You may picture the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, or even authentic Italian food when you think of Rome. However, you may not know some of these interesting facts about the city! In this article, we’ll cover both facts about modern Rome and Ancient Rome facts that may come as a surprise.
Whether you’ve been to the Eternal City before or not, we hope these fun facts about Rome help to inspire an Italy vacation. Keep reading to learn some exciting truths about landmarks around the capital, Roman culture, and the Roman civilization.
Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission when you book a tour through these links at no extra cost to you.
Table of Contents
Interesting facts about Rome today
The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater in the world.
This structure reaches 157 feet (48 m) at its tallest point, with a base area of 6 acres (24,000 sq m). Furthermore, the Colosseum is 615 ft long (189 m) and 510 ft (156 m) wide, including eighty entrances at the ground level. One of the most interesting facts on Rome is that the Colosseum holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest amphitheater. Remember that it was built during ancient times to put this into perspective!
Due to its massive size, this amphitheater could seat up to 50,0000 spectators! Therefore, it may come as a shock that the Romans completed construction on the Colosseum in as little as seven to eight years. This World Heritage Site was also named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007, along with the Great Wall of China, Petra, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, the Taj Mahal, and Christ the Redeemer.
Rome has been around longer than Italy.
You read that right! The most commonly accepted date for Rome’s founding is 753 BC. According to legend, this is when twin brothers Romulus and Remus settled in this area. During ancient times, the Roman Empire came to power and occupied what is now modern-day Italy.
However, this civilization eventually fell and divided into city-states. After centuries of political division and foreign involvement, Italian unification began on March 17th, 1861, under the Kingdom of Italy. This process was completed in 1871, and Rome became the new capital city. Therefore, the city of Rome is over 2,600 years older than the country to which it now belongs.
Rome became the capital city of Italy in 1871.
As mentioned above, the unification of Italy (also called the Risorgimento) was a long process. When Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia initially founded the Kingdom of Italy, Turin became the first Italian capital from 1861 to 1865. Then, Florence replaced Turin as the capital of this state in 1865.
Finally, Italian unification was completed in 1871 after the Capture of Rome. As a conclusion to this final event in the Risorgimento, Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy (eventually the modern Italian Republic as of 1946).
Rome is the most visited city in Italy.
On average, nine million international tourists visit Rome each year, making it the most visited city in Italy. Venice, Milan, and Florence fall into the second, third, and fourth spots. Moreover, this statistic positions Rome as number 16 on the list of top 100 cities ranked by international visitors. The majority of these visitors are from the E.U., the United States, the U.K., and China.
Within the European Union, only Paris receives more visitors than Rome. Additionally, Rome is the most populated city in Italy. Its most popular sites include the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican Museums, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain.
Vatican City is a city-state inside of Rome.
Surely, you’ve heard of the Vatican! However, did you know that Vatican City isn’t technically Italian? In fact, it broke off from Italy with the Lateran Treaty in 1929. Now, this may seem unclear. I mean, you do fly into Rome to visit the Vatican. So, if it’s not part of Italy, what is it?
The Vatican, also called Vaticano in Italian, is a sovereign, independent city-state with its own national anthem and flag. It belongs to the Holy See (Sancta Sedes)–the governing body of the Catholic Church–and is the Pope’s primary residence. With a total area of only 110 acres (0.44 sq km/0.19 square miles) and a population of approximately 1,000, the Vatican is the smallest independent state in the world by both area and population.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world by interior area.
According to the Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Basilica, located in Vatican City, is built on the burial site of Saint Peter. Construction on this massive building took over 120 years to complete! This basilica is considered the largest Christian church building globally based on two statistics: its interior area and seating capacity. Firstly, its interior area covers 163,200 square ft (15,160 sq m), and secondly, it can accommodate up to 60,000 worshippers.
One church outranks St. Peter’s based on exterior area: Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Nonetheless, Our Lady of Peace can only accommodate 18,000 worshippers (7,000 seated and 11,000 standing). Therefore, St. Peter’s is still considered the biggest church in the world by many due to its internal volume.
There is a secret passage that connects Vatican City with Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Passetto di Borgo, also called “Passetto,” is a small elevated passage linking the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. Although it looks like an old fortification wall to anyone passing by, this passage has played an essential role in history. In fact, the Passetto di Borgo served as a secret escape route for Popes in at least two instances.
In 1494, Pope Alexander VI used it to flee during Charles VIII’s invasion. Then, in 1527, the Passetto’s existence proved helpful once again, saving Pope Clement VII’s life during the Sack of Rome.
You may already have known this interesting fact about Rome if you’ve read Dan Brown’s bestselling novel Angels & Demons. In this book, the antagonist takes advantage of this clandestine walkway to abduct four cardinals, and Robert Langdon later uses it as a shortcut to the Vatican.
People toss approximately 3,000 euros into the Trevi Fountain per day.
Legend says that anyone who tosses a coin into the Trevi Fountain will return to Rome one day. As you can imagine, many people participate in this tradition each year! Recent estimates state that tourists toss approximately 3000 euros into the Trevi Fountain each day.
So, what happens to all of these coins? The great news is that the city of Rome collects this money and then donates it to charity. Specifically, all donations go to Caritas, a Catholic charity that helps Rome’s poor and homeless.
To properly toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you’ll need to face away from the water, holding it in your right hand. Then, you throw the coin over your left shoulder, crossing your heart as you go.
There are over 2,000 fountains in Rome.
Due to this fun fact about Rome, people speculate that it has more fountains than any other city in the world. Most of these fountains are nasoni, which literally translates to “large noses.” A nasone typically has a column shape and sometimes even features animal designs.
While these fountains may look fancy, they’re really just your average water fountain! Nasoni are also a great way to provide free water to citizens and tourists throughout Rome. Apart from these drinking fountains, other notable fountains in Rome include Fontana di Trevi in the Trevi district, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Fontana del Moro, and Fontana del Nettuno in Piazza Navona, and Fontana della Barcaccia in Piazza di Spagna.
The Pantheon has been in continuous use for almost 2,000 years.
“Pantheon” was likely a nickname stemming from “Pantheion,” meaning “of, relating to, or common to all the gods.” The first Pantheon, commissioned by Consul Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus (first Roman emperor), was destroyed in a fire in 80 A.D. Then, the Pantheon we know today was built on top of this site and was likely completed around 126-128 A.D.
Historians are unsure of this building’s original purpose. However, we do know that Hadrian sometimes held court here. Subsequently, after a period of decline, Pope Boniface IV converted the Pantheon into a Christian church and consecrated it in 609. Today, almost 2,000 years after its construction, this historic site still functions as a church.
There is a cat sanctuary among ancient ruins in Rome.
For any cat lovers out there, you have to add visiting the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary to your Rome bucket list. Interestingly enough, you can find this cat sanctuary amongst the ruins of ancient Roman temples in Largo di Torre Argentina. Although this spot isn’t particularly a tourist attraction, many visitors love watching the cats roam the ancient ruins.
The organization itself helps to spay/neuter, vaccinate, and put these once feral cats up for adoption. If you happen to pass by and want to support Torre Argentina, you can donate or even go as far as participating in a long-distance adoption.
The Spanish Steps aren’t actually “Spanish.”
The name of the Spanish Steps is a bit misleading! In reality, a French diplomat named Étienne Gueffier financed this monumental stairway. Moreover, two Italian architects, Francesco de Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi, came up with the design for this Roman landmark.
So, the Spanish Steps are actually more French and Italian in origin than Spanish! However, the “Spanish” part of these stairs is actually in reference to the original location of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See–at the bottom of the stairs in the Piazza di Spagna (“Spanish Square”).
Rome celebrates its birthday on April 21st.
Ancient Romans celebrated the city’s founding on April 21st, the same day they honored Pales, the deity of shepherds. Over time, this festival slowly shifted focus to being Natale di Roma, or “Rome’s birthday.”
While historians debate the actual date Rome was founded, the most commonly accepted year is 753 BC. Roman antiquarian Titus Pomponius Atticus first suggested this year, and Marcus Terentius Varro later adopted this date in the 1st century B.C.
Nowadays, modern Romans continue to celebrate Rome’s founding on April 21st. However, the festival now includes a historic parade along Piazza Venezia and Via dei Fori Imperiali and battle re-enactments in the Circus Maximus.
The English word “palace” comes from Rome’s Palatine Hill.
Rome’s Palatine Hill, sometimes called “the first nucleus of the Roman Empire,” was associated with power and wealth during ancient times. For example, many affluent Romans built their homes here during the Republican period. Later, during imperial times, Palatine Hill became the site of multiple imperial palaces.
In Latin, the word Palatium was used to describe this seat of imperial power. It later evolved into palais in Old French, which eventually gave us the word “palace” in English. So, “palace” and its many cognates in other languages all exist thanks to Palatine Hill.
Fun facts about Ancient Rome
Ancient legend says that two brothers founded Rome.
As mentioned earlier in this article, Roman mythology considers the founders of this ancient city to be twin brothers Romulus and Remus. According to legend, these brothers were offspring of Mars, the god of war, and Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. Unfortunately, the king of Alba Longa at the time viewed Romulus and Remus as a threat to his rule, so he ordered their deaths.
After the twins were abandoned on the River Tiber, legend says that a she-wolf discovered them. This she-wolf suckled the boys and cared for them as her offspring. Eventually, the brothers grew up and decided to found a settlement on one of Rome’s seven hills. However, they argued about whether to build the new city on Palatine Hill or Aventine Hill. Ultimately, Romulus committed fratricide and made Palatine Hill the center of Rome, where he reigned as the first king.
“All roads lead to Rome” wouldn’t have been an exaggeration in Ancient times.
During the height of the Roman empire, at least 29 great military highways began in Rome. In total, historians estimate that the Romans built 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of paved highway. Road construction was essential to the Roman army to continue to advance its conquest.
Additionally, Roman roads unified the empire and created quick trade routes between provinces. In particular, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” refers to the Milliarium Aureum, a golden milestone that marked the starting point for all roads leading out of the capital city.
In fact, the Roman civilization measured all distances within the empire relative to this monument. Therefore, a more accurate saying from the Roman perspective would be that “all roads begin in Rome.”
“SPQR” was an essential symbol of the ancient Roman Republic.
You can find the symbol “SPQR” everywhere in Rome–on historic Roman monuments, inscriptions, and other official buildings. During ancient times, this abbreviation appeared on Roman currency, and some historians speculate that the Roman military also used this symbol on standards that the Roman legions carried. So, what does it mean?
Well, “SPQR” is shorthand for “Senātus Populusque Rōmānu,” meaning “The Senate and People of Rome.” Essentially, SPQR represents the two components that made up the Roman state: Rome’s Senate and her people.
Rome is nicknamed “The Eternal City,” but why?
Roman poet Tibullus was the first person to call Rome “The Eternal City” in one of his elegies in the first century. Of course, the literal phrase was originally Urbs Aeterna in Latin and later La Città Eterna in Italian. The concept of Rome as everlasting became so popular that other famous Roman poets and historians also adopted it, including Ovid, Virgil, and Livy.
During the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, people viewed Rome as eternal. To them, the idea of it ever falling would’ve sounded impossible! Nonetheless, as we know today, the empire did eventually collapse and break off into city-states. However, the phrase “The Eternal City” survived and is still a common reference to the Italian capital. Another popular nickname is Caput Mundi, meaning “Capital of the World.”
The Colosseum originally had a different name.
This landmark was constructed under the Flavian dynasty (Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian) as a large amphitheater where all Romans could seek entertainment. Therefore, classicists and archaeologists officially call it “the Flavian Amphitheater.”
However, ancient Romans probably just called it amphitheatrum, the Latin word for “amphitheater.” The name “Colosseum” that we use today likely comes from the colossal bronze statue of Emperor Nero as a solar deity that was located next to the amphitheater.
According to experts, as many as 400,000 people and over 1 million wild animals perished in the Colosseum.
The ancient Romans used the Colosseum as a center for entertainment for over 350 years. During this time, historians estimate that as many as 400,000 people and at least 1 million wild animals met their end here. Numerous events were held at this amphitheater, including gladiator battles, hunts, executions (damnatio ad bestias), and even staged naval battles.
Gladiator fights were the most common form of entertainment at the Colosseum. However, they may not have been quite as bloody as is believed. For example, many gladiators had long careers without winning every match, and Julius Caesar ordered that famous competitors who lost should still be saved and brought to him.
Regarding the animals used in these events, spectators would’ve seen lions, elephants, tigers, giraffes, hyenas, leopards, crocodiles, wild boars, hippos, and other exotic creatures. Due to events like venatio, the number of animals who perished in the Colosseum is likely well in the millions.
Gladiator blood was used as medicine in the Roman Republic.
One of the most interesting facts on the Romans is that they used gladiator’s blood as a medical treatment for epilepsy. Since society viewed these fighters as powerful and full of energy, it was believed that their blood carried specific properties. Apart from treating epilepsy, ancient Roman doctors also prescribed gladiator blood as a remedy against impotence or to help women with fertility issues.
Ancient Romans had lots of interesting hygiene habits.
Some of the most shocking ancient Roman facts have to do with daily tasks. For example, Ancient Romans used urine as a mouthwash to whiten their teeth. They also used it to clean their clothes when doing laundry!
This tactic may sound gross, but apparently, it got the job done. After all, urine does contain ammonia, a compound used in many of our cleaning products. Now, you may be wondering about other quirky Roman washroom habits.
Well, although toilet paper didn’t exist yet, the Romans did have a tool called xylospongium or tersorium, which they would use to clean themselves. Essentially, this is a fancy word for “a sponge on a stick” mechanism that individuals shared in public latrines.
Hair dyeing was popular among women in Ancient Rome.
In fact, the most sought-after color was blond! This fact about the Romans makes sense as they associated blond hair color with the exotic appearance of foreigners from Gaul (modern-day France and Germany). During this time, there was a law that actually required Roman prostitutes to dye their hair blond so they would be easily distinguishable. However, this rule didn’t stop other citizens from wanting to be blond, too! The next most popular hair colors were red and black.
So, what did they use in the ancient world to achieve these hair colors? Well, goat fat, beech wood ashes, henna, vinegar, and leeches were among some of the most common ingredients. After creating these mixtures, women left the dye to ferment for two months before applying it to their hair.
Rome was likely home to the first shopping mall.
Trajan’s Market was constructed between 107 and 110 AD during Roman Emperor Trajan’s reign. It features three levels and over 150 “tabernae” or shops. For this reason, many scholars speculate that Trajan’s Market is the first covered shopping mall in history.
However, we may never know for sure! As far as what the Romans purchased at this market, historians believe food from all over the empire would’ve been sold here. For example, the most likely market products are fruits and vegetables, fish, wine, oil, and maybe even spices.
Travel tip: you can visit Trajan’s Market on your vacation to Rome at the Museo dei Fori Imperiali (Museum of the Imperial Fora), which opened in 2007.
The promise of Roman citizenship allowed Rome to expand.
One important question we have left to answer is: how was Rome able to grow so much? Well, we know from some of the other facts about the Romans mentioned above that roads allowed them to conquer and expand their territory. However, they also had other resources at their disposal to broaden the empire.
If you were a Roman citizen during this time, you were granted certain rights. So, foreigners would often trade years of military service in the Roman army in exchange for certain citizen rights under Roman law. Nonetheless, these “allies” only received a limited form of citizenship and could not vote or run for office.
Did you enjoy this post? Pin it for later!
This article was first published in April 2021 and has since been updated.