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Exploring Ruins at the Fringes of an Ancient Empire


Exploring Ruins at the Fringes of an Ancient Empire

Laine McDonnell


The Roman Empire may have fallen, but vestiges of it can still be seen in settlements around the world. Explore Roman ruins in Sicily, Africa, Turkey, and Southern Italy. 


Rome is a thriving, modern metropolis that has been a fashion and culinary icon since its founding in 753 B.C. But with the whizzing of Vespas, the clinking of sidewalk espresso cups, and late night droning from discotheques, it’s hard to imagine the toga-clad senators of history. 

The forum, which was the epicenter of the Roman Empire for centuries, has fallen into disrepair. You can see a few columns, and discern where temples used to stand, but it takes considerable effort to imagine what life would have been like. There are tours you can take that use the old building footprints to lay out where the ancient senate used to be, but to truly immerse yourself in the Roman lifestyle, try travelling to the fringes of the Empire, where some of the most significant and intact Roman ruins lie.


Thanks to Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii has been frozen in time since that fateful day when an eruption covered the entire city in 79 A.D. So, unlike other Roman cities that were allowed to decline or modernize, Pompeii remains a perfect example of life during the Pax Romana, a rare period of peace during the first and second century A.D. You can walk through houses, shops, public baths, bars, and their colosseum. Tour in the morning when it is still cool and shadows dance from the pillars, and then in the afternoon you can hike up the volcano itself (or take the funicular). The site of Pompeii is a wonderful day trip from the Amalfi Coast that boasts some of the most picturesque vistas in all of Southern Italy. 


It’s fascinating to see the stretches of the Roman Empire reach into North Africa. The ruins at Volubilis, near the Moroccan city of Meknes, illustrate a flourishing Roman town of the first century A.D. It doesn’t take long to see the beautiful mosaics and the houses of the elite senators, so enjoy the afternoon sampling the local wine and a tagine of couscous with a view of the ruins. Then venture through the imposing gates of Meknes to explore a wholly different empire just steps away. Volubilis is a perfect excursion from the old world Moroccan city of Fez. So if you stay there, you can visit the Medina one day and then travel back in time to the ruins. 

The ruins of Pompeii were not discovered until 1748, almost 1,700 years after the eruption buried them. They were found during the building of a palace for King Charles III. At 150 acres, it is the largest archaeological site in the world. 

Villa Casale

This Roman villa in the Sicilian countryside is unique because of its size and level of preservation. A 59-meter-long mosaic carpets the floor of the main room with scenes of a massive battle and capture of exotic animals on land and at sea, while the gym features what looks like ladies in bikinis throwing discus and performing gymnastics. There is a even a small café near the entrance of the grounds that serves arancini (fried rice balls with various fillings) and some of the more popular Sicilian specialties. There are hotels and bed and breakfasts nearby in the Villagio Sammarco, but nearby Agrigento has more luxurious accommodations and more temples to visit. 


Once the largest city in Asia Minor, boasting a population of nearly 60,000 at its height, Ephesus is most impressive due to its grand scale. Not only can you walk down the marble streets to see the famous Library of Celsus, but thanks to the continuing work of archaeologists, the site itself is coming alive as they uncover more of its history every day. The scale of the baths and the amphitheater suggest how important this city was, but you can also climb through the apartments that were built into the hillside as the city expanded. You can see not only imposing temples, but how the average citizen would have lived in their shadow. It takes at least half a day to explore this site due to its size, which makes it a perfect day trip from the beautiful Turkish coastal city of Izmir. You can travel to Ephesus in the morning before the sun makes it very hot, and then be back to enjoy a dinner on the ocean as the sun sets. 

UNESCO has named all four of these destinations World Heritage Sites so that we and future generations can take a trip back in time to an era when one city seemed to rule the world. 

What to wear to the sites:

Uneven ground and ancient paving make flat shoes a must. All of the ruins mentioned here require a fair amount of walking. You’re also not going to find a lot of shade, as pillars tended to survive centuries longer than roofs. So make sure to think ahead in terms of protection from the elements.

What to keep in mind when visiting with children:

Ruins require a substantial amount of imagination. This can be very fun, as you ask children to imagine what the buildings and houses would have been like millennia ago. To make the antiquities come alive again, postulate which colours would have been used, what decorations would have been like, and what activities the children of these cities would have done.

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