‘Unpromising’ archaeological site rewrites Roman history

What started as an unpromising archaeological site in central Italy could change our understanding of the fall of the Roman Empire.

A 13-year archaeological investigation of an “unpromising” site has revealed a bustling Roman town which continued to thrive until late in the 3rd Century AD, a period in Roman Italy normally associated with a state of stagnation and decline, according to the findings of an archaeological study published in new book Roman Urbanism in Italy.

These investigations revealed a Roman settlement “Interamna Lirenas”, likely home to 2000 people at its peak. 

“The historical trajectory of Interamna appears to have significantly diverged from traditional narratives about the development of Roman Italy in the Imperial period, long-assumed to have been characterised by stagnation and decline,” the book chapter says.

Gorgon antefix likely 3rd to 2nd c bc found in dump of material within theatre following abandonment probably belonged to earlier nearby building credit alessandro launaro
Gorgon antefix likely 3rd to 2nd Century BC / Credit: Credit Alessandro Launaro

Researchers used pottery analysis, magnetic and ground-penetrating radar surveys and targeted excavations to uncover evidence of river port, a roofed theatre, impressive bath complexes and hundreds of densely built houses lying beneath the surface of an otherwise nondescript field.

“We started with a site so unpromising that no one had ever tried to excavate it – that’s very rare in Italy,” said Dr Alessandro Launaro from the University of Cambridge and author of the study.

“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.”

View of the excavation and the se sector of the site sep23 credit alessandro launaro
View of the excavation and the south east sector of the site / Credit: Alessandro Launaro

Underneath the surface, archaeologists identified a river port complex (complete with warehouse, temple and bath), a roofed theatre with capacity to seat 1500 people, three impressive bath complexes, market buildings and hundreds of densely built houses.

The pottery analysis together with other evidence indicates the town’s survived some 300 years later than the decline of Rome.

“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.”

Launaro says: “Interamna Lirenas was strategically located between a river and a major road, and it was a thriving node in the regional urban network. It would have been valuable to Julius Caesar as he sought to consolidate support across Italy during the civil wars.”

Sample of roman commonware pottery fabrics from interamna lirenas credit alessandro launaro
Sample of Roman commonware pottery fabrics from Interamna Lirenas / Credit: Alessandro Launaro

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