Ancient Roman Ruins in England and France

See how the ancient Romans left their mark in England and France with arches, forts, city walls, theaters and towers.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by SmartHistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

South Shields (Arbeia) Roman Fort, c. 120 C.E.

We’re standing in the ruins of an ancient Roman Fort on the northernmost border of the Roman Empire (today not too far from the border between England and Scotland).

There were forts along the wall built by the Roman emperor Hadrian to protect the Roman province of Britannia. But this was no ordinary fort, it was more of a warehouse. Near the mouth of the river Tyne, it was an ideal location to receive supplies that could then be distributed to the Roman troops.

This is a recent reconstruction of the West gate of Arbeia (a wall once surrounded the entire fort). “Arbeia” may be a version of “Arabia”—a reference to the original home of some of the soldiers stationed there (Rome had just conquered Mesopotamia).

Here are the ruins of 22 stone granaries (food storage buildings). Most were added when the emperor Septimus Severus came to Britain to mount a new attack against the Caledonians north of Hadrian’s wall. The grain for thousands of soldiers likely came through Arbeia.

London’s Roman wall, c. 190-225 C.E.

We are standing in a busy part of London surrounded by history. To one side is the medieval Tower of London, and to another is part of the ancient Roman wall that once surrounded the Roman settlement of Londinium (which has grown much larger to be the city London we know today)

The wall around Londinium originally included four city gates and was about 2.5 miles long and was still standing when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century.

Roman House with Lee House, City of London (1962/1964) by John GayHistoric England

Construction

The wall was built of rubble and mortar with a facing of squared stone blocks. The wall incorporates horizontal bands of red Roman tiles and is 35 feet above present ground level (its original height is not known).

More than 600 years after the Romans, William the Conqueror invaded England. Parts of the Tower of London (not visible here) were built by William, right at the eastern edge of what had been the Roman city of Londinium.

Vindolanda, Roman Fort, 3rd century C.E.

The northern frontier of the ancient Roman Empire, near the border of Scotland, was manned by troops who lived and worked in forts (Vindolanda is one of the earliest). But it’s not just the remains of the buildings that is of interest at Vindolanda.

Writing-tablet with an intelligence report (50/150)British Museum

The oldest surviving handwritten documents (written in ink on wooden tablets) in Britain were found here and they record many aspects of daily life at the Fort (including a request for more beer!).

We are standing in the ruins of the fort, looking at the commander's residence (what the Romans called the praetorium). The rooms were laid out around a central courtyard and were significantly nicer than the barracks where the soldiers lived.

The ancient Romans were brilliant engineers. Here we can see rows of stone pillars that were part of an underfloor heating system, known as a hypocaust, that was used to heat houses with hot air.

These are the remains of the headquarters of the fort. There was an open courtyard, offices, a treasury, a shrine for safe keeping of the standard (the flag or emblem of the regiment), and perhaps storage rooms for arms.

Roman Arch, Besançon, France, late 2nd century

Julius Caesar, the great Roman general and politician, conquered Gaul (today mostly France and Belgium) in 52 C.E. In fact Besançon, in eastern France, was briefly occupied by Caesar and his army (the Romans called it Vesontio).

The Romans left many monuments in France, including amphitheaters, aqueducts and arches. This arch dates to the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, and stands at an important site—where the road from the south (Italy) entered the city of Besançon.

The arch, framed by two attached columns on either side, depicts winged figures in the spandrels (the spaces just above the arch), these represent the goddess of Victory. Heroic nudes stand between the columns on the upper level.

The very top of the arch is missing it’s attic story (the crowning part of a Roman arch). The rectangular space just above the arch would have contained an inscription, letting us know the occasion for the erection of this monument.

Tour Magne, Nîmes, France

Many ancient Roman cities were protected with a high strong wall. This was particularly important for communities on the frontier. The ancient city of Nîmes was enclosed by a wall with fourteen towers built under Emperor Augustus c. 15-14 B.C.E.

The Tour Magne (great tower) was by far the largest and was built at the highest point in the city. It was built atop an older, smaller pre-Roman tower. Augustus’ may have originally risen over 100 feet.

We are looking at what may have been an entry ramp that has been cut. Note the beginnings of an arch coming toward us. A reminder that the tower did not stand alone but was part of a protective wall.

The ancient Roman stonework is evident. Enormous blocks have been carefully cut to create a smooth surface. The broken wall allows a view of a rough interior stone sandwiched between the more laborious exterior stonework.

“Triumphal Arch” Orange, France

The city of Orange (Arausio for the Romans) in Southeast France was the site of a major battle the Romans lost in 105 B.C.E.

However, Orange was eventually settled by veterans of the Second Roman Legion in the late first century B.C.E. The arch, which likely dates to the reign of Augustus a short time later, commemorates the battle a century earlier. It was built on the via Agrippa, a Roman road leading north to Lyon.

The triple arch design with a large central portal can be seen in later arches in Rome itself (see for example, the arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine) and is one of the earliest examples of this type of arch to survive.

The surface of the arch is covered with relief carving. Although much has been lost, the main theme is clear—violent warfare. At the top, a pitched battle is shown between infantry and cavalry with the wounded and dead littering the field.

To the right you can just make out a sea battle with a trident (a three-pronged spear) and the prows of ancient Roman ships. Elsewhere on the arch, carvings show Roman’s victorious with their enemy held captive.

Engaged (or attached) columns on either side of the central arch support a pediment (triangular gable), making the whole thing look like an ancient temple front. Columns at the edges define a temple fronts on the sides of the arch.

Amphitheatre, Arles, France

The ancient Greeks built semi-circular theatres into hillsides for plays and other performances. the Romans, being brilliant engineers, took this form and doubled it. They created amphitheatres, freestanding, fully enclosed arenas (no hill needed).

The prefix “amphi” means on both sides. The most famous amphitheatre, the Colosseum, is in Rome, but another excellent example survives in Arles (Arelate to the ancient Romans). This amphitheatre was designed to hold approximately 20,000 spectators and is in use today.

Roman Amphitheatres were oval. Each ground level arch was an entrance and exit and was numbered for ticket holders. One could move into and out of a Roman arenas quickly. Note how the ground level has risen since ancient times.

Each ground level arch leads inward and is intersected by interior hallways that circled the stadium. These corridors are also arched with what are called barrel vaults. Barrel vaults can be seen inside the second-story arches.

Although much of the original structure has been lost, it is still possible to see the varied treatment of the exterior columns. The are engaged (attached to the wall), square at ground level and round on the second story.

During the Middle Ages the arches were filled in, four towers were added and the arena became a fortress. A small town even grew within its protective walls. Portions of three of those towers remain.

Gier Aqueduct, France

The ancient Romans were brilliant engineers as is demonstrated by the extensive aqueduct systems they built to bring large volumes of fresh water to their cities. This is a small section of the longest known Roman aqueduct.

It carried water 50 miles to Lyon (or Lugdunum for the Romans). Aqueduct are very gently sloped so that gravity draws water to the city. It is interesting to note that for much of this aqueduct’s course, water flows through underground tunnels.

It is essential that water traveling through an aqueduct maintain its elevation. Here we see arches used to carry water at a regular height. When necessary, arches could be stacked up to a maximum height of about 150 feet to cross a valley.

The water was carried above the arches in an open trough that could be easily repaired. The underground channels require numerous access routes. Covered manholes were placed at regular intervals for this purpose.

The Romans became expert as concrete construction and exploited the materials strength and flexibility. Here a concrete arches are strengthened with stones while the surface of the piers are inlaid with decorative opus reticulatum, diamond-shaped cut stone.

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