Etruria, Italy, The Roman Empire

The Road into Etruria

Having pursued historical studies into classical antiquity for the better part of the last decade, I’ve lately found myself increasingly preoccupied with the Etruscans, a people steeped in legend, who once exerted dominion over Rome itself (otherwise my main field of interest) and whose culture is still shrouded in mystery. Most, if not all we know about the Etruscans has been are revealed by studying their graves and vast necropoleis, or Cities of the the Dead. No written accounts survive and they seems to have been almost completely ‘swallowed up’ by Roman civilization, in whose debt they unquestionably were, the Romans wouldn’t necessarlily have stressed the link to the Etruscans, instead they traced their origins back to Troy and frowned upon the excesses and luxuriant habits of the Obesus Etruscus, their former enemies and onetime rulers who often would depict themselves resting in fond embraces, feasting and enjoying the good life – not seldomly with bloated bellies – in stone on top their sarcophagi.

I’ve ventured into Etruria a few times now and visited former Etruscan cities such as Tarquinia, Cerveteri (it’s connected port Pyrgi), Orvieto, and Etruscan archeological sites managed by the Swedish Institute nearby Rome such as San Giovenale and Acquarossa. Most recently I had an fantastic opportunity to spend two weeks at Vulci3000, an archeological project and currently ongoing dig at a Roman Forum. The trench is located right next to one of the main roads, the decumanus, and on its opposite side lies the Tempio Grande, an Etruscan Temple base reused during Roman times, beside a large already excavated Roman Villa. The Roman Forum was built on top of the city center of Velch, the Etruscan name of what was once an important Etruscan citysubsequently conquered in 280 BCE and after being romanized known as Vulci. It’s location on a high plateu has today mostly a few medieval structures visible above ground, a smallish castle and a charming brigde and a damaged church ruin, apart from the concentration of Roman and Etruscan ruins appearing near and around the area of the Forum. Rural farmlands now cover mostly all of the ancient Etruscan and Roman layers and the site fuctions as an archeological park open to the public just a few kilometers inland from the coast and the nearby town of Montalto di Castro.

19452968_10211698088921336_6837534195799044455_o.jpgJune 27:th 2017
Pictured above is part of the Vulci3000 team. The project is led by Dr Maurizio Forte (centre, in blue shirt), professor at Duke University, and on his left Dr Elisa Biancifiori from Sapienza University who directs the daily excavations. The picture was taken by Todd Berreth (seated), assistant Professor at North Carolina State University ,who is currently developing a “smart trowel”, a multi-sensor tool for data recording to help archeologists record information in new ways (and I’m on the far left here).

Vulci3000 is a collborative project between the universities of Sorbonne, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Ca’ Forscari, Padova, Federico II and Gothenburg and was an incredible experience. I’ll have reason to return (hopefully very soon) to what was discovered during my time at the dig..! Good times were had and a truly great experince! Find out more current developments and news about Vulci3000 here:

The time has come to revisit what I’ve seen so far in Etruria so the first film includes visits to Sutri and Cerveteri, with the aim to then continue along “The Road into Etruria” with other cities and sites. The first stop, Sutri, was besieged by the Etruscans in 311–310 BCE, but not taken. With Nepi and ten other Latin colonies it refused further help in the Second Punic War in 209 BCE. Its importance as a fortress explains, according to Festus, the proverb Sutrium ire, of one who goes on important business, as it occurs in Plautus. The Amphitheatre has the unique feature of being almost entirely cut out of the Tufa rock. Sutri is mentioned in the war of 41 BCE, and received a colony of veterans under the triumviri (Colonia coniuncta lulia Sutrina). Inscriptions show that it was a place of some importance under the Roman Empire, and it is mentioned as occupied by the Lombards.

Cerveteri is famous for the site of the ancient Etruscan city which was one of the most important Etruscan cntres with an area more than 15 times larger than today’s town. Etruscan Caere was previously located nearby the present location in the vicinity of the Etruscan necropolis of Banditaccia, with its about 1000 graves making it the largest ancient necropol anywhere in the Mediterranean (also featured in the film).

Music in the film is “Into the Night” by Ledjelly

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2017

Italy, The Roman Empire

An Altar to Peace

When I returned to Rome from Gaul and from Spain, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilio, having brought to a satisfactory finish my works in these provinces, the Senate decreed that there should be consecrated in the Campus Martius an altar to the Augustan Peace and ordered that the officials, priests and vestal virgins should celebrate a sacrifice at it every year.”

In these words from Res Gestae, Augustus himself described the Senate’s decision to honour him with an altar to Peace, following the sucessful campaigns North of the Alps in 16-13 BCE, having subjected both the Reti, the Vindelici and effectively put the Alpine passes under Roman rule. Augustus also had recently visited Spain, finally at peace, where he founded several new colonies and had received new tributes for Rome.

The official ceremony and dedication of Ara Pacis took place on the 30th of January in 9 BCE. According to Cassius Dio the Senate initially planned to build the altar within the Curia, but instead the northernmost part of the Campo Martius was chosen, a recently urbanised vast field, previously mostly used for military exercise of infantry, cavalry and gymnastics of the Roman youth.

The Altar of Augustan Peace is a richly decorated altar, standing within a sculpted marble enclosure.  The reliefs on the upper part of the monument represented various subjects relating to the legendary founding of Rome, such as Romulus and Remus and a double procession unfolds along the monument’s length: Augustus, members of the imperial family, priests, magistrates, and senators. A fragment of this procession is currently in the Louvre, portraying a family with two children. Their identity has not been firmly established, although they may be members of the emperor’s own family.

The altar depicts the Augustan state religion, it’s lower frieze consisting of vegetal works signaling abundance and prosperity and a new peaceful age. The coninous frieze of the north and south panels is a confident display of the participants of a sacrificial ceremony; Romans in togas wearing laurel crowns, senators, priests, magistrates, lictors, the occasional slave or freedman, along with women and children, normally not portrayed in these circumstances. At least two of the little boys might be foreign princes, on account of their gallic and asiatic costumes. The base is adorned with acanthus scrolls intertwined with swans (birds sacred to Apollo who was a protector of Augustus). These luxuriant natural elements evoked the peace and prosperity that Augustus had brought to Rome.

On the southern panel the Emperor himself is in the process of performing the ritual accompanied by his closest family in tow, a symbol of the the stability and guaranteed succession of the regime. The shorter western and eastern panels, pierced by entryways to the altar are adorned by mythological motifs pertaining to the founding of Rome, it’s people and gods like mother earth, godess roma (or perhaps venus), the mythic forebearer Aeneas who also might be the first king after it’s founder Romulus who along with his brother Remus is seen suckling the she-wolf that legend has it once nurtured them.

Song in the film is Sungam Zorba by Hands Of Doom and animations made by

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Italy, The Roman Empire

The world’s first shopping mall?

Trajan’s Market is a large complex of ruins in Rome, located on Via de Foro Imperiali, on the opposite side of the Colosseum. Built as a part of Trajan’s Forum and nestled against the excavated flank of the Quirinal Hill, it was revealed in it’s entirety in the early 1900’s after a convent was demolished partly built over the structure.

Thought to be the world’s oldest shopping mall, the arcades are now believed to have been administrative offices for Emperor Trajan. The shops and apartments were built in a multi-level structure, and it’s possible to visit several of the levels. Highlights include delicate marble floors and the remains of a library.

It was built in 100-110 CE by Apollodorus of Damascus, the main architect associated with this period, who built bridges during Trajan’s military campaigns and who later planned out the Emperor’s new Forum, completed in 113 CE, Trajan’s Column and probably also rebuilt The Pantheon under Trajan’s successor Hadrian. After which the architect supposedly had a falling out with the new Emperor and was banished, a story that has come under criticism for seeming unlikely. The Museum of the Imperial Fora, housed within Trajan’s Markets has a wealth of artifacts from all of ancient Rome’s various imperial fora. The modern entrances to Trajan’s Market are at Via Quattro Novembre and Piazza Madonna di Loreto. 

Immediately, upon entering the museum one comes straight into a shopping area disposed on two different sides, where wheat was once distributed freely to the people of Rome. Each roman citizen (a comparatively privileged position in society among many slaves and freedmen) could on their daily free rations sustain at least one more person. In a household with several citizens there was therefore plenty of wheat from the state to go around, enough even for supplying their slaves. At the end of this hall, a large balcony offers a full view of the markets, Trajan’s Forum and the Victor Emmanuel Monument. This is actually a part of the Via Biberatica (Latin: bibo, bibere “to drink”; the street was once the location for several  taverns and grocers’ shops in the area). The road cuts through Trajan’s Market.

On the lower part there are also two large halls, perhaps used for auditions and concerts. A shop housed in the Market is known as a taberna. The giant exedra formed by the market structure was originally mirrored by a matching exedral boundary space on the south flank of Trajan’s Forum. The grand hall of the market is roofed by a concrete vault raised on piers, both covering and allowing air and light into the central space. The market itself is constructed primarily out of brick and concrete.

Find more information or take a virtual tour of the Museo dei Fori Imperiali nei Mercati di Traiano

The song in the film is ’Sungam Zorba’ by Hands Of Doom. The visual representations of reassembling the artifacts by

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Italy, The Roman Empire

The Colosseum

The Flavian Amphitheatre is the greatest monument from the Roman Games. It has become a lasting symbol for western civilization, much like the Parthenon in Greece, a sentiment captured in these famous lines by Lord Byron:

”While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls – the World.”

Perhaps civilization will both stand and fall along with the eternal city and its Colosseum, but its massive scale and mythical status aside, it was simply the largest amphitheatre anywhere in the Roman world for spectacles and bloodsports. Some other venues actually came close to it in size however and every large Roman city had an amphitheater during the height of Empire. The average Roman Circus was even larger and some could fit several Colosseums worth of spectators. The elliptical shape of the arena floor probably offered the best way for experiencing gladiatorial combat. The lack of corners where gladiators could become trapped increased the tension making the fights more entertaining. The circus was instead used mostly for chariot racing. There are many known instances though where the Romans choose many different venues for the same popular games.

The rising importance of the Roman Games during the first two imperial dynasties help explain why the Colosseum was built. The Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 BCE – 68 CE) began with the first Roman Emperor Augustus who had 3,500 animals killed while also staging gladiatorial games described by Suetonius as unprecedented on all levels. As Caesar before him, Augustus then had an artificial lake made on the Tiber’s western shore staging a sea battle, reenacting the Battle of Salamis. It was even fitted with a small island in the middle just like at the Bay of Salamis and filled with ships and 3,000 soldiers. His successor Tiberius went in the opposite direction, making massive budget cuts and limiting state involvement in the games, largely transferring them to the private sector. This led to a badly designed wooden amphitheatre collapsing during a packed private game with supposedly gruesome death rates as a result.

Caligula, third Emperor of Rome, was an innovator in the games. During his short and notorious reign he decided to have a small pool constructed on Saepta Julia behind the Forum where he felt gladiatorial games would have more suitable surroundings. When the basin was complete only a single ship could actually fit making Caligula subject to ridicule from the masses. He had further plans for a larger venue in the same place behind the Forum, but his successor Claudius disliked the idea and cancelled the project. Claudius, the fourth Emperor, arranged many games, often attending them himself with reportedly great enthusiasm. He even enjoyed the midday executions where criminals where sentenced to damnatio ad bestias and thrown to wild animals between the more popular animal hunts and gladiatorial combats.

In 52 CE 19,000 rowers and soldiers fought against each other at Lake Fucine in the largest naval battle ever staged during the games. According to Tacitus, the doomed combatants had fought well making Claudius unsure weather to have them go on fighting to the last man, have them all killed, or perhaps spare the remaining men. Rising from the sidelines he then started running back and fourth along the riverbank. Claudius suffered a limp and the sight of the Emperor on the beach supposedly caused great amusement among the crowds of spectators. After enough men had either been killed or wounded Claudius decided to spare the survivors. This particular game was surrounded by a large Roman military force carefully monitoring the unfolding events.

Nero, fifth and final Emperor of the Julio-Claudians, did much to develop the games during his time in power. He introduced new elements in the program he thought would amuse the audience and felt as Caligula before him that a new, better venue was needed for the games. He built a large wooden arena in the Campus Martius and as many of his predecessors staged a sea battle, filling his new wooden arena with water. A variety of fish and marine animals where thrown in as Nero gave the starting signal for a battle between Athenians and Persians, a popular theme at this time. Nero’s wooden arena was destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. After his death the Flavians had his palace demolished and it’s adjacent private artificial lake filled in where they instead built the Colosseum. A clear signal that this part of the inner city now belonged to the people of Rome and that the new Emperor had a different style. A colossal statue of Nero remained from the previous palace, and was incorporated into the new architectural layout, giving rise to the name the ”Colosseum”. The building was originally referred to as the Amphitheatrum Flavium or Amphitheatrum Caesareum.

The Flavian Dynasty began with Vespasian’s rule (69-79 CE) who’s rise to power had been far from obvious. He did’t belong to the traditional power elite of the Roman nobility but instead came from the Ordo Equestris, the knightly class. His career during Claudius’ reign culminated with a consular office in the year 51. During Nero his career took off again and he was appointed proconsul of Africa in 63-64. He accompanied Nero on his trip to Greece and in the year 67 he was given the task of restoring order in Judea and Galilee. When a power struggle erupted in connection with Nero’s suicide Vespasian initially stayed out, before managing to gather support from one Roman legion after another until he soon came into possession of most of them. He was bestowed imperial status and associated privileges on December 22 in the year 69 CE.

Vespasian would build much in Rome during his following nine years as Emperor. Beside the Colosseum he also built the Temple of Claudius commemorating the previous dynasty. To finance this he increased taxes, for among other things the public toilets. When the urinal slowly started to return to European cities during the 19th century, they were thus called Vespasiani in Italy and Vespasiennes in France. His son Titus criticized the urinal tax and as a reply he supposedly got a coin inserted under his nose by his father asking him if he thought it smelled? Titus replied in the negative and Vespasian replied in turn that the coin had come from the urinals. Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell) is a saying associated with his rule. Vespasian was mindful of his spending, but no expenses seems to have been spared for the games. Building the Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome represented a monumental undertaking, along with a second amphitheatre slightly smaller in size with the same name in Pozzuoli. When Vespasian had secured both his position of power, his succession, and had managed to collect enough tax revenue (as well as the spoils of war from Jerusalem) he immortalized his dynasty’s reputation with the Colosseum, as Martial obsequiously called a world wonder:

”Let barbarous Memphis speak no more of the wonder of her pyramids,nor Assyrian toil boast of Babylon; nor let the soft Ionians be extolled for Trivia’s temple; let the altar of many horns say naught of Delos; nor let the Carians exalt to the skies with extravagant praises the Mausoleum poised in empty air. All labor yields to Caesar’s Amphitheater. Fame shall tell of one work in lieu of all. “

Vespasian would die before the inauguration of the Colosseum however and his son and heir Titus was left to oversee one hundred days of unbroken games in the capital, which was probably on an unprecedented scale. Titus short reign (79-81 CE) was halted by a sudden illness soon followed by death. His fell ill already during the closing ceremonies for the inauguration. According to Cassius Dio Titus was quite generous during these games towards the spectators and had wooden balls thrown into the stands bearing the name of a particular item. It could be food, clothing, silver or gold items, horses, other livestock or slaves. Anyone who received a wooden ball could go to the responsible officer and collect their prize. This practice continued during his successor Domitian’s reign. Titus was reportedly along with Caligula, Hadrian, Lucius Verus and a few others one of the few Emperors to actually appear in the arena as gladiators.

Footage from the Colosseum taken in 2015. Additional footage and animations from a NOVA PBS documentary titled ’Roman Death Trap’ and its extended version ’Secrets of the Colosseum’ (Scenes from these documentaries were actually filmed during my visit).

The full documentary offers a possible reconstruction of the trap door elevators in the arena floor, probably used during animal hunts and the particularly hair-raising executions using wild animals. Song in the film is ’Carnival’ by Hands Of Doom.

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Italy, The Roman Empire

Pantheon: A temple to all the gods

The Pantheon is the best preserved architectural monument of ancient Rome. It’s long history notwithstanding it had a somewhat rough start. It was first commissioned by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 27-25 BCE under Augustus rule. That building was then destroyed in a fire, rebuilt under Domitian and in 110 CE lightning struck causing it to burn down again. It was finally rebuilt to its present form under Hadrian around 125 CE and it still bears Agrippa’s inscription above the portico as Hadrian would often commemorate the original builder during his own restorations.


“M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit,” meaning “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”

The Pantheon’s interior, though restored extensively during the Baroque period, is of  incalculable significance, both historically and architecturally. Its dome, the largest in Western Europe before The Renaissance, continues to inspire admiration for the sheer ingenuity and splendor of Roman civilization. It has remained a place of perpetual worship for nearly two millennia. The marble flooring and much of the interior survive from Hadrian’s time (with extensive restoration in places) and there were once numerous marble statues of all the most important Roman gods.

The Pantheon’s original function is not clearly known but it’s probably safe to assume it was commissioned by Agrippa in honor of the emperor Augustus. It’s innovative architectural features echoes both other temples and the spaciousness of public baths. Two monumental statues (probably of Augustus and Agrippa) each occupied sizable niches in the outer façade on both sides of the entrance. The statues themselves are of course long gone along with many other valuable materials removed through the ages.

An famous example of the pillaging that went on is how the original bronze-ceiling of the portico was stripped by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century and later used (at least in part) by Bernini in creating his baldachin above the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pantheon and it’s riches possibly functioned as a tribute to the emperors. By being dedicated to all the Roman gods it could perhaps facilitate public appearances by the emperor in surroundings suited for the status of both themselves and their deified predecessors.

Animations in the film by and ‘Space Pneumonia’ is by Hands Of Doom.

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Italy, The Roman Empire

Hadrian’s Mausoleum

Castel Sant’Angelo was originally the tomb of Hadrian. He was Trajan’s adopted son and emperor of Rome 117-138 CE. Hadrian was a military man but also well versed in politics, art, music, philosophy and literature.

He built a large mausoleum for himself and his family comparable to that of Augustus. It was built in Ager Vaticanus amongst villas, tombs and gardens and linked to the centre of Rome by Pons Aelius, also built by Hadrian.

Only the base remains from roman times. The surrounding walls and top were added during late antiquity and medeival times. It was sacked by both Visigoths and Goths and then rebuilt and used as a castle by many subseqent popes.

Song used in the film: ‘Dark Heart’ of the Woods’ by Hands Of Doom

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Italy, The Roman Empire

Chariots, Gladiators and Martyrs: The Circus Maximus

Looking at the Roman Empire one soon realizes just how much the Romans valued public spectacles. It was an integral part of the empire offering splendid entertainments whereby a lasting bond was forged between the common people and the ruling classes. This is why every large city had at least one amphitheatre. The Roman circus was even larger with oval tracks primarily used for chariot racing. The Circus Maximus (Latin for greatest circle) in Rome was the first, and for a long time the biggest venue for ludi, the public games connected to Roman religious festivals sponsored by leading citizens or the state for the benefit of the gods or the Roman people. Games were also held as part of celebrating military triumphs and the warlike and religous temprament of the Romans meant that Ludi were usually held at regular annual intervals on the Roman calendar.

The Colosseum was a much later addition (completed in the year 80 CE) to the many entertainments on offer in the capital and became the largest amphitheatre for gladiatorial games in the Roman world. Other bloodsports such as hunts, fights amongst beasts were on offer there as well, and during breaks in the program, public excecutions. Larger spectacles as chariot racing or naval combats, naumachia, needed a little more room for obvious reasons and were held either at the circus or at an actual lake, sometimes created especially for staging a battle. The Circus Maximus was for reasons like this necessarily much larger than Colosseum and though the actual seating structure has either been mostly removed or is buried below at least 6 meters of soil it’s former layout is still clearly visible as a grassy oval park area in Rome today. Chariot racing was especially popular on the grounds of the great circus, and horses were often exercised there between races but there were gladiatorial games and public excecutions held there as well. Contrary to popular belief it was actually at Circus Maximus and not at the Colisseum where many early christians were martyred. As big as the Colosseum was, larger than most other amfitheatres there were a few naval battles held even there as well on certain special occasions. Conclusive evidence that the Colisseum was in fact deliberately flooded with water a few times has since been found.

The Circus Maximus is located between the Aventine and Palatine hills in Rome and was the first stadium in the Roman Empire. It measured 621 m x 118 m and could hold around 150,000 spectators or perhaps even more, eventually becoming the model for every other circus throughout the empire. During it’s heyday the structure was on a truly massive scale, even compared to the largest venues we have today. It would still rank in the top 10 of the largest venues in the world and just half a century ago it would easily have been the biggest.