From a Roman city lurking beneath London, to a grand square in Athens, a stunning bridge in southern Spain, an uncovered city in Bulgaria and an overlooked palace in Milan, Europe is brimming with ancient Roman sites.
Here are five of the continent’s most interesting remains.
Each and every day, Londoners literally walk all over remnants of the Roman Empire. Concealed beneath the streets of this city’s busy financial district are Roman forts, barracks, amphitheatres, mansions and temples. Some are inaccessible, while others have been excavated and can be explored by tourists keen to learn how the Romans created London almost 2,000 years ago.
Not long after the Romans invaded Britain in the 1st century AD, they constructed a new riverside community, named Londinium. Sitting below street level, opposite the Museum of London, is a cluster of crumbling walls that were once part of the hub of Londinium. This was the mighty Roman Fort, a five-hectare complex that at times was home to up to 1,000 Roman soldiers.
For entertainment, those men walked to a nearby site that was only rediscovered by accident in 1988 – the Roman Amphitheatre. I had to descend six metres below the Guildhall Art Gallery to see the ruins of that grand ancient venue, which now functions as a museum.
Soon after, I was again beneath London chasing Roman ghosts. Not soldiers or noblemen, but members of the Roman Cult of Mithras. Those shadowy men hid their ritualistic activities in an underground temple that was excavated in the 1950s, then carefully restored and opened to the public four years ago. The Roman Empire’s DNA is all over London. Just look down.
Few people outside of Bulgaria will have heard of Plovdiv. But in 2019, this small, attractive city earned greater worldwide exposure due to its year-long stint as the European Capital of Culture, a title that put a spotlight on its little-known yet remarkable Roman sites.
I took my mother to Plovdiv to admire the ostentatious, 19th-century Baroque architecture of its old town. Only a few hundred metres away from that unique neighbourhood, we made an unexpected find. Despite dating back almost 2,000 years, the Ancient Stadium of Philippopolis and the Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis are in terrific condition.
With its enormous terraced seating, the latter venue held musical and theatre performances for crowds of up to 3,000 people. Yet it was tiny compared to the nearby stadium. Philippopolis could accommodate seven times that many spectators, who cheered and jeered the competitors in Roman sports. Now tourists can freely wander through both of these ancient venues while imagining the spectacles that once occurred there.
Italy is so heavily endowed with historical treasures that it’s no surprise many go unnoticed. When I read a small sign in a nondescript alley in Milan, I couldn’t believe what it said. The site in front of me was once the palace of a Roman Emperor.
In many cities around the world, such a significant location would be a widely publicised tourist attraction. In Milan, though, this former palace is chiefly used as a shortcut route for locals looking to access the busy Via Meravigli street.
The cluster of walls here are remains of the Imperial Palace of Maximian. A highly-decorated Roman soldier, Maximian ascended to Emperor status more than 1,700 years ago. In the 1950s, excavations of this part of downtown Milan revealed the giant complex he built for himself. Now, if you’re so inclined, you can head into Milan’s backstreets and wander the halls, courts and bathhouses where Maximian once resided.
Unlike most of the Roman sites in this story, the Roman Forum of Athens isn’t tucked away. Instead, it is situated in the shadows of the Acropolis, the hilltop citadel that is Greece’s most famous attraction, in plain view of hordes of tourists.
Amid the endless Greek ruins of downtown Athens, this forum isn’t easily identified as being Roman. At least, it wasn’t to me. Not until I read a plaque in front of this field of time-worn columns, arches and walls did I realise it was built 2,000 years ago at the behest of renowned Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.
Prior to that, I’d been assessing this trove of weathered buildings from one of the cafes that flank the Roman Forum in Plaka. Also known as an Agora, this forum became one of Athens’s largest public squares after Greece was absorbed into the Roman empire in the 1st century BC. While walking through these remains is a fascinating experience, the best views of the sprawling Agora are earned as you walk up the hill towards the Acropolis.
The southern Spanish city of Cordoba has a wonderfully diverse range of influences. It is unmistakably Spanish in culture, yet bears the marks of Roman, Germanic and Arabic occupations. This blended heritage is highlighted in Cordoba’s Unesco-listed Old Town by the unique Mezquita, a magnificent, 1,200-year-old building that operates as both a mosque and a Catholic cathedral.
Residents from the southern half of Cordoba can access the Old Town by crossing the Guadalquivir River. They couldn’t do that so freely if not for the city’s commanding Roman Bridge. The slow-moving river flows through the 16 giant arches at the base of this 300-metre-long stone bridge, which has a low-slung design with a tower at each end.
Since it was built 2,000 years ago, this bridge has been remodelled repeatedly. But it still maintains many original elements designed by the Romans. In the 3rd century AD, they seized Cordoba and controlled it for more than 600 years. Nowadays, the splendid footbridge they left behind is the best vantage from which to take panoramic photos of Cordoba’s eclectic Old Town.