Rare Roman relics unearthed in Rome subway construction
After 19 centuries, during excavations for a new underground train line in Rome, frescoed barracks which once housed the cavalry of the bodyguard of Emperor Hadrian emerged into daylight.
Weapon rooms, dormitories, kitchens and stables where some of the greatest soldiers of ancient Rome once lodged now lie open to the sky near the Colosseum, where the Amba Aradam Metro C line stop is being excavated.
Archaeologists described the find as “unique”.
Uncovering broken pots, Roman coins and parts of broken buildings is all part of the day’s work for Chief Engineer Andrea Sciotti, especially near ancient forums and gladiator fighting ground and training schools.
But this find was special. “The emotion crept up upon us,” Sciotti said, marvelling at the excellent state of preservation of the vast site which covers 900sq metres (9,700sq ft).
Work is steaming ahead to create the first “archaeological station” in Rome, which Francesco Prosperetti, the capital’s superintendent of archaeology, hopes will outdo other impressive metros “museums” from Athens to Naples, Porto and Vienna.
“We will keep as much of the site as possible in the future station so that, when you’re on your way to catch a train, you can look down on it all and enjoy the view,” said Sciotti.
The excavation for Rome’s much-needed third metro line, which will connect 30 stations in the tourist-heavy Eternal City, began in 2007 but has been delayed repeatedly by the discovery of buried artefacts and it is not expected to be fully open before 2021.
“The challenge will be to create a space which will speak of Rome’s underground to those on the move,” Prosperetti said.
Amid the diggers and scaffolding lie the remains of 39 rooms of barracks where hundreds of soldiers – the so-called “equites singulares augusti”, one of the elite corps of the Praetorian Guard – were housed during the 2nd century AD.
Archaeologists also found a collective grave on the site, where they have so far unearthed 13 adult skeletons and a bronze bracelet.
The cavalry guard, which escorted the Roman emperor whenever he left the city, were so fierce they were used by successive leaders to quash unruly mobs in street battles and boost military campaigns abroad.
Black and white mosaics decorate the barracks floors, and frescoes in Pompeian red can be seen on some of the remaining walls.
“When the call came they left their rooms, went along a corridor to the weapons room to collect their arms and headed off to where they were needed,” said archaeologist Rossella Rea, describing the ruins as a “unique discovery”.
The find brings the total number of known military garrisons in the area to five, with one of the most important resting under the nearby Saint John Lateran basilica, the pope’s seat in Rome.
“In ancient times, this area was the Campus Martius, where, during the months of February and March, ceremonies and festivities were organised in honour of Mars, the god of war,” Rea said.
While Romans celebrated with chariot races, dances and feasts in the street, the cavalry slept six to a room, ready to be called at any minute to seize their swords and shields, decorated with their emblem, the scorpion, and saddle up.