First-time visitors to Turkey are often astonished to discover its wealth of Roman remains, more by far than can be found in Italy. These remains are evidence of a cold, hard fact.
In the end it didn’t matter how rich or powerful were the kings who had ruled over the myriad states that filled Iron and Bronze Age Anatolia. The Phrygians, the Lydians, the Ionians, the Carians, the Lycians -- in the end they all succumbed to the juggernaut that was Roman might, sometimes as the result of military defeat, sometimes simply by throwing in the towel in the face of the inevitable. Only the Urartians remained undisturbed by Roman power in their far eastern strongholds.
Almost everywhere you go in Turkey you’ll be within easy reach of reminders of the Romans who rebuilt almost all the settlements previously occupied by other people except those of the Phrygians. When thinking of Roman Anatolia, most people tend to remember the famous coastal (or near coastal) sites such as Ephesus and Aspendos, but traces of the Romans can be found far and wide. It was, after all, near Tokat that Julius Caesar made his famous “I came, I saw, I conquered” remark, and there are ruins of the once-sizeable Roman town of Sebastopolis in nearby Sulusaray. İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir -- all these huge modern cities also retain reminders of the Romans: the Çemberlitaş in İstanbul, the Temple of Augustus in Ankara and the Agora in İzmir.
The Roman era can be divided into two separate parts: the republic that lasted from c.509 B.C. to c.27 B.C., and the empire that lasted from c.27 B.C to A.D. 476 before slowly collapsing (the eastern part that encompassed most of what is now Turkey evolved into the Byzantine Empire). The term Pax Romana (The Roman Peace) is used to describe the extended period of unusual calm that fell over the disparate provinces of the empire from 27 B.C. until A.D. 180 and gave rise to a period of frenetic building activity.
Visitors to Turkey are spoilt for choice when it comes to Roman sites, and the following are just a few suggested highlights. The best museums for Roman lovers are the İstanbul, Antalya and Bergama Archeology Museums, as well as the two magnificent mosaic museums in Gaziantep and Antakya, reminders of just how far east the Roman writ ran. Ephesus Museum is currently closed for restoration.
When it comes to Turkey’s Roman sites the star in the firmament has to be Ephesus, the once-Ionian city that became part of the territory of the Attalids of Pergamum and was bequeathed to Rome in 133 B.C. by King Attalus III. As the capital of the Roman province of Asia, Ephesus may have been second in size only to Rome itself.
Today tourists can’t get enough of the site, not least because its position makes it an easy excursion destination not just from Kuşadası and Selçuk but also for cruise passengers anchored in İzmir. For some people the crowds detract from the splendor of the monuments, but most still come away stunned at the sheer scale of what survives with the most famous and photographed monuments being the theater and the Library of Celsus, both completed in the second century A.D. What really makes Ephesus stand out, however, are the Terraced Houses, the fabulous homes that have been dug up complete with frescoed walls and mosaic floors. You must pay an additional entrance fee to see them, but more than anywhere else in the country they offer an insight into what life must have been like for Rome’s more comfortably off citizens in the first and second centuries A.D.
Once little more than the site of a Carian shrine, Aphrodisias grew into a town that supported the Romans in the Mithridatic Wars in return for which it was for many years allowed to govern itself as a free city. Today the ruins here are second in extent only to those at Ephesus and the remains of the fine stadium make a stunning sight in spring when it fills up with poppies. Aphrodisias’ inland location means that it’s less overrun with visitors who can, nonetheless, admire a stunning theater and odeon, as well as the magnificent reconstructed Sebasteion where the Roman emperors were worshipped as gods. The on-site museum houses examples of the wonderful statuery for which the city was famed.
In the rush to admire Pamukkale’s travertines visitors sometimes forget that this was also a thermal center much loved by the Romans who left on the slopes above them extensive remains of a large city complete with a superb theater, an enormous agora and a necropolis of superb funerary art that stretches for a whole two kilometers. The small on-site museum inside the second-century baths contains fine Roman statues and sarcophagi. Here, too, you can swim in a glorious pool with ancient columns submerged beneath you.
Bergama, the ancient Pergamum, is in some ways the sleeping beauty of Turkey’s Roman heritage, its two splendid sites all too often overlooked by visitors. Recently, though, they have been made much more readily accessible by the provision of a funicular up to the lofty Acropolis and the relocation of the entrance to the Asclepion, the ancient medical center. The Acropolis is dominated by the reconstructed remains of a huge Temple to Trajan, but its most famous relic is a theater cut into the hillside at an angle calculated to induce vertigo in its audience.
You certainly shouldn’t leave Bergama without visiting its museum, which houses some of the finds from Allianoi, the nearby Roman thermal resort that vanished beneath the waters of the Yortanlı reservoir in 2011.
The Lycian settlement of Patara surrendered to the Roman general, Brutus, in 42 B.C. It then evolved into a fine Roman city approached via a magnificent city gate that still stands today. This is a site for romantics as the remains lie scattered over a beautiful, partially water-logged plain behind the famously long Patara beach whose sands, until recently, claimed the theater. The old odeon here has recently been renovated and you should make sure to inspect the huge granary built by Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), a Roman emperor whose handiwork is visible at many Turkish sites.
Originally settled by the Lycians, Arykanda, a town that became Roman in A.D. 43, is one of Turkey’s hidden gems, tucked away on the road that runs inland from Finike to Elmalı so that many people never get to see the spectacular theater and stadium arrayed on terraces above the extensive remains of the town.
Hidden away in a mountain retreat high above Antalya, Termessos has to be one of the most evocative of all the Roman sites. Originally peopled by the somewhat mysterious Psidians, Termessos held out against Alexander the Great but succumbed inevitably to the Romans in 70 B.C. while nonetheless retaining a degree of independence. The Romans then remodelled its wonderful Hellenistic theater, which was set so high up that ancient audiences must have felt as if they were floating in the clouds.
Modern Side may be something of an overblown package-holiday resort, but in recent years much has been done to uncover more of the impressive Roman city that once stood here. The huge freestanding theater is once again open to the public who can also admire an elaborate monumental fountain and several ruinous temples, two of them right by the sea. The small museum, housed in what was once a bathhouse, is also worth a visit.
Like Side, Perge was occupied by the Romans in the second century B.C. when they tired of the disruptive activities of local pirates. The ruins of Roman Perge are some of the most extensive in Turkey and this is certainly a site that merits more than the rushed couple of hours allocated to it on most tours. Here, as at Ephesus and Hierapolis, you can stroll along an ancient Roman road lined with shops that ends at a graceful fountain. Here, too, you can stroll in the agora and listen for the voices of Roman citizens debating beneath its pillared porticoes. Like Aphrodisias, Perge was known for its sculptors; the best of their work can be seen in Antalya’s wonderful museum.
The one overwhelming reason to visit Aspendos as well as Side and Perge is to see the huge freestanding theater designed for it by a second-century A.D. architect named Zeno who fitted the stage with a solid backdrop instead of leaving it open to the scenery as the Greeks had done. Reused in Selçuk times as a caravanserai, the theater survived in such good shape that Atatürk had it restored so that it could be used for modern entertainment. While you’re here you might also like to take a look at a remaining stretch of Roman aqueduct nearby.
Monumental arch & theater, Patara
Temple of Apollo, Side
Temple of Trajan, Acropolis, Bergama