For centuries Rome stood as the center of the world. No wonder that some of the most famous monuments built by the Romans are to be found in the capital, or in the heart of the Empire, Italy. But the Roman Empire was vast. At its height, the Empire encompassed most of Europe, the entirety of North Africa and Egypt, the whole of Asia Minor, parts of the Middle East, and Mesopotamia. In each of these areas, the Romans built a host of impressive buildings, embellishing their cities and the countryside. The Roman Empire is long gone, but its impressive ruins and monuments still stand like testaments to its former power and glory. Small or massive in size, those structures offer us a glimpse into the Roman civilization: their architectural and engineering prowess, their cultural and military achievements, their everyday life. Here is a curated list offering a brief insight into the vibrant heritage of Ancient Roman Architecture through some of the most impressive Roman monuments one can find outside Italy.
10 Impressive Roman Monuments (Outside Of Italy)
1. The Roman Amphitheatre In Pula, Croatia
The first entry on the list is kind of a cheat. Roman Italia encompassed a larger territory than the Italy of today. One of such areas that was part of the imperial heartlands was Histria. The largest city of modern Istria, Pula, was once the most important Roman settlement in the area – Pietas Julia – with an estimated population of around 30 000 inhabitants. The most significant mark of the town’s importance is undoubtedly a monumental Roman Amphitheatre – known as the Arena – which at its heyday could host around 26 000 spectators.
The Pula Arena is one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world. It is also the sixth-largest amphitheater still standing and the only one to retain its four-sided towers. In addition, the monument’s external circle wall is almost completely preserved. First built during the reign of Augustus, the Arena got its final shape in the second half of the first century CE, during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. The elliptical structure is built entirely from limestone sourced from local quarries. Like most Roman monuments, during the Middle Ages, the Arena provided local builders and entrepreneurs with necessary materials. The Arena was restored in the early 19th-century and since the 1930s it’s become a place to host spectacles once again – from theater productions, concerts, public meetings, to movie screenings.
2. Maison Carrée In Nimes, France
The French city of Nimes is the home to a stunning Roman temple – the so-called Maison Carrée (Square House). The monument is a textbook example of classical Roman architecture as described by Vitruvius. It is also one of the best-preserved Roman temples, with its imposing façade, lavish decorations, and the elaborate Corinthian columns surrounding the inner structure.
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Maison Carrée was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, the right-hand man, son-in-law, and designated heir to Emperor Augustus. Built in the 20 BCE, the temple was originally dedicated to the emperor’s protective spirit and the goddess Roma. It was later rededicated to Agrippa’s sons Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, who both died young. While not particularly common within Italy during the time of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the worship of the emperor and the imperial family was more widespread in the provinces of the Roman empire. Maison Carrée played an important role in the promotion of the nascent imperial cult. The temple remained in use following the fall of the Roman Empire, serving different functions: it was used as a part of a palatial complex, a consular house, a church and a museum. The monument was restored in the 19th century, with the most recent one occurring in the late 2000s.
3. Porta Nigra, Germany
The largest Roman monument north of the Alps can be found in the German city of Trier. To protect the Roman city – known as Augusta Treverorum – from the barbarian invaders, Emperor Marcus Aurelius commissioned the construction of a defensive perimeter with four imposing city gates. The most famous of them, Porta Nigra (Latin for “black gate”), was erected around 170 CE.
Built from grey sandstone (hence the name), Porta Nigra became a monumental entrance into the city – two four-story towers flanked by a double gateway. It guarded the northern entry to the Roman city. While the other three city gates were destroyed during the Middle Ages, the Porta Nigra survived almost intact due to its conversion into a church. The Christian complex honored Saint Simeon, the Greek monk who lived as a hermit within the gate ruins. In 1803, by Napoleon’s decree, the church was closed, and orders were given to restore its ancient design. Today, Porta Nigra is one of the finest examples of Roman military architecture in the world.
4. Pont Du Gard, France
The ancient Romans were known for their engineering prowess. To supply their burgeoning cities with drinking water, the Romans had to build a network of aqueducts. Several of those engineering masterpieces survived up to the present day, the Pont du Gard being the most famous one. Located in southern France, this majestic Roman aqueduct bridge still stands over the Gard river. Nearly 49 meters tall, the Pont du Gard is the highest of all surviving Roman aqueducts. It is also the most iconic one.
The Pont du Gard was originally part of the Nimes aqueduct, a 50-kilometer-long structure that carried water to the Roman city of Nemausus (Nimes). Like many other engineering marvels, the Pont du Gard is also attributed to Augustus’ son-in-law Marcus Agrippa. Recent research, however, points to a later date, placing the construction around 40-60 CE. The giant aqueduct bridge was built using enormous stones cut to fit perfectly together, avoiding the need for mortar altogether. To lighten the load, the Roman engineers devised a three-story structure, with three tiers of arches placed one upon the other. After the aqueduct fell into disuse, the Pont du Gard remained largely intact serving as a medieval toll bridge. The aqueduct underwent a series of renovations from the 18th century onwards, becoming a premier Roman monument in France.
5. The Aqueduct Of Segovia, Spain
Another well-preserved Roman aqueduct is to be found in the Spanish city of Segovia. Constructed around the first or second century CE (the exact date is unknown), the Segovia aqueduct is an engineering marvel. Like Pont du Gard, the entire structure is built without the use of mortar, with a tiered line of arches supporting the load. Unlike its French counterpart, the Segovia aqueduct had been supplying the city with water up to the mid-19th century.
Despite their impressive exterior, the aboveground arches formed only a small section of the aqueduct system. Roman engineers created a gentle downward slope, using gravity to funnel water towards the city. The valleys and gulleys, however, had to be bridged by the monumental arched structure. This was the case with the hilltop settlement of Segovia. The aqueduct remained operational following the withdrawal of the Roman rule from Spain. Heavily damaged during the Islamic invasion in the 11th century, the structure was rebuilt in the late 15th century. Further preservation efforts of this marvel of Roman architecture were undertaken in the following centuries. The final reconstruction, in the 1970s and 1990s, restored the monument to its present-day look, making the 165-arch aqueduct a towering symbol of Segovia and one of the most impressive Roman monuments in Spain.
6. The Roman Theatre In Merida, Spain
Of all the examples of the Roman architecture in Spain, the most important one is the Roman theatre of Merida. Constructed under the patronage of Marcus Agrippa around 15 BCE, the theatre was a landmark of the city of Emerita Augusta, a regional capital. The theatre underwent several renovations, most notably during the reign of emperor Trajan, when the façade of the scenae frons (permanent architectural background of a theatre stage) was erected. Under Constantine the Great, the theatre went through further remodeling, gaining its present-day shape.
In its heyday, the theatre could accommodate 6 000 spectators, making it one of the largest in the Roman world. Like in most Roman theaters, the public was divided into three tiers, according to their social rank, with the wealthy sitting at the innermost part of the semicircular sloped grandstand, and the poorest at the top. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the theatre was abandoned and gradually covered with earth. Only the uppermost tier of the grandstand remained visible. The ruins were excavated in the early 20th century, followed by extensive restoration. The most significant Roman monument in Spain is still being used for performances of plays, ballets, and concerts.
7. The El Djem Amphitheatre, Tunisia
The amphitheater defines Roman architecture as we know it. Those massive buildings designed for bloody gladiatorial games were centers of social life and a source of pride for major Roman cities. Thysdrus was one such place. This thriving commercial center of Roman Northern Africa became particularly important under the Severan dynasty in the late 2nd century CE. It was during the reign of Septimius Severus, who himself originated from Africa, that Thysdrus got its amphitheater.
The amphitheater in El Djem is the most important Roman monument in Africa. It is the third amphitheater built on the same place. Built around 238 CE, the colossal arena could host up to 35 000 spectators, making the El Djem arena the largest amphitheater outside Italy. It is also the only one to be constructed on completely flat ground, without any foundations. The structure fell out of use following the ban on gladiatorial games in the late 5th century, and gradually declined. Its imposing ruins transformed into a fortress in the Middle Ages, ensuring the monument’s longevity. The building was partly deconstructed in the 19th century. However, a large part of the Roman monument remains intact, with the massive ruins still towering over surrounding buildings.
8. The Roman Temple In Baalbek, Lebanon
The ruins of Baalbek, also known as Heliopolis, are the site of some of the most impressive surviving Roman ruins. The place is home to the Temple of Jupiter, the largest known temple in the Roman Empire. Nowadays, only certain portions of this massive structure remain. The nearby Temple of Bacchus, however, is very well preserved. The temple was probably commissioned by Emperor Antoninus Pius around 150 CE. It is possible that the temple may have been used for the imperial cult, and could showcase the statues of other gods, in addition to Bacchus.
Only slightly smaller than the colossal Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Bacchus became one of the most celebrated sanctuaries of the ancient world. Although called “The Small Temple”, the Temple of Bacchus is larger than the famed Parthenon in Athens. Its size was a sight to behold. 66 meter-long, 35 meter-wide, and 31 meter-high, the Temple stood on a 5-meter-tall pedestal. Forty-two giant unfluted Corinthian columns embraced (nineteen still standing) the inner walls. Lavishly decorated, the giant structure was designed to give the local inhabitants the feeling of grandeur of Rome and the emperor, and pride in their own province. During the middle ages, the temple’s monumental masonry was used as part of Baalbek fortifications. The temple was restored in the end of the 19th century when it got its final look. Nowadays, the temple of Bacchus is one of the finest representatives of Roman architecture and the jewel of the Baalbek archaeological site.
9. The Library Of Celsus In Ephesus, Turkey
The Library of Celsus is one of the most famous Roman monuments in Ephesus, in what is nowadays western Turkey. The two-story building was constructed in 110 CE, as a monumental tomb to the city’s former governor, and a repository for 12 000 scrolls. It was the third largest library in the Roman world. This was appropriate, since during the Roman period Ephesus thrived as a center of learning and culture.
The library’s impressive façade is a typical example of the Roman architecture prevalent during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Highly decorative façades were a hallmark in the Roman East famous for their multiple levels, recessed false windows, columns, pediments, carved reliefs, and statues. Four statues symbolized the Four Virtues of the deceased governor: Wisdom, Knowledge, Destiny, and Intelligence. The statues on the site are copies, while the originals were moved to a museum. Despite the imposing façade, there was no second floor within the building. Instead, there was a railed balcony, which allowed access to higher-level niches containing the scrolls. The interior also held a large statue, probably of Celsus or his son, who not only commissioned the building but secured a large sum to buy scrolls for the library. Like most of Ephesus, the library was destroyed in the Gothic raid of 262 CE. The façade was restored in the fourth century, and the library continued its work, becoming an important part of the Christian city. Finally, in the 10th century, the façade and the library were badly damaged by an earthquake that struck Ephesus. The city was abandoned, only to be rediscovered in 1904, when the library’s façade was reassembled, acquiring its present-day look.
10. Roman Monuments: Diocletian Palace In Split, Croatia
Our tour around the Roman Empire brings us back to Croatia, where one of the most spectacular examples of the Late Roman palatial architecture can be found. After restoring the stability of the Empire, Emperor Diocletian abdicated the throne in 305 CE, becoming the only Roman ruler who willingly left the Emperor’s seat. A native of Illyricum, Diocletian chose his birthplace for his retirement. The emperor decided to build his lavish palace on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, near the bustling metropolis of Salona.
Constructed between the late third and early fourth centuries, the vast palace complex was built of local marble and limestone. The Palace was conceived as a fortress-like structure, containing the imperial residence and the military garrison, which protected the former emperor. The luxurious residential quarters included three temples, a mausoleum, and a monumental colonnaded courtyard or peristyle, sections of which survive to the present day. The imposing walls were guarded by 16 towers, while four gates allowed access to the complex. The fourth and the smallest gate was located in the elaborately decorated seawall that contained the emperor’s apartments. In the early Middle Ages, the local population moved in seeking shelter, and eventually, the Palace became a town in itself. Almost two millennia after his death, Diocletian’s Palace still stands, as a prominent landmark and an integral part of the modern-day city of Split; the only living Roman monument in the world.