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Travels for Engineers in Rome

By David H. Allen


Over the course of the preceding half century, I’ve traveled to Rome more than two dozen times. As I am an engineer, and I have taught study abroad programs in Rome, I have made substantial efforts to discover interesting sites for engineers in Rome. In this blog I will provide a short introduction to the most interesting sites I have discovered in The Eternal City.

Historic Sites for Engineers

Ancient Roman historians claim that Rome was founded in 753 BCE by Romulus and Remus. And while this date may be wishful thinking, there is quite a bit of archeological evidence to suggest that Rome is indeed quite old. Thus, the interested traveler will find quite a bit of amazing technology from ancient times within or near Rome. And in case you are not aware, the period of the Roman Empire (27 BCE-476 AD) is often termed “The Golden Age of Mechanical Engineering” by modern historians.

Here then is a listing of my favorite historic sites for engineers (in no particular order): the Catacombs; the Egyptian obelisks; the Forum; the Palatine Hill; the Pantheon; the Colosseum; the Golden House of Nero; the Appian Way; the Ancient Aqueduct; the Capitoline Museum; the Site of St. Peter’s tomb; the Mamertine Prison; the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva; the Baths of Caracalla; Ostia Antica; and the Campo de’ Fiori. I will elucidate on a few of these below.

The Forum

If you don’t have a map of the Roman Forum (Fig. 1), get one before you enter. The Forum is a ticketed outdoor museum, and it is quite large. You will want to visit the Palatine Hill within (described below), but the main attraction is the Forum itself, between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills. There are quite a few must-sees within the Forum, including the Curia; the House of the Vestal Virgins; the site of Julius Caesar’s funeral pyre; the Temple of Castor and Pollux; the Temple of St. Maxentius; and the two triumphal arches (Titus and Septimus Severus). The Arch of Constantine is located just outside, near the Colosseum. Finally, make sure you see the Lapis Niger, reputedly the site of Romulus’ grave.


Fig. 1 The Roman Forum

he Palatine Hill

The Palatine Hill is located within the grounds of the Forum Museum, on the crest of the hill overlooking the Forum. On the top of the Palatine Hill there are several sites worth visiting. I usually begin with the Palatine ballcourt, followed by the enormous Emperor’s Palace. Make sure to work your way behind this palace, where you will be treated to a magnificent view of the remnants of the ancient Circus Maximus. On the western edge of the Palatine Hill you will find the house of Augustus, the First Emperor of Rome. And if you are attentive, you will find just beyond this house a small lookout where you will encounter the best view in all of Ancient Rome. Travel now towards the medieval garden on the northern edge of the Palatine Hill, whereupon you will be treated to a majestic view of the Forum below.

The Pantheon

As I am an engineer, my opinion is that the Roman Pantheon (Fig. 2) may just be the single most important structure from antiquity still extant today. I can’t cover all of the details in this blog, so be sure to read up on the Pantheon before your visit (see my textbook How Mechanics Shaped the Modern World). This structure, with its modern-looking concrete dome is surely the greatest structure ever built by the Romans (the Colosseum notwithstanding!). Thus, take time to study this enormous building, and while you’re inside, see of you can figure out how the roof was constructed, because no one knows exactly how they managed it.

Fig. 2 The Pantheon

The Catacombs

In ancient times most Romans were buried either in urns or tombs with below-ground necropolis, and presumably at least in part for health purposes, these cemeteries were required to be outside the city walls. Thus, there are several extant catacombs adjacent to Rome today, and you can visit them either on guided tours or by taxing a taxi. My favorites are the San Callisto and San Sebastiano. One reason I find these interesting is that they were excavated from volcanic formations caused by previous eruptions of Vesuvius.

Nero’s Golden House

Nero was the fifth of the Roman Emperors. He fancied himself the consummate artist, and perhaps as a result, he had a fabulous series of buildings constructed on the site that would later house the Colosseum. After Nero committed suicide in 68 AD there was a period of chaos, followed by the reign of Emperor Vespasian, who destroyed Nero’s Golden House and began construction of the Colosseum. Fortunately for us today, a portion of the Golden House was discovered somewhat intact beneath the hillside adjacent to the Colosseum, and you can visit it today. Although it is only a small portion of the original, it is nonetheless astounding in its grandeur. In my view, the tour of the Golden House will serve to illustrate just how advanced Roman engineering had progressed by the first century AD.

The Appian Way

At the peak of the Roman Empire there were 29 roadways leading out of Rome, and more than 50,000 miles of paved roads within the Empire. The Appian Way is the best example that I am aware of today. To get there, you will need to either take an organized tour, a bus, or do what I normally do – take a taxi! About a mile east of the Catacombs of San Callisto, you will find a lengthy stretch of the roadway that is still intact today. Having myself co-authored a textbook on pavement design, I am absolutely amazed at the technology that was utilized to build a roadway that is still extant two millennia later.

The Ancient Aqueduct

There were no less than eleven aqueducts transporting water to Rome, several of which were over thirty miles in length, that supplied water to the approximately 1.5 million inhabitants of ancient Rome. Most have long sense collapsed, but there is a stretch of still intact aqueduct just outside of Rome, and it is absolutely gigantic! To get to the ancient aqueduct, take Metro Line A to Giulio Agricola and ask for directions to the park, which is within walking distance.

The Capitoline Museum

The Capitoline Museum is centered on the Piazza del Campidoglio, atop the Roman Capitoline Hill. Inside you will find a plethora of fabulous items, not the least of which is the foundation of the Temple of Giove, which was in ancient times the Capitol of the Roman Empire. The museum is actually housed within three different buildings fronting the square. I personally find the following impressive: the enormous bronze statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (saved by the Christians because they mistakenly believed it to be a statue of Constantine, who converted the empire to Christianity in 337 AD); the view of the Forum from the basement of the museum; the Room of Scientists in the building opposite the entrance; and the adjacent room, with busts of many of the Rona Emperors. Also, the description of how the Capitoline Hill was excavated is not to be missed.

The Colosseum

The Roman Colosseum was begun under the reign of Vespasian, and completed under his son Titus’ reign in 80 AD. I’m not going into detail regarding this amazing structure since you can simply Google “colosseum” and find out everything you want to know and more. I do want to point out a couple of things, though. First, you will find that it is one of the most popular tourist sites in the entire world. As such, make sure you plan your visit well in advance. First, I strongly recommend that you purchase tickets that include a tour of the basement of the arena. Until recently this portion of the Colosseum was only available for VIP tours. As for where to buy tickets, there are quite a few websites online, but they can be quite expensive, especially if you buy skip-the-line tickets. I personally recommend the following website:

St. Peter’s Tomb

Believe it or not, there is actually a tomb where St. Peter was buried after he was crucified in 64 AD. And, although it was believed that his tomb was beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, it was not confirmed until the twentieth century. Pope Pius XII commissioned the excavation of the necropolis beneath the cathedral shortly before World War II, and after more than a decade of excavation, the tomb was found and has now been verified. Unfortunately, the tomb has been off limits to tourists until recently (although I was able to visit it on two occasions in the 1990’s). But it is now possible to take a guided tour of the ancient Roman cemetery beneath St. Peter’s, whereupon the tour will terminate at the tomb of St. Peter. This is one of the best tours I’ve ever taken in my entire life, thus I recommend it – but make sure you plan well in advance, because the tour tickets are few and far between. As for the engineering aspects, be prepared for a description not only of how the present cathedral was built, but also the dig that resulted in the discovery of the ancient necropolis.

The Mamertine Prison

In ancient times the conquering Roman General was awarded a parade by the Roman Senate, and oftentimes the leader of the conquered nation was allowed to participate in the parade, at the completion of which he was gruesomely executed. Prior to this particularly popular proceeding, the captured leader was oftentimes held in the Mamertine Prison, beneath the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (near the Roman Curia). Such luminaries as Jugurtha (King of Numidia), Vercingetorix (the leader of the Celts defeated by Julius Caesar), and St. Peter were held therein. Unfortunately, officials have in recent times discovered that there is profit therein, so that a visit within the prison has become somewhat costly, but it is nonetheless worth the expense in my view.

Ostia Antica

The ancient Port of Rome, called Ostia Antica, was situated twenty miles down the Tiber River from Rome. It was absolutely enormous. After all, there were more than a million people living in Rome, one of the most advanced and populous cities on Earth in ancient times. Thus, over a period of more than a millennium the port developed into something little short of miraculous. It is now an archeological dig that has revealed technology presaging that used in modern ports. To get there, take one of several different trains available from downtown Rome.

Campo de’ Fiori

I have included the Campo de’ Fiori primarily because it was the site of the immolation of Giordano Bruno in 1600. Today there is a statue of Bruno at the center of the square, which is also known for its lively nightlife.

Modern Sites for Engineers

My favorite modern sites in Rome (in no particular order) are as follows: the Wedding Cake; the Rome Metro; Termini Train Station; St. Peter’s Basilica; and the Vatican Museum. I provide some information for these below.

Il Vittoriano

The Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II (also called ‘the typewriter’ or ‘the wedding cake’) in downtown Rome is a dominant feature of central Rome. And although it has been trolled by many a tourist, it is nonetheless an impressive feature of the Eternal City, not to mention – an appropriate monument to the first King of the united modern country of Italy.

Rome Metro

The Rome Metro is not well situated for most of the tourist sites in downtown Rome. However, I do recommend it if you plan to visit the Roman Aqueduct or Ostia Antica (see above). You will find it to be easy and inexpensive.

Termini Train Station

Most tourists to Rome will find themselves within the Rome train station called ‘Termini’ (accent on the first syllable!) at some point during their visit to Rome. Whether you arrive there via the train from Fiumicino Airport, or you take the train to another Italian city, you will be impressed by the enormity and hubbub of this – the modern center of Rome. The building itself, together with the adjacent underground mall, functions much like a small city.

St. Peter’s Basilica

While St. Peter’s Basilica is not really ‘modern’, it is certainly neither ancient. Having been begun in 1506, it was not completed until 1626, in the process having had contributions by such artistic luminaries as Michelangelo, Raffaelo, and Bernini. I personally recommend the Michelangelo Pieta, just to the right of the entrance, and a journey to the top of the dome (also designed by Michelangelo). And trust me on this – the interior of this ostentatious cathedral will surely impress.

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican is actually a tiny country situated in the heart of modern Rome. And if one is counting, it is surely the wealthiest country per square mile on the planet. A big part of that is due to the veritable cornucopia of truly priceless artwork housed within the Vatican Museum. I’ve been there so many times I’ve lost count. On a bad day, you might stand in line for a couple of hours in the boiling hot sun. I therefore advise you to do some careful planning before attempting your first visit (

Truth is, you could easily spend a full day lost within this enormous museum, so make a plan and be sure to see the following: the Sistine Chapel, the Raffaelo Rooms, the Ancient Greek Rooms, the Roman Hallway, and the Pinocateca.

If you plan carefully, it is possible to visit all of the sites mentioned above in the space of a week. But beware, you will shortly thereafter be planning your return trip to this magnificent city. I hope these tidbits of are of use to you in your trip planning for your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Italy, my favorite place on Earth. In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of the cities mentioned in my previous blogs. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (

Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.

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