The eternal city celebrates its official birth on April 21, 753 B.C. but you can find traces of Rome's long life everywhere in the city, including on the tops of manhole covers, which are emblazoned with S.P.Q.R., the ancient Latin abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, "the Senate and People of Rome." Contemporary Italians irreverently joke that the initials really stand for "Sono pazzi questi romani." ("They're crazy, these Romans.") If so, they're crazy in the best possible way.
Rome changed everything, bringing civilization — laws, roads, urban planning, public works, even indoor plumbing—to a vast swath of territories. You can learn both history and vocabulary just by walking its streets. Via Condotti, lined with elegant designer shops, was named for the aqueduct, or conduit, built in 19 B.C. to carry "acqua vergine" (virgin water) from a spring in the Alban hills south of the city. According to legend, a local young girl led Roman soldiers to the site—a discovery that the parched city celebrated for 59 days.
To get a sense of Roma's early days, visit the Palatine Hill, one of the seven Roman hills, late in the day when the crowds are usually at a manageable size. Walk among the ruins of the grand imperial residences that came to be known as palazzi signorili—the root of the word for a "palatial" building in French (palais), Spanish (palla) and English (palace). You'll also get a great view of modern palazzine (little palaces), Italian for apartment buildings.
Italians describe Roma as "la città delle fontane," with hundreds of water-spouting sculptures. In front of La Scalinata (the Roman term for what tourists call the Spanish steps), Pietro Bernini built the fountain "La Barcaccia" (a large boat with oars used to transport wine barrels in ancient Rome), designed to recall the floods of 1621, when the Tiber overflowed and left the wreck of a battered boat in its wake. His son Gian Lorenzo Bernini's magnificent Fontana dei Fiumi (Fountain of the Rivers) decorates Piazza Navona, which may be Rome's most beloved public square.
To meet a romano de Roma (dialect for a true native), go to the nearby Piazza di Pasquino. There stands an ancient statue dug up by street workers around the turn of the sixteenth century. In celebration of the feast of San Marco on April 25, 1501, a cardinal draped a toga around the armless torso and attached Latin epigrams to its base. Jocular Romans followed suit, covering this unofficial community bulletin board with anonymous satiric jibes that lampooned church and state. The "talking statue" hasn't been quiet since.
If you go out with friends in Rome, you might suggest fare alla romana or "going Dutch." Or ask a romanista, a fan of the Rome football (soccer) club, how the leoni giallorossi got their name. (It's from the giallo oro, golden yellow, and rosso porpora, crimson red, of ancient Rome).
Here are some other modi di dire romani (Roman sayings) to listen for on your next trip to the eternally fascinating city:
Roma caput mundi — Rome, center of the world, a Latin expression used by writers since the days of Cicero
Tutte le strade portano a Roma – All roads lead to Rome
Roma non fu costruita in un giorno – Rome wasn't built in a day
Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and Mona Lisa: My Life Discovered.