The whole Italian peninsula, excluding the city of Rome, is filled with an endless number of towns big and small that, still today, offer many Roman ruins. However, even though the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum are the most popular ones at an international level, there are many places that are not particularly known but are worth seeing. Italian Traditions will take you at the discovery of the lesser known Italian towns with Roman ruins.
The lesser known Italian towns with Roman ruins
To start this journey among the lesser known Italian towns with Roman ruins, we can say that in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region is possible to discover the ancient town of Aquileia, that constitutes one of the most important archaeological sites of Northern Italy, and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
The town of Aquileia was founded by the Romans in the II century BC, as military outpost against barbaric invasions, and was for a long time a strategic point for the Roman Empire. Later on, it was an important river trade, up until the invasion of the Huns by Attila, who destroyed it in 452. In the Christian era, Aquileia became an important ecclesiastic center with the bishop Massentius, who had the Basilica built.
In the archaeological site of Aquileia, which has not be unearthed completely, there are the ruins of the Roman forum dating back to the III century AC, a place where the public life of the town happened, together with the ruins of the Mausoleum, Macellum and the Baths. All around, there is the domus part of the residential complex and the walls layout, outside of which we can see the necropolis, the circus and the amphitheater. Nearby there are also the digs of the river harbor, that have brought to light docks and warehouses. The artifacts of the Roman town are displayed in the Museo Archeologico of Aquileia.
In the town of Oderzo, the ruins of the old roman town are inside the modern town, scattered and weaved inside the urban fabric.
Between Roma and via Mazzini, near a multifunctional building there is the Forum area, with the ruins of a complex that dates back to the Augustean times. It features a huge domus, a 100 meters long square, a civil Basilica and a massive stairway. The area of the ex prisons has been identified inside a popular restaurant, near the medieval area of “Torresin” and displays parts of walls and artifacts from different ages. The area in via dei Mosaici has two wells and the flooring of a domus. The area between the great square and piazza Castello there is a tunnel where you can see the ruins of some main roads and a flooring. The area of via Dalmazia, near the cooperative winery, preserves the lower part of a wall.
Among the lesser known Italian towns with Roman ruins there is Luni, in the La Spezia province. It was built at the mouth of the river Magra in 177 BC, in an area once belonged to the Liguri Apuani, was named after the goddess Selena-Luna. It became a flourishing hub thanks to trading and the exploitation of the local marble quarries, reaching in its highest moment of splendor about fifty thousand inhabitants. In the IV century it was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt on its ruins.
The archeological digging, initiated in the Renaissance period has returned many areas of the roman town, among which stand out the Forum, the Area Capitolina, the Decumanus maximus, the basilica, the Curia, the Cardine massimo and the great Temple. Among the aristocratic houses stand out the Domus of the Mosaics, the Northern Domus, and the Domus of the Frescoes. It is also worth seeing the ruins of the Temple of the goddess Luna, one of the most ancient. Outside the city walls there is the beautiful amphitheater of Portus Lunae, which overlooked the sea, but that due to the floods of the river Magra is now 2 km away from the coastline. Of elliptical shape and with an axis of over 88 meters, it could contain about 7.000 spectators.
Not far from Florence, Fiesole is a town filled with renaissance and medieval monuments, but it also preserves the important Roman presence, which was located on an important communication route. In 90 BC, the Etruscan town was destroyed by Cato, and thus the town was built by the winners, in line with the classical Roman urban planning.
The Roman town today is clearly visible thanks to the many buildings left such as the monumental theatre, erected between the I and II centuries BC, from which the Roman rebuilding started, of which all the lower rows, access stairways, orchestra, pulpit and proscenium are perfectly preserved. The baths too have maintained their greatness, with stairs of access, monumental portico, together with the frigidarium, calidarium and tepidarium. Worth mentioning is the Temple of Minerva, with its columned portico.
Among the lesser known Italian towns with Roman ruins we cannot not mention modern Sepino, in the Molise region. The town stands on the archaeological site of the ancient Roman Saepinum, which was founded in an area previously occupied by the Samnites. The town was erected in the II century and prospered up until the V century, when an earthquake caused its fall.
The ruins of Saepinum are located between Cardo and Decumano, and feature four access doors, three of which are arched. A stone-slab flooring identifies the Forum, overlooked by the ruins of the Macellum, of the Curia and of the Basilica. There are also traces of the ancient theatre, of which you can see the stage and the auditorium, and one of the three baths. Inside the area there are also some ruins of old houses, mill pools, and the Fountain of the Griffon. Outside you can see the two Mausoleums of the Numisi and of Caius Ennius Marsus.
Larino is another town that preserves Roman ruins. Among the most important ones are the old town that was founded before the Etruschi, and was then conquered by the Frentans, and finally, colonized and re-founded by the Romans. After the III century, in fact, the town of Larino, established itself as a rich and powerful town, oozing culture and love for shows and public games.
Today the archaeological area of the city features two main parts, one close to the other, which are the Forum and the Amphitheatre. The latter is certainly the more relevant one, due to its structure and the arena. Next to the baths, which must have been particularly elegant and lush, decorated with mosaics which still today are partly visible as well as the pools of the calidarium and the frigidarium, and part of the hypocaust system, which was the way that water and rooms were warmed up. In the forum little remains of the public buildings, whilst a domus still preserves nice polychrome decorations on the floor, and one pool of the impluvium decorated with marine subjects. Overall, the area has provided eight mosaics, three of which are displayed in the Museo Civico of the Palazzo Ducale: Mosaic of the lupercali, Mosaic of the roaring lion and a fragmented one with a natural subject.
Stabiae, the old town of Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples, is one of the least known Roman sites, given the popularity of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, The town survived the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 BC, thus it continues to prosper thanks to its harbor and as a trading center. Its origins go back to the italic people, but it was then colonized by the Greeks and the Samnites, who in turn were then defeated by the Romans. In addition to being an important economic hub, Romans also turned it into one of their favorite places for the otium, and here stood the sumptuous villas decorated with a fine aesthetic taste through beautiful frescoes and precious mosaics.
Contrarily to Pompeii and Herculaneum, of Stabia remains only a small part of what was once a town rebuilt after the historical eruption. The urban structure is still visible, and in the fortified area you can see the Forum, public buildings, the ruins of a Temple, and the tabernae and common housing. Among the most remarkable are the Villa of Ariadne – with a big representation of the myth of Ariadne – and San Marco Villa, where there are some of the most significant Pompeian style paintings. The San Marco Villa is the aristocratic building best preserved both in terms of interiors and exteriors such as porticos.
One of the most beautiful towns in Italy, Venosa has a Roman side to it that is really not known enough. Yet, the town in Basilicata was the birthplace of the Latin poet Horace, and was also an important Roman colony. Romans founded in 291 BC, after defeating the Samnites and dedicated it to the goddess Venus.
The Roman archaeological site is in the San Rocco area, where you cannot miss the Baths, the Amphitheatre and the many domus. Of the baths remain the structures of the tepidarium and the mosaic floors of the frigidarium. The amphitheater, of elliptical shape, could contain about ten thousand people: part of the perimeter and of the wall still stands.
In Apulia, specifically in Canosa, there are some ruins of what was once the roman town of Canusium, around the path of the old Trajan road. Right here you can still see the structure made of bricks of the Arch of Trajan, without its original marble covering. Further along, on the outer side of the site you can see what was once a Roman bridge.
However, aside from the archaeological site, the memory of the Roman town is preserved in the town center, where you can find the ruins of the Ferrara Baths and of the Lomuscium Baths. Among Italy’s towns less known for their Roman ruins, perhaps Canosa is the least known.
Porto Torres, in Sardinia, is one of Italy’s towns less known for their Roman ruins. Here used to stand the Turris Libisonis, one of the most important Roman colonies in the island. Populated in the Nuragic area and then by the Phoenicians, which then became a Roman town, named after the presence of a tower from the Nuragic age called Libiso. It was Caesar who had it built, perhaps Octavian, to compensate the army veterans with land to farm: it was the only Sardinian colony to be inhabited by Roman citizens.
In the harbour area there are the ruins of the ancient roman harbor, whilst on the rio Mannu you can see a 7-arch roman bridge that dates back to the Augustean age, which was used up until the 1980s.
The actual archaeological site, on the other hand, includes public buildings and infrastructures surrounded by a wall, of which some ruins are left. You can also recognize the path of a few roads, the ruins of popular houses and of the tabernae, some included in the Antiquarium Turritanum. Stands out Orpheus’ Domus, which owes its name to a polychrome mosaic depicting the legendary poet in the act of playing the lyre surrounded by animals, and the House of Mosaics, with several mosaic decorations with sea subjects and private baths. Turris Libisonis was equipped with three bath houses: the Central baths, where important mosaics of fine workmanship were found, low reliefs and statues, the Maetzeke baths and the Pallottino baths, named after their discoverers..
Outside the city, there are the necropolis,one of which dates back to the nuragic age, a Roman burial ground, and the hypogeum of Tanca Borgona, that hosts thirty-two graves dug into the rock and supported by columns.
Featured image: Minube