This free self-guided walk takes you from the site of Caesar’s death to Rome’s own pyramid, taking in the original Jewish Ghetto and the most beautiful view of the most beautiful city on earth.
Distance: 2.5 miles (3.75 km)
Approximate length: 3 hours
This tour starts at Largo di Torre Argentina. Though not near a metro station, it is just a few steps down Via del Plebiscito from Piazza Venezia with its prominent ‘wedding-cake’ building that can be seen from everywhere in the city. The Largo is surrounded by buildings, trams, a main road, and bus stops, but it is historically very significant. Below the level of the street is an exposed part of the Roman Forum, containing four temples. Of greatest interest though, on the side flanked by the tram terminus, is the location of the Curia of Pompey.
Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) was a hugely successful general who expanded the Roman territories enormously, with successful campaigns in Sicily, in North Africa, the Iberian peninsula, Crete, Jerusalem, and as far east as the Black Sea. He was the youngest-ever elected Consul of Rome, aged only 35. As part of his second consulship he rewarded the people of Rome by building them a gigantic theater (the first and largest permanent stone theater in the ancient city). The theater is long gone, though a look at a map shows that its semicircular shape is still etched in the streets to the west of the Largo.
Julius Caesar, a former ally of Pompey’s and the father of his beloved wife Julia, fell out with Pompey following Julia’s death, and began to challenge his consulship. This led to Caesar’s armies crossing the Rubicon (that’s where that phrase comes from – the Rubicon was a river in northern Italy) to attack Pompey’s troops, force them south and eventually to invade Rome and be proclaimed ‘dictator for life’ in 44BC.
Caesar did not like the location of the Senate Building (which still stands in the Roman Forum) because the Forum was by then incredibly crowded, dirty, and prone to flooding. He temporarily moved Senate operations to a small meeting hall standing among the columns of the courtyard in front of the theater: the Curia of Pompey. Less than a month after his appointment as dictator, it was here that Caesar was stabbed to death by his Senators. The location of his death has recently been hypothesized to be in the exact place where you are now standing: Caesar’s great nephew (and adopted son) Augustus had an ‘altar’ built in the place where his father fell, and that block of concrete is in the square you are now looking into.
From here, walk towards the medieval tower (‘the tower of the little Pope’) on the corner of the square. Opposite is Via Paganica. Stroll down this lane until you reach a charming piazza, and admire the beautiful, unusual, but amazingly detailed Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles), designed by Giacomo della Porta in the 16th century.
The Jewish Ghetto of Rome
This marks the edge of the Roman Ghetto. The first ever ghetto (the word is derived from the Italian word borghetto, meaning ‘little village’) was declared in 1555 by Pope Paul IV as a walled enclave in which Jewish residents of Rome were forced to live. Jews who lived elsewhere in the city, as they had done for 1,300 years when Jewish slaves were brought to Rome following the sack of Jerusalem, lost many rights and had to move to this area, which at the time was one of the worst parts of the city and subject to endless flooding.
Continue straight on through the piazza, down Via della Reginella, and as you walk down the lane, look out for discreet memorials embedded in walls and the ground to memorialize Jews who were murdered during the Second World War, as well as in an attack by the PLO in 1982.
Over the centuries the literal ghettoization of the population had some inadvertently positive effects: the walls protected its population from Christian mobs, and they were able to practice ancient traditions unmolested. To this day the area has a strongly proud and distinct Roman-Jewish identity, and in 1870 the Great Synagogue of Rome was constructed in the area.
The boundaries of the Ghetto expanded over the years, and eventually the walls became irrelevant. In the meantime a distinct Roman-Jewish culture had arisen, and of particular interest to the visitor is the unique Roman-Jewish cuisine, of which carciofo alla giudea (Jewish artichoke) is the most famous example. When you reach Via del Portico D’Ottavia turn left, and at this point it is highly recommended that you stop here at one of the many kosher restaurants to try one of the deep-fried Jewish artichokes – they’re delicious.
After your snack, continuing a few dozen yards down Via del Portico D’Ottavia, just as the road turns to right you will see an ancient Roman temple and archway. This is the Portico of Octavia, built by Augustus Caesar in honor of his sister, which eventually became one of the world’s first art museums despite being partially destroyed in an earthquake. Beside the ruins there is a walkway that takes you down to the bottom of them. Follow this down and walk between the huge pillars.
Note: sometimes this walkway is closed. If it is, continue on to the end of Via del Portico D’Ottavia, noting the Great Synagogue on your right, turn left onto Lungotevere, then take the first left onto Vico Jugario and left again on to Via del Teatro di Marcello and walk about 100 yards to rejoin the route.
Eventually you will see the arches of the ‘mini Colosseum’ front of the Teatro di Marcello. This theater was completed in 13BC and was named for Caesar’s nephew Marcellus. It was free for all Roman citizens to watch dramatic performances. Particularly interesting is that the ancient structure was topped by a mansion in the 16th century for the Orsini family, which today is divided into apartments that are still occupied. Opposite the theater is the Temple of Apollo.
Turning right as you exit the theater complex, you will immediately see a church, in the walls of which are embedded pillars. This is the Basilica di San Nicola in Carcere (the basilica of St Nicholas in prison), and was built in the 12th century inside the location – and using the standing parts of – three Roman temples (dedicated to Janus, Juno and Spes). If the church is open, it is well worth entering, and paying €3 to descend into the fantastically spooky crypt, which contains the foundations of an earlier 6th century church, a Byzantine jail, and the mouldering bones of unidentified Christians.
Exiting the church and turning right you find yourself on Via Luigi Petroselli, a straight road lined with government offices. This is the final stretch of Mussolini’s grand road from Ostia on the sea. Looking at the 1920s buildings that line this street it is not difficult to see the link Mussolini was trying to draw between ancient Rome and his own regime.
Stay on this side of the street for a few more yards and you will see a little park with two beautifully preserved temples in it. The rectangular structure was built in the 1st century BC and was dedicated to Portunus, and as with most other well-preserved temples in the city owes its good state to having been used as a Christian church since 872. In particular, the Ionic columns in this temple inspired a generation of 18th century architects on the ‘grand tour’, and they were the model for such constructions throughout Europe.
Beyond this temple is an older, 2nd century BC round temple inspired by Greek architecture, dedicated to Hercules. Of the original 20 Corinthian columns, 19 remain, and there’s a local legend that flies and dogs cannot enter this temple. OK…
Beneath this piazza is part of the ‘cloaca maxima’, the ancient sewer of Rome that dates back to pre-Roman Etruscan times, and is still in partial use by the modern city. Opposite the piazza is the Arch of Janus, which was constructed from marble in the 4th century.
Further down the street, on the left, is the most disappointing attraction in Rome.
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck may have had fun tempting the Bocca della Verità to bite their hands off by lying to it, but they visited the monument late at night and before it had been popularized by them messing with it in the movie Roman Holiday. These days it’s seriously oversubscribed and you need to wait in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, where it stands in the porch, in a busy street in the blazing sun with a bunch of other tourists for half an hour or so for your five-second selfie moment. While we don’t discourage you from doing this, it is possible to get a good view of the 1st-century marble mask, that probably originally came from a fountain, through the railings on the front of the church.
Continuing past the line of sweltering tourists and taking the first left onto Via della Creca, a hundred yards will bring you to the corner of the largest sports stadium ever built – in the entire history of the world. The Circus Maximus had a seating capacity of 250,000 people, and is where the chariot racing you see in Ben Hur took place, as well as many other sporting events. So popular was the stadium that the emperor’s palace, which you can see standing tall on the Palatine Hill above the Circus, extended continually towards the stadium so that the emperor could watch the racing without having to deal with the hoi polloi.
Today Circo Massimo is a public park, and its stone seats may still be there, but they are buried under the grass verges. The center of the stadium, the spina (spine), put in to stop the charioteers from cutting corners, is also still visible as a ridge. It was from the center of the spina that the obelisk in the middle of Piazza del Popolo was taken. If you want to take a detour to the far end – a distance of 2,000 feet (more than 600 meters) – you can see the only part of the stadium that is undergoing archaeological excavation, which has revealed seating and the passageways beneath the ‘bleachers’.
Otherwise, take the road that splits diagonally from the corner you’re on, Clivo dei Publici, and follow it as it winds up the Aventine Hill towards one of the most spectacular views in the world.
After a brief uphill stroll you will see some gates on your right. These are the main gates of the Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of the Oranges). This being Rome, they are permanently shut for no good reason, so continue for another few yards to the side entrance. This lovely, peaceful garden, full of orange trees, was originally part of a larger park, made in the 13th century for the Savelli family, but was completed in its present form in 1932. At the far side of the garden is a viewpoint that looks over the entire city, and – as at the Pincio – provides you with one of the most breathtaking looks at the beauty and ingenuity of human endeavor.
Leaving the park and continuing in the direction you came, you will pass the 5th century Santa Sabina church and monastery which is well worth a look inside. It’s the oldest continuously occupied basilica in the city, and has been restored to its original simple decor. The remnants of the Roman temple to Juno on which it was built are still visible inside, as well as a 14th century mosaic tomb. Just past it along the road is another small garden, then another church, and then a tiny piazza where you will usually see a short line of people waiting at a door on the right-hand side of the piazza.
This is the door of the headquarters of the Order of the Knights of Malta, an ancient chivalrous Catholic group that has international status. The keyhole in the door is a curiosity: it’s deliberately designed so that looking through it the viewer sees down a line of poplar trees straight to the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, several miles in the distance.
Having gazed at this small wonder, take the Via di Porta Lavernale opposite the door and passing the Catholic university of Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino on your right, head down the hill through a very posh part of Rome. After about five minutes you will join Via Asinio Pollione and then arrive at a t-junction with Via Marmorata.
Directly opposite you is a deli called Volpetti. This place is really worth a little diversion from this walk, as the foods in this shop, from all over Italy, are the best of the best, and the incredibly friendly staff are happy to give you little samples to tempt you to buy cheeses, meats, and a heap of other stuff. The only drawback to entering Volpetti is the amount of money you inadvertently spend when inside.
Turning left out of Via Asinio Pollione (or right out of Volpetti), you will pass two pleasing modern-era architectural achievements: the beautiful 1929 fire station on the right, and a little further on an early 1930s temple to the postal service – a shame the service itself still doesn’t match the modernism of its design.
The first turn on the right is Via Caio Cesto. If it’s earlier than 4.30pm, take a right onto this street and after about 100 yards look for the gate in the red wall on your left. This is the gate to the Cimiterio Acattolico per Gli Stranieri: the non-Catholic cemetery for foreigners, also known incorrectly as the Protestant cemetery or the English cemetery – there are Jews and Muslims and Germans and French and many other faiths and nationalities buried here. But famously it is the last resting place of Keats, Shelley and Goethe.
If you take the path directly in front of the gate, to the far wall of the cemetery, to your left you will see one of the most moving statues in Rome: the Angel of Grief, made in 1894 by the sculptor William Wetmore Story for his wife; after completing the statue, he too died and was buried beneath the angel a year later.
In the alcove behind the angel is the memorial to the poet Shelley, who drowned off the coast of Tuscany in a boating accident, with its famous inscription:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
Heading back to the main path and turning right leads one through the gap in the wall to the older, less crowded part of the cemetery, and at the far corner is the grave of Keats, unmarked because of the ‘bitterness of his heart’, and the even more famous inscription:
Here lies one whose name is writ in water.
Keats died of tuberculosis by the Spanish Steps, angry, desolate, recently arrived but dying, and hating Rome and its food (yes I’m mystified too). His new friend Joseph Severn looked after him in his final days and despite having only known him for four months – and in later life having been an accomplished painter in his own right – had himself and his son prominently interred alongside Keats.
You may want to spend a while here, despite its morbid nature. And despite the tumultuous traffic just outside the walls, there is a pervading sense of peace and tranquility in this place. It’s bucolic and meditative thanks to the original English planners, and has kept this nature thanks the efforts of the (mainly expatriate) volunteers who maintain it. I recommend a donation in the box as you leave to maintain their efforts.
While inside the walls of the cemetery, you will not have missed that towering above the lawn of the cemetery is the pyramid of Gaius Cestius. Cestius was not an emperor, but a magistrate. He had heard tales of the magnificent pyramids of Egypt and decided that he wanted one as his tomb – the impending tombs of important Romans being among the things they valued most even while they lived – and paid for one to be built while he was alive.
His architects didn’t know the precise proportions of an Egyptian pyramid, so when they constructed it from brick and concrete faced with marble, they set the base dimensions to be 100 Roman feet square at the base, but 125 Roman feet high. The result is that when it was finished in 12BC, they something that looks, well, a little bit pointy.
Despite its interior having been sacked and its ancient frescoes destroyed in the middle ages, its marble sides are remarkably intact and thanks both to the pyramid’s incorporation 300 years later into the Aurelian Walls, and also to recent restoration work, they shine white as they intended. Shelley, at Keats’s memorial, described it as “one keen pyramid with wedge sublime”.
Exiting the cemetery, this tour is at an end. You have several choices of where to go now: turn right and right again and you will be at Piramide Metro station from where you can go wherever you want to go in the city.
If you contine past Piramide onto Via Ostiense then turn left at Via Pellegrino Matteucci you will end up at ‘Eataly’, a vast and modern palace/supermarket dedicated to the best and most expensive of Italian food from all over the country.
Turn left, however, and you will end up at Monte Testaccio, a grassy hill made entirely of stacked Roman amphorae into which are dug many bars, clubs and restaurants. Heading right at the hill leads you into the heart of the Testaccio district, and its many amazing traditional Roman restaurants.
Whichever way you choose to go, you will have had just a taste of the ancient city; hopefully you will also go on to have more than a taste of some of the incredible food available in this area. Enjoy!
Key to walking tour of ancient Rome
1. Largo di Torre Argentina
Part of the Forum outside Pompey’s Theatre, the location of Caesar’s Senate, and where he was subsequently stabbed.
2. Turtle fountain
A strange yet compelling 16th century fountain featuring anatomically correct turtles.
3. Jewish Ghetto
The heart of oldest continuously occupied Jewish ghetto in the world.
4. Portico of Octavia
Once a walkway between temples, then one of the first art museums in the world.
5. Teatro Marcello
A theater to rival the Colosseum that was free to all Romans. Now the foundation for apartments.
6. San Nicola in Carcere
Interesting 12th century church embedded in three Roman temples, with a seriously spooky crypt.
7. Temple of Apollo Sosiano
Some of the best-preserved marble columns in Rome.
8. Temple of Portunus
The columns of this well-preserved temple were the inspiration for many 18th century architects.
9. Temple of Hercules Victor (Foro Boario)
A circular temple on Greek lines, apparently neither flies nor dogs can enter it. Yeah right.
10. Bocca della Verita (The Mouth of Truth)
Gregory and Audrey may have enjoyed lying to this marble face, but that was before everyone else wanted to do it too.
11. Circus Maximus
The largest stadium ever built, its 250,000 capacity is still overlooked by the vast Palatine palace.
12. Giardino degli Aranci (The Garden of the Oranges)
A quiet, beautiful place with Rome’s most stunning view.
13. Aventine Keyhole
Look through the keyhole to see… ?
14. Cimitero Acattolico (The ‘non-Catholic’ cemetery)
The last resting place of Keats, Shelley and Goethe, this is one of the most peaceful places in the city.
15. Piramide (The Pyramid)
This slightly-too-pointy ‘Piramide’ is beautifully preserved.