Forum of Peace excavation reveals millennia of Roman history

An excavation of the Temple of Peace built by Vespasian in the Imperial Forum in Rome has revealed thousands of years of Roman history, without even reaching the imperial era yet.

The Templum Pacis was built by the emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 A.D.) between 71 and 75 A.D. in celebration of his victories in the First Jewish–Roman War. Vespasian had personally led the Roman legions that crushed the rebellion in Galilee in 67 A.D. and after his elevation to the purple took him to Rome in 69 A.D., he left his son Titus behind to besiege Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell to Rome in the summer of 70 A.D. The loot from the sacking of Jerusalem funded the construction of Vespasian’s new temple to Pax, the goddess of peace.

A large and important temple facing what would become the Colosseum, The Temple of Peace is probably best remembered today for something added to it long after Vespasian’s death. It was the home of the Forma Urbis, an incredibly detailed map of Rome 60 feet wide carved on 150 marble slabs that documented the floorplans of every building, monument, bath, street and even staircases in the city to a scale of 1:240. It was hung on an interior wall of the temple by the emperor Septimius Severus in the first decade of the 3rd century. It was damaged in the 410 A.D. sack of Rome by Alaric, and gradually more and more of it was lost. Like much ancient marble, in the Middle Ages it was harvested to make lime. Today only 1,186 pieces of it (10-15% of the original) survive, and they are still being puzzled together.

The excavation of the eastern section of the temple, an area never archaeologically investigated before, began in June 2022 and came to a close just last week.

The discovery of cellars and large kilns, which can be easily imagined to have been the fate of many imperial marbles transformed into lime, reveals to archaeologists the evidence of the great complexity of the area, which had not been subject to archaeological investigations until now. Moreover, with the upcoming excavations, thanks also to the funds from the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR), it will probably be possible to reach the imperial phases and, why not, even the earlier ones. The hope is that this relatively small section of the Imperial Forums, not adequately investigated with the currently used methodologies, may bring some new interesting data to the understanding of an area that is only seemingly well-known: written sources, views, nineteenth-century photographs, and old-style digs (not scientific excavations) from the first half of the twentieth century do not represent a sufficient heritage to understand the phases in a city that has been constantly transforming for millennia like Rome.

Republican domus with unprecedented mosaic found in Rome

Archaeologists in Rome have discovered a late Republican-era luxury villa with a spectacular wall mosaic so complex in design and materials that it is unparalleled anywhere in the Roman world. The mosaic dates to the last decades of the 2nd century B.C. and is so exceptional it points to the owner of the villa having been of senatorial rank, confirming ancient sources’ accounts of grand residences belonging to senatorial families on the northwest flank of the Palatine.

The domus was discovered in the course of an archaeological survey of the ancient Vicus Tuscus, a commercial street that linked the river port on the Tiber to the Roman Forum. The street was lined with grain warehouses (horrea) built by Augustus’ right-hand man, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, after he was elected aedile (the magistrate in charge of Rome’s buildings) in 33 B.C.

The villa predates Agrippa’s construction of the horrea. It was built in several terraced levels behind the warehouse area between the Forum and the Palatine Hill. There were at least three distinct building phases between the second half of the 2nd century B.C. and the end of the 1st century B.C. The main surviving part of the domus today is the specus aestivus, a banqueting room built in imitation of a cave with water features that kept it cool for feasting in the hot Roman summers. (The Nymphaeum of the Rain created 2,000 years later just up the hill was inspired by these types of rooms.)

It was in this large room that the extraordinary mosaic covering an entire wall was found. Created in the so-called “rustic” style with a variety of materials, including Egyptian blue tiles, glass, flakes of white marble, travertine fragments, coarse pebbles of volcanic pozzolana and sea shells, the wall mosaic depicts a complex layering of figurative scenes in vivid outline. The architectural background consists of four domed shrines defined by pilasters decorated with vases filled with lotus flowers and vine leaves. There are stacks of weapons and carnyces, the fearsome Celtic war trumpets, ships with tridents and the rudders of triremes, all of which may refer to important battle victories on land and sea of the villa’s owner.

A lunette above the architectural setting contains a landscape of a city with a cliff overlooking a sea. Three large ships, one with raised sails, cross the water. Defensive walls with towers and gates surround the city. There’s a large public building within and a pastoral scene on the side. The well-defended coastal city may be another reference to a war fought by the owner of the domus.

The domus and its unprecedented mosaic are very early examples of the kind of luxury that was held in suspicion by Republican traditionalists as imports from the monarchies of the Near East. The conflict between the political factions in the senate went from debates to armed combat, exploding into civil war and the ultimate demise of the Roman Republic in the mid-1st century B.C.

Exceptional female statue found in Tusculum

Archaeologists from the Spanish School of History and Archaeology of Rome (EEHAR) have unearthed an exceptional marble statue of a female figure at the ancient city of Tusculum 15 miles outside Rome. The statue is life-sized, and is missing its head and some of its arms, but the flawless white Parian marble and the quality of the carving are extraordinary.

The missing parts makes it difficult to identify, but the upper body is draped in a fawn skin, an attribute of followers of Dionysus. This depiction is typically dated to between the mid-1st century B.C. and the mid-1st century A.D. The statue was carved in the round and fine details of the draping, the wet fabric of the chiton clinging to her skin, the workmanship of the fawn skin are superior, comparable to some of the greatest works of antiquity like the Aphrodite Areia found in Epidaurus and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Tusculum was an ancient Latin city in the Alban Hills. Its legendary history attributes its founding to mythological Greek heroes (Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe) or their descendants (Latinus Silvius, the fourth great-grandson of Aeneas), but the earliest archaeological evidence suggests it had an established population by the 8th or 7th century B.C. The monumental city walls date to the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., the same period when Tusculum allied itself with Rome against its neighboring Latin tribes.

That alliance was cemented in 381 B.C. when Tusculum became the first municipium cum suffragio, a self-governing city whose citizens had the right to vote and hold public office in Rome. This category was reserved for cities whose populations at every social stratum (not just the governing elites), had demonstrated a strong desire to integrate with the Roman Republic.

In the late Republic, Tusculum became a fashionable location for country villas. The most prominent and wealthy families in Rome built large homes there to flee the heat of the Eternal City in the summer. The remains of than 130 luxury villas and country estates have been documented even though most of the town has not been excavated. They came to dominate Tusculum so thoroughly that the city itself dimmed in importance and became little more than an adjunct to the summer homes of the wealthy. Cicero had a villa there, as did generations of Cato the Elder’s family and the imperial Flavii family.

The statue dates to the period of Tusculum’s heyday as an enclave of Rome’s elite. It was unearthed in the last excavation campaign (October 2022-July 2023) in an area near the forum where a monumental baths complex was built in the Hadrianic period (117-138 A.D.). It was found face-down on a thin layer of painted stucco that originally adorned the walls of the thermal baths.

It was exhibited in public for the first time on Friday at the Aldobrandini Scuderie in Frascati. The exhibition ends Saturday, but it will undergo conservation in public view at the museum.

Tiberian Palace reopens on the Palatine

More than 50 years after it was closed due to concerns over its structural integrity, the 1st century Tiberian Palace has reopened to visitors. Millions of tourists have looked up from the Roman Forum to admire the dramatic monumental brick arches on several levels on the slope of the Palatine, but they’ve had to be content to observe from afar as the massive structures were in danger of sliding down the hill.

The Domus Tiberiana was the first of the imperial palaces to be planned and constructed as a single comprehensive unit. The palace was built on the northwest corner of the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum and the Imperial Forum. The imperial residence was only one part of the complex which included gardens, baths, religious sanctuaries, restaurants, service buildings, barracks for the Praetorian Guards and a whole neighborhood of artisans and craftsmen dedicated to the construction and maintenance of the palace.

Although named after the emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37 A.D.), it was built by a later Julian-Claudian emperor. The earliest archaeological evidence suggests it was actually Nero who had it built in the aftermath of the great fire of 64 A.D. at the same time he was building his even more extravagant personal residence, the Domus Aurea. It underwent several phases of expansion and reconstruction, most notably under Domitian (81-96 A.D.) and Hadrian (117-138 A.D.). At its largest extent, it covered an area of four hectares.

After the end of the Western Empire, the palace remained in sporadic use, administered on behalf of the Byzantine emperor. It was still in such good condition that Pope John VII (r. 705-707 A.D.), whose father had been curator of the Palatine for Emperors Constantine IV and Justinian II, had it restored and used it as his residence. By the 10th century, however, the palace was in ruin and was pillaged for its stone, its prized marbles ground up to make lime. In the late 13th century, the ruins were used for burials.

The site was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1550 who filled in the monumental remains and built a splendid pleasure garden, the first private botanical gardens in Europe. He imported rare plants from all over the world and built a wonderland of aviaries, grottos, terraces and staircases rising from what had once been the Forum but for centuries had been grazing pasture for cattle. The cardinal also installed ancient statuary he’d discovered on his properties and acquired from impoverished Roman nobility. The Farnese Gardens became a must-see stop on the Grand Tour.

After the demise of the last Farnese of the male line in 1731, the family fortune was inherited by the Bourbon kings of Naples who helped themselves to all the statuary and let the villa and gardens fall into decay. What was left of the gardens was acquired by the newly-unified Italian state in 1870 and the focus shifted to excavating the ancient structures Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had built his terrestrial paradise on top of.

Excavations in the late 19th century uncovered a loggia composed of two rows of arches more than 50 feet high with a marble parapet and rich remains of frescoes and decorative stuccos on the ceiling of interior rooms. Archaeologists at the time attributed this structure to Caligula based on a comment in Suetonius that Caligula built a bridge between the Palatine and Capitoline, but in fact this loggia dates to the reconstruction of the palace under Domitian.

Since the site was closed in 1970, archaeologists have worked to stabilize and restore the palace. Excavations have revealed a more accurate timeline of the site and multidisciplinary studies have combined information from stratigraphy with the findings of the anthropological, faunal and paleobotanical research to shed new light on centuries of life at the Domus Tiberiana.

The reopened palace is accessed through the ramp of Domitian, the path trod by the emperor and his entourage to reach his private residence. A new permanent exhibition, Imago Imperi, displays artifacts illustrating the history of the palace in 13 rooms that open along the ramp. Statuary (including the looted head of Pan that was recently repatriated), coins, metal, glass, ceramics and more discovered in decades of excavations at the site showcase how the complex was used over the centuries. Among the notable new discoveries are three sanctuaries dedicated to different mystery cults (Dionysus, Isis and Mithras) and a fresco from the Augustan era that is the first known representation of a lemon in Italy.

Nero’s theater discovered in Rome

The remains of the Emperor Nero’s private theater have been discovered under the internal courtyard of the 15th century Palazzo della Rovere in Vatican City. Thus far, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the left side of the semicircular cavea (the seating section) and of the scaenae frons, the architectural background of the Roman stage. In this area archaeologists have also unearthed finely-worked Ionic columns made of precious white and colored marbles and elegant stucco adorned with gold leaf — a type of decoration also found in Nero’s Domus Aurea. A second structure perpendicular to the stage area had service rooms, perhaps used to store scenery and costumes.

The sumptuousness of the architectural elements, the exceptional quality of the craftsmanship and the makers’ stamps on the bricks identify the building as a Julio-Claudian theater that must have been commissioned by a client of the highest rank. The stratigraphic evidence indicates it was only used as a theater for a short time. By the first decades of the 2nd century, the theater complex was already being systematically dismantled so its valuable materials could be reused. The Theatrum Neronis is the only candidate to fit the bill.

The Palazzo della Rovere was built in the late 15th century over the site of the ancient Horti Agrippinae, the gardens of the villa of Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Augustus, mother of the emperor Caligula and grandmother of Nero. It was a grand suburban villa outside the walls of Rome on the left bank of the Tiber and its gardens covered much of what is now Vatican City. After his mother’s death, Caligula built a circus in the gardens to stage chariot races. Nero used it to stage executions of Christians after the Great Fire of 64 A.D., including the crucifixion of Saint Peter. He was buried just a few hundred feet from the Circus on the Via Cornelia. His burial became a shrine and major pilgrimage site. Constantine built the first St. Peter’s Basilica over the shrine and remains of the Circus. The Egyptian obelisk now in St. Peter’s Square was on the spina (the central spine) of Caligula’s Circus and is revered as a witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter.

Nero added a theater next to the circus so he could have a dedicated space to perform his dubious poetry and songs before his adoring public. Or not so adoring, if Suetonius is anything to go by:

While [Nero] was singing no one was allowed to leave the theatre even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall,​ since the gates at the entrance​ were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial.

Only this reference and a couple of others by Pliny the Elder and Tacitus mention Nero’s theater, and they are vague as to location. Over the centuries the theater had taken on a semi-legendary quality, especially since the ancient sources focus heavily on Nero’s excesses, even to the point of exaggeration.

The streets and piazzas around St. Peter’s were drastically altered during the Fascist redesign of Rome in the 1930s. Construction on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad boulevard leading directly from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the basilica, began in 1936 and numerous palaces and churches were demolished or moved to make room for the wide thoroughfare. The Palazzo della Rovere managed to survive the destruction and its façade now looks onto the Via della Conciliazione.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem was given the palace as their new headquarters by Pope Pius XII in 1940. The order has recently leased the palazzo to the Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts group and the building and grounds are undergoing renovations with a planned grand opening in 2025, a Jubilee year. Obviously the site is archaeologically important, so excavations were a requirement in advance of construction.

Archaeologists also found medieval remains at the site, evidence of its popularity as a pilgrimage site due to the connection to St. Peter.

Among the discoveries are 10th century AD glass coloured goblets and pottery pieces that are unusual because so little is known about this period in Rome. […]

Marzia Di Mento, the site’s chief archaeologist, noted that previously only seven glass chalices of the era had been found, and that the excavations of this one site turned up seven more.

All of the portable artifacts will be removed and conserved for eventual museum display. The current plan is to cover up the remains of the theater, but I’m crossing my fingers that the hotel business people are at least as smart as the fast food and grocery people and they’ll cover it with a clear protective layer to make their courtyard into an archaeological park.