part II - the eastern side

~ page 2 ~




Just past Porta Tiburtina the narrow street that follows the wall opens up into a square; on the right, where a tunnel runs below a railway overpass, about 30 metres of wall are missing: they were taken down in the early 1900s for traffic reasons. The busy street on the opposite side, instead, is the new via Tiburtina, which starts on this spot [map ref. 4], slightly south its ancient origin by the previous gate.
Crossing the square, carry on along the narrow via di Porta Labicana, where the ancient wall is once again standing, acting as a boundary of the railway line. As soon as you pass by a small fountain on the right, turn back and take a look at the interesting row of mighty towers, protruding at regular intervals.

the walls along via di Porta Labicana


traces of the Roman house above the row of corbels
Then the wall's surface turns almost flat for about 50 metres, as one of the towers from the sequel seems to be missing. Here you will notice a row of corbels projecting from the wall; looking carefully at the brick texture above, traces of windows (now blind) arranged on two different levels can be seen: these are likely the only signs left of a Roman three-storey house that once stood against the wall.
Instead nothing is left of another peculiar structure, somewhat similar to the Castrum Praetorium, but smaller in size, called the Vivarium. It was an enclosure where all the wild animals used for the games called venationes ("hunts"), held in the Colosseum, were kept in pens and/or cages. Up to the first half of the 6th century it bulged from the wall near Porta Praenestina.

In 537, the Byzantine general Belisarius was defending the city during a siege by the Ostrogoths, led by general Vitiges, who  then went to Praenestina Gate with a great force, to a part of the fortifications that the Romans call the Vivarium, where the wall was most assailable  [Gothic War, I, XXII]. This account left by historian Procopius of Cesarea, who witnessed the siege, is the only clue to the location of such structure. Further parts of his work tell about how and why the Goths attacked the city from the Vivarium; this is the relevant excerpt:

But Bessas and Peranius summoned Belisarius, since Vitiges was pressing them most vigorously at the Vivarium. And he was fearful concerning the wall there (for it was most assailable at that point, as has been said), and so came to the rescue himself with all speed, leaving one of his friends at the Salarian Gate. And finding that the soldiers in the Vivarium dreaded the attack of the enemy, who was pressing them with great vigour and by very large numbers, he bade them look with contempt upon the enemy and thus restored their confidence. Now the ground there was very level, and consequently the place lay open to the attacks of the assailants. And for some reason the wall at that point had crumbled a great deal, and to such an extent that the binding of the bricks did not hold together very well. Consequently the ancient Romans had built another minor wall outside, so to encircle it, not for the sake of safety (for it was neither strengthened with towers, nor indeed was there any battlement built upon it, nor any other means by which it would have been possible to repulse an enemy's assault upon the fortifications), but in order to provide for an unseemly kind of luxury, namely, that they might confine and keep there lions and other wild animals. And it is for this reason that this place has been named the Vivarium; for thus the Romans call a place where wild animals are regularly kept. So Vitiges began to make ready various engines at different places along the wall and commanded the Goths to mine the outside wall, thinking that, if they should get inside, they would have no trouble in capturing the main wall, which he knew to be by no means strong. But Belisarius, seeing that the enemy was undermining the Vivarium and assaulting the fortifications at many places, neither allowed the soldiers to defend the wall nor to remain at the battlement, except a very few of them, despite having with him the best men of the army. But he held them all in readiness below about the gates, with their corselets on and carrying only swords in their hands. And when the Goths, after making a breach in the wall, got inside the Vivarium, he quickly sent Cyprian with some others into the enclosure against them, commanding them to set to work. And they slew all who had broken in, for these made no defence and even crushed one another in the cramped space about the exit. And as the enemies were thrown into dismay by the sudden turn of events and were not drawn up in order, but were rushing one in one direction and one in another, Belisarius suddenly opened the gates of the circuit-wall and sent out his entire army against his opponents. And the Goths had not the least thought of resistance, but rushed off in flight in any and every direction, while the Romans, following them up, found no difficulty in killing all whom they fell in with, and the pursuit proved a long one, since the Goths, in assaulting the wall at that place, had moved far away from their own camps. Then Belisarius gave the order to burn the enemy's engines, and the flames, rising to a great height, naturally increased the consternation of the fugitives.

However, the exact location of the Vivarium remains uncertain, nor does the work specifically tell whether the enclosure had entrances or passages from the main wall. Once the latter was left damaged by the Goths, it was restored; instead the Vivarium, which had likely become useless (although occasional venationes kept being held in the Colosseum, up to the end of the same century), was completely abandoned and its remains eventually disappeared.

Shortly before the end of via di Porta Labicana, the ancient wall disappears again: here it once made a bend to the right, but since it would have crossed diagonally the railway lines, this part was taken down. As you come to the junction with via dello Scalo San Lorenzo, follow the short tunnel on the right below a further railway overpass. You will soon see again the wall, with three tall modern archways (opened in the 20th century for traffic reasons), leading towards one of the most interesting sites included in the tour: Porta Maggiore [map ref. 5].
On this spot the most lavish gate among the original Roman ones left standing divides a rather wide open space into two adjoining squares, called piazza di Porta Maggiore (inside the walls) and piazzale Labicano (outside the walls).

the three arches by piazzale Labicano

the mighty Porta Maggiore
Porta Maggiore was once called Porta Praenestina, but in time it was also known as Porta Labicana, or Porta Naevia. It was reached on the inside by a main road called via Labicana. By the gate's double arch, this road formed a Y-junction: the right (western) branch kept the same name and continued up to Labici (see map below), and just further, by a villaege called Ad Statuas, it merged into via Latina, leading to Casilinum (today's Capua, near Caserta), whence the alternative name via Casilina given to the road probably in the early Middle Ages. The left branch, instead, was via Praenestina, initially called via Gabiana because it reached Gabii, later renamed after having been lengthened in order to reach Praeneste (presently, Palestrina). Therefore, Porta Praenestina was a rather busy southern approach to the city.

This structure was already extant prior to the making of Aurelian's walls; just as the nearby Porta Tiburtina, described in page 1, its double archway belonged to the aqueduct that emperor Claudius had built by the mid 1st century AD.
Two centuries later, when Aurelian had the new city boundary built, the wall joined this part of the aqueduct, turning into a perfect double gate.

the blocks have a rough finish
Walking close to the gate one realizes how its size is really massive, giving reason for its present name, which means "the largest gate".

↑ direction of via Praenestina, via Labicana and via Latina
in the immediate surroundings of Rome


← a stretch of the ancient via Praenestina by the sixth mile,
now in Rome's eastern outskirts (Tor Tre Teste)

Looking at the upper part of Porta Maggiore from its sides, two tunnels can be easily seen in cross-section (having the rest of the structure collapsed). They carried into Rome water drawn from two different springs: Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus (see Aqueducts
page 3 for details). The columns and the blocks were deliberately given a rough finish, so to make an artistic contrast with the smooth surface of the attic, where an inscription remembers the name of Claudius, and those of two more emperors, Vespasian and Titus (c.79 AD), who had the aqueduct restored.

Below one of the gate's archways, a short stretch of the original pavement makes the complex look rather similar to its original appearance. Note how the irregular stones were smoothened by the busy traffic entering and leaving Rome, and how, through the ages, carts and carriages left a deep crease along the way. Crossed by the crease is also a fragment fallen from the gate in old times and simply left there on the floor, which later became part of the paving.



the tomb of Eurysaces

(↑ above) the double water tunnel
and the Roman paving (right →)

Standing in front of the gate is a monument with a most unusual shape, unfortunately incomplete: the tomb of Eurysaces [map ref. b] and his wife Atistia, whose dating is c.30 BC. Eurysaces was a wealthy pistor, i.e. a baker, likely a freedman (a former slave who had bought back his freedom), whose business undoubtly flourished, as he was a state purveyor. This gives reason for such an important and peculiar tomb, whose shape mimics the container where flour was kneaded into dough. A relief that runs along the top part of the monument features small scenes related to baking. An inscription on the sides of the monument reads: THIS IS THE TOMB OF MARCUS VERGILIUS EURYSACES, BAKER, PURVEYOR, APPARITOR (the latter was a servant of a public official, such as a magistrate or a priest).


↑ above: "THIS IS THE TOMB OF MARCUS VERGILIUS EURYSACES"
↓ below: scenes of bread making in the upper part of the baker's tomb



Around year 400, in order to defend Porta Praenestina more easily, emperor Honorius added a tower on each side of the gate and a small central bastion, which completely encased Eurysace's tomb, bulging from the original archway; the tomb may have been partly cut on this occasion. The outer surface of the complex was then strengthened by adding the usual white stone layer. Such arrangement can be seen in old etchings that feature the gate (picture on the right). The windows of the stone facing that looked towards the archway leading to via Praenestina (on the right side) were higher that those of the facing looking towards via Labicana (left), as the two roads were likely located at different heights. Therefore, Honorius' alteration almost split the double doorway into two separate passages with unequal ground levels.
Porta Maggiore from the outside (etching by Giuseppe Vasi, mid 1700s):
note the bulging bastion, whose windows were located at different
levels, and the two towers on the sides of the gate
Sometime later, the gate pointing towards via Labicana was also walled up, in order to defend this spot more easily. Probably this alteration occurred about one century after the gate's reinforcement, i.e. just before Rome was sieged by the Ostrogoths (537); the same measure had already been taken by Honorius for Porta Appia and Porta Portuensis, the other two gates which originally had a double archway.
Over the centuries, the gate turned out completely surrounded by structures that, time by time, had been built next to the original monument (see picture on the left).

← inner side of Porta Maggiore, 1625

Only in 1838, when pope Gregory XVI decided to restore Claudius' arches (as remembered by a large plaque hanging on one end of the gate), all the additional parts were removed, the blind archway was opened again, and the tomb was found.
By that time, two walls with crenellation above were fitted to the tall archways so to reduce their height, likely for controlling them more easily (bottom right); they were finally removed around 1915. In 1956, the ground level below the gate was excavated, eventually discovering the original paving.


(↑ above) vintage picture of the gate with the crenellated walls, c.1900
(← left) traces of the 5th century's stone layer by the gate, with
a detail of the inscribed names "ARCADIO ET HONORIO"

A surviving fragment of the white stone facing that protected the outer side of the gate has been set to the left of the dual archway (above left); it is inscribed with the famous initialism S.P.Q.R. (for "the Senate and the People of Rome") in large letters, and a long text in Latin whose first line bears the name of emperors Honorius (who ruled over the Western Roman Empire) and his brother Arcadius (who ruled over the Eastern Roman Empire); according to the inscription, statues were made in their honour at the suggestion of Flavius Stilicho. The latter was a general of the Roman army, who had defeated the Visigoths led by Alaric on more than one occasion, but who had then fallen into disgrace with Honorius for political reasons; in 408 the emperor had him beheaded, passing upon him a damnatio memoriae (i.e. the erasure from any record, not to be remembered). It is therefore peculiar to find him mentioned, considering that his name was actually erased from the inscription on Porta Tiburtina (and similar others).
fresco painting on the archway on one side of the gate

Also the first acqueduct archways on both sides of the gate were covered with plaster and decorated; one of them still features traces of fesco paintings on the intrados (above right).

The tomb of Eurysaces is not the only one found near the gate. Less than 50 metres or yards from the inner side (see map above) stands a cube-shaped monument, about 3 metres high; the only parts still extant of its original decoration are a fragment of the frieze along the cornice, featuring rosettes of different shape and triglyphs (three vertical elements) in alternate order, and small Corynthian capitels in the corners at the top of semicolumns.

the cube-shaped tomb and its frieze

Unlike the previous monument, the exact dating of this tomb is unknown, although the technique used for its making (opus quadratum, i.e. large stone blocks piled one on top of the other without mortar) and its location suggest that it is there since the late Republican age (1st - 2nd centuries BC); in ancient Rome it was a custom to bury the dead along the sides of the main roads approaching the city, and prior to the making of Porta Labicana this spot was actually located outside the city boundaries, off the archaic Porta Esquilina, now the arch of St.Vitus (see the Servian walls). Also the name of who was buried here, once likely indicated by an inscription hanging on the side that faced the road, now no longer readable, remains obscure.