Tuesday, July 16, 2024

‘Backwater’ town was bustling trade hub that rewrites Roman history

A Roman town once considered so unpromising that no one bothered to excavate it boasted a bustling river port, rare roofed theatre and fine monumental buildings — and rewrites the history of Italy, according to archaeologists.

The newly released findings of a 13-year investigation, including excavations and comprehensive geophysical surveys, show that Interamna Lirenas was a far more significant and impressive settlement than historians had realised. It was evidently part of a complex regional trading network that prospered well into the imperial period, when Italy was thought to have been in steady decline.

Archaeologist Dr Alessandro Launaro, the study’s author and Interamna Lirenas Project lead at Cambridge’s Classics Faculty, said: “There was nothing on the surface, no visible evidence of buildings, just bits of broken pottery. But what we discovered wasn’t a backwater — far from it. We found a thriving town adapting to every challenge thrown at it for 900 years.”

The town, near Monte Cassino (ancient Casinum), in southern Lazio, was founded as a Latin colony in 312BC and served as a bulwark during Rome’s early expansion in Italy. It stood on the Via Latina, a major road leading south from Rome, and was one of only four Roman towns known to have had the personal patronage of Julius Caesar.

Drone view showing the excavation of the street separating the town’s basilica, top, from the theatre. Photo: Alessandro Launaro

Despite all this, traditional narratives suggested that, by the late Republican period, after the threat from Samnites and Carthaginians was long gone, Interamna Lirenas was a sleepy backwater. During the reign of Augustus, the main route of the Via Latina was altered and bypassed it, for one thing. And historians have argued that agricultural communities across Italy stagnated in the imperial period as they were sidelined in pan-Mediterranean trade by booming overseas provinces.

This gloomy picture appeared to be corroborated forty years ago, when Canadian archaeologists studied the distribution of sherds of high-quality tablewares and imported amphorae (storage jars) in the soil above Interamna Lirenas. Based on their findings, they concluded that occupation peaked in the late second to early first centuries BC, at around 74 acres, before shrinking to 25 acres by the first century AD.

No excavations were carried out until a team from the University of Cambridge decided to investigate the site 13 years ago.

“We started with a site so unpromising that no one had ever tried to excavate it — that’s very rare in Italy,” said Launaro, a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. The archaeologists were nevertheless drawn to the site by its precious “greenfield” nature and ideal conditions for geophysical surveys and field-walking on ploughed land.

Studying the distribution of pottery used for everyday cooking and storage was key to reinterpreting the site. Photo: Alessandro Launaro

Although their study, published in the edited volume Roman Urbanism in Italy, identifies splendid municipal buildings, humble potsherds proved to be revelatory. In one exercise, Launaro and his colleagues mapped the town’s development using tens of thousands of pieces of “commonware”, used for everyday cooking and storage. By giving due weight to these sherds as well as the more expensive pottery and amphorae that archaeologists have previously focused on, they showed that the town resisted decline until the later part of the third century AD. That is around 300 years later than had been assumed.

At its peak of population in the first or second century AD, they estimate that it housed around 2,000 people. Launaro said: “Based on the relative lack of imported pottery, archaeologists have assumed that Interamna Lirenas was a declining backwater. We now know that wasn’t the case.”

Because the site was mostly open fields, the archaeologists were able to conduct a magnetic and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of around 60 acres, producing a detailed plan of the entire town’s layout. They also launched a series of targeted excavations around the forum — the main public square, marketplace and civic centre.

A reconstruction showing the exterior of the roofed theatre built in the late first century BC. Image: Alessandro Launaro

The archaeologists discovered that the sector immediately to the north of the forum underwent significant redevelopment at the beginning of the imperial period, in the late first century BC. Their excavations identified a roofed theatre that would have seated 1,500 people and towered over an open terrace that may have been an elegant garden. An inscription suggests construction was partly funded by one Anoptes, a freedman of the powerful Sulpicii Galbae family that likely had local trading connections.

Roofed theatres are rare in Roman Italy and represent a significant upgrade on open-air structures, acoustically and architecturally. The structure incorporated marble imported from across the central and eastern Mediterranean. Launaro said: “The fact that this town went for a roofed theatre, such a refined building, does not fit with a backwater in decline. This theatre was a major status symbol. It displayed the town’s wealth, power and ambition.”

Significantly, the archaeologists found evidence of the theatre undergoing improvements over time, including to the stage’s architectural background. An inscription stating that M Sentius Crispinus was honoured with a bisellium (a double-seat) at some point between the third and fourth centuries AD.

An inscribed limestone sundial, uncovered at the theatre site, probably stood nearby in the forum and celebrates the election of a local man, Marcus Novius Tubula, to the high office of plebeian tribune of Rome.

On the other side of the Via Latina from the theatre, there is a temple sanctuary that has not yet been excavated. Launaro said: “It has a very beautiful plan — a temple at the centre of a large open terrace with a portico [a covered walkway supported by columns] on three sides. It is built onto the side of a hill, dominating and looking out over the river valley. It provides a vantage point, but also views into the town from outside. A lot of the town’s public buildings, rather than being located on the internal road, are visible from outside as a way of celebrating and conveying the success and wealth of the community.”

A reconstruction of the theatre’s interior, showing seating that could accommodate 1,500 people. Image: Alessandro Launaro

Testament to that prosperity, Interamna Lirenas had at least four bathhouse complexes. The largest of these (circa 2,400m2), located not far from the forum, featured a sizeable swimming pool surrounded by a portico. An inscription tells us that the portico was a gift from M Sentius Crispinus sometime in the third or fourth centuries AD. A second reveals that, in 408, another member of this same family, M Sentius Redemptus, saved the baths from “collapsing” and kept them in operation. This provides evidence that even when Italy’s decline was in full swing — two years before the Sack of Rome by Alaric and his Visigoths — Interamna Lirenas continued to exist as a civic centre of some relevance.

Crucially, GPR survey near the River Liri revealed the presence of a large (40m x 12m) warehouse, a temple and a bath complex. The researchers are confident that these structures all served a river port between the late first century BC and the fourth century AD. “This explains the role of the town as a kind of hub and would have been crucial to its success,” said Launaro. “It wasn’t only located on a main road, but also on its intersection with a navigable river. The river port enabled Interamna Lirenas to profit from trade between Aquinum and Casinum, key centres to the north, and Minturnae and the Tyrrhenian coast to the southeast.

“River ports didn’t just need warehouses,” he added. “People spent a lot of time working and resting in the vicinity so they needed all kinds of amenities, just like the ones we found here.

Plan showing different categories of features in the town. Image: Alessandro Launaro

The crops that would have been stored and traded at Interamna Lirenas included wine and olive oil. The town probably also played a key role in the region’s wool trade and the team found an open space of over an acre to the southeast that served as a sheep and cattle market. Although the main route of the Via Latina may have been altered to expedite longer-distance travel, the archaeologists believe the old branch in the town remained an important local and regional artery.

Their surveys indicate that the town was very densely occupied, with around 190 small houses, 25 larger houses of 500-1,000m2 and five individual dwellings over 1,000 m2. Nineteen large courtyard buildings are thought to represent a mix of apartment blocks, shopping complexes, public warehouses and guildhalls. As at Pompeii and Herculaneum, there are no signs of zoning or separation by social status.

The archaeologists did not find a layer of ash or other telltale evidence to suggest that Interamna Lirenas was violently destroyed. Launaro argues that inhabitants probably deserted the town amid growing insecurity but before the Lombard invasion of the late sixth century AD, because they knew they were on a route that marauding armies were likely to use.

The team expect that future reappraisals of other Italian settlements in light of their findings will reveal broader patterns of continuity. Launaro said: “We’re not saying that this town was special — it’s far more exciting than that. We think many other average Roman towns in Italy were just as resilient. It’s just that archaeologists have only recently begun to apply the right techniques and approaches to see this.”

The longstanding narrative of Roman Italy’s decline is not only based on ideas around economic competition with the provinces. Over time, more senators and emperors certainly hailed from other places such as Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, undermining Italy’s historic preeminence. However, Launaro points out that, at the same time, Italians built careers and made fortunes in the provinces and invested the proceeds back home.

He believes that, while overseas demand for Italian products such as wine and olive oil dropped in the imperial period, markets within Italian regions held up — sustaining trading hubs such as Interamna Lirenas over many centuries. He said: “People have been looking for participation in pan-Mediterranean exchange networks as primary evidence of the presence of people and the success of communities. This town was a bit on the margins of that distribution network, but was at the same time alive and thriving in relation to a regional network between Rome and southern Italy.”

A Republican-era roof fixture depicting a Gorgon. Photo: Alessandro Launaro

He added: “Generally, there has been a sense that Italy was undergoing a political, economic and even demographic crisis by the second century AD. That’s because we don’t find a lot of the traditional diagnostic evidence for that period, which is primarily imported from other provinces, especially North Africa. However, the moment you start looking for evidence of local and regional networks — and you must imagine political networks as well as economic ones — you start to see continuity. Instead of a crisis, it is a transformation.”

As for Interamna Lirenas’ greatest claim to fame, the team’s reappraisal of an inscription found in the 19th century, now lost, confirmed that the town gained the patronage of Julius Caesar in 46BC. Launaro argues that this did not in fact make it exceptional or explain its longterm success, but gives some insights into Caesar’s methods.

He said: “Caesar needed to strengthen his hold on Italy by building political relationships with all sorts of Italian communities, in keeping with an old practice of Roman politicians. We know of ancient Roman advice to people wanting a political career to make sure to cultivate relationships, especially with those who live in small towns — because they really appreciate being given importance.

“In this case, we’re talking about a couple of years before Caesar’s murder. Yes, he was the master of Rome. But as we know, that wasn’t as secure a hold on power as many may have thought. And it was very important for him to keep loyal centres throughout Italy, because a place like Interamna could potentially help in the event of conflict by closing the door to his enemies — perhaps by knocking down bridges.

“Also, given its importance as a hub, it was the place where he could stock things to supply his own armies if problems were to arise again. For me, the inscription is less about understanding Interamna, and more about understanding Caesar.”

Today’s residents of Pignataro Interamna, the nearest town to the site, have taken their newfound history to heart. Some of the archaeologists’ finds are displayed in the town hall and locals are invited to open days during the summer digging season. Launaro said: “This community has been inspired by this story of reinvention and resilience. They have even renamed the local café [Meridiana Lounge] after the sundial we discovered.”

The image at the top of the article is a view of the excavations at the roofed theatre of Interamna Lirenas, Lazio, from the northeast. Photo: Alessandro Launaro

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