At Large  July 26, 2021  Christopher Siwicki

Want to See an Ancient Roman City? Don't go to Rome.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The market building (foreground) and Basilica (background) at Saepinum.

Although there are innumerable monuments and open archaeological areas across Rome, most of the ancient city still lies underneath the modern one, making it very difficult to get an overall sense of its former appearance. The same is true for other Italian cities, such as Naples, Verona, and Bologna. These all were Roman settlements, but because they have been continuously occupied since antiquity, the ancient remains are hidden under later phases.

Other towns, however, were partially abandoned after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, which meant they were not covered over by more recent buildings and this has allowed archaeologists to excavate them more fully. These sites provide a much better idea of what Roman towns looked like.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Tabernae at Saepinum.

One of the best examples is a short train ride from the capital towards the coast. The city of Ostia served as Rome’s harbour and, in the first century AD, had a population of approximately 50,000 people. Large areas of the city were excavated in the twentieth century, exposing the forum, a theatre, and temples, as well as warehouses and multistorey apartment blocks known as insulae.

The most famous Roman-era towns where it is possible for visitors to again walk along the ancient streets are Pompeii and Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples, which were buried in the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Here, the bars, shops, brothels, and houses attract more attention than the monumental public buildings.

Yet Roman settlements are found across Italy, and others which also allow for a greater understanding of ancient urbanism are less well-known. In the mountains of the Abruzzo region, lies the remote archaeological site of Iuvanum (modern Juvanum). Located 1000 meters above sea level, it presents a spectacular view of the Majella mountains.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The Theatre at Iuvanum.

The town began as a religious sanctuary founded by the Samnites, the Italic people who occupied this part of Italy in antiquity. In the second century BC, two temples were constructed on top of the rocky outcrop which dominates the site, and later a small theatre was built into the slope.

In 91 BC, the Samnites rebelled against Roman rule in an action known as the Social War. The outcome was that all Italic groups, not just the Latins, were granted Roman citizenship. Following this, in the second half of the first century BC, a significant new phase of building began at Iuvanum.

The Forum at Iuvanum.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The Forum at Iuvanum.

Another view of the Forum at Iuvanum.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Another view of the Forum at Iuvanum.

A large, rectangular, paved, open space known as a forum was laid out. This was surrounded by tabernae (shops and administrative buildings) on three sides, and a two-story basilica for civic functions was built on the fourth. Outside of the forum, the remains of houses have also been excavated and a bathing complex was added much later in the fourth century AD.

Today, it is possible to walk around and appreciate the entire site, even if most of the walls do not survive above waist height, as much of the stone was taken by later generations to construct new buildings elsewhere.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The Forum at Saepinum.

Further south, in the neighboring region of Molise, are the remains of the Roman town of Saepinum. Like Iuvanum, Saepinum was originally a Samnite settlement, likely dating back to the fourth century BC. Much of the town as seen today belongs to the first century AD, when key structures such as the forum, basilica, baths, theatre, markets, and sewers were built or rebuilt.

Also at this time, the emperor Tiberius paid for the construction of the visually striking town walls. These are made using small limestone pieces arranged in a diamond pattern, a technique known as opus reticulatum. This type of construction was commonly used for the walls of buildings not defensive structures, and the creation of the Saepinum’s circuit was as much a status symbol as a practical necessity.

Street in Saepinum.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Street in Saepinum.

another view of a street in Saepinum.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Another view of a street in Saepinum.

By the sixth century AD, parts of the town had fallen into ruin; by the ninth century, it was largely abandoned. Later, parts were reoccupied and houses were constructed into the ruins of the ancient ones, often reusing architectural pieces, statues, and inscriptions as building material, as can still be seen.

These are only two of many examples of smaller, less well-known sites across Italy which in various ways help us understand more about Roman urbanism and the lived experience of the ancients than some of the more famous and more visited cities do.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

House with a Roman inscription resued as building material at Saepinum.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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