For some years, the buzzing sound of mechanical digging has been emanating from a green-screen enclosure standing beside Rome’s monumental avenue, the Via dei Fori Imperiali. This is because an excavation site lies entrenched between the broad avenue and the adjacent portion of Caesar’s Forum, which is open to the public as part of an archaeological park. There, in the south-eastern section of the complex, heavy mechanical excavators and trucks operate alongside archaeologists, conservators, geologists, and radiocarbon specialists, who are committed to figuring out what was going on here in the past. Inside the enclosure, two trenches are cordoned off with plastic fences that proclaim there are ‘lavori in corso’: works in progress. Sure enough, our team has reached deep into the archaeological layers, revealing an incredible amount of new knowledge about the long history of Rome.
This work is taking place in the heart of the city. The Roman Forum lies close at hand, while the remains of the imperial fora established by the emperors Augustus (reigned 27 BC to AD 14), Nerva (reigned 96-98), and Trajan (reigned 98-117) are visible on the far side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Over the recent winter months, trowels and buckets were stowed away, and the Bobcat excavator rested, surrendering the site to restoration specialists and architects. Meanwhile, the archaeologists, finds specialists, and soil scientists headed indoors to study the excavated material and process a wealth of samples. Together, their findings can lead us from the 20th century AD back to the 6th century BC.
Clean up first, then demolish
Our journey starts on 28 October 1932, when the Via dei Fori Imperiali, which today leads people from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum, was inaugurated by Benito Mussolini. Back then it was called the Via dell’Impero, a parade street that simultaneously celebrated the ideology of the fascist regime and physically connected it to Rome’s ancient and glorious past.
The street cut through the late Republican Forum of Caesar and all of the imperial fora. When this new thoroughfare was first planned, though, most of the Roman-era remains were obscured beneath a densely inhabited residential area known as the Alessandrino Quarter. Its housing blocks were razed together with five churches, causing about a thousand families to be evicted and rehomed in newly built neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Rome. Once exposed, most of Caesar’s Forum was excavated, alongside portions of the other fora. Speed was the defining quality of this work, though. After just a year and a half of demolition and excavation, the centre of Rome lay transformed. Afterwards, its appearance before this intervention by the fascist regime was soon largely forgotten, with most modern visitors never realising that the ruins looked radically different less than a century ago. Fortunately for us, the area currently being excavated in Caesar’s Forum was not dug out at that time. Neither was it overbuilt by the parade street, because Mussolini needed a turning space for his grandiloquent parades.
The Alessandrino Quarter had a long pedigree. It was first established in the second half of the 16th century, meaning that its three- to four-storey high housing blocks had accommodated part of Rome’s fast-growing population for over three centuries. While it has always been possible to get a sense of the Alessandrino Quarter from photographs, historic maps, and written sources, prior to our excavations very little was known about the material culture of daily life. Indeed, even then it has not always been easy to bring its former inhabitants into sharp focus. Not only did they take their possessions with them when they vacated their homes, but they also scrupulously swept the floors – even though the buildings were about to be torn down. This compulsion for cleanliness was not just a matter of pride. Instead, it can be explained by a pending inspection from the state architects, who were brought in to make precise measurements of the apartments. This was important for the families, in order for them to receive the correct compensation from the state, after being forced to leave their homes.
Naturally, such sprucing up did not extend to hidden spaces like underground sewers and channels, allowing traces of the last inhabitants to survive there. Systematic excavation and recording of these spaces is granting an insight into the residents’ domestic activities, social standing, and even their diet. Pieces of jewellery and shirt buttons made of bone probably entered the sewers accidentally when washing clothes, whereas plates, forks, and glasses must have come from one or more kitchens above. Animal bones, mostly from pigs, alongside the many mussel shells and chicken eggs found, tell us about the dietary habits of the inhabitants. In addition, the excavations allow us to understand the practical manner in which the buildings were demolished and the rubble discarded – often packed into sewers or used to level off cellars. We even found tools and personal belongings of the workmen who carried out the demolition.
The remains of some rooms in the housing blocks were also preserved. Here, the floors are of interest, as, far from being uniform, different materials were employed and different patterns created. These allow us to chart shifts in architectural fashions and the impact of modernisation over the course of three centuries. From these floors emerges a narrative whereby Renaissance houses were rebuilt during the second half of the 19th century to install modern commodities, including electricity and flushable toilets. While we lack small finds from the rooms, the floors are still a great help when it comes to deducing what these spaces were used for. After all, the different demands of domestic living quarters, kitchens, and laundries often result in distinctive flooring.
Though the thorough clean-up makes it difficult to peek into the daily lives of those living on top of Caesar’s Forum in the first three decades of the 20th century, finds from the Alessandrino Quarter do bring us closer to some earlier residents. One such discovery was made in 2021. Objects recovered from a short stretch of sewer testify to one or more infectious diseases spreading through the area in the second half of the 16th century – that is at just the time housing blocks were first sprouting in what was then Rome’s newest neighbourhood.
The sewer contained numerous intact and broken vessels, including fragments of around 30 uroscopy flasks. Such receptacles were used by medics from the medieval period through to the 18th century in order to study the colour, smell, consistency, and even taste of human urine when diagnosing a range of diseases. Today, we view uroscopy as essentially a pseudoscience, but in the 16th century it was a cornerstone of many medical practices. Small, intact terracotta containers found in the sewer also offer an insight into healing, as they were used to hold various types of medicine during the Renaissance. At first sight, the numerous broken plates also recovered from the conduit seem a less obvious fit with healthcare. When we examined the plates more closely, though, it became apparent that they had been discarded intact. Why? During this period, it was well understood that some diseases could be caught by touching objects handled by the infected. One solution was simply to throw away patients’ possessions when they died. Sure enough, traces of this approach have been found associated with hospitals in Italy.
It is interesting to ponder how material suited to a hospital-style setting ended up in a residential sewer. If a hospital had existed in the excavation area we would know about it from the written sources, but they are silent on the matter. However, it is possible that the objects had been transported some distance from a hospital in central Rome, before being chucked into the sewer. An overview of the material should give a sense of the number of patients concerned. If we allow for one plate per patient, then the belongings of 23 deceased individuals were dumped in the sewer. An additional, poignant, detail is provided by the presence of at least two terracotta figure toys, indicating that one or more of the victims were children.
Farming central Rome
Moving further back through time brings us to the era before the Alessandrino Quarter developed. Archaeologically, this period was marked by a thick mud layer, which fits neatly with the contemporary name for the area: i Pantani or ‘the swamp’. The origins of this expanse of boggy ground can be traced to the breakdown of earlier drainage systems. Back in the Roman period, water from the entire forum area drained directly into the River Tiber via the large Cloaca Maxima sewer. By the 10th century AD, though, this sewer was no longer being properly maintained. Eventually it became blocked, leaving the area at the mercy of the elements. It would not have taken long for living conditions to suffer. Our mud deposit accumulated between the 11th and 15th centuries, and may well contain valuable information about how the people of medieval Rome interacted with their changing environment. Micromorphological analyses and radiocarbon dating hold the promise of further clarifying this story, as well as the speed with which the area silted up in the centuries leading up to the construction of the Alessandrino Quarter in the 16th century.
Below this thick, informative mud lay a very different version of central Rome: an area of vegetable gardens, orchards, vineyards, and small farm houses. Excavations conducted in the southern part of Caesar’s Forum between 1998 and 2000 had already revealed that a peasant society developed in the heart of the ancient city. Badly preserved and poorly built farmhouse walls and floors were also detected in the new excavations. These medieval farms are called domus terrinee, with each house consisting of a single room. Reused architectural elements from earlier periods are a common feature of these humble dwellings, leaving column parts and marble blocks, so-called spolia, randomly jutting from the walls.
Another layer of muddy soil emerged below the medieval farmhouses. Here, too, there was evidence for the reuse of fine architecture from the Roman Imperial period: heaps of marble had been chopped up into football-size pieces, most likely in preparation for burning in lime-kilns. The quicklime this produced could be slaked with water and used as building material, allowing the marble of the imperial fora to live on in a very different guise among the constructions of Late Antique Rome. Fortunately, the fragments we found avoided this fate, telling us not only about an important episode of recycling, but also providing an example of the sumptuous marble decorations that once graced the fora.
Splendours of Caesar
Before the end of the 2021 season, our excavations in the main trench along the Via dei Fori Imperiali reached Caesar’s Forum. In Antiquity, this was known as the Forum Julium, and Gaius Julius Caesar took care to site it next to the Roman Forum – the great public space at the heart of civic life, where speakers’ platforms, stores, markets, administrative buildings, and temples could be found. To put it another way, by initiating his grand forum project, Caesar radically reimagined the fabric of urban life in Rome.
He pleased as well as vexed with his investment, which according to the ancient authors was the most expensive land-acquisition and building project of its time. One reason why the plot commanded such a high price was that it contained the residences of socialite Romans. Their homes were duly demolished, and the ground levelled as part of the forum project. This created a space covering approximately 100m by 50m, which was paved with slabs of travertine stone. It was enclosed by three porticoes, formed of granite columns rising from marble steps. A bronze equestrian statue of Caesar took pride of place in the centre of the forum, while the northern end of the square was dominated by a temple of Venus Genetrix, which stood on a 6m-high podium. This choice of deity allowed Caesar to advertise his divine ancestry: Venus was the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas, whose son Julus (also known as Ascanius) was claimed as an ancestor by the Julian family.
Construction work on the forum began in 52 BC, with Caesar inaugurating it in 46 BC, even though the complex was still unfinished. As it transpired, Caesar did not live long enough to see the full splendour of his building project. Instead, his adoptive son Octavian – later Emperor Augustus – brought the building project to fruition and also made a few tweaks to the original architectural plans. These amendments were geared towards making the forum even more grandiose than Caesar had originally conceived. The end result was a new meeting place for the people of Rome. Here was a public space where business could be conducted, love affairs could unfold, friends could meet, and the Romans could gaze in awe at the magnificence of their hometown. Above all, it rammed home the message that Caesar was in charge as sole ruler of the vast Roman Empire.
So far, our excavations have unearthed tumbled granite columns from the forum’s eastern portico, as well as statue bases. Drainage channels have also come to light, with one dating to Caesar’s time, while another was installed during Trajan’s reign, providing a sense of how the forum was maintained over a century after its inauguration. Such measures ensured that heavy rain could drain towards the Cloaca Maxima, some 100m to the south.
Our spring campaign will reveal more about this late-Republican tour de force and its restoration under Trajan. We are also hoping these investigations might answer a long-standing mystery concerning the complex: how it connected to the famous Forum of Augustus. These two fora shared an adjoining wall, but to this day it remains unclear whether this contained a passage permitting movement between the two. Caesar’s Forum itself could be entered on either side of the Temple of Venus Genetrix, while there was also a connecting passage to the Roman Forum. So, were the ancient Romans able to walk dry-shod all the way from the Roman Forum to the Forum of Augustus? With the new excavations, the entire width of Caesar’s Forum will be exposed for the first time, shedding more light on movement in the heart of ancient Rome.
Rearranging the landscape
In 2021, we also opened a smaller trench closer to the paved forum square. In this part of the excavation, the stratigraphy ‘jumps’ from the Middle Ages directly back to the archaic period, long before the heyday of Republican and Imperial Rome. The archaeological layers belonging to the centuries in between, including the era of Caesar’s Forum, are gone. This loss can be traced back to the inhabitants of the medieval domus terrinee, who exposed the area to rough treatment by digging down to reach the fertile soil below. One side effect of their handiwork is that this modest – but crucial – trench has allowed us to reach far deeper into the past of ancient Rome.
Whereas the Middle Ages’ peasant society really let this part of the site have it, the architects and workers that built Caesar’s Forum adopted a softer touch. When the complex was built, the ground had to be levelled, and this meant that in places, especially the north-eastern part of the forum, 3-4m of ground needed removing. Where our trench lay in the south-eastern part of the site, though, the remains of the archaic period were left largely untouched by Caesar’s grand development.
Thanks to this, the floor level and some walls of a 6th-century BC building still survived in the archaic levels. The area was once again residential in nature at this point in time, with earlier excavations in the vicinity revealing more houses, as well as wells and a street. It is clear from the quality of the material that people from the upper echelons of society resided here during the archaic period. Even so, the most striking finds from our new excavations belong to the funerary rather than to the domestic sphere. This is due to the discovery of four children buried in the first half of the 6th century BC.
Three of the children were entombed in storage jars known as ollae. Their graves were fashioned by pushing together two of these squat, belly-rounded jars, with the body of the child placed inside. Another grave was found under one of the olla graves. It contained an inhumed child, who had died at the age of three or four. On top of each olla grave was a little pile of material that included, among other things, tile fragments. Rather than being grave markers, these miniature mounds were probably placed there to provide protection – perhaps so that animals could not dig through the earth to reach the graves.
Although the dead were usually destined for cemeteries established outside towns, it is not uncommon to find infants buried in houses. Even so, it is unique for so many to be bunched together from the same period. Inevitably, it raises the question of whether we are dealing with victims of a disease or some other catastrophic event. We expect the upcoming analyses of the graves and the bodies in 2022, together with further excavations in the area, to shed more light on this.
Rise of Rome
We have now delved through cultural layers reaching back roughly 2,600 years in time. But Rome’s story does not stop there. Earlier excavations in Caesar’s Forum have found traces of even more ancient activity: in the 11th and 10th centuries BC, a necropolis occupied the site, while before that, from the 13th to the 11th centuries BC, handmade impasto pottery, postholes (probably from a hut), wheel tracks, and evidence for the area being carefully levelled speak of settlement activity.
As we reach the spring of 2022, the buzzing sound of excavations is once again to be heard behind the green-screen enclosure. It brings the promise that this year our dig might reach the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age layers, thus shedding light on the origins of Rome. Whatever the results, we can be confident that a longue durée narrative about daily life in the heart of Rome will continue to be revealed through the excavation of a small patch of land hidden away beneath Mussolini’s parade-street turning space for almost a century.
FURTHER INFORMATION The excavations at Caesar’s Forum are undertaken as a collaboration between Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali, the Danish Institute in Rome, and the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (Aarhus University). The project is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and Aarhus University Research Foundation. Further support comes from the Danish National Research Foundation under the grant DNRF119 – Centre for Urban Network Evolutions. Project publications include, among others: T A Hass & R Raja (eds.) (2021) Caesar’s Past and Posterity’s Caesar, Rome Studies 1. Turnhout: Brepols. J K Jacobsen, G Murro, C P Presicce, R Raja & S G Saxkjær (2020) ‘Practicing Urban Archaeology in a Modern City: the Alessandrino Quarter of Rome’, Journal of Field Archaeology 46.1: 36–51. J K Jacobsen, G Murro, C P Presicce, R Raja, S G Saxkjær & M Vitti (2021) ‘High-Definition Urban Narratives from Central Rome: virtual reconstructions of the past and the new Caesar’s Forum excavations’, Journal of Urban Archaeology 3, 65–86. Project webpage: https://cas.au.dk/en/cfp UrbNet webpage: https://urbnet.au.dk
ALL IMAGES: Sovrintendenza Capitolina and The Caesar’s Forum Project, unless otherwise stated.