The Gulf of Naples and the adjacent coastal territories are famous for their landscapes, beaches, resorts, and gastronomy. Every year, this combination of elements attracts thousands of tourists looking for unique places to experience the famous Italian “dolce vita“ just as ancient Romans did centuries ago. Here I’ll show you my most favorite Roman sites around Naples that you can still visit today to feel like a Roman.
Rome’s Campania Region
In the Roman period, Campania was the name of the region that included territories between ancient Volturnus (currently Volturno) and the Sorrento peninsula. More specifically, Britannic notes it includes provinces of Avellino, Benevento, Caserta, Napoli, and Salerno. Before the arrival of the Romans, these lands witnessed the fall and decline of different cultures, from Oscan-speaking regional tribes to Etruscans, and from Greek colonists to Samnites.
These groups coexisted and fought for the control of this rich region until the Romans took over during the Samnite Wars. Over the next centuries, the Romans annexed the multicultural cities from this region. The diverse geography of Campania resulted in a rich economy and Mediterranean commerce, which greatly increased the cosmopolitan culture.
Top Roman Ruins Around Naples: Past and Present
The popularity of this region, as archeologist Jorge García Sánchez affirms, was already known by the Romans at the beginning of the first century BC. For example, in this period, Caius Sergius Oratus saw the redevelopment of maritime villas and their high resale prices as a business opportunity. Even then, politicians, senators, and emperors preferred these coastal territories as holiday destinations.
Some of these factors are mentioned by ancient writers. For instance, in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder mentioned how Campania was famous for its medicinal waters.
Pliny the Younger, in his Letters, described how the elite enjoyed holidays in the coastal villas of Campania. Reading, meditating, swimming, or riding horses were some of their favorite activities. In addition, as archaeologist Jorge García Sánchez notes, Cicero mentions boat rides, sumptuous banquets, or philosophical debates.
Fortunately, archaeology has unveiled numerous cities, rural and maritime villas, as well as other settlements that confirm what ancient writers described. From magnificent villas with views over the coast to unique and rich urban residences, today’s tourists can enjoy the Italian coast and the famous Roman Campania. Let’s start this trip and unveil the secrets of some of the most preferred holiday destinations for ancient Romans.
Roman Billa | Vesuvius | Half Day
The current Castellamarare di Stabia and nearby municipalities are what remains of ancient Stabiae. This city was independent until gifted to the city of Nuciera for their loyalty.
Archaeologist Maria Paola Guidobaldi notes the high degree of urbanization of this settlement, which is easy to see in the formerly luxurious villas with sea views. Contrary to Pompeii or Herculaneum, the Romans populated this territory soon after the eruption. We know this because, in 92 BC, Statius referred to these territories in his poems.
Archaeologists have found different villas which demonstrate the wealth of their owners. Villa Arianna, for instance, comprises a 2,500-square-meter complex organized in different sectors particularly decorated. Located on the slopes of a hill, the property’s six levels of ramps and an underground area make the different levels of the villa and structures obvious.
Villa San Marco is one of the largest residential villas ever built, with more than 11,000 square meters. The configuration included courts, colonnaded porticoes, nymphaea, dining rooms with views, and other spaces. Guidobaldi notes how these Stabian villas show that elites could have rural and industrial properties inland and secondary vacation residences on the sea.
11. Villa Regina
Countryside | Wine | Museum
The Pompeiian countryside was full of villas, rural settlements, and farms which were an essential aspect of the economy of the region. Archaeologist Emlyn Dodd has noted this region was also famous for the production of wine, and Pliny the Elder wrote about the vineyards and wines from Campania.
Classicist Mary Beard considers this villa to be a perfect example for learning about the economy of Pompeii since it was dedicated to wine production. However, evidence of grain, olive oil, and fruit production have also been found.
The building had different rooms for wine production, storage, and other agricultural activities. An interesting aspect is that wine recipients (in Latin, dolia) from the inner court were found filled and sealed. This indicates that the grape harvest had already taken place when Mount Vesuvius erupted, and wine production was ongoing.
Apart from this, the villa also had some other spaces, such as a triclinium and even a lararium (domestic altar)—both richly decorated. I recommend visiting this place if you want to delve into the economy of this region back in the Roman period. And as a bonus, you’ll find a carefully curated museum that houses the hidden gems found in other Pompeian villas.
Mansion | Wine | Luxury
Oplontis is the name of another ancient Roman city in the suburbs of ancient Pompeii (currently Torre Annunziata). Its name appears in the Tabula Peutingeriana, a medieval copy of a map depicting the roads of the Roman Empire. Today, archaeologists have unveiled the remains of at least four villas. The two complexes excavated the most so far portray the two sides of the Pompeian country life: otium (leisure) and negotium (industry).
First, Villa A exemplifies the otium or, as Italians would call it today, “il dolce far niente.” Art historian John Clarke notes this is one of the most luxurious and extravagant villas on the gulf of Naples. Based on an inscription found in an amphora, archaeologists thought this might be the villa of Poppea, Nero’s second wife.
However, there is no solid evidence to support the claim as of yet. With more than 90 spaces excavated—and much more still under the streets of Torre Annunziata—Oplontis’ paintings and architecture will thrill you.
The second complex, named Villa B, represents the negotium or industrial side of this region. In this case, the building is part of a complex probably associated with wine and garum trade and production. The numerous amphorae found in the court confirm this, so archaeologists believe the ornate rooms on the first floor were possibly the owner’s house.
One of the most amazing findings of this villa is a group of Vesuvius victims in one of the rooms. Their preservation has provided numerous details about their status, health, and diet!
Roman City | Amphitheatre | Day Trip
Modern Pozzuoli, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) to the northwest of Naples, houses the remains of ancient Puteoli. Greek colonists founded this city around 529 BC, then it became a Roman colony in 194 BC.
Under the Romans, the city prospered thanks to its port—the most important one in the Mediterranean until the construction of Portus near Ostia. As a result, the city expanded to include an amphitheater, a market, a port, and temples whose ruins you can visit today.
The cosmopolitan character of this city in antiquity becomes clear when we consider that Saint Paul, according to the New Testament, visited Puteoli on his way to Rome. In this regard, some scholars have identified this place as the origin of a Christian community.
8. Roman Villa at Positano
Underground | Church | Wall-paintings
This location is one of my favorite hidden treasures and is located on the Bay of Salerno. This villa was also destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Excavations carried out in this region have confirmed the existence of numerous villas with maritime views.
The ancient bell tower and ruins pictured above are under the current town of Positano and initial archaeologists believed they could be a temple from the 18th century onwards. However, archaeologist Amadeo Maiuri confirmed its identity as a maritime villa.
Additionally, heritage authorities from Salerno have investigated the crypt of the church of Santa Maria Assunta since 1999. As a result, archaeologists have uncovered a triclinium (or banquet room) in the villa.
Luciana Jacobelli has noted how this villa also confirms the existence elites decorating their homes with unique paintings to showcase wealth. This complex perhaps belonged to Posides Claudi Caesaris who was freed by Emperor Claudius, as archaeologist Matteo Della Corte noted.
To visit the excavations, you have to descend into the crypt of the church. There, you will visit a small museum, pas through some glass walkways, and visit the excavations.
Resort | Underwater | Diving
We will now stop by the current locality of Baia, which is about 23 kilometers (14 miles) northwest of Naples. This coastal territory of villas and a port makes up the numerous archaeological remains of ancient Baiae. Previously, this city was one of the most preferred destinations chosen by Romans for their holidays.
In fact, along the coast, you can still observe the remains of temples and nymphaea which still stand among modern buildings. However, what most amazes visitors is the underwater archaeological park!
Around the fifth century AD, this city started to experience the consequences of bradyseism. What is that, you ask? Bradyseism is a phenomenon that lifts and lowers portions of the earth’s crust without volcanic eruption or actual earthquakes. It may sound gentle, but its power put numerous villas such as the Villa a Protiro or the Villa dei Pisoni, nymphaea, and port structures underwater for centuries.
Nino Lambolia and Amadero Mairui undertook the first underwater exploration in 1959 after aerial photography discovered it in the 1940s. Ultimately, they found numerous buildings decorated with mosaics and sculptures that you can visit today while snorkeling or diving.
This is a unique destination to experience underwater archaeology and encounter the Roman past!
Oracle | City | Day Trip
Located nearly 12 kilometers (12.5 miles) to the west of Naples, Cumae is our next destination. Here, you can learn how the cultural roots of a Greek city continued even during the Roman period.
The Euboeans founded this city around 750 BC as the first mainland Greek colony. Like other nearby cities, it experienced the dynamics of the region between Etruscans and Samnites, finally falling into the hands of the Romans in 338 BC.
Archaeologist Matteo D’Acunto has noted how the city prospered under Rome thanks to an economy based on agriculture and commerce. Excavations have unveiled the remains of a forum with a temple, a bath complex, and an amphitheater from the Roman period.
These buildings coexisted with the Greek temples and the Cave of the Sybil from the earlier periods. In addition, during Augustus’ reign (27 BC – AD 14), the city added a 180-meter-long tunnel that connected the acropolis with the port and harbor.
Amphitheatre | Spartacus | City
Capua is a Roman city with Etruscan origins. Since it’s located in modern Santa Maria Capua Vetere (about 26 kilometers or 16 miles north of Naples), this city was originally the center of the Campania region.
The city became part of the growing dominions of Rome in 340 BC, first as a municipality. After this, the city participated in the Second Punic War as an ally of Carthage until 211 BC, when Rome defeated it. During the next two centuries, Capua was the stronghold for events like the revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC.
However, it was under Augustus’ reign that the city started to prosper. The elite commissioned new temples, built mansions, and constructed public spaces so that over the next centuries, the city rebranded its regional relevance. As scholar Simone Foresta notes, this is exemplified in the construction of the amphitheater, the second largest in Italy. The monumental building had 80 busts of gods as part of its sculptural decoration.
I recommend wandering the streets of modern Santa Maria Capua Vetere and discover its Roman past. By observing its monumental remains, you will understand why Cicero called this city “the other Rome.”
4. Capri and Villa Jovis
Tiberius | Island | Palace
The island of Capri was the preferred destination for emperor Tiberius who reigned here for more than 10 years. Even today, Capri captivates visitors with the tranquility and relaxation the natural beauty offers, which also appealed to the Romans.
According to Tacitus and Suetonius, Tiberius chose this place for the security and privacy it offered. Tacitus also mentions that the emperor had 12 villas on the island. As Swiss archaeologist Clemens Krause has investigated, Villa Jovis was the most important one.
Krause has concluded the villa had eight levels and a big lighthouse and a small lighthouse. He also noted this layout provided the complex with unique views over the sea. Although only the the ruins of this magnificent villa are still standing, this is the perfect spot to understand how Romans enjoyed true otium.
Greek Temples | Day Trip | Museum
An incredible stop on our list that blends two ancient cultures is Paestum, located in the Gulf of Salerno. Although nowadays this city falls within the boundaries of modern Campania, this city belonged to the Lucania region during the Roman period.
Greek colonists founded this city around 650-600 BC under the name Posidonia. According to Strabo, Achaean settlers from Sybaris founded the city, although other authors such as Gaius Julius Solinus mentioned Doric settlers. Today, historians still debate about the exact origin of settlers, as noted by scholars Emanuele Grecco and Fausto Longo.
The inhabitants built the temples of Hera and Athena, among others. In addition, the city added an agora, massive walls, and a theatre, among other buildings. The city prospered as part of the regional dynamics over the next centuries. It fell in the hands of the Lucanians before falling to Rome in 273 BC.
The most interesting aspect is that the Romans added a forum, an amphitheater, houses, and avenues. In addition, they respected much of the earlier Greek urbanism, including temples. You will enjoy a trip to Paestum if you want to experience how Roman and Greek cultures merged in this region.
Roman City | Vesuvius | Half Day
Herculaneum is the site of a smaller, less busy, but well-preserved Roman city. This archaeological site in current Ercolano is famous for being the first city destroyed by Mount Vesuvius. Karl Webber discovered it in 1738, and excavations have unveiled the remains of one of the best-preserved cities of the Roman world.
Excavations started through underground tunnels which you can visit today while exploring the theatre. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sculptures and paintings were removed and taken to the museum through vertical wells.
In that period, the villa of Papyri was found, as Fabrizio Pesando notes. This was a maritime villa with sea views that contained the richest sculptural collection ever found in a Roman mansion. In addition, the villa contained a library full of ancient Greek philosophical text that have been deciphered.
During the 20th century, archaeologists began open-air excavations. They unveiled part of the urban grid, blocks of apartments, houses, baths, and a port which included an ancient beach with boats. In addition, they found the bodies of hundreds of victims who died during the Vesuvius catastrophe.
Iconic Ruins | Vesuvius | Day Trip
Of course, our last stop has to be the most famous Roman city ruins: Pompeii. It’s the most well-known city that was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Discovered in 1748, Pompeii’s identify was found through an inscription found by archaeologists in 1863. Until that moment, archaeologists had thought it was Stabiae, another city destroyed by the catastrophe.
Compared to Herculaneum’s blanket of lava, Pompeii was covered by lapilli and ashes, which is an easier material to remove during excavations. As a result, archaeologists have unveiled the best-preserved city of the Roman world so far, which is why it’s easy to consider this the best Roman ruins to visit.
As the current director of Pompeii Gabriel Zuchtriegel affirms, the tourist who visits this city will uniquely experience antiquity. You will be able to wander wide avenues and narrow alleys and visit big mansions or small dwellings. On your way, you can stop by tons of shops (tabernae) and fast food street bars (thermopolia).
In addition, you will be able to imagine how religious this society was, and how important baths were to this culture. Additionally, you won’t want to miss Pompeii’s latest discoveries of the famous frescoes of Leda and Swan, the House of the Garden, and the House of Orion.
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