In Rome, there’s so much to see that many get lost. That is why we propose a simple and structured guide to enjoy Rome fully without getting overwhelmed by the thousands of options. Through a concise and time-travelling journey, we offer a selection of must-see places you can’t miss in Rome, the ancient capital of an empire. Familiarise yourself with the city and enhance your stay by bonding with such a beautiful destination.
Rome was founded according to tradition by Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, in the year 754/753 BCE. To him, is attributed the birth of the city as an urban institution, as well as the origin of the name. Rome had nine kings, including Romulus, becoming a Republic in 509 BCE, with the fall of the last King, Tarquinius Superbus. It was from here that Rome expanded exponentially, subjugating other local populations in the territories of central and southern Italy.
By the 2nd century BCE, Rome had already unified the Italic peninsula and became the leading power in the ancient world. In fact, within a century the Carthaginian empire, with which Rome contended for hegemony in the Mediterranean Sea, was vanquished, together with the Hellenistic kingdoms. Thus it was during this period that Rome alone renewed the political structure of the ancient world.
It followed various complicated factional revolts and games of power, often having expansionist outcomes such as those of the famous dictator Julius Caesar, who distinguished himself as a cunning general and strategist by making Rome an unstoppable war machine until the 1st century BCE.
The de facto Empire of Rome was therefore established, and it experienced its greatest expansion in the 2nd century CE under Emperor Trajan, when Rome self-proclaimed itself as “Caput Mundi,” meaning capital of the known world. Indeed, the empire’s territory ranged from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, from the south-central part of Britain to Egypt.
Today, Rome is rich with a heritage that has been passed down for millennia, and there are many places that offer us an exciting contrast between the town of today, Italy’s capital, and the ancient imperial one, the capital of a much larger territory.
All over the city centre of Rome are visible temples and archaeological sites, valuable pieces that tell a millenary story.
Rome’s greatness was its own Achilles’ heel. With such a vast empire, it was difficult for Rome, despite its excellent and sophisticated logistical capacity, to govern so many cultures and regions by uniting them under one statute, the Roman one. The empire was, therefore, permanently divided into two parts in 395 CE upon the death of Emperor Theodosius. The two kingdoms were then defined: the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire, dividing the Mediterranean sea in two. However, due to the thickening of tensions and revolts on several fronts, the Western Empire didn’t last long. It fell in 476 CE due to the continuous barbarian invasions that left the Roman defences exhausted and defeated.
While Rome was a victim of the constant invasions that plundered and destroyed all of Italy, on the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire (sometimes referred to as the Byzantine Empire in its medieval phase) lasted until the Ottomans conquered its capital, Constantinople (today Istanbul in Turkey) in 1453 CE.
What followed was a dark period, where all the identities of the glorious empire of Rome were lost in favour of a new rising power: the Church and the Papacy. The Pope thus replaced the concept of emperor or ruler of the Roman Empire, redefining a new realm based on the Catholic faith.
The radical change in medieval Rome was initiated by Pope Nicholas V. He decided to build here in the ancient capital a new centre of Christian faith, different from the roman pagan one. He conceived the idea of the new basilica of St. Peter’s: from that time, for about four centuries, Rome was under the complete rule of the popes. In those days, the pope was not only a religious figure but also a political leader. In Rome, precisely in Vatican City (the papal seat), decisions were taken to change the fate of all of Europe. This power led to intrigues and bloodshed, characterised by alliances and political battles between Italy’s most influential families, among which the notorious Borgia.
From the 15th century to its peak in the first half of the 16th century CE, Rome was the most important place of artistic production on the entire continent, with masters who left an indelible mark on Western figurative culture, including the famous Michelangelo and Raphael.
Let’s discover below the monuments and works that still speak to us today about this era.
Between the 16th and early 17th centuries CE, Rome was characterised by Baroque art, an aesthetic, ideological and cultural movement of important urban renewal of the city by both the nobles and the powerful cardinal families, who built new mansions in the centre and on the hills, and by the popes.
Among the figures promoting the movement was Pope Sixtus V, who pushed Rome toward genuine architectural, cultural and economic modernisation.
However, with the events of the French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion, Rome fell under French rule. Napoleon himself commissioned the artist Antonio Canova to renovate the city; on his order, moreover, archaeological excavations began (especially at the Roman Forum). During the French period, the town suffered Napoleonic spoliations of artistic works that took place all over the country.
After French rule, the Restoration of the temporal power of the popes lasted a few decades, suffering the effects of the Italian Risorgimento, a period in Italian history during which Italy achieved its national unity.
On March 17, 1861, Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed King of Italy by the first national parliament, establishing a precursor of today’s Italian political figure.
In 1870 CE, the military force known as “Bersaglieri”, commanded by General Raffaele Cadorna, breached the circle of walls near Porta Pia and entered Rome, which was not yet part of the kingdom. Thus, Rome was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy, of which it became the capital.
The first decades of the new capital saw a great building ferment, with much of the area enclosed within the walls being built up to the detriment of the large pre-existing villas, both for public buildings and ministries and for new residential neighbourhoods. Moreover, urban expansion occurred in parallel with the influx of many new inhabitants, who exceeded half a million by the early 20th century.
After World War I, the city found itself in a climate of unrest and political uncertainty, which saw in 1922, the rise of Benito Mussolini with the “March on Rome”. During the Fascist twenty-year period, Rome was at the centre of a drastic urban planning revolution: the Duce had several medieval and renaissance buildings demolished to allow space for new major roads.
In 1940 CE, Italy entered World War II, which did not directly involve Rome until 1943, when it was subjected to heavy bombing by Allied air forces that killed more than 3,000 people,
When the war ceased, Rome, following the referendum of 1946, became the capital of the newly formed Italian Republic. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city developed urbanistically and demographically and, beginning with the Jubilee of 1950, became one of the most sought-after tourist destinations, transforming itself, in a short time, into one of the world capitals of entertainment, cinema and tourism.