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Italy’s 5 most amazing ancient Roman sites – and what to see there

The Romans helped to shape the world, and their legacy lives on in arts and culture throughout Italy. For a truly immersive holiday, don't miss these unique ancient treasures




A city threaded with historic treasures, Italy’s capital is a walk-through tapestry recalling Roman life. A theatre of gore and gallantry, the Colosseum is a skyline-hogging landmark; as the world’s largest amphitheatre, the 70,000 capacity venue impresses with sheer size.

Nearby, the Roman Forum is a sprawl of evocative fragments central to the Empire: remains of temples, political buildings and even an ancient sewage system have survived. But there’s no need to fill in gaps at the archaeologically intact Pantheon; Rome’s former temple has weathered 2,000 years remarkably well.


Pompeii and Herculaneum


Crumbling below sleeping dynamite Mount Vesuvius, the ruins of disaster-struck city Pompeii are an archaeological triumph. Theatres, baths, villas and temples make up the complex, which was flattened by ash and pumice in 79AD, leaving behind a snapshot of the past. The tiny brothel, with its Karma Sutra frescoes, is a cliched honeypot, but other attractions are spread comfortably across the site.

Destroyed by a pyroclastic surge, the neighbouring Herculaneum features carbonised wooden lofts and furnishings. Its dazzling mosaics and imagination-tickling buildings are less busy and easier to navigate.


Ostia Antica


Like Pompeii without the crowds, Rome’s ancient port city (a 45-minute drive south) is a freeze-frame of early Anno Domini life. Originally founded to defend the mouth of the River Tiber, it later became a trading post for grain, oil and wine. As the river changed course, a smothering of silt mummified the settlement: Cyprus trees wind around columns once used as shipping offices; the equivalent of billboards, monochrome mosaics advertise wares for sale.

In a tavern, frescoes form a pictorial menu, and marble benches are the remnants of posh communal toilets.


Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli


A showy display of power and wealth, Emperor Hadrian’s 2nd century AD villa is a flashy five-star pad. A cross between Buckingham Palace and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, the sprawling complex shamelessly oozes opulence on a super-sized scale. Stone baths made use of nearby thermal springs and a pool fringed with exotic statues boasting imperial conquests was a favourite for raucous summer dips.

Rest and reflection came in the form of the Emperor’s private island – equipped with an en-suite and WC, the Maritime Theatre was a place for pensive thought.


Capua Amphitheatre


Romans loved to watch a bloody battle, with gatherings akin to a rowdy Premier League football match. A possible blueprint for the Colosseum, Capua’s amphitheatre has aged worse than its larger Roman cousin – but fewer crowds make up for its shabbier shell. Underground, the galleries, tunnels and vaults are in much better condition, making it easy to imagine the days when Spartacus launched his slave revolt from this site.

The city close to Naples hosted Rome’s first gladiator school, and a neighbouring Gladiator Museum pays homage to those belligerent greats.


Courtesy: Sarah Marshall, The Times

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