Romans were awesome. Other than their incredible engineering achievements and their love of a good pair of sandals, they left us a large number of beautiful ruins through which we can now imagine how it must have been to live in a bustling Roman city around 2000 years ago. We’re going to show you the 8 best preserved of these ancient sites so that you can visit them and imagine yourself dressed up in a white toga.
#8 EMERITA AUGUSTA (Merida, Spain)
Originally conceived as a retirement city for veteran soldiers of the Roman army, this city was built over a pre-roman settlement whose inhabitants were declared Roman citizens by Emperor Augustus. Since land in the city in which to build and raise crops was granted only to older troops, this site can be considered a kind of ancient Florida.
In order to keep the citizens entertained, Marcus Agrippa, brother in law and close friend to Emperor Augustus ordered the construction of a theater that has been very well preserved due to being covered in sand and rock for centuries. Nearby, one of the largest amphitheaters of the Roman world complete the entertainment district, in which presumably the words “are you not entertained?” were uttered by gladiators frequently.
#7 LEPTIS MAGNA (Libya)
Following the Punic wars, in 146 BC the Carthaginian city of Leptis Magna switched hands and became one of the largest Roman cities in the north of Africa. Later on, when Leptis Magna born Emperor Septimius Severus rose to the throne, he obviously dedicated plenty of recourses to improve this provincial capital, and created buildings which still stand proudly in his former “hood”. The forum, theater and main arch are among the best preserved of ancient Rome. Or at least they were until the recent Libyan war. Their future is uncertain.
#6: JERASH (Jordan)
Obviously, Romans are going to Romanize. And following the conquest of the city of Jerash by the all-powerful military legions, the administrative legions took over and began construction of a mini-Rome, erecting numerous infrastructures which include the impressive oval shaped forum, which earned this city the nickname of the “Asian Pompeii”.
As Monty Python well said in the film Life of Brian, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
#5 OSTIA ANTICA (Italy)
The great port of Rome, this city located just 18 miles from Rome grew in importance along with its powerful neighbor throughout the years, until in the second and third centuries AD reached around 75 thousand inhabitants who lived off fulfilling the shipping needs of Rome.
Although the city was sacked following the collapse of the Roman Empire, on the bright side, some of the marble was reused many centuries later to build the much more modern leaning tower of Pisa nearby. Nevertheless, Ostia Antica is still a great place to see Roman city planning at its finest, as their streets and many buildings are mostly intact, including the public latrines, which were cobbled up together creating a social endeavor out of the most unlikely of activities.
#4 PALMYRA (Syria)
When General Marc Anthony, in a short break from his beloved Cleopatra, commanded his legions to take the Syrian city of Palmyra, he found the city completely empty of anything he could sack. News had spread fast of his advance and the wise citizens had left the city. Despite this, the city would come to be ruled by the Roman Empire and a key stop in the silk route to Afghanistan and beyond.
Palmyr’s stunning desert ruins are an impressive reminder of the power of the Roman Empire, in which the temple of Baal is the key piece. A victim of the recent hectic situation in Syria, we sincerely hope that this city can survive for another 2000 years. [EDIT: Unfortunately barbarism has ravaged this stunning city, and it is no more. History weeps for the senseless destruction. Substituting this city in our list would be any of the honorable mentions at the end of the article.]
#3 EPHESUS (Turkey)
Once the third largest city of the Roman Asia Minor, Ephesus’ destiny was tied to its access to the Cayster River. When after several centuries of sedimentation, the river skipped passing next to the city and its harbor, Ephesus was mostly abandoned. But this once rich city still conserves plenty of attractive ruins to let us know of its faded splendor.
Among the most important, the beautiful library of Celsus was built by a rich governor for the use of the people of Ephesus, (and also to be used as his tomb). The rich fachade is a testament of the opulence of the region, which is further demonstrated by the monstrously huge theater that graces the city. With a maximum capacity of 24,000 thrilled spectators, this theater may be the largest outdoor theater in the whole Roman Empire.
#2 ROME (Italy)
The stuff of legends, this City emerged from the mists of time to become one of the largest and most powerful empires the world has ever known. A source of enlightenment but also debauchery, Rome suffered through the barbarian invasions that culminated in the fall of 476.
The forum, once the center of a whole Empire, is a shadow of its former self. Fortunately there are many structures still standing that let us catch a glimpse of the power of this civilization at its peak: The Constantine arch, the majestic Colosseum, Trajan’s column, the Caracalla baths, etc, are all world class sites.
But one particular building overshadows all the rest in its magnificence and state of preservation; the Pantheon. Originally constructed by Agrippa and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian, this site’s stunning portico and graceful dome are architectural wonders studied and copied by architects up to this very day, nearly two millennia later.
#1 POMPEII (Italy)
The great historian Pliny the Elder was watching mount Vesubius from afar when the volcano erupted and rained chaos over the city of Pompeii in 79 AD. Among the many victims was his uncle Pliny the Elder, who instead of fleeing in the opposite direction, decided to sail to Pompeii to attempt to rescue survivors from the city, but was met by a storm of ash and stone and was never heard from again.
The volcano created a whole city frozen in time for centuries, which allows current travelers to admire not only ruins of official buildings such as the forum or the theater, but much more rare everyday constructions like bakeries. The most intimate way to know how the Roman everyday life unfolded is to pay attention to the numerous graffiti etched on the walls throughout Pompeii. Some examples are:
- “Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.”
- “If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend.”
- “Gaius Pumidius Dipilus was here on October 3rd 78 BC.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Among the other cities we shouldn't overlook in our list, we have to make reference to the beautiful aqueduct in Segovia, (Spain), the city of Herculaneum, (Italy), the Hierapolis theater, (Turkey), and the anphitheaters of El Djem (Tunisia) and Pula (Croatia).