Limin Hersonissou (Chersonesus)

Hersonnisou is something of a surprise. Known mostly as a tourist resort and modern town, few of the foreign visitors seem to be aware that they are amid the ruins of an ancient Cretan, then Greek. then Roman, then Byzantine town. Indeed, it only lost a level of precedence when the Arabs invaded and founded Heraklion (Chandax).

Chersonesus was clearly a thriving city even before th Roman era, and only increased in population  and importance throughout Roman history and into the Byzantine era, when the place was a bishopric. When the Arabs invaded and founded Chandax down the coast a little way, Chersonesus quickly faded from the scene, spending a long time as a tiny, coastal town, ony growing to prominence again in the 20th century.

There are three levels of remains to be seen in Hersonissou. The first are the famous things, mentioned on maps and signs. These include a well-preserved fountain next to the seafront with fish designs picked out in mosaic, the stonework of the Roman port, visible just below the waterline close to said fountain, and the late Roman/Byzantine basilica on the headland above the harbour. This last was dusty and overgrown during my 2003 visit, but was sealed of for work in 2015, so should soon be well looked after.

The second level are the things you can find out if you do some research. The Roman theatre is visible on Dimokratias street. It is rather hard to make sense of until you look at it on google earth, but when work is complete here, it should be an impressive monument. Some miles inland, in the valley on the way to Potamies, you can discern the remains of the aqueduct that fed the city, including ruined bridges crossing the valley. At the far (eastern end of the city) the small church of Agios Nikolaos sits amid hotels and waterparks, but amid the low preserved ruins of a Byzantine basilica.

The third level is the most fascinating for me. Wherever there is a vacant lot or scrub land in the town, work has been done over the last half century to bring the civic remains to light. There are at least half a dozen overgrown areas of ruins that clearly display streets, houses, bath suites, shops, basilicas and the like. There are numerous of these at the town’s western end, mostly around Dimokratias, Sanoudaki and Dedalou streets. Basically, anywhere at the northwest end of the town, between the main drag and the sea, you will find fascinating areas of consolidated ruins just between hotels by the side of the road.

Limin Hersonissou is a town with a secret. Go there and stay there. It makes a good base to visit the ruins of the island, and a few days there will allow you plenty of time to explore the interesting byways of the time, and walk among the ruins.

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

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

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

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

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