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Take A Walk On The Old Side:
Rome's Ancient Walls

[Regions of Italy]

Porta San Sebastiano

n June 4, 1944, when General Mark Clark's 5th Army liberated Rome, a legion of Jeep chariots paraded up the Old Appian Way past the catacombs and through the crumbling ancient ramparts at Porta San Sebastiano. This 3rd-century gate, flanked by walls built to support the aqueduct that daily carried millions of gallons of water to the nearby Baths of Caracalla, now hosts a fascinating museum, and it is the starting point of a half-mile stroll along one of the most beautiful stretches of Rome's ancient walls.

This walk is one of the most enchanting experiences you can have in a bustling modern city. From atop the ramparts, all you'll see is a broad expanse of timeless Roman countryside. Wild grasses lap the inner wall. If you go in late summer, blackberry bushes spread their luscious fruit on the parapet. The sweet powdery smell of figs fills the air. Crickets fiddle in the olive trees. Three hundred yards away you'll see the fuzzy remains of Caracalla, and far off in the distance, gleaming white amidst two black green clusters of umbrella pines, you'll spot il cupolone: the dome of St. Peter's Cathedral.

The city of Rome has had walls since the 6th century BC, when King Servius Tullius enclosed his entire realm inside an eight-mile ring of rectangular stone blocks. Two hundred years later, after the Gauls managed to breach that wall, a second, stronger one was built. Not much remains of either, except for a stretch on the righthand side of the entrance to the Termini railroad station.

Luckily, a third wall is visible all over town. It was built in 270 AD, after the half wild Alemanni and Vandal tribes broke through Rome's mighty Danubian defense lines. Emperor Aurelian's armies were off defending the southern border of the empire, leaving the Eternal City defenseless, so urban guilds quickly sponsored and built the thirteen-mile bulwark. Fueled by terror, they finished most of the wall in a year, borrowing stones from temples and apartment buildings, filling in the arches of pre-existing aqueducts, running along the inside of the Tiber River, hiding behind some of the Seven Hills, using anything to save time and protect the city's treasures. The result was a shining example of Rome's famed engineering, equaled in antiquity only by the walls of Constantinople.

In 610, another tribe of Goths streamed down from the north. By now the imperial court had moved to Constantinople, leaving Rome little more than a forgotten backwater. But even in this pitiful state, it was still Rome, so General Belisario reinforced the bastions. Having no time to spare, when he encountered statues, he merely bricked them in; several have lived inside the walls ever since.

Belisario saved Rome from the Goths, but it was sacked and besieged dozens of times until the relatively quiet 1600s, when Pope Urban VIII allowed several hermits to inhabit the towers of the walls. Many of their retreats still remain, including one where the pious recluse built a wooden door and painted a tender Mother and Child above it.

If you walk along the walls today, you'll begin by climbing a narrow staircase to the lower floors. Here archers would have once been posted, their arrows resting on the sills of narrow windows, through which we now see only a few feet of the modern asphalt that paves the Old Appian Way. Think how reassuring this would have been for an archer: instead of facing an entire army, he would have seen no more than one or two enemies at a time.

Another spiral stair leads to the tower, where more soldiers would have manned the ballista, a contraption that spat 5-foot darts at the enemy; and the onagro, an oversized slingshot which launched stone balls up to 100 feet away. Rudimentary as they were, these war machines were more than enough to defeat those early barbarians, whose only serious weaponry might have been an improvised battering ram that could literally be snatched out of their hands by a large Roman pincer called the lupus.

Today, the walls of Rome are barred against a modern legion: the motorized Visigoths who daily cajole, threaten or bribe to gain entrance into central Rome, or as they call it, "The Forbidden City." You'll see them outside the gates, leaning on their car windows, aiming a verbal barrage at today's centurions, the white-suited traffic cops who guard these coveted entrances. Sometimes it works, for Romans will always reward a clever excuse. But don't expect a traffic cop to be naive. He (or she, in her Giorgio Armani uniform) knows perfectly well that half the population of Rome doesn't have a sick mother living just on the other side of the wall. A hackneyed old story like that will get you nothing but the merest jerk of a helmeted head, which means Scram.

History can perform the strangest tricks, and in what is perhaps the supreme irony, today the tables have been turned. While hordes of Romans beg to gain passage through their own city walls, a few well-informed foreigners are strolling peacefully along the ramparts, silent and deserted except for the ghosts of the long-gone ancient warriors who once so bravely defended them.

by Kristin Jarratt

To visit the museum and walk the half-mile stretch ending above Via Cristoforo Colombo, take a taxi or bus 118 to Porta San Sebastiano. The museum is open Tues-Sat 9am-7pm; Sunday, 9am-5pm; July-August 9am-1:30pm; closed Mondays. Admission is extremely limited so we suggest you make advance reservations. To learn more about the walls, read The City Wall of Imperial Rome, by Jan A. Richmond.

The Aurelian Walls on Wikipedia.

[Regions of Italy]