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

Girona (Gerunda)

One of the four regional capitals of Cataluyna, Girona (or Gerona) is a beautiful city – the old part, anyway. Full of Jewish and Medieval remains with an enchanting arab bathhouse, breathtaking painted houses along the Riu Onyar, there are a thousand reasons to visit the town.

As Gerunda, the city was a Roman foundation upon an existing Ausetani tribal settlement. Pompey created fortress here in the Sertorian war. The city flourished as a civil settlement and continued to grow into late Rome and beyond. It had an atypical plan, largely due to the early military foundation being limited by topography. Rather than the traditional ‘playing card’ shape, Gerunda was limited by walls in a roughly triangular shape, with the base of the triangle being the river and the upper point at the top of the hill.

No interior buildings remain of the Roman city, buried as they are under other historic structures, but two facets remain to thrill the Roman fan. The first is the museums – the city’s History museum close to the cathedral and the Archaeological museum in the monastery of St Pere de Galligants, at the northern edge of the city, outside the walls. Both contain a wealth of artefacts, including fabulous mosaics, lapidary delights and an excellent corn measure.

And then there are the walls. The medieval walls follow the Roman line for some of their circuit. Start at the city’s north gate on the Carrer de la Fora, near the cathedral. From the northern side of the gate, follow the outer edge of the walls up the slope past the cathedral complex up to the ruined fortress complex known as the Gardens of Germany. All this way, the medieval walls are built upon the Roman ones, using them as foundations. At the gardens, find the full-height walls again and follow them south along the edge of the city. This section is medieval, but from it, looking back towards the cathedral, you can see a fine section of the earlier Roman walls rising above the roofs and gardens. You can get to the bottom of those walls through a car park if you wish. They, with the north gate, are the most impressive remains in the city. In the meantime, complete the circuit of the later walls, and then find the plaça sant domenec, where the last Roman fragments can be found. Here, if you examine the walls to the side of the street, you will see the stonework of the Roman gate known as the Porta Rufina within the later walls.

Girona is one of Catalunya’s most stunning cities and the atmosphere is remarkable. Go to Girona. Go for the Roman remains. Stay for the rest.

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

Oudna (Uthina)

Tunisia abounds with Roman sites. Some are obscure and small (Pupput) – some are immense and famouse (Dougga). And then there are a few that are simply astounding places that are virtually unknown to tourists. Such is Dougga. We spent several hours there and the only other living things we saw were a small team of archeologists and a recalcitrant donkey.

In Tunisia, Roman sites whose Latin names start with ‘Th’ (and particularly ‘Thu’) are names that have come down from earlier Numidian settlements, and so their origin is obvious. See Thugga, Thuburbo Maius, Thubursicum etc. Thus Oudna might be seen as a later settlement. There is evidence that Oudna was originally a fountation of settled veterans the 3rd legion, given a stone that references them visible at the Oudna farmhouse and the Augustan name ‘Colonia Pietas Iulia Tertiadecimanorum Uthina‘. The city grew in prominence until the third century when it was attacked and never fully recovered. In the Byzantine era, the capitol was formed into a powerful fortress.

Oudna’s most notable attraction is its amphitheatre, which is being reconstructed with relative sympathy compared with, say Istanbul’s walls. The amphitheatre is a stunning sight and makes the visit worthwhile just on its own. Add to that several townhouses with mosaics and baths, a theatre currently little more than a depression in the ground, a ruined cistern or two, the capitol and forum buildings, two public baths and various odd ruins jutting from the undergrowth, and Oudna is a joy to explore. The forum/capitol area is an impressive survival. The ‘Great baths’ were closed for excavation while I was there, but their scale is impressive, especially given that what is left is the fragments after a stray bomb strike in world war 2.

Not far from the site itself is the line of one of the most intact and impressive aqueducts I have seen. This channel, which ran from Zaghouan in the south to Carthage in the north, over 80 kilometers, is at its most impressive around Oudna.

The loneliness of the site adds to its draw. Never devote less than half a day to it. You cold wander the place for hours, finding fascinating nooks and crannies. And the rural setting is beautiful, with the Djebel Zaghouan rising blue-gray in the distance above the fields. Oudna is a highlight of Tunisia for me. It’s only negative is ease of visiting. Taxi, Louage or hire car is the only feasible possibility.

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

 

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