Finding ancient Rome in Milan

Throughout Milan, there are these intriguing little signs recognising the importance of Milan’s imperial Roman past (translation: discover Roman Milan).


Mediolanum (Milan of old) seems to have been founded by Celtic tribes (whose invasion of Rome led to the building of that city’s 3rd Century BC Servian Walls). It was the capital of Cisalpine Gaul (a reference not lost on Napoleon centuries later), and thanks to Constantine’s 313 AD Edict, responsible for furthering the cause of Christianity within the Empire. Diocletian moved the Empire’s western capital here in the late 3rd Century as a result of his introduction of the Tetrarchy.

A great way to explore the city’s ancient heritage is to start with the Civic Archeology Museum just a short walk from Santa Maria Della Grazie. They kindly provide a lovely model showing the city between the 1st and 3rd Centuries AD. The city bears many of the hallmarks of a typical Roman city plan. But, Christian basilicas built by one of the four “Doctors” of the Early Church, the city’s patron saint Ambrogio (Ambrose), who had close links with St Augustine, also feature significantly on the edge of the city. That mixture is highlighted In the poster material describing a city of bishops and empire. Unusually for the Western part of the Empire, it also seems to have featured an unusual porticoed/colonnaded road.



The museum is based in two buildings – one an old church, and the second a newer building. The two are linked via a courtyard featuring the remains of an ancient dwelling and this well-preserved polygonal tower built into the visible portion of the city walls. The structure is likely to have been part of the city’s circus (looking not unlike Rome’s Circus Maximus and part of the city’s walls as shown in the picture from the model above).

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The courtyard also contained remains of a home, although there was no explanation of why it would have been built so close to the circus.

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There’s a lot more to see in the Museum, including detail on the city’s early Medieval heritage, and a lot more from Roman times, including funerary decoration and these tiles from the Bath complex.

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Further afield, it’s also possible to see the remains of the ancient amphitheatre, and we stumbled over the via Brisa site, which contains some very scanty remains of Maximian’s imperial palace. There were also Roman-era paintings on view among the masterpieces at the Pinacoteca di Brera, and sculpture from ancient times at Castello Sforzesco.

Later in our visit we visited one of the basilicas built by St Ambrose in the 4th Century – San Lorenzo Maggiore. It’s particularly interesting in that it’s fronted by Roman columns which may have been part of an earlier Pagan temple.


Sadly, the church’s bronze statue of Constantine was under scaffold (its original can be found in St John Lateran in Rome), and some of the best views come from behind the church (with the older portions in brick).

The oldest parts of the church had restricted access during our visit, but we managed to sneak a peek…

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And it’s not ancient Roman in age, but, inspired by Rome’s Arch of Septimius Severus, Napoleon built this: the Arco Della Pace.




It doesn’t feel fair to compare two such very different cities, but if you’ve ever thought that Milan’s all football, fashion and finance, hopefully this post will prove that (while it has all those), there are many other ways to gain an appreciation of the city


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