Finding gems along the Aurelian walls, Rome’s ancient ramparts

Most visitors to Rome will come across the Aurelian walls framing the old city at some point during their sight-seeing. But not so many will consider these stunning ancient treasures a priority. I would argue that these ramparts are a sight worth admiring and taking note of in themselves. A walk along the walls is also a lovely way to spend a morning in Rome, and there are several interesting churches and sights to discover on the way.

Constructed around 270 AD during the reign of emperors Aurelian and Probus to protect Rome against invasions, the original walls stretched about 19 km around the city.  They enclosed the seven hills of Rome, and the Trastevere area. Since the fourth century most sections of the wall are about 16 metres high, and a square tower is fitted into the ramparts at regular intervals. About 17 major gates were built to pass through the walls as well as several minor openings.

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Many sections of the walls around the city make interesting walks. I’d like to focus on the area between Porta Metronia and Porta San Sebastiano, in San Giovanni. I normally begin my walk through the park and cycle tracks near to Porta Metronia. Here you can see a long stretch of the ramparts, and have a good chance to observe their form.

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You can wander along the walls up to nearby Porta Latina. At this point it is worth going through the gate to discover some interesting gems on the other side. Firstly you can see the octagonal oratory of St. John in Oil. According to a set of stories written by early Christian author Tertullian, this is the spot where St. John the Apostle emerged miraculously unharmed after being thrown into boiling oil. The oratory was built on the site of a small pagan temple which existed before the Aurelian walls, and was renovated  by Francesco Borromini in 1658. It is rarely open sadly, but on some occasions lucky visitors do have a chance to peek in and see the frescoes inside.

image Walking down Via di Porta Latina, you can also turn up to the right for a chance to see the pretty church of St. John before the Latin Gate. This is in a romantic setting so is a favourite choice for weddings and therefore better visited on a week day.

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In its front courtyard you can see an 8th century well-head next to the huge cedar tree, and the portico fronted by columns. A church dedicated to St. John has been on this spot since about 495 AD, and much of the exterior reconstruction we see today dates back to the 12th century. Inside, the church has a serene atmosphere, and it contains the remains of some frescoes painted in the 1100s.

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After this I like to continue wandering down Via di Porta Latina. I find this one of the most peaceful, sublime areas of Rome, despite that tranquility being disturbed by the cars that come racing down the road (Sundays can be better when traffic is restricted). In June and July it is particularly pretty with flowers in full bloom.

image At the bottom of Via di Porta Latina, at the intersection with Via di Porta San Sebastiano, you’ll come to another pretty church, dedicated to Saint Caesarius of Africa, a 2nd century martyr.

image Inside this church has an impressive ceiling and an interesting Cosmatesque pulpit and altar decorations. I have also read there is an amazing mosaic of Neptune underground, but I have not yet seen it.

image From San Cesario I like to walk to Porta San Sebastiano, which houses a museum dedicated to the Aurelian walls. On the way you pass the Arch of Drusus. Its origins are unknown but some records date it back to 211 AD, around the time that the nearby baths of Caracalla were constructed.

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Porta San Sebastiano is the modern name for Porta Appia, a gate in the old Aurelian walls which the Old Appian way passed through.

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In its museum you can find out more information about the ancient walls, and you can also walk along a section and admire the views from the gate’s turrets.

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Hopefully you get the idea from the pictures that exploring around Rome’s ancient walls can make for a beautiful and interesting day out. The sites are also complemented by some fabulous flora and fauna.

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When you’re on your walk, also look out for the Madonnella shrines. Here are three I spotted:

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