In its heyday, the Roman Empire occupied more than two million square miles and stretched from England to Egypt, with its citizens numbering around 120 million people. With such an enormous reach, the ancient Romans understandably left evidence of their heritage not only in Rome and Italy, but throughout Europe.
As a companion piece to this article on where to experience ancient Rome in Italy outside of Rome, this article highlights spots around Europe where Ancient Romans left their mark.
Vers Pont du Gard, France
This aqueduct in France is positioned between Nîmes and Avignon, along the Gardon river. Built in the 1st century AD, the water traveled more than 50 kilometers to the Roman colony of Nemasus. It’s the tallest of the Roman aqueduct bridges, and arguably the best preserved. A World Heritage Site since 1985.
In Nîmes we have several Roman treasures left behind, two pictured here. The first is a classic amphitheater, used as a public theater and gladiator arena, with a capacity of 24,000 spectators. About 400 Roman arenas exist today, and the one in Nîmes is one of the largest. It still serves as an event venue for various spectator events, including two annual bullfights.
Below is the Maison Carree, which started its life as a classic Roman temple in 2 AD, and a couple of centuries later was dedicated to Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, two grandsons of Augustus Caesar who both died young. This temple served as inspiration for many buildings, including the Virginia State Capital in the United States, designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Not far from Nîmes is Arles and its elegant Roman amphitheater. Dating from 90 AD, its two tiers accommodated 20,000 tifosi (fans) cheering on their favorite chariot racer. The tower came along in the Medieval era.
Today the amphitheater still hosts events such as plays, concerts and again, bullfights. World Heritage Site since 1981.
North of Arles but still in Provence is Orange, with its Roman theater and triumphal arch, both still beautifully preserved. The structures served the ancient settlement of Arausio, founded in 40 BC.
“Playing a major role in the life of the citizens, who spent a large part of their free time there, the theatre was seen by the Roman authorities not only as a means of spreading Roman culture to the colonies, but also as a way of distracting them from all political activities.” source
The arch above is thought to be perhaps the oldest triumphal arch in the world. In fact, it’s believed that this arch served as the example for the more famous arch that sits in Rome, in the shadow of the Colosseum, dedicated to Constantine.
Orange’s arch sits along what was once part of the via Agrippa and was built during Emperor Augustus’ reign (27 BC – AD 14) to honor veterans of the Gallic wars and members of Augustus’ second legion.
World Heritage Sites for both structures since 1981.
Imagine living with this architectural work of art as part of your daily life. This aqueduct, dating roughly to the 1st century A.D. is so ingrained in the identity of Segovia that it is featured in the city’s coat of arms. Built during the times of a few different emperors (Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan), this is one of the best examples remaining today of a raised aqueduct.
Both the old town of Segovia and the aqueduct were inscribed as World Heritage Sites in 1985.
Ohhhh, Bath. A rather unusual name for a city but such magnificence is contained there. Bath’s Roman bath complex, housed in a world-class, larger-than-life museum, is the largest and one of the best preserved examples of a Roman thermal spa in all of Europe. Dating from 60-70 AD, citizens of Roman Britain came to this public bath to worship the goddess Sulis Minerva, and soak in the hot springs which still flow into the complex today.
The baths were in full use until the 5th Century AD, when Roman rule in Britain ended. By the next century, the complex was in ruins, and eventually, forgotten. Despite the thermal waters of Bath being a popular draw for visitors through the centuries, the Roman ruins were not discovered until 1878, when nearby repair work eventually uncovered the ruins.
Located in Somerset, not too far from the ruins of Stonehenge and an easy two-hour drive from London, the entire city of Bath has been a World Heritage Sight since 1987. Just this summer, it received an additional nod from the WHS, being included in the “Great Spa Towns of Europe” inscription.
Hadrian’s Wall, Britain
Hadrian’s wall in northern Britain currently stretches 73 miles across (117.5 km). Built around AD 122 during emperor Hadrian’s reign (naturally), at the time it stretched the width of the island. It’s quite a drive from London — nearly six hours — but if you make the journey to this World Heritage site, Europe expert Rick Steves suggests Haltwhistle as the best access point.
World Heritage status received in 1987 as part of the “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” inscription.
Next, we find ourselves in Trier, Germany, home to many different Roman ruins, but two especially notable are the Aula Palatina, also known as Constantine’s Basilica (pictured above) and Porta Nigra, once a gateway into the Roman colony. It remains as the largest Ancient Roman gate of its kind north of the Alps.
World Heritage Sites since 1986.
The final stop on this Ancient Roman trek across Europe brings us to Split, Croatia, and the Palace of Diocletian. When the palace was built for the emperor around the 4th Century AD, it served a dual purpose — as his intended retirement spot and also a military complex. By choosing this spot, Diocletian was returning to his roots, as the palace was built just a few miles (6km) from his birthplace, the ancient city of Salona, now modern-day Solin.
World Heritage Site since 1979.
Locations sourced from Rick Steves’ Europe 101: History & Art for the Traveler