History of the City
Archaeologists and historians continue to debate the origins of Rome, but there is evidence to support its founding by settlers in the eighth century B.C. — the same time that mythology says the twins Romulus and Remus created the city. The original settlements grew into what would become the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and, finally, Empire, ruled by kings, senators, and emperors throughout centuries of conquest that spread its borders all across modern-day Europe.
At its height, the Roman Empire included what many historians estimate was at least 1 million citizens, but that number shrank to just 50,000 — or even 20,000, by some estimates — at the time of the Middle Ages, after the empire's fall. The Italian Renaissance made its way to Rome in the second half of the fifteenth century, and, by 1861 — even though Rome was at the time under control of the Roman Catholic Church's pope — the city became the capital of what we know today as Italy.
The reason so much of Rome's history survives today is that it was one of the cities to escape the widespread destruction of World War II. There was some fighting, but no large-scale bombing of museums and archaeological sites. You can still see a good bit of the Renaissance (1400s to 1600s) and Baroque (1600s) periods in today's Roman streets.
After Benito Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922, the population again swelled to about 1 million people, and it continued to grow after Italy was liberated from dictatorship at the end of World War II. Today, there are more than 2.7 million Romans, nearly three times as many as there were at the height of the Roman Empire, though squeezed into a much smaller section of the Mediterranean coastline.
Birth of Tourism
The kind of mass tourism we associate with Rome today actually began in the 1700s, when the generations of Europeans who, along with their parents and grandparents, had been educated during the later Renaissance years began to understand and appreciate all the ancient sites within the modern city limits. Between that development and the continuing strong presence of the Roman Catholic Church, which draws followers to the city by the millions, Rome found itself a “hotspot” location. According to a report released by the city council of Rome in 2008, the city now receives 100,000 tourists a day, and tourists stay an average of three or four days.
How deep are the ancient city remains below the surface?
Not too deep at all, in some cases. City workers have found ancient roads just four inches underground, making it all but impossible in many locations — especially the old city center — to create new infrastructure without destroying remnants of the past.
Preserving the Past
Italy in general has strong preservation laws to protect the nation's archaeological heritage, and in no place are they more regularly enforced than Rome. For decades, city planners wanting to dig new transit tunnels or parking garages underground have waged virtual wars against archaeologists and preservationists seeking to protect the city's underground history. Workers digging out a new metro stop, for instance, might encounter a third-century complex of sculpture gardens. Should it be preserved? Documented and then moved? Knocked down without a word to make way for modern needs? The arguments rage on.
Despite the slow progress (or steady preservation, depending on which side you favor), modern Rome is a relatively easy city to get around. You can walk to and between many of the most popular tourist spots, especially if you're in decent shape and pack a comfortable pair of shoes. The underground Metro is also an inexpensive and easily accessible alternative, with stops at prime locations including the Colosseum, Vatican City, and the Spanish Steps. The Metro is not perfect — it doesn't stop near Trevi Fountain, for instance — but it can likely help you see most of the sites on your wish list.