You can visit Rome, tour the forum, Pantheon and Colosseum, even visit the Baths of Caracalla, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the ancient aqueducts — and you still won't get a full sense of the Roman empire.
The only way to do that is to visit Istanbul, founded as Constantinople — the new capital of the ancient Roman empire — in 330 A.D.
When people say the Roman empire "fell" in the 5th century, they're wrong. The eastern half soldiered on. It was later dubbed the "Byzantine empire" by historians who wanted to make a nice, clean break for the timeline… but those living in Constantinople at the time would have considered themselves Romans.
Constantinople continued as the empire's capital for nearly another millennium. And many traces of the city's Roman past still remain. Both the Hagia Sofia and basilica cistern, two must-see sites, were built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who wanted to bring the Roman empire back to its former greatness and reconquer the western half. Then there's the hippodrome built under Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, and Constantine's inaugural column of 330, and the classical sarcophagi, mosaics and other artifacts of the Archaeological Museum.
In a sense, Istanbul is Rome, its successor and its heir. I'll be traveling through Turkey for the next week, and as I go, I'll be posting about what to do, see and eat. Please enjoy this brief break from the eternal city. I'm sure I will!
Lots of travelers visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Few know that, just around the corner, Rome boasts an equally precious, way older — and, in my opinion, more moving — church. Just don't be swayed by its unassuming exterior.
The Basilica of Santa Prassede stands on the site of St. Prassede's own house where, according to tradition, she put up martyrs including St. Peter. A church was first built here in the 5th century, although an oratory might have existed as early as 150 AD. The ruins of those earlier buildings haven't yet been excavated. Some day…
But in the meantime, you can explore the current church — which was built in the 9th century. And it has frescoes and mosaics from the same period,
something that (no matter how much really, really old stuff I see) still blows me away. Check out the glittering mosaics in the Chapel of St. Zeno, right. You can also descend into the crypt, which the famous Cosmati brothers decorated in the 13th century, to see the sarcophagi of Prassede and her equally-saintly sister, Pudenziana. The tombs have relics of the sisters, including a sponge they used to soak up the blood of 3,000 different martyrs.
But the most famous relic in the whole church is the Column of Flagellation. It's pretty safe to say this probably isn't the real deal… but then, that's not really the point with relics, is it?
The Basilica of Santa Prassede is open every day from 7:30am-12pm and 4pm-4:30pm. Don't forget coins to light up the mosaics.
Click here for a map.