For almost a thousand years, Italy was Rome. Small wonder then that there’s a host of top Roman ruins, monuments and landmarks in Italy to visit today. Among the very best are the Pantheon, Herculaneum and Ostia Antica. Other popular sites tend to include Villa dei Quintili, the Colosseum and the Ara Pacis Museum.
We’ve put together an experts guide to Ancient Roman sites to visit in Italy, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Roman ruins in Italy, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the top Roman remains in Italy?
The Pantheon in Rome is one of the most famous and well-preserved ancient buildings in the world. Originally built in 25BC, the building was destroyed by the great fire of 80AD and the structure which stands today was completed around 125AD, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.
Today, the Pantheon stands as a magnificent site in central Rome, and one of the most popular destinations for tourists. The vast structure is topped by the spectacular original domed roof which contains a circular opening at the peak. Made of cast concrete, it is a monumental engineering feat. Indeed, the roof of the Pantheon remained the largest dome in the world until the 15th century. The Pantheon is free to visit and is a must-see for both the general tourist and the history enthusiast.
Herculaneum was a port town established by the ancient Romans in what is now modern Ercolano. Like nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum was engulfed by the lava and mud which spewed from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. In fact, Herculaneum arguably withstood the natural disaster better than Pompeii with many of its upper floors still being intact. This, combined with the fact that Herculaneum is less crowded and easier to walk through makes it a great site to visit.
Even the streets of Herculaneum are fascinating, displaying the high degree of planning employed by the Romans. Some of the most stunning sites at Herculaneum include the thermal spas and baths, the gymnasium, the House with the Mosaic Atrium and the House of Neptune.
Ostia Antica is an extraordinary Roman site that contains the ruins of the ancient port town that served as the gateway to Rome. Just half an hour from central Rome by train, Ostia has all the inspiration of Pompeii without the throngs of tourists. In fact, if you want to examine well preserved Roman ruins in peace and quiet with time to contemplate the ancient world, you’ll be hard pressed to find better.
Today, visitors can view a great many ruins from the ancient town, including a well preserved Roman theatre, the Baths of Neptune, remains of the military camp, temples to ancient deities, the forum and even Ostia Synagogue, which is the oldest known synagogue site in Europe. There is a small museum on site which has a number of artefacts and further information on the history of Ostia.
Villa dei Quintili was one of the most lavish homes along the famous road that leads to Rome, the Via Appia. In 151 AD, the main part of the Villa dei Quintili was owned by the senior officials, the Quintili brothers. However, when Emperor Commodus came to power the brothers fell from favour and Villa dei Quintili became his property.
Today, far from the intrigues and plots of ancient Rome, the villa stands as a slightly more serene place; indeed it has survived in an extremely good state of preservation. The original baths are still clearly discernible, as are several of its buildings.
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. A visit offers a great insight into the lives of Roman citizens and those who had the misfortune of fighting there.
In particular, it is now possible to tour the underground hallways and corridors where the gladiators of ancient Rome would prepare to fight and ponder their mortality. Also recently opened are the higher areas of the structure, from where you can take in views of the Roman Forum. There is a museum within the Colosseum with a wealth of interesting artefacts and information and audio guides are available in a number of languages.
The Ara Pacis Museum 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.
Dedicated on 30 January 9 BC, the Ara Pacis was originally located on a site known as the Field of Mars. The altar itself is surrounded by marble walls adorned with elaborate friezes of various figures, including senate members and members of Augustus’s family. These carved figures take part in a procession celebrating the peace brought about by Augustus.
Hadrian’s Villa is perhaps the best-preserved Roman villa complex in the world. The site covers almost 250 acres and consists of over 30 buildings and a number of other points of interest. It includes a large colonnaded swimming pool, libraries, the Palestra and the famous Maritime Theatre.
Most intriguing of all are the remains of the Emperor’s small island retreat – including his personal toilet – which served as Hadrian’s private escape from the stress of Imperial life. Not the easiest site to access, and not among the most famous of Rome’s attractions, Hadrian’s Villa is nevertheless a startling tribute to the power of the Roman Empire and the magnificence that could be brought to bear by its leaders.
Be warned, to fully explore Hadrian’s Villa will take you at least three hours and can be quite physically strenuous in the summer heat, so make sure you take plenty to drink.
The Forum 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. No visit to Rome is complete without a stroll around the Forum and it is a must see for anyone visiting the city.
There are a large number of historic buildings or their remains in the Roman Forum, some of the notable ones are: The Temple of Saturn; the Arch of Septimius Severus; the Arch of Titus; the Atrium Vestae (once home to the Vestal virgins); the Gemonian stairs; the Curia Julia (once the site of the Roman Senate); the Temple of Caesar; the Regia (where the first kings of Rome lived and later the Pontifex Maximus); theTemple of Vesta; the Temple of Concord; the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (perhaps the best preserved structure in the Roman Forum); the Temple of Venus and Roma; the Basilica of Maxentius.
There is a great website which has produced a 3D virtual reconstruction of the Roman Forum and is well worth a look before any visit so you can get your bearings before you go there in person – the Digital Roman Forum.
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. Today, Pompeii is one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites. It is a ghost town filled with the bodies of its tragic citizens, many of whom died from asphyxiation and who were preserved by the ash and cinders which buried them.
The most intriguing aspect of Pompeii and what makes it such a popular site to visit is the extent to which its homes, buildings and artifacts have remained intact. Essentially, walking through Pompeii is treading in the footsteps of ancient Roman life, with its houses, shops, walkways, pedestrian stones and carriage tracks.
The Baths of Caracalla are an ancient public baths complex in Rome, the incredible remains of which are one of the very best ancient sites in Rome. Today the hugely impressive remains 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. Audio guides are available to help explain the various rooms and chambers which can be explored.
However, the fun doesn’t stop there. For it is the recently opened underground sections which will really set your heart racing. An innocuous staircase will take you deep below ground to the tremendously well preserved tunnels and corridors which represent the unseen heart of this complex – where slaves and other workers would have scurried about to keep the waters heated and the customers happy.
Another hidden gem to be found in this underground wonder is one of the best examples of a Temple of Mithras to have survived today. Still containing the original mosaics and alter space this temple is a wonder in its own right.