It took us a while to find the ruins of Carsulae, one of the most interesting archaeological sites in all of Umbria. This is a place where history becomes tangible and people from the twenty-first century can walk in the footsteps of Roman travellers, soldiers and traders. Carsulae was a small, but flourishing settlement on the Via Flaminia once. It had baths, shops, a forum bristling with activity, temples, a basilica, a theatre and a large amphitheatre which must have drawn crowds from the wider area as well. Today the town is mostly rubble and dust, but that does not make it any less interesting: I happen to like exploring rubble and dust.
No precise date for the founding of Carsulae is known, but its history is closely connected to that of the Via Flaminia. Construction of this road, which connected Rome to her important colony of Ariminum on the Adriatic Sea, began in 220 BCE under the censor Gaius Flaminius. At the Latin colony of Narnia (modern Narni), the road split into two branches. The eastern branch ran to Spoletium (modern Spoleto), before joining the main track at Forum Flaminii (modern Foligno) again and swinging further north. Carsulae was on the western branch of the road, the branch that connected Narnia to Mevania (modern Bevagna) and then Forum Flaminii. It seems plausible to conclude that Carsulae was founded precisely because this was an ideal spot on the Via Flaminia. This likely occurred in the late third century BCE. The town developed into a mansio, a stopover on the road where people could eat, drink, sleep, and have some fun.
In the first century BCE, Carsulae was granted the status of a municipium. The inhabitants received Roman citizenship and were enrolled into the tribus Clustumina. Many Italian cities – for instance Aquileia, Asisium, Praeneste and Spoletium – became municipia in 90 or 89 BCE, but in the case of Carsulae, the status seems to have been granted as late as the Augustan Age (27 BCE-14 CE). The emperor Augustus launched a road restoration program all over Italy and personally oversaw the restoration of the Via Flaminia. This was the beginning of a Golden Age for Carsulae. Wealthy Romans built their villas in the vicinity, among them Pompeia Celerina, mother-in-law of the writer Plinius the Younger (ca. 61-113). The town grew in size and many splendid buildings and monuments were erected. It is the remains of these Imperial era structures that we can still admire today.
A series of factors contributed to the decline of Carsulae in the fourth century CE. The most important was probably the fact that the western branch of the Via Flaminia was abandoned in favour of the eastern branch. The Via Flaminia had always been the town’s lifeline and this was now cut. Carsulae never seems to have had any fortifications, so the town could not be defended well at a time when even Italy was no longer safe from ‘barbarian’ invasions. An earthquake may also have contributed to the abandonment of Carsulae at an unspecified moment in the late fourth or early fifth century. People moved to higher, more defensible places. Rather curiously, a small church was built on the site in the eleventh century, the church of San Damiano which will be discussed below.
In 1600, Federico Cesi (1585-1630) from nearby Acquasparta launched the first excavations. Although he was a cultured man and founder of the scientific Accademia dei Lincei (see Rome: Galleria Corsini), his main aim seems to have been to find treasures with which to adorn his own palazzos. Further excavations were undertaken in 1783 by order of Pope Pius VI (1775-1799), but the first modern excavations had to wait until 1951-1972. What we have today is a splendid archaeological park where visitors have the opportunity to walk along the original Via Flaminia for a few hundred metres. We can clearly see how the road served as the cardo maximus of the town, the road that ran north-south and crossed the decumanus near the forum of the town.
The small museum of the park has a few interesting items on display. We see, among other things, a stone lion that once adorned a tomb (see the image above), part of a mosaic floor featuring a swastika (actually a gammadion cross; see the image above) and the head of a statue that researchers believe represents the emperor Claudius (41-54). But the real treasures of Carsulae are outside, in the lush green area under the shadow of the Martani mountains.
Since the baths of Carsulae were not open to the public when we visited, we first took a look at the curious church of San Damiano. As was stated above, it was built in the eleventh century when no one lived in the town anymore. The church basically comprises a converted Roman building from the first or second century. One of my travel guides claims that this building was a temple, but the truth is we do not know what its function was. To this ancient building a portico was added, and I have a strong suspicion that the columns and architraves that were used were spolia pillaged from other Roman buildings. The result is the most higgledy-piggledy church that I have ever seen. Not a single part of the building seems to be correctly aligned. Just take a look at the nave: the apse seems to be in the centre, but some sort of crude aisle has been created on the left using columns and arcades. Traces of frescoes can be found in the apse. It is not clear which saints are depicted, but one of them must be Saint Damianus (see Rome: Santi Cosma e Damiano), to whom the church is dedicated.
Opposite the church are the remains of tabernae or shops. These surely profited from their location directly on the Via Flaminia. This must have been the commercial centre of Carsulae, with the political and judicial centre just a little bit further to the north. There a reconstructed arch (there were two originally) gave access to the forum, which lay west of the road. The forum is mostly a pile of rubble today, but we can still identify the podiums of two small temples which stood side by side and are therefore known as the Tempietti Gemelli (‘twin temples’). Further to the north stood a building that has been identified as the Curia, the Senate house of Carsulae. As a municipium, the town had its own Senate, as well as its own magistrates (first duoviri, later quattuorviri).
East of the road and opposite the forum stood a basilica where trials were held. It was a fairly large building, almost 25 metres wide and over 40 metres deep. Rows of columns divided the basilica into a nave and two aisles. At the back there was an apse in which the presiding magistrate took his seat during the trials. Unfortunately only the contours of the building are still visible.
From the forum, the decumanus led to the area where the amphitheatre and theatre of Carsulae stood. Both structures were likely erected during the Imperial era, first the theatre, then the amphitheatre. The amphitheatre has a diameter of over 80 metres and an arena floor that measures about 55 by 35 metres. This is rather large for a settlement of modest size and suggests that the spectators were a mix of locals, travellers and people from the wider region. Visitors can nowadays walk through the scant remains of the amphitheatre, the central oval of which is overgrown with wild flowers. Not much remains of the theatre either, but visitors get a fair idea of what it looked like in Antiquity nonetheless.
If we leave the theatre and go back to the forum, we can continue along the Via Flaminia until we reach the Arch of San Damiano. This was the ornamental gate through which travellers entered and left Carsulae. It marked the northern boundary of the town. Originally the gate had three arches, but the two on the sides have collapsed and are gone. Note that the gate was never part of the walls of Carsulae, as the town never had any walls. It was clearly never intended to be defended.
A short stretch of the Via Flaminia outside the Arch of San Damiano is still part of the archaeological park. Here we find the remains of two interesting tombs that were built either in the first century BCE or the first century CE. One tomb is circular and looks like a smaller version of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, the other is cylindrical, with a conical roof. If we walk past the tomb, the Via Flaminia suddenly takes a sharp turn to the left before its continues its route all the way to Acquasparta.
Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides, several information panels at and brochures from Carsulae itself and the Key to Umbria website.