Rome, according to legend, was built on seven hills. These hills rise from the marshy lowlands of the Campagna and are mostly on the left bank of the Tiber River. They include the Quirinale (seat of the modern Italian government), Esquiline, Viminal, Caelian, and Aventine -- and all combine to form a crescent-shape plateau of great historical fame. In its center rises the Palatine Hill, the all-powerful seat of the imperial residences of ancient Rome, which looks down on the ancient Forum and the Colosseum. To the northwest rises the Capitoline Hill. Some historians have suggested that Rome's geography -- set above a periphery of marshy and swelteringly hot lowlands -- contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire because of its propensity to breed malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Today Rome and its suburbs extend for more than 450 square kilometers, and it seems forever growing. The Tiber makes two distinct bends within Rome: below Ponte Cavour, one of the city's major bridges, and again at the history-rich island of Tiberina.

With bloodlines that include virtually every race ever encompassed by the borders of the ancient Roman Empire, the people of Rome long ago grew accustomed to seeing foreign influences come and go. Picking their way through the architectural and cultural jumble of Rome, they are not averse to complaining (loudly) about the city's endless inconveniences, yet they are the first to appreciate the historical and architectural marvels that surround them. Cynical but hearty and warm, modern Romans propel themselves through life with an enviable sense of style.

The crowds of pilgrims and the vast numbers of churches and convents exist side by side with fleshier and more earthbound distractions, the combination of which imbues many Romans with an overriding interest in the pleasures and distractions of the moment. This sense of theatricality can be seen in Roman driving habits; in animated conversations and gesticulations in restaurants and cafes; in the lavish displays of flowers, fountains, food, and architecture, the nation's trademark; and in the 27 centuries of building projects dedicated to the power and egos of long-dead potentates.

Despite the crowds, the pollution, the heat, and the virtual impossibility of efficiency, Romans for the most part take life with good cheer and pazienza. Translated as "patience," it seems to be the frequently uttered motto of modern Rome and an appropriate philosophy for a city that has known everything from unparalleled glory to humiliation and despair. Romans know that since Rome wasn't built in a day, its charms should be savored slowly and with an appreciation for the cultures that contributed to this panoply.

Did You Know?

  • Along with miles of headless statues and acres of paintings, Rome has 913 churches.
  • Some Mongol khans and Turkish chieftains pushed westward to conquer the Roman Empire after it had ceased to exist.
  • At the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus, Rome's population reached one million -- it was the largest city in the Western world. Some historians claim that by the year A.D. 500, only 10,000 inhabitants were left.
  • Pope Leo III snuck up on Charlemagne and set an imperial crown on his head, a surprise coronation that launched a precedent of Holy Roman Emperors being crowned by popes in Rome.
  • More than 90% of Romans live in apartment buildings, some of which rise 10 floors and have no elevators.
  • The Theater of Marcellus incorporated a gory realism in some of its plays: Condemned prisoners were often butchered before audiences.
  • Christians might not have been fed to the lions at the Colosseum, but in 1 day 5,000 animals were slaughtered (about 1 every 10 sec.). North Africa's native lions and elephants were rendered extinct.

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