Walking In the Footsteps of the Ancient Romans
History comes alive in some of the world’s most dramatic destinations.
I have always been a bit fascinated with the Romans. I won’t bore you with the detailed distinctions between Ancient Rome, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire, but suffice to say that the centuries defined by the power of Rome was an incredibly exciting period of history that really shaped the world as we know it today.
What’s even more incredible is that for a period of history so remote from contemporary times, there are a surprising number of sites around the world where you can come face-to-face with glimpses of the Roman past — where you literally can walk in the footsteps of the Roman adventurers who set out to conquer the world.
The Romans were famous for building spectacular amphitheatres, each of them engineering feats in themselves, here’s a quick guide as to where to find four of the best.
The Colosseum, Rome
When you visit Rome today, it is awe inspiring to see how the modern city seamless incorporates so many ancient wonders from its past — that this is a city where people are living, and going about their day-to-day business, without a second thought for the monuments and ruins that point to a past when this literally was the centre of the known world.
The massive amphitheatre that is known as the Colosseum is perhaps one of the most visual reminders of the rich history that washes through the city of Rome.
Built of concrete and stone, it is the largest amphitheatre in the world, dating from the year 70 AD. Holding up to eighty-thousand spectators, the Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests, public entertainments, and executions.
Les Arenes, Arles
Arles is often referred to as the “Rome of France” and this small town in the Provence region of the south of France was clearly an important trading post during Roman times.
There are a lot of Roman ruins in the Arles region, including a palace, temples, and extensive baths.
The massive amphitheatre that the Romans built here is known as Les Arenes. It is a work of art.
One of the largest amphitheatres built by the Romans outside of Rome was built in Tunisia. It still stands today and continues to tower over the modern-day city of El Jem.
The nearby museum contains an extensive collection of Roman artefacts from the villas that were constructed in this region.
During the summer months there is an extensive program of classical music festivals, which is the perfect way to enjoy this ancient amphitheatre.
El-Jem has a wealth of Roman amphitheatres, with the ruins of three amphitheatres in this region showing that it was an important area of focus for the Roman Empire.
In Aspendos you can visit the 2,000 year old amphitheatre where the acoustics are still good enough today to host world-class opera performances.
This amphitheatre is also particularly noted for the many decorations and tributes to the god of wine Dionysus.
History comes alive in Rome
When I was at school one of my favourite subjects was history. I was particularly obsessed with ancient history — the empires of Rome, of Athens, the myths and legends of the Mediterranean world.
Looking back, this enduring passion for history was triggered by a family holiday to Rome. My parents had a real knack for planning family holidays that were subliminally educational — taking us to places that had some key points of interest and historical importance and letting us discover and explore, patiently answering our numerous questions and pointing us in the right direction to find more information.
Using that model of educational travel, the spectacular ruins of the Colosseum in Rome is an amazing way to open the eyes and the mind of any child to the wonders of the ancient world.
The largest amphitheatre in the world
The Colosseum is without doubt one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering.
Its construction dates back to the year 70 AD when the emperor Vespasian ruled Rome. With the capacity to hold up to 80,000 spectators, this amphitheatre was the centre for major entertainment spectacles — not just the battles between gladiators that we normally associate with this time, but also mock sea battles, animal hunts, public executions, re-enactments of historical events or military victories, or plays and dramas bringing to life the myths and legends of Rome.
The Colosseum was used in this way right through until the sixth century after which it fell into disrepair following earthquakes and fires — its decline mirroring the fall of the Roman Empire.
The survival of the Colosseum
It’s a little ironic that it was the Catholic Church that saved the Colosseum from complete destruction. This arena where early Christians had been martyred and executed for public entertainment was declared a sacred site by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749, sanctified by the blood of the early Christians that had been killed there.
The church initiated numerous restoration and stabilisation projects, reinforcing the surviving facade and beginning the excavation of the arena’s substructure.
Visiting the Colosseum today
While you can explore the site on your own, a Colosseum tour is the best way to really get a feel for how this arena operated and what it can tell us about the workings of the Roman Empire.
The Colosseum was built by the best craftsmen available, tackling with ingenuity many of the challenges that modern stadiums are still grappling with — ground level entrances and a ticketing system was used to get the crowds in and out quickly, and a retractable awning provided shelter from the weather and also helped to create a breeze.
But it is the floor of the arena that is really fascinating — the arena had a wooden floor and beneath that a two-level underground network of tunnels and cages where gladiators and animals were held waiting for their turn in front of the crowd. Vertical shafts and large hinged platforms could be used to change scenery or release animals as large as elephants.
As a young boy, it is exhilarating to be able to stand in the ruins of the Colosseum, to close your eyes and imagine the sights and sounds of Ancient Rome, the gladiators, the battles, the heat, and the crowds.
This is how you learn about history.
The wonders of Ancient Rome
One of the joys of travel is that it not only allows you to experience a place as it stands today, but can also sometimes give you glimpses into the past and what that place might have been like in years gone by.
Rome is one of those amazing cities where modern life is happening amidst and among some amazing relics, ruins, and reminders of this history of this city that once ruled the world.
In this article we take a look at what you can discover about the Ancient Rome and the Roman Empire when you wander the streets of the city today.
The largest empire of the ancient world
Beginning around the 8th century BC, the civilisation that began in Rome grew to become an empire that ruled over around 90 million people — around 20% of the world’s population at that time — and stretching across 6.5 million square kilometres.
Through enormous campaigns of conquest and assimilation, Rome dominated Southern and Western Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa and parts of North and East Europe.
While the empire of Rome may have disintegrated and crumbled over the years, when you visit the city today you can still walk amongst some of the ancient buildings and monuments that testify to the power and might of this people that ruled the world.
The Forum is a rectangular plaza that was the centre for several important buildings that were key to governing the empire.
For centuries The Forum was the centre of Roman life with festivals and processions held here as well as being the venue where important speeches were made, criminal and political trials were held, as well as entertainments such as gladiator fights.
Even though it is now a sprawl of ruins and fragments of buildings, as you wander through this space you can get a real sense as to why this plaza was described as the most important meeting place in all the world and in all history.
The Colosseum dominates the centre of Rome today just as it did at the height of Rome’s power.
This was the largest amphitheatre in the world and was particularly impressive because it was built as a free standing construction rather than built into the side of the hill as most amphitheatres were built.
With capacity to hold up to 80,000 spectators, The Colosseum was used not only for gladiatorial contests, but all sorts of entertainments were staged here — including re-enactments of battles, the hunting of animals brought to Rome from across the world, dramas and plays, as well as the execution of prisoners and the persecution of political and religious enemies.
This stunning building was first built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC — 14 AD) and then rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian around the year 126 AD.
With its striking columns, massive dome, and a central opening to the sky — today it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, an impressive feat of engineering and construction. The Pantheon has been in continuous use throughout its history
There are numerous reasons to visit Rome, but if you are interested in history and exploring the fascinating past of this part of the world then wander the streets of the city and immerse yourself in an age gone by.