Verona: Remains of a Roman city

Colle San Pietro with its castle.

The historical centre of Verona, much beloved by tourists, is situated in a bend of the river Adige. But this is not where the city of Verona came into existence. That happened on the other side of the river, on the hill that is called the Colle San Pietro. From the Castel San Pietro, a former Austrian barracks from the nineteenth century, one nowadays has a splendid view of the city. The hill was highly defensible, and that was one of the main reasons for people to settle on it. Moreover, the Adige had a tendency to overflow its banks, and people living on the Colle San Pietro would be able to keep their feet dry. Lastly, the aforementioned Adige proved to be fordable here, at the foot of the hill, which was very important for trade. So in a sense, Verona did not differ that much from a city such as Rome.

Brief history of Verona

It is not entirely clear which peoples or tribes inhabited the Verona area in which periods of time. As the settlement was born at a crossroads of cultures, it is quite possible that multiple peoples lived together here. Among these people were in any case the Veneti, an umbrella term for the native inhabitants of the Veneto. In addition, archaeological research has brought to light several objects that were originally from Raetia on the other side of the Alps, in the east of modern Switzerland and in Austria. This is at the very least evidence of trading contacts, but it is also possible that there were Raeti living in Verona itself. Lastly, there were most definitely also Cenomani living in the city. They were members of a Celtic tribe that, together with other tribes such as the Insubres, Boii and Senones, had settled in the Po valley. The main settlement of the Cenomani was Brixia, modern Brescia, which is located about 60 kilometres further to the west. If these three people lived together at all, we know nothing about the way they did so. There may have been peaceful cohabitation, but it is equally plausible that the Cenomani were the conquerors and had subjugated the others.

View from the Castel San Pietro.

From the beginning of the fourth century BCE the Romans waged a series of wars against the Celts in the Po valley. In 387 BCE the Senones, led by Brennus, managed to capture Rome (except for the Capitoline Hill) and sack the city. Ultimately negotiations were held and the Senones declared that they were willing to depart if a sum of 1,000 pounds of gold was paid. According to the Greek historian Polybius their position was influenced by an invasion of the Veneti into their own territories.[1] We do not know whether the inhabitants of Verona were in any way involved in this invasion, as Polybius does not mention it. What is clear, however, is that the Veneti were generally hostile towards the Celts. Moreover, they had good relations with the Romans, at least since 225 BCE. Remarkably, so did the Cenomani. Like the Veneti, these Celts in the aforementioned year refused to joined a great Celtic coalition of Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae that wanted to attack Roman territory. The Celtic coalition subsequently suffered an ignominious defeat at Telamon. In the decades after 225 BCE the relations between Romans, Veneti and Cenomani were generally amiable. As a consequence, the latter two peoples were gradually integrated into the Roman world.

Piazza delle Erbe, the former Roman forum, with the Madonna Verona.

The next phase of Verona’s history has many parallels to that of Brescia. As I have discussed previously, in 89 BCE the inhabitants of Gallia Transpadana – the part of Gallia Cisalpina north of the river Po – were granted Latin status. Both cities were now formally Latin colonies (coloniae). The granting of Latin status was a result of the Lex Pompeia de Transpadanis. Forty years later this law was followed by the Lex Roscia, which granted Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Brescia and Verona. Verona was now a municipium and its citizens were members of the tribus Publilia. Meanwhile the city had been expanded and had also basically been moved to the other shore of the Adige. The first citizens may have settled in the new part as early as the second century BCE. However, the layout of the city according to the rules of Roman architecture clearly dates from the first century BCE. The new Verona was provided with a street grid along two main roads, the cardo (north-south) and the decumanus maximus (east-west). The city was surrounded by the Adige on three sides, so that only on the south side and part of the east side a strong defensive wall was necessary.

Several important roads passed by Ancient Verona. As early as 148 BCE the Via Postumia was built, which connected the town of Genua in the west with Aquileia, a Latin colony founded in 181 BCE, in the east. Verona also had a bridge across the Adige that was known as the Pons Postumius. Unfortunately the bridge is no longer extant (see below). During the Imperial age the city became part of the tenth Italian region, Regio X Venetia et Histria. Under the emperor Claudius (41-54) the Via Gallica was built, which connected Verona to Brixia and Bergomum (Bergamo). Claudius also had the Via Claudia Augusta built, a road that ran south to north and connected the Po valley to Raetia. This road proved to be profitable to Verona as well. Already in 15 BCE the city had served as a base for the Roman conquest of Raetia under the brothers Tiberius (the future emperor) and Drusus.

Arena di Verona, the Roman amphitheatre.

The golden age of Verona as a Roman city can be placed between the end of the first century BCE and the start of the third century CE. In this era the most important monuments of the city were erected, such as its amphitheatre, theatre, bridges and gates. In the third century Verona did not escape the general decline of the Roman Empire. Because of its strategic position many battles were fought in the vicinity of the city. In the year 249 the legitimate emperor Philippus Arabs and the rebel general Decius clashed at Verona. The latter was victorious. Not much later, in 265, the emperor Gallienus (253-268) had the city walls of Verona extended and strengthened. In 312 Constantine the Great (306-337) laid siege to the city, an event that the emperor included on his triumphal arch in Rome. Constantine defeated the praetorian prefect Ruricius Pompeianus and managed to capture the city. Much later Flavius Stilicho defeated Alaric’s Visigoths at Verona (in 403), while Theoderic and his Ostrogoths crushed Odoacer’s Germanic troops here in 489. The glory days of Verona were now clearly a thing of the past.

Constantine the Great besieges Verona.

Roman remains

By far the most famous Roman monument in Verona is the immense amphitheatre, the Arena di Verona, on the Piazza Bra.[2] It is nowadays assumed that the amphitheatre was built in the first century CE. We do not know the exact year of construction, and the Verona Turismo website states that the gigantic edifice was erected somewhere between the end of the reign of the emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) and the start of the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54). In other words, somewhere between the year 14 and the year 41. Other sources claims that the amphitheatre must have been completed in about the year 30. It could accommodate some 25-30,000 spectators and, with a length of about 152 metres and a width of 123, can be counted among the largest amphitheatres in the Roman Empire, and definitely among the largest in Italy (after the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre of Capua).[3] The amphitheatre originally stood outside the city walls, but in 265 it was incorporated into the city as a result of the aforementioned extension of the walls by the emperor Gallienus. One can see the extension quite well here. The name of the Piazzetta Mura Gallieno next to the amphitheatre reminds us of this intervention.

Arena di Verona.

Although the amphitheatre of Verona has been preserved really well, almost its entire outer ring has regretfully disappeared. Of this ring only four arches remain on the north side. The rest of the ring was demolished during the reign of the aforementioned Ostrogothic king Theoderic (489-526) in order to reuse the precious stone in other buildings. In the Roman era the arena was of course used for gladiatorial fights and fights against animals. In 404 the Western Roman emperor Honorius prohibited these games because they were not in conformity with Christian doctrine, but Christian doctrine did not in any way inhibit the use of the arena for executions and duels during the Middle Ages. Fortunately more civilised events were also staged in the amphitheatre, such as festivals and tournaments. At present the arena is especially famous for the operas that are held here.

Arena di Verona, with the remains of the outer ring.

It is a five-minute walk from the amphitheatre to the Arco dei Gavi, a Roman arch from the first century CE. According to an inscription the arch was erected by the architect Lucius Vitruvius Cerdo for members of the highly influential Veronese gens Gavia. This Vitruvius was a freedman who, as far as we know, was not in any way related to the much more famous architect Vitruvius, who lived in the first century BCE. The arch was presumably built over the Via Postumia, which is now called the Via Cavour here. In 1805 it was demolished by the French, but in 1932 the arch was re-erected next to the Castelvecchio. The Arco dei Gavi is therefore no longer on its original spot, but probably close enough to it. The arch is an excellent example of Roman architecture, but almost all of its decorations have disappeared. On both sides there are niches on either side of the passageway, intended for statues, but these are all empty.

Arco dei Gavi.

Porta Borsari.

If we follow the Via Cavour, we will quickly reach the Porta Borsari, a Roman gate from the first century. The gate was originally called the Porta Iovia, after a sanctuary of the Roman supreme god Jupiter, which was situated in the vicinity. Like the city walls the Porta Borsari was also strengthened in the year 265 by the emperor Gallienus. Nowadays the gate has two passageways, which both give access to the pedestrian-only Corso Porta Borsari. That street follows the route of the ancient decumanus maximus and ends at the famous Piazza delle Erbe (see the third photo in this post). This beautiful piazza replaced the old Roman forum of Verona. In the centre is a fountain that dates from the fourteenth century, but reuses a statue from the Roman era. Of this Madonna Verona the arms and head are later additions, but the rest is original. On a column on the north side of the piazza, the Colonna di San Marco, we see the winged lion of Venice. Between 1405 and 1797 Verona was part of the terra firma of the Venetian Republic.

In the north of the historical centre, in a bend in the river, a stone footbridge leads to the far side of the Adige. This Ponte Pietra originally dates from 100 BCE. In Antiquity there was a second bridge across the river, the Pons Postumius. It must have connected the eastern end of the decumanus with the continuation of the Via Postumia, so it must have been located approximately between the Ponte Pietra and the modern Ponte Nuovo. Regretfully the Pons Postumius disappeared at some point during the Middle Ages. The same almost happened to the Ponte Pietra, as this bridge was blown up by retreating German troops in April of 1945. Fortunately much of the debris could be recovered from the water, so that the Veronese were able to reassemble the bridge in 1957-1959.

Ponte Pietra.

If we cross the Ponte Pietra, we arrive at the remains of the Roman theatre and the archaeological museum of Verona. The theatre was built at the end of the first century BCE. Part of the cavea – the seats for the spectators – has been preserved, but the permanent background of the theatre, the scaenae frons, is entirely gone. The museum has a splendid reconstruction of the theatre on display, which shows not just the building itself, but also the two bridges across the river and a Roman temple on the site of the current Castel San Pietro. As it stood on the left bank of the Adige, the theatre was originally situated outside the city walls, just like the Arena. Gallienus’ extension of these walls subsequently made it a part of the city after all. The theatre is still used for performances.

Roman theatre of Verona.

Reconstruction of the theatre.

In the tenth century the small church of San Siro was built over part of the theatre. Later the large convent of San Girolamo was built against the slope of the Colle San Pietro. Monks from the order of the Gesuati settled here. This order was founded in 1360 by Giovanni Colombini from Siena (ca. 1304-1367) and dissolved at the end of 1668 by order of Pope Clemens IX. It must of course not be confused with the order of the Jesuits, which was only founded in 1534. The many rooms of the convent have since 1923 accommodated the archaeological museum of Verona. Because of the convent’s elevated position, the museum can only be reached by elevator.

Convent of San Girolamo and church of San Siro.

Inside the archaeological museum one can, among other things, admire beautiful mosaics. Three of these feature gladiatorial fights. The different types of gladiator – secutor, retiarius and thraex – can be distinguished very well by studying their weapons, helmets and shields. Perhaps contrary to expectation, the mosaics are not from the amphitheatre of Verona. They once embellished the reception room of a private residence in the city. These mosaics date from the first half of the third century. Other mosaics come from a large Roman villa. Here we see one of the erotes driving around in a cart (a scene also present at the Roman villa of Desenzano del Garda) and a scene featuring a young man and two women. The young man is holding a whip and possibly represents Pelops. He married Hippodameia after beating her father in a chariot race. It follows that one of the women depicted is Hippodameia (the veiled one according to the museum), and the other perhaps her mother.

Mosaics of gladiators.

Mosaic of a charioteer (Pelops?).

Also interesting is a mosaic from the third century – admittedly heavily damaged – featuring Bacchus and a panther. Especially the text on the mosaic is intriguing: ROROPES ZETA. The museum states that, although written in the Latin alphabet, this is actually a Greek text meaning “Roropes lives”. I had never heard of the name Roropes, so I decided to do a little search on the Internet. According to a blogpost from 2017 the explanation given by the museum is not correct. The author of the post argued that the name should actually be RODOPES (Rhodope), while ZETA is supposedly the Latin spelling of the Greek loanword diaeta. One of the meanings of diaeta is ‘room’. According to the author, RODOPES ZETA therefore simply means ‘room of Rhodope’. He has convinced me.

Mosaic with the text Roropes Zeta.

The archaeological museum also possesses a nice collection of sculptures. Worthy of note are the bronze fist of a boxer and a bronze foot, both of course once part of full-fledged statues. A marble head of a young man could represent Gaius Octavius, the future emperor Augustus. Even people who do not particularly enjoy objects from Antiquity will certainly appreciate their visit to the archaeological museum, for the simple reason that the view of Verona from the museum is marvellous.

Notes

[1] Polybius 2.18.

[2] The name of the piazza presumably derives from the Germanic word braida, which means “field of grass”. In Italy we alternatively find this word as breda or brera.

[3] According to an information panel inside the amphitheatre the amphitheatre of Mediolanum (Milan) was also larger. I wonder whether that claim is correct.

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