Submerged Roman Road Shows Venice May Have Been Inhabited Earlier Than Thought

Sonar finds 2,000-year-old remains of paving and structures now underwater, belying the tradition that Venice’s lagoon was only settled in the early Middle Ages

Ariel David
Ariel David
Grand Canal with Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in Venice (2019)
Venice: Not built in a day, and inhabited much earlier than had been thoughtCredit: NeyroM / Shutterstock
Ariel David
Ariel David

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day – well, apparently, neither was Venice. Italian researchers have uncovered the remains of a now submerged ancient Roman road that cut through the lagoon of the canal city, in a discovery that suggests the area was inhabited much earlier than previously thought.

The scientists used sonar to identify elongated structures that run for more than one kilometer at a depth of around five meters in the northern part of the lagoon, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Nature – Scientific Reports.

Divers who surveyed the site confirmed that most of the remains that showed up on the sonar screen were batches of “basoli,” the large flattened stones that Romans used to pave the network of roads that crisscrossed their empire.

The team also identified other structures, including a 130-meter-long construction that may have been a dock, says Fantina Madricardo, a geophysicist with the Marine Science Institute in Venice who led the study together with Maddalena Bassani, an archaeologist from the city’s Iuav University.

Traditionally, the Venice lagoon was believed to have been largely uninhabited until the fifth century C.E., when it became home to refugees from the mainland fleeing the Barbarian Invasions amidst the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The refugees first settled the island of Torcello, while subsequent waves of migrants began to develop what is presently the main island of Venice in the seventh century.

Part of the Roman road found in the Venice lagoonCredit: Luca Gagliardi, Gruppo Sommozzatori Polizia di Stato
Reconstruction of the Roman Road in the Treporti Channel in the Venice Lagoon, made on the basis of the multibeam data.Credit: Antonio Calandriello and Giuseppe D'Acunto

All of that is still true, except the road and other recent Roman-era discoveries in the lagoon show that there were also preexisting settlements on these marshy islands, Madricardo says.

The idea was first proposed in the 1980s by archaeologist Ernesto Canal, who made several Roman finds in the lagoon, including a few of the stones from the road that Madricardo and colleagues studied. But most scholars stuck to the traditional story of Venice’s birth and believed that any Roman finds were spolia – materials that were quarried from ancient structures elsewhere and reused during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

“The theory was initially strongly rejected by academics,” Madricardo tells Haaretz. “Venice was thought to have been built in a deserted place without any previous traces of human presence and the Roman finds from the seabed belonged to buildings on the mainland surrounding the lagoon.”

Part of the skepticism derived from the fact that the landscape has changed greatly since the Roman era and so much has been lost to erosion and the rising sea. Venice has been sinking more rapidly over recent decades, due to a combination of subsidence and climate change, but the city has always been at war with the sea, with different areas being lost and reclaimed over the centuries.

The sonar study shows that the Roman paving stones were not randomly recycled materials that had ended up at the bottom of the lagoon. They were placed systematically to create a road that once ran for miles along a sandy ridge crossing the lagoon from the southwest to the northeast.

The Treporti Channel as it is today. Credit: Fantina Madricardo

The underwater remains are difficult to date with precision but based on ceramics that were discovered there as well as our knowledge of the construction of Roman roads in the region, the site goes back to between the first century B.C.E. and the second century C.E. Madricardo says.

Attila destroys, Venice rises

The sandy ridge is now submerged by the Treporti channel, one of the lagoon’s main waterways and because of erosion it was impossible to follow the road all the way to its points of origin, Madricardo notes.

Of course, all roads eventually led to Rome – but on a more local level, the researchers suspect the thoroughfare connected the southern part of the lagoon, where the town of Chioggia is today, to the mainland port of Altinum in the northeast.

Given the possible presence of the docks, the study suggests the road may have also served as a tow path to bring ships into the harbor through the shallow canals of the lagoon.

Typical Roman road, in Casinum, ItalyCredit: Rjdeadly

VeniceCredit: Google Maps

Altinum was the main Roman settlement in the region, and its destruction by Attila’s Huns in 452 C.E. is believed to have sparked the first major wave of migration and settlement in the lagoon itself.

Eventually, the Republic of Venice became a great maritime power, whose traders and fleets held major sway over the Mediterranean through much of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period.

There is certainly a romantic and idealistic appeal to the idea of the beauty and power of Venice rising from nothing but the ashes of a fallen civilization at the hands of a bunch of refugees and their descendants. And that vision survives the new discovery, but with a bit more nuance.

“Altinum was the main urban site in the region but now we believe that there were already multiple settlements in the lagoon that were connected to it and coexisted with it, so the migration to this area was a more gradual process that started earlier,” Matricardo says. “It certainly accelerated during the Barbarian Invasions, and became more dramatic, but it was certainly not a migration to a deserted place.”

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