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Exploring the Ancient Past

The Lost Roman City of Altinium

By Natasha Sheldon

Altinium was abandoned in the fifth century AD to Attila the Hun. Its inhabitants became some of the earliest occupants of the Venetian lagoon.

Located seven miles north of Venice and close to Marco Polo airport are the remains of the Roman city of Altinium. In the fifth century AD,iIt was suddenly abandoned due to barbarian incursions into northern Italy and its inhabitants fled, occupying islands in the venetian lagoon that were to become part of the city of Venice.

 

The city was lost for years until its rediscovery by accident in 2007. Because it has not been built over, it provides a unique view of a Roman city as well as an insight into the origins of some of the original inhabitants of Venice.

 

Roman History of Altinium.

 

Altinium was a wealthy Roman harbour town on the edge of the Venetian lagoon. It was a roman municipium from the first century AD and at its peak an important centre for trade with the Adriatic.

 

The city was deserted in 452AD when its citizens fled the invasion of Attila the Hun. It was never reoccupied, leaving its buildings to sink into the ground when it was partially flooded after a rise in the water level of the Venetian lagoon.

 

It remained lost until its accidental rediscovery in 2007.

 

The Rediscovery of Altinium.

The city was rediscovered by a private company that was mapping the open farmland which covers the area today. A dry summer meant that the crops were suffering from drought and outlines of features from the city showed up in crop marks. Areas of lighter crops grew over bricks and stonework whilst darker patches of crops correlated to pits or canals

 

Archaeological Investigations of Altinium.

 

Italian archaeologists mapped the city by using infra red aerial photography. Using a digital elevation model (DEM) they have reconstructed the city, and its environment.

 

Altinium was surrounded by rivers and small canals, a marshy landscape that matches the description of the city and its environs given by the geographer Strabo. The DEM shows that it was built on high ground 2-3m above the lagoon.

 

 The city was slightly bigger than Pompeii and outlines of temples, theatres, a basilica, a market, streets, an amphitheatre and the city walls are all discernable. In addition, it appears a large canal ran through the centre of the city to the lagoon. This would have been used to transport luxury trade goods unloaded at Altinium inland to other roman cities such as nearby Verona.

 

Aerial pictures continue to be taken in different conditions to hopefully spot previously unrevealed features. It is hoped that mapping of the city will be completed by the end of 2009. The site will then be more closely investigated by the Universities of Venice and Padua and the Veneto region superintendent of archaeology who will be supervising investigation by remote sensing and excavation.

 

Altinium and Venice.

 

Altinium’s history did not end once the city was abandoned. For its memory lived on in the tales told by its people who became the earliest venetians after they fled the mainland and colonised the northern lagoon islands.

 

They named some of the islands they occupied after parts of their former home.Torcello was named after a ‘little tower’ in Altinium which was supposedly used to spy out the island as a possible refuge by a local bishop. It is said that stone from the abandoned city was used to build many of Venice’s earliest inhabited islands churches and palaces.

 

Sources

The Times Online

Science Vol 325 31 July 2009