Extremely interesting and generally away from the hustle-and-bustle of the city. The southernmost hill of Rome, flanking the river’s left bank, this hill actually feels like a hill and affords some fascinating views especially over the Circus Maximus. A popular view is from the keyhole at no.3 of the square of the Knights of Malta which looks across the gardens of the Knights of Malta and perfectly frames a view of St. Peter’s.
Although it is quiet and largely residential the Aventine has some of the most interesting sites of historical interest, such as the very ancient Basilicas (churches in archaic style) such as Saint Sabina. Then there’s the Mount Testaccio to the south. It is 36m high and was created between 140BC and 250AC out of broken Roman pottery sherds and amphorae pieces called “Testae” in latin -you have to see it to believe it. Testaccio’s a lively place to go out.
Perhaps we get a greater surprise from the Pyramid of Caio Cestio (a real pyramid, used as a family tomb). The pyramid butts against what is generally referred to as the Protestant Cemetary – very beautiful to visit and with a number of special (non Catholic) guests such as Keats and Goethe’s son Julius. Shelley’s ashes are nearby.
Then there are the ancient churches of Santa Maria in Cosmedin which contains some excellent “Cosmatesque” mosaicsand the famous Mouth of Truth – actually a drain cover with a river god sculpted on it which supposedly bit your hand off if you told lies – and San Giorgio in Velabro. The Velabro was the marshy part of river where Romulus and Remus supposedly washed up in a basket to be found by a she-wolf/prostitute.
If you have a look at the map above you’ll see that in antiquity the valley between the Aventine and the Palatine hills was marshy. In fact the whole area was pretty marshy given the proximity to the sea (the tiber island is only between 15 and 20m above sea level)
The marsh was drained by the 5thking of Rome Lucius Tarquinius – the first of the Etruscan kings of Rome. The Etruscans were experts in draining works as for several hundreds of years they had drained vast lands to the north of Rome to render them fertile. Lucius Tarquinius used this knowledge to start the great drains of the city known as the Cloaca Maxima, which is still functional to this day, and to bridge the gap between the hills. In this particular case he drained the Murcia valley to be used as the site of the Circus Maximus. Wooden seating was set along the valley walls. Lucius was also responsible for building and fortifying of the Capitol hill.
Back to the Aventine hill: to the north of the hill, just south of the Tiberina island the marshes were drained and transformed into a port and cattle market known as the Forum Boarium. The river side of the hill was essentially dedicated to storage, mostly grain from Sicily and Africa. The nearby arch of Janus was a popular meeting place where business men struck their cattle deals – remember that ancient civilisations regarded meat as a particularly valuable commodity.