The Eternal City is such a magical place that it has, throughout its 2,773 years of history, inspired Hollywood movie stars and literary geniuses to write sing its praises. You already know that if you’ve checked out our post on the coolest quotes about the Italian capital. Yet even if you’ve already been there, we’re positive that a lot of the fascinating facts about Rome we’ve listed below will surprise you!
Facts about Ancient Rome
1. Rome is literally built on layers. Fires, floods, and the repurposing of constructions throughout the centuries triggered a never-ending rise on the street level that reaches up to 20 meters at some points. That means there’s an entire city underground the visible one.
The Basilica of Saint Clement, where a 12th-century basilica (plus an 18th-century façade), a 4th-century Christian temple, and a Republican-era villa and warehouse superseded one another, is one astounding example of this very Roman peculiarity.
2. And it was ransacked… seven times. Between the first sack, in 390 BCE, and the second one (in 410 CE by the Visigoths), Rome was considered inexpugnable. Then, as a sign of its decadence and eventual downfall, it underwent three more raids by barbaric tribes, in 455, 546, and 549-550. The Normans would pillage it once again in 1084. It was raided one last time in 1527 by mutinous troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
3. The Roman Pantheon has been standing for astonishing 1,895 years. Commissioned by Hadrian to replace a burned-down temple, the temple of all the Gods was turned into a Catholic church in the 7th century. The Pantheon’s been in continuous use across millennia. That’s the main reason why it’s one of the best-preserved buildings of the Imperial age.
Facts about the Roman Colosseum
4. A packed house meant about 50,000 spectators watching the games together. They would enter the amphitheater through 76 entrances. In addition to those, there were four other access points: two for competitors, and two exclusive to the Emperor.
5. The maze-like foundations that we see today were a chain of underground tunnels and chambers just underneath the actual arena. Besides lodging warehouses and connecting the Colosseum to adjacent buildings, they served a very special purpose: providing for special effects. From here, employees would release wild beasts through primitive elevators, to the delight of the crowd and the horror of gladiators.
6. Over 7.6 million people visit it every year. Voted one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Colosseum is the fourth most visited cultural site in the world. Only the Louvre, the Great Wall of China, and the National Museum of Beijing are more popular.
Facts about Rome during the rule of popes
7. The Eternal City was the seat of the so-called Papal States for more than 1,000 years. Upon the fall of the Western Roman Empire, popes gradually expanded their authority to cover much of modern Italy’s central regions. In 1870, an army led by Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded Rome and allowed for its annexation to the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy. Popes immediately started claiming to be prisoners in the Vatican, until the 1929 Lateran Treaty created the eponymous state and ended the controversy.
8. In 897, Pope Stephen VI presided over the trial of the corpse of his predecessor’s predecessor. He ordered the exhumation of Pope Formosus’s deceased body, then had it brought to court and convicted of perjury and illegal accession to the post. The Cadaver Synod, as it became known, remains one of the most bizarre episodes of the history of the papacy and is definitely the most jarring of the facts about Rome on our list.
9. The bitter rivalry between architects Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini is partly to blame for the city’s baroque splendor. In the context of the Counter-Reformation, 17th-century popes sought to have Rome reflect the Church’s power and commissioned many new churches and palaces.
Bernini and Borromini were the two most celebrated architects of that era and were frequently one-upping each other through the extravagance of their creations. While both introduced enduring stylistic innovations, Bernini’s greater popularity — he was responsible for designing St. Peter’s Square — was a major source of frustration for Borromini and eventually led him to commit suicide.
10. Rome suffered from disastrous floods for much of its history. The city’s founders didn’t settle on seven hills by accident: the Tiber’s water level frequently rose by more than 15 meters, making entire bridges collapse. As the city expanded toward it, popes did little to tackle the problem for 1,000 years. Coincidentally, a huge flood right after the annexation of Rome in 1870 prompted the construction of the river’s embankments.
So thank 19th-century engineering next time you take a casual stroll along the Tiber!
Facts about the Trevi Fountain
11. The fountain marks the terminal point of an aqueduct dating back to 19 BCE. After the collapse of the Empire, the aqueduct fell into disrepair and remained abandoned for over 1,200 years. Only in 1762 would the fountain be reopened in its current iteration, with a neoclassical façade that incorporates many baroque elements of an unrealized project by Bernini.
12. City Hall collects around €1.8 million ($2.2 million) worth of coins from it every year. And the nicest thing about it is that, for the past 20 years, mayors have been channeling these proceeds into aid for homeless and migrant families.
13. Attempting to reenact Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni’s shower scene might cost you €500 ($609). During the day, you wouldn’t even be able to get past the crowd anyway. Not to mention that a 300+year-old monument must be treated with the utmost respect.
Facts about the Rome of our days
14. The Quirinal Palace is the largest residence of a head of state in the world. Granted, it was the summer address of popes for almost three centuries; subsequently, it became the King of Italy’s official residence until the proclamation of the republic in 1946. Still, being about twenty times larger than the White House does sound a bit too outlandish.
15. Pizza al taglio is a 100% Roman snack. You can now find it in most large cities (and even abroad), but it’s simply ubiquitous in Rome. Being able to pick the slices by their looks, having the shopkeeper cut them off with scissors, then paying by the weight is just a unique experience.
16. The reason for the weird layout of the Roman subway? Underground ruins, of course. Though technology might change things in the near future, the metro currently steers clear from the historic center. Fellini superbly portrayed the issue on “Roma”, his must-see tribute to the city. You basically can’t dig a hole in Rome without risking destroying an irreplaceable architectural treasure.
17. There’s a half-joking, half-serious feud between Northern and Southern Rome. The rivalry falls along socioeconomic lines: Northern neighborhoods tend to be the richest in town. Southerners scoff at Northerners’ perceived uptightness and snobbery, whereas the latter view their fellow citizens to the South as loud and rough. Some residents will go as far as to avoid crossing downtown one way or the other.
Facts about Rome for kids
18. Rome has over 1,400 gelato shops, more than any other Italian city. Children will relish all-time favorites amarena and stracciatella, while adventurous grownups can try unorthodox flavors such as white peach + basel, prickly pear… and even mustard.
19. Cat sanctuaries like the one at Largo di Torre Argentina dot the city. Several ruins have their own feline colonies, which will certainly increase the allure of ancient complexes among children. Yet only at the centrally-located square you’ll find hundreds of cats in the same place, as well as an army of volunteer caretakers who ensure they’re healthy and well-fed.
20. Emperor Caligula nominated his own horse as Consul. Incitatus, the Emperor’s favorite racehorse, is said to have been fed oats mixed with gold flake. Though the whole thing might have been intended to provoke the Roman Senate, modern historians argue that ancient chroniclers probably fabricated the story in a subsequent attempt to discredit the Emperor.
21. Among many other things, Romans invented baths. A popular spot for socializing, they were built across the Empire in provinces as remote as Britain and were lavishly decorated, just like most public facilities.
Fun facts about Rome
22. Rome and Milan are frenemies. As it’s commonplace in countries with two largest cities instead of one, the Romans and the Milanese love to pretend they hate one another. While the latter tend to resent the capital’s bloated bureaucracy and low productivity, prouder Romans often accuse the town of the Madonnina of working to steal the Eternal City’s undisputed status as the nation’s political and cultural core.
23. Most Romans low-key despise the Victor Emmanuel II Monument (aka the Vittoriano). They widely consider the white marble memorial an eyesore in the overwhelmingly beige to ochre cityscape. What’s more, its construction required the demolition of an entire set of historic blocks. Though old-school Romans tend to show a more pronounced dislike for it, all locals are familiar with its derisive nicknames: “typewriter” and “wedding cake”.
24. The city has six “talking statues” onto which residents would once hang satirical pamphlets against the government. Pasquino is the only one that Romans still use for this purpose — as has been the case since the 1500s. The pasquinate, as its posters became known, are now attached to an adjacent totem in order to preserve the already heavily-damaged carving.
25. Legend has it that Bocca della Verità, or the Mouth of Truth Fountain, would bite off the hands of liars. Famous for its role as a narrative device on “Roman Holiday”, it’s uncertain whether the massive disc was a fountain or a drain cover in antiquity. Nowadays, it’s funny how most tourists will only carefully rest their hand on the effigy’s mouth when posing for pictures. I don’t believe in witches, but they surely exist!
Now that you’re familiar with the multiple layers of Rome — the physical and the metaphorical ones! — hopefully your whole perception of it will have changed. Besides offering 1,000 excuses for the gelato binge of our dreams, every corner of the Eternal City is brimming with historical and cultural meaning.
Oh, and don’t forget to tell us in the comments which of our most interesting facts about Rome you found more exciting, impressive,… or shocking!