Rome: Some Ancient Sites You Actually Might Not Have Heard of
[Regions of Italy]

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There is hardly an inch of the historical center that does not date back to Imperial days: even storage units in many apartment buildings are built into the walls of the city's ancient subterranean layers! Most sites are so illustrious that there's little need to mention them here. But we have a few favorites that are perhaps less renowned and yet may delight you as much as the Coliseum or the Forum. Keep your eye out for them as you walk from one landmark to another on your next trip:

Largo (di Torre) Argentina. Peer down at these four temples, occupying a square block "sunk" thirty feet below street level, and you'll understand why everyone's basement is part of ancient Rome: when these graceful buildings were erected as early as the 3rd and 4th century BC, they actually were at street level. Indeed, the temples themselves were completely buried beneath a medieval neighborhood until only 70 years ago; the belvedere in the corner is the sole remaining vestige. Modern Romans affectionately call the place i tempii dei gatti, because it is a favorite sunning spot for feline urbanites.

The mosaics in Santa Costanza. Although this wonderful 4th-century mausoleum is largely more recent than the classic period, it takes its round form from the imperial tomb upon which it was built, and the decorations on its vaulting are clearly pre-Christian. Their designs are composed of vine tendrils, fruit, flowers, birds, amphorae and other secular motifs, and they are undoubtedly the most beautiful mosaics in Rome. Out of the way at the intersection of Via Nomentana and Via di S. Costanza, it is well worth the effort to see. Ask the sacristan at Sant'Agnese, the church behind S. Costanza, to open the mausoleum for you.
Pasquino and the other talking statues. Actually, the statue is a rather battered torso of Menelaus, but Romans have always called it Pasquino, after a prosperous local tailor who served the papal court. Because Pasquino had few compunctions about voicing his opinions, soon any sarcastic remark uttered about the Pope was attributed to him. But what does this have to do with Menelaus? Well, the statue was unearthed during a street repaving right about the time the tailor died, and erected near his shop. Perhaps in his memory, residents soon began pinning their own irreverent (and anonymous) comments to the statue's chest at night. This was not the world's first graffiti, but it is our favorite. Pasquino has now also had an entire piazza dedicated to his memory, and it is here you'll find the bust, which probably dates from the 3rd century BC. Other "talking statues" include the "porter" in Via Lata and the reclining "babuino" in Via del Babuino.
Arco della Ciambella. You could walk right by it and not even see it, but this perfectly round fragment of ancient wall is all that remains of the Baths of Agrippa, built in the 1st century BC by the man who erected the first Pantheon. Today it is literally incorporated into a 17th-century apartment building, yet if you have a little imagination, this caper-covered wall can show you what ancient Rome really was: from Via Arco della Ciambella, you entered the Baths of Agrippa, which was joined by two covered porticos to the Pantheon, three blocks away. Still today you can walk that distance in 2000-year-old underground passageways. But take plenty of breadcrumbs or string if you try it!
Trajan's Column (the fake one). Especially if you are traveling with kids, make a beeline to the Museo della Civiltà Romana before you hit the streets. Its fascinating overview of ancient Rome gives a great opportunity to make today's ruins mean something. The two attractions you don't want to miss are the incredible model of 4th-century Rome, which shows every alley, balcony and doorway as it really was (probably); and the equally enthralling plaster casts of Trajan's Column. The original stands next to Piazza Venezia; at the museum you can get within inches of the masterful carvings, which use pictures to tell the entire history of Trajan's reign as emperor. Click here for more details about the museum and information on a kid-friendly private tour.
Pyramid of Cestius. In a country of extravagant tombs, this one definitely deserves a peek. Built in only 330 days in the year 12 BC, by a wealthy (and megalomaniacal) Roman who had spent time in Egypt, it is covered with marble and has survived all these years intact. You'll find it at Piazzale Ostiense, next to the ancient gateway dedicated to St. Paul.
Hadrian's Tomb. Most people know of this as Castel Sant'Angelo. The whole structure is fascinating, all the way up to the ramparts whence Tosca leapt her to death, but we're especially fond of the castle's underpinnings, built in 135 AD by that most intellectual of emperors, Hadrian. It has been sacked over and over again, perhaps most drastically in 537, when the defending garrison literally yanked out many of the huge stones and flung them down on the invading Goths, but it is still monumental and mysterious, an eloquent reminder of ancient Rome's astounding strength. And you can still see some of the original stones around the base of the castle (as pictured to the right).
Mithraeum at S. Clemente. This most interesting church has a completely unexpected basement: walk down the steps near the sacristy, then down another flight of steps on the right wall, and you'll suddenly find yourself in an entire underground world of narrow passageways and tiny rooms. Via di San Giovanni, open 9-12:30 and 3:30-6, or see it as part of a half-day private walking tour with Michael or Dennis.
Portico d'Ottavia. Fairly well hidden at one end of the Jewish Ghetto, this imposing 2nd-century BC edifice enclosed temples to Jupiter and Juno, libraries and other public rooms, and was used as a meeting-place for those attending the nearby Teatro di Marcello. It later sank to oblivion and became a fish market, but it was from here that the Uffizi's Medici Venus was salvaged. Via di Portico d'Ottavia.

Piazza di Pietra.
Temple of Neptune. Another monumental-sized edifice that literally towers over the charming piazza onto which it fronts. Its name is inaccurate, because it was really a temple to the deified Emperor Hadrian, built in 145 AD. Its columns disappear beneath the modern street level! We love it because it provides a vivid example of how Romans can incorporate ancient buildings into modern structures.
And if you just can't get enough ancient sites, here is a great way to celebrate a birthday or other special event: Rome's new dinner tram! This sounds like an intriguing concept, at the very least. You can sign up for American breakfast (10am), lunch (12:30pm) or dinner (8:30am). Meet the guide beforehand for a short walk, after which you will take your seats inside a beautifully restored historic tram with picture windows ... and off you go! The guide will narrate your voyage back to Imperial times, while you enjoy a delicious meal and watch the city go by outside. Available Wednesday-Saturday. Reservations are required so please ask your concierge to take care of them for you.

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[Regions of Italy]