If you’re visiting Rome and want a change from the Colosseum or the Sistine Chapel, why not explore the city’s walls? These are among the oldest and best preserved of their kind in Europe. And, if you know where to look, their stones have many stories to tell, of Rome’s most traumatic and violent moments.
A good place to begin is Termini railway station. Just outside the station, and extending into it (part is in the metro station) is a section of Rome’s earliest defenses, the Servian Wall. Built more than 23 centuries ago, it has much to tell us about early Roman ruthlessness. The volcanic stone it is made from was quarried just north of Rome, near the ancient city of Veii, that was once Rome’s great rival. In 396 BC Rome captured Veii and enslaved its whole population. Veiian slaves built the Servian Wall.
But the Servian Wall also tells of a Roman disaster. A decade after they conquered Veii the Romans were defeated by a warband of Gauls. Stories of valiant Romans, written centuries later, are still remembered today—the geese whose quacking warns of an attack is the most famous. Yet the truth was less heroic. Sources suggest the Romans quickly surrendered and bribed the Gauls with gold to go away. The Servian Wall was built after the Gauls’ attack and it kept Rome safe in wars with Samnites, Etruscans, Gauls, Carthaginians, and Pyrrhus’ Greeks as, ruthlessly, the city grew to become a Mediterranean superpower.
From Termini it’s an easy walk to Porta Pia, a gate in Rome’s next defenses, the 12-mile long Aurelian Walls. They were constructed almost seven centuries after the Servian Wall, and in a hurry, as, after centuries of invulnerability, Romans were again feeling nervous. Though they were raised and extended twice they were still not enough to keep out Rome’s enemies. Walk west beneath the wall for a couple hundred yards to the Via Salaria and you reach the spot where things went wrong. Sadly there’s nothing left of the old Porta Salaria gate, which was demolished in the 1870s for road widening, but it was here on an August night in 410 AD that a huge army of Alaric’s Visigoths burst into the city. This assault inspired no heroic stories. Someone opened the gate and let them in. It’s unclear who was responsible but we probably shouldn’t be too harsh on them. Rome had just endured a series of terrible sieges in which many thousands starved to death. Most likely the betrayers had simply had enough.
This section of wall continues, well preserved, all the way to the river. Another stretch, extending south by the Tiber, was demolished after 1870 to make way for Rome’s embankment, but across the river on the Vatican side an abundance of city walls have survived. Just north of St. Peter’s square there is a long section of Rome’s feeblest defenses, the medieval Leonine Walls. These were built to defend the Vatican after a disastrous attack in 846 AD by Arab raiders from Sicily, who made off with all of St. Peter’s treasures and even its bronze doors.
The Leonine Walls, which are noticeably lower than Aurelian, were always the city’s weak spot and were breached many times, notably during one of the most horrific assaults Rome suffered. On May 6, 1527, an army of Emperor Charles V comprised of 25,000 starving, mutinous Spanish, Italians and Lutheran Germans broke in beside Santo Spirito Gate. So began a 10-month-long occupation in which Romans were robbed, tortured, raped, and many thousands were murdered. The event has been described as the 9/11 of the Renaissance.
The catastrophe inspired yet another wall. The Papal Walls, built soon after 1527, replaced or enclosed their medieval predecessors, stretching round the Vatican and down to the river beyond Trastevere. Employing the latest military technology, they look impressive today, though they were no more effective at keeping enemies out than any other of Rome’s walls. In the spring of 1849 they were used, unsuccessfully, in one of Rome’s most heroic defenses. Romans had risen in support of a unified Italy free of foreign rulers, and a French army was sent to crush the revolutionaries and return the popes to power. Just south of Porta San Pancrazio Gate a series of white stones is visible in the walls. These mark what was left after weeks of French bombardment (and before the walls were rebuilt). The Romans, led by Garibaldi, lost the battle for Rome but they won the war. Their courage inspired worldwide sympathy and two decades later, in one of the most peaceable invasions of Rome, Italian forces re-took the city (a plaque by Porta Pia marks the spot).
Back across the river at Testaccio another lengthy, well-preserved stretch of the Aurelian Walls begins, and after a few hundred yards and you reach the site of Rome’s most recent assault. At Porta San Paolo on the morning of Sept. 10, 1943, Nazi German troops advanced on Rome’s city center. It was one of the sorriest moments in Rome’s long history. Italy’s post-Fascist rulers changed sides in the middle of a war and did so with shocking ineptitude. Hoping that the Germans would simply go away, they ordered Italian troops not to resist them. The result was chaos. Some Italians bravely fought the Germans, others threw away their guns and slipped away. At Porta San Paolo a pitifully armed force of soldiers, Carabinieri and civilians stood no chance against German tanks. So began a grueling nine-month occupation of the city. Yet in some ways this was the Romans’ finest hour. They frustrated their occupiers with armed resistance and non-cooperation, saving the lives of thousands of prisoners of war and Jews.
A kilometer farther on at Porta Latina a very different struggle took place. Here at dawn on May 28, 1084—the gate has barely changed since then—soldiers of the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard, scaled the walls. Guiscard had come for Pope Gregory VII, who, detested by the Romans, was hiding out in Castel Sant’Angelo. Unlike most assaults on the city, which were slow and shambolic, Guiscard’s attack was quick and efficient—a special forces operation of its time. His soldiers sped across Rome, taking out strongpoint churches on their way, and rescued Pope Gregory VII in a matter of hours.
Another kilometer farther, Porta Asinaria tells of Rome’s most terrible days. Here, on Dec. 17, 546 AD, after two year-long sieges, an army of Visigoths under Totila entered the city, thanks to the treachery of the soldiers inside. In all of Rome’s long history this was a low point. The Visigoths burned Trastevere to the ground and were narrowly dissuaded from doing the same to all the rest. For weeks the city was entirely abandoned. Yet the Romans returned and, as they would do many in the times in the future, they rebuilt their town.
Somehow Rome emerged as the extraordinary, beautiful and fascinating city it is today. A tour of the city’s walls, sites of so many traumas and disasters, shows us how remarkable this is.
Matthew Kneale is the author of Rome: A History in Seven Sackings.