Trieste: traces of Antiquity

Entrance of the Duomo, with the remnants of the tomb of the Barbii.

In Antiquity, Trieste was known as Tergeste. It is not entirely clear who the original inhabitants were. Perhaps they were part of the Histri or the Celtic Carni, but it is also possible that they were Veneti. The name Tergeste (Terg-este) in any case seems to support the Venetic hypothesis, as in the Veneto we find a town previously called Ateste (and currently known as Este). Why people settled here at this location is crystal clear though. In the centre of Trieste is a highly defensible hill called the Colle San Giusto, and Tergeste was also favourably situated along the Adriatic Sea. The town probably came under Roman influence somewhere in the second century BCE. The Roman presence led to an increase in building activities, and that explains why we find various remnants of Roman buildings in the modern streetscape. Trieste moreover has an excellent archaeological museum, the Museo d’Antichità “J.J. Winckelmann”. The museum was named after the famous art historian and art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768).

Remains from the Roman era

Tergeste was presumably acquired by the Romans without too much bloodshed. In 181 BCE this people had founded the Latin colony of Aquileia in what is now the Friuli. A mere three years later the Romans took their army on an invasion of neighbouring Histria (Istria), and in 177 BCE the consul Gaius Claudius Pulcher captured the important stronghold of Nesactium, not far from modern Pula in the far south of the Istrian peninsula. Nesactium was situated way south of Tergeste, so the latter town must have been under Roman rule from 178-177 BCE at the latest. We know hardly anything about this period, but it is reasonable to assume that a process of Romanisation set in at an early stage. In the first century BCE Tergeste first became a municipium (a native city under Roman authority) and then a Roman colony. Both Julius Caesar and Appianus claim that the town was attacked in 51 BCE by its barbarian neighbours the Iapydes.[1] Tergeste was taken and sacked. Its upgrade to a Roman colonia probably took place about ten years later. The Iapydes were ultimately defeated by the future emperor Augustus between 36 and 33 BCE.

Roman theatre of Trieste.

Most Roman remains in Trieste date from the imperial era. The town appears to have been prosperous back then, although it was always somewhat overshadowed by Aquileia, which was much larger. Tergeste was connected to Aquileia by the Via Gemina, which was built in the year 14 by the men of Legio XIII Gemina. The Via Flavia, built under the emperor Vespasianus (69-79), connected Tergeste to Roman Pula and Dalmatia. In the Via del Teatro Romano we may admire the remnants of the Roman theatre of Tergeste. The theatre was built in the first century CE and then expanded during the reign of the emperor Trajanus (98-117). It may have offered seats to about 6,000 spectators, although there are also sources that claim that the maximum number of spectators was no more than 3,500. In the Roman era Tergeste itself must have had some 12,000 inhabitants. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the incursions of, among others, the Goths and Longobards, the theatre was covered by newer buildings. Its remains were rediscovered in 1814 by the Swiss-Italian architect Pietro Nobile (1776-1854). Excavations took place in the 1930s, which led to the theatre being partially restored.

Arco di Riccardo.

If we climb the Colle San Giusto, we will see a large chunk of a Roman arch on the Piazza del Barbacan. It is known as the Arco di Riccardo. The arch is probably not a triumphal arch, but a former gate in the city walls or the entrance to a sanctuary. It is possible that the Arco di Riccardo was built after the future emperor Augustus had defeated the Iapydes (see above). In its current form the arch dates from the first century CE. Its name is a bit enigmatic. One plausible theory claims that Riccardo is in fact the English king Richard the Lionheart. After his return from the Third Crusade he may have passed by Trieste on his way to Vienna, where duke Leopold V of Austria took him prisoner at the end of 1192.

On the top of the Colle San Giusto stands the proud cathedral of Trieste, dedicated to the martyr Saint Justus. The main entrance of the cathedral is decorated with elements of a Roman tomb that belonged to members of the gens Barbia, a rich and illustrious family that was originally from Aquileia (see the first image in this post). Here at the peak of the hill was the Roman forum of Tergeste. The cathedral presumably arose on the spot where in the pre-Christian era the temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva had stood. On the former forum we still see the contours of a large Roman basilica (a hall used by law courts). The building dates from the reign of the emperor Trajanus (98-117). It was over 23 metres wide and over 80 metres deep. As part of a rather cosmetic intervention two complete columns have been erected again, but the other columns are no more than stumps.

Roman forum with the remains of the basilica.

Archaeological museum

Cenotaph for Winckelmann.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s works on Greek and Roman art made him very famous. Few had ever expected this son of a Protestant cobbler to come so far. As a boy Winckelmann learned Greek and Latin. In 1755 he went on a study trip to Rome, and two years later he converted to Catholicism. Then in 1764 his most important work was published, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums. After visiting archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria in 1768, he returned to Rome via Trieste. Winckelmann took an alias and stayed at an inn on what is now the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. There he was stabbed to death by one Francesco Arcangeli, a cook from Pistoia. The two men had become acquainted in the inn and had spent much time together. A clear motive for Arcangeli’s murder of Winckelmann has never been established. Maria Theresa had given the art historian a number of valuable medals, and it has sometimes been assumed that the unemployed Tuscan wanted to steal these. However, as these medals were not touched, this theory does not make sense. Another explanation is that the openly homosexual Winckelmann had tried to make a pass on the cook, which the latter greatly resented. In any case, Arcangeli was arrested, tried and executed. The execution took place right in front of the inn where he had committed the murder.

Winckelmann found his final resting place in the cemetery next to the cathedral. Years later the lawyer and public administrator Domenico Rossetti de Scander (1774-1842) became convinced that a monument had to be erected for the slain art historian. In 1808 the sculptor Antonio Bosa (1780-1845) was commissioned to make a cenotaph for Winckelmann. Bosa worked just slowly, and the monument was only completed in 1822. As Rossetti’s ideas for the location of the monument were constantly rejected by the municipal authorities, the monument was inaugurated as late as 1 March 1833. It was ultimately placed inside the replica of a classical temple. Winckelmann himself is depicted twice on the cenotaph. Topping the monument is an angel crying over his portrait, and the relief of the lower part features him in a Roman toga, pointing at a collection of antiquities. Although the monument itself is a cenotaph, it does seem that Winckelmann was buried somewhere in this space. Inside the temple all the bones have been interred that were found in two ossuaries of the old cemetery. It follows that, apart from Winckelmann, several other people are now buried here, but hopefully Francesco Arcangeli is not among them. The interior of the temple is embellished with several beautiful sculptures from Antiquity.

Replica of a classical temple.

Relief from Attica, fourth century BCE.

The archaeological museum, named after Winckelmann, can be visited for free. It has a large collection of objects from many different civilisations, including Greeks, Romans, ancient Egyptians, Etruscans and even Mayas. The collection starts outside in the garden, which has been transformed into a lapidarium. Here we find, among other things, a number of sculpted reliefs that were found in Ronchi dei Legionari, between Aquileia and Trieste. Back then – the reliefs were discovered between 1860 and 1870 – it was thought that they were parts of a Roman bridge, but historians and archaeologists now assume that they were part of the decorations of a funerary monument. This monument must have been somewhat similar to a (reconstructed) Roman funerary monument that can be admired in Aquileia, the so-called Mausoleo di Candia.

Orto Lapidario, with the Duomo in the background.

Orto Lapidario.

Ivory panel with Castor and Pollux and Europa and the bull.

Inside the museum we find many objects that warrant closer inspection. Of course I cannot discuss all of them, so I will confine myself to a couple of highlights. Among these highlights is most definitely a painted ivory panel from Capodistria (now Koper in Slovenia). The panel depicts two mythological scenes. Above the twin brothers Castor and Pollux are embracing, while below Europa is caressing the bull. Experts believe that the object dates from the beginning of the sixth century, while the style suggests that the panel was made in Alexandria in Egypt. It can hardly be denied that, at the start of the sixth century, the Eastern Roman Empire was Christian through and through, so it is highly remarkable that apparently pagan scenes were still produced there. Perhaps this is related to the status that Castor and Pollux enjoyed as protectors of sailors. In a port city such as Ostia their cult was continued until well into the fifth century, and perhaps this was the case in Alexandria as well. After all, Alexandria was famous for its port and lighthouse. The popularity of the twin brothers there is demonstrated by the fact that the Alexandrian ship that took Saint Paul the Apostle to Italy in the first century had Castor and Pollux as a figurehead (Acts 28:11).

Downright intriguing is a Roman relief featuring two gladiators. It dates from the second or third century and was found in present-day Turkey. At the time the Greek language was widely spoken there, which explains why the text on the relief is in Greek. According to the caption the gladiators are called Kritos and Mariskos. Kritos fights as a retiarius, wielding a trident, while Mariskos is a secutor. The former is standing on a raised platform. At his feet is a pile of stones, and he appears to be throwing one at his opponent. Mariskos is walking up a ramp to get onto the platform and has raised his large rectangular shield to protect himself. The relief may depict an exercise that was part of the training of gladiators. This could indicate that Kritos was an instructor. The text on the platform, by the way, informs us that this Kritos has won himself his freedom.

Relief with gladiators.

Roman Montefortino helmet, Buggenum subtype.

Among the objects in the museum are also several helmets. One of these is an Etruscan helmet of the ‘Negau’ type that dates from the fifth or fourth century. The bronze helmet was found in a cave at the beginning of the twentieth century. I am most definitely not an expert on helmets, but this one strongly reminded me of the Daone helmet that I had seen several years ago in Brescia. Also interesting is a Roman Montefortino helmet of the Buggenum subtype. It was probably lost by a Roman soldier during the aforementioned campaign of the future emperor Augustus in 36-33 BCE. The name of the soldier was Gaius Tomius, as that name has been carved into the helmet. According to an even older second inscription Tomius took the helmet from one Marcus Valerius Bacinus. It was quite common back then for Roman army materiel to be reused. The helmet was presumably not a soldier’s private property, although he did enjoy a certain degree of freedom to personalise his kit.

Lastly, this post would not be complete without mentioning the rhyton of Trieste, a silver cup in the shape of a deer’s head. The cup dates from the end of the fifth or beginning of the fourth century BCE. It was found in 1880 in Taranto in the heel of Italy and sold to the museum of Trieste in 1889. However, it is possible that the object was made in a Greek colony on the Black Sea coast, and that a trader took it to Taras, the Greek name of Taranto in Antiquity. The rhyton features a number of figures. These are Boreas, the god of the north wind, and the Athenian princess Oreithyia. Boreas kidnapped her while she was dancing along the river Ilisos. The other figures are Erechtheus, father of the princess, and Pallas Athena.

Rhyton of Trieste.



[1] Caesar, De Bello Gallico 8.24; Appianus, Illyrica 4.18.

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