Beyond Aquileia: the Roman conquest of the Karst

Federico Bernardini, an archaeologist and researcher at the Department of Humanities and at the Venice Center for Digital and Public Humanities (VeDPH), is one of the curators of the exhibition Beyond Aquileia. The Roman conquest of the Karst (2nd - 1st century BC), which was recently inaugurated at the Scientific Speleological Museum of the Grotta Gigante and at the Visitor Centre of Riserva Naturale Regionale della Val Rosandra. 

The exhibition explores a phase which until recently was almost unknown from an archaeological point of view — namely, the conquest and Romanisation of the territories east of Aquileia between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, with a particular focus on the Karst plateau, between Italy and Slovenia.

The panel in the top-right corner shows the methodical extension of the Roman territory at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, while the larger panel shows the north-eastern Adriatic regions immediately after the foundation of Aquileia: the Roman territory and that occupied by the Histri and other indigenous peoples. Diagram by M. Belak.

Visitors are presented with a selection of archaeological finds from two of the oldest known Roman military fortifications, identified near Trieste and dating back to the phase immediately following the foundation of Aquileia in 181 BC. In addition to the finds from Trieste, the exhibition itinerary includes weapons and artefacts from fortifications and battlefields now located in Slovenian territory, as well as 3D-printed comparison materials, terrain models, epigraphs and artefacts. 

Three-dimensional models of a dedication to Timavo placed in Aquileia by the consul of 129 BC, Gaius Sempronio Tuditano, on the occasion of the triumph over the Giapidi, which was celebrated in Rome following the victorious campaigns against various populations of the eastern Alps, including the Taurisci. Photogrammetric acquisition by V. Macovaz.

The Trieste sites under study and excavation include a large military fort of over 13 hectares, identified on the hill of San Rocco, near the coast line between Muggia and Trieste, and another smaller fortified site at Grociana piccola on the karst plateau, which is visually connected with the large coastal fort.

Thanks to aircraft laser remote sensing, a revolutionary technology for the study of ancient landscapes, it was possible to virtually remove the vegetation of a large sector of the province of Trieste, allowing for the identification of these two very ancient Roman military bases.

Terrain model derived from laser data of the San Rocco hill with a reconstruction of the site plan based on the structures visible in laser data and aerial photographs. Elaborated by F. Bernardini.

Scholars were able to “see” vast rectangular or regular-shaped fort structures as well as land divisions, roadways, and more. These elements, investigated through reconnaissance and excavations and integrated with the study of ancient sources, allow us to reread the history of the Karst and the neighbouring regions between the 2nd and 1st century BC. The study of the Trieste forts is of great importance to reconstruct a turning point in the history of the territory and the origin of Roman military architecture.

In the forts, researchers found weapons, amphorae, ceramics, coins, tent pegs and numerous nails used for military sandals (the so-called “caligas”). A noteworthy discovery, which provides further evidence of the site's antiquity, is a relatively large number of amphorae imported from the Tyrrhenian area, from Lazio and Campania, which arrived full of wine for the warriors engaged in the South Adriatic territories.

The fortified sites of Trieste, in use from the 2nd to about the middle of the 1st century BC, testify to the first clashes on one of the strategic borders of the Roman Republic. According to ancient sources, at the beginning of the 2nd BC the Histri population occupied the Trieste coastal strip as well as the Istrian peninsula. The first clashes between the Romans and the Histri happened before the foundation of Aquileia, but the Romans subdued Istria only thanks to a war fought between 178 and 177 BC.

The Roman historian Tito Livio wrote a chronicle of those events, recounting that in the first year of the war, the Histri managed to occupy a Roman fort built in the Trieste area, which may match the remains discovered right on the hill of San Rocco. However, the Romans subsequently reconquered it with very few losses, supposedly because the Histri, instead of defending the fort, got drunk on the wine found inside. However, the entire karst area continued to be a politically unstable border territory and battleground until the middle of the 1st century BC.

In addition to the exhibition, the scholars have also created a website, oltreaquileia.it, which offers information, allows visitors to interact with 3D models of archaeological finds, and provides a downloadable, tri-lingual catalogue of the exhibition.

Finally, the project was an opportunity for the presentation of the research grant “New technologies applied to historical and archaeological research”, funded by the Pietro Pittini Foundation for students of  Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and SISBA (the Inter-University School of Specialisation in Archaeological Heritage). The scholarship will be awarded on 10 November during the two-day international conference (10-11 November) dedicated to the Roman expansion east of Aquileia in the Republican age. This is the programme

Author: Federica Scotellaro. Translator: Joangela Ceccon