Elslack (Olenacum?)

Elslack fort lies buried beneath a cattle field, bisected by the Victorian railway line, along which you can walk from the road to visit the fort. There is little to see other than topography and vague earthworks. The fort site is discernable, and one can imagine the bath house at the corner above the valley with its stream. A small sign covered with peeling paint explains what you are looking at. Of course, visiting Elslack (a few miles SW of Skipton next to the A56) you are on a win anyway. If you can see little of the fort, you can at least appreciate its position and the surrounding landscape, and for those with even the faintest interest in industrial archaeology, walking the railway line is fun in its own right.

Remains: 1/5    Atmosphere: 3/5   Access: 2/5    Overall: 2/5

Bern

It’s a little misleading, really. This is not so much Bern, but a spur of land surrounded by loops of river next to the village of Bremgarten, on the very edge of Bern. This was a Helvetian oppidum and became a Romano-Celtic settlement following Caesar’s invasion and settlement of the land. As the Romanisation of the area went on, this settlement seems to have flourished, with a temple district of impressive dimensions (sadly not visible.) What is visible is two areas of consolidated remains that hint as to the level of sophistication this site attained.

The bath complex is partially consolidated and on display in woodland under a roofed shelter. It consists of several rooms with surviving hypocaust floor of tile stacks. Nearby, at the woods’ edge where civiliation begins, are the remains of a small amphitheatre with stone revetment, which probably consisted largely of earth and timber seating cavea.

There are more impressive extant remains in Switzerland, but there is just something about the Bern-Bremgarten (Engehalbinsel) site that makes it special. Travel to Bremarten and head down to the picturesque church. Then take a walk down to the river bank and follow it upstream. The wooded hill across the river is the Gallo-Roman site. As you walk upriver you are following the flow around the site. There are several crossings you can take. When I was there a decade ago there was a quaint rope-hauled ferry at the northern-most point. There will then follow some wandering in the woods looking for the Roman ruins. There are many sign posts, though. This is Switerland, after all, and is therefore organised. From the baths you can find the amphitheatre easily enough. Then you are back in civilization. From there, make your way back into Bern and to the ‘Tram Depot’ for a well-deserved beer.

Remains: 2/5    Atmosphere: 4/5   Access: 3/5    Overall: 3/5

Bearsden

The fort at Bearsden, of whose Roman name we are unaware, lies buried beneath housing. It was a fort with a turf rampart, and a turf wall also divided the enclosure into a main fort and an annexe. The fort’s north wall was the Antonine wall itself. Internal buildings were of both stone and timber.

One edifice has survived, though, and has survived well, remaining one of Scotland’s best preserved Roman sites. In the fort’s annexe was a bathhouse and latrine, constructed of both stone and timber. This has been excavated and consolidated and sits sandwiched by housing blocks by the appropriately named ‘Roman Road’. It is a lovely site and well maintained. Moreover, despite being on the edge of the Glasgow conurb, Bearsden is actually rather pleasant. All in all, Bearsden is one of the best sites to visit on the Antonine wall.

Remains: 3/5    Atmosphere: 2/5   Access: 4/5    Overall: 3/5

Carthage

I have visited three of what I consider the ‘great cities’ of the Roman world. Clearly, the top two on that list are Rome and ‘the New Rome’ of Istanbul. But the third is Carthage. And Carthage is not a place to even consider attempting with less than a day to play with. I added the Bardo museum in. Tunis to my schedule and because of that I missed two of Carthage’s sights, even though we stayed until sunset.

Carthage was founded, according to legend, by Queen Dido and Phoenician colonists in the earlt 1st millennium BC. It was most certainly a Phoenician colony, heavily populaced by local Berber peoples. Within a few centuries, it had become the centre of the most powerful sea empire in the Mediterranean. For over a century, from 264 to 136 BC Carthage and Rome fought a war for control and dominance, ending with the fall of Hannibal and the destruction of the city in 146.

Rome has a history of razing the site of its worst enemies. The people of Corinth knew this in spades, when their city vanished from the face of the earth when Rome beat them, and a new Roman city sprang up higher up the hill. Carthage suffered destruction, and it took some time for it to begin to resemble a city again, but Rome hated waste, and so from the ruins of the great Punic city sprang its Roman successor, founded by Julius Caesar during the civil wars.

Carthage survived throughout the Roman era and passed through an era of Vandal control into the hands of the Byzantine emperors. Its prominence only began to decline around 700 AD following the Arab conquest, when it was largely replaced by the new city and port of Tunis.

There are a few relics of ancient Punic Carthage still visible. The Byrsa ruins below the cathedral, the ports – a marvel that could easily have rivalled the seven wonders of the ancient world – and the Tophet (one of the sights I sadly missed.)

Roman Carthage has bequeathed us some astounding treasures. A fascinating amphitheatre, a largely-restored theatre and the sparse foundations of an odeon still exist. The end of the same aqueduct that begins at Zaghouan and passes Oudna terminates near a well preserved huge, multi-chambered cisterns of La Malga. Like most sites in Carthage, tourists usually turn up in coaches, park up by the side of the road above the cisterns and look at the roof for a while before moving on. A little investigation turns up all sorts. Workers on the site might show you round the generally closed areas of the site, including the interior of the cistern. They might try to sell you Roman coins too! The archaeological park that contains the Antonine baths is phenomenal, and the baths themselves are some impressive remains. The Magon quarter is interesting (closed by the time I got there.) The museum by the cathedral contains some excellent items. The Roman and early Christian museum I missed too.

Then there’s the late Roman and Byzantine ruins, including some wonderul basilicas scattered about, mostly in the north area, and the Baths of Gargilius, famed for their connection with St Augustine and the early Christian church.

It is quite simply folly to attempt a thorough visit of Carthage without a plan. Acquire a map of the ancient sites and plan a route. I would recommend taking the local metro from Tunis out to Sidi Bou Said and working back towards the Tunis end, probably visiting the Basilica of Saint Cyprien first and then arcing out towards the cisterns and amphithetare before working back towards the theatre and the Antonine baths. Definitely the best way to visit will be from Tunis by the metro and a lot of walking. Car will almost certainly involve driving either through Tunis or around the edge, and neither can be highly recommended. On another logistical note, unless you eat well before you go, your only real chance to eat will be at the start in Sidi Bou Said. The ruins of Carthage occupy an almost entirely residential area. If this doesn’t suit, take a packed lunch. Whatever happens take plenty of water.

And if you get around the sites and the sun is still up, try and visit the Bardo in Tunis on the way home.

Tunisia is, at the time of writing in 2016, not the most stable country to visit, but I am hoping that soon the mindless lunatics who have brought destruction and violence to a country that I found to be full of friendly, welcoming people will be driven out and tourism will return. When it does, and you feel safe to do so, go to Tunisia. Go to Carthage. Your reward will be memories to keep for a lifetime.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 4/5    Overall: 5/5

Reims (Durocortorum)

The history of Reims begins with the very people from whom the modern city is named: the Remi – the only tribe in Gaul to have consistently supported Caesar throughout the Gallic Wars and therefore to have gained great advantage and favour from Rome after the wars. Succeeding the Gallic oppidum of Durocorteron, Reims was a tribal civitas which thrived for centuries, enduring destruction by both Vandals and Huns in the 5th century and remaining important and strong enough that it was of vital importance to a millenium or more of royalty in the land.

Though it is now a sprawling city full of baroque, 19th and 20th century architecture, known mostly for its champagne houses, there are still two fragments of Roman Durocortorum to be found, and they are pretty impressive ones, too. One is a cryptoporticus that seems to have formed part of the forum and which may have been used to store grain. This is an impressive site in the rather appropriately named Place de Forum. When we visited it was not open the the public, since it is only open during the summer months, though it is free when open. In addition to this site, in the parkland at the northern end of the old town stands the remains of a triumphal arch known as the Porte de Mars, after a temple that once stood in the vicinity. This is an exceptionally well-preserved triple gated arch with a great deal of intricate stonework, and is one of the premier sites in north/central France.

Reims is a pleasant city for a short stay, though a little busy for me for longer. But it is well worth a visit just to see its two Roman survivals.

Remains: 3/5    Atmosphere: 3/5   Access: 5/5    Overall: 3/5

Augst (Augusta Raurica) & KaiserAugst

The twin sites of Augst and Kaiseraugst sit at the northern end of Switzerland, close to Basel. Founded during Caesar’s Gallic wars by his lieutenant Plancus – yes, sorry Augst, but I made Plancus an insufferable a-hole in my Marius’ Mules books – Augst is one of the most impressive Roman sites this side of the Alps. The city thrived as a trade hub on the majot mercantile route that runs from Italy to northern France and Germany. Sitting on the bank of the Rhine, and at a navigable level, goods shipped from Rome could be moved from Augst downstream, and vice verse. In the late third or early fourth century, the constant threat of barbarian violence and economic and farming difficulties led to the abandonment of the great city and the creation of an impressively heavily walled fortress beside the river, which could shelter the civilians.

The remains of Augst (and Kaiseraugst, which is the name applied to the district that contains the late fortress) are the most impressive in Switzerland, and in fianact some of the best I have ever visited. Beginning at Kaiseraugst, it is possible to visit the walls of the fortress along good lengths and standing quite high, and a bath suite and later early Christian church in a curious little doorway on the riverbank and underneath a building, lit rather eerily.

From there, you could take a taxi or a bus, but you can easily walk. There are some hostelries along the way, one of which I visited with a friend and was rather pleasant. It is less than a mile from the riverside fortress to the ruins of the city, and half way, there are the preserved remains of a Roman house with a workshop and shop attached, which are excellent. Arriving at the Roman city, you will first find the theatre (rather obvious) and the museum. Visit the museum first, then the stunning theatre and the schönbühl temple opposite, which affords great views of the former. From there, explore the capitol and forum and the baths.

Augusta Raurica is a sprawling site of hidden surprises. Beyond what I’ve mentioned above, there are many, many places to visit, including other temples, gates, the amphitheatre, the aqueduct. All I can suggest is plan it all very well beforehand. The official website has a nice map and guide, and go here to find it. I spent half a day at Augst and as the sun began to sink I regretted not having longer. I would say make a whole day of Augst. It deserves it. If you love your Roman sites, do NOT miss Augst.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 5/5    Overall: 5/5

Ardoch (Alauna?)

Originally dating from the time of the 1st century campaigns of Agricola, Ardoch is an impressive sight. The first fort, which was part of the so-called ‘Gask Ridge’ system, was replaced after a period of inactivity by a second, Antonine fort. The first fort was of timber and earth, though the second contained a number of stone buildings within. Although no stonework is visible today, Ardoch remains one of the most impressive Roman sites in the British isles.

The remains, which consist of some of the most striking rampart and ditch defences in the entire Roman world, were enclosed by the local landowner centuries ago, protecting them from the usual ploughing that would have ruined the site. What we are left with is simply breathtaking. The south and west ramparts are impressive enough, but the north and east are incredibly pronounced. The site lies just outside the village of Braco. Parking is easy enough, a little uphill from the fort on the road side, from where you can walk back downhill towards the village and cross the gate into the field to explore the ditches.

Remains: 3/5    Atmosphere: 3/5   Access: 3/5    Overall: 3/5