Tucked far in the back of the Roman Forum, in the shadow of the Arch of Septimius Severus lies an unassuming pile of bricks the ancient Romans revered as the Umbilicus Urbis Romae, the Navel of the City of Rome. Since the city’s founding it has been a place of ritual and sacrifice. It was at this symbolic center of the Eternal City from which all distances in the Roman Empire were measured.
Other than the Colosseum, this obscure, neglected landmark was one I was most excited to visit. I have been growing more and more tired of suburban American culture where even cities are centered around cars.
I wanted to connect to this ancient, thriving city and feel it under each footfall.
What I discovered was that by walking the city, I found my own humanity again.
We found the Umbilicus Urbis Romae like we did most things on our ten day trip to Rome – by studying maps ahead of time, then trusting our instincts to find it in real life, without the use of the map. There is nothing quite like the rush of being in a completely new city and letting your informed intuition guide you on an adventure.
We were in Rome in early June. The trip was slapped together in mid-May, leaving us only two weeks to prepare. For me traveling to a different country means months of cultural, historical and language immersion beforehand.
With such short time to prepare, I was forced to think seriously about the most necessary knowledge for an Asphalt Anthropologist. You can learn about the two most crucial skills and what we did to prepare in this video compilation, Roman Holiday: Pre-Trip Planning for the Urban Explorer . Hint: The self-defense skills for navigating the streets of a strange city has nothing to do with kicking and punching.
Roman Holiday: Pre-Trip Planning for the Urban Explorer
Rome is easily walkable, and relatively small, so it is easy to see why most folks spend just 3 - 4 days there to see the main sites.
We were lucky and had ten days however, and it still wasn't enough. We wanted an immersion experience and to go beyond the main tourist destinations. I knew we had accomplished immersion when we got back to the airport and I heard an American speaker for the first time in many days. My own native tongue hit harsh on my ear and sounded utterly foreign to me.
We walked about 8 miles per day. I was excited to see how Asphalt Anthropology would translate in the Eternal City. We saw all the warnings about pickpockets and scam artists that pervade Rome… and to be honost, I was looking forward to the challenge.
Being pickpocketed was literally a goal for the trip.
Spotting scams and street hustlers in Rome is easy. Much like the CD guys on Hollywood Blvd they employ many of the same physical and emotional manipulations to make the "sale". If you head to Rome, you don't want to miss, Anatomy of a Common Roman Street Shakedown where I break down a frequent hustle in the highly tourist areas like the Imperial Forums.
Anatomy of a Common Roman Street Shakedown
In keeping with my goal of being pickpocketed, I made sure to keep a few Euros in the loose pockets of my linen pants while we were on public transit and the highly trafficked tourist sites.
Meanwhile I kept valuables and cash I couldn't afford to lose discreetly tucked away from potentially prying fingers.
How did I do?
Alas, I was not pickpocketed on the trip. I was truly disappointed since I wanted to experience it in the moment. But the next best thing is what we witnessed...
You can see it all in Asphalt Anthropology Breaks Down Common Roman Street Hustles:
The close calls
Where and how hustlers operate
Which tourists are more susceptible to being targeted
Asphalt Anthropology Breaks Down Common Roman Street Hustles
If you want to get off the beaten path and get away from the tourist scenes, there are a few skills that you will need.
So far we've talked about risks for tourists in tourist areas. But no Asphalt Anthropologist is content with just the popular tourist sites. Deeper urban exploring requires skills related to:
Reading the environment in non-touristy areas
How to not be perceived as a bougie, gentrifying d***
Triangulation: spotting common body language that identifies when you are being set up
Using social skills to open doors
Exploring why the only "bad neighborhood" is the one you can't handle
Cultivate your situational awareness using this simple street art game
All this and more in Staying Street Smart in Rome with Asphalt Anthropology!
Staying Street Smart in Rome with Asphalt Anthropology!
And you won't want to miss our breakdown of being targeted in Triangulation: Spotting and Evading with a Street Smart Dodge where we explore both the physical signs and the mental second guessing that often follows a close call.
The terrors of crossing the street in Rome are legendary. While it is something I got better at, I never quite got used to the Roman requirement of throwing yourself out there.
What I discovered however in facing this fear was just how cultural it was. Folks in and around Rome just seem to have a more fluid relationship to space and the dynamics of crowds compared to in the U.S. (I blame the suburbs for that). In fact, despite all the rental scooters zipping around, everyone we encountered was chill and respectful.
Except that one particular scooter guy. He had that "get the f*** out of my way pedestrians" vibe going as he busted through crowds.
He had on a hat from L.A.... go figure.
But before you start jumping into Roman traffic, there are quite a few nuances. You can discover them here in Navigating Roman Traffic.
Navigating Roman Traffic
As much as we love walking we found the trains to be essential to our explorations.
While we mostly stayed within the Roman city limits, the trains allowed us to cover more ground and go farther. While travel blogs caution against staying in the area around Termini station, we loved it. A bit of grit and graffiti aren't that big a deal and having the station so accessible made a huge difference to our adventures.
In this video, Roman Metro: Public transit for tourists, we cover:
Hustles unique to public transit
Using the sometimes challenging ticket machines
Avoiding pickpockets on super crowded trains
Roman Metro: Public transit for tourists!
Exploring a new city is exhausting. We started out doing ten miles per day - we were just so damn excited to be there!
After about three days and thirty miles on those cobblestones we really started to feel it. Undeterred, we weren't going to let sore feet slow us down.
We did, however, modify and make a point of self-care. This was especially crucial on those hot summer Roman days! You can learn more about how two old urban explorers modified but still didn't miss a moment in Self Care for the Roman Urban Explorer.
Self Care for the Roman Urban Explorer
Asphalt Anthropology grew out of my love for exploring cities first and being a self-defense instructor second. Hitting Rome in June 2022 was just what my soul needed.
My personal pressures at work, the collective pressures of the last few years... heading out to a new city was the only thing that would sooth my soul. Exploring, watching, researching how people move through crowded, chaotic environments... I can think of no better place to test the limits of Asphalt Anthropology than Rome.
Perhaps that is why I was so excited to find the now under appreciated Umbilicus Urbis Romae, Rome's Navel of the City. In the midst of all of social and political upheaval we are currently experiencing, I got to stand at the very spot, now neglected and overgrown, from which modern city life sprang thousands of years ago... and it was a privilege.