Brixia, Brescia during the Roman Era

In this period during which one cannot travel and mobility is limited to emergency situations or absolute necessity, it seems absurd to open a site for travellers, with tips for visiting Brescia and curiosities about the city. Or it is the best time to entertain oneself and fantasize about what to do and where to go as soon as possible.

With my articles I hope to arouse your curiosity and entice you to come to my city. Today I would like to give you some historical information about Brescia at the time of the Romans and it so happens that yesterday, Saturday 21 November, Rai 1 broadcasted a documentary with Aleberto Angela on Roman (and Longobard) Brescia, obviously very beautiful and very interesting, with images and videos that I cannot offer you in my articles for now.

Historical Background

The origins of the city of Brescia go back to an era before the Romans.

The first populations were in fact the Cenomani Gauls between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the only Gauls who established lasting agreements with Rome. The name Brixia therefore derives from the Celtic “brig” (translated as “high place” precisely because the first populations settled on the Cidneo hill).

Unfortunately, we have little evidence of these early populations, other than a dwelling that can be visited on a free tour under Palazzo Martinengo Cesaresco Novarino. This tour also allows you to visit a Roman domus and what appears to have been a workshop on Foro Square.

Back to the relationship between the Gauls and the Romans, in 89 BC. Brixia obtained Latin law and later in 49 BC became a municipium of the Roman Republic. Brescia began to have its own senate and magistrates, then an autonomous administrative system and extended its area of influence into the neighbouring areas.

In 27 B.C. Brixia was the first city in Northern Italy to be declared ‘colonia civica augusta‘ and was annexed to the Fabian tribe by Octavian Augustus. He also had an aqueduct built, about 25 km long, connecting the Val Trompia village of Lumezzane with the city. Historians associate these events with the construction of a temple that later became part of the Capitolium.

The well-developed urban plan of the city reached its greatest extent between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and it was during this period, in 73, that the Capitolium dedicated to Flavius Vespasian was built.

The city was among the most developed in northern Italy and even had a port, near what is now Via Mantova to the south-east of the centre, not to mention the importance of the ports on Garda Lake.

As for Christianity, the new religion began to spread well before Constantine’s edict of 313 and in Brescia the first Christian centres arose in the Ronchi area.

After this historical introduction, let’s get to the heart of the article: a tour of the well-preserved and still-visitable remains of Brescia, a tour which I suggest you take when you pass through the city.

Foro square (1)

The centre of the Roman city, the Forum Square (Piazza del Foro in Italian) was bordered to the north by the Capitolium and to the south by the Curia, while a double-tiered portico with precious marbles, statues and shops stretched out on either side.

Of these porticoes, visible just south of the Church of San Zeno, a monolithic marble column with a Corinthian capital and other ruins remain, discovered in 1816 and restored in the 1930s. A staircase, built where Via Musei now stands, led up from the forum to the temple.

We have to imagine a large square that was also very busy with shops. We can get an idea of how the square looked at that time thanks to short videos showing computer reconstructions, but if we walk along Via Musei, the old decumanus maximus, we can see what remains of it.

Over the centuries houses and palaces have been built on top of the square, so the current one is very small compared to the original. We know this thanks to the ruins of a tavern discovered under Martinengo Palace (Palazzo Martinengo) and that in the past overlooked the square, as already mentioned above.

Capitolium and the Winged Victory (2)

As we have already seen, the Capitolium dates back to 73 A.D. and was built at the behest of Vespasian over a republican sanctuary with four cells, decorated with a very interesting cycle of paintings, the better preserved and most complete in northern Italy. The area on which the Capitolium stands, however, had already been used as a place of worship since the 3rd century BC. It was probably here that the Gauls worshipped their Sun God.

The building was destroyed around the 4th-5th century by barbarian invasions, and since then the area was gradually abandoned and became a kind of rubbish dump. When, due to an earthquake (and the centuries), both the Capitolium and the theatre were submerged by soil from the Cidneo hill, on which they both rest, people totally forgot about both Roman monuments, which were only rediscovered after 1823.

The complex consists of three aulae, with formerly decorated walls and a prostyle pronaos in Corinthian style in front. When it re-emerged from the earth thanks to excavations in 1826 conducted by Luigi Basiletti, the discovery of such a well-preserved Roman work was not the only surprise: four portraits from the late imperial period and three Roman bronze statues were also found, including the beautiful Winged Victory, which returned to the city very recently.

The Winged Victory deserves special attention: it is the best preserved Roman bronze statue in northern Italy, portraying the goddess writing the name of the winner of a battle on a shield (no longer there) while holding the helmet of the God of War, Mars, under her foot. The statue has inspired many poets and historical figures passing through Brescia, producing copies all over the world, such as the copy on display in the Louvre.

There are many stories about how the Capitolium was rediscovered, one of them being that an historian was in a restaurant on the hill and noticed that his table was extremely similar to a Roman column. He then had the area excavated and one of the Capitolium’s columns emerged. The legend does not say anything about the restaurateur, whether he ended up in poverty or whatever.

The Theatre (3)

On the east side of the Capitolium you can see the remains of the mighty Roman Theatre, only found in 1913. Most of the structures are still intact or covered by others, such as the 16th century Gambara Palace (Palazzo Gambara), which was built on top of the theatre stage structures.

The building held more than 15000 spectators and was, along with the theatres of Verona and Pula, one of the largest theatres of the X Regio Augustea.

According to Greek custom, the cavea was located on the slope of the Cidneo Hill and, in order to adapt the entire structure to the conformation of the land, it was built slightly off axis with respect to the Decumanus Maximus (actual Via Musei).

As well as the Capitolium, even the stage collapsed in an earthquake around the 5th and 6th centuries. It is believed that the theatre reached its peak in the 3rd century A.D. and was used as a meeting place for the municipal judiciary for a long time until its abandonment in 1173, when the first building of the municipal palace, the Broletto Palace, was created.

The Curia (4)

Also this building, like the Capitolium, dates back to the Flavian age. The remains can be visited and are incorporated in a building between Via Cattaneo and Labus Square, today the seat of the archaeological superintendence.

The Curia was of remarkable size, 5o x 20 metres, with doors and windows on all sides, although the function of the building is still unclear: some assume it was a curia, others believe it was a basilica.

Two Domus (5)

In Roman times, Brixia was one of the most developed cities in Northern Italy and this is confirmed by the numerous remains of Roman houses (called domus) found in the area of the historic centre, which testify to the presence of a well-developed urban plan.

The Domus of Saint Giulia and the Domus of Ortaglia, respectively the Domus di Dioniso and the Domus delle Fontane, which can now be visited in the Saints Salvatore and Giulia Museum, belonged to this residential area of about 2,700 square metres in the north-west. The Longobard monastic complex was in fact built over these two dwellings, which were inhabited from the 1st century BC until the 4th century AD.

Le domus sul monastero
Museo Santa Giulia

I hope you enjoyed this five-stage tour, if you have any questions, curiosity or requests please do not hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below!

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