The Roman architecture – one of the most important legacies of the Roman Era – evolved echoing the character of its creators and their need for organised structures, practical solutions, and flamboyant celebrations of the Empire’s grandeur. Influenced by the Egyptian and Greek architecture, the Romans adopted the elements that best reflected the requirements of their new society, discarded any minimalistic features (like the Dorian style) that were too plain to the Roman eye, and invented the vaults, domes, and arches which were to define Western engineering for the centuries to come. Roads and major traffic arteries, bridges, aqueducts, arenas, and public baths further complement the construction designs and networks that dominated a large part of the antiquity’s known world. The essence of all this glory is still palpable, especially while rambling around the currently turf-covered remnants of the Roman cities that dot the lands of the once-mighty empire.
As a rule, most urban planning outside Rome followed a similar pattern: two wide axis streets (a north-south one known as the cardo, and an east-west one called decumanus) with the town center located at their intersection; a forum; temples, theaters, and public baths; some well-developed villas; and many ordinary, mud-brick abodes.
Leaving aside major, well-known metropoles, there are five Roman towns outside Italy worth exploring in depth.
- Volubilis, Morocco
I visited Volubilis on a cloudy spring day, when the grass had the joyful viridity of youth, millions of flower buds – which obviously preferred the yellow and orange hues and remained indifferent to any other color – merrily decorated the landscape, and the storks were engaged in their housekeeping activities, nested on the capitals of the standing columns.
Located at the south-western fringe of the Roman Empire, the city – today a UNESCO World Heritage Site – played an essential role in the history of the region, while its wealth is still evident in the size of its public buildings and the beauty of the mosaics that decorate in situ the floors of many excavated villas. Like most Roman cities, it was built on the remains of an older settlement, the specific one being Phoenician and then proto-Carthaginian, founded around the 3rd century BC. The town grew from the 1st century AD onwards under the Roman sovereignty, becoming the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and tripling in size. Its name is probably derived from the Latinization of the Berber word “Walilt” which means “oleander” – apparently, a tribute to the plant that grows abundantly on the softly-curved slopes of the surrounding valley. Located amid fertile plains and olive groves, Volubilis owned its prosperity to the production and trade of olive oil which was central in the city’s life, since its use, aside from cooking, included lighting, bathing, healing, stock raising, and heating. Fifty-eight olive-pressing complexes have been discovered so far in the site while the flourishing commercial activity of the city is confirmed by the more than 120 shops that have been identified up to now.
Volubilis’ prosperity reached its peak during the 2nd century AD when most of its prominent buildings were constructed. At the end of the 3rd century AD and following several upheavals in the empire, the Roman dominion came to an end. The town turned into a Latinized-Christian community, and then (in the 8th c. AD) into an early Islamic settlement, becoming the seat of Idris ibn Abdallah, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty and the state of Morocco. Idriss I lived outside the city’s walls, launching from there his several military campaigns that led to the conquering of Northern Morocco, and it was in Volubilis that he was assassinated after three years of ruling. His son and successor, Idriss II, moved the seat of the new state to the recently founded city of Fez and, finally, Volubilis faded into obscurity. Its buildings remained relatively intact until the 18th century when they were significantly damaged by a Lisbon-based earthquake, and later they were looted, their remnants used for the construction of the nearby city of Meknes.
Today, only half of the city’s beauty has been brought to light and the excavations – which started since the 19th century by the French and continued throughout the whole period of French sovereignty – still progress, albeit at a slow pace.
Enjoy ambling along the Decumanus Maximus street and imagine its smoothly paved surface (some of which is still visible), the footways and arcaded porticoes on either side and the dozens of shops that extended beyond. This street separated the old from the new part of the city, and at its north-eastern point, it is adorned with the Tingis Gate. Pass under the Arch of Caracalla – built to honor the homonymous Roman Emperor who, unfortunately, had already been murdered before the arch was completed; visit the Basilica and the Capitoline Temple; explore the remains of the public baths and aqueduct; check the reconstructed Roman olive press; and, above all, enjoy the magnificent mosaics of the richly decorated mansions for which Volubilis is famous.
- Philippi, Greece
The city of Philippi – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – was originally founded in 360 BC by colonists from the island of Thasos (in collaboration with the city of Athens) and its first name was “Krenides”. The area was known for its fertile land and the rich in shipbuilding-timber mountains and marshes. Most importantly, gold mines had been recently discovered nearby, and the settlers did not delay circulating their new gold and copper coins.
As expected, a city with such wealth and potential would not remain without predators for long. Just four years later, in 356 BC, Philip II, King of Macedonia (and father of Alexander the Great) was called to the rescue against the Thracian tribes that were already threatening the colony. Instead of merely offering his support, though, Philip II, acknowledging the opportunity, conquered and fortified the city, putting it under his rule and giving it the name with which it is still known today: Philippi. As per historians of the time, Philip II exploited the gold mines of the region extensively, increasing at unreasonable levels their production to generate more than 1000 talents of gold per year – an astronomical amount for the time. This wealth rapidly turned Philippi into an economic power in the Kingdom of Macedonia and contributed significantly to the grand military campaigns of the era.
The city followed the growth and decline of all other Hellenistic states and would have remained just a ghost of its former glory were it not for a random incident that changed the course of history for both the town and the then-known world. In 42 BC, outside its western walls, two Roman armies – the democrats Brutus and Cassius who had assassinated Jules Caesar on the one hand; Octavian and Antonius, followers of Caesar’s policy on the other – fought in what has been recorded as “the Battle of Philippi”. The Democrats lost, Cassius and Brutus committed suicide, and the outcome marked the end of the Roman Republic, paving the way for the establishment of monarchy in the Roman Empire. After his victory, Octavius converted Philippi into a Roman colony and named it Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis. As a result, the city developed into an economic, administrative, and artistic centre, especially during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
Around 100 years after the Battle of Philippi, in 49/50 AD, another event left an indelible mark on the city’s countenance: the visit of Apostle Paul who founded there the first church (meaning, Christian community) on European soil and was even imprisoned for a while. Today, none of the buildings of the 1st century AD remains, except a small space into the ground which, legend has it, was used as St. Paul’s prison. As time passed, the new religion prevailed over the Roman syncretism, and the Greek language replaced the Latin one. With the recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in 313 AD, the transfer of the capital to Constantinople (only about 450 km to the East of Philippi), and the presence of Via Egnatia (the major road connecting East with the West) that ran across the town, Philippi gained additional glamour and became a bishopric. Its famous Octagonal church and its three Basilicas of exquisite elegance and substantial size conveyed – and still do, even though all these buildings lie in ruins today – the magnificence and importance of the city during the early Christian period.
A series of earthquakes at the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th century caused severe damage to many edifices – the Basilicas included. Some of this damage was never repaired. This, along with several raids that had started since the 4rth century and continued throughout the history of the Byzantine empire put the city in considerable strain. Its strategic location helped it survive –occasionally even prosper – until the 14th century when, under the Ottoman dominion, it gradually faded away, leaving behind only the memories of a bygone era.
Walk under the stone arches that are close to the theatre – the first thing that any visitor notices when entering the archaeological site; step onto Via Egnatia whose slabs are still in place; explore the Forum complex which, of course, follows the standard structure of most Roman cities. Above all, prepare to spend quite some time discovering the secrets of the Octagonal Church and the three Basilicas which are quite unique, at least for Greece. Being an Athenian – and unable to completely shake off the slight arrogance of self-importance that comes with my heritage – I was startled to find in Philippi such a strong legacy of the early Christian era, when in Athens the Byzantine churches date mostly from the 10th century AD onwards and are tiny in size and modest in design. Nothing compares to the flamboyant – yet elegant – celebration of the new religion found in Philippi, so close to the Capital – the radian centre of that era.
- Gerasa, Jordan
Gerasa (“Jerash” in Arabic) is regarded as one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities outside Italy. Also known as the “Pompeii of the Middle East” (given its size, the extent of excavations, and the level of its conservation), the “Antioch on the Golden River”, or the “City of 1000 Columns”, Gerasa never ceases to amaze the visitors with its glamour.
Although the area was inhabited since the Neolithic times (as it is common in all Eastern Mediterranean), the city seems to have been founded at the site of an earlier Semitic village either by Alexander the Great or his General, Perdikas, on their way towards Mesopotamia. From the mid-1st century BC, Gerasa fell under the Roman dominion, and Pax Romana allowed for economic development and enhanced activity. The rise and decline of the various empires in the region is reflected in the ruins of the old city, where remnants from the Byzantine era (including numerous churches), the Crusades, the Umayyad Caliphate period, the Mamluks, the Ottoman occupation, even remains from a synagogue, all intertwine in a kaleidoscopic presentation that allows the more-than-2000-years-old tale of the Middle East to be summarized in less than two acres.
Walk through the Oval Forum down the cardo maximus (the main street) with the impressive line of columns on either side, ending up at the North Tetrapylon; sit on the stairs of the main theater or the hippodrome; take a photo next to the Arc of Hadrian; explore the Temple of Artemis; most of all, enjoy the innumerous, beautiful ornamentations that are scattered everywhere, among columns and broken stones – a testimony to the city’s eternal grace that neither time nor the incessant changes of power in the region can ever take away. And, if you happen to be visiting Jordan in summer, make sure to check the calendar of its Summer Festival and enjoy a performance or two in Gerasa, surrounded by the ancient marbles that, over centuries, keep on reflecting the soul of the human stories.
- Palmyra, Syria
It seems that Palmyra was always destined to be in the midst of military turmoil. The recent destructions are just another blow along the city’s turbulent history whose origins date to the second millennium BC – or, even beyond. The area was inhabited from the Neolithic times, but its growth has been recorded from the Hellenistic years onwards. Initially a sheikhdom with a tribal social structure, Palmyra is famous for its wealth due to its prosperous trade, as well as its military character and efficiency in combat – a quality that led to its nickname as “Sparta of the Orient” by Irfan Shahid.
Located in the middle of a fertile oasis, the city is surrounded by vast desert; indeed, during my trip to Syria, the landscape of the highway from Damascus to Palmyra was so exhaustingly dull and desolate that it made me wonder whether it was worth the effort just to see the ruins of another Roman city which would probably be similar to all other Roman towns around the world. But I was mistaken. Palmyra stands out as a unique case, with a history so complex and exotically intricate that it is difficult to comprehend with only one visit.
Originally an ancient Semitic city named, as per the earliest references, Tadmur (which possibly related to the palm trees that were, and still are, surrounding the town), it was later called “Palmyra” by the Greeks. The Palmyrenes were a mix of Amorites, Arameans, and Arabs, and their culture and religion, even though influenced by the Greco-Roman empires, always remained oriental and distinct. The locals had their own dialect, the Latin language was rarely used even during the Roman era, and Greek was used by the wealthier members of society in commerce, diplomacy, and politics. The Romans (especially Emperor Hadrian who was a great admirer of the Greek civilisation) allowed Palmyra to maintain an autonomous status, following the structure of the ancient Greek city-states. Despite all their influence though – also evident in the frequent use of Greek names by the locals – the Greeks were never fully incorporated in the indigenous society and were always (understandably) considered as foreigners.
The first three centuries AD brought significant growth to the city, evident in the construction of several monuments of considerable grandeur. From a mere caravan stop-point on the Silk Road that connected the East with the West, Palmyra developed into a wealthy trade centre with established colonies in surrounding trade hubs and whose revenue depended on agriculture, commerce, and taxation.
The peak of Palmyra’s history was in the mid-3rd century AD, when it turned into a kingdom based on the military successes of Odenaethus (who was initially just the ruler of Palmyra, and gradually acquired the titles of “King”, “Governor”, and “King of Kings” after his repetitive victories against the Persians). Following the assassination of Odenaethus and his son Hairan I – who had been crowned co-King of Kings and was the official successor – the throne passed on to Odenaethus’ ten-year-old son Vaballathus, and, indirectly, to his mother and guardian, Zenobia. Zenobia had a similarly ambitious, expansive, and successful military career, and during her reign, Palmyra’s Kingdom extended from Egypt to Ankara. In the beginning, the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, engrossed as he was in several upheavals in Europe, did not challenge Palmyra’s growing power. However, once Zenobia and her son assumed the titles of Augusta and August (emperors) respectively, he marched to Asia and defeated the Palmyrene army, pushing Zenobia back to her capital city. Initially the Roman Emperor spared the town and did not destroy it after its capitulation; however, an uprising by Zenobia’s relatives in 273 AD led to a new defeat of the Palmyrenes, and the town was finally razed to the ground.
Palmyra, whose geographic location continued to be important both for military and commercial purposes, followed the ebbs and tides of history, passing through the Byzantine empire, the Arab Caliphates, the Mamluk period, and the Ottoman era. Peace was restored for a while after World War I, only to be disrupted again over the past years with the Syrian Civil War.
We cannot be sure of the ancient city’s status once the war is over. It will not be the first time Palmyra’s monuments will have been destroyed, but we cannot know if we will be able to admire them restored within this lifetime. Still, the memory of the famous Temple of Bel and Temple of Baalshamin, the valley of Tombs, the Diocletian Baths, the Senate, the Great Colonnade (the city’s 1.1 km-long main street), the Funerary Temple, and the Diocletian walls – to name just a few – will shine eternally. For, destruction is only temporary. The beauty of human creations has the power to live forever, as its energy in the global conscious and subconscious can never fade away.
- Baalbek, Lebanon
As you may have noticed by now, my Greek ancestors enjoyed assigning their own, Hellenized names to many ancient cities, and it is these names that have often gone down in history – in many cases still being in use. As such, Alexander the Great and his successors gave to Baalbek the self-explanatory name of “Heliopolis” (actually “Heliopolis of Syria or Phoenicia”, to distinguish it from Heliopolis in Egypt). The name translates into “City of Sun” referring to the solar cult that was prominent there since ancient times. The city was always acknowledged for its strategic position, as it was located mid-way between Beirut and Damascus on the route that connected the port of Tyre with Palmyra, and was surrounded by the fertile Bekaa valley. Its turbulent history followed the rise and downfall of the various empires and sovereignties of the region. Its archaeological complex was repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes, wars, and religious conflicts (the latter, especially during the early Christian times), while its monuments were often pillaged for building materials to be used elsewhere.
Heliopolis was a well-known oracle and pilgrimage site (considered to be one of the two largest sanctuaries of the Roman Empire), and experienced considerable growth during the first three centuries AD, until the rise of Christianity. Its beautiful complex of three temples (dedicated to Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus) has been described by ancient historians or travellers as a “wonder of the world” or “one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee.”
The Temple of Jupiter – initially mistaken for the Temple of Helios, i.e. the Sun – was also known as the Great Temple (due to its size and magnificence) or the “Trilithon”, (“Three Stones”) because of three megalithic stones at its foundation. The engineering mechanisms employed for the construction of this temple remain a mystery since the Roman cranes were not strong enough to pull stones of the size and weight that we find there at the required height. Unfortunately, subsequent calamities led to the destruction of most of the temple’s 54 Corinthian-style columns (the beloved style of the Romans), including the use of eight of them by Justinian in the construction of the Hagia Sophia Church. The six columns in a row that, today, still stand tall resisting the mighty weather of the valley and the blows of history, have become a beloved symbol for the Lebanese people.
When setting eyes though on the temple of Bacchus which, by a favourable nod of Providence, has survived in a rather good condition, one cannot but stand in awe, for it is one of the largest Roman temples surviving today, enriched by some of the most refined reliefs and sculptures of antiquity. The impact of its unparalleled elegance can be surpassed only by the experience of enjoying a concert at its footsteps during the Baalbek Summer Festival. The energy emanated from the ancient marbles is so strong that it promises to turn any event into a memory to be cherished for a lifetime.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)
The above presentation includes a rough summary of the historical background of each city based on my understandings, readings, and information by local guides. However, as the history of each place is very complicated involving many eras, there may be mistakes in the descriptions above, due either to my lack of professional knowledge or oversimplification in the presentation of events. If you notice any unforgivable error, please contact me directly, I would be only too happy to make the necessary corrections.
To continue exploring the world, complement this article with articles like Seven Cities to Fall in Love With, Seven Temples in Asia to Add to the Bucket List, A Tour to my Seven Favorite Churches in Athens, A Road Trip through my Favorite Tuscan Villages, A Journey through the Historical Landmarks of Samothrace, or Twelve Places to Visit in Lebanon outside Beirut.