Terra, the old part of Pozzuoli
If you are a city aiming at immortality, you could do worse than encase yourself in volcanic ash. That is, after all, what gave Pompeii and Herculaneum their eerie foreverness—and gives us the pleasure of being able to stroll their ancient streets, peeping into living rooms.
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.
The Flavian Amphitheater
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
After the splendor of the age of Rome, the structure, stripped of its precious marble fittings, was abandoned and almost entirely buried by mud-slides from the higher elevations of the Solfatara hill. The first excavations were carried out in 1839 by architect Bonucci (also responsible for the excavations at Herculaneum) and then by architect Ruggiero who finished the clearing of the underground sections. The complete excavation of the site was finished in 1946 and 1947.
No other amphitheater of antiquity gives us as clear a picture of how the arena was set up for the devices used in the impressive Roman games. The grand underground spaces make it one of our most evocative monuments to the past: two straight corridors cross at the center and a third curved one traces the ellipse of the arena, itself; there are various connecting spaces symmetrically placed across from one another. Today the outside light filters through shafts in the arena and takes on soft shades to create a fascinating atmosphere as it plays along the columns and capitals once part of the external decorations but placed here at the time of the first excavations.
Below the walkway in the underground section (about four meters down) there is a channel of the Campanian Aqueduct. Since the arena had no true underground chambers, this led some to believe that the water served to flood the arena for "naumachies" (staged naval battles). In reality, however, it has been shown that the aqueduct served simply for the periodic cleaning of the underground sections of the amphitheater.
[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.
The goal of present excavations (photo, right) is to unearth the Roman city of Putèoli, including, of course, the main street, the decumanus maximus, and the area around the remnant columns of the Temple of Augustus. The digs are snaking their way back from the entrance of the exhibit through a honeycomb of Roman ruins, only a small portion of which are, as yet, part of the display. Although no new physical bits of Decaearchia have been found, plenty of Putèoli has. Fragments, for example, in a totally burned-out section near ground level have been dated to the first century a.d.; archaeologists speculate that a disastrous fire may have been caused by the very seismic upheaval that presaged the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii.
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.
Reopening the Cathedral
(A kind gentleman at a small library in Pozzuoli today informed me that the newly restored cathedral (duomo) would be “inaugurated in a few days.” He wasn’t too sure what that meant. After more than a decade of planning and rebuilding, the church (destroyed by fire in 1967) would officially reopen, but after that? The duomo is in the oldest part of Pozzuoli, the old city, the Rione terra, a 200 x 240 meter area atop a tufa promontory over the bay. It has been deserted since 1970 when seismic activity forced evacuation of the area. Current restoration has produced a good museum at the entrance to the area and, now, the duomo. The rest of the area is in ruins. There is one road in and the same road out. There is little sidewalk space and such things as emergency exits in the restored Duomo—according to recent newspaper accounts—do not meet the standards they must if the church is really to serve as a place of worship. Ideally, you would have the museum at one end and the duomo at the other; the buildings in between would be bustling with those who serve the Grand Tourists of today. That is not likely to happen any time soon. Pozzuoli was hard hit by the earth tremors of the 1980s, followed by a time when all available resources were channeled into building a satellite town of New Pozzuoli, resettling evacuees, etc. Culture was not a priority. Yet, Pozzuoli and environs include the Phlegrean Fields, Greek and Roman archaeology (with the large Pozzuoli amphitheater), and the adjacent area of Baia, now itself a separate center of antiquities covered by the term National Archaeological Museum of Baia. The area offers a lot.
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.
(photo, right, by Napoli Underground - NUg)
add Nov 2015:
- That announced opening has come to pass in the form of a series of "itineraries" (routes) collectively entitled "BETWEEN LAND & SEA: THE ROOTS OF TASTE (partial logo pictured). It is to remain open through March 2016. Beyond that, who knows? The aim is to allow visitors to acquaint themselves with the ancient city by virtue of guided tours (plus multimedia presentations) through ancient shops, taverns, warehouses, markets, granaries and port areas —in short, anything that had to do with "the roots of taste," meaning the production of, preparation of, and consumption of food in this ancient city. One of the promoted stops will explain the Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, the god of almost everything, including agriculture, wealth, and time. It was held between 17-23 December and celebrated with a public banquet, private gift-giving, and a festive atmosphere, all of which had an influence on later seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year. That's coming up. It will be interesting to see what they do with that in ancient Pozzuoli this year. The exhibit is open only on Sat. and Sun from 0900 to 1700; entrance is free, but you have to book ahead by email: email@example.com. or by telephone at (+39) 081 19936286 – 19936287.
[See also The Roman Port of Pozzuoli]main index