When it comes down to it, you can pretty much throw a rock and hit some kind of ruins anywhere in Italy. After all, this was the heart of the Roman Empire. The reality is that most of the ancient sites are now a pile of rubble. However, there are a number of remarkably well preserved pre- and Roman ruins in Italy worth visiting. From underground markets, important monuments and even whole towns, these ancient sites offer an insight into life in the past.
Note: There are ancient sites and Roman ruins in Italy almost everywhere. While it’s challenging to list them all, we’ve made our best effort to include ones that are either well preserved or substantial in size today. If there are any other ones you think we’ve missed and should be included, let us know!
Roman ruins in Rome and area
Rome is full of history, art and culture. After all, it’s like an outdoor museum where you can walk through layers of history and touch the past. Here, you’ll find the most popular Roman ruins in Italy. As the whole city stands on top of ancient sites, you’ll find different architectural elements incorporated into other styles throughout the city.
As the once beating heart of the Roman Empire, Rome is always a great way to immerse yourself in the history and the legacy the Romans left behind. While you can see elements of art and architecture from other centuries, there are a number of key Roman ruins to see here.
The Colosseum, originally named the Flavian Amphitheatre, is a spectacular structure even today, considering it’s over 2,000 years old. Begun by Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, it held over 60,000 spectators, making it the largest amphitheatre ever built. The bloodthirsty public enjoyed gladiators fight each other and battle wild beasts. There were mock sea battles, hunts and executions resulting in the deaths of many men and animals over the years.
Vespasian commissioned the stadium on the site of Nero’s opulent Domus Aurea, determined to erase anything associated with the tyrant. His son, Titus, completed the project in 80 AD, with further modifications by Domitian between 81 and 96 AD. The three emperors were part of the Flavian dynasty, giving the Colosseum its original name. When it comes down to seeing Roman ruins in Italy, this is definitely the place for that.
Arch of Constantine
Just outside the Colosseum stands the Arch of Constantine, commemorating his victory over co-emperor Maxentius in 312 AD. Although it is a bit of a Frankenstein, having elements recycled from other monuments, it is the largest surviving triumphal arch from the glory of the Roman Empire.
Today, the arch is still an impressive sight at over 21 metres (69 feet) high and 25 metres (82 feet) wide. It’s the largest triumphant arch and one of the last monuments of Imperial Rome.
The Roman Forum
The Forum was once the heart of Rome and the Roman Empire. Everything from food stalls and temples to the Senate House, brothels and public spaces had its place here. It’s hard to see its former glory today. Pillaging of the marble and stone after the fall of the empire, left it barren for centuries. From an Etruscan graveyard, then Roman ceremonial centre turned pastureland and an excavation site, the Forum is a testament to human ambition and determination.
The fact that there is anything left of the Forum is incredible. As you stroll along the site, you see the remnants of various temples, monuments, churches and other key buildings where the empire once wielded its power. The Arch of Titus, the Curia, Temple of Vesta, Basilica Julia and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina are just some of the highlights that make the Roman Forum an impressive ancient site.
Considered one of the most desirable addresses in Rome, Palatine Hill is where you’ll find some of the oldest ancient ruins. This is also, where Romulus supposedly founded the city of Rome. Interestingly, Palatine Hill is also, where Emperor Augustus was born and where Emperor Caligula was assassinated.
Today, the once opulent Domus Flavia stands in ruins, however, both the Domus Augustana and the Domus Livia have some of the best-preserved frescoes from the Roman times. Palatine Hill offers great views of the city and the Roman Forum below.
Nero’s famous Golden House was the epitome of luxury and excess. Built in a record four years, the scholars estimate it sat on over 300 acres (121 hectares). With 155 rooms, roughly the size of three football fields, 12 metres (39 feet) high ceilings and 30,000 square metres (323,000 square feet) of frescos and stuccoed ceilings, it was a site to behold. The two-story villa had gold leaf overlay with embellishments of rare gems and seashells, thus the name Golden House. Semi-precious stones and ivory veneers in the stuccoed ceilings inside completed the grandiose design. An artificial lake completed the vision.
Nero, an avid lover of all art forms, was also an eccentric tyrant with a devious streak. The great fire of Rome in 64 AD, supposedly started by Nero to make space for his new palace, destroyed two thirds of the city. Nero didn’t waste any time starting construction, which didn’t make him very popular. After his death, Emperor Vespasian went to great lengths to distance himself from Nero. The lake was drained, making space for the Colosseum while the rest of Nero’s villa was stripped, buried and forgotten. Rediscovered during 15the century it inspired many of the artist of the time. Not much remains of the frescoes, but with little bit of imagination and 3D technology you can see it all in its glory.
After Trajan conquered Dacia, modern day Romania, he celebrated by building his forum in 107 AD. It’s quite a massive complex filled with storefronts, bars and shops. There were two libraries on either side of the massive Trajan’s column. Both offered a closer view of the column, decorated with scenes from his conquest. Walking along the Via Biberatica, main street of the ancient forum still intact, you can see the well-preserved remains of doorways of bars and restaurants.
At first glance, the Teatro Marcello looks like a missing part of the Colosseum, but it actually predates it. Started by Julius Caesar and finished by Augustus, it was probably an inspiration for the Colosseum’s design. During the Renaissance, it became a fortified palace for the powerful Orsini family. Today, the top floor consists of a number of apartment while the Teatro serves as a backdrop for summer concerts.
Standing at 43 metres (142 feet) wide and 43 metres (142 feet) high, the Pantheon is one of the best-preserved buildings from Ancient Rome. Built around 125 AD on the site of two previous temples, it became a church around 7th century AD. Today, it is the resting place of many noble Italians including the artist Raphael.
Pantheon’s most impressive feature is the oculus, 8 metres (27 feet) in diameter opening in the centre of the dome and it’s the only source of natural light. The whole structure, built without metal rods, remains an engineering and architectural wonder. A perfect homage to Roman building prowess.
Baths of Caracalla
Even today, the size of what was one of Rome’s second largest public baths is enormous. This massive spa complex included three large water pools at different temperatures, two libraries, gymnasiums and gardens. This was a place for socializing, business and wellness. As houses didn’t have individual plumbing, most Romans went to the baths for sanitation, health, wellness and relaxation.
The Baths of Caracalla, named after the emperor behind the project, finished in 216 AD and could accommodate up to 1,600 people. A special aqueduct provided the much-needed fresh water for the pools. Additional reconstructions kept the spa going until it closed in 537 AD.
Villa dei Quintili
Located on the outskirts of Rome, the Quintili Villa belonged to brothers Quintili who served as consuls in 151 AD. The brothers, known for wealth, nobility and military prowess, met their death when Emperor Commodus accused them or treason and confiscated the villa after their execution.
The villa was an impressive feat of architecture and style. Some of its notable features included hot and cold water basins, 14 metres (46 feet) high window, courtyards and gardens. Located between the ancient Appian Way and the current Via Appia Nuova, the villa houses a museum. Also worth visiting are the nearby Roman aqueducts that used to provide water to the residence.
Underground Basilica of Porta Maggiore
Carved from volcanic tufa rock in first century AD, the basilica was once home to an obscure cult called Neopythagoreanis. Built over 2000 years ago by a rich Roman family of devotees, accidental discovered in 1917 during construction of a railway line brought it to light. After extensive renovations, it’s now open to the public.
Inside are lavishly decorated ceilings with stucco reliefs of gods, animals and mythical creatures.
Piramide Cestia (The Pyramid of Caius Cestus)
While a pyramid might seem like an odd sight in Rome today, it was built during a time when Romans were mad for all things Egyptian. They used a number of obelisks and pyramids to decorate monuments around the city. The construction of the marble covered pyramid took 330 days. Sometime later, it was incorporated into the Aurelian Wall. After an extensive restoration, it’s now open to the public.
The Pyramid of Cestus dates to somewhere between 18 and 12 BC as a tomb for Caius Cestius, man of power, wealth and influence. It’s the only surviving example of Roman pyramids. Pope Alexander VI dismantled the larger pyramid of Romulus during the 16th century to build steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Archaeological area Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
Just outside the church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is an archeological area of an imperial residence dating back to late second and early third century AD. There are remnants of an amphitheatre, large gardens and temples. Excavations and restorations unveiled a number of black and white mosaics and colourful frescoes.
Tempio Rotondo, Temple of Portunus and Bocca della Verita
Piazza dell Verita is like a jackpot for a blast from the Roman past. What was once a meat market is home to the Temple of Hercules, commonly referred to as Tempio Rotontdo (Round Temple) due to its shape, and the Temple of Portunus. Both date back to 2nd century BC and are made from Greek marble.
Here you’ll also find the Bocca della Veritas (Mouth of Truth), an ancient Roman drain cover that is shaped like a giant face with open mouth. According to the legend popular in Medieval times, the mouth would swallow the hand of a liar if places in the opening.
Tivoli – Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa)
Tivoli was a retreat town for many wealthy Romans and it’s where Emperor Hadrian built his country villa around 117 AD. The peaceful setting and the proximity to numerous aqueducts made this a popular destination for wealthy people of the day.
Hadrian’s villa is a testament to the magnificence and grandeur of the Roman Empire. As a traveller and a keen architect, Hadrian drew inspiration for his villa from places in other parts of the world. Today, you can the remnants of the magnificent gardens, spas and Teatro Marittimo (Maritime Theatre), an island where the emperor came seeking isolation. Also impressive is the Canopus, an elongated lake surrounded by sculptures and columns, is a copy of sanctuary of Serapis near Alexandria.
Once a thriving port and a commercial hub, Ostia was one of Rome’s most thriving cities. Unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum, the other famous Roman ruins in Italy, Ostia wasn’t destroyed by a natural disaster. Threats of impeding attacks by northern invaders and outbreaks forces the residents to abandon it during 4th century AD.
The mud and silt deposits from the sea and the Tiber preserved the city quite well, giving us an insight into the Roman life. Villas, shops and theatres left behind provide a look into how the city functioned. Baths, temples and ossuaries tell us about the daily activities and beliefs of the ancients.
Roman ruins in Naples and area
While Naples might not immediately jump to mind when you’re thinking of Roman ruins in Italy, there is a lot of them in this area. Naples, built on top of ancient ruins, is a treasure trove of history as is the surrounding area.
There a many underground cisterns, tunnels and reservoirs under the city that date back to Greek and Roman times. Here you’ll find the remnants of the amphitheatre where Emperor Nero performed for audiences, perfect intact Roman market discovered under a church as well as the Parco Archeologico Pausilypon. Build by a Roman Publio Vedio Pollio and gifted to Emperor Augustus, it’s an interesting place in Naples with fantastic views of the Bay of Naples.
For a list of underground tours of Naples, check out Discovering Naples underground with Napoli Sotterranea.
Pompeii is probably one of the most famous Roman ruins in Italy and one of the largest ancient sites. Once a bustling and prosperous town, it disappeared for centuries under ash and lava of the Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD. It lay forgotten until its rediscovery in mid 1800s.
Pompeii provides us with a glimpse into the life of Romans who once lived there. The structures, objects left behind and even the food and drink remnants found on site provide clues to the life of the ancients. It’s a massive site to explore and an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Pompeiians who once lived here.
Perhaps not as well-known as Pompeii, Herculaneum suffered the same fate during the eruption and was covered for centuries. As it was discovered much later, the restoration and preservation efforts have ensured that it is well intact. What makes this site so interesting is the quality of the objects found here. Door frames, furniture and even rooftops have survived the disaster.
Unlike Pompeii, you can get a lot closer to the mosaics, frescoes and walk in what was once houses. Overlooking the site is modern day Herculaneum, which makes you wonder how those living above it feel about their own mortality. Parts of the ancient city remain under the existing one, but what has been uncovered is definitely worth visiting.
Scavi di Stabia (Stabiae)
Stabia was another Roman seaside city with large villas of the wealthy. Although the growth of nearby Pompeii overshadowed it in antiquity, it suffered the same fate in 79 AD. Originally rediscovered in mid 1800s, it had to wait until the 1950s for excavation and restoration efforts.
Today, you’ll be able to explore two of the villas that have some of the finest examples of Roman villas.
Parco Archeologico di Cuma (Cumae Archaeological Site)
What started as the first Greek colony on mainland Italy in 8th century BC., later became a rich Roman city. Here you’ll find remnants of temples dedicated to Apollo, Diana and Isis, as well as the Crypta Romana and the enormous Grotta di Cocceio, a tunnel large enough for chariots to pass thought the mountain to reach the lake.
You can also tour the triangular Cave of the Sibyl (Antro della Sibilla). This is where the Cumaean Sibyl, priestess of Apollo, sang her prophecies or wrote them on leaves from oak trees for centuries. She has also appeared in many literary works of Virgil, Ovid, Dante and TS Elliott.
Pozzuoli and Rione Terra
Pozzuoli, another great Roman city with Greek origins is home to the Amphitheatrum Flavium (Flavio Amphitheater) and the Macellum of Pozzuoli, also known as the Temple of Serapis. The amphitheater is the third largest after the Colosseum and the Capuan Amphitheater. The temple, actually a marketplace in ancient times, includes three marble columns that was built between 1st and 2nd century AD.
Another great underground city of Rione Terra is a step back in time. Preserved intact under the modern day city, this once important Roman colony of Puteoli, dates back to 194 BC. Discovered by chance in 1980 due to volcanic activity, it offers a glimpse into the life of Romans. Take a stroll along the ancient road lined with shops fronts, warehouses and homes.
Called Casilinum in antiquity, the ancient city of Capua dates back to 600 BC. Etruscan in origin, it became a self-governing community under Roman rule, until it sided with Carthage against Rome and lost its political rights. While famous for its bronzes and perfumes, Capua is also where Spartacus began a revolt in 73 BC. Today you can see the remains of the second largest Roman amphitheatre where he fought as a gladiator, temples, baths and tombs.
Parco Archeologico di Baia
Once a luxury resort town catering to the rich and prominent Romans, today Baia lies under water. The natural volcanic vents that made baths and spas here so popular and successful combined with the seismic activity led to flooding. You can explore the city by boat or dive for a closer look.
Other ancient sites
There are numerous ancient sites and Roman ruins in Italy. Some are not as concentrated in a particular area and deserve a stand-alone mention. Probably many more have yet to be discovered while others are under excavations today. The beauty of ruins is that with careful excavations and preservations, they give us a glimpse into the past. In Italy, you can really spend years visiting them all.
Probably most famous for the Romeo and Juliet ill-fated romance, here you’ll also find an outstanding Roman amphitheatre dating back to 30 AD. In ancient times, the venue held over 30,000 spectators that came from all over. Originally made of pink and white limestone, it is third largest of its kind Italy. Today, it’s used for performances for thousands of spectators.
Foro Romano of Assisi (Perugia)
Linked closer to the medieval figure of St. Francis of Assisi, ancient Assisi was a Roman town with military purpose. Here you’ll find partially excavated Roman forum and well-preserved Roman temple of Minerva, dating back to 1st century BC.
This once prosperous city dates back to 7th century BC. Settled first by the Greeks, it enjoyed over 1,000 years of prosperity under including the Lucanian and Roman rule. Abandoned after the fall of the Roman Empire the fields turned into overgrown swamps. Three intact Greek temples were accidentally rediscovered in 18th century during construction of a nearby road. Additional temples, walls, tombs and an amphitheater were discovered in 20th century.
Valley of the temples (Sicily)
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Archaeological and Landscape Park of the Valley of the Temples includes ruins of the ancient city Akragas, named after a river of the same name. It was one of the most important Greek colonies in Sicily, founded around 582 BC. Today, the site covers over 1,300 hectares (over 3,000 acres) is the largest archeological site in the words. Here you’ll find remains of seven temples in Doric style.
There are also remains of ancient gates and walls, tombs, catacombs and graveyards dating back to Roman and Byzantine times.
View this post on Instagram
#savethedate venerdì 25 e sabato 26 agosto al Parco Archeologico e Paesaggistico della Valle dei Templi "L'Alba alla Valle dei Templi. Iliade, da Omero a Omero" L’ira funesta di Achille, la gelosia di Menelao, la bellezza di Elena, l’astuzia di Ulisse. I personaggi balzano fuori dai versi di Omero e accompagnano lo spettatore verso un’esperienza unica: quella di veder sorgere il sole pian piano dalle colline che circondano la Valle. Il pubblico ascolterà le gesta degli eroi dalla voce di Sebastiano Lo Monaco, uno dei più versatili interpreti della tradizione teatrale italiana, e potrà ammirare l'#alba sullo sfondo del Tempio della Concordia. Biglietto € 10.00 Informazioni +39 0922 1839996 http://www.coopculture.it/events.cfm?id=726 #DalTramontoAlleStelle Estate al Polo Culturale di #Agrigento #ParcoValleDeiTempli
Tarquinia, Tarchuna in Etruscan, emerged as a trading power back in 8th century BC. Not much is known about the city throughout the Roman period, but you can definitely learn more about its Etruscan heritage by visiting the necropolis of Monterozzi. The necropolis predates the Romans and is home to over 6,000 tombs, some of which have beautiful wall paintings of exceptional quality. They provide an insight into the secretive world of the Etruscans. Make sure to visit the nearby National Museum of Cerveteri and check out the numerous Etruscan artifacts on display.
Settled on picturesque hill of Monte Tauro, Taormina views of the bays below as well as that of Mount Etna, have been attracting people here for centuries. Settled by the Sicels, Greeks and Romans, then the Byzantines, Saracens, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards, there is lots of history here.
Here you’ll find the remnants of an ancient Greek theatre with Roman modifications, where gladiators entertained audiences, and numerous fragments of ancient buildings.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Barumini is home to the archaeological site “Su Nuraxi.” It is the most complete and best-preserved example of the Nuraghi architecture, Sardinia’s oldest civilization dating back to the Bronze Age (11th-10th centuries BC.).
Not much is known about the uses of these cylindrical structures made of basalt blocks. A complex of huts, cisterns, bastions and towers offers a look as far back as the 16th century BC. There is also a museum with 180 artifacts found on site.
Amongst Romans is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.ca. Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.