You don’t have to travel far from the Historic Center of Rome to get off the beaten track. An easy walk from the Colosseum will take you to the Caelian Hill, a lovely area where you will find many gorgeous churches, a beautiful park, two Domus Romanae (Roman villas) and much more. It’s a place I often go to, because it’s incredibly pleasant and very easy to reach.
If you are intrigued by this lesser known part of the Eternal City, the continue reading. In this post, I will share some basic historical facts about the Caelian Hill, and describe the places you should not miss on your visit.
Want to get away from the crowds in Rome? Check out my post The Nicest Hidden Gems In Rome.
The History Of The Caelian Hill
The Caelian Hill is one of Rome’s famed Seven Hills and has therefore been part of the city’s history since the days of antiquity. It was under the reign of Tullus Hostilius, the legendary third king of Rome who reigned from 672 to 640 BC, that people were first forcibly settled on the Caelian Hill. In fact, it was the entire population of the ancient city of Alba Longa that was moved to this long outcrop of land close to the center of Rome.
Make sure to read my post The Seven Hills Of Rome.
The Caelian Hill is said to have been named after the legendary Etruscran hero, Caelius Vibenna. Other stories have it that the name is derived from the Latin word for heaven, caelum.
Either way, Mons Caelius was made officially part of Rome’s territories in the early days of the kingdom of Rome under Ancius Marus, the legendary fourth king of Rome, reigning from 640 and 616 BC. During the reign of the sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius, from 578 to 535 BC, the Caelian Hill was made one of Rome’s suburana, or quarter of the city.
During the Republican age (509 to 27 BC), Mons Caelius became a fashionable place to live, with many wealthy families choosing to live in this residential district away from the crowded center of Rome. In fact, Pliny the Elder – the Roman historian – wrote about the marble-encrusted houses and lavish lives of the inhabitants of the hill at this time.
It was during this age that the boundaries of the Caelian Hill ran along the outside of the lines of the Pomerium, the sacred border of the city; everything within was sacred (or ager), while everything outside was still Roman territory, but not “holy”. This meant that temples and religious buildings dedicated to non-Roman deities were fairly common in the area.
Also found in this area are sepulchers, or burial chambers, which shows that the area was outside the sacred boundaries of the city (burials were not allowed inside the ager).
By the time of the Imperial age, the Caelian Hill was definitively counted as one of the 14 divisions of the city, as ordained by the first Roman emperor, Augustus. A number of different religious structures were also built around this time. Of particular note was the Temple of Claudius, which was built on a high point facing the Colosseum, but is sadly no longer in existence. The Temple of Claudius was dedicated to the Emperor Claudius, built by his wife Agrippina in 54 AD.
Emperor Nero added his own elements to the design, including a nymphaeum in the form of a tiered water fountain. The fountain was fed by a dedicated branch of the Aqua Claudia, which ran for two kilometers from the main aqueduct itself. The houses and buildings that were once here, from the first century BC to the first century AD, are thought to have been destroyed by fire, with reconstruction occurring in the second century.
By the fourth century, this affluent area was completely transformed with large green spaces surrounding the hill. Vast properties belonging to aristocratic families such as the Tetrici, as well as one belonging to the wife of Constantine the Great, were located here. Barracks also had begun to be built in the district, such as for the Imperial Guard. Early Christian churches were also constructed here.
In 410, however, many of these buildings suffered severe damage from the invasion of Alaric and his marauding Visigoth army. For the next few centuries the Caelian Hill was all but abandoned, used only for grazing animals and with a scattering of people living there.
As the sixth century rolled around the hill became known as the Laterano, and due to its proximity to the Lateran Basilica, a number of new churches were built in the area, with monasteries surrounded by large estates and gardens also appearing. A number of noble families built towers here in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but many of them were destroyed by yet another sack of Rome, this time by the Normans in 1084.
Today, the Caelian Hill is very much part of the city – something it was awarded in 1870. Strewn with ancient monuments, residential areas, and green spaces, it’s a fascinating place to spend time exploring.
Let’s take a look at the best places to visit there.
The Best Places To Visit On The Caelian Hill
Parco del Celio
Complete with a view of the Colosseum from its terraces, this charming city park is the perfect place to soak up the atmosphere of the Caelian Hill. The Parco del Celio features pleasant lawns for strolling, a network of criss-crossing paths and is dotted with trees. On warm days you’ll find people jogging, going for a picnic with friends, or simply sitting and lapping up the atmosphere.
It’s also here that you’ll find the Cave del Tempio di Claudia. Though nothing remains of the Temple of Claudius itself, this was once part of the aqueduct and nymphaeum added to the temple by Nero. You can’t enter by yourself, but it is possible to visit this ancient area on a guided tour and explore the columns, archways, and water that still runs here to this day.
The Roman Houses of the Caelian Hill
Long known for its association with wealthy inhabitants of Rome and their family homes, the Caelian Hill still hides remnants of these houses and villas. In fact, many of them are surprisingly well preserved – albeit underground.
Located beneath the Basilica of Saint John and Paul, these houses were only opened to the public in 2002. The houses that lay in this subterranean location were discovered in the 19th century by a monk who was undertaking renovations to the church. The monk discovered a collection of decorated rooms that dated back to the third century.
Later archaeological discovery ascertained that the houses were once a collection of dwellings and businesses, before being repurposed into one big luxurious home, the frescoed-walls of which can still be seen today. The painted walls are particularly vivid. They depict various elements of life in Rome at the time, from illustrations of mythical creatures all the way to the simple stylistic element of “painting” a fake marble pattern onto stucco.
Visiting this hidden residence provides an endlessly fascinating insight into the lives of those who lived on the Caelian Hill almost two thousands years ago.
The Roman Houses of the Caelian Hill are open every day but Tuesday and Thursday, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Upon visiting, make sure to get an audioguide (they are available at the front desk) as it will guide you to the site. Taking photos inside the site is not allowed.
Famous for its gardens, Villa Celimontana is a public park that’s the perfect place to take a break from the busy city below. These gardens are situated right on the summit of the Caelian Hill, and are steeped in history and myth.
Legend has it that King Numa Pompilius, the second legendary king of Rome (715 to 673 BC), encountered the nymph Egeria here, from which he learned about the laws and rituals of Rome that he would later put into place.
A villa was built here in 1580 by a student of Michelangelo, Giacomo del Duca, who also designed the garden. Since then, much of the garden and the house have been adapted and changed over time. However, it’s still a particularly pleasant place to spend time. Make sure to look out for the garden’s obelisk; it’s decorated with hieroglyphics from the time of Ramesses II, who reigned in ancient Egypt between 1303 to 1213 BC.
Make sure to also read my post A Guide To Visiting Villa Celimontana.
Fontana della Navicella
Situated in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Domnica, the Fontana della Navicella is a beautiful construction from travertine and marble. Though it may seem like an ancient creation, it is in fact a replica, which depicts an adorned Roman galley. However, even though it’s a copy of something older, the fountain itself is still fairly old; it was commissioned by Pope Leo X and constructed between 1518-1519 by Andrea Sansovino.
Nobody is quite sure how old the original fountain is, as it was based on fragments of a sculpture that was discovered outside the church. Not much is known about the original ship sculpture, but it was originally decorated with a boar’s head, and was once part of a chapel dedicated to the goddess Isis, thought to protect seafarers who lived there during the Imperial Roman age.
And it hasn’t always been a fountain, either – it wasn’t until 1931 that the 16th-century replica was turned into a water feature.
Don’t forget to read my post The Prettiest Fountains In Rome.
Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo
This ancient basilica was originally built in 398. It was commissioned by the Roman senator Pammachius, and is thought to have been built over the residences of Roman soldiers, John and Paul, who were martyred in 362 by Emperor Julian.
Over the years the church has undergone a series of damages, including the sack by the Alaric I in 410 and an earthquake in 442; it was restored by Pope Paschal I in 824, sacked by the Normans in 1084, but was again restored. Inside, the church’s altar is believed to contain the remains of the two martyrs, while on the walls many paintings and mosaics depict the lives of the soldiers.
Take care to notice the chandeliers – they give the church a beautiful aura that makes it in fact a very popular spot for wedding celebrations.
Basilica di San Clemente
Another of the Caelian Hill’s ancient churches, the Basilica di San Clemente is located around 300 yards on the hill above the Colosseum. However, as well as being an early Christian church, there are also multiple layers of history to this site.
The basilica as it appears today, mostly anyway, was built in 1100. But beneath the present-day basilica is a fourth-century basilica that was converted from the home of a wealthy Roman. This had served as an early church in the first century.
Part of this site also plays host to a mithraeum, a temple dedicated to the god Mithras, and a religion that may (or may not) have been a competitor to Christianity in its early days. Not only that, but prior to all of this, the wealthy first-century residence was actually built on the site of a former warehouse and Republican-era villa, both of which were destroyed by the Great Fire of Rome (64). All of these sights can still be seen today.
The Basilica di San Clemente is free to visit, but there’s a fee to pay to explore the excavations. Photography is allowed in the church but not in the excavations.
Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati
This ancient basilica dates back to the fourth century, but was used as a fortress in the Medieval era. Translating to “Four Crowned Martyrs”, the basilica is dedicated to four anonymous saints and is well known for its beautiful interiors.
Inside you’ll find frescoes that depict an idealized relationship between Pope Sylvester I and the Emperor Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor. At the time, these frescoes would have served to outline the wishes of the emperor in a time of change for the Roman Empire.
Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio Church
Easily my favorite church in the Caelian Hill, the oldest circular church in Rome, the Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio dates back to the 5th century. Interestingly, this is actually the national church of Hungary in Rome and takes its name from both the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, and the first king of Hungary, Stephen I (975-1038), who converted the nation to Christianity.
The shape of the church isn’t the only interesting thing about this particular sight. The vibrant frescoes tell the story of early Christian martyrs and their suffering. In total, there are 34 panels that illustrate how various martyrs met their demise in various painful-looking ways.
Head over to my post The Most Beautiful Churches In Rome.
San Gregorio al Celio Church
This church, originally dedicated to Saint Andrew Apostle, was founded in 575 by Saint Gregory the Great inside his house. Only during the Middle Ages it was actually dedicated to the Pope. The building as we see it today is the result of a number of modifications, the latter one occurred between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century.
Make sure not to miss the three beautifully frescoed oratories built upon wishes of Cardinal Cesare Baronio in the beginning of the 17th century. One of them, representing the Flagellation of Saint Andrew, was painted by Domenichino.
Not much remains of Nero’s famous Domus Aurea, the “Golden House” of the notorious Roman emperor. Built after the Great Fire of Rome, making use of the space that had been left in its wake, the palatial complex was a lavish place to live, strewn with gardens and ornate decorations.
After Nero’s death, the unpopular emperor’s palace was effectively looted and stripped of its decadence, with materials being used elsewhere in the city. Over the next four decades it was entirely obliterated and later completely built over.
However, luckily, this meant that many of the house’s wall paintings were actually protected, away from light and moisture. It remained unknown and forgotten until one day in the 15th century, when a Roman youth fatefully fell through a hole in the ground. He landed in a room surrounded by ornate decorations and frescoes. The discovery led to artists of the day such as Raphael and Michelangelo coming to see the ruins, directly inspiring the aesthetics of the Renaissance.
The Domus Aurea is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9:15 am to 5:00 pm. Visits – all guided – must be booked in advance.
Make sure to read my post What To See In Rome Underground.
Arco di Dolabella
This ancient Roman arch was built in 10 AD and, miraculously, still stands to this day. It was created as part of the support for the development of the Aqua Claudia aqueduct. Although not much of the original aqueduct remains, instead it is incorporated into the later-built walls and buildings of the city. The arch was suggested by consuls Cornellius Dolabella and Junius Silanus.
You should also read my post The Nicest Arches In Rome.
How To Get To The Caelian Hill
The Caelian Hill is actually very close to the Colosseum, so if you are staying in the area the best way of getting there is to actually walk. If you are not in the area, just use Rome’s metro system. In this case, you can take the metro Line A from Termini to Manzoni. It takes just four minutes, and from there you can stroll to the Caelian Hill itself, which takes around 12 minutes.
You can also take Line A and get off at the Colosseum – from there, it’s just an 8 minute walk.
If you prefer traveling by bus, take bus 714 from Termini to the Largo Amba Aradam bus stop on the hill itself: it takes around 15 minutes.