<p>(by Anto bozzini, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)</p>
  • Europe /
  • Italy /
  • Milan

A walk through the remains of the ancient Roman Empire

The theatre and the “forum”
3d model (Alain Darles, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Classical structure of a Roman theatre (a derivative work of a 3D model by Lasha Tskhondia - L.VII.C., CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Remains visible in the theatre's underground museum (by Stefano Bolognini, Attribution via WikiCommons)
"Mediolanum" digital reconstruction (Cristiano64Vectorization, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

3d model (Alain Darles, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

We are near the “decumanus maximus”, corresponding to Via Santa Maria Fulcorina and Via Santa Maria Alla Porta, the central horizontal street axis running in an east-west direction of the typical Roman village urban plan. 

Here once stood the famous and iconic Roman theatre. The building had a diameter of about 95 metres and, similarly to any other classical structure of the same type, it had a curvilinear front that housed the ‘auditorium’, occupied by the spectators. On the opposite linear section stood the stage, known as the ‘orchestra’, where music was played, and actors performed scenes from mythology or famous plays by ancient writers.

The Romans adopted and repurposed strong Greek influences through dramas and comedies. Unlike the amphitheatre, the theatre hosted theatrical performances, not physical games.

Built nearby the main city street, it is no coincidence that the theatre had this location. As for any large colony, the Roman organisation demanded easy access to the building. This facilitated city order on the one hand and, on the other, allowed all those living outside the walls to flock to events and performances. For the Roman Empire, the theatre, amphitheatre and circus were not only a source of pride to show off to its citizens but also an essential means of involvement and characteristic of Roman identity. In addition, the shows facilitated distraction from various problems and nurtured patriotism, an important key to maintaining a firm grip on such a vast empire.

However, with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE and recurring invasions, were established new cultures and traditions, and Roman sites such as the theatre and circus lost their use. As a result, they were often demolished and reused for the construction of other buildings. 

The ancient remains of the theatre were found right under the seat of the Milan Stock Exchange during its construction at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century CE. Today it is possible to visit an archaeological museum in the basement containing part of the theatre structure, a beautiful example of historical classicism right underneath modern buildings.

As previously mentioned, the Roman system was very organised. For each newly conquered territory, the practice was to build a new military camp called ‘castrum’, of square or rectangular shape made mainly of wood and other locally available materials. The original structure of the base consisted of a defensive wall supported by a raised embankment and a moat around it as a further defensive action.

From this primary military settlement, over time, further developments and enlargements could result in an authentic village foundation, possibly the beginning of a flourishing colony.

The ‘castrum’ was generally traversed by two main roads, the ‘decumanus’ as previously mentioned, and the ‘cardo’, which intersected the former perpendicularly in the centre, dividing the camp into four portions. At this intersection, the forum was erected, representing the centre of the Roman settlement or city. It was the city’s juridical, political, economic and spiritual centre. In short, it was the heart of the town and, therefore, the meeting place where council meetings and marketplaces often took place.

We arrive, therefore, in the area of the actual centre, which corresponded to the Roman forum of Mediolanum. 

The Forum was located precisely in the area where today stands the famous library Pinacoteca Ambrosiana of Milan and the Church of Santo Sepolcro. In memory of this ancient past are the remains of the Roman Forum under the library. Here it is possible to see part of the Roman pavement, imagining scenes of everyday life. The centre of Mediolanum boosted various artisans’ shops, taverns, and places of worship. The high roman aristocracy, known as the “patricians”, showed off their new tunics of fine oriental silks among these streets.


1. The mausoleum

2. Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio

3. The Amphitheatre

4. The Columns of San Lorenzo

5. The Imperial Palace & the Circus

6. The theatre and the “forum”

7. Under the Duomo

8. "Erculee" thermal baths