Carol King selects the Top 5 must-see archaeological sites in Italy.
Colosseo and Foro Romano, Rome, Lazio Ancient Roman Emperor Vespasian started construction on the Colosseum in 70AD and it was inaugurated 10 years later. Known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum was the venue for the Ancient Roman games. The large structure built of travertine marble was innovative at the time for its circular shape, which contains an arena surrounded by an auditorium consisting of four rows with 80 arcades, each containing 70,000 seats. It was where gladiators, who were usually slaves or prisoners of war, trained to fight in order to regain their freedom. The Colosseum was also used for staging classical dramas and re-enacting bloody naval battles on an artificial lake. The nearby Roman Forum is located in a small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills. A large, rectangular-shaped area, the forum was in active use from c. 700BC to c. 600AD. It was the heart of the ancient city and the Roman Empire, where political, judicial, religious and commercial activities took place. The Roman Forum contains the ruins of numerous ancient monuments that give an insight into what life was like in ancient times, including the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Colossus of Constantine, the Arch of Septimius Severus, the House of the Vestal Virgins, and the Via Sacra main street.
Addresses: Colosseo, Piazza del Colosseo 1, Rome, 00184 Lazio; Foro Romano, Piazza Santa Maria Nova 53, Rome, 00186 Lazio. The Colosseum is scheduled to undergo restoration works so check opening hours before making a visit. Websites: http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/siti-archeologici/colosseo http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/siti-archeologici/foro-romano-palatino
Ostia Antica, Rome, Lazio The archaeological site of Ostia Antica is what remains of Rome’s most ancient colony, which was a city with a port that provided a link between the River Tiber and the Tyrrhenian Sea. In ancient times, Ostia was situated at the mouth of the river Tiber some 18 miles west of Rome, since then the shoreline has moved and Ostia is a few miles from the beach. It is notable for the excellent state of preservation of its buildings, frescoes, statuary and mosaics. The city is thought to have been founded in 620BC as a military colony to protect the mouth of the Tiber, but the oldest settlement discovered is the Castrum fortress built between 396BC and 267BC. Among the many buildings worth visiting on the 10,000 acre site is one of the world’s oldest synagogues dating to 41AD to 54AD. Yet what is most fascinating is that you can get an idea of what the port was like in its heyday when it was a flourishing commercial centre complete with temples, public baths, apartment buildings, forum, amphitheatre, schools, taverns and shops.
Address: Ostia Antica, Via dei Romagnoli 717, 00119 Rome, Lazio. Website: http://www.parcoarcheologicostiantica.it
Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, Siracusa, Sicily The Parco Archeologico della Neapolis in Siracusa is a historical treasure. Sitting on the white stone tiers of Siracusa’s Teatro Greco (Greek Theatre) you can see Ancient Greek drama come alive because the amphitheatre is still used for open-air performances staged by the Fondazione Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico (National Institute of Ancient Drama). Classical plays are performed there in May and June, and it’s magical spectacle to watch as the sun sets behind the stage before disappearing into the Ionian Sea. Constructed c. 500BC, the amphitheatre is one of the largest ever built and where playwrights such as Aeschylus premiered their works at what was then the capital of Magna Grecia. The park is also home to the second-largest Roman amphitheatre in existence, where gladiatorial games were the norm. Nearby lie the remains of the Ara di Ierone II (Altar of Hieron) II, where bulls were slaughtered in their hundreds during ritual sacrifices to the god Zeus. The site is the burial place of scientific genius Archimedes, and riddled with latomie (limestone quarries), which were used to house prisoners of war captured by the tyrant Dionysus I. When the painter Caravaggio stopped by the area while on the run, he nicknamed one large cave and former prison, the ‘Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysus), because of its elongated shape and acoustics. According to myth, Dionysus I eavesdropped on prisoners’ conversations thanks to the echoes that bounce off the cave’s high walls – now schoolchildren amuse themselves in the cave by calling out their names.
Address: Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, Viale Paradiso 1, 96100 Siracusa, Sicily. Website: http://www.comune.siracusa.it/Politiche_Culturali/Turismo/itinerari.htm
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Sito Archeologico di Pompei, Naples, Campania The Greco-Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed on 24 August 79AD when an eruption from Mount Vesuvius showered it with volcanic debris. Pompeii’s buildings and citizens lay buried under volcanic ash and pumice for 1,700 years when archaeological excavations revealed the city and its inhabitants frozen in time. The archaeological site spreads over 163 acres, 49 of which have been excavated. It is divided into regiones (neighbourhoods) and insulae(blocks). The site contains grand public buildings – including a forum, public baths and amphitheatre – as well lavish villas, houses, and even bakeries found with loaves still in the oven. The buildings and their contents provide an incomparable glimpse into what daily life must have been like for the ancients. Among the highlights are the Temple of Isis, the Lupanar brothel with its erotic paintings and graffiti, the House of the Tragic Poet with its elaborate frescoes and mosaics, and a former market, the Macellum.
Address: Sito Archeologico di Pompei, Porta Marina Superiore, 80045 Pompei, Naples, Campania. Website: http://www.pompeiisites.org/
Valle dei Templi, Agrigento, Sicily When you arrive at Agrigento, suddenly you spot the incongruous: nestled on the hillside and looking out to sea are a series of huge Ancient Greek Doric temples that give the area its name, the Valley of the Temples. They are what remain of the Ancient Greek colony of Akragas founded in 581BC. Some of the ruins appear little more than rubble, however there are several temples that are almost intact, which are accessible via what was once a sacred street. The Temple of Concord is in excellent condition and gives an idea of how magnificent the city must have been at its nadir. However, be warned: archaeological sites in Sicily often provide little information on site in Italian, and are unlikely to provide anything in English. Agrigento is no exception, and your visit will be more rewarding if you buy a guidebook or at least a map. If you have time, visit the nearby Museo Archeologico Regionale di Agrigento (Agrigento Regional Archaeological Museum) on Contrada San Nicola 12. It is packed with vases, masks, sculptures, mosaics, jewellery and sarcophagi from the ancient city and the surrounding area, which are explained in detail in both English and Italian.
Address: Parco Archeologico e Paesaggistico della Valle dei Templi, Strada Panoramica dei Templi, 92100 Agrigento, Sicily. Website: http://www.parcodeitempli.net/