Project Description

An Introduction to Rome’s Modern Historic Center: the ancient Campus Martius

Rome’s historic center got its name, Campus Martius, circa 2500 years ago! In 500 B.C., it was a field (i.e. campus in Latin) where Roman soldiers trained and drilled. Their martial arts, inspired by the war god Mars, gave the field its name, i.e. Campus Martius or Mars’s Field.  By the first century A.D., Rome’s original city center in the seven hills area was brimming with people. So, Emperor Augustus had the Campus Martius area developed.

Over the next one hundred years it became a ritzy suburbia, full of apartment buildings, spas, entertainment centers, and stores selling luxury items. While the area changed again during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond, the name stuck. Or rather, Campus Martius in Latin slowly became Campo Marzio in Italian. Today its home to the monuments that most visitors rave about there: the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and its fountains, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi, etc…

Must-sees Galore from the Spanish Steps to the Pantheon

rome's historic center, campus martius, the boat fountain and spanish steps

Our stroll takes us through a portion of the Campo Marzio where we’ll admire a variety of structures, ranging from 19 B.C. to the 1700s. For example, we’ll start at the iconic Spanish Steps that date to the early 1700s. As Daniella loves pointing out, the Steps’ construction predates the signing of the US Declaration of Independence by several decades. And you still get to walk down them!

At the foot of the Steps is a fountain by the lovable sculptor Bernini. It represents a sinking boat and can be seen in the photo. Listening to its history is a lot of fun–but not as much fun as filling one’s bottle with its cool waters during the blazing summer!

Then we’ll admire a hidden treasure, i.e. a fragment of ancient aqueduct that most people just walk by! (And it’s one of the few traces of an aqueduct still standing Rome’s historic center!) It’s a great moment to talk about ancient Roman public works in the Campus Martius area and in general. And it’s a great introduction to the Trevi Fountain, which is just next door. But Rome’s early history tends to be Daniella’s favorite. So, after the Trevi, get ready for Marcus Aurelius’s Triumphal Column. Nearly one hundred feet tall and sculpted with battle campaigns and Roman victories, it’s a fine example of Imperial propaganda. And Emperor Hadrian’s Temple is around the corner.

rome's historic center, campus martius, the dome of the pantheon from the inside

The Pantheon

And then? Hurray! We’ll visit the nearly two-thousand-year-old Pantheon. Daniella insists that it, perhaps more than any other building, expresses Imperial Romans’ engineering ambitions. Once you realize that it boasts the unchallenged title for being the largest unsupported concrete dome in history, what more can you say about it? Quite a lot, really! As Daniella will prove. (It’s dome can be seen in the photo.)

Delightful Piazza Navona at the End of Our Campus Martius Stroll

historic center, campus martius, and piazza navona with its fountains

The Renaissance Piazza Navona offers an opportunity to talk about historic layering: under it (and lending it its shape) is the Olympium Stadium, which Emperor Domitian ordered built.  It was inaugurated shortly after the Colosseum, which was sponsored by Domitian’s father, Emperor Vespasian.

Renaissance fountains now decorate the far ends of the Piazza. Both of which, in fine Italian style, took longer than expected to finish…  The real attraction, however, is Bernini’s Quattro Fiumi (Four Rivers Fountain). This Baroque masterpiece dominates the middle of the square and exemplifies Bernini’s genius for creating beauty. When it was operational for the first time, the sound of its crashing water stopped its patron, Pope Innocent X, in his tracks.  Today it soothes the jangled nerves of hot and tired tourists. The tour ends at Piazza Navona. Hopefully, by that point, a piece of Rome will have made its way into your heart.

Practical Advice Regarding the Campus Martius Historic Center and its Marvelous Sights

Good news! There are no entrance fees during this visit. But there are some great places to stop for gelato, snacks, and/or coffee!

More good news! Kids enjoy this visit because of its changing focus. Please click here for a review of my kid-friendly visits.

Finally, if you’re interested in Rome’s underground sites, consider adding the amazing Vicus Caprarius to the itinerary. It lengthens the tour by about an hour, but you’ll get to time travel for nearly 2000 years!

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