In This Chapter
● Places to see that still evoke Rome’s extraordinary history
● Towns, amphitheatres, forts, frontiers, and plenty more
There are remains of Rome’s civilisation to be seen in just about every part of the world the Romans ruled. In this chapter, I list 10 (okay, I list 11; consider the last a bonus). You’ll have heard of some of the places but might not be sure what there is to see. Other places you probably won’t have heard of, but I’ve included them because they’re truly marvellous and not to be missed at any price.
Rome and Ostia
Yes, I know this is an obvious one. Rome has remains of the forums, the imperial palaces, the Pantheon, original Roman bridges, and the Colosseum, of course, all of which have popped up throughout the book. But Rome has all sorts of other extraordinary remains a little off the beaten track. You can see the exceptional fifth-century late Roman church of Santa Sabina, for instance, and not far away is the amazing Monte Testaccio (the heap of Roman waste-oil amphorae from Spain; refer to Chapter 7). But nothing can be beat the ruins of the port of Rome at Ostia, now half an hour away by train on the coast at the mouth of the Tiber. With its streets, granaries, apartment blocks, and tombs, it evokes what everyday Rome once looked like for the ordinary Roman.
Pompeii and Herculaneum
Pompeii is the only place in the Roman Empire, apart from Ostia, where you can get a real sense of the Roman town as a functioning organism. The big sights here are the amphitheatre and the houses with their painted walls. But to get a real feel for the place, linger in the streets and look at the deeply-worn ruts in the flagstones - the evidence of real lives eked out here before the place was destroyed by Vesuvius in August 79. A few miles north are the even more outstanding, but less often visited, ruins of Herculaneum. Swamped by a pyroclastic mud flow, Herculaneum was much more deeply buried, with all sorts of organic remains preserved, right down to the carbonised bread in a street-side tavern. Here you can see Roman houses with upstairs rooms and a shop with a wooden rack for amphorae pottery containers.
Almost forgotten in north-east Italy, Ravenna was where the imperial court of the west holed itself up in the late fourth century. Thanks to its isolation, many of the magnificent late Roman churches and other buildings have survived almost totally intact. My personal favourite is the neat little Tomb of Galla Placidia with its extraordinary vaulted roofs covered with brilliantly coloured mosaics. Perhaps the most astonishing building of all is the mausoleum of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths (ruled Italy AD 493-526) with its vault made of a single piece of Istrian stone, 35 feet (10 metres) wide and weighing about 300 tons. These buildings, although built later than most Roman buildings, preserve examples of technique that just don’t survive as well elsewhere. Go to Chapter 21 for information about Galla Placidia and Theodoric the Great.
Sitting on the west coast of Turkey not far from a resort called Sel^uk and an hour’s drive south of the major port at Izmir is Ephesus, once one of the greatest cities of Asia Minor. Once a mighty port itself, Ephesus died when the harbour silted up, and it was left high and dry. Ephesus’s ancient status is reflected in the epic scale of the ruins, which include the Great Theatre, where St Paul addressed the Ephesians in the mid-first century AD, and the vast towering facade of the Library of Celsus, which has been re-erected from the ruins. But for my money what makes Ephesus so fabulous is the sheer beauty of the setting, the vast crumbled fragments of gigantic buildings, and the realisation that, however great man’s achievements, in the end all things must pass.
Aphrodisias is in Turkey, and until modern excavations, little or nothing was visible. If you can get to Turkey and make your way inland to the site from the coastal port of Izmir, you’ll see the magnificent theatre, the odeon, and the extraordinary Temple of Aphrodite which was dismantled and turned inside out so that the columns of a classical temple became the columns between the nave and aisles of a Christian church. Aphrodisias was the centre of a major sculpture industry, exporting its products around the Roman Empire, and some of their work can be seen in the site museum.
But the most memorable sight of all is the chariot-racing stadium which has to be the best-preserved in the whole Roman Empire.
In ancient times, Sbeitla was called Sufetula, and it was in what is now Tunisia in North Africa. Sbeitla was once a fantastically rich Roman province where agriculture and olive groves were in abundance. These days, the Sahara has advanced north, and it’s a very different place. Sbeitla is a good day trip from the coast, and you have to drive across the desert to get there. Because the town is so remote, it’s escaped the worst ravages of time, and so, amazingly, the temples of its capital are largely intact, surrounded by the tumbled down ruins of the rest of the town which include magnificent mosaics.
I like it because it shows that even a minor provincial town could have major public architecture, and it’s one of the few places left where you can see reasonably intact Roman buildings.
In Sicily, you can find one of the greatest Roman villas of the Roman Empire, now known locally as Villa Romana del Casale. Built between AD 300 and 320, it includes 3,500 square metres of mosaic flooring alone in an extraordinary complex of rooms, courtyards, porticoes, audience chambers, and baths. Some of the mosaics feature popular rural pastimes like hunting boar and hare, fishing, and even catching animals in North Africa for the circus. No-one knows who owned Piazza Armerina, but it’s quite possible an emperor lived there, perhaps Maximian I who ‘retired’ in 305 (see Chapter 20), or his son Maxentius. It’s the climax of villa living, aped by other people with money around the Roman Empire.
Rome’s greatest frontier stretches from Newcastle to Carlisle in northern England. It’s quite simply the Roman world’s greatest surviving military monument with an array of ruined forts, mile-castles, turrets, ditches, inscriptions, temples, altars, and all set in magnificent wild scenery. The best-preserved sections are in the central sector with the forts of Housesteads and Chesters being two of the best-preserved. Nearby, the hinterland fort of Vindolanda is the source of the Roman writing tablets, still being recovered from ongoing excavations. Great museums at Carlisle and Newcastle store some of the best finds, but the forts at Wallsend and South Shields to the east are the centres, not only of wonderful museums and excavations, but also of pioneering rebuilding. Wallsend has a full-scale set of replica working Roman baths, while South Shields has a rebuilt fort gate, commandant’s house, and barracks. There’s nowhere else to see anything like that.
Petra is in Jordan, once part of Roman Syria. Founded in the sixth century BC, Petra wasn’t taken over by the Romans until the end of the first century AD. It’s a totally spectacular location on the edge of the desert and surrounded by huge sandstone hills which give the place its sensational array of orange, yellow, and red coloured landscape. The stone is easy to carve, and the rich Petrans commissioned the most extraordinary tombs cut into the hills with ornate and beautiful classical facades. Even today, the site is quite a trek to reach, but well worth it. Petra still has to be approached through a narrow cut called the Siq which is just 16 feet (5 metres) wide. The first rock-cut facade to greet the visitor is the khazneh (‘treasury’), and it’s 131 feet (40 metres) high.
The Temple of Hathor at Dendara is the finest Egyptian temple to have survived. The reason I’m mentioning it is that parts of the main temple and several of the surrounding temples and other buildings were actually made in Roman times. The ‘pharaohs’ carved on the walls of the smaller temples are Roman emperors, including Augustus and Trajan, while the hypostyle hall in the big temple was built by Tiberius. On the back wall is Cleopatra with her son by Caesar, Caesarion, so it has great historical significance, too.
It’s an epic place to visit, a couple of hours’ drive north of Luxor, but well worth it because Dendara sums up the brilliant way the Romans adapted. Realising that Egypt was so steeped in traditions that stretched back thousands of years, the Romans made no effort to impose their own styles of architecture or gods. Instead they ‘went native’ and posed as Egyptian rulers worshipping Egyptian gods on Egyptian temples, and had their names engraved in hieroglyphs.
Bath, in Avon (England), was once called Aquae Sulis (‘the Waters of Sul’). It started life as a natural hot spring, but the Romans made it into a religious, healing, and leisure complex complete with cult temple, massive baths complex, and an array of shops and services to cater for visitors from across the Roman world. People have been doing that in Bath ever since. You can descend to the subterranean galleries where the Roman ground level of the temple precinct is exposed, walk from here past the windows where Roman pilgrims hurled their offerings to the sacred spring, read their curse tablets and dedications to the combination god Sulis-Minerva, and put your hand in the waters of the Roman baths, still hot from the underground spring which bubbles up at around 117 ° Fahrenheit (47.2° Celsius) all the time.