For most visitors the interest of ancient Rome is, understandably, the centre. The Colosseum, the Forum, the Palatine Hill, the Pantheon, the triumphal arches are all embedded in our minds as symbols of the empire we remember today. But there is another Rome – not Rome the empire, but Rome the city – which you can experience best not by going to the centre but by going around the edge: by walking the Roman walls.
For most of its history Rome did not need walls to protect it. The empire did that. There was a wall – or perhaps more a stockade – round the Iron Age settlement on the Palatine Hill and a second wall was finished in 534BC, when Rome was still a kingdom. But the main walls, of which some 80 per cent remain, were built by the Emperor Aurelian between AD272 and AD278, when Rome was starting to fear invasion. They are just under 19km in circumference, enclosing a city that then had about a 1,500,000 inhabitants. The best-preserved parts rise 20m high. To get around them requires a decent day’s walk – but with the great advantage that you are never far from an ice cream or pizza parlour or – as we rather needed on a hot Saturday last month – a water fountain.
It is a circular walk: you can start it anywhere and go round either way. We started at Piramide, which is on the Metropolitana underground railway, and went round anti-clockwise. The pyramid itself is a 27m-high tomb belonging to Gaius Cestius, who died around 12BC but about whom we don’t really know much – except that he clearly wanted to be remembered, for this is the largest private tomb in the city. Facing you is the Porta San Paolo, one of the 18 gates of the wall, which leads down to the ancient port of Rome, Ostia. Ostia itself is well worth a visit in its own right: a mini-Pompeii on Rome’s doorstep, without the crowds.
For the first half-hour or so you are tracing the outside of the wall on quiet roads (but crossing a busy junction). The walls here, faced with brick, with watchtowers every 30m and a battlement on the top, tower over you. Then you reach Porta San Sebastiano, the best preserved of all the gates and home to a museum of the walls. The museum gives you the facts and history of the walls but also gives you the chance to climb to the top of the gate and look out along the Appian Way – the oldest of all the roads leading to Rome. (It was at this moment that I realised what it must have been like to be a worried legionnaire on guard duty with the barbarians at the gates.)
Carry on outside the walls, but venture inside at the next gate, the Porta Metronia, and walk up to your right towards the huge church of San Giovanni in Laterano. In the Catholic world, it is second only to St Peter’s in importance. On your way you will pass the oldest item in Rome: an Egyptian obelisk which dates from the 15th century BC.
The church was originally built by the emperor Constantine, who converted the empire to Christianity around AD330, though the church has been rebuilt several times since then. The bronze doors are older still: they were taken from the Senate House of the republic. There is a fine statue of Constantine in the entrance.
You then walk across the piazza, staying inside the walls, to the next church, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. It contains what is reputed to be a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified, together with nails and thorns. From there it’s a short walk inside the walls, going out though the next gate, the Porta Maggiore.
Here, two fascinating elements should distract you. If you look up you see how three aqueducts, built on top of each other, have been incorporated into the walls. They still have their marble cladding: you can see the waterproof concrete the Romans developed to stop them from leaking. It’s estimated that the 11 aqueducts brought more water into Rome than the city uses now – that’s an awful lot of bathing.
The other point of interest is the tomb of a baker, made to look like a bread oven. His name was Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces and he was a freed slave. He had clearly made a fortune, a tribute to social mobility in ancient Rome.
You walk on outside the walls, which you can see have houses incorporated into them, with curtained windows poked through the bricks, until you pass on your left a rather forbidding section. This was the outside of the Castro Pretorio, the barracks of the imperial guard of 9,000 soldiers, who made and overthrew many of the later emperors. The building is still used by the Italian armed forces, though it has been somewhat refurbished over the past 2,000 years.
You are about half way around the circuit now. Head outside the walls until you pass the top of Via Veneto and reach the gardens of the Villa Borghese. This is, of course, Renaissance Rome rather than imperial Rome. But it makes a leafy break, and you are rewarded at the end by looking down across the city to Castel Sant’Angelo, Hadrian’s tomb, and St Peter’s beyond.
Now you drop down to Piazza del Popolo, with an obelisk in the middle, and the Porta Flaminia, designed by Michelangelo and Bernini. From there the walls have been demolished for the next couple of kilometres, but if you take the right hand of the three roads facing you (called Via di Ripetta) you come to a grassy mound that is the tomb of the first emperor, Augustus. There are plans to excavate it, and it certainly seems strange that the tomb of the most important emperor of all should be so neglected. Meanwhile, there is a museum opposite called the Museo dell’Ara Pacis that contains parts of the so-called Peace Altar, built in AD13 to celebrate how Augustus had brought peace to the entire Roman empire.
You now cross the Tiber to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a drum-shaped tomb built by Hadrian for him and his family, and which was incorporated into the walls and turned into a fortress. From there, there is a covered passage to the Vatican, permitting popes to escape to safety in troubled times. Continue along the west bank of the Tiber and pick up the walls again just beyond St Peter’s, climbing up to the top of the Janiculum Hill, another leafy park, with a statue of Garibaldi and great views back over Rome.
The walls are on your right – you are walking along the parapet on the top. You follow these, passing a garden where Julius Caesar built a palace for Cleopatra, until you drop back down to the Tiber and cross it over the Ponte Sublicio. Look to your right as you cross and you will see the remains of the port, where the lighters bringing cargo up from Ostia were unloaded.
From there it is a short walk past an artificial hill made up of discarded wine and oil jars – even in Roman times there was landfill, because it was not considered worth shipping them back. Pick up the walls again at the Protestant cemetery, and back to the pyramid. The circuit is complete.
And if, during your walk, you find yourself wondering why these mighty walls failed in their task, for Alaric and his Visigoths invaded Rome and sacked it in AD410, the answer is simple. He bribed the slaves to open the gates and let his army in.
Hamish McRae was hosted by the Nato Defense College in Rome, which charted this walk round the walls, and runs it as part of its courses.
Kirker Holidays (020-7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights’ B&B at the Marcella Royal for £665pp, with flights, transfers, Vatican tickets and a private walking tour of the walls.
Museo delle Mura (00 39 06 06 08; museodellemuraroma.it; €6.50). Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (00 39 06 6988 6392; vatican.va). Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (00 39 06 7061 3053; santacroceroma.it). Villa Borghese (00 39 06 841 3979; galleriaborghese.it; €12.50). Museo dell’Ara Pacis (00 39 06 06 08; arapacis.it; €8.50). Castel Sant’Angelo (00 39 06 681 9111; castelsantangelo.iculturali.it; €7).