Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago tread in the very footsteps of the Roman Empire, traversing Roman roads and Roman bridges as they make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Roman milestones and castra (fortified settlements) are also found along the camino and serve as constant reminders of Rome’s expanse and organisational capacity.
These most basic aspects of Roman infrastructure don’t reveal the true grandeur of the empire, however, which is to be found in theatres, amphitheatres, aqueducts, temples and other monumental works of architecture. Fortunately, these more spectacular vestiges of the Roman world are also within reach of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
With that in mind, these are eight of the best sites for immersing yourself in the Roman Empire while on the camino.
The Roman City of Emerita Augusta (Mérida)
Via de la Plata, Camino Mozárabe
As the one-time capital of Rome’s Lusitania province, Mérida is home to the best preserved collection of Roman buildings on the Iberian peninsula and demands a dedicated sightseeing day or two, no matter how sore your feet may be.
While all of Mérida’s Roman heritage is impressive, it’s the theatre that stands out above the rest. Far from a typical Roman theatre whose extant remains are often limited to seating and a stage, the Mérida theatre contains a spectacular stage backing with more than two dozen columns on two levels. As someone who has travelled widely throughout the former Roman Empire, I’ve only seen two other Roman theatres that can compare – in Orange, France and Bosra, Syria.
Beyond the theatre, Mérida’s Roman ruins include a temple, bridge, amphitheatre, chariot-racing circus and aqueduct, all of which are well worth visiting. Dusk or dawn is an atmospheric time to be at the aqueduct and surrounding park, while a night-time guided tour of the amphitheatre and theatre is a privileged way to visit the ruins.
The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia
Camino de Madrid
With its compact medieval core including Romanesque churches, a Gothic cathedral and a fairytale Alcázar, Segovia is a delight to visit. But despite its myriad of attractions, the city’s most famous site by a considerable margin is simply an old channel for carrying water: a Roman aqueduct.
The first or second century edifice – probably one of the two most famous Roman aqueducts in existence along with the Pont du Gard in southern France – runs right through the heart of the city and dwarfs the more recent buildings that surround it in the Plaza del Azoguejo.
At nightfall, the floodlit aqueduct is a spectacular sight, and if you’ve walked a 30km stage over the mountain pass just to get there, it will cap off one of the most memorable days you could imagine on any camino.
The Roman City of Itálica
Via de la Plata
Founded by Rome’s greatest military hero, Hannibal-vanquisher Scipio Africanus, and the likely birthplace of two of its greatest emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, Itálica holds a special place in Roman lore.
The city was founded in the late third century BC as the first Roman settlement in Spain and grew into a sizeable city containing an amphitheatre that could hold 25,000 people – the third largest in the empire. Although the size of the amphitheatre can no longer be fully appreciated due to the the demolition of part of its exterior during the 18th century, its ruins are still a major highlight of visiting Itálica today, along with a theatre, many in-situ mosaics and a discernible street layout.
A votive plaque near the amphitheatre showing a pair of footprints is a memorable feature of Itálica for all visitors, but it’s an especially appropriate symbol for pilgrims on the first day of the Via de la Plata out of Seville with 1000km on foot still to traverse before reaching Santiago.
The Roman Walls of Lugo
Lugo is the only city in the former Roman Empire to still possess a complete circuit of Roman city walls and is one of the highlights of the Camino Primitivo. The World Heritage listed walls date from the 260s and 270s AD, a fascinating period towards the end of Rome’s third century crisis. With the Augustan-Hadrianic concept of empire-wide frontier defence no longer feasible, emperors like Aurelian had to pull defence back to the city level, resulting in fortifications being built around Rome, Lugo and other cities that were previously unwalled or that had long since outgrown earlier walls.
To better understand Lugo’s walls, there’s a modern interpretation centre containing three interesting short films, although the best way to appreciate the walls is by standing on top of them. And if you’ve just finished walking 30 kilometres from Cádavo Baleira to reach Lugo, what better way to celebrate than by walking another couple of kilometres along the ramparts?
Alternatively, a rest day in Lugo is recommended to enjoy the walls and possibly make a visit to Santa Eulalia de Bóveda, a rare Roman sanctuary only 14 kilometres from Lugo, although opening hours are sporadic.
The Roman Amphitheatre at Arles
Via Tolosana (Arles Route)
Southern France is a treasure trove of monumental Roman architecture, including off-camino sites such as the Nîmes amphitheatre and the aforementioned Orange theatre and Pont du Gard.
Arles, the starting point of one of the four main caminos in France, is no exception, boasting an impressive Roman amphitheatre that is better preserved than the gladiatorial arenas in Mérida and Itálica. The first century AD amphitheatre, completed a decade after the Colosseum in Rome, contains two rows of arches and is remarkably intact.
After the fall of Rome, the amphitheatre’s extraordinary post-imperial history included fortification by way of the addition of four medieval towers, three of which still rise above the Roman arches today. Houses were built inside the arena itself, and this residential use of the amphitheatre continued until the late 18th century.
Arles also contains one of the best preserved Roman cryptoporticos, which served as an underground foundation for the city’s forum.
The Roman Villas at Conímbriga
Caminho Português (Portuguese Way)
Conímbriga is the best preserved Roman site in Portugal, and the camino takes pilgrims directly to the entrance. This makes it a perfect sightseeing stop between Rabaçal (where there are also Roman remains) and Cernache or Coimbra.
Like many ancient settlements on the Iberian peninsula, Conímbriga was built up over centuries from pre-Roman times. At its height in the first century AD, Conímbriga had about 10,000 inhabitants and contained typical Roman public buildings such as a forum, an amphitheatre, public baths and an aqueduct. The most interesting part of the ruins, however, are the private villas.
Colourful, in-situ floor mosaics take visitors into these Roman homes, but what really brings the site to life are the fountains at the Casa dos Repuxos (House of the Fountains). Although a fair amount of reconstruction has taken place and the water only flows after a coin is put into a machine, the fountains allow you to be transported back to Roman times like few other sites can offer.
The Roman Temple of Córdoba
Córdoba’s fame is derived from its status as one of the major centres of Islamic rule in Andalusia during the Middle Ages, highlighted by the fabulous ninth-century Mezquita that is one of the most impressive sites in all of Spain.
However, the city also boasts pre-Islamic heritage, notably a first-century AD Roman temple that remains part of the city centre landscape and provides a striking contrast with the more modern buildings that surround it. Today, the foundations of the temple, assumed to be dedicated to the imperial cult, and 11 columns are visible.
While the temple doesn’t come close to challenging the Mezquita as Córdoba’s most impressive monument, the blinding white of the marble columns set against the deep blue of the Andalusian sky is still a sight to behold.
The Roman Factories of Barcelona
Many of the most famous Roman sites, including all of those mentioned so far, are best known for large public buildings or lavish residential villas. The commercial aspect of the Roman Empire is typically less represented among the ruins, but when it is present, such as at Pompeii’s famous ‘fast food’ eateries, it often evokes fascination among visitors.
Such is the case in the Museum of the History of Barcelona, where visitors are taken underground to explore various commercial activities of the Roman city of Barcino such as dyeing and wine-making. The most interesting – if nauseating – part is seeing the large storage containers for garum, a fermented sauce made from rotten fish guts that the Romans added to nearly every meal and that was produced at an industrial level.
The museum is a reminder that Roman sites don’t have to be awe-inspiring in scale to impress and that the Roman Empire, like the Camino de Santiago, is an endlessly fascinating cultural treasure to be explored and savoured in countless ways.
This article is dedicated to my friend and Roman tour guide Jill Sarapata, who tragically passed away on 8 January, 2021, at just 45 years of age. Jill spent her last 17 years enlightening visitors about the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill and other ancient sites in Rome. May she rest in peace.