The legacy of the Greeks and the Romans is alive and well in the culture, food and cities of Italy — and not just in Rome itself. Across the country, from Verona to Sicily, visitors can see remains evocative of the era of empire, from grand temples, statues and huge amphitheatres, some still in use, to fascinating details of everyday life such as taverns, baths and even mosaic “billboards” and public toilets. Here’s where to check out these awesome origin stories for yourself.
Main photo: the Arena di Verona
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A city threaded with historic treasures, Italy’s capital is a walk-through tapestry recalling ancient Roman life. The Colosseum, once a theatre of gore and gallantry, is a skyline-hogging landmark; the 70,000-capacity venue — the world’s largest amphitheatre — impresses with sheer size. Nearby, the Roman Forum is a sprawl of evocative fragments: remains of temples, political buildings and even an ancient sewage system, all central to the empire, have survived. But there’s no need to fill in gaps at the archaeologically intact Pantheon; Rome’s former temple has weathered 2,000 years remarkably well.
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2. Pompeii and Herculaneum
Crumbling below sleeping dynamite Mount Vesuvius, the ruins of disaster-struck city Pompeii are an archaeological triumph. Theatres, baths, villas and temples make up the complex, which was flattened by ash and pumice in AD79, leaving behind a snapshot of the past. The tiny brothel, with its Karma Sutra frescoes, is a clichéd honeypot, but other attractions are spread comfortably across the site. Destroyed by a pyroclastic surge, neighbouring Herculaneum features carbonised wooden lofts and furnishings. Its dazzling mosaics and imagination-tickling buildings are less busy and easier to navigate.
3. Ostia Antica
Like Pompeii without the crowds, Rome’s ancient port city (a 45-minute drive south) is a freeze-frame of early anno domini life. Originally founded to defend the mouth of the Tiber, it later became a trading post for grain, oil and wine. As the river changed course, a smothering of silt mummified the settlement: Cypress trees wind around columns once used as shipping offices; monochrome mosaics — the equivalent of billboards — advertise wares for sale. In a tavern, frescoes form a pictorial menu, and marble benches are the remnants of posh communal toilets.
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4. Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli
A showy display of power and wealth, Emperor Hadrian’s second-century villa is a flashy five-star pad. A cross between Buckingham Palace and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, the sprawling complex oozes opulence on a super-sized scale. Stone baths made use of nearby thermal springs and a pool fringed with exotic statues boasting imperial conquests was a favourite for raucous summer dips. Rest and reflection came in the form of the Emperor’s private island, the Maritime Theatre, equipped with an en suite and WC.
5. Capua amphitheatre
Romans loved to watch a bloody battle, with gatherings akin to those at a rowdy Premier League football match. A possible blueprint for the Colosseum, Capua’s amphitheatre has aged worse than its larger Roman cousin — but smaller crowds make up for its shabbier shell. Underground, the galleries, tunnels and vaults are in much better condition, making it easy to imagine the days when Spartacus launched his slave revolt from this site. The city, close to Naples, hosted Rome’s first gladiator school, and a neighbouring Gladiator Museum pays homage to those belligerent greats.
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6. Neapolis, Syracuse
Classical remains jostle for space in the archaeological park of Neapolis, in Sicily’s southeast. The sprawling Teatro Greco, constructed in the 5th century BC and upgraded by the despot Hieron II in the 3rd, held 16,000 theatregoers. Aeschylus’s The Persians was performed here in the playwright’s presence — and every summer, there’s still a festival of classical shows. Next to it, the eerie Latomia del Paradiso is a limestone quarry where 7,000 prisoners from the war between Syracuse and Athens in 413 BC were held. At the back, the Orecchio di Dionisio, a 23m-high grotto, amplifies whispers — used by Dionysius to eavesdrop on captives.
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7. Paestum, Salerno
Unjustly neglected by visitors in favour of the sexier Pompeii, this once prosperous city, named Poseidonia by its Dorian founders after the Greek god of the sea, dates back to the seventh century BC and is now a Unesco world heritage site. It has three of Europe’s best-preserved ancient Greek temples, dedicated to Hera and Athena, as well as a great museum full of frescoes, ceramics and day-to-day bits and pieces. Don’t miss the delightful Tomba del Tuffatore, a dynamic funerary fresco on a lost diver’s tomb. After 1,000 years of glory under Lucanian and Roman rule, the city was abandoned when the empire fell — it was “rediscovered” in the 18th century.
8. Valle dei Templi, Agrigento
The ancient city of Akragas, founded in 582BC — now better known as the Valley of the Temples — is Sicily’s biggest archaeological thrill: seven Doric temples high on a ridge, in a park covering 13 square kilometres. The 430BC Tempio della Concordia — the model for the Unesco logo — will knock your socks off. The Giardino della Kolymbetra, a lush garden of olive and citrus trees, provides welcome shade before you tackle the rest: temples to Juno, Heracles, Olympian Zeus, Vulcan, the Dioscuri and Asclepius, along with the remains of tombs, catacombs and graveyards punctuated by huge modern statues in the classical style.
9. Stabiae, Campania
This Roman seaside resort three miles southwest of Pompeii was the playground of the rich — until it was drowned in tephra by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the houses here were excavated — the first-century BC Villa Arianna and the larger Villa San Marco must once have been super-luxe. Many of the frescoes are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, but those in the summer wing of the Villa Arianna remain: winged nymphs with musical instruments, sparrows pecking at cherries, and Bacchus lusting after Ariadne.
10. Arena di Verona
The third-largest arena in Italy (after the Colosseum in Rome and Capua’s amphitheatre), Verona’s version, completed in AD30, held 25,000 spectators in its 44 tiers of marble seats — most of them baying for blood as they watched the animal hunts, gladiatorial combat and executions that took place here. Since 1913, this magnificent arena has been home to Verona’s open-air opera festival, which takes place from June to September each year, featuring crowd-pleasers from Verdi, Puccini and Bizet.
11. Baiae, Campania
The party town of Baiae is now under the sea, which just makes this underwater Roman archaeological park all the more exciting. It sank in the fourth century as a result of bradyseismic activity, but in life, this was where the Roman elite would let their hair down: Seneca the Younger described it as a “harbour of vice”. Emperors Augustus, Nero and Caligula had homes here, and the ruins of Julius Caesar’s villa are on show in Campi Flegrei’s archaeological museum. Recent digs have uncovered a room filled with marble statues commissioned by Claudius, plus ancient baths, fountains and fishponds — where homeowners would breed moray eels for the table. Visitors can explore the ruins by snorkelling with a guide.
12. Segesta Trapani
Segesta’s origins are a bit fuzzy. What we do know is that on a low hill in the back of beyond stands a lone Doric temple, surrounded by a field of flowers. It might have been built in the 420s BC by an unknown Athenian architect, or it could have been the work of the indigenous Elymians, but it has 36 columns, is 61m long and 26m wide, and was unfinished, probably because of an attack by the people of nearby Selinunte (who had some pretty spectacular temples of their own). On top of the nearby Monte Barbaro is a semicircular theatre, built at the same time: today, it’s a spectacular venue for Greek drama.
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