Sitting beneath two railway lines and a modern highway lies an archaeological gem: the remains of the Roman colony of Libarna. This site has the potential to tell us much about the early expansion of the Roman empire into new regions and how Rome used colonial cities to control its provinces. Having undergone excavations and study for two centuries, Libarna also challenges archaeologists to bring together old findings alongside fresh research and methods of investigation.
Today, Libarna lies to the east of Genoa, between two small, lively towns in Piedmont: Arquata Scrivia and Serravalle Scrivia. Back in the Roman period, Libarna’s location was a strategic one, as its setting was both politically and economically ideal for a colonial city. This can still be readily appreciated from its proximity to modern transport routes, which shadow the ancient Roman road connecting the port city of Genoa on the west coast of northern Italy with Aquileia on the east coast. The Via Postumia, as the Romans called it, must in turn have followed an existing prehistoric trade route crossing the region, meaning that Libarna was founded on a longstanding thoroughfare of major significance. This is reflected in evidence for occupation around the site prior to Roman colonisation, although there is no sign yet that an Iron Age settlement lies buried beneath Libarna.
A neglected region
During antiquity, the region where Libarna was founded was inhabited predominantly by Gallic tribes, rather than Italic peoples. It was conquered relatively early in Rome’s expansion beyond peninsular Italy, yet the historical narrative of this period of Rome’s rise often focuses on the wars with Carthage in north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. The Gauls, by contrast, generally only take centre stage a century later when Caesar campaigned against those living beyond the Alps in what is now France. The Gauls on the southern side of the Alps occupied a region known to the Romans as Gallia Cisalpina (literally ‘Gaul on this side of the Alps’). By the time Caesar moved into Gallia Transalpina (‘Gaul across the Alps’), Cisalpine Gaul had been under Roman control for a century. Because of this, Cisalpine Gaul presents a relatively untapped opportunity to understand early attempts to incorporate both the indigenous peoples and the wider region into the fledgling Roman empire.
Libarna was likely founded as a Roman colony in the mid-2nd century BC, following what was probably a brutal conquest of northern Italy. Veterans from the Roman army were then settled in the city to live among the Gauls. Establishing such colonies helped Rome control conquered regions, as having a mass of former soldiers close to hand must have created a significant psychological deterrent to revolt. It is Libarna’s alignment with the Via Postumia that gives us the accepted foundation date for the city; we know from epigraphic evidence that road was opened in 148 BC, though Libarna was not formally awarded Latin citizenship until 89 BC. It went on to flourish, and much of what can be seen today of the ancient city dates to the 1st century AD, at the height of Rome’s empire and during the reigns of its first emperors, the Julio-Claudians.
Roman cities tend to be fairly formulaic in their basic organisation, and Libarna has all the trappings of such a settlement: orthogonal planning where roads meet at right angles and organise the city into regular blocks, an amphitheatre, a forum, a bath complex, and a theatre. One quirk at Libarna concerns the monumental gateways at the northern and southern ends of the city, which were discovered during excavations in the late 2000s, and now lie near an electrical plant and a factory for La Suisse chocolate respectively. Despite the presence of these formal entranceways, there is no evidence that Libarna was enclosed within city walls. This may reflect the successful pacification of the region, but it would also make rapid urban growth easier; Libarna may have been far bigger than we know. This would not be surprising considering its location along the Via Postumia, not far from the provincial capital at Roman Dertona (modern Tortona), which was founded around 123 BC.
Life in Libarna must have been coloured by its position on a key trade route. We can imagine the presence of traders and transient people moving through the town and rubbing shoulders with its permanent residents. Looking at the structures and artefacts give us an insight into some of the daily activities and people that inhabited Libarna. Most objects are everyday items, such as pottery, oil lamps, and keys. Other finds are more specialised, though. For instance, in a house just a block away from the amphitheatre, archaeologists discovered a number of Roman surgical implements, including a copper-alloy scalpel handle. This house may have belonged to a doctor, who perhaps counted injured gladiators among the patients needing care.Two other notable buildings near the amphitheatre are a theatre and bath complex, which suggest this was an area of the city devoted to social pursuits. Amphitheatres were usually located on the outskirts of Roman cities; just as at sporting arenas today, the audience could be loud and even violent. We know, for instance, that the emperor Nero had to ban gladiatorial combat in Pompeii for a decade because a fatal fracas broke out between the Pompeians and their neighbours, the Nucerians, during a gladiatorial match. Libarna’s amphitheatre even had walls around it to manage the crowds and protect residents living in nearby houses. There were also three distinct structures along one side of the amphitheatre complex, which may have been shops selling food and beverages, including alcohol, no doubt contributing to the rowdiness of the crowd.
Going to the baths was as much a social activity as a hygienic one. It was part of a daily routine that the Romans believed to be important for maintaining social and business relationships. There would have been three types of bath in the complex: a hot bath, a cold bath, and a tepid bath. The last would have been the biggest and most like the swimming pools we use today. Patrons most likely mingled with people selling drinks and food, as well as prostitutes offering their services.
Much of our knowledge about the houses of Libarna comes from excavations undertaken by the renowned Italian archaeologist Silvana Finocchi, who served first as a funzionario archeologo (curator of archaeological remains) and later, from 1956 to 1989, as the superintendent. Her detailed documentation and careful collecting of artefacts is a testament to her skill as an archaeologist. Among the areas of Libarna she investigated were two entire city blocks or insulae, examined during the 1970s and 1980s. Finocchi excavated these blocks down to the beginning of the imperial period, leaving the earlier phases of settlement intact below. Her work revealed that by the late 1st century BC, the houses seem to be structured like traditional Roman houses with small rooms arranged around a central atrium or garden. The front portion of the house would have been more public and frequented by guests and friends, while the back area was a private space for the family and their closest friends.
There is no sign that the wealthiest or poorest residents were concentrated in different parts of the city, which fits with what we have learned from other sites such as Pompeii. Instead, small, modest homes can be found mixed in with more luxurious estates. Indeed, the small rooms opening on to the street might have been shops rented out by the owners of the larger properties behind. Roman houses were usually two-storeyed, but we know that in bigger, more-crowded towns like Ostia Antica, the port city of Rome, there were apartment blocks that could stand as many as seven storeys high. Such structures seem less likely at Libarna, as the absence of confining city walls meant the settlement could grow outward, rather than forcing it to develop upward.
Finocchi’s work at Libarna marks just one episode within the site’s rich history of archaeological work. This can be traced back to the late 18th century, when the city was rediscovered by Giuseppe Antonio Bottazzi, a local antiquarian. Since then, the twists and turns in the story of its examination and preservation mean that Libarna’s modern history is as complex and interesting as its ancient one. Today, only a small portion of the Roman city remains visible, and this is preserved as an archaeological park by the Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le province di Alessandria Asti e Cuneo (SABAP-AL). Beyond the confines of this park there has been much modern development, but plenty of Libarna still survives beneath the surface. Indeed, construction has often spurred further investigation of the ancient city. From the late 19th century onwards, numerous rescue excavations have been conducted in those areas of Libarna targeted by development. While these saved details that would otherwise have been lost forever, the multitude of investigations undertaken at the site have bequeathed a mass of archaeological and archival material.
Surveying the city
Since 2015, the Libarna Urban Landscapes Project (LULP) has been working on the difficult task of gathering together the various archived reports and publications, as well as the different (and sometimes inconsistent) site maps, and the numerous artefacts recovered from Libarna, which are now scattered in museums and collections throughout north-west Italy. LULP is studying these materials in order to conduct new research that brings together the stories of both ancient Libarna and the modern archaeological site.
As part of this, from 2016 to 2018, LULP carried out three seasons of geophysical survey using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), Electrical Resistivity, and drone reconnaissance in order to build up the most complete picture of the ancient city possible before engaging in excavation. Because these multiple methods detect archaeology in different ways, it allowed us to map a whole range of features. GPR, for instance, works by emitting radio waves into the ground. When the waves hit something dense, particularly stone and brick, it sends them back to the machine, which records the geographical coordinates along with the depth. After the results are put through a GPR software system, we can not only see features like roads, stone walls, and paved floors, but also determine how deep they lie in the ground.
Electrical resistivity is what most people think of when they imagine a geophysical survey tool, and it works in a similar fashion to GPR. Electrical currents are sent through the earth between two probes, with the time it takes to travel from one to the other providing insights into the nature of the substrata. In particular, denser material slows down the current, while looser deposits permit it to pass faster, allowing elements like walls and packed-earth floors to be distinguished from graves and post-holes. Unlike GPR, though, the depth of these archaeological features is not logged.
Drones, meanwhile, are well on their way to replacing planes for aerial photography, making this method much more affordable for archaeological projects. Aerial photography is excellent for picking up crop marks, which are caused when subsurface features such as walls or ditches hinder or help plant growth, distinguishing them from surrounding crops. LULP’s drone expert Michael Boyles has been able to pick up a breathtaking amount of data from these crop marks, especially during the severe drought in 2017. The resulting crop marks revealed remarkable details, allowing us to see internal divisions within buildings, column bases, and even individual paving stones in roads.
In some cases, employing these three methods has allowed LULP to confirm plans of structures that were excavated over a century ago. For example, the bath complex was excavated by local priest Gianfrancesco Capurro in the mid-19th century. Thanks to the data collected by LULP, we can see that he recorded its structural elements with great accuracy. In another case, LULP has been able to identify buildings that were previously examined and recorded, but had a question mark hanging over their precise location. One notable instance of this is the forum, which acted as the commercial, social, and political heart of the city. Part of this was excavated in the early 20th century by Gaetano Poggi, but fear of tombaroli (literally ‘tomb-robbers’, but more generally people who illegally dig up archaeological sites to sell antiquities) led him to be vague about the location of his discoveries. Indeed, one of the structures he identified, Libarna’s basilica, was believed to lie to the south of the forum. Thanks to the LULP’s drone images, we now know that this key building, which acted as a law court, was placed to the north, beside what is likely to be one of two temples.
In total, our surveys have allowed the LULP to add nearly 8ha of information about the city, including numerous structures and roads, as well as an apparent public building that is a good candidate to be a macellum (marketplace). If so, it would be the first to be discovered in Piedmont.
The information from these surveys will allow us to target specific parts of the city for excavation. In the past, with the exception of Finocchi’s work on the houses, study of Libarna has generally focused on public structures: the amphitheatre, baths, forum, and theatre. But LULP plans to investigate other areas in order to answer questions about cultural and economic activity and to track change at the site as the region was transformed under Roman control. Past excavations have already uncovered some fascinating artefacts that illustrate the cultural exchange under way in the region. One small, marble statue, dating to the second half of the 1st century AD, shows a man reclining on a dining couch in the Roman (and Etruscan) style. Interestingly, although Romans were not usually depicted with facial hair until much later in the imperial period, this man is also shown sporting a Gallic-style moustache. This raises two equally intriguing possibilities: was this man a Roman dabbling in Gallic fashions, or a Gaul adopting the practices of the Romans?
Too often in the past, Roman cultural imperialism has been seen as a one-way street, whereby the conquered peoples willingly and indiscriminately adopted Roman customs. The model for this type of acculturation is known as ‘Romanization’, which stresses the power of Roman influences, while downplaying the contribution made by indigenous cultures. As CWA readers will know, in the past two decades or so most Roman archaeologists have rejected the traditional Romanization model. Now research often focuses on the survival of indigenous customs among conquered peoples, those aspects of Roman culture that they chose to adopt, and even evidence for resistance to Roman culture.
Having finished its geophysical survey of the city, LULP will now turn to excavation to address these questions. At the same time, LULP hopes to begin study of artefacts uncovered during previous excavations. While most of these reside in the Museo di Antichità in Turin, early finds from the site ended up in numerous different collections, including the Museo di Archeologia Ligure in Genoa and a municipal museum in nearby Serravalle Scrivia, which maintains jurisdiction over Libarna. So there is plenty to take stock of, while naturally the quality of documentation covering where and when certain artefacts were recovered varies depending on the time of the excavations, the circumstances under which they took place, and the archaeologists in charge.
Dr Marica Venturino, a former funzionario archeologo of Libarna, has taken on the difficult task of putting together a detailed history of its excavations. The best-documented are those carried out by Finocchi during her tenure in the Soprintendenza (Superintendency). Her detailed documentation of the excavations will provide researchers with the scientific information to truly contextualise these artefacts and also offer comparative information for LULP once its excavations get under way.
Ancient and modern
Another crucial part of Libarna’s story that is sometimes overlooked when archaeological sites are considered, is its place in the modern world. The site continues to garner intense interest among many of the local residents, who see it not only as a relic of the Roman past, but as integral to their long history in the region. Melania Cazzulo, the field director of LULP and a lifelong resident of nearby Arquata Scrivia, remarks, ‘The city of Libarna is extremely important for the sheer amount and variety of archaeological information it can still provide us with. In fact, if you analyse it from different angles, you realise that the site is so much more than purely a place to inform views of the ancient world. One of the possible aspects the site can shed light on is, for instance, the history of archaeology. Libarna can also provide us with information on purely local life. The image we now have of the site has not only been shaped by the Roman age, but by countless subsequent events through which it is possible to reconnect with the site’s general history. Libarna is like a mosaic, like the logo that represents it: you can analyse the single image, the overall design, appreciate its beauty or technique, walk through it or look at it from afar – in each way trying to understand its message.’
Libarna even has a non-profit organisation, Libarna Arteventi, which is dedicated to promoting the city and offering education about it. Libarna Arteventi works closely with the SABAP-AL to offer visitor information and tours, and to hold formal events, including plays at the theatre and samples of food made by local bakers and based on ancient Roman recipes. ‘Libarna is not only an archaeological site and historical relic,’ say Antonio Santopietro and Iudica Dameri, who lead the Associazione Libarna Arteventi, ‘but a “living” place representing culture and a place for gatherings. For Libarna Arteventi, the Roman city represents a “place of the soul”. The Association recounts the timeless journey between history, archaeology, art, food, and wine that begins with Libarna and goes onwards to explore the towns where Piedmont meets Liguria, such as Gavi, Arquata Scrivia, Voltaggio, and Novi Ligure.’
A ‘place of the soul’ is a romantic notion for archaeology, which is often considered a science. But it speaks to the attraction people living in the vicinity feel towards the site. Attesting to the adoration of Libarna by the people of Piedmont, Dr Venturino has set up a website that provides information about the history of Libarna, as well as amazing 3D reconstructions of the city. It is rare for a lesser-known site like Libarna to have such a resource.
All told, then, Libarna is an important site in the modern region, as well as for the study of Roman archaeology and more generally the archaeology of colonialism. It has potential to help us understand the impact of colonialism and imperialism on indigenous peoples and their culture. It can likewise help us recognise any impact of indigenous cultures on their colonisers. The LULP excavations will deploy the improved techniques and technology that have developed since the days of Finocchi. Her work has provided LULP with the ideal foundations for our research, as we continue to capitalise on Libarna’s potential.
FURTHER INFORMATION For more information about the work of the Libarna Urban Landscapes Project check out the project website at www.LibarnaArchProject.org and follow the project on Instagram and Twitter @LibarnaULP. To learn more about the Associazione Libarna Arteventi and its activities, visit http://scoprilibarna.it/. To see the 3D reconstructions of the city, go to http://www.libarna.al.it/en/.