If you know what’s beneath your feet, walking through the streets of Rome can be a dizzying experience. Climb through a manhole on the Aventine Hill and you’ll find yourself in a vast Roman quarry. An underground lake lies beneath a Renaissance palace close to Campo de’ Fiori, while the Basilica of San Clemente sits above a labyrinth of subterranean ruins, including an underground church and a pagan temple. These parts of underground Rome are well and truly hidden, and on the surface, there’s no sign of their existence. But elsewhere, Ancient Rome has defined the shape of the modern city in ways that are still clearly visible.
Piazza Navona is one of the most famous squares in Rome, beloved by tourists and locals alike. What sets it apart from the other piazzas is its unusual shape. It is not circular, like St Peter’s Square or Piazza del Popolo, or square like Piazza Farnese, but has an unconventional oval shape. If anything, it is reminiscent of Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman stadium once used for chariot racing. In fact, Piazza Navona owes its shape to its ancient history. It was built directly on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, built in the 1st century, and shares the same shape as the stadium. The stadium, which would have seated up to 20,000 people, was mainly used for athletic contests. Despite its resemblance to Circus Maximus, it’s unlikely that chariot racing ever took place here, due to lack of space.
The Greek architecture of the Stadium of Domitian inspired its Latinised Greek name Circus Agonalis (“competition area”). Over the centuries, “agonalis” became “avone”, then “navone”, and finally “navona”. When you walk through the peaceful Piazza Navona today, possibly with a local tour guide, admiring Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers or the Baroque elegance of Sant’Agnese in Agone, it’s hard to believe that the square was once the scene of noisy athletics contests and gladiatorial combat. It’s even been claimed that the arcades of the stadium were used as brothels during the reign of the notoriously hedonistic Emperor Elagabalus, before being transformed into houses for the poor. Some of the arcades are still standing today, half-buried at the north end of Piazza Navona, and can be visited on many Rome guided tours.
Walk south of Piazza Navona and you’ll soon reach another famous Roman square – Campo de’ Fiori. The name, which translates as “field of flowers” is not a reference to the modern-day flower market, but to the meadow that existed in the Middle Ages. Considering the site’s prominence in Roman times, it seems strange that the area ever became a wilderness. The Theatre of Pompey once stood on the site now covered by Campo de’ Fiori and Largo Argentina. At the time of its construction in the 1st century BC, this grand theatre was the only permanent theatre in the city, and it underwent countless renovations until it finally fell into disuse 600 years later.
The shape and remains of the Theatre of Pompey are not as obvious as those of the Stadium of Domitian, but they are visible if you know where to look. Go for a walk east of Campo de’ Fiori, around Via di Grotta Pinta, and you’ll find traces of the theatre’s semi-circular shape. Although there have been no sightings of Caesar’s ghost in Rome, the architecture of the building where he was murdered seems to haunt the streets of the 21st century.
If you want to get right up close to the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey, make a dinner reservation at Da Pancrazio (Piazza del Biscione 92), and ask for a table in the basement. As you tuck into a plate of pasta, look at the walls around you – you’re sitting in the substructure of the Roman theatre, built in the 1st century BC!
The architecture of Ancient Rome continue to influence the modern city, determining the layout of streets or causing a headache for workers trying to construct new metro lines in the midst of the ruins. As you walk through the centro storico, Roma city center, look out for signs of the hidden city – it may lie below the surface, but it’s more visible than you might expect. To discover more about the secret side of Rome, join our Heart of Rome tour, which includes visits to Piazza Navona, Campo de’ Fiori, the Pantheon, and some sites off the beaten path. But if you want to do something really special and experience Rome at its best, then consider a unique tour of Rome in the early morning to catch the Eternal city in the best possible light, and far from the crowd.