Masada

Anyone ever see the mini-series ‘Masada’ (aka The Antagonists) with the magnificent Peter O’Toole? Well if not, head over to your favourite retailer and buy it post-haste. It is one of the most astounding and evocative historical dramas ever made and O’Toole’s Roman general Flavius Silva is so hard to beat as a character that he became the basis for my own fictional Roman – Fronto. But the thing is, the reason Masada was a great series is that the story behind it and the setting, both of which are genuine, is simply up there in the top 3 in all Roman history for me.

Masada is a self-contained fortress-city built atop a plateau near the Dead Sea in Israel. Due to the incredible depth of the Jordan valley, the fortress rises a thousand feet above the desert lands, and yet is only just above sea level at the top. Originally constructed in the 1st century BC, Masada grew and expanded, especially under Herod the Great, who built the impressive palaces that hang over the prow point of the mountain.

Masada was seemingly impregnable. It entered the history books in 72AD when Jewish Sicarii rebels took and held the fortress in a last stand against the might of Rome in the region. Flavius Silva brought the 10th Fretensis, and vexillations of other legions to the mountain to end the revolt. He was faced with an almost impossible siege. What he achieved with his army ranks up in the top sieges of all history, perhaps more impressive even than Caesar at Alesia. Unable to assault the mountain up the winding ‘snake path’, and faced with sheer rock at all other angles, Silva began a siege ramp. A ramp that would rise a thousand feet through the desert. A ramp that would take months to build. Silva’s army faced dreadful hardship and innumerable deaths in the process, but finally his army reached the top, breached the walls, only to find that the Jewish defenders had killed themselves, men, women, and children.

It is one of the most poignant moments in history. And in the series mentioned above, it goes some way to showing the tragedy from all angles.

So that is why Masada is important. Why should you visit?

The mountain contains remains that date from the early days, the Herodian era, the Roman era, and even the Byzantine era. There are decorative columns, wall plaster, baths, walls, vertiginous paths, hanging palaces, mosaics. All in one of the most breathtaking locations on Earth. And above and beyond this, there are the remains of numerous Roman fortresses ringing the mountain, dating from the siege. And best of all, the siege ramp Silva had built is STILL THERE! Admittedly, the 20 centuries in between have seen it say to maybe 2/3 of the original height, but it is still clear and damned impressive.

Masada is one of the must-go places in the world. If you love Roman history… if you love history… heck, if you love a real good story, do your best to go there. And be prepared for the heat. Oh…. and the ascent. The fortress can be reached by cablecar, which is a short ride with an amazing view, and for those of us with vertigo a dreadful, horrible, wonderful ascent. Or by the snake path that winds up the mountain. On foot. In the desert. In the blistering heat.

Tough choice. But it’s worth it either way.

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

Caerleon (Isca Silurum)

Caerleon (Isca Silurum) was the home fortress of the 2nd Augusta Legion from the Flavian era to the early 4th century, replacing the earlier fortresses of Gloucester and then Usk. The area belonged to the Silures tribe and the base provided a centre of operations that, with the 20th at Chester and the 9th then 6th at York, effectively cut off the more mountainous and troublesome extremities of the province (Wales & the north), placing them under solid military control, while the south and the midlands settled as a rich civil land.

In terms of remains, Caerleon has some of the best in the country, and yet what exists is still only a tantalising taste of what there is yet to be excavated, even just the area not covered by the later town’s buildings.

Caerleon’s great draw is its amphitheatre, one of the best preserved in Britain, and the only consolidated stone amphitheatre to have survived in its full circuit. Close by a small set of baths stands. Near the entrance to the amphitheatre, next to the sports fields, are the remains of a series of barrack blocks, along with the corner turret, latrines and a set of ovens. These are low-lying stonework but are excellent for trying to imagine the layout of such a fortress and the space allocated for contubernia of eight men.

In the centre of the town is the excellent Roman Legion Museum, which contains some of the best exhibits to be found across the country, especially in terms of military accoutrements. And close by is the Roman Baths Museum, enclosed and covering the excavated remains of an impressive fortress bath complex.

The stretch of fortress walls that runs from the west gate to the south gate is still impressive, strong and very visible as mortared ‘wall core’ the height of a man. Recent excavation past the amphitheatre and down towards the river has located a major harbour and civil/economic development.

The only sites in Caerleon that require payment to enter are the two museums. The rest are freely visible. There is something rather pleasant about wandering around Caerleon and I would heartily recommend a visit. And if you’re in the area, don’t miss the chance to combine a trip with a visit to Caerwent site a little to the east too.

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

Les Fontaines Salées

The Fontaines Salées (Salt fountains) is the site of natural salt springs that have been utilised since the neolithic era. In the days of the pre-Roman Gallic tribes the site was expanded to become a sacred area with numerous wells and a circular sanctuary surrounding them for the healing of the sick. The central, main, well at the heart of that circular sanctuary still produces effervescent water, loaded with argon.

In the Roman era, the site was vastly expanded again to include a massive thermal bath complex, which was further altered in the 2nd century to include separate facilities for men and women and a large palaestra or exercise compound, attached to the main Celtic spring sanctuary. This still contains traces of underfloor heating and is well preserved. The Roman complex also included a second sanctuary located to the west of the original circular enclosure.

Following the site’s destruction during the 3rd century invasion of the Alemanni, the site was used as a centre of salt refining. The site once more became a healing centre in the 4th century, and new buildings date from that period. This new site remained in use until the Carolingian era, when it became a private villa.

From the Burgundian (glorious) city of Vezelay, pass southeast through the lovely village of Saint-Pere (which has a museum containing some items from the site) and follow the D598 for less than a mile and look for a sign that leads off down a track through the fields to the left.

The site is in the idyllic French countryside and could not be more picturesque. It is a fabulous place for a picnic and a small kiosk asks for only a modest entry fee. Even at the height of summer it was far from busy, with perhaps four lots of visitors. The remains are well kept and well-presented and quite extensive. Simply, it is a perfect half-day out in the area, and will please most people, let alone the die-hard Roman fans.

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

Hammamet (Pupput)

Pupput (Colonia Aurelia Commoda Pia Felix Augusta Pupput) is a small Roman site northwest of Hammamet in northern Tunisia, in the suburb of Hammamet Sud.

Pupput became a municipium in 168 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a colonia under Commodus, and gradually increased in importance thereafter, acquiring grand public buildings including a theatre and an amphitheatre. However, none of these grand buildings still exist above ground.

The extant remains were discovered by accident during hotel construction and include several houses with good mosaics intacts and in their original position, as well as a bath house. Around the walls of the site are displayed mosaics found in the excavation of the Pupput necropolis, which is said to be Africa’s largest but is no longer visible. While not one of Tunisia’s great Roman sites, it makes for a pleasant half hour, wandering among the mosaics, and is relatively easily accessible being in one of the major resorts, rather than in the hinterlands and lacking public transport.

The site is somewhat overshadowed by modern hotels, tucked away in a piece of wasteland which is less than picturesque. It can be hard to find, but it is sandwiched between the Samira Club hotel and the Caribbean World Beach hotel one street back from the beach.

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

Philae

 

It’s an odd thing, but it’s common to picture Roman architecture as exactly the same in all regions and over all periods – a sort of standardised brick structure sheathed in marble and with arches and columns. And, of course, that’s ridiculous. Take Philae, near Aswan in Egypt, for example. Several of the structures on the island belong to the Roman era, and yet to the everyday visitor, it would be hard to think of them as anything other than ancient Egyptian.

Philae had been a holy island (actually a pair of islands forming one civic group) throughout the days of the Hellenistic Pharaohs . In its heyday it was the home only of temples and priests and everyone else was forbidden entry. That changed over the Greek and Roman eras, and the place became something of a pilgrimage centre. The Roman buildings there date numerous periods. The Byzantine empire also held Philae converting some of the religious structures to churches, though pagan worship seems to have remained in practice at Philae until 550AD, when Justinian ordered the closure of the pagan sites.

  • Hadrian is accredited with the gate on the north side of the island.
  • The Temple of Horus Avenger was built by Claudius.
  • The Mammisi was finished and decorated by Tiberius.
  • The Temple of Augustus was constructed for that emperor.
  • The triumphal arch and quay are said to be Diocletianic.
  • The famous ‘Trajan’s Kiosk’ is an Ulpian monument.
  • Several coptic churches existed but are now gone beneath the water.

Visit to Philae is only possible by boat. It lies on the island to where it was moved after the building of the High Aswan Dam and the flooding of Lake Nasser. Trips are easy to arrange from Aswan. The island is stunning and contains more than just the Roman remains. Highly recommended for a visit.

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

Carmarthen (Moridunum)

The South Wales county town of Carmarthen holds precious little evidence of its Roman past. A fort existed here with an associated civil settlement, and later a sizeable tribal capital, yet only one Roman monument remains above ground. Impressively, though, that monument is one of few of its kind preserved well in the country: the amphitheatre.

Moridunum (possibly meaning Sea Fort, the site being at the Towy estuary’s tidal limit) began as a fort in the Flavian era in 74AD, controlling the lands of the Demetae tribe. A civilian settlement continued to grow into at least the 4th century, forming the new Romanised tribal capital of the Demetae. The fort, and later the town, sat at a meeting of major roads reaching south to Neath (Nidum), east to Llandovery (Alabum), and north to Llanio (Bremia).

The amphitheatre is surprisingly large for the size of the civil settlement or fort, and was constructed with stone revetments supporting earth banks and wooden seating. Now, since excavation, the interior arena walls have been reconstructed, and some 60-70% of the site is uncovered and consolidated.

The site is well upkept and very pleasant to visit. Crossing the river from the south, enter the town, turning right up the hill past the castle. Follow the road through the town, bearing right after the church onto Priory Street. Park up just beyond the high green bank on your left to visit the amphitheatre. The town is pleasant, with a number of medieval buildings, but for the Roman fan only the amphitheatre and small exhibits in the nearby museum at Abergwili remain to visit.

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