Abruzzo’s Roman Past

I don’t really know why I was so taken aback on first discovering that Abruzzo had a rich Roman heritage.

Perhaps I’ve become so used to the region being a bit of an undiscovered, off-the-beaten-track tourism destination, I’d maybe assumed the Romans had never discovered it either.

But Romans being Romans, once they’d figured out how to get through/round/over over the Apennines and followed their old adage of ‘I came; I saw; I conquered’, they disposed of the local Sabine and Samnite tribes; renamed the region Picenum; settled it; and the rest is…er…history.

The big Roman site at Alba Fucens

The Roman site at Alba Fucens, south of L’Aquila, with Monte Velino in the background.
Photo: CaesarGJ/Wikipedia

Today, some twenty or so Roman settlements survive, either in the form of thriving modern towns like our own provincial capital Chieti and nearby Lanciano, which still remain on the original sites of their ancient Roman alter egos of Teate and Anxanum.

Or, far more atmospheric, as the deserted ruins you’ll discover not too far from us at Iuvanum; or a little further afield at Amiternum, to the west L’Aquila; or to the south of L’Aquila at Alba Fucens

On Stage in Amiternum

For a shamefully long time after our Abruzzo arrival in October 2007, Iuvanum was one of those “We must go and see…” places that we never actually got around to going and seeing until a visit to Amiternum this June irrevocably whetted our appetite.

Unlike Iuvanum, which requires a specific drive to visit, (albeit a fairly short and easy one), you can’t help but conveniently pass through what remains of Amiternum en route from L’Aquila up into the Gran Sasso National Park.

Not, sadly, that there’s too much of Amiternum left, but its two principal attractions are spectacular.

On your right, just a few metres from the busy SS80 road immediately after the hamlet of San Vittorino – but, (in common with too many archeological sites in Abruzzo), incredibly badly signposted – is Amiternum’s theatre.

The Roman theatre at Amiternum

The theatre at Amiternum. At the top-left of the picture is the special ‘VIP entrance’ leading to seats on the grassed semi-circle in front of the raised stage.

On the afternoon we visited, the site was deserted and the semi-resident curator keen for some company and the chance to practise his English. So we were lucky enough to get a private escorted tour and some fascinating – and at one point gruesome – insights into the theatre’s past.

As with the rest if Amiternum, the theatre dates back to some point between the 1st and 3rd centuries BC. It’s thought to have held around 2000 people, with VIPs seated in the grass semi-circle right in front of the raised stage and everyone else ranged on the stone tiers behind.

Seating in the theatre

The lighter-coloured stone seating blocks are 2000 year-old originals. The darker ones are modern. But modern stonemasons weren’t able to reproduce blocks the same size and with the same curves as their Roman counterparts.

Take a look at those stone tiers. The lighter-coloured ones are original Roman; the darker examples are more modern reproductions.

But with one significant difference.

The Roman stone blocks, around a metre long, are carefully crafted to follow the semi-circular contours of the theatre. Their modern equivalents are considerably shorter.

Why ?

Modern stonemasons simply found it too difficult to reproduce the work of their counterparts of 2000 years ago, who were skilled in making every stone block very slightly different from its neighbour to allow for a smooth curve on each ascending tier.

We’re shown exactly where to stand on the broad, grassed stage
and hear for ourselves the stunning accoustics that result when we speak; shown how and where the moving scenery backdrop was operated; how curtains divided up the action on the stage, ensuring it’s full 30-metre width was constantly in use; and heard the macabre onstage fate of condemned criminals.

Roman audiences liked their theatre presentations as raw and realistic as they were used to seeing in the nearby arena, so the plays generally featured a mounting body-count.

But to ensure the ultimate in theatrical realism, criminals who’d been sentenced to death were dressed identically to the actors about to be ‘killed’ onstage; deftly switched over at an opportune moment; then suffered their grisly exit.

Not dissimilar in fact to an afternoon’s ‘entertainment’ in the astonishingly well-preserved arena, less than a 5-minute drive away.

Amiternum's Roman arena

The impressive arena at Amiternum – about 5 minutes drive from the theatre.

Built around the same time as the theatre, the arena will have held about 6000 people. Originally, it’ll have been faced with marble or limestone and though that’s now long-gone – most usually to help build nearby churches in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD – more than enough of the original bricks-and-mortar sub-structure remains to give you a real sense of the original grandeur.

But can we get any closer than the side of the road ? No we can’t. The theatre might’ve been open. But the arena site is firmly closed.

Both sites are free to visit, but as we discovered, opening times are extremely haphazard.

And if one’s open, it’s certainly no guarantee the other will be too.

Not a good idea to make the 2-hour drive from us with fingers crossed you’ll be able to get in. Better to add Amiternum as a bolt-on extra to a day visiting the Gran Sasso. Or combine an on-spec visit with a tour of Abruzzo’s third great Roman site at Alba Fucens, as-yet unvisited by us but which, (we’re assured), you’ll definitely be able to get into.

Iuvanum – An Astonishing Site High on the Fringes of the Majella

You’ll also definitely be able to get into Iuvanum – or Juvanum, to give the town its proper Roman spelling.

Unlike Amiternum, which can boast little more than its theatre and arena, Iuvanum is a big site, with little more than its centre so far excavated.

And unlike Amiternum, it’s always accessible. Even more handily, Iuvanum is an easy 40-minute drive from us.

The site at Iuvanum

Your first view of Iuvanum. What at first seems a random jumble of stones soon starts to fall into place to reveal buildings and roads.

Initially, Iuvanum takes you by surprise. Its sheer size is one factor; its seemingly random jumble of stones is another.

But little by little, thanks to the excellent informative signs, (alas, only in Italian), as you begin to understand what you’re actually seeing, it all starts to fall into shape and make sense.

Iuvanum was astonishingly modern in its layout. Or perhaps modern town planning owes more than we realise to the Romans.

The excavated centre of Iuvanum measures roughly 300 x 150 metres. Here is the town’s commercial and administrative centre: the Forum; temples; shops; the homes of important citizens.

Typically straight Roman road

Leading away from the town centre, long straight roads lead out to residential areas.

But leading away from the centre, arrow-straight, roads radiate out into what is now open countryside, but 2000 years ago, were the general residential areas.

And as your eyes follow the roads even further out, past the stone remains of yet more buildings, you start to realise that Iuvanum wasn’t a little built-up patch of 300x150m surrounded by a few houses, but a big urban mass at least five times bigger. And the overwhelming majority of it is still unexplored.

Columns which originally formed  part of a temple

Columns from one of Iuvanum’s temples

At 1000m up on the edges of the Majella, the winters in Iuvanum will have been brutally hard. Arable farming will have been difficult, but you don’t have to look far for a clue as to what the most important industry will have been.

Sheep and cattle dot the surrounding countryside now, as they will have done 2000 years ago. Iuvanum’s inhabitants would recognise their old area today – and the animals it supports.

Once you’ve had your fill of wandering around the archeological site, if luck’s with you, you might find the adjoining museum open. But don’t pay any attention to the opening times carried on the signs outside.

Those opening times have been changed. The signs have not. Neither do there seem any plans to update them. Don’t try looking for opening times on Iuvanum’s website either. It doesn’t give them.

All I can tell you with any degree of certainty is the museum’s open every day in August. Possibly. At other times of the year, opening times currently seem to be a closely-guarded secret.

I’ve been battering away at the Iuvanum site’s authorities and the Abruzzo Tourist Board for a bit of action on this front. Movement is glacially slow…

But these arcane attitudes to tourism shouldn’t stop you visiting and exploring Iuvanum – and better news is that some of the choicest finds made there, (and at all of Abruzzo’s other Roman sites), are on display in the much more accessible and user-friendly National Archeological Museum in Chieti – winner of the ‘European Museum of the Year’ award in 1984.


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