Roman Assisi originates from the urban setting given to the Assisi hill by the Umbri, who came from the mountains and settled here before the Romans. The Umbri, “antiquissima gens Italiae“, the oldest people in Italy according to Pliny the Elder, had an agricultural and pastoral society.
They gathered in the saddle upon which the town would rise. This determined the first orientation of the town, towards Mount Subasio; from Monte Subasio the waters flow down, herds find nourishment, cultivation is possible and the most important communication routes depart from there. A political and urban synergy between the Umbri and the Romans (with contributions from the Etruscans) determined the layout of the town for centuries.
The entrance into the sphere of Roman influence starts in 295 B. C. with the Battle of Sentino, but the main step toward Romanization was the social war of 90-89 B. C. After this war, inhabitants received the civitas, preserving the local government and were enrolled into the Sergia tribe, which joined the Regio VI under Ottaviano Augusto. After the War of Perugia, 41-40 B. C., Asisium went through a reorganization of its territory.
In the era of ancient Rome, in fact, Asisium was an important reference for the territory, wealthy merchants who owned luxury villas inhabited it and it was renowned as a thermal town. The roman domus, discovering and restored in recent decades, have just completed a framework consisting of important finds in excellent condition: two forums, the amphitheater, the circus, the theater, the funeral tower of Gens Petronas, some monumental cisterns for water, to name only the most important one. All this monuments has come down intact to us because the medieval city was built on and or around the remains of the roman one; I wonder, then, what there might be undiscovered!
According to a commemorative stone found in the antiquarium, the amphiteatre was built by a member of the Gens Petronia. This impressive building, which was used for gladiator fights and hunting wild beasts, is located on the northwest side of town and covers an area of about 6900 mq (74,275 square feet), Today, just 10% of the total size remains: part of it is incorporated into buildings erected in the Middle Ages.
Its remains are of moderate size and are fragments of walls, vaults, arches, pillars, wedges, circular corridors, armillas (snake shaped bracelets), podiums and cells, all of different materials and belonging to different works.
The perimeter (outer limit) was about 300 metres, about 1000 feet, 47 modules, with the axes of the ellipse respectively at 107 m and 82 m, the arena at 63 x 37.8 m, and containing seventeen thousand seats.
Presently located inside a hotel that is part of the Santa Caterina monastery are seven large pillars, some of them still intact. They are remnants of the tiered seats entering the cells and other remains, including stone objects of the previous era such as pile foundations, main wall remnants and niches. Situated about three meters from one another, in a private courtyard on the south side, are three impressive pillars on parallelepiped stands. They are well preserved, made of big overlapping blocks and rustic ashlars. One of them is reclined downstream, probably because of an earthquake around the year 1000. There are other remains throughout: corridors, fragments of steps and concrete walls, which clearly indicate that this was one of the monumental entrances to the amphitheatre. The shape of the area, defined by a tall modern elliptical wall and surrounded by a medieval quarter, is clearly visible from above.
The Rocca Minore is to the north and, in front of it, the impressive Rocca Maggiore, where there was first an Umbrian, then a Roman Acropolis (city)
The Mausoleum is the most imposing funeral artifact. This kind of monument is repeated twice in our region: one example can be found on the way to San Damiano, and the other is near Castelnuovo. Although the sack that was used for the large limestone blocks covered the building, the architecture was still able to reach us, thanks to the firmness of the mortar. What remains is a ruin made of concrete with some majestic ashlars and a vaulted room at the bottom made of big dry rocks and visible from the main street. The guest buried in the “Torrione” (big tower) is Petronio, which is also a prestigious name in Rome. He is the brother of the Petronia who contributed to the construction of the nearby amphitheatre.
The Mausoleum is situated in one of the areas used as a necropolis, whose stems are in the forum; it is just outside the walls and not far from the area used for shows. In perspective, it is seen together with the Romanesque apse of the Cathedral, the bell tower and the Rocca Maggiore on the hill in the background.
Five overlapping arches made of concrete and brick make us think of wedges of subterranean cells of a theatre, which are well visible inside a house in the nearby street, Vicolo Bovi. The absence of a curve, which would make them compatible with a semi-elliptical structure, confirms that it was probably a circus. Moreover, in some rooms, under the same street (where later other structures have been built), there are straight vaulted corridors, which are part of the same building. An inscription on the cistern of San Rufino is about a circus, probably the same circus we are talking about.
Cistern of St. Rufino
Inside the San Rufino cathedral it is possible to visit the cistern, which is perfectly preserved. The tub measures m 7,6 x 5,06 at the floor; m 2 from the grade plane up to the shutter of the arch, retracted by a horizontal tooth of 35, on which a water drain (coming from a well above) is hollowed out. Its absolutely simple frame ripples a travertine decoration at a height of 4 metres. Here, a round vault has been built, of a maximum height of m 7,47, whose seams are not perfectly matching. The floor of the cistern is water tight, thanks to the cocciopesto (lime mortar with crushed bricks), a Roman peculiarity. On the planking level, a limestone monolith works as parapet “all’invaso”, which was probably a fountain for everyday use and for rituals. The artifact lost its function over the centuries and became a base for the bell tower of the medieval cathedral. A magnificent wall made of travertine ashlars, continues towards the east for dozens of metres (corresponding to the left aisle). It continues on the west side and is visible in the museum below ground.
The inscription above the arch, rich with information, is partly hidden by a sixteenth-century retaining structure of the church:
POST MIMESIUS C F MIMESIUS SER F NER CAPIDAS C F RUF NER BABRIUS T, C CAPIDAS T F C N, V VOISIENUS T F MARONES MURUM AB FORNICE AD CIRCUM ET FORNICEM CISTERNAMQ D S S FACIUNDUM COIRAVERE
I MARONI POSTUMIO MIMESIO SON OF CAIO, TITO MIMESIO SON OF SERTORE, NERO CAPIDAS SON OF CAIO, RUFIO NERO BABRIO SON OF TITO, CAIO CAPIDAS SON OF TITO, NEPHEW OF CAIO, VIBIO VOISIENO SON OF TITO TOOK CARE OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE WALLS FROM THE ARCH TO THE CIRCUS AND FROM THE ARCH TO THE CISTERN, AFTER A DECREE BY THE SENATE
It certifies the location of the artifact and the existence of a local magistrate, the Marones, during the Roman supremacy, confirming the importance of water for the city of Assisi.
Museum of the Cathedral
In the crypt of the previous Basilica ugoniana and in the surrounding space there are many materials that were reused. They are set in walls or exposed, examples of which are capitals, trabeations (horizontal beams), friezes and especially shafts (columns) brought from the ancient forum and from a temple dedicated to Bona Mater. Two to three metres under the churchyard there is a foundation wall 11 metres long, the execution of which can be seen in the wall above the cathedral, an opus quadratumwall of travertine. Also present are a drain spout for draining the water coming from the cistern, a closure slab, a reserve for the overflow, a round well made of stones placed in a helical formation (curve in a 3 dimensional space), and a perfectly preserved wall, in vittatum, made of ashlars of dark pink limestone.
Also present there is a sarcophagus made of Luni marble dating back to the III century; a marble box, measuring cm 203 x 65 x 57, which, according to tradition, was reused to bury Saint Rufino, martyred in 238. It is decorated both on the front side and on the short sides with a representation of the myths of Diana and Endimione. The back side is unfinished and has some remnants of a 16th century fresco, representing a prelate saint lying down. A bas relief sculpture represents a scene of innocent love between a Night Divinity and a shepherd. A reading of the characters – twirling loves, winged genii, nimphs and divinities, flocks – is quite easy, in spite of some signs of decay (the frequent use of a drill is undeniable). The entrance to the museum is from the square. On the south side of the square there is a stone wall with ancient commemorative stones, decorations, and inscriptions. On the east side is the Romanesque façade of the cathedral with the bell tower. Up the hill you can clearly see the 14th century Rocca Albornoziana.
Road with basalt paving
This main road, a wide surface of basalt composed of large limestone plates, with a step down on the side for a sidewalk, is an important monument. Although it was used only by pedestrians (there are no signs of tracks made by carts); it was an important arterial road. The alignment of the joints and the base indicate that the direction was toward the mountain, up to the nearby temple of Bona Mater. The road was built to connect the two “focuses ”: a sacred road meeting up with the one coming from the southeast. It had to start from the arch inside Palazzo Fiumi, in the Piazzetta Garibaldi, and continue up to the arch (now lost) up from the ancient Forum, on the northern border of the Roman city. Today it is between the Cathedral and the arches of Porta Perlici (mostly erected with reused materials). This road is witness to the importance of the city as well as the technical ability of the Romans to build streets. The surrounding area is of high archeological interest; above, along via S. Maria delle Rose, there are remains of an Umbrian wall; further, inside a private house, there is a large retaining wall that extends for about 10 metres (length) and about 20 metres (height).
It is a dry stone wall, whose stones are irregular and made of limestone with inserts of reused arch ashlars and column remnants. Its shape, with several retractions in the upper part, indicates that it was modified in ancient times. It is part of a northern terracing above the area of the forum-sanctuary. Next to it, there is a dwelling that was surely prestigious; now it is only a thermal tub base (made of lime mortar with crushed bricks) and just remains of painted plasters are left. Shape and colors are similar to the frescoes found in the house of Properzio.
This is an Italic temple, intact, made of local travertine of Corinthian order, hexastyle, prostyle, dedicated to Goddess Minerva. Today it is the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Admired over the millennia, it was the heart of the town’s sanctuary. With a height of 15,52 m and a length of 17,42 m (maximum), the temple consists of six Corinthian columns with capitals featuring Acanthus leaves, the height of which is 8,78 metres (30 Roman feet) and spaced at 200 cm from one another. They are set on bases (with bulls and birds) and have proportioned collars that stand on plinths of 150 cm, not on the portico of m 5,35, but on the entrance steps, for a better use of the space. A horizontal feature in three parts and a 58 cm high frieze with holes caused by bolts of an inscription; a tympanum of 150 cm which had to contain the built-in triangle: high-reliefs, a clypeus or a flower crown with some golden bronze wavy ribbons, frames, mouldings and baccellature. A cell with isodomic blocks of rose limestone from Mount Subasio, walled in with mortar (opus vittatum); in the internal part some remains of the floor with smoothed slabs. Behind the cell is a space for ritual ablutions.
Forum – Sanctuary
The temple led to the forum – the sanctuary of the city, now partly visible under the square (Piazza del Comune). At 5,7 metres below, there was a porticoed terrace measuring 35×70 m next to a wall. It originally had a balustrade on its top. Some stairs connected the architectural features: two were to the edge and other two running inside the thick wall. On the well preserved platform, there is a tribunal: three big steps made of big limestone parallelepipeds where seven magistrates in charge the city hall were seated (on curule chairs): the quinqueviri and two of the quattuorviri. In front, a tetrastyle with the statues of Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), divinities connected with the worship of waters. Within the perimeter, under the arcades, there were two cisterns and some workshops. It was the place where civil and sacred shows and events took place with organized rituals: buying and selling, verdicts, transactions, debates, comitia (political speeches); they sacrificed with proud pietas. It was a real urban complex, quite homogeneous, although built in different stages and visible from afar from the plain and the surrounding hills. Today, together with the crypt of S. Nicolò (which is the entrance), it hosts an archeological museum, with remains from excavations in the Assisi area: statues, fragments of frescoes and many commemorative stones and inscriptions describing human and social characters who lived in the city for centuries.
Southern city walls and gate
Still intact in this rather large area are significant remains of the city walls, measuring hundreds of meters. Although they were not defensive walls, the walls spread out for about 2500 metres and have been made with accuracy and adequate choice of materials, a characteristic of the Roman building style. They are clearly visible along via Ancajani, in the garden below on the Marcucci property (about 80 m long, 6 m tall), as well as in the garden of the convent of S. Apollinare (about 70 m long). They are also visible south from the Vescovado and left of the Mojano Gate entrance, where the walls were used as a support for an imposing palace, the seat of the Curia. These walls are composed of small blocks of different sized, pink rough-hewn limestone, with a maximum size of cm 30 x 50 in front. The craftsmanship reveals an intervention by Etruscan masters. In fact there are important similarities with the walls of Perugia (except for the materials used). It is the same for the decorations on the city entrance gates, even if the ones in Assisi are not as imposing as the “Etruscan Arch” or the “Porta Marzia” (also the same for the city gate inside palazzo Fiumi-Roncalli, in Piazzetta Garibaldi, still left in situ). It is majestic, more than 4 metres tall, with a light towards the outside of cm 363. The arch has a decorative ring pattern and is fully visible, being simple and elegant at the same time.
Thermal plant in the monastery of st. Quirico
Clearly visible inside the monastery of the Clarisse are some impressive ruins of public thermal baths. They consist of a room, the calidarium, with a vaulted covering, measuring more than 30 square meters with a maximum height of 9 meters. It is intact but some areas of the ceiling have been restored. The walls are made of naked opus testaceum and there are some openings in the wall which are terracotta vent ducts for heated air. The walls are covered only with plaster and the original mosaic stones are no longer visible. The sidewalls, however, are more or less complete as is a chair built against the wall. No significant remains of thefrigidarium and tepidarium are left.
This is one of two thermal baths in town, known for the health and sacredness of its waters. The other one, Santureggio, is a center for water therapies and is located near a spring outside the walls, in the southwestern part of the city.
The so called domus of Properzio
The so called house of the poet Sesto Properzio, next to the southern city walls, was brought to light in the mid twentieth century. The uncovered part consists of a wide cryptoporticus and two frescoed rooms with flower and sea decorations. In these rooms, pavings of different shapes are absolutely exquisite and valuable, in opus sectile, and are among the most precious marble available at that time: from cipollino marble to greco scritto marble, to ancient yellow marble or in opus scutulatum, with a polychrome marble inlaying on a monochrome base. The wall frescoes represent vegetables and sea animals with a certain regularity: the background has different red tones. These frescoes indicate richness, taste and elegance.
The cryptoporticus that reaches for about twelve metres is decorated with candelabra and pinakès, small fresco paintings belonging to the second Pompeian style (between 20 and 40 A.C.). In one of these, Apollo is driving a cart drawn by griffins. The presence of the god of divination and an ancient inscription makes us think that the temple was “oracolare” (from the word oracle). The viridarium, a white lime surface of about 5 square meters, is painted with stylized tree branches with 96 birds of different species with folded wings.
There are some who believe that this place served as a sort of sanctuary dedicated to Properzio by his descendant Paolo Passenno, Paullus Passennus Propertius Blaesus, a poet.
This building is located under the crypt of the Church of the Vescovado, St. Maria Maggiore. It was in the square in front of this building that Saint Francis renounced all his worldly goods in the presence of his father Pietro di Bernardone, the Bishop Guido, and the noblemen and citizens of Assisi.
Lair of Via Tecta
180 m long, 2,40 m tall and 1,80 m wide: it is made of small irregular pink limestone blocks fastened with mortar and has a floor and walls made of cocciopesto (lime mortar with crushed bricks). They are waterproof (from water cleaning) and go up to the unfinished vault, which must have originally had a wooden covering and has square openings to allow the passage of air. This structure continues underground up to the amphitheatre, just like in the past.
It is a via tecta, a passage for gladiators, set designers and for dead beasts. Nearby the “barracks for gladiators” must have been built: today it is an embankment facing the XII century apse of the San Rufino cathedral of San Rufino, with a view of the southeastern part part of the city and the profile of St. Clare’s Basilica.
How to get:
To reach Assisi by car from North Italy you can use two routes: you can use the A14 motorway (Bologna / Taranto), exit at Cesena and continue to Perugia with E45 to Assisi exit. Or you can take a stretch of the A1 motorway at Valdichiana reaching Perugia and so ricongiungendovi with the E45 for Cesena until Assisi.
The same dual path drive goes for those coming from the South: always take the Highway A14, exit at Civitanova Marche continue for Foligno – Perugia until the Assisi exit. For those who want to can take the A1 exit at Orte and follow the E45 towards Perugia – Cesena until the Assisi exit.
By train it references the railway line Firenze – Terontola – Perugia – Foligno to Assisi, arriving at the station of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
To arrive by plane: the closest airport is the St. Francis of Assisi Umbro International Airport 12 km from Assisi and is connected to the city with various taxi and da Vinci Fiumicino (Rome) Leonardo Airport is connected to Assisi daily by SULGA bus line
Roman and archaeological collection hole
From November to February: 10:30 to 13:00 / 14:00 to 5 p.m.
Closed: 25/12 and 1/1
March, April, May, September, October: 10:00 to 13:00 / 2:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
June, July, August: 10:00 to 13:00 / 14:30 to 19:00
Full price Euro 4,00 – Euro 2,50 Reduced – College students with ID; school children; children aged 8 to 17 years; groups of at least 15 people; 65s. Cumulative rates for Art Gallery, Roman Forum, Rocca Maggiore (valid for 7 days.) / Full price Euro 8,00 – Euro 5,00 Reduced
Residents City of Assisi, children up to 8 years; disabled (non-ambulatory except with the aid of mechanical means, wheelchair or similar), excluding carers.
Tel: +39 075 8138680