Carsulae Roman ruins in Umbria, Italy




Carsulae Roman ruins in Umbria, Italy

Aerial view of Carsulae Roman ruins
Aerial view of Carsulae Roman ruins

Carsulae is one of the most important archaeological ruins in Italy. It is located about 4 km north of San Gemini, a small municipality in the province of Terni. The municipality of Montecastrilli (Montes Carsulis) is nearby.

The official founding of Carsulae is generally agreed to have taken place in about 300 BC. Carsulae’s growth into a major town only took place, however, with the building of the via Flaminia, in 220-219-BC. Carsulae probably originated as a mansio, a rest stop and watering place for travelers, traders and soldiers.

When the via Flaminia was built, its western branch ran northwards from Narni, sparking the development not only of Carsulae, but also of Acquasparta and Bevagna. This branch of the road courses through a gently rolling upland plain at the foot of the Martani mountain range, an area that had been heavily populated since the middle of the Bronze Age. The eastern branch proceeded from Narni to Terni, north to Spoleto, then past Trevi and finally to Foligno, where it merged with the western branch.

During the reign of Augustus, Carsulae became a Roman municipium. During the Augustan period, a number of major works were begun, eventually including the amphitheatre, most of the forum, and the marble-clad Arch of Trajan (now called the Arco di San Damiano).

Carsulae Via Flaminia
Via Flaminia at Carsulae

During its golden age, Carsulae, supported by agricultural activity in the surrounding area, was prosperous and wealthy. Its bucolic setting, its large complex of thermal mineral baths, theatres, temples and other public amenities, attracted wealthy and even middle class tourists from Rome.

However, while all the other towns and cities, mentioned above, on the two branches of the via Flaminia continue to exist, nothing but ruins remains of Carsulae, which was abandoned and never resettled. The only subsequent building that took place occurred in paleo-Christian times, about the 4 C or 5 C, at the southerly entrance to Carsulae, where the church of San Damiano, still standing today, was built for a small community of nuns on the foundations of an earlier Roman building.

For centuries after it was deserted, Carsulae was used as a quarry for building materials that were used elsewhere, such as in Spoleto or Cesi, where Roman tombstones may be seen built into the church of S. Andrea, but otherwise, it was left alone. Consequently, archaeologists have been able to map the city with considerable detail.

Exactly why Carsulae was abandoned is unknown, but two plausible possibilities are, firstly, that it was almost destroyed and the site made inhospitable by an earthquake, and second that it lost its importance and as a result became increasingly impoverished because most of the important north-south traffic used the faster eastern branch of the via Flaminia. J.B. Ward-Perkins suggested another effect of increasingly unsettled times from the 3 C, when the very trunk roads that had been economic lifelines became access roads for hordes of unpaid fighters: “Henceforth the tendency must have been to move away from the roads, until by the Middle Ages the roads themselves were as bare of settlement as they had been when they were first built.”

Haphazard excavations took place in the 16 C under the direction of Duke Federico Cesi, whose palazzi are in Cesi Acquasparta, and in the 17 C under the direction of Pope Pius VI, but not until 1951 were the ruins subjected to methodical archaeological exploration and documentation.

Virtual reconstruction of Carsulae Roman ruins

Main Sights of Carsulae

    • Via Flaminia. The western branch of this important Roman road passed through Carsulae. The via Flaminia formed the main street of the town, and its footpaths and gutters are still visible.
    • Chiesa di San Damiano, first built in paleo-Christian times on the remains of a Roman building the  original purpose of which is unknown. Remnants of this building are still in evidence on the south side of the church. The primitive church was a rectangular space with an apse. A portico and two interior colonnades were added during the 11 C using materials gathered from the site, including items that probably decorated the Basilica or were architectural pieces from the Forum.
    • Basilica, the public meeting hall for the citizens of Carsulae. The interior hall, which is rectangular, has a central nave and two side aisles separated by rows of columns. The apse at the far end would have held a magistrate’s chair, used to arbitrate or adjudicate disputes and dispense justice.

      Carsulae Basilica
      Carsulae Basilica
  • Public Baths, thermal mineral baths.
  • Cistern, now an Antiquarium, held water for use by the people of the town.
  • Temples. Two temples, sometimes called the “twin temples” were devoted to two unknown Roman divinities. Only their diases, sheathed in pink rock, remain today.
  • The Forum, the main piazza of the ancient city, built on a terraced structure in and around the Basilica and twin temples. The line of vaulted structures, or “tabernae”, near the Forum might have been market stalls or shops.
  • Public buildings. Used for unknown purposes, they probably housed administrative offices for the local government, or served as palaces for aristocratic families. There are four sumptuously decorated rectangular rooms with apses, with marble walls and floors incorporating both marble and opus sectilis.
  • Amphitheatre. Sitting in a natural depression to the east of the via Flaminia, was probably built during the Flavian dynasty. It is built primarily of layers of limestone blocks and bricks.
  • Theatre. This was probably built in the time of Augustus, before the building of the amphitheatre. The primary building material for the theatre was opus reticulatum.
  • Collegium Iuvenum, a college or school for young people.
  • Cistern – a second structure built to contain water for the use of citizens.
  • Trajan’s Arch ( Arch of San Damiano). This monument originally consisted of three marble- clad arches, of which only the centre arch remains. It was also built during the time of Augustus as a ceremonial north portal to the city.
  • Funerary monument, known as ” the tumulus”, a much restored funerary monument of an aristocratic family, possibly the Furia family. A plaque now kept at the museum in the Palazzo Cesi in Acquasparta may have been taken from this monument.
  • Funerary monument – a less distinguished monument in the necropolis of Carsulae.