italian, was once the largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire. It was built in the first century AD by the Emperor Vespasian as a place for the people of Rome to enjoy. Originally named the Flavian Amphitheatre, after Vespasian’s family name, the man who brought the Roman Empire back from the brink would not live to see its completion.
The construction of the Colosseum was very much a symbolic gesture to create a clear distinction between Vespasian and his predecessor, Nero.
6. The Ara Pacis Museum
The Ara Pacis Museum (Museo dell Ara Pacis) in Rome houses the Altar of Peace, which was built under instructions from the Emperor Augustus and sanctioned by the Senate. Augustus decided to build the Ara Pacis to celebrate his military campaigns which resulted in the outbreak of peace in the Mediterranean.
In 1938, Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini decided that the recomposed altar remains should be moved from their original location and prominently displayed in a dedicated building, intending to emphasize the glorious past of the then recently established Italian Empire.
Today situated in the historical city centre, not far from Piazzale Flaminio, it retains all of its ancient and evocative fascination. It stands inside a bright and spacious modern structure and the museum is divided into 3 main areas.
7. Hadrian’s Villa
Hadrian’s Villa, or Villa Adriana, is perhaps the best-preserved Roman villa complex in the world. Built in the early 2nd century, the villa was the central hub of power in the Roman world for the latter years of Emperor Hadrian’s reign.
Hadrian’s Villa covers almost 250 acres and consists of over 30 buildings and a number of other points of interest. The site includes the remains of a large colonnaded swimming pool, libraries, the Palestra, barracks, gardens, fountains, nymphaeums, and the famous Maritime Theatre.
Today, it is only possible to see 40 hectares of the site. This space does, however, attest to the magnificence and significance of the complex.
8. Roman Forum
The Roman Forum, or Forum Romanum, was the very centre of ancient Rome. Throughout the lifespan of Roman civilisation the Forum served as the focus of political, civic, and religious life. From magnificent temples and triumphal arches to the very seat of power in the Senate house, the Roman Forum encompassed every aspect of life for the Republic and wider Empire.
Today, though much of the grandeur of the Roman Forum has been lost to the ages, it is still a spectacular display of ancient Roman life.
Some of the key structures have survived due to their conversion to Churches or other uses, like the Curia Julia and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, but others have left just a shadow of their past glories, hinting at the magnificence of a by-gone age. No visit to Rome is complete without a stroll around the Roman Forum and it is a must see for anyone visiting the city.
One of the best known ancient sites in the world, Pompeii was an ancient Roman city founded in the 6th to 7th century BC and famously destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
In 79 AD, the town was buried under a layer of lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone) 6 or 7 metres deep following the eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius, Unlike the nearby town of Herculaneum, this meant that the city was buried in motion, and has provided historians and archaeologists with a fascinating glimpse into everyday Roman life, from social conventions and class structures to ancient graffiti.
The full horror Pompeii’s inhabitants must have faced is also apparent – they were buried alive instantly in a wave of super-heated volcanic ash, their faces frozen in screams, their bodies curled up in an attempt to shield themselves.
10. Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla are an ancient Roman public baths complex in Rome, the incredible remains of which are one of the very best ancient sites in Rome.
It was the Emperor Septimius Severus who began building the Baths of Caracalla in 206 AD, but they are named after his son, the emperor Caracalla, who completed the works in 216 AD.
Today, the hugely impressive remains of the Baths of Caracalla still offer a great insight into what would have been a social hub of the ancient Roman world. With the original walls still towering above and impressive black and white mosaics underfoot this amazing ancient ruin is one of the best preserved of its kind anywhere in the world.