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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in July 2012.

- Tivoli - part one: the Roman town

Quinque adeo magnae positis incudibus urbes
Tela novant, Atina potens, Tiburque superbum,
Ardea, Crustumerique, et turrigerae Antemnae
The Aeneid - Book VII - vv. 669-676
So five great cities set up anvils and forged
new weapons: powerful Atina, proud Tibur,
Ardea, Crustumeri, and towered Antemnae.
(translation by A. S. Kline)

According to Virgil, Tibur (today's Tivoli) was one of the five most important towns of Latium prior to the foundation of Rome in 753 BC.

Tum gemini fratres Tiburtia moenia linquunt,
fratris Tiburti dictam cognomine gentem,
Catillusque acerque Coras, Argiva iuventus;
Et primam ante aciem densa inter tela feruntur.

Ceu Duo nubigenae cum vertice montis ab alto
descendunt Centauri; Homolen Othrymque nivalem

Linquentes curso rapido: dat euntibus ingens
Silva locum, et magno cedunt virgulta fragore.
Book VII - vv. 803-810
Then twin-brothers, Catillus, and brave Coras,
Argive youths, leaving the walls of Tibur,
and a people named after their brother Tiburtus,
borne into the forefront of the army, among the dense spears,
like cloud-born Centaurs descending from a high peak
in the mountains, leaving Homole and snow-covered Othrys
in their swift course: the vast woods give way as they go,
and, with a loud crash, the thickets yield to them.
(translation by A. S. Kline)

The town, according to Virgil, was named after Tiburtus, the elder son of Catillus the Elder, the leader of a group of Greek settlers who was the actual founder of the town. Coras, another son of Catillus, gave his name to Cori.

One of the Aniene River waterfalls at Tivoli and a detail of an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Historians believe that the name of the town meant either "by the hill", because Tivoli is situated on a hill commanding a view over the Roman countryside, or "by the water" because the town is near a series of waterfalls made by the Aniene River, which empties into the Tiber at
Ponte Salaro.

Ruins of the Villa of Manlius Vopiscus (IInd century AD) near the waterfalls inside Villa Gregoriana

Tibur fought against Rome, but eventually accepted peace conditions by which it retained a certain degree of self-administration. In 45 BC Julius Caesar granted full Roman citizenship to its inhabitants. It was the beginning of a prosperous period for the town during which many wealthy Romans spent the summer at Tibur and eventually Emperor Hadrian built a large villa three miles from the town.

The acropolis of ancient Tibur

The acropolis of ancient Tibur was located on an isolated rock opposite the waterfalls and in the Ist century AD the site was chosen for building two temples right on the edge of the precipice. During the late XVIIIth century Grand Tour travellers could not miss an excursion to Tivoli to see the ruins of these temples. They often commissioned their own portraits with the temples in the background (you may wish to see the
portrait of Sir Windham Knatchbull Wynd by Pompeo Batoni - external link).

Tempio di Vesta

The ten surviving Corinthian columns of Tempio di Vesta are very fine and on top of them there is a nice frieze with festoons and bucrania. The dedication to Vesta, the Roman goddess of family and sacred fire, is not supported by evidence. The dedication was based on the fact that the Temple to Vesta in the Roman Forum was round (on the same grounds a temple near the Tiber was believed to be dedicated to Vesta). The temple at Tivoli was turned into S. Maria della Rotonda, a church having the same name of the Pantheon in Rome, another round temple.

Tempio della Sibilla

Tempio della Sibilla and Tempio di Vesta form a complex similar to that of Tempio di Portuno and Tempio di Vesta near the Tiber. The dedication to Sibilla Tiburtina is not supported by evidence. There are few references to a Tiburtine Sibyl (seeress) in Classical authors, but during the Late Empire Christian writers claimed that the Tiburtine Sibyl prophesied the birth of Jesus Christ to Emperor Augustus. Another prophecy by this Sibyl, which is reported in medieval documents, describes the advent of a Final Emperor. It is very popular among those who build upon apocalyptic texts to support their religious beliefs. The temple at Tivoli was a church dedicated to St. George until 1884, when the ancient structures were freed from medieval additions.

(left) Tempio della Tosse seen from Villa d'Este (above) and from the old road to Rome (below); (right) etching by G. B. Piranesi

Tempio della Tosse, most likely a Roman tomb, is located outside Porta del Colle near the ruins of a Roman villa which belonged to Maecenas, a friend of Emperor Augustus. The reference to Tosse (Coughing) is not fully explained. It was used as a church, but in the XVIIIth century it was abandoned and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who had a penchant for picturesque ruins, depicted it in one of his etchings. The building still exists and it seems to be kept in the same poor state it was in the XVIIIth century.
Giuseppe Vasi and Piranesi printed and sold their views of Rome in the same period, but they catered for slightly different customers. Vasi started first and with some approximation we can say he targeted a Roman Catholic customer with a large number of views dedicated to churches, monasteries and other religious buildings; besides the text accompanying his prints provided a lot of information about religious orders, lives of the martyrs, parishes, etc..
Piranesi targeted foreign travellers and many of his views were dedicated to monuments of Ancient Rome: he was particularly fond of Tivoli. The image used as a background of this page shows a detail of Tempio di Vesta in an etching by Piranesi.

Ancient walls (IVth century BC) near the Town Hall

During the Roman period Tivoli did not need walls, but in the Vth century AD when the Visigoths and the Vandals plundered Rome, the inhabitants of Tivoli restored the pre-Roman walls which protected the southern and western sides of the town (the other two had natural defences). A section of these walls is visible near the XIXth century Town Hall of Tivoli. Their construction technique is similar to that of the Mura Serviane, the Republican walls of Rome.

(left) Porta Romana; (right) Roman sarcophagus turned into a fountain

The entrance to the ancient town was marked by an imposing gate, built with travertine, the stone which was quarried near Tivoli and which was shipped to Rome via barges from Ponte Lucano. The gate is similar to the inner gate of Porta Tiburtina, the gate of Rome from which the road to Tivoli started.
Tivoli shows many examples of reuse of ancient Roman materials. A sarcophagus with the busts of a couple was reused by a wealthy XIIIth century inhabitant of Tivoli for his tomb in the cathedral. In the XVIIth century it was moved to a nearby square where it became part of a small public fountain (a very common end for ancient sarcophagi).

(left) Roman columns in Piazza Palatina; (right) column found inside a medieval building

Columns and capitals taken from ancient buildings can be seen at several locations in Tivoli. In most cases the diameter-to-height ratio of the columns was modified to fit the needs of the new buildings. In general the columns had a decorative purpose; in some instances, such as at Piazza Palatina, they indicated that the palace had asylum rights i.e. the guards could not arrest people inside the building. In other cases columns and capitals were used as construction material and their presence was discovered by chance.

(above-left) Roman capitals walled in the porch of the Cathedral; (above-right) Roman materials in a medieval house; (below) Roman buildings near the Cathedral

In 1883 chance excavations near the Cathedral led to the identification of two Roman buildings: a temple to Augustus and a Mensa Ponderaria, the office where official measurement standards were kept. This has led archaeologists to believe that the XVIIth century Cathedral and the nearby medieval buildings stand on the site of the ancient Forum of the town.


In 1948 the opening of a modern road near Rocca Pia, the fortress of Tivoli, led to unearthing the ruins of an ancient amphitheatre dated IInd century AD. Inscriptions found at the site indicated the names of two donors: M. Tullius Blesus who paid for the inauguration ceremony and M. Lurius Lucretianus who paid for a venatio (slaying of beasts) and twenty gladiatorial fights (you may wish to see a mosaic found at Leptis Magna showing venationes and gladiatorial fights).

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

Cittā di Tivoli
Celebre, č questa antichissima cittā lontana da Roma 18. miglia, detta Tibur, bagnata dal mentovato Aniene, ora detto Teverone. Nasce questo a pič de' monti Appennini ne' confini del Regno di Napoli, e in Tivoli fa una soprendente comparsa, mentre cascando da alte rupi, si nasconde in un profondo cavo, e poi dopo lungo tratto si fa rivedere. Col beneficio di quelle furiose acque, sonovi molte ferriere, ramiere, e cartiere, e nell'alto si vede il celebre tempio della Sibilla Tiburtina, e non molto lungi la magnifica villa di Adriano, ora rinnovata dalla nobilissima famiglia Estense, e perō merita una particolare osservazione, non solo per il palazzo, e deliziosi viali, ma ancora per la raritā delle statue, e la moltiplicitā delli scherzi, che maravigliosamente fanno quelle fontane.

Other pages on Tivoli:
Medieval and Renaissance Tivoli
Villa d'Este - the Palace
Villa d'Este - the Gardens
Villa Adriana

Latium was enlarged in the 1920s with territories from the neighbouring regions: the map on the left shows the current borders of Latium; the map on the right has links to pages covering towns of historical Latium: in order to see them you must hover and click on the dots.