Northern Italy – Turin And Susa

The Taurin were a tribe of Kelts from beyond the Alps who came to settle in the upper valley of the Po at the base of the Cottian Alps. They are said to have joined in the Keltic war of 225 against Rome, but to have sided with Rome against Hannibal when he invaded Italy in 218 after crossing the Alps and passing through their land. He is said to have spent three days in besieging the capital town of the tribe, which probably stood on the site of Turin, though no traces of it have been found.

We must suppose that the Keltic city was not surrounded by stone or brick ramparts but by palisades and ditch, after the fashion of the terremare. Its native name was Taurasia. It is not heard of again until Augustus sent there his colony, and made of it the northernmost city of Roman brickwork, as he also made Aosta the northernmost city of Roman stonework. It was a self-indicated site, at the intersection of two rivers, on the great northern trade thoroughfare from east to west, between the two seas, and the national center of the west section of the Po valley, just where the great river begins to be navigable.

Turin was called from the emperor Augusta Taurinorum and became the center of a territory extending about one hundred and fifty kilo-meters from north to south and over a hundred kilometers from west to east, in a great arc whose southern base rested on the river Po and was bounded by the great Alpine curve. It was intersected by the sphere of Genua (Genoa) on the southwest, and by that of Ticinum (Padua), and Mediolanum (Milan), on the southeast. Even then there was a premonition of the economic rivalry which is fiercely raging in modern Italy, where Genoa and Milan are crowding out ,Turin !

At the left end of this radius, as we face the Alps, was the territory of the tribe of the Vagienni, reaching to the Maritime Alps and the Riviera. Quite recently their capital city, Augusta Bagiennorum, has been excavated at Bene Vagienna. The Augustan plan was partly uncovered with some imposing fortified double gates, with round flanking towers, similar to those of Turin, showing that it also was a fortress.

It is not easy to remember that Turin, most modern and modern-looking of large Italian cities, owes its aspect to its faithfulness to Roman antiquity; and that under the present streets in the core of the town, at a level of between only one and two meters under the pavement, the sewers and pavements, the house-walls, and even the cellars of the city of Augustus are so well preserved that they prove just how closely the lines of the old Roman streets have been followed. In fact, the city kept within its ancient limits and was surrounded by its Augustan brick walls with its colossal gateways until the sudden expansion of the seventeenth century led to their destruction. Before then, in 1536, the French had destroyed the west gate, or Porta Marmorea, probably the principal entrance to the Roman city, as well as the amphitheater which was not far beyond it, in the usual relation to the city walls.

We can trace its limits in the heart of the modern city, in the west at the Via del Consolato; on the south at the Via S. Teresa; on the east at the Piazza Castello and Piazza Carignano, and on the north at the Via Giulis. The great thoroughfare of the Corso Garibaldi follows the exact course of the ancient decumanus street.

The plan of the Roman colony was almost exactly the “classic” norm of camp and city given by the well-known gromatc writer Hyginus. He describes the ideal plan as 2,400 feet long and two-thirds of this (1,600 feet) wide. Any, greater length, he said, endangered defensive operations, as signals and alarms could not be as distinctly heard. Turin fulfils exactly the length measurement and if its Width was greater than the normal (2,220 feet in place of 1,600 feet), this was not important; it was only here that it surpassed Aosta in size. Apparently the city fluctuated but little in the course of imperial his-tory, and we may conjecture that its time of greatest importance was under its founder, Augustus, and before the surge of the Roman advance had passed permanently northward. Together with Susa it guarded the main commercial road to Arles (Arelate) and the rest of the Provincia of Southern Gaul (Provence).

In the office of the Regional Department for the Preservation of Monuments, in the ducal Palazzo Madama, there hangs a plan of the ancient city to which every now and then some detail is added, as bits of the old streets are casually found, and which ought to be published without delay in its present form, as few archaeologists, even, are aware of its existence and depend on what Promis gives in his superb but slightly antiquated book of 1869. It is true that a comparatively small subsidy would enable the department practically to complete the plan, but the Government seems unable to furnish it. My special interest lay in the study of the Roman gates and in the place held by Turin under Augustus as one of the keys to Italy.

By a curious coincidence one can pass directly from the office of the Department of Ancient Monuments at Turin, by narrow subterranean stairs and passages, among the sub-structures of the medieval Palazzo Madama, to the consider-able remains of the principal gateway of the Augustan city, the Porta Praetoria, over and around which the mediaeval dukes of Savoy built their castle and palace. It can be studied to a height of about six feet. It has four openings, two large central arcades for incoming and out-going vehicles, flanked by two narrow passages for foot-passengers, corresponding to the side-walks. All four of the Roman gates, one on each side of the city, were of the same style and size; and all, like the walls, faced with brick-work. The plan was of the usual Augustan type, even deeper than wide, with a central court and two huge flanking towers.

How deep the court was in the Turin gates has not yet been exactly determined, but it can be as soon as the Government provides the funds for completing the restoration and uncovering of the so-called Palazzo delle Torri, or Porta Palatina, the ancient Porta Principalis Sinistra of Roman Turin, which was also turned into a fortress in the Middle Ages. On its outer face this colossal gateway, with its high sixteen-sided towers and double-arched gallery, is the only one of the four to remain in almost perfect preservation, so perfect that its Augustan date was not until quite recently admitted. Since 1905 it has been in process of restoration—the mediaeval battlements removed, the windows and galleries opened up, the ancient level, two meters below the street, laid bare, and the later constructions attached to the face removed. If the ancient foundations and walls in the rear should be wholly uncovered—which the Government has not yet provided the funds to do—the plan of the fortress-like structure would be evident. Al-ready we may conjecture it to be similar to the well-preserved Augustan gate at Nîmes, which also has four openings and a central court, though the Turin gate is on a larger scale, for its width with the towers exceeds 100 feet (36 meters). The unique preservation of the flanking towers helps to give us something of the original stateliness, when it was connected with the long stretch of city walls in the same colossal proportions. It makes one think of the Porta Nigra at Trier in its arrangement, though not in its material; at Trier it is bossed stonework. The two other city gates have disappeared, but they have been located and part of their foundations examined. That on the west was called in the Middle Ages “Porta Marmorea,” perhaps owing to a marble facing which originally covered the lower part of the brickwork of these gates, but may have long previously been torn away from the others.

To none of them, however, does the design seem to provide a place for sculptured decoration in relief, so that I was led to attribute to some unknown and destroyed arch the sculptured frieze of arms and armor and some fragments of military scenes in the museum, and perhaps also a fine fragment of a praetorian soldier and a horse now in the office of the Direzione,—though I confess that the style of the latter is less Augustan than Trajanic. I am much tempted to conjure up, as having once borne these sculptures, the Colony Arch of the Augustan Turin, which, if my reckoning holds good, must have stood at a short distance outside the principal city gate ‘(Porta Praetoria)’ across the highway, as it turns to approach the river. I may be allowed to refer here to the theory which I laid before the International Archaeological Congress of 1905 at Athens, which has been quite commonly accepted, French archaeologists having tested its accuracy in connection with the numerous African arches. This theory is that when a Roman colony was founded it was the general custom to build an arch across the main approach, on the sacred boundary line or pomerium. This arch usually received an inscription stating the name of the city, its municipal status, the time and sometimes the circumstances of its foundation. It was, in fact, the monumental emblem of the city, and marked it as part of the Roman domain. It corresponded to the triumphal arches in Rome.

We shall find such colony or municipal arches in the other Augustan cities of this northern and Alpine region, at Verona, Aosta and Susa. It certainly must have existed at Turin. Where did it stand? At Aosta it was placed 366 yards outside the city gate, and as the Roman Turin was of exactly the same length (2440 feet), as Aosta, we may place its arch at about the same distance in front of the walls, probably outside of the gate under the Palazzo Madama, along the line of the Roman road near the present Via della Zecca. The frieze of arms and armor which I am inclined to attribute to it,—now in the museum,—is of a type quite similar to that of the colony arch at Pola, in Istria, and to that of the colony arch of S. Rémy in southern France, both of which belong to the early part of the reign of Augustus, which is also the date of the Turin arch.

How can we venture to date the foundation of Turin so exactly? The form of its official title gives the clue : “Colonia Julia Augusta Taurinorum.” There is some dispute as to the use of the term “Julia,” whether all colonies were so-called because established under the Lex Julia or by or in memory of Julius Caesar. Some of those established by Caesar in Gaul were called “Colonia Julia Paterna.” The colonies established by the triumvirs after his death were called simply “Colonia Julia,” and when the name “Pietas Julia” occurs, shortly after the assassination, it would seem as if a connection with his memory were intended. As soon as in 27 B.C. Octavian assumed the title “Augustus,” the new colonies were called “Augusta,” and where the two titles are combined, as here in Turin, at Capua, Beneventum, and Parma, it has been suggested that this would make Caesar its first and Augustus its second founder.’

The best explanation seems to me that the coupling of Julia with Augusta was dropped as soon as colonies ceased to be founded on the authority of the Lex Julia, probably in 23 B.C.

But are there historic reasons for placing Turin so much earlier in the reign of Augustus than is commonly thought? I believe there are. The explanation is the more interesting as it involves the scheme of Augustus for the combined defense of Italy from northern invasion, and for the invasion and conquest of northern Europe, by opening up the roads across the Alps. We have seen that, curiously enough, while Rome was conquering the world she was by no means safe in her own peninsula. The entire arc of the Alpine ranges from the Riviera to the crest of the Adriatic was still in the possession of unsubdued warlike tribes, and all the great Alpine passes were open to invaders from northern Europe, who could descend into the plains of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Venetia. Settled and advanced culture was impossible where free-booters had full sway. Worse yet, military communications with Gaul and Germany were insecure except in case of a large force, and depended on the friendship of local chieftains, such as that of Donnus, King of the Cottian Alps, whose friendship for Julius Caesar had made the pas-sage to Gaul across the Mont Genèvre possible.

As soon as Augustus had restored normal conditions, after the defeat and death of Marc Antony, and had become sole master of the Roman world, he planned to put an end to this intolerable condition, and at the same time to create a base in Italy for the conquest of Germany and the Danubian lands, so as to make of the River Danube the northern boundary of the empire, a plan which he was soon to intrust to the generals of his family, Drusus and Tiberius. For this he needed to control all the Alpine passes ; and it is the details of this scheme, and the monuments that still record it, that I have been studying at Turin and all along the line. How successful it finally was, after years of minute, inglorious and wearing strategy, far more difficult than that of the Boer war, is commemorated in the famous Augustan Trophy, which the French are finally laying bare at the present moment, at La Turbie, near Nice. This towering pile, overlooking the main Roman causeway which leads along the Riviera to Gaul and Spain, gives the names of forty-six Alpine tribes, from Mediterranean to Adriatic, whom Augustus had conquered. It was built in 7-6 B.C., after the last insurrection had been quenched. Before this there had been several wars at various points, principally in 14 and 13 B.C., but going back to the earliest years of Augustus.

I believe that the general plan of Augustus, which was carried out mainly during the four-teen years between 28 and 15 B.C., was to establish separate groups of two fortified cities in connection with each of the main Alpine passes: a smaller city at the head of the narrow valley that led to the pass on the Italian side; and a larger city opposite the lower end of this valley, where it opened out into the great Italian plain. Not until 15 B.C. did the Augustan troops, under Drusus, begin to occupy the slopes and valleys beyond the passes. Setting aside for the moment the insignificant passages of the Maritime Alps, which, in any case, were not of the same strategic interest, because the Gallic lands beyond them were already Roman, the first great passes as one moves from west to east along the Alpine range are those over the Mt. Genèvre and the Mt. Cenis. Toward them a single road ascends from the Italian plain along the narrow valley through which the Dora Riparia flows until it reaches the site of Susa. At this point it forks: the left road passes over the Mt. Genèvre through what was the most important of the passes in Republican times, while the right road traverses the Mt. Cenis. It was Pompey who first considered this important and made use of it.

As Susa commanded both, it was very strongly fortified, and was called Italiae Claustrum. Politically speaking, its condition was anomalous, and was expressed by what I shall call the Colony Arch of Susa, though Susa was not a colony, but the chief city of a federation of tribes who were allowed considerable autonomy under Cottius, the son of Donnus, Caesar’s friend, who was at the same time king of these tribes, and their governor (prefect) on behalf of Rome. This federation, to which Roman municipal rights were conceded, was unique among the whole galaxy of Alpine tribes in its friendship for Rome, the only group not conquered by force of arms; and its recompense for willingness to enter into the Roman scheme was this recognition of autonomy, resembling, but somewhat more real than, the treatment by which the English perpetuated in India some of the native principalities.

The scene enacted, when at a solemn sacrifice these tribes took the oath of fealty to Rome and Augustus, is represented on the frieze of the Arch of Susa, and its inscription enumerates the tribes that formed the confederacy. A representative of each of the tribes is depicted as advancing to have his adhesion noted in the official document by the Roman official. To their chief-tain, Julius Cottius, the Emperor intrusted the building and policing of the great pass-roads, and the entire region was named, after him, the Cottian Alps. He was even given by Claudius the title of King and his district enlarged and placed in the class of allied states. Not until Cottius’ death under Nero was the region reannexed as a province and became an integral part of the empire.

The arch itself, memorial of this treaty, and in this way a unique monument, is a charming anomaly.

In design it is exquisite, with a spring and a delicacy that place it in the front rank, notwithstanding its simplicity. It produces almost the opposite aesthetic effect to that of the majestic, heavy arch of Aosta, which is to be described later. Its single, slender arcade, almost snowy white, has an ethereal brilliancy in this mountain solitude. It is more fortunate than the arch of Aosta in preserving the traces of its inscription giving the list of the tribes under the jurisdiction of Cottius who joined in his adhesion to Rome. This list of Alpine tribes is interesting to compare with the almost contemporary list of Alpine tribes given in the Augustan trophy of La Turbie, on the Riviera, where the tribes are those who fought and were subdued, not those who peacefully submitted. The arch originally sup-ported some statuary, in groups and single figures. It is conjectured that some fine Augustan statues—one of Drusus, perhaps—found near it and taken to Turin, may have belonged to them.

There is a surprising contradiction between the charm of the proportions and design and the crudity of the decorative work. The figures on the frieze are positively hideous in their doll-like malformation and lifelessness. One naturally thinks of similar puppets of stone and ivory carved by the post-Carlovingian craftsmen of the darkest century. There is an easy explanation. We know that it was the custom to do all the decorative work after the monument was erected, and in this case the design of a good Roman architect was perverted by the unskilled hands of some native carver, either the best local talent or brought across the Alpine passes from Gaul.

Near the arch are two arcades—one wider than the other,—of plain masonry. They seem to me to have formed part of the fortifications; to be perhaps a gate in the Augustan walls, because the larger entrance for vehicles and the smaller one for pedestrians, was a peculiar arrangement which we find at Pompeii, but not later than Augustus. Another gate, quite imposing, with its round towers, belonged to the mediaeval walls.

Susa, therefore, was the Roman bulwark at the head of the valley. If we then pass down the old highway a distance of forty miles we reach the point where the Dora Riparia runs into the Po. Here, at the entrance of the great plain, we find the second unit in the duet, Turin, Colonia Julia Augusta Taurinorum, a great bulwark in case by any chance Susa should have been captured or boxed up; and also a base of supplies and military camp, colonized by veterans, from the legions disbanded when the close of the civil war made a reduction in the army necessary. The close relations between the two cities—Susa and Turin—at the beginning of their history, were proved very recently by the discovery in Turin of part of a large inscription from some public monument of the Augustan Turin, actually dedicated by Cottius himself, the prefect-king of the Cottian Alps, and by another member of his family.

This was but the westernmost unit in the scheme of Augustus for defensive and offensive operations in the north. The next, both geographically and historically, is the group Aosta (Augusta Praetoria) —Ivrea (Eporedia).