Stepping through the history of Republic and Empire in Rome

By Chris Stokel-Walker (Moderator), a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Rome.

Overall rating:4.7 out of 5 (based on 3 votes)
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The Roman Empire was one of the largest the world has ever known, and is still famous today. Follow in the footsteps of the great Roman Republic in this tailor-made tour of the Eternal City.

"Every temple, basilica, arch, road or aqueduct of Rome was potentially a political act: it mattered a great deal who built what, and when." (Amanda Claridge, Rome)

From 753BC when Rome was founded, it has been the seat of power for most of the developed world. Great leaders, technological advancements and some of the world's finest literature have come to prominence in the Eternal City, and the city does not give up it's most precious secrets unless you know the history behind the myth.

The Republic

Until 509BC Rome was ruled by Kings; they were then usurped and replaced with the great Roman Republic, which lasted more than 500 years. Under the Republic, Rome took control of the whole of Italy. They fought three wars against Carthage, and took Sicily, Spain, Macedonia, Africa, France and Asia in their thrall. Julius Caesar won out in a bloody Civil War - then was killed himself, and the father of rhetoric, Marcus Tullius Cicero, was born, proscribed, then killed. Around 280BC, the first Roman coins were minted. In 264, the first gladiatorial games held, and in this 500 year period some of Rome's most famous architecture was planned and built. Little of it remains in modern day Rome, having been improved or replaced by Imperial buildings. However, there is one major element of the Republican building programme which remains - and it's right under your feet.

The Via Appia (built in 312BC) begins in Rome. Called regina longarum viarum (Queen of the long roads), it connects the ancient capital to the city of Brindisi. By going to the Forum Romanum, you can see the first few miles of the road before it passes out of the city walls. Dotted along the roadway are numerous monuments from a variety of eras, both Repulican and Imperial, giving a true sense of just how this city built on seven hills has adapted to its surroundings and circumstances over the years. Just outside the Porta San Sebastiano (called in ancient times the Porta Appia, or Appian Gate) is the Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis, where Peter is supposed to have met Jesus Christ and asked him "Quo vadis?" or "where are you going?". His reply was "Eo Romam iterum crucifigi": "I'm going to Rome to be recrucified." Best of all, because the Appian Way is a public road, and the Church of the Lord Quo Vadis a working church, you don't have to pay a thing to see them.

The Empire

In 27BC Octavian begame Emperor Augustus and for a further 500 years Rome existed as an Empire, stretching its tendrils across the world (the area around the Danube fell first, then Britain and Dacia). What the Empire gave to the world (the poetry of Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Tibullus; Hadrian's Wall and a tolerance to Christianity) paled in comparison, however, to what it bequeathed to the city itself. The majority of the Forum Romanum, the imposing Colosseum and the nearby Arch of Constantine are just three of the major highlights of the half-millenia of Empire still visible today, and it is the Rome of Empire that you see when you fly over the city on the way to land.

The Forum Romanum (daily 9am-6pm, Sundays 9am-1pm) came into its own as the hive of activity in Imperial Rome. Augustus Caesar famously said that he inherited Rome as a city of bricks, and left it filled with marble. 

One of the most important places to see in the Forum is the Curia, or Senate House - the centre of Roman democracy. Here the great problems of the Roman Empire were discussed by lawmakers and some of the most important decisions agreed on. Built by Julius Caesar, the Curia was improved and restored by Domitian. Today it is one of the highest points in the Forum, and provides a good vantage point to plan your route through the expansive ruins. It also acts as a mini-museum, displaying some of the more interesting and recent finds from the archaeological digs still ongoing in the Forum. Recent artefacts have included the head from a giant bust which nearly filled the entire room! Take a long walk around the Forum - there are a whole host of sights to see, including the Temple of Vesta, home of the famous Vestal Virgins and the Arch of Septimus Severus, built in 203AD at nearly the halfway point of the glory days of the Empire.

Your €12 ticket to the Forum Romanum lasts 48 hours and will also buy you entry to the main sight in all of Imperial Rome - and allow you to join a truncated queue, too.

The Colosseum is one of the most widely-recognised sights in all of Rome: from films such as 'La Dolce Vita' to historical epics like 'Gladiator', nothing quite captures the majesty of Rome as the gladiatorial stomping ground. Currently the Colosseum is in a state of disrepair, though back when it was completed in AD80 it would have been even more imposing, a great theatre for the people. Begun ten years earlier, the Colosseum spanned two Emperors from the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian (who oversaw the planning and first stage of development) and Titus. After Titus' death, the Colosseum was tweaked by Domitian, but it is very much the Ampitheatrum Flavium ('Amphiteatre of the Flavian family').

Hosting a cavalcade of animals in the underground caverns that are now visible from all points of the arena, the Colosseum was not just privy to the gladiatorial bouts that it is famous for today. Juvenal's famous phrase 'panem et circenses' (bread and circuses) didn't refer to gladiatorial combat alone: exotic animals were brought in not only to fight the finest warriors Rome could muster, but also to provide light relief in the baking hot sun.

The Colosseum was, in its day, open to the elements: today even moreso. In summer the ruins can be unforgiving in the face of the sun (especially after a prolonged period of time in the queue to get in. Even if you've already bought your ticket at the Forum Romanum, the entry queues can be long and annoyingly punctuated by over-eager locals dressed in varying degrees of authentic gladiator costumes. If you do take them up on their offer to have your picture taken, be prepared to be forced to hand over anything up to €10). It is worth it, however, to take in the atmosphere of what a true gladiatorial fight would have been like in Roman times. Don't just look in at the impressive scale of the amphitheatre, however: the design of the Colosseum affords its visitors superb views out on the rest of Rome - and from a high vantage point too. Its nooks and crannies also seem to have been designed not only as a perfect lookout point for tourists, but as a haven in the shade from the noontime sun.

One of the landmarks you can see from the Colosseum is the nearby Arch of Constantine, which sits just yards outside the main entrance of the Flavian amphitheatre.

Dedicated in 315AD to celebrate Constantine's victory over Maxentius three years earlier, Constantine's triumphal arch is an example of Imperial Rome in action. With stone cribbed from a variety of other sources, the Arch is a vanity project taken in extremis. Much as Constantine felt his victory allowed him the spolia - or spoils of war - over his defeated opponent, so he thought that the victory allowed him to take from other buildings within Rome to commemorate his victory. It marks the path of the Via Triumphalis (or Triumphant Road), the route upon which all Emperors would enter the city upon being crowned. This was Constantine demonstrating his largesse: he built a memory to his being which all those who followed him would be forced to pass under and remember his glories.

Luckily, it has survived the 1700 years between its making and today so that tourists can walk up the Via Triumphalis and see the same imposing gate looming over them - and for absolutely nothing. The inscription on the arch shows Constaintine's usual demure nature: translated, it reads 'To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, most pious, and blessed Augustus, because he - inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind - has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.'

Live like an Emperor - or Republican!

Rome, like many major cities, has an awful lot of brilliant hotels to stay in. It does, however, like many major cities, have an awful lot of poor-quality ones too. To ensure that you're able to sit in comfort in your room and study the history of his majestic city before the next day's sightseeing, pick one of these fine Rome hotels:

The Hotel Maikol Rome (Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, £60-£90) sells out its rooms quickly - and for good reason. Having just undergone a refurbishment, this two-star B&B is family-run and close to the Forum and Colosseum (about a ten minute walk away). It's basic, but not so much that you will feel bad spending some quality time in your room.

Hotel Cromata (Via Cairoli 84, £60-100) is a little further out (20 minutes walk from the Colosseum) but altogether more modern experience. Each room is themed around a different colour, and the decor is modern and inviting - perfect for couples. You also get a free breakfast at a nearby cafe included with the room if you want to spend a lazy morning gearing up to steep yourself in history.

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Chris Stokel-Walker (Moderator)
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
Average: 4.7 (3 votes)
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First uploaded:
6 July 2010
Last updated:
4 years 49 weeks 5 days 13 hours 34 min 56 sec ago
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Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range, Expensive

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Community comments (6)

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Chris - it's obvious that the splendour of Rome left an indelible mark upon you.

I loved your format with just focussing on a few of the main attractions. I'm sure my review of Rome would dart all over the place so kudos to you for your focus :o)

Must confess I did find you left me behind in a couple of places - your knowledge of Rome history is far greater than mine. Never underestimate how uneducated your readership might be!

While I certainly enjoyed the read, at around 1650 words your piece is about twice the length of many standard travel newspaper articles, so it is a long article. A few more photos would also be welcome.

Sorry to sound like a nitpick as there is a lot of value in your article but I wanted to explain why for me it just missed the "top mark".


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That's no problem - I wanted to try something new and realised it was a little long but thought that the history is an important part of the guide.

I'll try and dig out some photos I have and add them!

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Hi Chris

The problem with somewhere like Rome is just where to start and I like the approach you have adopted here serving up a flavour of the eternal city's rich history.

One thing to watch out for around the Collossium is the restaurants that claim to offer fixed price menus, the price does not include the cover charge, bread etc and you will be fleeced for a rather mediocre meal.

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You're right - the area around the Colosseum is notorious for its tourist traps, and they can prove pretty distracting (so much so that I once saw a car accident just outside the Colosseum because the driver was distracted by tourist shenanigans!). The general advice would be if you go to Rome, do be careful about the touristy areas as in any city.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Hi Chris- your knowledge on the subject is impressive and it's obviously a city which has impressed you. I haven't made it there yet but when I do the guide will come too.

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Sorry- technical hitch with the website. My comment went in twice and I can't delete it! Having a bad day- cheers Chris

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