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© Jeff Matthews             entry Feb. 2009   revise May 2014, update Mar 2017

New Trains & Old Olympics



The somewhat less than irresistible
force of underground train construction in
Naples has once again run into the immovable (but not indestructible) object of an ancient Roman or Greek archaeological site. So far it’s a tie, but I suspect than when the dust has cleared, the new Duomo metro station at Piazza Nicola Amore will incorporate (as the Naples metro has done elsewhere) at least parts of old ruins, in this case, of the monument complex of the Isolympic Augustan Roman Italic Games. Construction now seems to have picked up again, and a lot of archaeological pieces have been moved to the small metro-museum beneath the main National Archaeological Museum.

[update from March 2017, directly below]

                              Wall display in the metro-museum

Historian Strabo mentions the games of Neapolis and says that they "rivaled the most famous games of Greece." The recent excavations have uncovered parts of the portico and temple associated with the games, which were started by Augustus Caesar in 2 AD. Those structures were found on top of earlier ones put up in the second century BC as part of a general renovation of the stretch of beach before the old southern wall of Greco-Roman Naples.

Suetonius tells us that the August One was quite a fan:

...he watched the proceedings intently; either to avoid the bad reputation earned by Julius Caesar for reading letters or petitions, and answering them, during such performances, or just to enjoy the fun, as he frankly admitted doing. ...His chief delight was to watch boxing…

The prefix
iso- means “same as” and thus proclaims the importance of the games by declaring them equal to those of the Greeks. Indeed, archaeologists
actually found the inscription, "We are the Roman Augustan games equal to the [games] in Olympia." The inscription was one of 400 pieces of Greek-inscribed marble recovered from in front of the temple of Augustus.

Augustus chose the very Hellenic town of Neapolis for the games. They were held every four years and featured equestrian, athletic, and musical contests. The equestrian contests included horseback races, and races of chariots drawn by teams of two and four horses. The athletic contests included stadium races, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, pancratium (mixed—anything goes—combat), an armed race (I’m afraid to ask!), and acrobatics. The athletes, who came from all over the Mediterranean, competed in their age groups. Women also took part in the contests.

The winners in the athletic contests received a wheat-stalk wreath, but there were also prizes in money for the musical and theater contests, which included flute, kithara (or ‘cithara,’ a seven-stringed lyre; the name is the origin of the word ‘guitar’), poetry, comedy, tragedy, and pantomime. The Isolympic games were still being celebrated in the second half of the third century AD, when the temple and the portico were renovated for the last time.

There are three slabs on display in the museum (photo, above) and date from the late first century AD and bear lists of winners of several editions of the games. The winners came from Asia Minor and Egypt. The only Neapolitan winner may have been one Julius Valerianus —“from Neapolis” (although other towns named Neapolis existed in the Greek and Roman world).

On the first slab, one can still read the year in which the games were held (94 AD) and the names of the agonothetai (the presidents and organizers of the games). The second slab lists winners of athletic games. The program includes, as well, a female contest. On the third slab, the name of the reigning emperor (Domitian?) stands out in a list of authors of eulogies to Augustus and his successors.

update: March 2017  The new Metro station at Piazza Nicola Amore

This is a companion entry to "Augustus Caesar and parametric design".

As indicated in the first paragraph (above)

...the new Duomo metro station at Piazza Nicola Amore will incorporate (as the Naples metro has done elsewhere) at least parts of old ruins, in this case, of the monument complex of the Isolympic Augustan Roman Italic Games... [described above].

That station is not yet open and is not due to open until 2019 (10 years from when I first started to write this entry!); yet, computer generated displays of the square where the main entrances are located at Piazza Nicola Amore (pictured, right), are already appearing in the papers and show an intergalactic parametric grid skylight landed in the middle of the square (ok, I made up "intergalactic" and "landed"), illuminating the large in situ stone base of the original temple built by the Romans to commemorate the Isometric games. The architect is Italian Massimiliano Fuksas (b. 1944). He has produced an astounding array of works throughout the word in what is called the postmodernist expressionist style of architecture; many of them employ similar geometric elements as seen in this skylight.

In situ is important here. It means "in place" or "on site"—the remnant (the podium) of the temple is where the Romans built it and, in that sense, the display is a modern approach to archaeology. Museums, on the other hand, dig things up, take them away and install them for display, such as at the metro-museum mentioned in the first paragraph (top of page). All of the photos in that entry as well as both images of Isolympic wall displays in the first part of this entry (above) were taken in that small museum. When the time comes, I think they will certainly leave the material that has to do with the archaeological development of urban Naples where it is (because it's a fine little museum!) but will move the Isolympic material to this new location. That's my guess.

Piazza (square) Nicola Amore is about 500 meters along Corso Umberto from the main train station. That road is a wide, perfectly straight thoroughfare built (together with all of the buildings on both sides) during the 1880s and '90 as part of the massive rebuilding of Naples known as the Risanamento. (The square is, in fact, named for Nicola Amore, the mayor of Naples in the 1880s, at the time the risanamento was begun.) This new station is called "Duomo ("cathedral") because it is 500 meters south, along via Duomo, of the Naples cathedral. Not to worry—there will be a rolling walkway or a walking rollway or maybe they release the kraken to move you a bit faster from the station to the Duomo.

There is no doubt that this station is meant to be one of the "art" stations of the city (there are about four or five so far.) The city has quite willingly spent a lot of time and money to join the now worldwide commitment to make getting to work in the morning a little bit less drab. And if you reach over and touch the temple of Augustus, ethereal music swells, the parametric grid starts to flux, and strange things start to happen. But that's just my guess.

bottom 2 images:: Napoli da Vivere

Further entries on the metropolitana:

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