Many cities had defensive walls built around them, and in some places you can still see parts of (or entire) walls. Few, though, are as old or as famous as the Aurelian Walls that once surrounded the ancient city of Rome.
The Aurelian Walls were built in the 3rd century C.E., stretching 12 miles around the boundaries of the city at the time. All of Rome’s seven hills are inside the boundaries of the old walls, as are the Trastevere neighborhood on the right bank of the Tiber River and the area known as Campus Martius – a plain that eventually would become a populated area of the city. (The Pantheon is in the Campus Martius, for instance.)
Like similar defensive city walls, the Aurelian Walls were deemed necessary when the city’s rulers sensed a threat from outside forces. In this case, Emperor Aurelian commissioned the walls that bear his name in order to defend his city against barbarian tribes coming from the north. How successful the walls were to keep invaders out is debatable, largely due to the small numbers of soldiers tasked with patrolling the extensive fortifications, but the Aurelian Walls helped to protect – and define – Rome until the 19th century.
Some existing structures were incorporated into the walls as they were built, including the Castel Sant’Angelo near Vatican City and the Pyramid of Cestius in the Testaccio neighborhood. Despite the age of the walls, there is quite a bit that remains standing today and is quite well-preserved. Roughly two-thirds of the walls are still visible, in part or in their entirety.
Near the Porta San Sebastiano – one of the access gates built into the city walls – there is a museum about the Aurelian Walls, called the Museo delle Mura. A visit to the museum gives you a better idea of what you’re seeing when you walk through the city on your own. You can also book a history tour in Rome to get an even deeper understanding of the significance of the Aurelian Walls.
Today, most visitors are familiar with the Aurelian Walls boundary because it is used by taxi drivers as a perimeter for different fare levels. This PDF on the Comune di Roma website details the fares based on whether your destination (typically with transportation from Rome’s airports or the cruise terminal) is inside or outside the Aurelian Walls, and there’s a map at the end of the document. The second page is in English. If you’re not sure where your hotel falls in relation to the walls, contact the hotel to find out.
There are affiliate links below, which means I get a little something if you book one of these tours – but it won’t cost you anything extra.