In this page:
Circo di Massenzio
Valle della Caffarella
Sepolcro di Annia Regilla
S. Urbano and Catacomba di Pretestato
Ninfeo di Egeria
SS. Annunziata (Annunziatella) and Villa di Numisia e Munazia Procula
in the first page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
The view today
Catacombe della Via Appia
(above) Western entrance to the circus; (below) the circus seen from its eastern end (photos taken during the preparation phases of a film-making session)
This Circus was made by the Emperor Caracalla,
and is the most entire of all the Circus that were in Rome. (..) You see how long it was, and the walls yet
show you what compass it carryed.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
Antonio Nibby (1792-1839) was an Italian archaeologist who updated the guides to Rome written by Giuseppe Vasi and his son Mariano; in 1825 he discovered three inscriptions in a large circus near the tomb of Cecilia Metella; they all made reference to Maxentius, but one in particular stated that the circus was completed in 311 AD and that it was dedicated to Romulus, the son of Maxentius who died in 309 in his teens. Until the discovery of the inscription the circus was named afterEmperor Caracalla owing to a statue of him found in the vicinity.
(above) Wall separating the circus from the area reserved to the imperial residence (the building to the right of the wall can be seen in the image used as background for this page); (below) the circus from its western end
In the midst
of it stood that Guglia which now stands in the
midst of Piazza Navona; I saw it lye here broken
in three pieces, and neglected quite till (..) the Romans begin
to think that it was some fine thing. (..) At last it light
upon a good stone-setter who joyned it so well
together, that it now stands streight upon a rare
basis and adorns the very heart of Rome: Thanks
to that ingenious architect Cavalier Bernini, who
set it up there in the anno sancto. Lassels
An obelisk erected by Emperor Domitian near Iseo Campense was removed by Maxentius and placed on the spina (the raised strip in the middle of the circus); the obelisk returned to Rome in ca 1650 when Gian Lorenzo Bernini used it for Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona.
December 1787. The race-course, which still has the name of that Emperor, although now largely fallen into decay, still gives us a conception of immense space. Were a draftsman to place himself on the left wing of the competing charioteers as they start on their course, he would have to the right, towering above the ruined seats of the spectators, the grave of Cecilia Metella with its more modern surroundings, whence runs out ad infinitum the line of the old seats, while in the distance notable villas and pavilions attract the eye. Leaving those distant views the artist has no difficulty in following, straight in front of him, the ruins of the Spina, and if endowed with architectural fancy he might in some measure realise the overweening pride of those days.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbeth.
The circus was built next to a large villa (almost an imperial palace) where Maxentius erected a mausoleum for his son. Because in 312 he was defeated by Emperor Constantine at the Battle of Ponte Milvio, it is thought that the circus was actually used only for the inauguration ceremonies.
(left) Part of the imperial palace overseeing the circus; (centre-above) part of a dome in the imperial quarters; (right-above) copy of the inscription found in 1825; (right-below) detail showing the use of pottery to lighten the vaults supporting the steps where the audience sat (see a page on Roman Construction Techniques)
Maxentius was acclaimed emperor in Rome in 306; he ruled only over Italy and parts of northern Africa; he had no military experience and he relied on his personal wealth to buy out the troops of his enemies; he also made use of his money to retain popularity in Rome by promoting the construction of many buildings (e.g. an imposing basilica in the Forum): the villa and the circus were part of this policy.
The eastern end of the circus built by Maxentius borders on a valley which today is known as Valle della Caffarella (a reference to Cardinal Scipione Borghese Caffarelli who owned it). At the time of Ancient Rome it was known as the valley of River Almo, a small stream which joined the Tiber south of Testaccio and also as the valley of Egeria, a nymph.
The most elevated points of the valley offer views which are unspoiled by modern buildings, but few foreigners visit it. Access from Via Appia Antica is not very easy to find: a winding alley, which begins at Cappella di Reginald Pole and is flanked by high walls protecting the privacy of secluded villas, leads to this area which was opened to the public in the 1990s.
Valle della Caffarella is by no means an Italian garden and because parts of it are still farmed or used for pasture, in some areas it has a rather forlorn aspect which recalls description of the Roman Campagna by travellers of the past.
Of all kinds of country that could, by possibility, lie outside the gates of Rome, this is the aptest and fittest burial-ground for the Dead City. So sad, so quiet, so sullen; so secret in its covering up of great masses of ruin and hiding them.
Charles Dickens - Pictures from Italy - 1846
Torre Valca is the current name of a medieval tower built by the Caetani to protect their fortress at Cecilia Metella. The building is located by the river and it was called Valca after gualchiera (fulling-mill), a process of the textile industry for which it was used at a later period.
It. colombario means dovecot, but archaeologists use this word to indicate an ancient tomb which has small niches for cinerary urns (see one at the necropolis of Porto). The brick tomb named after Emperor Constantine was actually built in the IInd century AD.
You may wish to walk your "virtual" dog at Valle della Caffarella and see more images of some of the ancient buildings shown in this page.
Sepolcro di Annia Regilla
Herodes Atticus was a Greek rhetor who was highly regarded by Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius to the point that he was entrusted with the education of future Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. He was a very wealthy man and he became wealthier by marrying Annia Regilla, a member of an ancient and rich Roman family; her dowry included Pagus Triopius, a large estate in Valle della Caffarella and also some land along Via Appia; pagus in Latin means village/country district, while Triopius is a reference to Ceres, the goddess of farming.
Herodes and his wife lived in a villa inside Pagus Triopius, but most often in Greece. In 160 Herodes was accused by his brother-in-law of having arranged the killing of Annia Regilla, but at the end of a trial he was acquitted. He then followed the steps of Emperor Antoninus Pius (a widower who dedicated several monuments to his wife Annia Faustina) and he built the Odeon of Athens in honour of Annia Regilla (but it is usually named after him). Annia Regilla was buried in a small mausoleum near the River Almo in Valle della Caffarella, most likely a location she loved.
(left) 1789 drawing by Carlo Labruzzi showing that the mausoleum was turned into a hayloft; (right) a detail of the building
Near those tombs is a little temple also assigned to this period, under the name of the God Rediculus. So fresh are its red and yellow bricks, that the thing seems to have been ruined in its youth; so close their adhesion, that each of the puny pilasters appears one piece, and the cornice is sculptured like the finest marble. (..) Whether it be a temple or a tomb, the rich chisselling lavished on so poor a design convinces me that it was fully as late as Septimius Severus.
Joseph Forsyth - Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters in Italy in 1802-1803
During the XIXth century the building was thought to be a temple to Rediculus, the Roman god who protected the safe return of travellers (Rediculus from Latin redire, to return), perhaps because of an ex-voto for a happy return which was found at not so far away Domine Quo Vadis.
(left) S. Urbano alla Caffarella; (right) detail showing the ancient columns
Herodes Atticus built also a temple in honour of his wife but he dedicated it to Ceres and to Annia Faustina; the temple was built with the same technique used for the mausoleum but with marble columns. In 1634 the building was at risk of collapsing and Pope Urban VIII restored it and strengthened its structure by closing its pronaos (porch). The church was dedicated to St. Urban, not because of the Pope's name, but because it was thought that St. Urban, who was pope between 222 and 230, had used the building as a church.
Musei Vaticani: (above) Sarcophagus found at Catacomba di Pretestato near S. Urbano in ca 1854; (below) detail showing Psyche and Eros
Catacombs are usually associated with the Christian use of them, but these underground galleries were common in Rome. Catacomba di Pretestato, which was called after a name found on an inscription, began to be used as a burial ground in the early IIIrd century AD and only at a later time it became a Christian cemetery. The sarcophagus shown above is dated ca 370-380. It was decorated with scenes which can be seen on many other Christian sarcophagi, but the three good shepherds (see a sarcophagus at Porto) and the winged genii (or Cupids) working in a vineyard (see a fresco in Roman houses near SS. Giovanni e Paolo) appeared already in earlier non-Christian sarcophagi and paintings.
Musei Vaticani: replica of a fresco on a tomb with the sentence "Vibia's abduction and descent"
The older part of the catacomb housed some pagan tombs, one of which attracted the interest of archaeologists because it associated the myth of Kore/Persephone/Proserpina with Vibia, the woman buried in the tomb. In the right part of the painting is depicted Hermes/Mercury who according to a tradition which went back many centuries (see the Vth century BC Euphronios Krater) accompanied the souls of the dead to the Underworld. See the same subject in a fine Roman sarcophagus and the Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Ninfeo di Egeria
We descended to the valley of Egeria and the grotto, or rather nymphaeum: but instead of the marble magnificence which offended Juvenal here, we found the vault fallen in, the walls mantled with maiden-hair, the statue which passes for the Nymph mutilated, the muses removed from their niches, and the fountain itself a mere trough. Its water, however, was delicious, and, finding a large split reed placed over the drip, I used it as a conduit. Forsyth
Ninfeo di Egeria: details
Valle della Caffarella was for many centuries associated with Numa Pompilius, the
second king of Rome. The sacred wood and
the grotto where he used to meet with Nymph Egeria, his patroness and
adviser were located near S. Urbano, but according to Livy, Numa and Egeria met at Valle delle Camene.
The grotto is actually an artificial cave, once adorned with statues and used as a summer resort for the large suburban villa of Herodes Atticus and then included into that of Maxentius. In the XVIIIth century a visit to the grotto was a must for the educated traveller: Goethe himself sketched it and Giovanni Battista Piranesi depicted it in a well known etching (it opens in another window). Lord Byron dedicated to Egeria five stanzas of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. In the XVIIth century it was the site of a yearly festival of the foreign artists in Rome.
Sacred Wood near Ninfeo di Egeria
(left) The old church; (right-above) how to reach Annunziatella; (right-below) the new church
From S. Sebastiano the most pious pilgrims could expand their Visita delle Sette Chiese by reaching S.
Paolo alle Tre Fontane and (after 1744) Santuario del Divino Amore. On their way pilgrims rested at SS. Annunziata; because the building was small the church was called Annunziatella. In the 1765 Grand View of Rome by Giuseppe Vasi it can be seen at B12, number 228.
At that time the neighbourhood was almost unpopulated; today while the streets leading to the church (Via di S. Sebastiano, Via Ardeatina and Vicolo dell'Annunziatella) are included in an area where new buildings are forbidden, SS. Annunziata itself is outside this area and is surrounded by a new development: for this reason a new larger church was built behind the old one.
(left) Cosmati floor; (right) upper part of the apse
The original church is very old: it was renovated in the XIIIth century (the floor belongs to that period) and later on by Pope Urban VIII (decoration of the apse).
The excavations which led to finding a beautiful statue of Dionysus near Via Ardeatina were carried out in 1817-1823. Two Roman villas were found which were named after Numisia and Munazia Procula whose names were found on lead water conduits. The exhibits at Musei Vaticani are dated IInd century AD.
Musei Vaticani: details of the floor mosaics which were found at Tor Marancia and which were used for the decoration of Braccio Nuovo; the mosaic portraying Ulysses tied to the mast of a ship is very similar to a mosaic which was found along Via Cassia; it refers to a famous episode of the Odyssey (you may wish to see another floor mosaic from the Roman villa)
Return to page one.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Rimane solamente di questo Circo, che da alcuni viene stimato per opera di Gallieno, un masso di materia laterizia, che era l’ingresso principale, ed il piantato d'intorno al Circo, in mezzo del quale fu ritrovato l'obelisco egizio, che ora si vede sul nobilissimo fonte da piazza Navona. Non molto lungi si vede, ancora la
Fra le molte rovine, che si vedono in queste campagne, sono notabili quelle di un tempio creduto di Bacco, posto in un sito alto nella tenuta della Caffarella, che sino al Pontificato di Urb. VIII. stette coperto di spine, e siepi. E' questo fatto di mattoni, ed ha un portico con colonne marmoree scannellate: di sotto poi vi è l'oratorio ove s. Urbano catechizzava, e battezzava i nuovi fedeli. Nel basso di questo colle si crede essere stata la celebre Fonte di Egeria e delle Camene. Appresso al fonte era il bosco, e la spelonca, in cui Numa soleva segretamente trattenersi per dare a credere d'aver notturni congressi con quella Dea, e però i Sacerdoti vi andavano per sagrificarvi alla Fede.
Non molto discosto siede questa chiesa, presso cui ne' primi tempi del cristianesimo fu eretto un ospizio per li poveri pellegrini, che venivano in Roma a visitare i sagri Limini, acciocchè stessero lontani da' Gentili. Nell'an. 1270. essendo rinnovata, e consagrata la chiesa, fu poi conceduta alla Compagnia del Confalone. Quindi camminando per quelle campane inzuppate del sangue di tanti ss. Martiri, cioè di quei Cristiani, che lavorarono nelle terme Diocleziane, i quali in ricompensa, e per odio della santa Fede furono fatti morire, detto perciò da varj Scrittori Campus trucidatorum.