Rome is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, let alone Italy. It’s not as if it’s an unknown quantity – this is the place that has been known as the Eternal City for ages, after all. And yeah, there have been a few pages written about Rome over the years.
Just a few.
So you think you know everything there is to know about Rome? Think again.
Here’s a fun list of 21 things you probably didn’t know about Rome. My guess is that even the most die-hard Italophiles will find a few items on this list that they didn’t already have tucked away in their trivia arsenal.
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Río de la Plata on Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers || creative commons photo by Gentil Hibou
- Rome is Europe’s 8th most populous city. – The population of Rome is more than 2.8 million people (2014 numbers), making it Italy’s largest city and Europe’s 8th largest. By comparison, ancient Rome’s population soared to more than one million people at its peak.
- Ground level in ancient Rome was lower than it is today. – When you go to the Roman Forum, you have to descend from the modern street level into the ruins. When you approach the Pantheon, you’ll notice you’re walking slightly downhill into what feels like it might be a shallow pool. Over the past 2,000 years, the ground has actually built up around ancient ruins from things like sediment being left behind after the Tiber River flooded its banks (which it did fairly frequently).
- All roads really did lead to Rome. – Well, maybe not every single road, but the old saying has some merit. The ancient Romans were avid road-builders, and by the 4th century BCE there were more than 50,000 miles of roads throughout the Roman Empire – including many that started in Rome itself. One you can still walk on (or bike on) today is the Via Appia, or ancient Appian Way.
- The ancient Romans invented central heating. – Some residences in Rome were known not only to have central heating and indoor plumbing, they also had in-floor heat.
- Rome wasn’t always Italy’s capital. – When Italy first became a unified country in 1861, the capital city was Turin. Then in 1864, Florence became the capital. It wasn’t until 1870 that the capital was moved to Rome.
- Rome is the 7th most visited city in Europe. – Italy’s capital was also its most visited city for as long as I’ve been paying attention to that number, but it has now fallen behind Milan in terms of international overnight visitors in European cities (Milan comes in 6th). I don’t know if that’s a lingering statistic from the Milan Expo or if it’s the new normal, but in 2016 Rome had 7.12 million overnighters (Milan had 7.65 million).
- The Pantheon didn’t become a ruin because it became a church. – While other ancient Roman structures were taken apart piece by piece so the stones could be used to build other things, the Pantheon didn’t suffer a similar fate. Because it was consecrated as a church in 609 CE, it was left intact.
- One of Rome’s neighborhoods is an ancient garbage dump. – The Testaccio neighborhood is one of Rome’s less-refined (though increasingly trendy) areas, built on an ancient Roman hill. But that hill is actually a pile of old Roman garbage. Right along the Tiber River, this area was where ships would be unloaded, and the ceramic vases that held cargo were discarded in what became an enormous pile by the riverside. That’s what lies deep underneath the streets of Testaccio, even today.
- The Spanish Steps weren’t built by the Spanish. – The name for the Spanish Steps, one of the top attractions in Rome, comes from the nearby Spanish Embassy. The church at the top of the steps is the Trinità dei Monti.
- The “Mouth of Truth” is an ancient manhole cover. – The “Mouth of Truth” has achieved legendary status as a sort of lie detector – stick your hand inside and you’ll lose it if you utter a lie. Archaeologists today now believe it was nothing more than an ornate old manhole cover.
- The first shopping mall was built in ancient Rome. – Emperor Trajan had a market built in roughly 100 CE, and the arcades are still visible today.
- People used to live inside the Colosseum. – Long after the fall of Rome, some ancient Romans used the Colosseum as their residential fortress. The center was used as a cemetery. In the years right after the Colosseum stopped being used regularly, it became overgrown with plants. It’s one of the most recognized monuments in Italy today, but it certainly wasn’t always revered.
- Ancient Romans perfected the use of aqueducts to move water. – The first aqueduct in Rome was built in the 4th century BCE to serve a water fountain at a cattle market. By the 3rd century CE, Rome was fed by 11 aqueducts. Most of the water went into the city’s public baths. Some aqueducts still exist in Rome today – such as the the Aqua Claudia and the Aqua Felix in the Parco degli Acquedotti – and in some other parts of the former Roman Empire, those aqueducts are still used to transport water.
- Piazza Navona isn’t a square. – Many times in Italy, the word “piazza” is synonymous with “square,” but the Piazza Navona wasn’t always a piazza. It used to be an ancient Roman circus, with the buildings constructed outside the walls of the stands. So when the circus was torn down, the oblong shape of the piazza remained.
- This city contains an entire state. – You probably already know that within the borders of Rome lies an entire independent state – Vatican City. What you may not have known is that Rome is the only city on earth that can make that claim.
- €3,000 in coins land in the Trevi Fountain every day. – Legend says that throwing a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain will ensure a return to Rome, so naturally everyone does it. City officials collect the coins daily (using a special vacuum!), and it’s estimated that more than €3,000 is collected each day. The money goes to support Rome’s poor.
- Rome’s oldest stone bridge hasn’t been used since the 1500s. – All that remains today of Rome’s oldest stone bridge is a single arch in the middle of the Tiber River, but the Pons Aemilius once connected the Trastevere with the other side of Rome. It was originally built in the 2nd century BCE.
- Rome’s oldest university is also Europe’s largest. – La Sapienza, the oldest university in the city, was founded in 1303. It is Europe’s largest university, and the second-largest in the world. (The oldest is in Italy, too.)
- The 3rd metro line in Rome has been under construction since 2006. – Rome’s metro has only two lines, and work on the proposed 3rd line – Line C – began 2006. The line isn’t complete, however, because every time workers chip away at the tunnel they find parts of yet another ancient Roman something. The first section of Line C opened in 2014, and the second in 2015 – but it doesn’t connect yet with the two existing lines (that’s supposedly going to happen in 2017).
- SPQR is a Latin abbreviation, not Italian. – You’ll see the letters SPQR stamped all over the place in Rome, on everything from garbage cans to doorways to manhole covers. The letters stand for “Senatus Populus que Romanus,” or “the senate and people of Rome.”
- Rome celebrates its birthday in April. – According to Roman legend, the city was founded on April 21st in 753 BCE by Romulus (I love how they’re precise to the exact day on a calendar that didn’t exist then). So at noon every year on April 21st, a bell is rung on the Capitoline Hill to mark Rome’s birthday.
What’s your favorite piece of Rome trivia?
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