Coming to Rome with a 'Rome on your own' excursion is very handy for the history walk. Most of the historical sites of ancient Rome are close to the bus drop-off point.
To begin the Roman history tour, walk up the street to the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, and walk in front of it. Cross the street going towards the church and the tall cylindrical Trajan's Column. This column commemorates Roman emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars and was completed in 113 AD. This is the original, with wonderful carving depicting the battles curving up the column. Go around in front of the pretty round church and walk down by the ruins.
The huge semi-circular ruin is the Trajan Market—a large complex of warehouses, shops and offices where the Romans would gather to purchase goods and conduct business, built between 107 and 110 AD. There were about 150 shops. Also in the lower part of the market was the so-called Great Hall, 32 meters long and 8 meters high. The hall was possibly used for concerts, speeches or education. Follow the path out to the street, Via dei Fori Imperiali.
A bit of more modern history...... The street that runs from the Vittorio Emanuele Monument to the Colesseum, Via dei Fori Imperiali, was built by Mussolini in 1932 to celebrate the glories of the Roman Empire. The irony of this was that it was built right through the Roman ruins, without thought of what was being destroyed, or a record of what had been there. There was a large military parade in 1938 down the street when Hitler visited Rome, with Mussolini and Hitler in an open car.
Arch of Constantine
(Picture at top of the page...)
The Arch of Constantine I, erected in c. 315 CE, commemorates Roman Emperor Constantine’s victory over the Roman tyrant Maxentius. It is the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch and the last great monument of Imperial Rome. It stands beside the Colosseum.
I would suggest you walk towards the Colosseum first, and come back through the Roman Forum—it seems to flow better that way. Your entry ticket should give you access to the Forum and the Palatine Hill as well as the Colosseum. You can buy the tickets part way down the Via dei Fori Imperiali or across from the Colosseum - or on-line, of course. Inside the Colosseum there are stairs and an elevator to take you to the higher levels.
The Colosseum is one of the best-kept ruins of the Roman Empire and this site dates to 72 AD when Vespasian was emperor. It is estimated that it once held up to 50,000 people at any one time. The oval theater was a stage for gladiators and public spectacles. There are 80 entrances to get into the building so the audience could get in and out quickly, and it’s the largest amphitheater ever built.
There is a small wooden deck to show the level where the floor was. The floor was wood and covered with sand. Below the floor is a vast two-story underground labyrinth of tunnels connecting training rooms for gladiators, cages for exotic wild animals, and store-rooms. Elaborate machines lifted scenery and caged animals to the arena, and according to accounts of the period, the arena was sometimes filled with water for mock sea battles—that is difficult to imagine!
The emperor and the Vestal Virgins had the best views from boxes at the north and south ends of the arena, and you can still see the names of senators carved in the stone of the area between these, which was reserved for them. Noble families sat on the second level, and the general public sat in the third and fourth levels. On the top level, there were originally 240 masts set around the walls that supported an awning to keep the hot sun off the audience that could be retracted.
The Roman Forum
(Note: There are lots of guides through the Forum. I suggest the Rick Steves guide, and he also has a podcast to walk you through the Forum.)
If you enter near the colosseum, you enter the Forum by the Via Sacra—the Sacred Way.
Once you pass through the Roman Forum’s admission gates, the first ruin you encounter along the Via Sacra is the second of the three arches, the Arch of Titus—dedicated to the life of an emperor celebrating his conquest of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Sadly, Jewish slaves who were captured in that battle were forced to build the arch.
Turn right from the arch and you are facing one of the most impressive ruins. This is the remains of the Basilica di Massenzio—an enormous structure and the largest in all the Roman Forum in its day. It was completed by Constantine in 312 after his successful triumph in the battle. What you see is only one third of the original. “Basilica” did not have a religious connotation at that time, it was a place to house public gatherings, meetings, etc. Walk up the path towards the basilica and you can see the foundations for the missing sections.
The Temple of Romulus
Next on your right is the circular Temple of Romulus. It has survived because it was attached as an entry to a church. The bronze doors are original, dated about 400 AD.
Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina is one of the most surprising monuments. The Senate dedicated it to the emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina, deified after their death, as the inscription up high tells us. The temple is one of the few well-preserved buildings here because, during the Middle Ages, it was transformed into a church so escaped the quest for building material—but only just! If you look closely, on the upper part of the columns, you’ll see traces of the ropes used during one of the attempts to pull them down for re-use. And there’s another curious fact: the door of the church opens as though suspended in mid-air at the center of the facade as well as being very high off the ground. Apparently this door was added at a much later date when the level of the terrain that had deposited over the ruins of the Forum had reached that height! (The forum was buried under many meters of earth.)
The Curia Julia
On the right, stands the Curia Julia or Senate Building. Commissioned by Julius Caesar in the 1st century B.C., the building we see today is actually a reproduction completed in the 3rd century due to a fire that destroyed its predecessor. During the 7th century, the structure was converted into the church of Santo Adriano which is the reason for its survival. Actually, many buildings in Rome that stood the test of time owe their survival to such conversions.
It seems that sometimes it is open for tourists, and sometimes not.
Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestal Virgins
Across the Via Sacre, to the left lie the ruins from the Temple of Vesta—the most sacred of places in the Roman Forum. This was the home of the Vestal Virgins who guarded the eternal flame of Rome. As long as the flame burned, Rome would stand or so it was believed. These remains date back to the 8th century B.C. and were originally built to guard the Palladium, which lies just beyond the courtyard of the Vestal Palace, and its sacred objects brought to Italy by Aeneas. If the eternal flame burned out during one of the Vestal Virgins’ sentry, she was buried alive. The outline of the ‘house’ can be seen, and the statues along the path.
Arch of Septimius Severus
Near the end of via Sacra and the end of our tour of the Roman Forum, you will find the third in the series of the Roman Forum arches—the Arch of Septimius Severus—named after the Emperor who ruled from A.D. 193 to 211. Completed in 203, this six-story arch is covered with reliefs commemorating the Emperor’s battles in Mesopotamia.
Temple of Caesar
On your left just beyond the Temple of Vesta is what remains of the Temple of Caesar, built by Octavian in memory of his uncle Julius Caesar whose body was burned on this very spot. A tiny mound of dirt is all that remains marking the location .The House of Julius Caesar was located just beyond the temple.
Temple of Saturn
The Arch of Septimius Severus, erected in 203 CE, stands in Rome and commemorates the Roman victories over the Parthians in the final decade of the 2nd century CE. Restored three times during history, these ruins date to A.D. 283 and at one time, contained a statue of Saturn which was carried in parades after many a Roman triumph.
Go back to the ticket place towards the Colosseum and go up the hill on the path—this is heading to Palatine Hill.
The Palatine Hill
This is lovely, and not as crowded as the Forum - and you are pretty much free to walk where you want to. This is where the palaces of the Emperors were. On the left hand side is the Hippodrome of Domitian—a long field with an oval at the end and walls around. It is not known what it was—it could be for sport or even a garden. When you get to the top of the hill on the far side, you look down on the Circo Massimo—the huge oval for horse and chariot races. There is also a museum, if you are interested.