Secret Rome: Why You Need To See Ara Pacis

At the time of publishing this post the world is under a travel ban due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I have chosen to keep publishing stories about traveling to Italy for three reasons. The first is that one day hopefully sooner rather than later, the world will open back up to travel, making this a great time to learn about more places we want to visit and what to see when we get there.   

Secondly I hope this will change the way we travel. Hopefully cruise ships and big bus tours and the mass tourism they bring will become a thing of the past, replaced by a more sustainable means of travel that involves smaller groups of people with a germane interest in discovering new places, rather than the masses descending on any city to check it off their bucket list. Third, in this time of crisis our minds need a place to escape to, even if only for a few minutes. So let’s escape to Italy together.

Ara Pacis

This is one of those completely fantastic secrets in Rome that’s hiding in plain sight. Even when Rome is bursting at the seams with tourists you will find very few people here. It is one of my absolute favorites and I wrote about it in detail in my best selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome. (Find it in the 13 Places To Discover Ancient Rome chapter)

The Ara Pacis in Rome. A celebration of peace brought by Emperor Augustus
The Ara Pacis in Rome

The Ara Pacis was built around 13 B.C to commemorate Augustus’ victorious return to Rome. Rome had been mired in decades of civil war, and had spent centuries at war with other countries. Augustus ended all the fighting, bringing about the first time of peace in years at the same time becoming the most powerful man in history.

Originally it stood at the northeast corner of the Campus Martius. The altar was angled so that at sunset on Augustus’ birthday the shadow of the point of the obelisk in the Campus Martius would fall onto the Ara Pacis, symbolizing that he was born to bring peace to Rome. He really was a master of propaganda!

Centuries later the Tiber river was expanded and over time the Ara Pacis, in all of its white marble glory, became submerged in 4 meters of mud. It disappeared for more than 1000 years.

2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis in Rome
2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis

In the 16th century fragments of it were found under an old palazzo. More were discovered in the 1800’s.

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In 1937 the Italian cabinet decided to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth by excavating the altar. 70 cubic meters of ground (beneath what at the time was the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia) were frozen and the altar was extracted.

When you visit the Ara Pacis you can see what a colossal undertaking that must have been. Working with comparatively few fragments and only a short amount of time, it’s amazing what they were able to achieve.

The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum
The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum

Buildings surround the mausoleum of Augustus were razed and the Ara Pacis was placed in its current location. It initially was protected by a pavilion but in 2006 got its current, very modern Richard Meier designed building. The building looks pretty incongruous surrounded by old Rome, but once you go inside you can appreciate the genius of it. There is an overwhelming amount of natural light, maximizing the magnificence of the altar.

Ara Pacis in Rome is bathed in natural light
Ara Pacis bathed in natural light

The Ara Pacis is both beautiful and majestic. A set of stairs lead up to the altar, all encased in white marble walls which are covered in carvings.

Carvings on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
The right hand exterior of the Ara Pacis

The museum itself is really good. Entirely dedicated to the Ara Pacis, it is interactive and relatively small. Everyone working there is really well informed and incredibly helpful too.

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Ara Pacis carvings explained
One of the maps inside the Ara Pacis museum in Rome

This past summer while there I had a list of obscure things I wanted to find in the carvings that line the exterior of the marble walls. One of the guards came over, as this was his specialty. There were only a handful of visitors at the museum, so he was able to spend a half hour with me, going back and forth from the maps and interactive screens to the altar itself, finding the items on my list and pointing out missing pieces in between.

Agrippa and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
Agrippa, Gaius and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis

I speak Italian relatively well, but I don’t speak archeological Italian, and he spoke only a little English, but was fully invested in helping me, taking me back to the English translations at the interactive area when we got stuck.

It really was a fantastic experience!

The windows look out over the Mausoleum of Augustus which is being restored but will be open to the public soon.

Mausoleum of Augustus renovations
The Mausoleum of Augustus, once the grandest building in Rome, is under renovation and will open to the public in 2022

I recommend first reading the Ara Pacis section of my Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome book to get some context of who Augustus was, who all the players that show up here are, and why their stories are so interesting. This will make discovering the different people represented on the walls of the Ara Pacis extra interesting.

You can take a virtual tour of Ara Pacis here

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You will probably only spend half an hour or so here. It is an easy walk from the Piazza Navona/Campo di Fiori area, is only a few minutes’ walk along the river to the Bridge of Angels and Castel Sant’ Angelo (in front of St Peters) and is just across the river from Trastevere.

Address: Lungotevere in Augusta, Rome

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Porticus of Octavia ~ Why You Need To See This Site In Rome

One of the things I love so much about Rome is that you can turn almost any corner and find yourself in the midst of some incredible set of ruins dating back to before Christ. Sometimes long, long before Christ.

Each of them seem to have a fascinating story behind them, and frequently you can trace that story across millennia to where we are now.

One of these sets of ruins dating back 2200+ years sits smack bang in the middle of Rome, mere minutes’ walk from the Forum, and although there will be literally thousands of people just up the street, you’d be lucky to find more than a dozen people wandering around and taking photos right here.

The Porticus of Octavia in Rome
The Porticus of Octavia in Rome dates back 2200 years

This is the Porticus of Octavia. It is immediately next door to the Teatro Marcello and leads you straight into the Jewish Ghetto, where you can stop for a glass of wine and some artichokes or maybe just a quick coffee on your way to somewhere else.

If you have my book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things to Do in Rome: Beyond the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps you can find more information as well as a guide to what’s in walking distance from here in the Ancient Rome section.

A Very Ancient History

Back in 179 B.C a temple to the Goddess Juno was built on this site. Then in 146 B.C a temple to Jupiter Stator was built right next to it, and the two were enclosed in the Porticus Metelli.

Fast forward 120 years and Emperor Augustus decided it was time for some renovating and gave the complex a rebuild, naming it for his sister Octavia. This is the structure we see now.

The Teatro marcello in Rome dates back to before Christ
The Teatro Marcello in Rome may well have been the prototype for the Colosseum. It was built just down the road, 84 years prior.

Octavia was the mother of Marcellus, namesake of the theater next door.

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Murder In The Family

Just to make things even more interesting, Augustus’ wife Livia is thought to have killed Octavia’s son Marcellus to knock him out of the running to be Emperor. Basically everyone who potentially came between her own son Tiberius and the  job of emperor mysteriously died, including in the end Augustus himself.

I go into this in the book – the story is fascinating and Livia is one of the two villainesses in my history of Rome. Of course there were more than two, but I give you one from ancient Rome and one from Renaissance Rome.

The Temples And The Art

In its time this must have been an incredible sight to see. The Teatro Marcello and the Porticus of Octavia with the two temples would have all been gleaming in the sunshine, bright white travertine.

Porticus of Octavia Rome
In its day the Porticus of Octavia would have been all gleaming white travertine. Columns form the two temples dating back 2200 years still remain.

We know from Pliny the Elder’s book A Natural History, that both the porticoes of Octavia and Metelli as well as the two temples were full of art. Statues and frescoes were abundant, and the entire area would have been beautiful.

Octavia also built a library, curia and lecture halls in this complex.

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A History of Fires

There were two notable fires here, the first in 80 A.D and was repaired by Domitian. Then in 203 A.D there was another fire which had repairs done by Septimus Severus and his maniac son Caracalla. There is an inscription along the top that names both and also says Incendio Corruptum Rest, which means restored after a fire.

Inscription on the Porticus of Octavia tells of a rebuild by Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla after a fire
The inscription across the front of the Porticus tells of the rebuild after the fire.

In 442 A.D an earthquake felled the original columns along the front, which were then replaced by the arch you see now.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome the beautiful Porticus of Octavia fell to ruin and became a fish market, remaining so until the late 19th century. In 770 A.D the church of Sant’ Angelo in Pescheria was built in the back of the ruins, Translated in means Church of The Holy Angel In The Fish Market

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In my book Glam Italia! 101 fab I give you a breakdown of everything you are seeing and show you some incredibly cool details to look for, such as which stones are B.C and which correspond to the various centuries A.D.

You are also mere steps away from one of my favorite eateries in Rome, where I have spent endless evenings dining al fresco and tourist free. It’s all in the book – order your copy from Amazon today!

Want something else that’s really cool to do in Rome? I have a Free PDF of the Best Rooftop Bars In Rome. These are places with gorgeous views and wonderful drinks. Any of them are the perfect place to end a long day of sightseeing, taking in the sunset, the view and an icy cold Prosecco! Download your Best Rooftop Bars In Rome PDF HERE

HP Commission

Tourists In Rome Need To Know About These New Laws

Rome has had enough of bad tourist behavior and is cracking down with a profusion of new rules as well as the resurrection and enforcement of old ones. In the well policed city center, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site, you can expect a hefty fine if caught violating any of the new rules. And being that the police are everywhere and that tourists tend to hang out in the main tourist areas, the chances of you getting caught are huge.

Most of these new rules really are just a matter of being respectful and behaving with a sense of decency. Some of them are really annoying, because tourists behaving badly or disrespectfully have ruined things that had been hugely pleasurable for the rest of us for years.

Keep Your Shirt On

Men will be stopped and fined for walking around shirtless. Most tourists at least keep their tops on but you do on occasion see men walking around with their shirt off. Not any more! The average fine starts at 250 euro per violation.

In Venice they don’t allow women to walk around in swimwear, so shorts and a bikini top are a no-no. I’m not sure if Rome has this in place now too, if not it won’t be far behind.

Stay Out Of The Fountains In Rome

This summer the city has (finally) cracked down on tourists getting into the city’s many fountains.

tourists climbing into Rome's fountains

Yes, we get it, you’re hot. So is everyone else. The fountains of Rome are not your personal swimming pool, so don’t climb in. Not only will you be hauled out soaking wet in front of everyone you will also be fined up to 450 euros

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Stay Off The Monuments In Rome

Eating, drinking and climbing on monuments is now banned. Tourists eating sloppy food and dropping it all over the city monuments as well as leaving their food scraps and trash now means the rest of us can no longer sit on monument steps with a gelato, or with a drink in hand while taking in the view or watching street musicians.

image via Independent.uk

I am in 100% support of banning the badly behaved tourists, and I don’t want to have to clear up someone’s food detritus so that I can sit down, but I am also somewhat saddened by this rule.

No more evenings sitting on the steps of the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere

There have been many nights sitting on the steps in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere watching street performers, and just as many evenings sitting on the steps with the locals in Piazza Trilussa watching the musicians with a backdrop of the Sisto Bridge and the river, with a drink or a snack in hand. It has been part of life in Rome which for now anyway, is over.

Sunset in Rome’s Piazza Trilussa, watching the street music

One of the experiences I have loved in Piazza Trilussa over the past decade has been sitting on the stairs with local college kids and letting them practice their English on me while some dude with a guitar, a mic and an amp sings Pink Floyd songs. This is where I learned about Roman street foods such as suppli’ and tripizzini, staples for Roman college students, while they educated me on everything from local politics to current philosophy.

This is part of my aversion to American fast food chains even being in Rome let alone in the big tourist areas. McDonalds wrappers and food scraps do not belong anywhere near any monuments (or anywhere else in Rome!)

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As far as I’m concerned anyone climbing on or defacing the city’s monuments should be strung up and flogged.

No More Sitting On The Spanish Steps

One of the rules that will be hard to get used to is no longer being allowed to sit on the Spanish Steps. I have to preface this by saying that as a rule I avoid the area like the plague, only venturing in to go to the Nespresso store so the snooty sales assistants can be suitably rude while I stock up on coffee to bring home. (Why is it that Nespresso workers everywhere from Los Angeles to Barcelona to Rome are so rude??)

Rome’s Spanish Steps have become overcrowded. Although a shame not to be able to sit there anymore at least now you can see them.

There was something so iconic about sitting on the steps looking out over Rome, and many of my Glam Italia Tour travelers have really enjoyed that little photo op. But over the past few years it has become really overcrowded, full of vendors trying to sell you bottled water and selfie sticks, and has been pickpocket heaven, so has lost some of the magic.

travelers sitting on the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome. New laws now make this illegal, with fines up to 450 euros
Sitting on the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome is now illegal

If you are caught sitting on the steps the fine starts at 250 euros and goes up to 450 euros if you have dirtied or damaged them. Neon vested police officers now crisscross the steps all day and will be blowing whistles at you before your bum hits the deck.

No More Dragging Luggage Down Steps

This rule is long overdue. If you get caught bouncing your luggage, especially wheeled luggage, down any of the monument steps (most famously the Spanish Steps) in Rome you can expect a heavy fine.

Venice has already banned dragging luggage up and down stairs, now Rome is too.

I have always been stunned at how people can think it is ok to drag their over-packed suitcases down ancient stairs, be it inside an apartment building, a villa or public walkways. The lack of concern for potential damage they are causing is deplorable.

Buses and Public Transport Fines

Think twice before jumping on to a bus, tram or metro in Rome without a ticket. In July of this year the ATAC, Rome’s public transport company issued more than 17,000 tickets to fare dodgers.

Where formerly you didn’t really see too much of a presence, this year ticket inspectors are checking an average of 9,000 people per day. From January to July of this year (2019) they have checked more than 2 million passengers, resulting in more than 134,000 fines being issued.

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Leave Your Padlocks Of Love At Home

If you are thinking about attaching a “love padlock” to any bridge or monument, anywhere in the world, for God’s sake just stop!

It is now outlawed in Rome, hopefully Paris will follow suit.

Here’s the deal: these centuries’ old bridges and iron grates were not built to withstand the weight of all these padlocks. Your one padlock may not seem like a big deal, but multiply it by hundreds and the equation changes. City workers have to cut the padlocks off (so it’s a waste of time anyway) but still the weight and the constant use of bolt cutters and steel cutters is damaging to something that will definitely outlast your love for Roger.

On top of that, would be romantics after attaching their padlock then toss the key over the bridge into the river below. Cities have to dredge the river beds to collect these stupid keys. The whole thing is ludicrous and incredibly damaging, and when you think about it is no less offensive and defacing than if you spray painted “I love Roger” on the wall. If you love him so much, padlock something at your own house.

Expect to get caught and expect a big fine.

No Lips On Water Fountains

Everywhere you go in Rome you will see Nasoni, the ever running water fountains that keep Romans and tourists hydrated. Fill your water bottle or cover the opening and drink the water that spouts out, but whatever you do don’t put your mouth on it!

How to use the Nasoni in Rome
The corrct way to use the nasoni in Rome

Firstly, come on – that’s gross. We all want to use the fountains and none of us want your mouth cooties. More than just being yucky behavior, it can be expensive too. New laws have made it illegal to put your mouth on the water fountain. Expect to get caught and expect to pay a fine of hundreds of euros.

Best Rome Travel Guide Book Glam Italia 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome
The BEST guide book for Rome! Order your copy here

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New laws in Rome are costing tourists hundreds of euros in fines