Best of Rome Outside of Rome

by Bill Hoversen

At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from the moors of England to the sands of Lebanon.  An empire so vast the Romans called the Mediterranean, “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea”). So prolific was their domain that the Romans left their imprint wherever they settled. Experiencing the Romans is not solely an Italian travel experience, some of the most impressive Roman ruins lie not in Italy, but scattered throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Their sheer magnificence and the history behind them are sure to blow visitors away!

The beautiful Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey once housed 12,000 scrolls, and easily earns the first place title for its magnificent facade.
The beautiful Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey once housed 12,000 scrolls, and easily earns the first place title for its magnificent facade. Photo Courtesy of Bill Hoversen

10). Aquincum

Location: Budapest, Hungary

Located on the banks of the Danube River, Aquincum represented the Roman frontier. It was built as a Roman garrison to protect the border against invasions by the Huns. Because of its remoteness at the time, (this was Rome's border to the northwest) Aquincum features only what Romans deemed essential. There is a beautifully preserved forum, several temples, and the ruins of the bath. The bath is of particular interest because it has been deconstructed to show how it functioned. Aquincum may not be the most visually splendid of ruins, but its location in relation to Rome and the insight it provides about the lives of soldiers and average families is fascinating.  

9). Pont du Gard

Location: Vers-Pont-du-Gard, France

This is the best surviving example of Roman engineering. Standing at 161 feet in height, the Pont-du-Gard is a three-tried aqueduct found in the south of France. Built during the 1st century C.E., it was used to transport water to the formerly Roman city of Nimes. The aqueduct is impressive to behold. The Pont-du-Gard spans the Gardon River with 52 arches supported by 35 pillars. Today, the aqueduct has been transformed into a bridge so people can appreciate its intricacy and immensity more closely.  

8). Paphos Archaeological Park

Location: Paphos, Cyprus

For those who love mosaics, this is the place for you. The Paphos Archaeological Park is the remnant of a wealthy residential area from the Roman occupation of Cyprus. Its main attractions are the magnificent mosaics that adorn the floors of the former palatial estates. The state of preservation is startling.  Works of art centuries old look as though they were made last week.  They cover all manner of topic from geometric shapes, allegories, hunting scenes, and mythology, painting a picture of Roman interior design.  The park has catwalks over all of the best preserved mosaics so one can stand directly over and examine these masterpieces without any risk of damage.  

7). Baalbek 

Location: Baalbek, Lebanon 

Established as Heliopolis, “The City of the Sun,” Baalbek was one of the ancient world’s greatest religious sanctuaries.  Its temple complex features three of the finest examples of Roman religious constructions ever created.  The temples dedicated to Venus and Bacchus are revered for their pristine condition and Baalbek’s Temple of Jupiter is believed to be the largest sacred structure built by the Romans. The temple is massive is all its dimensions. The base is a staggering 288 ft. by 156 ft. and its 72 ft. high columns astound any onlookers.  

6). Italica

Location: 5 miles Northwest of Seville, Spain

Birth city of the emperor Trajan and adopted home of later emperor Hadrian, Italica is one of the most important Roman sites on the Iberian Peninsula. It was founded directly after the Romans took possession of Spain from Carthage and the city grew to be one of the empire’s wealthiest.  Though its population was small, everything built in Italica was on a grand scale as Senators and aristocrats boasted of their affluence through monumental architecture. It was home to a monstrous bath complex and its amphitheater, a gift from the emperor Hadrian himself, was the empire’s third largest, seating 25,000. The amphitheater is in remarkable condition and is, by itself, worth a visit to Italica.

5). Gerasa

Location: Jerash, Jordan

One of the most significant Roman excavations in the Near East, Gerasa (Jerash), is called “The Pompeii of the Middle East” because its extent and well-preserved condition. Originally a Greek city, Jerash was conquered and beautified by the Romans. It has some of the most spectacular ruins of any city formerly of the empire. The site contains several imperial arches and an intact Cardo, main avenue. Jerash’s Oval Forum is unique throughout the Roman world and is encircled by a stunning colonnade.  

4). Diocletian’s Palace

Location: Split, Croatia

Palatial ruins turned modern city. In 305 AD, the emperor Diocletian retired, becoming one of the few emperors to leave the throne and die a natural death. He built himself a palace of monstrous proportions close to modern-day Croatia’s Adriatic Coast. This dwelling was more a small city than a home and upon Diocletian’s death, Roman citizens moved into the ruins of the palace.  Split was the result. The city center is completely enclosed by the palace walls and its main square is lined with a colonnade and surrounds Diocletian’s mausoleum, now the city’s cathedral. It is also possible to venture underneath the palace and explore its vast system of tunnels.

3). El Djem

Location: Mahdia Governorate, Tunisia

Rome’s most spectacular arena is hidden in the desert sands of Tunisia. El Djem was Roman North Africa’s crown jewel. Only eclipsed in size by the Colosseum in Rome, this stadium was the scene of countless gladiatorial contests. El Djem is exceptional because, unlike the Colosseum, it was not quarried until much later, so its overall preservation is remarkable. If ever there was a place to sense the frenzied Roman crowds and their blood lust it is El Djem.  

2). Caesarea 

Location: Caesarea, Israel

Found in a country known for its archeological wonders, Caesarea is one of Israel’s finest. The city was one of Herod the Great’s most lavish accomplishments and no expense was spared in building the city named after his patron, Caesar Augustus. Caesarea was one of the Roman world’s most prosperous cities and remained so well past the decline of empire. Its architecture and edifices reflect that prosperity. 

Caesarea’s theater, which is still used, sat thousands. Herod’s great palace at Caesarea was built on a natural breakwater and juts into the Mediterranean. The palace’s lowest section is sea-level allowing the king access to the sea directly from his home. Most magnificent of all is Caesarea’s hippodrome. This stadium for chariot races has seats on only one side and abuts the coast. Spectators attending races would look across the track directly onto the azure waters of the Mediterranean.  

1). Ephesus

Location: Selcuk, Turkey

A city with Greek roots, Roman extravagance, and Christian significance, Ephesus is a wonder to behold. One of the greatest port cities in the ancient world, Ephesus flouts its former wealth.  The ruins of the city are bisected by its “Marble Way,” a road constructed of pure marble that allowed patricians to move about the city is the most refined manner possible. The city also contains ruins of many public buildings such as toilets, the forum, and the baths illustrating the lives of Roman aristocrats and plebeians alike.

Ephesus’s amphitheater is one of the Mediterranean’s largest and still holds performances. It is believed to be the site St. Paul evangelized the city. By far, Ephesus’s most impressive monument is the Library of Celsus. Named for a popular Roman consul, the two-storied façade is brilliantly detailed and once housed 12,000 scrolls. The Library of Celsus towers over the small square at its entrance and is connected to two imperial arches dedicated to emperors who visited the city. This section dominates any visit to Ephesus and captures the splendor that was the Roman World.