Rome’s Oldest Walls, Built by a King

If you come to Rome by train, you’ll invariably come out of the modern train station and walk right past this. Do you know what this is?

IMG_6887Tourists don’t realize it, but this is one of the oldest bits of ancient Roman construction that is still extant in the city. You are looking at a piece of the Servian Wall, constructed by King Servius Tullius in the 6th century B.C., although parts of it appear to have been rebuilt a century or two later.

“But Rome didn’t have kings!” Actually, it did. Hazy tradition, dutifully repeated by ancient Roman historians, tells us that Rome was first ruled by kings–seven of them, to be exact. The monarchy was overthrown in 509 B.C., and a republic was established in its place. (We’re always happy to tell our clients the whole story!)

King Servius Tullius was the sixth of Rome’s kings, and he built a wall to protect the city from Gallic invaders, coming from the North. At that time, the city of Rome was much smaller than it became in succeeding centuries, so the parts of the wall which still remain are found here and there in what is today the center of Rome. There’s another large stretch of the same wall, just south of the Circus Maximus; and a smaller piece pops up on a modern traffic circle, not far from the Roman Forum.

If you pay close attention to ancient stonework during your visit, you’ll soon recognize that chunky, square-ish blocks of tufa, carefully cut so as to fit together with no mortar, are generally from the earliest period of Rome’s history. The Romans learned to cut stone this way from the Etruscans, their predecessors in this region. There is maddeningly little that we really know about the Etruscans today, because they left us no written historical records–but they could sure cut stones like a pro! Etruscan walls, arches and other stone-work remains standing and functional in many parts of Italy, and their skill should humble any modern architect or engineer. Without the aid of power-tools or modern mathematical calculations, the Etruscans somehow figured out how to hew massive stones and fit them together just-so.

Thousands of tourists walk in and out of Rome’s train station every week, but they’re so intent on their destination that they usually don’t even notice this and many other archaeological treasures. But if you tour the city with us … we’ll make sure that you do.