The most ancient traces of the urban settlement of Trieste are considered to be the remains of the Roman colony of Tergeste, founded toward the middle of the 1st century B.C. and extending to the northwestern slope of the hill of San Giusto, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The coast was farther back than it is now, and evidence of the harbor structures have been found along via del Teatro Romano and via Cavana: the wharves, built of sandstone slabs in the 1st and early 2nd century A.D., were in use at least until the 5th century (some ruins are visible beneath the modern flooring of shops and hotels in the area).
In 33-32 B.C. the city was enclosed by walls, which soon lost their defensive function and served for containment and terracing of the slope. The lay of the land conditioned urban organization from the outset, with the business district close to the harbor, a largely residential district on the hillside and the political, administrative and religious center at the top of the hill.
Propylaeum and Roman Basilica
Where: piazza della Cattedrale
How: bus n. 24
The main monumental buildings of Roman Trieste were built on the summit of San Giusto hill. In the second half of the 1st century A.D., the so-called Propylaeum and the civil Basilica in the original plan were built. The Propylaeum served as the monumental entrance to a sacred, enclosed area believed to have held the Capitoline temple. It consisted of two large lateral colonnaded structures with a stairway at the center. The dimensions of the visible remains give a good idea of the magnificence of the work. They are now partly incorporated in the bell tower of the cathedral, while the portion buried in the area in front, the stairway and the structure on the right are visible, proceeding downward into a tunnel that opens on the Orto Lapidario. The archaeological excavations carried out between 1929 and 1934 brought to light the remains of the civil Basilica, to the left of the Propylaeum. The structure consisted of three naves (measuring 88 x 23.5 meters) and, next to it on the side facing the sea, the Forum, or part of it. For the Romans, a Basilica was a large public building erected on the forum and used for sessions of court and the business of the merchants. The Forum was an open plaza, surrounded by public buildings, where Roman citizens met to discuss business.
In the Middle Ages, the bishopric, a monastery and the church of St. Sergio were erected on the site of the Roman Basilica, but no trace of them remains, while the Cathedral and Castle were built on the sides (the castle now houses the Lapidario Tergestino with the stone remains from the excavations of the city.
Where: piazza della Cattedrale, 3 – Castello di San Giusto
The 16th century Bastione Lalio of the castle houses the collection of stonework representing Roman Tergeste, with the monuments from the Capitoline district (area of San Giusto: Roman Basilica, Forum and Propylaeum), the religious sites (dedicated to Jove, Cybele, Silvanus, Bona Dea, Hercules and Minerva), the city walls, the Theater (a group of statues used in the stage sets) and the necropolis: altars, steles, urns and sarcophagi bearing the names of the ancient Tergestines.
One room contains the mosaics from a luxurious villa built near the coast, at Barcola (the digs are not visible). Probably going back to the end of the 1st century B.C. and the middle of the 1st century A.D., they document the refined taste of the rich owners who wanted to imitate the villas of Augustus, Tiberius and Nero. [http://www.museostoriaeartetrieste.it/lapidariotergestino]
Museum of History and Art – Orto Lapidario
Where: piazza della Cattedrale, 1
Created in the 19th century, the museum features a collection of tombstones and the finding of local history dating from prehistory up to around the 6th century A.D. The collection formed around the monument of J.J. Winckelmann, considered the father of archeology, who was murdered in Trieste in 1768.
The museum also contains collections from Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and the colonies of Magna Graecia, from Etruria and even a small collection of Mayan ceramics from El Salvador. [http://www.museostoriaeartetrieste.it]
Arch of Riccardo
Where: piazza Barbacan
How: bus n. 24
The Roman gate shows signs of reconstruction, around the middle of the 1st century A.D. It was a passage through the city walls built by Augustus in 33-32 B.C., after they had lost their defensive function. The gate is a simple, solid construction decorated with pilasters and a vegetable motif under the arch. Tradition links its name to the legendary passage through the city of King Charlemagne or of Richard the Lion-hearted. It could also derive, however, from the word “cardus” (the Latin name for one of the two main thoroughfares in Roman cities – the other is the decumanus) or could be a corruption of the term “rìcario”, the medieval magistrature that probably held court in this district.
The site preserves a long portion – 2.40 meters wide and 4 meters high – of the ancient city walls, consisting of two outer faces in sandstone blocks filled filled with stone and lime. At its base is a moat for collection of the runoff from the hillside.
Between the middle of the 1st and 2nd century A.D. the walls lost their defensive function and were reused as terracing structures and containing walls, as can be seen from the remains of a basin paved in terracotta, possibly used for processing oil, which was overlaid on the walls.
Antiquarium and Sepolcreto
The Antiquarium is an archeological zone with annexed museum located in the tower of the medieval wall, called Donota Tower. The findings on exhibit come from digs made starting in the 1980’s behind the Roman theater, along via Donota and adjacent areas, during extended works of building restoration. The excavations brought to light the remains of a residential building erected on several levels, taking advantage of the sloping hillside. It was located slightly above the Theater, outside the probable site of the Roman walls, and was definitely in use in the early decades of the 1st century A.D. The frescoed walls and plaster architectural decorations, as well as the fine tableware in ceramic, testify to the wealth of the residents. Around the middle of the 2nd century, an enclosure was built around the area – the residential structures were by then completely buried – probably for a cemetery. From the 4th to the 6th century, the area was intensively reused by creating grave and coffin tombs and burial of children in amphorae. These tombs filled the entire space and extended even outside the enclosure. In medieval times the zone was occupied by the city walls.
At the feet of San Giusto hill, by the sea, the Romans built a large theater with a capacity of 3,500 spectators. The lower rows of seats in brick (partly restored) are still visible, with the great wall that enclosed the audience section, while only the “pit” section remains of the stage, which was covered in wood, and a few set structures. The stage structure must have been two stories high, with doors, columns and sculptures (now on view at the Lapidario Tergestino, in the Castle of San Giusto). Three inscriptions from Traiano’s time contain the name of Q. Petronio Modesto, an illustrious Tergestine celebrated man who financed the works of restructuring and decoration of the theater in the early years of the 2nd century A.D. (the original building is thought to have been built in the middle of the previous century). Like the other Roman monuments, it was later stripped of all the valuable stones until it was nothing more than the solid foundation for the houses built on it. It was identified in 1814 by Pietro Nobile, guided by the name of the site “Rena vecia” (Arena vecchia in Italian, or “old arena”), but it was not until 1938 that the theater was brought to light, following major works of demolition and urban requalification.
Late Roman Tower
Where: via del Teatro Romano
On via del Teatro Romano, at the bottom of the stairway leading to Santa Maria Maggiore Church, is a tower belonging to the defensive wall erected between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century A.D. Materials recovered from earlier structures were used in its construction: it incorporates a number of blocks cuts for burial monuments and others may also have come from the nearby Roman Theater.
Where: via dei Capitelli
At the bottom of via dei Capitelli, which follows the same route as one of the main Roman roads ascending toward the summit of the hill, we can observe the lower section of a monumental gateway that marked the passage between the area near the harbor and the residential district on the slopes of the hill: it consisted of four pillars in Aurisina limestone decorated with volute leaves and columns grooved at the corners. In the late Roman era it was walled for defensive purposes.
Where: via dei Capitelli 8
An olive press constructed in the 5th century, using a decorated parallelepiped block from a burial monument of the 1st century A.D., is located in the building at via dei Capitelli 8. The same area also contains a section of road built around the same time as a gate in the late Roman wall, recognizable nearby, at the intersection with via Crosada.
Where: Crosada areas
Extensive archeological excavation in this area have brought to light part of the system of terracing on which the later buildings stand, like the prestigious domus on via Barbacan, arranged on terraces and divided into a rustic zone for domestic activities and a residential section, decorated with refined mosaics and frescoes. The area has been protected for future valorization.
Early Christian Basilica
Where: via Madonna del Mare 11
How: bus n. 24
When: tours Wednesdays 10-12 a.m., or on request: phone +39 040 4261411
The remains of an early Christian basilica and cemetery just outside the city walls were partially uncovered in the Sixties. The two mosaic floors, one above the other, belonging to two periods of use of the religious building, refer respectively to the end of the 4th-early 5th century and to the 6th century. In the presbytery, positioned at a higher level than the hall, it is possible to observe a niche for reliquaries, which was probably located under the altar slab. The Basilica testifies to the importance and wealth of the Triestine Church: in the inscriptions inserted in the mosaic floor the words Sancte Ecclesia Tergestina appear for the first time, and the names of various donors are mentioned, some of Greek and Oriental origin, reflecting the cosmopolitan character of the city and its relations with those regions at the time.