The Aurelian Walls: History, Facts & Images

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Rome’s largest monument: The 18 Gates of the Aurelian Walls

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The Aurelian Walls are a line of city walls built between 270 and 275 by Emperor Aurelian to defend Rome, the capital of the empire, from possible attacks by barbarians. Originally, the Aurelian’s Walls were 19 kilometers long and seven meters high; today are 12.5 km long (although some sections are in critical condition).

Maxentius and Honorius increased their height, and Pope Leo IV and many others renovated them.

All seven hills of Rome, the Campus Martius, and the Trastevere neighborhood on the right side of the Tiber were all encircled by the Aurelian walls. Although they were built along the Campus Martius, the river banks inside the city boundaries seem to have been left undefended.

The whole enclosed area measures 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres).

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Pyramid-of-Cestius_Aurelian-Walls
Pyramid of Cestius

A square tower was built every 100 Roman feet (29.6 m (97 ft)), making the walls 3.5 m (11 ft) thick and 8 m (26 ft) high. The complete circuit circled a 13.7 km2 area for a distance of 19 km (12 mi) (5.3 sq mi). Remodeling in the fourth century increased the walls’ height to 16 meters (52 ft). The circuit included 383 towers, 7,020 crenellations, 18 major gates, 5 postern gates, 116 latrines, and 2,066 substantial exterior windows by the year 500 AD.

Map of the route of the Aurelian Walls (the map is based on the map by Joris1919)

The city had grown far beyond the old Servian Walls (which at that time only encircled the seven hills), constructed in the 6th century B.C., during the Republican Age.

The necessity for modernized defenses grew urgent during the Third Century Crisis, when barbarian tribes rushed across the Germanic boundary and the Roman army fought to halt them.

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Aurelian-Wall-and-Pyramid-of-Cestius-in-a-1932-photo
Aurelian Wall and Pyramid of Cestius in a 1932 photo

Juthungi and Vandals attacked northern Italy in 270, severely defeating the Romans at Placentia (modern-day Piacenza), before being ultimately expelled from the region. When the mint employees revolted in the summer of 271 there was more upheaval in Rome itself. The ensuing bloody combat claimed the lives of many thousand individuals.

In response to the barbarian invasion of 270, Aurelian built the walls as a last resort; the historian Aurelius Victor makes it clear that the project’s goal was to lessen the city’s vulnerability. The walls’ construction was by far the largest building project to take place in Rome in a long time, and it served as a tangible demonstration of the city’s enduring might. Because Aurelian could not afford to provide even one legionary for the endeavor, they were constructed by regular people.

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Southern part Aurelian Walls around of old Rome city near of Porta san Sebastiano in Italy
Southern part Aurelian Walls around of old Rome city near of Porta san Sebastiano in Italy (source)

Although Aurelian himself passed away before the project was finished, the walls were constructed in a very quick period of only five years. By integrating pre-existing structures into the construction, progress was sped up and money was saved. The Castra Praetoria, the Amphitheatrum Castrense,the Pyramid of Cestius, and a section of the Aqua Claudia aqueduct near the Porta Maggiore were included in the project.

The wall served as a barrier against armies of barbarians that lacked the supplies and equipment necessary for a siege. Maxentius increased the watchtowers and doubled the height of some portions of the wall. The walls and the gates were renovated in 401 by Honorius. At this period, the fortress-like Hadrian’s Tomb across the Tiber formed part of the city’s fortifications.

Up until the Bersaglieri of the Kingdom of Italy broke the Aurelian Walls near the Porta Pia and took control of Rome on September 20, 1870, the Aurelian Walls remained an important military protection for the city of Rome.

Related article: The Mithraeum of San Clemente in Rome: an underground temple devoted to Mithras

Aurelian Walls
Aurelian Walls

The 18 Gates of the Aurelian Walls

1. Porta del Popolo (Porta Flaminia) – Starting point of via Flaminia

For the Jubilee Year 1475, Pope Sixtus IV replaced an old Roman entrance that was partially buried with the modern Porta del Popolo. The gate’s current appearance is the consequence of reconstruction work done in the 16th century, when it had once more grown very significant for northbound urban traffic. Pope Pius IV gave Michelangelo the assignment to create the outside façade; Michelangelo then delegated the job to Nanni di Baccio Bigio, who constructed the gate between 1562 and 1565 while drawing influence from the Arch of Titus.

porta del popolo roma
Porta del Popolo (Porta Flaminia)

2. Porta Pinciana

The Pincia family owned the hill that bears their name (Pincian Hill). It was also known as Porta Turata (Plugged Gate) and Porta Salaria vetus in the past since the oldest Via Salaria crossed beneath it (the Via Salaria nova passed under the Porta Salaria). Early in the fifth century, under the reign of Honorius, the gate was constructed.

Porta Pinciana, Rome
Porta Pinciana (source)

3. Porta Salaria – Starting point of via Salaria

The Porta Salaria was a gate in Rome, Italy’s Aurelian Walls. It was built between 271 and 275 AD, and it was ultimately taken down in 1921. Piazza Fiume is presently located there.

1) Porta Salaria; 2) Column of Porta Pia; 3) Horti Sallustiani; 4) Villa Paolina (Author: Giuseppe Vasi)
1) Porta Salaria; 2) Column of Porta Pia; 3) Horti Sallustiani; 4) Villa Paolina (Author: Giuseppe Vasi)

4. Porta Nomentana – Starting point of the old via Nomentana

One of the gates of Rome, Italy’s Aurelian Walls was called Porta Nomentana. It is situated around 70 meters east of Porta Pia along Viale del Policlinico. It is presently barricaded and serves only as the British Embassy’s perimeter wall.

Porta Nomentana
Porta Nomentana

5. Porta Praetoriana – old entrance to Castra Praetoria, the camp of the Praetorian Guard

Porta Praetoriana
Porta Praetoriana

Porta Pretoriana was a gate in the Aurelian Wall. Very little is known about it. It was walled up at an unspecified time. It is thought to be the first gate to be bricked up. It was the eastern gate of the Castra Praetoria, the large barracks of the Praetorian Guard that Emperor Tiberius built between 20 and 23 to bring together in one location the 9 cohorts established by Augustus as the imperial guard.

6. Porta Clausa

Porta Clausa Rome
Porta Clausa

The Porta Clausa was one of the gates that opened in the Aurelian walls of Rome. Very little is known about it, and it was walled in at an unspecified time. The original name is unknown. It was the southern gate of the Castro Pretorio, the large barracks of the Praetorians that Emperor Tiberius built between 20 and 23 to bring together in one place the 9 cohorts established by Augustus as the imperial guard.

7. Porta Tiburtina – Starting point of via Tiburtina

The gate was once an arch that was constructed during the reign of Augustus at the intersection of the Aqua Tepula, Aqua Marcia, and Aqua Julia aqueducts, which crossed the Via Tiburtina. The emperors Titus and Caracalla repaired the arch. Emperor Aurelian included the Augustus Arch into the Aurelian Walls. A second, exterior aperture with five tiny perforations was constructed during Honorius’ renovation work in the fifth century, illuminating the space where the gate was controlled.

Porta Tiburtina
Porta Tiburtina (source)

8. Porta Maggiore (Porta Praenestina) – Starting point of via Praenestina

The Porta Maggiore (“Larger Gate”), also known as Porta Prenestina, is one of the eastern gates of Rome’s Aurelian Walls, which date to the third century and are both old and well-preserved. The Via Praenestina and the Via Labicana, two antiquated highways, passed via the gate. The eastern route to the historic town of Praeneste was known as the Via Prenestina (modern Palestrina). From the city, the Via Labicana (now known as the Via Casilina) leads southeast. The Porta Maggiore is unquestionably the ideal urban location to visit if you want to learn about and see the old aqueducts.

Porta Maggiore
Porta Maggiore

9. Porta San Giovanni – near Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano

The Porta San Giovanni entrance in Rome’s Aurelian Wall was given that name in honor of the neighboring Saint John Lateran Archbasilica. Giacomo della Porta or, it is said, Giacomo del Duca, who had worked with Michelangelo on the Porta Pia, constructed a single magnificent arch for Pope Gregory XIII in opera forse.

The Gate of Saint John in the Aurelian Wall in Rome
The Gate of Saint John in the Aurelian Wall in Rome

10. Porta Asinaria – Starting point of the old via Tuscolana

It was constructed at around the same time as the Wall itself, between 271 and 275 AD, and is dominated by two jutting tower blocks and related guard rooms. In contrast to the majority of the other gates, it was neither strengthened or renovated during the reign of Honorius. East Roman forces led by General Belisarius entered the city through this gate in 536 to retake it from the Ostrogoths for the Byzantine Empire. By the 16th century, traffic was out of control. The Porta San Giovanni was built next to a new wall opening.

External facade of the Porta Asinaria
External facade of the Porta Asinaria

11. Porta Metronia

A gate in Rome’s Aurelian Walls from the third century is called Porta Metronia. Between Porta San Giovanni to the east and Porta Latina to the south, the gate is situated in the southern part of the wall.

porta metronia
Porta Metronia (source)

12. Porta Latina – Starting point of via Latina

It designated the Via Latina’s termination in Rome and gave the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina its name. Honorius is largely responsible for the existing structure.

porta latina
Porta Latina

13. Porta San Sebastiano (Porta Appia) – Starting point of the Appian Way

Related article: History and Facts of The Appian Way

The largest and one of the best-preserved gateways through the Aurelian Walls is the Porta San Sebastiano. The gate, which was once known as the Porta Appia, was situated atop the Appian Way, the regina viarum (queen of the roads). Around AD 275, Aurelian built the first version of the building, which had two semicircular towers and a double-arched entryway topped by bow windows. Travertine covered the façade. The towers were afterwards restored, doubled in size, and connected to the old Arch of Drusus by two parallel walls. Emperor Honorius redesigned the gate in 401-402 AD.

Porta San Sebastiano, Rome
Porta San Sebastiano

14. Porta Ardeatina

One of the gates of the Aurelian Walls was called Porta Ardeatina. During Nero’s reign, the gate was constructed. In the Aurelian Walls, it is positioned at an angle. The gate was probably shortly locked.

Porta Ardeatina
Porta Ardeatina

15. Porta San Paolo (Porta Ostiense) – next to the Pyramid of Cestius, leading to Basilica di San Paolo fuori le Mura, Starting point of via Ostiense

One of the southern gates of Rome, Italy’s third-century Aurelian Walls is the Porta San Paolo (San Paolo Gate). Within the gatehouse lies the Via Ostiense Museum. The Protestant Cemetery lies past the Roman Pyramid of Cestius, which is in the Ostiense district and is located immediately to the west.

Giuseppe Vasi etching of Porta San Paolo and Pyramid of Cestius, in the 18th century
Giuseppe Vasi etching of Porta San Paolo and Pyramid of Cestius, in the 18th century

Gates in Trastevere (from the southernmost and clockwise):

16. Porta Portuensis

The Porta Portuensis was one of the southern gates of Rome’s Aurelian Walls.

Porta Portuensis
Porta Portuensis

17. Porta Aurelia / San Pancrazio

One of the southern gates of the Aurelian fortifications is called Porta San Pancrazio. The Garibaldi Museum and the National Association of Garibaldi Veterans and Survivors are located within the gate (also dedicated to the Italian Partisan Division “Garibaldi”, operating between 1943 and 1945).

Porta San Pancrazio Rome
Porta San Pancrazio

18. Porta Settimiana

The gate, which serves as the entrance to Via della Lungara, is the only one on the right bank of the Tiber (the others being Porta Portuensis and Porta San Pancrazio), to still rise exactly where it was constructed, despite several renovations and rebuildings.

Porta Settimiana
Porta Settimiana

19. Porta Cornelia (also known as Porta Aurelia-Sancti Petri)

One of the gates of the Aurelian fortifications was the Porta Aurelia-Sancti Petri. Porta Cornelia was its original name. Once the Middle Ages were over, the gate was destroyed. What it looked like precisely is no longer known.

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