The Roman Empire lasted over 1,000 years, from its humble beginnings in the 8th century BC to its fall in the 5th century AD. In its various forms as a republic and later ruled by emperors, the Romans succeeded in conquering a vast expanse of territory, from Asia Minor to the Middle East, to all of Europe today, too. far north than the UK and Germany.
Wherever Roman soldiers went, they brought with them their culture, art, architecture, technical skills, gods and science. They built roads, temples, baths, forums and elegant villas. There are around 50 monuments in Italy, but an astonishing 23 in the rest of the world ruled by them at one time or another have survived war and natural disasters like earthquakes.
Some statues may be missing a head or an arm, the glorious columns of some temples may have collapsed, but overall the surviving monuments in some of the most interesting countries once ruled by the Romans are all simply impressive. I have personally visited all of those mentioned here, ranging from as far away as Lebanon to the cooler climates of UK and Germany.
1. Baalbek / Lebanon
Baalbek City and Temple Complex is located east of the Litani River in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, approximately 42 miles northeast of Beirut. In 16 BC, it became a province of the Roman Empire and Baalbek, then known as Heliopolis. The largest temple in the empire dedicated to Jupiter was built between 16 BC. Various earthquakes knocked down many of the original columns, but six in a row are still standing.
Next to the temple of Jupiter, another slightly smaller temple was built, dedicated to the god Bacchus. Today you need to be careful when climbing around the vast complex or risking a twist in your ankle. Many statues and other works of art can be seen in the nearby museum.
In 1956, the Baalbek International Festival was created, which quickly became the most prestigious cultural event in the Middle East. Imagine opera, theater, and even rock and pop groups performing outside the ruins of this impressive complex. A better outdoor scene is hard to imagine. Due to political events, the festival has been suspended several times but has now resumed. Here is the program for this year’s festival.
Insider tip: For US nationals, travel to Lebanon is currently discouraged for several reasons. If you decide to go anyway, the best way to get to Baalbek from Beirut is to hire a private car and a local driver. I travel all over the Middle East and Turkey.
2. Conimbriga / Portugal
Conimbriga, located about 16 km from Coimbra, may not be the largest, but it is certainly the best-preserved Roman settlement in Portugal. Roman soldiers arrived at this already fortified, much older urban settlement in 139 BC. . You enter the colony through gates and walk along the walls that extend for 4,900 feet.
The best views are the luxurious Roman villas which have been excavated and can now be admired. The most famous of these is the Casa dos Repuxos with its sumptuous mosaics and pretty garden, showing another 500 jets of water that kept it cool and watered. Stroll from house to house then visit the nearby museum with a superb collection of pottery and sculptures.
3. Ephesus / Turkey
Ephesus is located near the Mediterranean in western Turkey, about 50 miles south of Izmir and near the modern city of Selcuk. It is an ancient Greek colony that, for once, the Romans did not conquer. It was bequeathed to the Romans by King Attalus III in his will because he had no heirs. The Romans came to Ephesus because of this gift and established the province of Asia in 133 AD with Ephesus as its capital. The most famous Roman monument in Ephesus is the Library of Celsus. It was built by Gaius Julius Aquila in honor of his father, Celsus, who was governor of the province and a great lover of science and literature.
The library is now accessible by climbing nine steps to the platform on which the building stands. It could hold over 12,000 rolls and was the third largest library in the world at the time. In niches near the entrance stand four statues representing wisdom, knowledge, virtue and judgment. These are however replicas like the originals can be found in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna.
Ephesus is a huge complex and you can walk the streets and look at other Roman buildings (including a brothel). Take the short trip to Selcuk and visit the museum which beautifully displays many statues and artifacts from all periods of Ephesus history unearthed at the site.
Insider tip: When you visit Ephesus, bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. There is no shade and the sun can be fierce.
4. Jerash / Jordan
For centuries much of this huge and fascinating Roman city, one of the largest complexes outside of Italy, has been buried under desert sands, following multiple earthquakes. More or less by chance it was discovered and today Jerash is an amazing sight. Located about thirty kilometers north of the capital Amman, the Romans conquered Jordan (and Syria) in 63 BC.
Jerash includes a straight street lined with Ionic columns, a rare oval square, a hippodrome, a temple of Artemis and Zeus, two large communal baths, two theaters and the huge Arch of Hadrian erected in honor of the visit of the emperor in AD 129/130, and an almost complete enclosure wall.
When I visited, the entertainment was provided by the re-enactment of horse racing in the racetrack, but this has now been abandoned. Instead, there is the annual Festival of Culture and the Arts.
5. Roman Theater / Cartagena / Spain
Cartagena is located on the Costa Calida on the Mediterranean in the southeast of Spain. The city, which has a large number of Roman monuments, was conquered by the Romans in 209 BC.
At the end of the 1st century BC, they built a theater, one of the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, which could accommodate 6,000 spectators. After the conquest of the Romans, the theater was rebuilt by subsequent civilizations and was not rediscovered and restored to its former glory until the 19th and 20th centuries. Today it is one of the most visited Roman monuments in Cartagena.
The theater is accessed through a pink building located on Town Hall Square which, via a tunnel, gives access to a museum and to the theater itself. Besides the theater and the museum, there are Roman villas and a forum to visit.
6. Porta Nigra / Trier / Germany
Trier is often considered the oldest city in Germany. Located in Rhineland-Palatinate on the banks of the Moselle, the region was conquered by the Romans in the first century BC, and renamed Augusta Treverorum in 16 BC. four city gates. It is indeed the best preserved Roman city gate north of the Alps. Originally the four towers of the gate had four floors, today only one reaches this height. However, it is a great experience to go up to the bright rooms on the upper floors with amazing views of the city and the river, and then explore much darker rooms on the ground floor.
For the greatest pleasure: let yourself be guided by a Roman centurion (played by an actor) who will tell you the story and help you defend the âblack doorâ. Who could resist that?
7. Hadrian’s Wall / United Kingdom
Hadrian’s Wall is an ancient defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia in the north of the United Kingdom. Begun in 122 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (hence the name), the wall stretches from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east across the entire island to Bowness-on-Solway West. The total length is 84 miles and a significant part of the wall is still standing. It’s a popular way to explore this part of the UK by hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Trail that runs along the wall.
The path is a British National Trail, while Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Anyone who is relatively fit can walk the path, divided into sections. The best time to do this is between May and October as at other times and in wet weather the trail can get muddy.
Several openings in the wall are considered customs posts, as the wall separated the province of Britannia from undefeated Caledonia to the north (now Scotland).
Monuments and memorials represent events throughout history and are a wonder to see. To consider: