The ancient Latin city of Lavinium, according to legend founded by Aeneas, son of Venus, hero of Troy and ancestor of Julius Caesar, has some of the most significant archaeological remains predating the ascendance of Rome. Less than 20 miles from the modern city of Rome, the archaeological site was first excavated in the mid-1950s by Professor Ferdinando Castagnoli from the University of La Sapienza’s Topographical Institute. He and his archaeologist colleague Lucos Cozza unearthed a tumulus 60 feet in diameter richly furnished with more than 60 grave goods dating to the 7th century B.C., including a chariot, weapons, objects made of precious metals and vases for the funerary banquet. It was modified in the 4th century B.C.; a square room with a large tufa door was added. Research found that the Romans called this tumulus the Heroon of Aeneas (a heroon is a shrine dedicated to a hero, usually believed to be built over his tomb or to hold his relics).
Later excavations discovered what would become known as the Sanctuary of the XIII Altars, a cult center where 13 altars made of soft volcanic tufa were carefully lined up for religious rituals. A 14th altar was recently unearthed, and all appear to have been made between the 6th and the 4th century B.C. Archaeologists believe Lavinium was the main religious center of Latium at that time, and that the altars represent each of the important Latin cities. Excavations also unearthed an archaic temple to Minerva and two kilns used to make terracotta votive statuary.
Archaeological evidence indicates the town is very ancient indeed, going back to the 12th century B.C., the Bronze Age. It expanded in the 8th century B.C. and achieved its greatest size in the 6th century B.C. It began to decline in the 5th century, possibly after suffering damage in an earthquake, and by the 2nd century was no longer a religious center for the region having been eclipsed by its putative descendant, Rome.
The legend connecting Lavinium to Aeneas and the future capital of an empire only grew in prominence as the town itself shrank into a sleepy suburb of Rome. After years of exciting adventures, Aeneas landed in Latium where the gods and his dead father Anchises had told him he would found the greatest of all cities and sire the greatest of all lineages. Latinus, king of the Latins, welcomed Aeneas and offered him the hand of his daughter Lavinia in marriage. He accepted, married the princess and founded a new city which he named after her. His son Ascanius founded the town of Alba Longa where he and his descendants ruled for generation upon generation. The twins Romulus and Remus were born to one of those descendants, Rhea Silvia, courtesy of divine impregnation. Then there was the whole she-wolf thing and the fratricide and the Rape of the Sabine Women and voila! Rome.
The founding of ancient Rome traced to the heroes of Troy has come down to us from historian writing hundreds of years after the events they purported to describe. Early Greek historians proposed a bewildering combination of founding legends, the earliest of whom was Helanicus of Lesbos (5th century B.C.) who claimed Aeneas founded the city of Rome itself and named it after a Trojan woman. The oldest surviving source on the Lavinium version is Quintus Fabius Pictor, a third century B.C. senator from the patrician gens Fabia who is considered the first Roman historian, but all we have of his history of Rome are a few quotations and references cited by later writers including Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. The first book of Livy’s great compendium of all of Roman history, Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”), written between 27 and 9 B.C., recounts the story of Aeneas’ arrival in Latium, his marriage to Lavinia and his founding of Lavinium. By Livy’s time, this was the story that had stuck. Livy’s contemporary Virgil wrote about it in The Aeneid which sealed its popularity for 2,000 years.
Despite the endurance of the legend, the ancient city itself faded as the Western Empire fell apart. Around 1200, the walled medieval burg of Pratica di Mare was built over the remains of Lavinium’s ancient acropolis. It was owned by Benedictine monks until the 14th century when it passed into the hands of a succession of noble Roman families. The last of these was the Borghese family which took ownership of Practica di Mare in 1617. It is still their private property. They have an obligation to maintain the medieval town and any dispositions made regarding the archaeological site and the nature preserve that surrounds it must go through the Borgheses.
Because of this, it has been very difficult for people to get access to the ancient remains. On very rare occasions they would be open to the public, but otherwise arranging a visit to the altars or the heroon took a lot of jumping through behind-the-scenes hoops. In 2005, the Lavinium Archaeological Museum opened, giving tourists a chance to enjoy some of the archaeological treasures of Lavinium. It focuses on the legendary connection to Aeneas. Video installations tell the story of his eventful voyage after the fall of Troy and follow a virtual priest through the Sanctuary of the Altars. The terracotta statues made in the kilns are on display, as is an archaic statue of Minerva found at her temple and the tufa door from the Heroon of Aeneas.
Now a new agreement has been struck between the Commune of Pomezia, the Archaeological Superintendency for metropolitan Rome and the Borghese family to open the archaeological site of Lavinium to visitors. January 7th was the first day. It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone in Rome or environs to see ancient Latin archaeology before the distinction between Rome and its neighbors was blurred by empire and expansion. You can’t find this kind of thing in Rome. Archaeology from the legendary days, even from the kings and early Republic, is all but non-existent.