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main index © Jeff Matthews July 2003, updates Jan. 2011 & Sept. 2015
These items appeared separately in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated and have been consolidated here onto a single page.
entry July 2003Pozzuoli
Terra, the old part of Pozzuoli
Quite another case is nearby Pozzuoli, just north of Naples. It is so worn down by 2,500 years, so overlaid with bits and pieces of successive civilizations, that it is virtually impossible for the casual observer to recognize it as the important city of the ancient world that it was. Excavations are now going on and, ultimately, plans call for a museum, guided tours, and the wherewithal to help you appreciate ancient Pozzuoli, just as you do its Vesuvian cousins to the south. The project entails excavating and restoring a 200 x 240 meter area of the Rione Terra, the old city. Indeed an ambitious project.
The city was founded in
the middle of the sixth century b.c. by settlers
from Greece. Like those who founded nearby Cuma and Parthenope (Naples)
in those days along the same coast, these settlers
also chose a strategic promontory for their city.
They named their new home Dicaearchia ("Just
Government"), a poetic name, presumably making a
point about the place they had fled, the island of
Samos, ruled by the tyrant Polycrates. As yet,
archaeology has uncovered only the most fragmentary
physical evidence of this ancient Greek city.
Dicaearchia probably went into decline as its
powerful neighbour, Cuma, became more and more
powerful. This idea is supported by the Greek
historian Strabo, who, in the first century before
Christ, referred to the city (renamed Putèoli
by the Romans) as a "fortress raised on a cliff" and
as a "port of Cuma".
Around the year 300 b.c. much of the Campania area, including Pozzuoli, came under the domination of the Samnites, the mortal enemies of the Romans, who ruled south-central Italy. The Romans prevailed against Samnium and later against the Carthaginian, Hannibal, who lay siege to Pozzuoli in 215. Putèoli became a Roman colony in 194 b.c.
It is under the Romans that Putèoli comes into its own. (Putèoli was Latin for "little wells," referring to the many sulfur fumaroles in the area. It has given modern Italian the term pozzilli, the diminutive of "wells" and the name Pozzuoli for the city. The popular idea that the name of the city comes from a similar Latin word, puteo, meaning "smell," is cute, but wrong.) Cicero calls Putèoli "little Rome", and Seneca tells us that it was a world port, receiving fleets from around the Mediterranean, and, in turn, acting as a channel for Campanian exports such as wrought iron, marble, mosaics and blown glass. On his way to Rome, the Apostle Paul, himself, landed at Putèoli, where he was welcomed by the Jewish community.
Adjacent, as it was, to the mighty port for the Western imperial fleet at Miseno, built by Caesar Augustus, Putèoli was a leading commercial center and cosmopolitan city of the Roman world. Even before recent excavations within the Rione Terra, Putèoli's importance was evident from the ruins of the third largest amphitheater in Italy (3 photos). The start of construction has been placed during the reign of Vespasian (69-79); construction was paid for by the population of Pozzuoli in honor of the emperor in return for his donations to the city for having sided with him in his battle against Vitellius.
main and transverse axes measure 149 and 116
meters, respectively. The structure could
accommodate from 35,000 to 40,000 spectators. The
spaces beneath the floor of the arena are still
well-preserved and here it is possible to see what
complicated mechanisms were required to put on
Roman spectacles of the period. The elliptical
corridor is flanked by a series of low cellae set
on two floors and having trap-doors that open to
the arena. The cellae
on the upper floor were destined to hold
the cages of the wild animals used in the games.
The cages would be hoisted through the trap-doors
towards the outside letting the animals spring
immediately from darkness into the bright-light of
the arena with an effect that one can well
[Also see this miscellaneous item.] (photo left and above right by Napoli Underground - NUg)
Pozzuoli also has remnants of baths, a vast necropolis, and columns from the ancient Temple of Augustus (originally a temple for the worship of Jupiter and later incorporated into the Cathedral of San Procolo). Near the harbor, also, there stands what is still erroneously called the "Temple of Serapis," (photo, left). Apparently, it was really a market place. Now on dry land, the bases of the columns were underwater until the 1980s, when significant seismic activity shifted the ground level. (This is discussed in detail in a section of the entry on geology and in this later  addition here.)
The fortunes of Putèoli declined, of course, with those of the Roman Empire. Before the arrival of the Normans at the turn of the millennium and the subsequent foundation of the Kingdom of Naples, Pozzuoli was part of the little known Duchy of Naples. Its physical fortunes eroded further over the centuries: shifting coastlines and constant earth tremors care nothing for the hard times they may be preparing for future archaeologists. Severe seismic activity had so weakened the ancient buildings of the Rione Terra that the area was almost entirely evacuated in 1970.
Recent exhibits have been in the Palazzo di Fraja, in a section of the building that once actually incorporated a Roman taberna, a shop, into its own structure, thus hiding it for centuries. It has been partially cleared and restored and is one of two such tabernae uncovered since the present excavations began. The taberna is situated near what is now believed to be the intersection of the main cross-roads of the old center of Roman Putèoli. The exhibit displays approximately 200 items, ranging from ceramic items to statuary.
The Rione Terra
of Pozzuoli looks somewhat like a ghost town these
days, due to the evacuation and, now, the burrowing
and scraping away going on. Yet, this inconvenience
to modern residents is a blessing for
archaeologists, since they are now free to probe in
and under Strabo's "fortress raised on a cliff" in
their attempts to peel away the centuries.
Jan. 13, 2010
Reopening the Cathedral
update Sept. 2015 - Old Pozzuoli (Rione Terra) Open for Tourism Again
I have no idea how long this good idea will last. I vaguely recall the last time they opened the ancient part of Pozzuoli (the Romans had just left)—and then closed it again. It is one of the most interesting and historically important sites in Italy. The latest word is that after years of being closed, the underground sections are now open, at least on a limited basis. Starting in October (2015) the subterranean sections of Pozzuoli will be open to tourists twice a week (Saturdays and Sundays) and at least until January will be free of charge. After that, no one knows, so hurry.
[See also The Roman Port of Pozzuoli]main index