The world’s most amazing Roman sites
Think Chester, think Romans. Established by the Romans around ad75, Deva Victrix, their westernmost fort, became one of the most important of the occupation, home of the celebrated XX Valeria Victrix legion. But it took until the early 20th century to unearth Chester’s Roman amphitheatre, hidden beneath buildings between St John the Baptist Church and Newgate for 2,000 years. Only a portion has been uncovered, about two-fifths of what is thought to be the largest amphitheatre in Britain, dating from the 1st century ad.
In its heyday, this was a place for military training, executions and entertainment, hosting everything from bear baiting to gladiator fights, with the capacity for about 7,000 spectators, and today it’s possible to get a sense of the amphitheatre as it must have been.
Around the corner is the Roman Gardens, a small open-air gallery containing an assortment of fragments of the fortress that have been found in Chester since Victorian times, and which also celebrates the Romans’ role in developing gardening as a pastime.
Alba Fucens, Italy
If you take an interest in ancient Rome and its wonderfully convoluted history, Alba Fucens is a must-visit. Set on the hills and framed by the mountains of the Sirente Velino Regional Park, this wonderfully well-preserved ancient city is an easy place to imagine Roman citizens going about their business. Nowadays, the Roman, medieval and modern towns, all in close proximity to one another, show the various layers of settlement in Abruzzo.
Taking in the site of the ancient city at a relaxed pace requires at least a few hours. Start at the modern town beside the ruins, otherwise known as Albe, where you will find a road that leads to the forum area. From the forum, wander down through the remains of the basilica, built in the reign of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, usually known as Sulla. Taking the Via dei Pilastri to the south, you encounter the remains of shops, including a tavern.
Head back into the main area south of the basilica for the macellum (market hall) and the public baths, which were open to men and women alike. Continuing south through the baths you will encounter the large sanctuary dedicated to Hercules. To its right, remains of various domus (wealthy residential buildings) can be seen. To the left is the theatre, which is not as interesting or evocative as the town’s amphitheatre. This, a 5-minute walk away, dates back to the first half of the 1st century BC and is in very good condition, with its oval layout completely preserved. Its magnificent entrance still retains its Latin inscriptions. Traces of the city’s walls, covering a large area, can still be seen.
Beit Shean, Israel
Beit Shean was put on the ancient map owing to its strategic importance along the great north–south trade route, with the area’s abundant fertile lands an added incentive for residents, who first settled in the 5th century BCE. Beit Shean’s timeline spans 4,500 years, the decades following the Roman conquest truly its glory days, when it became one of ten cities that formed the Decapolis, a federated alliance, and the only one west of the Jordan River.
It flourished through Hadrian’s reign and, after the Bar Kokhba revolt, under Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Rapid and extravagant development saw the construction of statues, governmental buildings and after the adoption of Christianity, the amphitheatre, bathhouses and fountains, which remain Beit Shean’s most striking features.
The remains are awe-inspiring. In the middle of the park, a single standing pillar, the only erect structure unearthed, acts as a poignant reminder of the fateful fall of a once-magnificent city when it was ravaged by a violent earthquake in 749CE.
The Baalbek complex, a homage to the gods of the Heliopolitan Triad – Jupiter, Venus and Mercury – contains some of the largest and most impressive Roman remains in the world. Lebanon’s most feted archaeological attraction, Baalbek was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 with the comment that ‘Baalbek, with its colossal structures, is one of the finest examples of imperial Roman architecture at its apogee’.
Despite a series of devastating earthquakes and a succession of conquering civilisations over the millennia, the Baalbek site is one of the most remarkably preserved complexes in the Middle East and should be on every traveller’s itinerary while in Lebanon. Visiting the site early on in the day will ensure there are fewer crowds and coach parties and yield better, warmer photographs of the ruins.
Ancient Salamis, the first city of Cyprus in classical Greek times and ruled by Alexander the Great in the Roman era, boasts some of the most impressive monuments to be found on the island. The pleasantly overgrown ruins lie among fragrant eucalyptus and acacia trees, and the area covered by the site is huge: so huge that although archaeologists began work here in 1890 and have continued intermittently throughout the last century, the site is still only partially excavated.
The gymnasium is the pearl of Salamis and the glimpse of lifestyle afforded here helps to convey, more than any other monument yet exposed, the magnificence and wealth that the city must have enjoyed in Roman times. Beside the gymnasium are the colossal Byzantine baths, an impressive complex of tall chambers with marble and mosaic flooring and underfloor heating, so deeply buried in sand that they were only discovered in 1926. In two of the vaulted arches traces of Roman mosaics can still be seen, mainly in reds and browns.