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

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

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