Rome: city of soldiers


The ongoing - and, at least from an archaeological point of view, highly fruitful- construction of Rome's third Metro line C has unearthed yet another astonishing secret. A 300 square metre building has been discovered some 12 metres below street level during work on the metro station sited on the Via dell'Amba Aradam, less than a kilometre south east of the Colosseum. It abuts a set of military barracks, excavated in just 2015, and its opulent decor has earned it the title of 'the house of the commander.' There seems to be little doubt that the two structures together comprise a sizeable miltary precinct, dating to Hadrian's reign at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, though the evidence that specifically posits a senior military officer there is circumstantial. The focus of the structure is a central courtyard and fountain around which there are 14 rooms. A staircase apparently constructed in the latter stages of the building's life suggests either a suite of officers or, more likely, dormitory rooms on the upper floor. I get the impression that the very well-preserved watchmen's barracks in Ostia (below left) are similar in this respect, and not atypical of miltary buildings of the period.

Very rarely for this era, a good deal of woodwork in the form of joists and planks has been preserved in addition to precious elements such as gold rings andan ivory-handled dagger, amulets and bricks that allowed the dating of the artifacts and renovations.

The discovery of this site sharpens the image, for at least the duration of the 2nd and half of the 3rd century AD, of this particular area of the city, the Caelian Hill district, bristling with military personnel and their families. In a zone of roughly just 50 acres (0.2 square kilometres) 5 barracks are now believed to have been contemporaneously active. Starting from the Basilica di Santo Stefano and following the route plotted on the map, below, towards the Scala Santa, a traveller would have passed the following buildings:

* (Under the modern Piazza della Navicella) the Watch House of Cohort V of the vigiles (night watchmen).

* (Under the Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo) the Castra Peregrina, which housed soldiers from provinical armies on special detachment (and, in all likelihood, a contingent of frumentarii, notionally supply prospectors but also something akin to our security services).

* (Less than 300 metres away, under the Via dell'Amba Aradam) the barracks complex recently excavated.

* (c.600 metres away, under the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano) the Castra Nova Equitum Singularium, the newer of two barracks built to accommodate the expanded mounted imperial bodyguard.

* (c.300 metres away, under the Via Tasso by the Scala Santa) the older Castra Nova Equitum Singularium.

There is mention in the articles relating to these latest finds that the buildings housed a division of the elite Praetorian Guard. Roughly 2.5km to the north east lay the imposing Castra Praetoria, built in AD 23 at the suggestion of Tiberius' treacherous Prefect Sejanus, and later incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. It was because of its role in the assassination of his predecessor Pertinax (and their vital force in power politics) that the emperor Septimius Severus disbanded the original Praetorian Guard and created his own. These 5000 men were selected from the very forces that he himself had led to victory against the Pannonians in the late 2nd century AD and, to ensure their loyalty, he had raised their pay by half. Sharing the Castra Praetoria were nine divisions of Urban Cohorts (roughly 4000 men at their peak), whose role seems to have been that of a heavy duty public order force but who were plainly also a handy counterweight to the overbearing power of the Praetoriani. Therefore, it remains to be seen - if the newly-excavated barracks did indeed house Praetorians - why additional accommodation was required. It could have been to cope with occasional fluctuations in numbers or it may even prove to have been a barracks for Urban Cohorts, in which case the mosaics, fountains and richly decorated walls might have belonged to the City Prefect, who commanded them.

I think the dense concentration of thousands of vigorous, well-trained men within the walls of the city goes some way to explaining just how paranoid emperors would have been of res novae, the euphemistic term for revolution. There were certainly plenty of precedents for both attempted and successful coups by ambitious Praetorian Prefects. Even lowly night watchmen were regarded with some suspicion who, despite their organisation under paramilitary lines, are only known to have served as soliders on one occasion. In the early 2nd century AD, Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, received a telling reply from the emperor Trajan regarding a request to establish a local fire department. Trajan agreed to the proposal but urged keeping the recruits under 'proper regulation' because '...for whatever purpose they may be founded, they will not fail to form themselves into factious gatherings.'

I can't help but wonder, when I recall the mayhem of policing a busy city centre on New Year's Eve or other major events, just how rough and ready the Regio II district of Rome must have been! Rome in general, especially at night, like many pre-industrial cities was not a place for the faint-hearted. Irrespective of how many edicts the authorities might issue to curb late-night drinking and gambling and public disorder, men are men - and innately tribal - and soldiers are trained killers. At best, there was no love lost between soldiers of the Urban Cohorts and the significantly better paid Praetorians, and tensions must have been particularly high during periods of political instability and challenges to the throne. Walking the same streets we also have numerous mounted guardsmen, who might well have regarded themselves as the creme de la creme within military circles, as well as legionaries from the provinces, whose linguistic and cultural differences might have marked them out as easy targets to wind up. Factor in a sizeable number of night watchmen, disparagingly nicknamed 'Spartoli' ('bucket carriers'), many of whom doubtless got fed up with being looked down upon by everyone. To make matters even more interesting, we also have cohorts of spies paying close interest to everything and everyone. Men on leave or out of the rotation, ego, points to prove and reputations to maintain, old grudges, strong drink, public holidays, hot summers and short tempers.... a toxic and potentially explosive mix. Who'd have been an inn-keeper in those parts!?

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