The Porta San Sebastiano is not only one of the best preserved of the 18 gates of 3rd century Aurelian Wall around Rome, it’s also the only gate that allows you inside, up to the towers and a walk along the ramparts.
This amazing place is mostly unknown and rarely visited by tourists. Admission is free. It’s only open till 2pm from Tuesday-Sunday and closed on Mondays.
Originally called the Porta Appia, it was renamed Porta San Sebastiano for the Basilica and Catacombe di San Sebastiano about 1.8 miles down the Appian Way.
If you look at the exterior right side of the gate, there is a carving of Saint Michael. It was etched in 1327 as a commemoration of the victorious battle of Rome’s Colonna family of Ghibelline supporters against Rome’s Orsini family, King Robert of Anjou of Naples and their Guelph army. Guelphs were loyal to the Pope. Ghibellines were loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor.
Wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines consumed 400 years between the 12th to the 16th century. Most of the Fortress/Castles throughout Italy were built during the times of this political war. Inside of Rome, many of the ancient monuments of Rome were used as fortresses for the feuding noble families. It is one of the reasons the monuments are still here.
The architect, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger made some improvements to the San Sebastiano Gate for the 1536 Ceremonial entrance of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the same Holy Roman Emperor who’s army brutally sacked the city nine years earlier on 1527.
On December 4, 1571, the gate was dressed up one more time for the Triumphal procession of Marcantonio Colonna, the hero of the Battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Turks. It was a traditional Roman Triumph that included 170 chained Turkish prisoners in tow.
The ancient looking mosaics on the floor inside the San Sebastiano Gatehouse are also more recent. They were added around 1940 when Ettore Muti, World War I aviator, notorious womanizer and one time Secretary of the Fascist Party used the gate as his person villa until he was executed in 1943 by the same Fascist party.
In 2001, when a 40’ section of the wall collapsed, the entire 1320’ walk along the San Sebastiano gate was closed to the public. It’s all repaired now. The ‘Museo della Mura’ reopened in 2006. The views are incredible. The rest of the museum includes photos and explanations of how the walls were built and restored.
Directly behind the San Sebastiano Gate is the ‘Arch of Drusus’, named for Nero Claudius Drusus, brother of the Emperor Tiberius and second son of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Emperor Augustus.
Drusus took the title of Germanicus after conquering the German tribes north of the Rhine. In a true moment of historical irony, the victorious Drusus Germanicus fell off his horse during a beat down of the conquered Germans. He died shortly after.
In reality, the Arch has nothing to do with Drusus Germanicus. It is actually part of the 2nd century Aqua Marcia built by the Emperor Caracalla to bring in more water to his baths a short walk down the road.
From the Baths of Caracalla, San Sebastiano is an easy 20 minute walk through the Parco degli Scipioni, a park named for the Tombs of the Scipios which just reopened in 2012.
You can purchase tickets (also 5€ each) to the 3rd century BC Tomb of the Scipios as well as the 1st century Hypogeum of Pomponio Hylas, one of the most perfectly preserved ancient burial tombs you’ll be able to see in Rome.
From the Porta San Sebastiano you can also head on out to the ancient Via Appia, one of the first of the great Roman roads. The road was once festooned with funerary monuments of noble families. A few of the tombs are still in good shape but most have them have been plundered over the years.
About 2 miles down the Appian Way you’ll come to the rotunda shaped Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, the daughter-in-law of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the lesser known member of the First Triumvirate of Rome that included Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar. This is where the asphalt and traffic end and you’ll be walking along the ancient basalt stones of the via Appia. It’s one of the most magical walks in all of ancient Rome.