Written by Kevin Jennings
If there’s one thing most people know about ancient Roman civilization, it’s that they loved a good gladiatorial battle, even if their understanding of the reality of gladiators is horribly misinformed thanks to Hollywood consistently getting it woefully incorrect. But if there are two things they know, the other will be that the Romans were incredible architects. Indeed, despite countless wars across Europe over the millennia, many ancient Roman structures still stand proudly. Some are in the sort of condition you would expect of a 2,000 year old building, perhaps with little remaining but a foundation. Others, however, remain in remarkable condition.
One thing many of us often forget is just how vast the Roman Empire was. With many of the most famous ruins, such as the Coliseum or Pantheon, in the city of Rome, we can easily lose track of just how far beyond the borders of modern Italy Rome extended. And with so many incredible feats of architecture, it’s quite possible that there are many you haven’t even seen before. Today we’ll be looking at a variety of incredible ancient Roman structures that have survived, at least partially, to this day.
Baptism Basin of the Basilica of Saint Vitale Sbeitla
Depending on which historian you ask, the Basilica of San Vitale in Sbeitla was not technically built during ancient times, but it is definitely on the cusp of late antiquity having been built sometime in the late 5th or early 6th century AD. It is also not to be confused with the Basilica of St. Vitale built in Ravenna, Italy at approximately the same time. With more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, you’d think they could be a little more creative when naming their churches.
Sbeitla, also called Sufetula, is located in Tunisia in Northern Africa. Despite being home to an impressive number of ancient ruins, not a lot is known about the history of the city. History tended to be written by the winners, and when a city changed hands multiple times more and more evidence of the history of the area was erased.
As best as we can tell, the city was likely founded in the first century AD and reached great prosperity through the olive trade before being surrounded by Vandals. In this case, Vandals is of course referring to the Germanic people from southern Poland, not a bunch of rowdy youths with cans of spray paint. The city began to decline before the Byzantines came and revitalized the city. The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, so for all intents and purposes they fall into the scope of today’s post.
There are a number of Roman and Byzantine ruins at the location including a forum, public baths, and half a dozen temples and churches. But none of these are more visually impressive than the baptismal font of the Basilica of St. Vitale. While much of the basilica itself is gone, the baptismal font remains in extraordinary condition.
The entire font is covered in beautiful mosaics, not uncommon for Roman or Byzantine architecture at the time. What truly separates this from similar contemporary works is the unusual shape. Most baptismal fonts featured either circular or cross shaped basins. This particular example is best described as being labial shaped, with two sets of four, deep stairs on either end. The stairs meet at the center where the water basin for the baptisms would be kept. Four stone bases on the rim of the font forming a square suggest that there were likely stone pillars to support a canopy over the basin. The mosaic decoration depicts both Greek and Latin crosses, as well as the Greek letters alpha and omega, a reference to the Book of Revelation.
As is commonly seen in modern churches as well, an inscription on the edge of the font appears to be a dedication to whoever donated the money to build the basin and adjoining baptistery. With the remarkable condition of this piece of architecture some 1,500 years later, it’s nice to know they got their money’s worth.
Fishbourne Roman Palace
In 1960, an engineer for the Portsmouth Water Company was digging a trench for a new water main in the village of Fishbourne in West Sussex, England. They uncovered wall foundations and traces of mosaic floors, so construction was halted and archaeologists were called in. Some remnants such as mosaic tiles or pottery fragments had been found near this location as far back as 1805, but no one had really thought anything of it. It wasn’t until years after the excavation began in 1961 that people were able to fully grasp exactly what had been stumbled upon.
When excavation began, at first the archaeologists suspected they had found an ancient Roman villa. The search increased, and they suspected perhaps there were multiple villas in this area. As the years went on, the realization finally sunk in that this was not a series of homes, but one massive palace, the largest Roman residence ever found north of the Alps. Built in around 79 AD, only 30 years after the Roman conquest of Britain, it would have rivaled the size of Nero’s Golden House in Rome. For a more modern comparison, the Fishbourne Roman Palace has a larger footprint than Buckingham Palace, at around 500,000 square feet.
Evidence suggests the site was originally the home of granaries to supply the Roman military before being converted into the massive palace. It seems to have been a residence for approximately 200 years before the north wing caught fire and the building was abandoned. It is unclear whether the fire was the result of a natural phenomenon, an attack, or an accident involving the central heating system that was under construction at the time but which was never completed.
The palace was extremely ornate, containing wall paintings and as many as 50 floor mosaics. The original mosaics were done in black and white, but many were overlaid with more sophisticated, colour mosaics. Included among these is a mosaic depicting Medusa, though it has been extensively damaged. The most complete and impressive mosaic remaining at the palace depicts Cupid riding a dolphin, and is believed to have been added around 160 AD.
With how recent the discovery of this location was combined with the incompleteness of the ruins, there are many unanswered questioned about the palace. Though there are generally accepted theories, it is unknown for sure who the palace was built for or why it was built so hastily. To be able to afford building such a massive and ornate palace yet laying mosaics directly on the ground rather than first creating an under-floor central heating system, especially somewhere like England, would have been unusual and indicated a strong sense of urgency.
More recent discoveries in the late 1990s showed extensive evidence of human activity in this area well before the Romans as well. Nearly 12,000 artifacts were unearthed, with some flint tools dating to around 5,000 BC.
Though the original palace may have burned down, the site has been rebuilt as a museum, preserving the many mosaics and other pieces of Roman architecture that remain. Perhaps with further excavation and research, even more can be learned about the Fishbourne Roman Palace.
Roman Theatre of Orange
The ancient Romans loved theatre. It was a sharp contrast to their general loathing of actors themselves, who held one of the lowest social statuses possible, even being denied many civil and political rights that were afforded to normal citizens. While early Roman theatres were generally temporary structures built out of wood with the intention of being disassembled, in 55 BC Pompey the Great ordered the first permanent, stone theatre to be built in Rome after which they became commonplace.
There are many Roman theatres that still exist today, but few if any are as well preserved as the Theatre of Orange, France. Built early in the first century AD under the order of Caeser Augustus, the Theatre of Orange is an incredibly impressive structure. In its day, the theatre could hold as many as 10,000 spectators. But the most spectacular part of the theory is its exterior façade.
The façade is 103 meters (338 feet) long and 37 meters (121 feet) high. Aside from being extremely impressive to look at, this massive structure behind the 61 meter (200 foot) long stage served several practical purposes. The wall was designed to project the sound on the stage out to the audience, an important bit of engineering since they didn’t exactly have electronic speakers back then. It also contained three doors through which the actors could enter and exit the stage.
The massive wall was adorned with sculptures placed in niches, mosaics, and friezes. The central niche contains a 3.5 meter (11 foot) tall statue of Emperor Augustus. It is believed that the statue was originally a depiction of Apollo, the god of music and the arts, but the Caesers loved changing things to ensure they would be enshrined forever in history; just look at your calendar if you need a reminder.
Roman theatre was built on spectacle, with the people preferring entertainment and farce over tragedy or drama. It was also frequently an all day affair. It is with that in mind that the façade was also used to hold up the wooded roof that would cover the stage and audience on days of inclement weather. Unfortunately, the original roof was destroyed in a fire and there is no longer a roof for the audience, but no one in modern times is going to an ancient Roman theatre with comfort in mind.
Comfortable or not, restoration of the theatre began in 1825, and since 1869 it has been home to the “Roman Festival”, renamed the “Chorégies” in 1902 when the festival went from a periodic occurrence to an annual event. Though the rest of the year it is simply a tourist attraction, every August the month long festival allows the Theatre at Orange to relive its glory as a stage for operas and concerts.
Imperial Baths of Trier
Ancient Romans loved a good bath. Having been introduced to the idea by the Greeks, the Romans built large baths that were enjoyed daily by men and women alike, and people of all social standing, even lowly actors. While the wealthy could afford the luxury of their own private bath and the water to facilitate it, most people relied on the public baths. Baths were extremely popular and were a major hub for socialization and recreation.
With baths being so important, each emperor would try to outdo the previous one. There was no easier or lower effort method for an emperor to gain the adoration of the citizenry that to ensure their new baths were the biggest and most popular. When Constantius I was made emperor of the west, he and his son Constantine the Great moved to Trier, Germany as their new capital.
Beginning in 306 AD, Constantine developed a plan for a major construction project, the Imperial Palace District. The Imperial Baths, also known as Kaiserthermen, were a part of this project, and were intended to be a gift from Emperor Constantine to the people of Trier. The baths were built around hot water pools reaching 40° Celsius (104° Farenheit). Underneath the complex was a network of underground passageways used by the staff which can still be seen today, along with the remains of the sewer system.
Unfortunately for both Constantine and the people of Trier, the baths were never completed. Construction briefly came to a halt, but continued in the 4th century with the new plan of using the Imperial Baths as a barracks for the imperial guard. In the Middle Ages, the baths were used as a castle, a city wall, and a monastery.
During the 1800s, excavation on the site of the remains began, and restoration of the windows took place in 1984. From both the structure’s size and its various utilities throughout the centuries, it is almost difficult to believe that their construction was never completed. So difficult to believe, in fact, that tests are currently underway to determine if the baths were really never completed as is common belief.
Roman Walls of Lugo
We mentioned earlier that Europe has been home to many, many wars over the past 2,000 years, and that is precisely what makes the Roman Walls of Lugo, Spain so impressive. The Kingdom of Spain, or it predecessors in now Spanish territory, engaged in 275 military conflicts since the time this wall was built. Not all of these were fought on Spanish soil or in this particular region of Spain, but it is nevertheless remarkable that the walls constructed from 263-276 AD are almost completely intact.
Though the entire city of Lugo, then the Roman town of Lucus Augusti, was not protected within the city walls, the full wall stretched over 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles). The wall was 4.2 meters (14 feet) wide and its height ranges from 8-12 meters (26-39 feet) tall. In conjunction with a moat, the walls protected the city from local tribesmen and Germanic invaders.
Originally built with five gates to allow citizens to enter, five more gates were added in 1853 to accommodate the city’s ever-growing population. There were also a series of towers at irregular intervals ranging from 5.4-12.8 meters (18-42 feet). These towers were two stories tall. Of the original towers, 49 are fully intact with another 39 partially intact. While there have been some minor renovations for structural integrity, the original wall, as it was designed by the Romans, is in exceptional condition. The towers have suffered the worst, but even then over half of the towers still remain.
These city defenses around Lugo remain the most complete and best preserved example of Roman military architecture in the entire Western Roman Entire.