When in Rome: a new era for the city’s ancient sites
I usually look down when I’m at the Colosseum, but not today. Thanks to a new route to access its subterranean chambers, I look up from the subterranean spaces where gladiators and beasts waited before entering the stadium. As you walk through dark corridors, you can feel the horror and drama that once unfolded there: the terror of animals, the adrenaline of gladiators about to fight for their lives, the roar of crowds. Looking through the elevator shafts at the seats above, the violence suddenly seems real.
Two millennia after its apogee, the Roman Empire continues to hold new surprises in store for us. The Domus Aurea, the former palace of Nero, opens new rooms as the excavations progress, and the excavations of the Circus Maximus have brought to light underground shops. In 2019, the Domus Transitoria – Nero’s other home, on Palatine Hill – opened to the public.
The city’s big attractions aren’t the only ones to reveal new surprises. Earlier this summer it became possible for the first time in centuries to walk the Aurelian Walls, built in the 3rd century and extended in 401 AD. Seemingly impervious to attack, the fortifications were destroyed by 19th-century Romans intent on urban expansion, reducing much of the walls to fragments.
“A lot of cities have walls, but we have the Forum and the Colosseum in Rome, so people think ‘walls – meh’,” says archaeological curator Antonella Gallitto. We walk a recently opened stretch of the Aurelian Walls at the top of Via Veneto. As we wander – the elegant palaces on one side, the tall pines of the Borghese Gardens on the other, she tells stories about the walls: how they saved Rome countless times from invasion, how 19th-century artists century set up workshops in the towers and how the 20th century squatters of the last century tried to buy them for housing. The Aurelian Walls are anything but unforgettable.
Read more: Learn about Rome’s alternate history at the Centro Storico
They are just one of a wave of new openings this year. In September, the Horti Lamiani – the gardens of emperors Caligula and Claudius – were revealed under an office building in Piazza Vittorio. Careful excavation revealed clues of past decadence – ostrich, bear and lion bones – and some of the 90,000 pieces of painted wall have been reconstructed to form a panel depicting a harbor scene. “It’s a new approach that integrates the past into the modern city,” explains director Mirella Serlorenzi. “We don’t take [the remains] away in a museum. We give back to the city its history.