By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Roman Empire spanned from Spain to Jordan—and your living room. Romans expanded so much that their 2,500-mile empire takes nearly 10 hours to traverse by modern air travel. View the whole expanse from home, with Wondrium.
It’s no surprise that the Roman Empire covered much of Europe during its historic reign, but it also reached down as far as northern Africa and as far East as the Middle East. Boasting more than 1.9 million square miles at its greatest size, it’s one of human history’s grandest, organized societies. It would be difficult to visit each of its staple regions in a single lifetime, but for students of history and lovers of culture alike, a new Wondrium series can help.
Traveling the Roman Empire takes learning out of the classroom and into the field, from Spain to Jordan, guided by archaeologist, public historian, and author Darius Arya. An episode of the series that looks at Jordan is available to stream for free on YouTube, in which Arya describes life in the Eastern Roman Empire. Later, a look at the series as a whole shows how Jordan exemplified Roman rule.
Rome in the East
“Roman Jordan contains an incredible array of diverse climes and environments,” Arya said. “From the sprawling urban center of Roman Philadelphia and the colonnaded streets of Jerash to the desert settings and fortifications on the confines of the empire that will perpetuate it beyond the Romans. We can discover extensive Roman trade routes through the nomadic way of life in Wadi Rum.”
According to Arya, Amman—the eponymous “Roman Philadelphia”—eventually came under Roman rule as a semi-autonomous city. It was one of 10 such Hellenistic cities, known as the Decapolis, that were situated on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire and awarded similar freedoms. Rome was neither the first nor the last society to lay claim to Amman, but it was a notable period in the city’s history.
“It was in the Roman phase that the city enjoyed a truly privileged position in this region of the empire, displaying wealth and prestige throughout the city,” Arya said.
Much of this prosperity was due to trade.
Caravan Routes and Ancient Politics
Portions of ancient Roman monuments, which made up the center of the ancient city of Philadelphia, still stand in Amman’s modern urban sprawl. One is the famous Hashemite Plaza, which was named after the royal Jordanian family, the Hashemites. Arya visited it as part of his journey in Traveling the Roman Empire.
“I’m in the heart of ancient Philadelphia in the 2nd century CE,” he said. “There already was an impressive Hellenistic center, but under the Romans, the prosperity really took off. It all started with Pompey the Great, who conquered Syria and the Levant in 63 BCE. As a result, this city, always along the caravan route passing from north to south down to the Arabian Peninsula, truly benefitted, and we have this impressive, important stop on that caravan route in this magnificent city.”
Now a spot for strolling and socializing, it was once the center of politics for Philadelphia.
The Decapolis Wasn’t Built in a Day
Jordan is in many ways a microcosm for the entire Roman Empire. The cities in the Decapolis, which enjoyed a degree of autonomy despite being under Roman rule, are emblematic of Rome’s policy not to fully force cultural assimilation on its territories. Whether out of respect, fear, or arbitrary decision-making, Roman rulers in pre-Christian times seldom imposed their own ways onto the lands they conquered.
In an exclusive interview, Wondrium’s own Jessica Darago, who served as writer-producer on Traveling the Roman Empire, expanded on the series.
“In that episode, we’re visiting Jordan and some of the cities that used to belong to the Decapolis,” Darago said. “Looking at their Roman foundations, looking at not just what you see of Rome in Jordanian culture today and obviously in the architecture in the city layout and so forth, but also [at] what the Romans themselves might have experienced in terms of the food and the music and the culture and the language.
“It’s a really interesting perspective: What remains of the past but also how we can put ourselves in the shoes of the Romans, and that’s true for every episode.”
Darago said that we tend to think of Rome as an enormous monolith, but the Romans were consistent in allowing the people they conquered to maintain their own traditions. Until the Christian period, Rome wasn’t interested in forcing its religion, language, or culture on others.
“They let the Nabateans be the Nabateans; they let the Moroccans be the Moroccans,” she said. “But they still have this reach, this two-way street of contact and culture, and that’s what we’re exploring.”
On Unfamiliar Territory
According to Darago, the series is very much Darius Arya’s brainchild. Not only is he an accomplished archaeologist, but he’s also based in Rome, making him very comfortable with the subject matter—and he skipped the tourist traps.
“This is his bread and butter, this is what he does, this is his passion,” she said. “Instead of going to the places that you might think are the most obvious—like we could’ve gone to the Colosseum—what he’s really doing is finding these hidden gems. For example, in the city of Rome, we visit the Jewish quarter, which is not quite as old as the city itself, but it’s more than 2,000 [years old].”
In Morocco, the crew visited a tannery that has stood since before Roman times. Meanwhile, one episode is dedicated to the city of Petra, which came to fame in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Darago referred to the territories covered in Traveling the Roman Empire as “stunningly beautiful,” including Arya climbing mountains in Petra.
“Even if you’re not into Roman history […] maybe try it out; it’s different from anything else you’ve seen before,” she said. “For everybody else, it’s sort of the breadth of it, how much we managed to cover in these eight episodes. There’s something that’s going to interest everybody who’s interested in travel and interested in history, in this series.”
Traveling the Roman Empire is now available to stream on Wondrium.