An update from the Lateran Project

As an archaeologist, I am used to seeing transformation in many contexts and in many ways, but nothing has excited me so much as what one can witness underground in one of the most hidden, albeit historically significant areas of ancient Rome: the Lateran quarter on the Caelian. Thanks to the generous support from Mr Peter J. Smith, this year I had the opportunity to spend six months on a post-doctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome, working as a research assistant to the Lateran project, under the direction of Professors Ian Haynes (Newcastle University) and Paolo Liverani (University of Florence).

One of the aims of my research was to get a greater understanding of the excavations underneath the Lateran baptistery, where the archaeology reveals the complex series of transformations that took place in this quarter of Rome from the 1st century up to the early 4th centuries AD. The development of this part of the Caelian is well known: occupied by luxury residences for the Roman elite during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the area was transformed by Septimius Severus, who ordered the construction of the barracks for his horse guards (the Castra Nova Equitum Singularium). Next to the barracks, at some point between the reign of Septimius Severus and Caracalla, a bath building was constructed that underwent several transformations during the 3rd century AD.  The Severan imprint on the area was completely wiped out by the Emperor Constantine, who dismantled the corps of the equites singulares and gave the land where the barracks and the baths were built to the church. This event marked the beginning of what we can still see today, as the barracks and the baths were completely dismantled, and replaced by the construction of the Constantinian basilica and of the baptistery. As part of my research on the Severan baths, I was able to suggest a new phasing for the building and get a greater understanding of its design and final layout.

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The remains of the Severan bath complex and of its Late Antique transformations under the Lateran Baptistery (photo: A. Turner ©The Lateran Project)

I am spending the remaining time of my fellowship in Rome working on the future development of the Lateran project. After six years of intense surveying of the excavations under the Lateran basilica and baptistery, the Lateran team has now expanded its investigations beyond the limits of the basilica, to get a better understanding of how political, social and religious changes that occurred in Rome during the Imperial age reflected in the transformation of this portion of the Caelian hill. The new investigation is taking place within the property of the Azienda Ospedaliera San Giovanni-Addolorata and is carried out as part of an agreement between all the institutions that are currently involved in the area: the Soprintendenza Speciale Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio di Roma, the University of Florence (IT), Newcastle University (UK) with the British School at Rome, the Seinan Gakuin University of Fukuoka (JP) and the Azienda Ospedaliera San Giovanni-Addolorata.

The portion of the Caelian occupied by the modern Azienda Ospedaliera underwent huge transformations during the Roman era: situated outside the Servian walls and the pomerium of the city, but easily and quickly accessible from the city centre and conveniently set on a raised plateau, the area was cut across by the via Caelimontana and by the via Tuscolana. The excavations carried out between 1957 and 1978 within the property of the Azienda Ospedaliera have revealed a complex of properties that were distributed around this important crossing point of the Caelian and that were variously transformed from the Imperial age to Late Antiquity.  During the 1st and the 2nd centuries AD, a series of richly decorated aristocratic houses were built. Among these properties were the horti Domitia Lucilla, mother of Marcus Aurelius.

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Inscription on a water lead pipe, mentioning Domitia Lucilla, found in the Lateran area (photo: T. Ravasi ©The Lateran Project)

The property, where the future emperor spent his early years until his adoption by Antoninus Pius, likely encompassed a residential building with a richly decorated peristyle and a small bath complex and an area destined for the production and storage of wine.

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The area underneath Corsia Mazzoni in the old Ospedale di San Giovanni (photo: T. Ravasi ©The Lateran Project)

If the impact of the Severan and Constantinian transformations is broadly understood in the eastern part of the Caelian, it is however still unclear what role it had in the development of the residential properties found in the Azienda Ospedaliera di San Giovanni-Addolorata.

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The area underneath the Ospedale delle Infermiere (photo: T. Ravasi ©The Lateran Project)

It is likely however that the area kept, at least partially, its residential nature. As part of the 2018 fieldwork, the Lateran team has completed a laser scan survey and comprehensive reassessment of the stratigraphy of the structures in three out of four of the excavated areas within the property of the Azienda Ospedaliera, providing a foundation for further interpretation of the area.

Thea Ravasi (BSR Research Fellow)

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