The Road from Rome

By: J. J.

Originally Published in 1935

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An Expedition from the Museum excavated at the site of Minturnae, Italy, from 1931 to 1933, uncovering its Republican forum, its theatre, seven temples, considerable stretches of the pre-Roman and Roman fortification walls, many sculptures in marble, architectural decoration in terracotta and diverse inscriptions. Minturnae has contributed most importantly to Roman Republican archaeology and Dr. Jotham Johnson, Field Director of the expedition, here gives a brief account of the city during that period.

A HUNDRED miles south of Rome lies the fertile Vescian Plain. an alluvial triangle a dozen miles across, shut in on the north and east by mountains and on the southwest, the long side, by the Mediterranean. It ls divided by the& deep river Liris, the Garigliano, if you look for it on a modern map-once the boundary between Latum and Campania.

View of mountains
Plate VI — The Auruncian Mountains looking northwest from the excavations

The Ausonee, one of the earliest Italic peoples to invade southern Italy, settled in the delta of the Liris and built three drowsy market towns. Ausonia and Vescia were obliterated by Rome so thoroughly that no one today knows where they lay. But fate reserved a different lot for the third. Minturnae was built on a slight rise in the marshy ground on the river bank, a mile from the Mediterranean; in a grove down by the sea the Ausones built a temple to the ineffectual fever-goddess Marica, and made a law that nothing which was brought into the grove might ever be taken away.

Late in the sixth century B. C. certain Etruscan princes who had been well settled in north-central Italy for several hundred years found themselves better armed, or better organized, or more energetic than their neighbors and with their devoted followers set out to north and south on careers of personal conquest. The legends of their occupation of Rome are our nursery tales; to the south they pushed on through the Vescian Plain, across Campania, past Naples, toward Calabria.

At about this time someone built a massive wall around Minturnae, mode of heavy limestone boulders from the hills, with square towers at the corners and several gates, enclosing a town of about seven acres. Ausonia and Vescia would have been too jealous to exalt Minturnae at their own expense, and too poor; I do not believe the Ausonians built it. Perhaps an Etruscan chief discovered that the Liris was one of the finest harbors in all ancient Italy, and built this fort to protect it. He may have started here a larger with Greece and the East.

Our knowledge of the Ausonians ends about there. True, Italian workers have excavated their Temple of Marica, but Its architecture agrees too closely with Etruscan models to allow for an independent Ausonian school; the wall of Minturnae has been found by our expedition, but its construction too may be Etruscan. Nothing else of the Ausonian city has been laid bare. No Ausonian inscriptions have been found, if indeed these people knew how to write; we do not even know to which of the great language stocks of Italy their tongue belonged, Latin or Oscan.

Crumbled walls of massive stone blocks
Plate VI — A tangle of city walls, including a pentagonal tower

In time the Etruscans over-extended themselves, and were thrown out of Rome, then out of Campania. Their sphere of influence was divided; the Roman in Latium and the Samnites in the south got the lion’s shares.

As Rome’s population and power grew she looked longingly at the fertile plains of Campania and plotted their methodical conquest. She reduced the surviving Etruscans to impotence in order to turn her attention undisturbed to the south. She annexed all of Latium as quietly and bloodlessly as the Latins would permit, She built an experimental fort, Ostia, a few miles away at the Tiber mouth, and never repeated the mistakes she made there. As early as 340 B.C. she gave clear warning of her intentions by invading Samnite territory, defeating them and setting up a protectorate over the Ausonians-a poor job that later required doing over again. In 312 B.C. she laid down a path to the Samnite door, the Appian Way, and fortified it with walled cities every few miles, like raisins on a string.

Roman colonies were to Romanize. the universe; so Rome found the perfect pavement for her road to Empire. The older East had known middleman colonies at seaports and in important mining districts; Greek cities had established expatriate communities in Russia and Italy to get rid of the least desirable units of their over-population; we have seen how Minturnae may have sheltered an Etruscan garrison, perhaps even a naval base.

But it is as Rome’s fourth citizen colony, founded in 925 B.C. on the Appian Way, that Minturnae’s real history begins. Of all those colonies which have been excavated none is more enlightening; yet none asks more questions for future archaeologists to answer.

Excavated orchestra area of a theatre made of stepped stone blocks
Plate VII — Theatre at Minturane.
The orchestra

In the first place, the rule-books say that the Romans should have flattened the wall of the older city, plowed over it, perhaps, and declared its site accursed, they did at Carthage. Livy, in fact, implies that they did, We know better; the old fort remained, pretty much intact, in the northeast corner of the new city. Why? As a reservation for the aborigines, or as a barracks for the Roman garrison in arms, or as an acropolis? Athens had no monopoly of acropolises; every self-respecting Greek city contrived to enclose within its walls a small hill on which it built a secondary defense and its richest temple, as last likely to fall by assault. Romans did likewise; their acropolis was called the arx, and on it stood the famous Capitolium, triple shrine of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, focus of the state religion. The old fort of Minturnae, on the highest hummock in this flat plain, would look suspiciously like an arx if we had not found the colonial Capitolium somewhere else.

Roman Minturnae was planned first but not foremost as an impregnable fortress. Its wall, eight feet thick, twenty-odd feet high, a mile and third around, a royal ransom of stone and human strain, speaks grimly of the self-reliance imposed upon the colonists; with that wall and their swords, the Samnites might truly be kept at arm’s length.

But otherwise Minturnae was dedicated to the comfort of self-supporting civilian population of several thousands. Probably the plans were drawn before ever a contingent left Rome. The soldiers took their wives and children and each received a plot of confiscated Ausonian ground to till-a vast improvement, in Rome’s opinion, over Ostia which had room only for a few hundred fed at tax-payers’ expense.

View of stone vaults and a dark rectangular hallway
Plate VII — Theatre at Minturane.
Supporting vaults from outside and the great drain under the orchestra

The Appian Way formed the axis of the town. Parallel to this, at right angles to it, were laid out other streets, cutting the whole city into uniform rectangular blocks. Certain zones along the walls were kept free of all construction and reserved for the movement of troops. Most of the blocks were set aside for dwellings, with special consideration of the requirements of smiths, potters, weavers and other small manufacturers.

Several areas were devoted to civic uses. Our expedition had the good fortune to find the most important of all these public squares, the forum of the ancient city, on the first day of work-although it was many months before we had uncovered it all and realized what a prize we had. Now for the first time we know what the Romans intended a forum to be, far better than their capital can tell us, because Rome’s own forum grew with the city, and became an almost unintelligible archaeological hodge-podge.

The market-places of the Mediterranean, the agoras of Greek towns and the fora of Italy, were religious, political, legal, commercial and social centers. There the more public rituals of the official worship were observed, there the administration of government was approved or condemned, and there the vast majority of the legal and commercial business was carried out; there on the weekly market-day the peasants brought their wares to sell; and finally, the forum was the social focus of the community. Since all of these businesses could be performed in the open air, the obvious first requirement, and the only absolute essential, was an open space large enough to contain most of the population at once.

A stone head partially protruding from the ground, and the same head shown in front view cleaned off
Plate VIII — Discovering a marble head in the ruins of the theatre entrance; The same head, cleaned

Minturnae was well off; in one corner of the forum, beside the Appian Way, stood a small temple of Jupiter, and all around the margins stood rows of small shops, called taverns, tabernae, though few or none were restaurants. These shops were owned by the town and rented to concessionaires. By this time Greece had taken to surrounding her market-places with great colonnades, where the citizens could seek refuge alike from the raw rains of winter and the blistering summer sun; but the idea had not reached Italy.

That we know so much about Minturnae’s forum is due not so much to the skill with which it was excavated as to a casual observation by Livy, that at Minturnae the temple of Jupiter and the taverns around the forum were struck by lightning (and, presumably, burned) in 191 B.C., just a century after its construction. With that, and the forum laid bare, it was easy to isolate the foundations of a temple and tabernae which had been burned at the start of the second century and over-built by new structures.

We even discovered sixty bronze coins, mostly from just before 191 B.C., none later, in the ashes of one shop, just to leave no room for doubt or dispute. We need not feel too sorry for the shopkeeper. These coins represented his ready change, not his life’s savings, and probably equaled less than a day’s take. The loss of his stock was a greater misfortune. If the Minturnese were required to build an entirely new forum, they could not have chosen a better moment. The date coincided with Rome’s annexation of Greece.

A woman cleaning of statue head in a large bucket of water
Plate VIII — Miss Agnes K. Lake cleaning the marble head of a goddess
Image Number: 25979

Rome had traveled far in a century and veterans came back from the wars in Macedonia full of enthusiasm for Greek architecture and soon, the historians tell us, colonnades and basilicas were springing up all over Rome. One of the new colonnades was built in the Minturnae forum to replace the burned tabernae; this we dug out and for the first time we can see what the earliest Greco-Roman architecture looks like. This great three-winged colonnade was planned exactly like the familiar Greek stoas, enclosing the forum on the west, north and east, and filling practically the same purpose.

Of course a Greek might have had difficulty in recognizing the kinship of the Minturnae colonnade with the Greek stoa. It was raised out of the wet on a high platform, like an Italic temple, but unlike public buildings in hilly Greece where drainage is no problem. The decoration up above was wholly in gay Italic terra-cottas, painted white and black, blue and red, gold and magenta; a Greek architect, raised in the austere school, would have been displeased.

Within the wings of the colonnade was built a new temple to replace the old, a triple-cella one this time, the seventh such to be found in all Italy. It became the Capitolium of the colony, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva like the one at Rome.

I could go on to tell you how Marius the Dictator was caught there by Sulla’s horsemen, but was freed again by the magistrates; about the voluminous records of four minor religious cults of the city, which came to light in the base-course of a later temple; how the forum was struck by lightening again and burned about 50 B.C. scaring the townsmen into building a great sacrificial well to bury the lightning; how the stoa and the Capitolium were erected on their old foundations and decorated with two marble fountains; of Cicero and Pompey and Caesar and Anthony who raced through many a time along the Appian Way; of Tiberius who passed by on his visits to Capri and the soldiers and countries and messengers who traveled between there and Rome, stopping to revel in the inns of Minturnae; and how the city dragged on its decay through to the end of Roman history; but tales like those are true, and could be told, of any provincial town in Italy and there are many other writers to describe them for you.

J. J.

Cite This Article

J., J.. "The Road from Rome." Museum Bulletin VI, no. 2 (December, 1935): 57-65. Accessed July 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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