Rome was around 700 years old when people first began calling it the ‘eternal city’. That was during the reign of the emperor Augustus, more than 2,000 years ago, and it has weathered the storms of Europe’s history ever since: sacks by Visigoths and Vandals; raids by Saracens and Normans; the competing ambitions of popes and kings.
The result is a city still haunted by its turbulent past. From cheerful cafés by the Campo de’ Fiori you can step down into cellars that once belonged to the Theatre of Pompey, the monumental complex in which Julius Caesar was murdered. Near Trajan’s Forum, with its famous spiral column, a fortified tower looms – a reminder of the medieval clans who turned the city into a battleground.
The layers of past epochs are piled on top of one another. The flank of the Palatine Hill is a tangle of ancient brickwork, vaulting that supported the palaces of vanished emperors. Excavations down to the level of the bedrock here have uncovered traces of primitive huts from the 8th century BC – by tradition, the era when Romulus founded the city.
Rome has always been a religious city. The Basilica of San Clemente, on the lower slopes of the Caelian Hill, is famous not just for its spectacular 12th-century mosaics but also for the history it conceals: under the basilica’s marble floor lie the remains of an older medieval church, which itself was built on top of an ancient shrine to Mithras.
But piety has gone hand in hand with vice. Not far from San Clemente soar the arches of the Colosseum, a monument to darker human appetites. Saint Augustine tells the story of a Christian friend who tried to close his eyes against the horrors of the amphitheatre. But when the crowd went wild seeing a gladiator fall, he dared to peep at the action. Immediately, says Augustine, he was gripped, “delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood-lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in.”
Nineteenth-century travellers were much moved by the traces of Rome’s illustrious dead. Byron wrote verses about the ancient tombs along the Via Appia Antica, still one of the most atmospheric areas in Rome. In the Parco della Caffarella nearby, shepherds can today be seen grazing their flocks beside the mausolea: a vision of a landscape from another time. Percy Shelley preferred to spend his days atop the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. “Go thou to Rome,” he wrote, “at once the Paradise, the grave, the city and the wilderness.” His bones lie not far away, in the Cimitero Acattolico, near the grave of John Keats, who died of tuberculosis in a dingy apartment by the Spanish Steps in 1821.
In Rome, the dead outnumber the living. But part of the special character of Rome is that it never feels like a lifeless museum. Amid the chaos and decay, new life is always growing: the riot of wildflowers that blooms from the crumbling brickwork of the ancient city walls, or the nightclubs and bars that thrive around the edge of Monte Testaccio, an artificial hill made from centuries’ worth of discarded Roman storage jars.
Even the deepest wounds can heal with time. In October 1943, SS soldiers surrounded the ghetto and deported more than 1,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz, most never to return. But the Jewish community in Rome – one of the oldest in Europe – survived and recovered. You can try the famous carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes) near the Great Synagogue of Rome, then walk to the first-century-AD Arch of Titus, with its sculpted reliefs showing spoils plundered during the sack of Jerusalem by Rome nearly 2,000 years ago.
Like the rest of Italy, Rome struggles with high youth unemployment. But youth culture in Rome has a dynamism that defies the city’s millennia of history: the nightlife of Pigneto or San Lorenzo is just as Roman as the ancient ruins, the medieval alleyways, or the grand ritual landscape of the Vatican. Rome is a city of contrasts, of vice and virtue, life and death, growth and decay. If it deserves to be called the eternal city, it’s not because it will last forever, but because it always has some new surprise in store.
Rome in eight sites
Colosseum: The most iconic ancient building in Rome – a marvel of engineering with a bloody history dating from c70-72 AD
Pantheon: A former temple, some 1,900 years old, which still boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome
Piazza San Pietro: The Basilica of Saint Peter is framed by Bernini’s famous curved colonnade
Villa Borghese: Walk through the Borghese Gardens to one of the finest art collections in Rome
Tiber Island: Walk from this midriver speck into the atmospheric streets of Trastevere
Trevi Fountain: A baroque extravagance made legendary by Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita
Campo de’ Fiori: Brave the crush at the famous vegetable market in this ancient square
Fontana dell’Acqua Paola: Admire the view over the city from this monumental 17th-century fountain
Ferdinand Addis is a journalist and author. His latest book is Rome: Eternal City (Head of Zeus, 2018)