As the destruction of Palmyra continues, the historian and broadcaster Mary Beard reveals 10 of her favourite classical sites
It’s always exciting to follow, literally, in the footsteps of the ancient Romans – or of the Greeks, or the Egyptians, or any of the shadowy inhabits of the past. Even for me, a fairly hard-nosed professional, who has studied the classical world for more than forty years, there’s still a buzz in clambering over the walls of Wroxeter Roman city just a few miles from my childhood home or standing in the very spot in the forum in Rome itself from which Cicero addressed the crowds.
And I am not alone. I have spent many days observing people as they enjoy the remains of Pompeii. They may giggle, or be horrified, at the brothel; they may be impressed by the luscious paintings on the walls; they may be touched by the poignant plaster casts of the bodies of those who were the victims of the eruption. But for almost every visitor remembers it seems to be the simple act of stepping across the ordinary Pompeian streets on the ordinary Pompeian stepping-stones that brings the most immediate pleasure. Why? I’m sure it’s partly because of that visceral sense that we are repeating the very steps, in exactly the same place, of those who lived there just before the ash fell.
The truth is that it’s the direct contact with the past that makes any visit memorable. For all the amazing virtual recreations of past worlds available at the click of a key on our laptops – and there are amazingly accurate versions online of some of the most famous ancient sites, reconstructed in ‘walk-through’ form in most of their original glory – nothing ever beats actually going there and seeing the real thing. What always brings Delphi alive for me is the sheer slog of walking up to the temple even from the modern car-park, let alone having come on a cart from Athens. It’s a pointed reminder that visiting the oracle was, and no doubt was supposed to be, an effort; divine advice did not come easy. (I am grateful, in a way, to the Israeli authorities for installing a cable car to help visitors up Masada, but in some ways it does detract from the authentic experience.) And it was only when I started to sit down in Roman bath buildings themselves, and think hard about the lighting, the sanitation and how the water flowed from one part to another, that I realised quite what dark, dingy and unhealthy places many of them must have been. The sparkling grandeur was restricted to very few of the expensive spa complexes; but for the most part it was a fantasy.
Of course, this contact with history isn’t quite as simple and un-mediated as it may seem. The Pantheon in Rome is an almost unique example of a building that has actually survived to its full height without major modern intervention. The basic rule of thumb is that any wall you see on an ancient site that is more than two metres tall has been rebuilt in the last couple of hundred years, unless proven otherwise. There are exceptions. The great triumphal arches in Rome survived because they were incorporated in later houses and fortresses, and were revealed again when those structures were removed (even so the famous Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum is as much nineteenth-century as it is first-century AD). But the rule of thumb applies even to the most celebrated sites and buildings.
It was certainly a shock for me, when I first looked at the early photographs of the Parthenon from the late nineteenth century, to discover that it was then much more of a ruin than it is now and had certainly not yet acquired its now iconic silhouette. It was a something of a surprise for Virginia Woolf too, who visited Athens both before and after the major campaign of construction in the 1920s. On the second occasion, she wrote of the temple in her diary, ‘It is larger than I remembered and better held together’. She was righter than she knew. It wasn’t, as she imagined, a trick of memory; there had been a wholesale rebuilding.
The same is the case at Pompeii, which does not after all look now like a town that was found buried after being battered by a devastating volcanic eruption (nor, for that matter, like one that was pounded a second time by allied bombing in World War II). Across the town, collapsed walls have been rebuilt, houses have been re-roofed (in a plausible replica of what might have been once there), mosaics have been patched and paintings retouched. The Segovia aqueduct has had quite a lot of work done on it too. The Romans were great builders, but they didn’t build to last 2000 years.
I do not think this is much of a crime. A new roof is often the only way of preserving what remains underneath. And every now and then I find myself half wishing that, despite the fun I’ve had in clambering over them, someone had had the nerve to rebuild some of those bleak little stone walls that are all that’s left of most of the Roman structures in Britain. But it is a reminder that we should keep our wits about us when we choose to take a trip back in time, and that we are likely to be closer to real antiquity, if we look down – at those stepping-stones and drainage systems – rather than up.
It’s a reminder too that we should not be too awe-struck by the ancient heritage around us. It’s important to look after what has survived as best we can, without making it unapproachable (I dread the day when most of us are asked to visit a replica Pompeii because the real one is too precious). And we should try our best to understand, hands on, what it tells us about our own world and history.In a week in which ISIS is reported to have destroyed another building in Palmyra, that could hardly be a more topical question.
1. The Acropolis, Athens, Greece
The Parthenon is just one of several famous temples that you can still visit on the Acropolis, a place which manages even now to work its magic, despite the heat, crowds, and cacophony of guides haranguing their parties. Part of the excitement of the place is continuing history. The standing buildings all date to the glory days of the fifth century BC, but the newly restored Parthenon has preserved the traces of the Christian church built into the earlier pagan temple, and sharp-eyed visitors will spot holes along its façade where the bronze letters of an inscription honouring the emperor Nero were once fixed.
2. Aphrodisias, Turkey
A couple of hours journey from the Turkish coast (Kusadasi and Bodrum are the nearest large resorts), this Roman city is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last 50 years – a theatre, council chamber and temples, complete with some extraordinary sculpture, have been unearthed. The highlight is a sanctuary devoted to the worship of the Roman emperors, with 80 large sculpted panels still surviving. These include the first known image of the province Britannia (she is shown being close to raped by the emperor Claudius), and a marvellous scene of the empress Agrippina crowning her young son Nero.
3. Delphi, Greece
This was the place where the most famous oracle in the ancient world conveyed its sometimes riddling advice to Romans as well as Greeks. You can still see the temple where the oracle was based, the stadium where races were held in the regular festivals, and the elegant treasuries where different cities housed their rich dedications to the god Apollo. It’s in a stunningly beautiful setting, high up in a mountain valley. Energetic visitors should hike further above the main site to the spooky “Corycian cave”, sacred to the nymphs, where 1000s of tiny offerings in bronze and pottery have been discovered. It’s a very different religious atmosphere from the grand sanctuary below.
4. Masada, Israel
It was on this desert hilltop that the Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-73 AD) was finally stamped out, the last rebels – it is said — committing mass suicide. The arid climate means that the Roman siege works still stand out: the encircling wall, the army camps, the huge ramp built up the mountain that eventually gave them access to the enemy stronghold. On the hill itself the most impressive survival is the earlier palace of King Herod. With typical autocratic bravura, he built a luxurious residence (and bathing suite) in the middle of the desert on a hill with no water.
5. Oplontis, near Naples, Italy
The Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum are essential places to visit. But for a more peaceful journey back into the Roman world there is little to beat the grand villa at Oplontis (conveniently near the rail station of Torre Annunziata) also buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Whether it is the family villa of the emperor Nero’s wife, Poppaea, as often claimed, is quite uncertain. But it is certainly a villa on an imperial scale, with an Olympic size swimming pool, and cleverly designed gardens. And you sometimes have it all to yourself. (Editor’s note: Mary Beard will be going to Oplontis on a Telegraph Tour, for which a very small number of places remain. See full details here.)
6. Ostia, Italy
Rome’s port at Ostia was covered up by sand as Rome declined in the early Middle Ages. It’s only a short train ride from the city centre, but it feels a world away from the noise and bustle – almost a second Pompeii, even if not quite so well preserved. The highlights for me are the bars and the multi-seater lavatories (much restored, to be honest), but also the offices of the commercial shipping companies that operated from Ostia. Each office had a mosaic on its floor, with a logo of its business, from elephants to grain measures.
7. Paestum, Italy
The little town of Paestum, 100 kilometres south of Naples, is a wonderful mixture of Greek and Roman. It was originally one of the many Greek settlements in southern Italy and the star survivals are three large temples dating back to the sixth century BC. But equally impressive are the slightly later painted tombs, including a famous image of a young diver entering a pool of water — a reminder of a whole tradition of ancient painting that we have largely lost. And finally, there is a well-preserved little Roman town, which takes the history of the place into the sixth century AD.
8. Pantheon, Rome
The “Temple of all the Gods” erected by the emperor Hadrian in the second century AD was preserved when it was converted into a church of the Virgin Mary five centuries later. It’s the only substantial Roman building that you can literally walk into, as it was two thousand years ago. It is still an extraordinary display of Roman power and expertise. The concrete span of the dome was the widest in the world till 1958. And the coloured marble in the columns and floor was part of the profits of empire, brought from 1000s of kilometres away.
9. Segovia, Spain
Go to Segovia for one single stunning Roman view, and a spectacular piece of Roman engineering. The huge aqueduct (pictured top), built at the end of the first century AD, on a series of double-decker arches almost thirty metres tall, still comes right into the middle of the modern town, dominating the central square. There is little else Roman to be seen, but Segovia is a World Heritage Site, not simply for the aqueduct, but also for its medieval architecture, from palace and cathedral to monasteries and taverns.
10. Timgad, Algeria
North Africa is the home to many of the most impressive Roman remains anywhere, increasingly inaccessible for troubling political reasons. Algeria is now one of the more feasible destinations, and several specialist tours are available to the Roman sites. The Roman city of Timgad, on the edge of the Sahara, is one of the best places to visit. Established around 100 AD, as a new town for veteran Roman soldiers, it has a perfect suit of the usual urban accessories: forum, theatre, temples and markets. And it boasts one of the very few surviving public libraries in the Roman world.