The capital of Italy is one of the most visited cities in the world, not to mention one of the oldest ones. Affectionately called “Caput Mundi” – head of the world, in Latin – Rome is a city of many wonders, with a unique vibe and so much to see and do that you can’t help falling in love with it.
But do you think you really know Rome? To help you find out more about it, I put together this compilation of interesting facts about Rome. Let me know in the comments below if there are other facts about Rome I should add to this list!
29 Interesting Facts About Rome
Rome was said to be founded by Romulus in 753 BC
One of the most famous facts about Rome concerns its foundation, and it’s at the base of Roman mythology.
Twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, were born to the daughter of a king of an ancient region called Alba. That king got deposed, and the new king ordered Romulus and Remus to be killed.
However, they weren’t killed – in fact, they survived and were taken care of by a she-wolf. Found by a shepherd and raised, Remus was eventually captured by the new king of Alba. In saving him, Romulus and Remus learned of their royal heritage, and helped their grandfather back to power.
The twins then went on to establish their own city, but had a disagreement about what hill it ought to have been founded on, resulting in Remus being killed (perhaps by Romulus himself).
Romulus then founded Rome. He went on to create social classes and founded the Roman Senate, ruling for 37 years and apparently dying in a sudden storm.
Rome has been inhabited for almost three millennia
While Roman mythology sees Rome founded in 753 BC, the area on which Rome sits has been settled for much longer. In fact, its history spans 28 centuries, which means it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe.
Rome is built on 7 hills
Among the most notorious facts about Rome is that the city was built on 7 hills: the Palatine Hill, the Aventine Hill, the Capitoline Hill, the Caelian Hill, the Esquiline Hill, the Quirinal Hill, and the Viminal Hill.
It is often called The Eternal City
Rome was first deemed Urbs Aeterna or “The Eternal City” in the 1st century BC by the Roman poet Tibullus. It’s been a popular epithet ever since. Other poets such as Ovid, Virgil and Livy also used the expression to describe Rome. It was first called this not just because of its age, but its influence and continual growth too.
Other nicknames of Rome are “Caput Mundi” – which I have already mentioned above; and “Roma Invicta,” – unconquered Rome.
Most of Rome hasn’t actually been unearthed
You probably could imagine this already. With its 2800 years of history, and despite ongoing excavations, around 90 percent of Rome has yet to be unearthed and likely never will. The most ancient Rome is around 9 meters (30 feet) below street level. Nowadays buildings where people or businesses reside are located where on top of ancient Rome, so it’s unlikely this will be fully excavated.
Rome is the only city to have a country within its boundaries
Everyone knows that Rome is the capital city of Italy. But another country, the Vatican City, is situated inside the boundaries of Rome itself. That’s where St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church ever built, is located.
Run by the Holy See, under the jurisdiction of the Pope, the Vatican became independent from the rest of Italy in 1929. It spans an area of just 49 hectares, and it’s home to 825 people. This makes it both the smallest country in the world in both area and population.
One of the lesser known facts about Rome (though thanks to Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons it became way more notorious) is that there is a secret passage that connects Vatican City to Castel Sant’Angelo, known as Passetto del Borgo. The tunnel was used by Pope Clement VII to escape when Rome was under siege in 1527.
It is famous as a being the starting point of many artistic styles
Pope Nicholas V, who was Pope between 1447 and 1455, wanted Rome to become an artistic and cultural centre of the world, and it did. Rome was a major centre of the Renaissance, and it was actually the birthplace of both Neoclassicism and Baroque styles.
During the Renaissance, artists and architects – such as Raphael and Michelangelo – flocked to Rome to soak up its creative goodness and lend their talents to the city.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day” is not a Roman idiom
It’s originally French, and it was taken from a collection of proverbs called Li Proverbe au Vilain (published in 1190). The original Medieval French is “Rome ne fut pas faite toute en un jour”.
Just as well, the saying “all roads lead to Rome” is actually meant to be the other way around: all roads lead out of Rome. In fact, the city’s road system (which counted for a whopping 53000 miles – over 85000 km – by the early 4th century) was built in a way that allowed soldiers to get out of town center (back then the Millarium Aureum, in the Forum) as swiftly as possible – so that they could go conquer the world.
Rome hasn’t always been the capital of Italy
This is one of the facts about Rome you may not be aware of!
Before the unification of Italy in 1861, the country was a collection of different kingdoms and alliances – Rome was one of the so-called Papal States at this time. At the time of unification, Turin was declared the capital, but in 1865 it was moved to Florence (which apparently caused rioting in Turin).
Then in 1870, at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, it was decided that the capital should actually be Rome because of how symbolic the city had been in Italian history. Not only was it because of the city’s illustrious past, but also for practical reasons – it’s more centrally located than Florence. The move was made final in 1871.
The Spanish Steps was once just a slope
The famous stairway of the Spanish Steps is now one of the most famous landmarks in Rome, but it took hundreds of years for 135 steps to be constructed. The steep slope, which connected to a church on the Pincian Hill, was slated for urbanization – but how, exactly, remained a matter of debate.
Initial drawings of the development date back to the 1580s, with many plans following, until finally a competition was held in 1717. The winning entry was by Italian architect Francesco De Sanctis. The steps were finally built between 1723 and 1726 in order to celebrate a newly signed peace treaty between France and Spain – hence the name, “Spanish Steps.”
They were renovated in 2015, funded by luxury Italian fashion brand Bulgari.
A tip for travellers – don’t eat lunch on this famous stairway! As of 2017, it’s against city regulations to sit and eat lunch on the Spanish Steps.
Rome is thought to have reached a population of one million before any city
As early as 1 AD, Rome’s population was estimated to be around one million. Two hundred years later it is thought by some to have grown to 1,200,000. To put this into perspective, it wouldn’t be until 1,800 years later, in 1810 that London would boast a population of over a million, and Paris only got there in 1850!
Also, did you know that Rome was more densely populated in the past than it is now? That’s because everyone in the past lived within the city walls.
The Roman Forum was the heart of Ancient Rome
Though it’s a ruin today, the Forum was once at the center of everyday Roman life. From gladiator matches and market stalls, to public speakers and a place to meet up, it was a hive of activity.
The earliest temples and shrines dedicated to Roman deities were also located here. It’s still busy to this day – the Forum receives an average of 4.5 million sightseers every year.
SPQR is an older acronym that you think
You’ll see the capital letters “SPQR” everywhere in Rome – on public buildings, on ruins on souvenirs. But what does it mean? “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” which roughly translated means “For the Senate and People of Rome” and was a motto for the Roman army and government officials alike. It first appeared to be used from 80 BC onwards.
There have been humorous takes on SPQR over the years, including “Sono Pazzi Questi Romani” (“They’re crazy, these Romans!”).
Rome is one of the greenest European capitals
One of the most interesting facts about Rome is that the city is much greener than you’d imagine.
The Italian capital has numerous public parks and large nature reserves that make up huge areas. This has often been put down to the numerous ancient and historic villas owned by Roman aristocracy throughout the ages, which came complete with their own landscaped gardens.
In fact, many of the parks that were part of these villas were actually destroyed during the urban development of the city in the late 19th century, but there are some that remain. The garden at the Villa Borghese, for example, is one of the most famous in the city. Other large green spaces include the Ancient Roman Hippodrome.
The Pantheon doesn’t have any windows
One of the most famous buildings in Rome, the construction of the Pantheon was ordered by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD. At the time it was used as a temple, but it then became a Catholic church. It’s where some notable Italians – artist Raphael and King Victor Emmanuel II, among others – have been buried. One interesting fact: the only light comes in through the oculus in its dome.
Rome is home the world’s oldest shopping mall
It may not have escalators or a food court, but Trajan’s Market – built between 100 and 110 AD – is thought to be the first covered mall in history. This large, multi-level complex housed around 150 apartments and shops – there was even a large area where free wheat was distributed to Roman citizens.
Parts of this well-preserved marvel can still be seen today, like the remains of a library and its marble floors. Some of the upper levels can be visited, too.
More than 500000 people died inside the Colosseum
One of the most interesting facts about Rome you may not know: it is estimated that more than 500000 died during the battles held inside the Colosseum, along with more than a million animals. The ones who died, however, were not gladiators, who rarely died during battles. They were celebrities, though often slaves living in conditions so dire that they would often rise in protest (the most notable, the one led by Spartacus).
There are a lot of cats in Rome
The population of Rome’s cats has been estimated at over 300,000. This is down to a law enacted in 1991, the Bicultural Heritage Law, forbidding people from disturbing or shooing away groups of five or more cats. This essentially allows feral cats to live freely without any disruption to their natural urban habitat.
It’s not unusual to see cats lounging around some of Rome’s famous sights – the Colosseum alone is home to around 200 cats! There are various charities that look after the cats, offering food, providing veterinary and even “at-a-distance” adoption services.
Make sure to read my post Where To See The Lovely Cats Of Rome.
There are talking statues in Rome
But they don’t talk with their mouths. These are actually ancient Roman statues that acted as bulletins or message boards for members of the public to use as an outlet for creativity, humor and social discussion.
Called “statue parlanti di Roma,” these so-called “talking statues” began with people pasting notes on Pasquino. This statue was crumbling, particularly weathered and it was thought to be a depiction of mythical Spartan king, Menelaus, which was unearthed during construction in 1501. The new statue became not just a talking point, but a literary soapbox.
Romans were once taxed for their urine
The ammonia contained in human urine was valuable in Ancient Rome – in dying fabrics, in tanning leather and even laundering togas. The trade in urine collected from public toilets was so lucrative that those who bought it from collective cesspools had to pay a tax.
This was first introduced by Emperor Nero, but then reintroduced during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69 – 79 AD). His son, Titus, is said to have moaned about how disgusting the tax was. This led his father to hold up a coin and ask, “Does its smell offend you?” Titus said no. “And yet it comes from urine,” said Vespasian.
It’s from this whole episode that we get the famous Latin proverb, “Pecunia non olet” which translates literally to, “Money doesn’t stink.”
All the money taken from the Trevi Fountain goes to charity
The Trevi Fountain is one of the most visited attractions in Rome. It’s covered in statues of mythological figures and dates back to 1762.
It’s customary for tourists to throw coins into the fountain, but there’s a trick to it. According to superstition, you have to use your right hand and throw it backwards over your left shoulder. Throw in one coin, and you’ll return to Rome; throw in two, and you’ll return to Rome and find love; three means you’ll return to Rome, find love and marry.
There are so many visitors that around 3,000 Euros (on average) are thrown into the fountain every day!
Thankfully, all of this money doesn’t just sit at the bottom of the fountain. It’s collected every year and donated to a worthy cause. In 2016, for example, around 1.4 million Euros were collected from the Trevi Fountain and used to help homeless and poverty-stricken communities in Rome. It’s illegal for individuals to take coins from the fountain.
Ancient Rome was a multilingual city
Though Latin may be the only language associated with it, Rome itself was a multicultural city of many different languages. Sabine and Etruscan were among the main ancient regional languages, but many immigrants, slaves and ambassadors from all over the world spoke a multitude of tongues. Greek was particularly popular – in fact, many high-class Romans spoke Greek, too.
No one knows what the Mouth of Truth actually is
Though it’s known that the Mouth of Truth – or Bocca della Verità in Italian – depicts the Roman god Oceanus, the actual history of the marble disk is unclear.
Weighing in at 1,300 kilograms, the Mouth of Truth is located at the Basilica of Saint Mary. However, it was previously thought to have been a drain cover near the ancient Temple of Hercules. The purpose? Either to drain water when it rained through an opening in the temple roof, or to drain blood from cattle sacrificed to Hercules.
Either way, today – as popularized in the movie Roman Holiday (1954) – you’re supposed to declare something and put your hand in the mouth. According to legend, the mouth will bite your hand if you’ve sworn falsely!
Rome has one sister city
And that’s Paris. Likewise, Paris just has one sister city – Rome. They were exclusively twinned with one another in 1956 under the slogan, “Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris.”
Rome has more fountains than any other city in the world
Fountains have been a part of Rome’s urban landscape for over 2,000 years, but they’re not just for show. There are over 50 monumental fountains that can still be found across the city, but there are over 2,000 in total.
Historically, the fountains not only decorated Rome’s many piazze, but also provided drinking water to the population. 39 of the monumental fountains and 591 public basins were fed by Ancient Rome’s nine aqueducts. They were brought to life again during the 17th and 18th centuries, which is considered the “golden age” of fountains in Rome.
Check out my post The Most Beautiful Fountains In Rome.
Rome had 11 aqueducts
Aqueducts built by the Romans over a period of 500 years (from 312 BCE to 226 CE) had the function of bringing water to the city from as far as 92 km (57 miles). Their main function was to provide water to the city – drinking water, and water for the many bath houses where Romans would enjoy some free time (the most famous in Rome are the Baths of Caracalla, opened in 216 AD and which accommodated a whopping 1500 people) going from the cold water pools (frigidarium) to the hot water ones (caldarium).
Though some aqueduct used to run on stone arches, most of them were actually underground, and made of terra-cotta pipes.
Also – one of the most fun facts about Rome: toilet paper was obviously not a thing, so the Romans used a wet sponge (called “spongia”) and running water in public toilets. Yeah I know, ew!
Only free men could wear a toga
The linen toga which we associate to the Romans was actually a prerogative of the free men of Rome (those that had citizenship), much like only free Roman women could wear a stola.
By the way, upper class Roman women were as much victims of fashion as we are now: they used to dye their hair red and blonde by using goat fat and beech wood ashes.
Rome had some bloody Emperors
The most infamous Roman Emperor is Nero, who ruled from 54 AD to 68 AD and is known for having set the city on fire – the Great Fire of Rome.
But Nero isn’t the only bad emperor in the history of Rome.
Caligula had many crimes linked to his name. It is said that he enjoyed sleeping with his sisters; he watched prisoners being tortured while eating; he fed prisoners to wild animals; and he even poisoned his grandmother Antonia.
The Roman diet varied with the social status
Speaking of food, one of the most interesting facts about Rome is that the diet of Romans couldn’t have been more different to what is eaten in Italy today! The upper classes typically ate lots of meat – wild game such as hare, boar, pheasant and even flamingo tongue (yep!). A common saying is that they’d throw massive parties, eat copiously and then vomit to start eating again.
The diet of lower classes consisted of eggs, legumes, wheat.
By the way, don’t get confused: pizza was not invented in Rome, but in Naples, where a traditional Greek dish consisting in a flat bread served with oil, cheese and herbs was perfected to create pizza as you know it today.
Make sure to read my other posts:
- The Best Quotes About Rome
- The Best Rome Virtual Tour
- The Best Areas Where To Stay In Rome
- The Best Tips For Visiting Rome
- Which Are The Seven Hills Of Rome?
- The Best Beaches Near Rome