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Grumentum city walls. Recent archaeological and topographical data

by Fiammetta Soriano e Lianka Camerlengo


The ancient city of Grumentum stands on a low promontory of lengthen shape at an altitude of about 585 meters above sea level, occupying an area of approximately 300.000 square meters. The choice of the area wasn’t accidental, in fact, the proximity to Agri River, the presence of fertile lands and the passage of two important roads are all elements that guarantee to the city a position strategically optimal for trades, business and control of military movements.

The lengthen shape and orographical conditions of the plain determined the urban setting of the city which, defended by walls, was based on three terraces on which were wound the main roads with direction north-east/south-west intersected by smaller axes with direction north-west/south-east.

Plan of the city with an indication of the presumable wall circuit (Graphic processing by F. Soriano)

The facilities, at this moment dig up, drop a hint the magnificence that the city should have: they were both public and private buildings and among them we mention the remains of amphitheatre (dating to the first century B.C.) in the eastern terrace, whereas in the southern part, in the central terrace, was situated the theatre of Augustan age (with life stages attested until the fifth century A.C), the remains of two small temples of Imperial age and a rich domus characterized by atrium with peristyle (dating to the end of first century B.C. to mid-fourth century A.C.). In the middle of this terrace, the highest, stands the Forum closed by the porticus with remains of two temples on the south and north sides (identified with the Augustan - or Caesarian – and the Capitolium) while on the west side there was the basilica. In addition, in the southern and northern part of the forensic area there are remains of two thermal buildings (from Republican and Imperial age). These last facilities, as well as in the rest of the city, were served by an aqueduct, which penetrated into the city from the southern side after covering a distance of about 5 kilometers.

Wall line in Opus incertum along the west side (Photo by F. Soriano)The city should be surrounded by walls with a perimeter of about 3 kilometers (9859.28 pedes). About its existence we deduce some evidences from the literary tradition: Livy (XXII, 31-42) in the story of the battle between Romans and Carthaginians makes a quickly mention, as well as Seneca, (Sui benefici III, 23), in the episode of Social War. More news about walls, although in a marginal way, we can extract from the numerous works that from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century describe history and remains of the ancient city.

About city walls we also have news from two inscriptions: one dated to 57 B.C. (CIL X, 219.) in which is mentioned the construction of about 200 feet (about 60 meters) and the other dated to 51 B.C. (CIL X, 220.) in which is mentioned the construction of another stretch of 1200 feet (about 360 meters).

In 2008, following the reading of these data, has begun a new research project about Grumentum city walls carried out with a reconnaissance around the edge of the plain. The survey has allowed from on the one hand to recognize few stretches already known and on the other hand to identify new ones. Especially on the west side were found some important wall stretches, located under the plain edge, which seem be part of a single set up, of which there are totally about 80 meters with curtain (just in a few points) mainly in Opus incertum with a thickness of about 1.80 meters  and an average height preserved of about 4 meters.

Detail of curtain in Opus incertum with on the bottom the hole for storm sewer (Photo by L. Camerlengo)One of the main technical features is the presence, at the bottom of a wall stretch, of a hole intended as a water gully, interpretation suggested by the presence of a cavity behind the city walls, filled with different kind of materials, especially river cobblestones.

This type of arrangement would seem a kind of wasps’ nest that serves to lighten the pressure of land at the back and to allow the flow of water. In addition, in the thickness nucleus of the wall (noticed just in a stretch) at a height of about 2.50 meters there is a channel running parallel inside the structure.

The fragments of wall identified have permitted to confirm the route of the wall, which coincides with the top edge of the plain, and to collect data about the structural articulation and design features which provide an indication of the technical building evolution, and consequently attest the presence of different stages.

For instance, emerges as the west side has more relevant structures both from a quantitative and qualitative viewpoint. Probably the best preservation state of the city wall along the western edge depends from the geomorphological conformation, whereas looking at the northern and northern-eastern side it’s possible to notice an almost total absence of wall remains, explained by the roughness of the slope which could serve as a natural defense. These verifications may let reflect upon the possibility that the city didn’t have a continuous city wall.

Detail of the channel built in the thickness of the wall with on the left side part with river cobblestones in the cavity (Photo by L.Camerlengo)More difficult is the consideration about two elements strictly connected with the city walls: the gates and towers. Of both we don’t have collected any archaeological evidence, but about the first it’s possible to assume some gates on topographical bases: two gates for the passage of wagons in the northern and southern side, and other three along the eastern side of which one near the amphitheater that should be probably used for the movement of the public without interfering the internal road system.

Along the western side, however, there should be three gates used for the passage of pedestrians (postern).

Regarding the presence of towers, their existence is presumable just by an inscription, but at the moment it’s not possible to determine the shape nor the number.

From a new reading of sources connected to the study of wall stretches identified, it has been possible to assume different life stages of the walls. Livy says that the city in the second half of the third century B.C. should have walls, of which nowadays there are no traces, but that should be in either wooden or polygonal masonry such as in Aeclanum.

We can certainly affirm that the oldest wall section among those identified is in Opus incertum and its construction was an architectonical work of considerable size, built by skilled workers and using the best materials.

About the dating of walls, in this phase it’s possible to assume a chronology (for stylistic comparisons)  between the end of the second century B.C. and the first half of the first century B.C., but the dating can be limited because Grumentum was involved in the devastations of the social war, so the year 89 B.C. should be the terminus post quem. Moreover, we should take into account the two inscriptions, respectively dated to 57 B.C. and  51 B.C., important because referred to the restoration of some parts of the walls and therefore considerate the terminus ante quem.

For these reasons the wall circuit should have been built between 89  B.C. and 51 B.C., and a period of time of almost forty years is unthinkable for the construction of a work of such size, that should give to the city a safe appearance as well as a symbolic image of urban civilization.





Copyright text (where there aren’t other references) by Fiammetta Soriano and Lianka Camerlengo