“All roads lead to Rome,” says an old proverb. Indeed, for centuries Rome was the biggest and most important city of the Roman world. Rome was the capital, the seat of the Senate, and later, of the emperor. It was the biggest city in the ancient world, reaching around a million inhabitants during the first century CE. But for all its significance and grandeur, Rome was only the last in the line of ancient Mediterranean metropolises. Centuries before Rome imposed its dominance upon the world, those great cities were centers of culture, trade, and politics. Even after the Roman conquest, those places retained their former glory, tradition, and pride; remaining the most important cities in the Roman Empire (after Rome). This is the story of the 5 greatest ancient Roman cities.
The 5 Greatest Ancient Roman Cities
1. Alexandria – The City of the Conqueror
The ancient cities of the Hellenistic East were proud of their founders. But Alexandria could boast of a true star. The legendary conqueror, Alexander the Great, founded the Egyptian metropolis in 332 BCE. Located on the Mediterranean coast, in the Nile delta, Alexandria was to be the capital of Alexander’s new empire. Alexander, however, never saw the city he had envisioned. Soon after the foundation, he embarked on a Persian campaign. Following Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE, his general Ptolemy brought Alexander’s body back to Alexandria and chose it as the capital of the newly founded Ptolemaic kingdom.
Under the Ptolemaic dynasty, Alexandria thrived. It supplanted Tyre (the city that Alexander had previously destroyed) as a commerce and trade center. Its world-renowned Library, started under Ptolemy I, turned Alexandria into a center of culture and learning, attracting scholars, philosophers, scientists, and artists. The lavish mausoleum of Alexander reminded the visitors of the city’s famous founder and served as a source of pride for its inhabitants. The giant causeway and a harbor breakwater – Heptastadion – connected the city with the island of Pharos, a location of the majestic Lighthouse, one of the Seven wonders of the ancient world. By the third century BCE, Alexandria was the largest city in the world, a cosmopolitan metropolis with more than a half million inhabitants.
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Alexandria’s status as the intellectual and cultural powerhouse remained unchanged after the Roman takeover in 44 BCE. Home to the largest Jewish diaspora in the Empire, and a major center of Jewish learning, Alexandria was the birthplace of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible) in 132 BCE. In the fourth century, the ancient Roman city acquired new importance as a center of Christian theology and one of the most important centers of Christianity. It was during that period that the Serapeum of the Great Library (already damaged in the previous centuries) was destroyed by the Christian mob during the religious conflict within the city. The last centuries of Roman rule were marked by a gradual decline caused by the internecine struggle between various Christian factions, and the alienation of the native inhabitants in its hinterland. This instability facilitated the city’s conquest by the Sassanid Persians in 619, and by the Islamic armies in 641, and 646; thus, ending the Roman rule. What was not destroyed by war, was taken by nature: a giant tsunami hit the city in 365, leaving the palace district submerged, while by the 14th century, the great lighthouse was gone, gradually destroyed by the earthquakes.
2. Antioch – The Jewel of the East
Soon after Alexander’s death, his vast empire was torn apart by the wars between his generals. The most successful of the Diadochi was Seleucus I Nicator (Victor). It was Seleucus, who in 301 BCE founded Antioch. Located at the Orontes River, in a fertile valley near the Mediterranean Sea, the capital of the newly founded Seleucid Empire soon became one of the major cities of the ancient world. Antioch’s wealth originated from its favorable position at the western terminus of the Silk road, attracting merchants, artists, and artisans. The resort town of Daphne built halfway between the city and its port became a favorite retreat for the wealthy and powerful, both in the Seleucid and later in the Roman period. The Daphne parks hosted the great temple of Pythian Apollo, one of the major centers of pilgrimage.
After Pompey the Great annexed Antioch in 64 BCE, the former Seleucid capital retained its importance becoming the third major ancient Roman city and the administrative center of the Roman East. During the imperial period, Antioch was further embellished with public buildings, such as the baths, amphitheater, and the majestic hippodrome which could house up to 80 000 spectators. Roman emperors often visited Antioch, preferring it over more isolated Alexandria. The vicinity of the eastern border further increased Antioch’s importance, but it also placed the city and its inhabitants in danger. Antioch was conquered and sacked by the Sassanid Persians several times throughout its history.
The city was also exposed to natural disasters. Starting from the first recorded earthquake of 187 BCE, Antioch was subjected to major seismic disturbances at least five times. The damage was manageable, and by late antiquity, Antioch was one of the main centers of Christianity, with its magnificent churches attracting pilgrims from all over the Empire. The decline of the city started during the sixth century when a series of calamities – a great fire, earthquakes, a Persian invasion, and a plague – greatly diminished its population. The city was captured by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century and was contested by both the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphates through the early middle ages. Antioch returned under Christian control in 1098 due to the combined efforts of the Byzantine and Crusader armies. But apart from the brief rule of the emperor Manuel Komnenos in the late 12th century, it remained out of Byzantine reach. Nowadays the place is known for its exquisite Roman mosaic floors.
3. Carthage – The Queen of Africa
Few known cities were destroyed, only to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Carthage, built on the promontory of the Tunisian coast, was one such place. Founded in 814 BCE, by the legendary queen Dido; the city developed from a Phoenician colony into the most important trading hub of the ancient Mediterranean. The city derived its wealth primarily from trade, exporting the luxurious purple dye.
At its height in the fourth and third century BCE, the “new city” (Kart hadašt in Phoenician), was a major city in the Western Mediterranean. The city’s four residential sections, located around the citadel of Byrsa, housed a large theater, host of temples, and a vast agora – Carthage’s marketplace and center of public life. A visitor arriving by sea would be stunned by the immense twin harbors, a trade port, and a circular military port, home to Carthage’s naval power. The navy was the backbone of the city-state’s power, and the primary vehicle of its expansion, allowing Carthage to claim control over most of North Africa, Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia. This expansionist policy brought Carthage into a conflict with another rising regional power – Rome. The three Punic wars that followed, ended with the defeat and destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE.
However, the city was refounded under Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, this time as a Roman city. Not a capital any longer, Carthage retained its grandeur and became the largest and most important ancient Roman city in Africa. The former citadel was adorned with a large temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Romans built numerous public buildings, including baths, theatre, amphitheater, and a large hippodrome. Carthage’s already bountiful agricultural production was intensified, with the city’s hinterland becoming the breadbasket of the Empire. In the fourth century, Carthage became the most important center of Christianity in the whole of Roman Africa. The Vandal conquest in 439 CE did not diminish the city’s splendor, and following the Byzantine takeover in 533, Carthage continued to prosper as a major agricultural area. The city experienced its second destruction by the Islamic armies in 698 BCE, from which it never recovered.
4. Ephesus: The Cultural Capital of of Anatolia
According to a legend, Ephesus was founded by the mythical Amazons and named after one of their queens, Ephesia. The first recorded evidence of the city’s existence, however, comes from the seventh century BCE when a Greek settlement was destroyed during the Cimmerian attack. The city quickly recovered, and under the rule of the Lydian kings, Ephesus became one of the wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean world. Under King Croesus, construction of the great Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, begun. The city continued to flourish, becoming a center of trade and commerce. During the Hellenistic period, the city had to be resettled two kilometers inland to its present-day location, due to the silting of the old port and the emergence of unhealthy marshland.
In 129 BCE, Romans inherited Ephesus from the king Attalos of Pergamon. With an exception of a brief revolt in 88 BCE, the city would remain under Roman rule in the following centuries. As part of the Roman Empire, Ephesus became a regional capital, retaining its wealth and influence. The magnificent Library of Celsus (its ruins are still visible today), made Ephesus a center of learning and philosophy. The great theatre, which could accommodate 25,000 spectators, was the largest in the Roman world. The theatre was the location of the famous protest against Paul’s teachings in 57 CE. Despite the initial resistance, Ephesus soon became the primary center of early Christianity, housing the largest Christian community in the empire.
In 262 CE the Goths destroyed Ephesus, including the Temple of Artemis. Despite the imperial efforts to rebuild the Roman city, Ephesus never recovered its former splendor. Its population gradually diminished while the urban area shrunk. In the sixth century, the emperor Justinian built the last monumental building, the basilica of St John. By the early Middle Ages, Ephesus port was no longer in use. When the Seljuqs took Ephesus in 1090, it was just a minor settlement. After a brief splendor in the 14th century, even this was deserted, and the true site of the once-great city remained hidden until 1869.
5. Constantinople: The Last Ancient Roman City
Of all the ancient Roman cities on the list, Constantinople is undoubtedly the most important. It is also the only city that was founded by the Romans, and which surpassed Rome. Built on the ancient site of Byzantion, Constantinople was founded in 330 CE, to be a new capital of the Roman Empire. Its founder, Constantine the Great chose an optimal location for his new city, the peninsula on the shores of Bosphorus, a vital passageway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Located on the meeting point of Europe and Asia, Constantinople soon became a thriving metropolis.
Thanks to its natural harbor – the Golden Horn – Constantinople was a commercial hub of the Mediterranean, controlling the vital shipping routes, and the overland trade. The city was also known for its magnificent architecture. Constantine was determined for his city not only to rival but to surpass Rome. The emperor embarked on a building spree. His efforts resulted in the creation of a Hippodrome that could house 50,000 spectators, the Great Palace with its parks and courtyards, and a wide colonnaded main street – The Mese – which connected the large fora. The aqueducts provided water for the ancient Roman city’s growing populace, storing it in great underground cisterns. Besides building many new ones, Constantine transferred monuments and statues from all corners of the empire into his thriving capital. His successors continued to enrich the city with new architectural masterpieces, of which the most important was the great church of Hagia Sophia, built under the emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
For more than millennia, Constantinople was widely known for its wealth, extravagance, and exotic trade markets. It was the center of the powerful Byzantine Empire, a source of pride to all the empire’s subjects. Its churches dazzled the visitors so much, that a Rus embassy chose to convert its people to Orthodoxy upon seeing the splendor of Hagia Sophia. But the immense wealth made the “Queen of the Cities” one of the most coveted cities in the world. Many tried to take the city, only to be stopped by its mighty land walls, a monumental bulwark breached only once in its entire history. Incidentally, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman armies, marked the end of the medieval Roman Empire and the fall of the last ancient Roman city. Constantinople retained the status of the capital under its new rulers, and became known as Konstantinye, and later Istanbul.