BMCR 2005.08.18

Palatino, Velia e Sacra Via. Paesaggi urbani attraverso il tempo. Workshop di archeologia classica. Quaderni, 1

, Palatino, Velia e Sacra via : paesaggi urbani attraverso il tempo. Workshop di archeologia classica. Quaderni ; 1. Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2004. 95 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8884760143 €48.00 (pb).

Once a battlefield where a valiant Romulus held off Sabine troops, the northern slope of the Palatine is today the focus of a bitter skirmish between two rival camps of topographers: the revisionists and the traditionalists (often disparagingly called ‘fedeli,’ ‘hypercritici,’ or in Carandini’s choice turn of phrase, adherents to a “vulgate topography”). Traditional accounts of the region can be found in the work of Adam Ziolkowski, Ferdinando Castagnoli and Domenico Palombi (to name but three),1 whereas the father of revisionist thinking is Filippo Coarelli, whose 1983 Il Foro Romano set the stage for decades of wrangling over the region’s urban infrastructure, neighborhoods, political monuments, sacred landmarks, and physical topography.2 In Carandini’s 2004 Palatino, Velia e Sacra Via, the author wastes no time in declaring his allegiance — his book is a self-professed “perfection” of Coarelli’s ideas in light of the 20 years of archaeological work he directed at the northern foot of the Palatine.3

In 79 pages of text with a selective bibliography and a meager 11 figures, Carandini presents a detailed interpretation of the early history of the region extending east of the Forum Romanum to encompass the northern foot of the Palatine, the Sacra Via, and portions of the southwest Velia. Carandini focuses upon describing the location (or locations) of key monuments within that area, and he is notably open to the idea that institutions, however important and revered, could move from time to time. After a preface which alternates between a hagiography of Coarelli and a polemic against traditional scholarship, Carandini addresses, in turn the Sacra Via, the Porta Mugonia, the Nova Via, the Temple of Jupitor Stator, the aedes Larum, and the various elite domus in the area, including those belonging to Rome’s seven legendary kings. A brief addendum covers an ancient clivus, christened the ‘so-called clivo Palatino A’, which connected the Palatine with the Porta Mugonia. Carandini’s account of the Palatine and Sacra Via focuses almost exclusively upon the area between the 8th and 1st centuries B.C. (and for this reason, Paesaggi urbani attraverso il tempo is a misleading subtitle for the book: none of the substantial later urban interventions in the region — by Nero, the Flavian emperors, Maxentius, centuries of Popes, or most recently, under Mussolini — are considered).

Throughout, Carandini’s main contribution is to integrate Coarelli’s ideas and arguments with archaeological evidence recovered post-1983, most coming from excavations led by Carandini himself. Those familiar with his previous works treating the topography of the northern Palatine will find few surprises here, as virtually no new archaeological material is published in this volume and many of its primary ideas have already been expressed elsewhere.4 What this book does offer is a concise, comprehensive, and up-to-the-moment glimpse of Carandini’s conception of the Palatine and Sacra Via.

Carandini set as his stated goal to ‘perfect’ the work of Coarelli, and his most important contribution to that end concerns the Porta Mugonia, a gate in the Romulean city wall on the north slope of the Palatine. In 1983, Coarelli had argued, based upon literary sources, that the gate stood on the Sacra Via somewhere between the so-called Temple of Romulus and the Temple of Venus and Roma. In the late 80s, Carandini unearthed remains of an early fortification wall with a gate that straddled a clivus running up the Palatine slope (the ‘so-called clivo Palatino A’) to the east of the Atrium Vestae. Carandini published this find over a decade ago,5 but here he reiterates his identification of the gate as the Porta Mugonia and the claim that his archaeological discovery validates Coarelli’s contentious thesis regarding the gate’s location.6

Concerning the Sacra Via, Carandini expands upon an idea first advanced by Coarelli concerning the location of the ‘summa Sacra Via,’ a topographic denominator traditionally associated with the physical high point of the street near the Arch of Titus but placed by revisionists further east near the ‘short street to the Carinae’. In Carandini’s model, the Sacra Via can be divided into two primary segments. The first is a straight, fairly flat stretch which runs from the base of the Arx to the ‘short street to the Carinae’ and is lined by public monuments. The second portion is a curved, sloping street (which he describes as a clivus due to its grade) that connects the first section to the Compitum Acilii; in contrast to the public nature of the first segment, here the road is primarily flanked by private residences. Carandini suggests that the first segment should be divided into three sections: prima, infima and summa Sacra Via, from the west to east.

The Temple of Jupitor Stator is intimately connected to both the ‘summa Sacra Via’ and the Porta Mugonia by ancient authors, thus Carandini’s new positions for both the gate and the street segment should affect the placement of that temple. In the end, however, Carandini’s result does not significantly depart from the schema presented by Coarelli in 1983. Concerning the aedes Larum, however, Carandini does diverge from Coarelli’s precedent. Instead of placing the aedes prominently along the Sacra Via as Coarelli had, Carandini identifies it with an apsidal hall (which he claims as a temple of the ‘ collegium type’) sheltered behind the tabernae that lined the Sacra Via and Vicus Vestae, a site in keeping with what Carandini describes as the “reserved” nature of the cult. Carandini’s excavations indicate that the hall stood from the 6th century B.C., and was replaced by a more substantial building only in the late republic-early empire.

Carandini’s work as an archaeologist on the northern slope of the Palatine has immeasurably refined our knowledge of the republican and early imperial domus in the region. In this volume, Carandini seeks to recover the earliest aristocratic domus in the area, those of Rome’s legendary kings. His approach to these mytho-historic figures is quite literal (almost fideist in flavor), and thus his conclusions require considerable caution. Carandini argues that a domus located within the Sanctuary of Vesta served as the residence of Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius (for whom it was merely an official residence as his primary home was on the Velia) and Ancius Marcius. Archaeological remains date the domus to the second half of the 8th century B.C. and attest to three phases of renovations, corresponding to each new king taking up residence and lastly to its conversion into a residence for the rex sacrorum, an event Carandini places within the reign of Tarquinius Priscus.

Departing from both Coarelli and his own earlier work, Carandini proposes here that the domus of the rex sacrorum was not equivalent to the domus Publica despite Servius’ testimony that a single roof sheltered Rome’s two most important religious leaders.7 By claiming that Servius, who wrote centuries after Augustus razed the domus Publica in 12 B.C., conflated the domus Publica with the domus Regis sacrorum, Carandini is able to identify the latter with the residence of Rome’s early kings located within the Sanctuary of Vesta, and the former (the domus Publica) with a house erected by the Tarquins immediately outside the Vesta precinct.

Carandini identifies the domus of Tarquinius Priscus with an atrium domus he restores opposite the Temple of Jupitor Stator and near the Porta Mugonia, a site in keeping with ancient testimony and Coarelli’s precedent.8 The extant remains of this domus, which abuts the Vesta precinct and shares a party wall with the domus Regis sacrorum, are poorly preserved and its restoration is largely hypothetical. Carandini extends his argument to associate the site with the official residences of both Tarquinius Superbus and Servius Tullus (Servius’ Oppian residence, attested in Solinus 1.25, is a private domus in Carandini’s view) and speculates that the domus was inhabited by members of the gens Valerii after the regal period. Subsequently the site held the domus Publica, which was home of the pontifex Maximus until its destruction in 12 B.C.

While many will undoubtedly take issue with Carandini’s revisionist methodologies or find his presentation of archaeological evidence as fact rather than as interpretation distressing, these issues are neither new nor unique to this volume. This book, however, has its own particular limitation: Carandini elected to write for an audience intimately familiar with decades of arguments and debate concerning the Palatine-Sacra Via region. As a consequence he alienates those non-expert readers who arguably would most benefit from a compact and timely summary of the revisionist take on the topography of the Palatine and Sacra Via.

Since he has chosen to address an expert audience, Carandini seldom delves into the rich and complex history of thought behind the material he presents. When approaching a topic, Carandini immediately launches into his preferred solution to the problem, typically without first defining the issue’s status quo. Though Carandini’s exclusive focus upon his own ideas allows the volume to remain compact, it leaves readers uninitiated into the scholarly debate over the Palatine-Sacra Via region without the background necessary to fully understand and appreciate his own contribution to it.

Carandini’s text offers few tools to help relieve the heavy onus he places on those less conversant in the region’s topographic and intellectual history. Ancient sources critical to understanding Carandini’s line of thought are quoted, if at all, in brief Latin phrases or an occasional longer Italian translation; neither is effective in helping the reader evaluate Carandini’s theses, and one is forced to compile a substantial body of outside material to do so. Carandini also presumes a reader well-versed in the gospel according to Coarelli — so much so that he rarely credits Coarelli’s seminal 1983 volume despite openly acknowledging it as the essential inspiration and foundation of his study. The few footnotes that do appear are of limited use, as only the author and year are cited; without a more precise indication as to where the origins of an argument might be found (either a page number or chapter) these notes serve to credit other scholars, but will frustrate those looking to trace the development of a particular concept or to evaluate the support for Carandini’s arguments.

While Carandini’s recent volume is a helpful compilation of his research and thoughts concerning the archaic topography of the Palatine and Sacra Via, his decision to write for a select audience of experts isolates the text from the majority of readers it might potentially serve. Yet for those interested in the region, his contributions — the fruit of decades of professional study — are essential reading, and this volume offers a concise summation of his current hypotheses regarding the Palatine and Sacra Via. Certainly many will disagree with his revisionist methodology or with some of his specific conclusions, but in the words of Carandini himself, “… le nostre argomentazioni avranno almeno l’effetto di acuire quelle avversarie, che non è poco merito.”9


1. F. Castagnoli, “Ibam Forte Via Sacra (Hor. Sat. I, 9, 1),” Quaderni di topografia antica 10 (1988) 99-114; A. Ziolkowski, “The Sacra Via and the Temple of Iuppiter Stator,” Opuscula Romana 17 (1989) 225-39; D. Palombi, Tra Palatino ed Esquilino: Velia, Carinae, Fagutal. Rome: Istituto Nazionale d’Archeologia, 1997.

2. F. Coarelli, Il Foro Romano I. Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1983.

3. This viewpoint is not new to Carandini, since he has long interpreted his archaeological evidence in light of Coarelli’s theories: e.g., p.359-60 in his Schiavi in Italia. Rome: La Nuova Italia Scientifica, 1988.

4. An addendum presents data from a quick sondage made at the intersection of the ‘so-called clivo Palatino A’ with the Sacra Via.

5. A. Carandini, et al., “Lo scavo delle mura palatine,” Bollettino di archeologia 16-18 (1992) 111-38. This work is omitted from both Carandini’s footnotes and selective bibliography.

6. Two prominent articles — Castagnoli 1988 and Ziolkowski 1989 — countered Coarelli’s theses (supra n.1).

7. Serv., Aen. 8.363; e.g. Carandini 1988, 362; Coarelli 1983, 23.

8. Solinus 1.24; Livy 1.41.4; Coarelli 1983, 35-38.

9. Carandini 2004, 11.