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This Ancient “Backwater” Town Flourished For 900 Years

Boasting temples, theaters, and bathhouses, a once overlooked, “backward” town tests assumptions about Roman antiquity.

By Sam Walters
Dec 14, 2023 3:00 PM
View of the Interamna Lirenas excavation from above and from the North. The remains of the theatre can be seen in the centre, with the remains of the basilica behind it.
Buried beneath the dirt, Interamna Lirenas boasted an assortment of splendid buildings, including a theatre and a basilica, both of which are visible in this arial view. (Credit: Alessandro Launaro)


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One archaeologist’s backwater is another archaeologist’s bustling waterway. Well, that’s what a new paper published about Interamna Lirenas, an ancient town in Italy, seems to suggest, anyways.

The paper, which is included in Oxbow Books’ Roman Urbanism in Italy: Recent Discoveries and New Directions reveals that the riverside town was a popular port, and a surprisingly resilient settlement, surviving what was traditionally seen as a period of Roman stagnation.

“We started with a site so unpromising that no one had ever tried to excavate it. That’s very rare in Italy,” says Alessandro Launaro, the paper’s author and an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, according to a press release. “There was nothing on the surface, no visible evidence of buildings, just bits of broken pottery. But what we discovered wasn’t a backwater, far from it. We found a thriving town adapting to every challenge thrown at it for 900 years.”

Read More: Which Ancient City Is Considered the Oldest in the World?

What Was Interamna Lirenas?

Interamna Lirenas was an ancient town in Italy. Traditionally seen as a small, backwards settlement, it was long thought to lack the luxury and the longevity that the larger cities of the Italian Peninsula possessed.

Founded in 312 B.C.E., the initially independent town was located in the Liri Valley, along the Liri River and the Latin Road, where it was slowly incorporated into the imperial system of its impending neighbor to the northwest.

“Interamna Lirenas was strategically located between a river and a major road,” says Launaro in a statement, stressing that the town was politically and commercially appealing to the Roman state.

When Did Interamna Lirenas Peak?

According to the traditional timeline, the town’s population probably surged sometime in the second or first century B.C.E. and shrunk in the first century C.E. In fact, 40 years ago, archaeologists studying the scattered pieces of pottery above the then-buried Interamna Lirenas surmised that the town’s footprint peaked and plunged according to that timing, falling from almost 75 acres to 25 acres over the course of a couple centuries.

Those archaeologists arrived at that conclusion through their analysis of the fine, imported pottery in the plough soil at the surface of the site. “Based on the relative lack of imported pottery, archaeologists had assumed that Interamna Lirenas was a declining backwater. We now know that wasn’t the case,” says Launaro in a statement, who set out to dig deeper and analyze the plain, non-imported pottery that sat below the surface with the Interamna Lirenas Project in 2010.

What Interamna Lirenas’s Pottery Says About Its Longevity?

Targeting their digs around what was the town forum, Launaro and colleagues discovered tens of thousands of pieces of plain, non-imported pottery in Interamna Lirenas’s deposits of dirt. These pottery pieces, Launaro argues, are a better proof of occupation than the fragments of fine, imported pottery from the surface of the soil.

Based on their abundance, distribution, and dating, Launaro’s pieces of pottery indicate that the town actually delayed its decline until the later portion of the third century C.E., lasting three centuries longer than previously suspected and surviving what’s typically seen as a time of struggle for the Italian Peninsula.

“We’re not saying that this town was special,” says Launaro, according to the release. “It’s far more exciting than that. We think many other average Roman towns in Italy were just as resilient. It’s just that archaeologists have only recently begun to apply the right techniques and approaches to see this.”

Read More: If Rome Wasn't Built in a Day, How Long Did It Take?

The Anatomy of An Ancient Town: What Was in Interamna Lirenas?

In addition to their targeted digs, Launaro and colleagues could also conduct a systematic geographical survey of around 60 acres of the site, revealing the town’s structure in remarkable specificity.

The Dwellings of Interamna Lirenas

At its apex, the town accommodated a permanent population of around 2,000 people, in individual dwellings and apartments. Among the town’s individual dwellings, 190 were small (under 500 square meters) and 30 were large (over 500 square meters). And a handful of homes were 1,000 square meters or more, though houses of all sizes were situated throughout the town, suggesting an absence of separation by social status.

The Amenities of Interamna Lirenas

Beyond the town’s sheer density, one of Interamna Lirenas’s most striking attributes was the abundance of its amenities, which included a theater and a temple, as well as several bathhouses, warehouses, and markets. Launaro says that these sorts of structures are all indications that Interamna Lirenas was a popular port and a “thriving node” in a network of trade, facilitating transactions to and from nearby centers of commerce, including the cities of Aquinum and Casinum to the north.

“River ports didn’t just need warehouses,” says Launaro in a statement. “People spent a lot of time working and resting in the vicinity, so they needed all kinds of amenities.”

The Theater of Interamna Lirenas

Most fascinating among those amenities was the theater, to the north of the town’s forum, capable of containing 1,500 people. Adorned with an array of Mediterranean marbles and topped with a roof, the theater stood as a rare architectural and acoustic feat, over and above the traditional open-air theaters of many Roman towns.

“The fact that this town went for a roofed theater, such a refined building, does not fit with a backwater in decline,” says Launaro in a statement. “This theater was a major status symbol. It displayed the town’s wealth, power, and ambition.”

In addition to revealing that the theater was repeatedly renovated and repaired throughout the centuries, the surveys and digs also identified an inscription from the third or fourth century C.E. that suggested the theater was active at a time typically associated with Roman stagnation.

“The assumed lack of a theater here was taken as evidence of the town’s decline,” says Laurno, according to the release. “At nearby Roman towns, archaeologists saw the remains of theaters sticking out of the ground. The remains of Interamna Lirenas’ amazing theater was there all along, just completely buried.”

Read More: The Reason Why 2,000-Year-Old Roman Concrete is Still So Strong

The Fall of Interamna Lirenas

Though the pottery analyses and surveys show that this town survived one period of Italian struggle, Interamna Lirenas was not able to survive them all. Launaro argues that the instability brought by the Gothic invasions of the fifth century C.E. prompted the town’s remaining residents to abandon Interamna Lirenas, sometime in advance of additional invasions of the sixth century C.E.

And yet, the town’s survival to that point was no minor achievement, challenging major assumptions about the pace and persistence of ancient Roman communities in Italy.

“Our understanding of Interamna Lirenas has profoundly changed,” Launaro concludes in Roman Urbanism in Italy. “Whether our insights can be used to develop any more general consideration about the development of towns in Roman Italy depends on how representative we consider this case to be.”

Read More: The Hierarchy of the 1,200-Year-Long Roman Empire

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