Invisible city: Roman Florentia

A walk through time

Jennifer Sgro
May 21, 2009

Once upon a time, in the year 59 B.C., there flourished a daughter of Imperial Rome. This daugh-ter was called Florentia, after the noble Roman warrior Fiorinus, who is said to have set up camp on the north banks of the Arno. In keeping with a common tale told of the origins of many great cities, Florence was said to be born out of a kind of fratricide. Legend holds that Fiorinus came to Etruria in defense of Caesar, leading an expedition against Caitilin, a Roman traitor hiding with his fellow conspirators in the Etruscan city Fiesole. Fiorinus was murdered during a surprise nighttime attack by Caitilin, and his death triggered an influx of Roman soldiers into the newly established camp along the Arno’s banks. Fiorinus became a hero on the order of Romulus—the city is named after him—and the villains received their due justice in 62 B.C. during the Battle of Pistoia. 

Fiorinus’ legend could very well be just that—legend, but what we can be sure of is that Caesar ordered a military settlement in Florence, marking the beginning of what is now to most people an invisible city. Yet it is still detectable to the archeologist’s eye, and with some guidance—a map, a city bus ticket and these simple directions—anyone can trace its far more ancient origins. 

The settlement that became Florence was once an Etruscan marketplace: its original is the spot where the Ponte Vecchio now stands, once a wooden bridge, eventually rebuilt in stone. On this area, Caesar built a military outpost, a castrum, over a 1,800-meter plot that is today the ‘historic center.’ The castrum was quadrangular, enclosed by fortifying walls punctuated by towers and four central gates at cardinal points. 

Two major cross-axial streets divided this new settlement into a grid, the cardo, running north-south and the decumano running east-west. The cardo, which was then called via Cassia and linked Florentia to Rome, is today via Roma. The decumano was the current via degli Strozzi and via degli Speziali, running parallel to the Arno. 

The cross-point of the cardo and decumano is at Piazza della Repubblica. According to some Florentines, this is perhaps the most hideous spot of Florence today; they look in disapproval at the glowing neon signs of overpriced cafes, competing with the moonlight and songs from the 1980s. Yet Piazza della Repubblica has proud ancient origins: it was once the civic heart of the Roman city, the forum urbis. Hugo Boss, whose grandiose advertisements you may find here, thus was not the first giant to dominate the piazza. Around the square was the curia, the ancient senate and a triad temple dedicated to pagan gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. 

North on via Roma, to Piazza del Duomo, was the second Roman center of the city; its ruined temples are now buried beneath the Baptistry and Duomo. South along the eastern wall, now via del Proconsolo, a left turn at via degli Speziali leads to where the eastern city gate would have been. The east gate led to the city’s thermal baths, traces of which can be found inside a modern hotel. Continue west along via degli Speziali and turn right onto via delle Farine, leading to Piazza Sant’Elisabetta. Here is the Torre Bizantina della Pagliuzza, the oldest tower of Florence, dating back to the sixth century. It is now incorporated into Hotel Brunelleschi, which houses a museum in the tower containing artifacts found during the restoration, including ruins of a Roman calidarium, the classical version of a steam room. 

Other aspects of Roman life can be found nearby. Piazza San Firenze is the site of a Temple of Isis. By following the boundaries of the Roman walls (from Piazza San Firenze, continue along via Proconsolo and turn left on Borgo de’ Greci), one can find the site of a semicircular theater along the back of Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Gondi (follow the curved of via dei Leoni); the theater was positioned at a slight angle within the city walls. 

From Piazza della Signoria, also an open public space in its Roman past, one can find the former site of the ancient south gate. (Just near it, in front of the Chanel boutique, notice a map of the ancient Roman city to help guide you on.) Via Vacchereccia, across from Palazzo Vecchio, leads to via Roma (which turns into via Calimala at this point); this is where the south gate would have opened up to the ancient market place. The south end walls continued along via delle Terme, turning 90 degrees north on what is now via de’ Tornabuoni. Where via de’ Tornabuoni and via degli Strozzi cross stood the west gate of the Roman city. The west walls turned at a right angle at what is now via dei Banchi, leading to via de’ Cerretani, and the north gate stood where via de’ Cerretanu crosses via Roma. 

Outside the walls of the Roman castrum was a second Roman theater, just in front of what is now Piazza Santa Croce: its circular form is still traceable in via Torta and via de’ Bentaccordi.  A visit to the invisible Roman city would not be complete without an excursion to Fiesole, where Etruscan artifacts and Roman ruins can still be found. Catch Ataf bus 7 to Fiesole from Piazza San Marco or Santa Maria Novella station. The bus will stop at Piazza Mino, site of the former Roman forum and now the main square of the hillside town. Across from the bus stop, on via Portigiani, is the Museo Civico Archeologico, which houses Etruscan and Roman artifacts excavated not just in Fiesole but from all over Etruria (modern-day Tuscany). Archeological sites surrounding the museum include a temple, a theater and thermal baths. The temple was originally built by the Etruscans in the third century BC and later modified by the Romans and dedicated to Minerva. The baths date to the time of Augustus, while the amphitheater is from the Imperial period.  For most visitors, Florence is most evident as a medieval and Renaissance city. Other than the visible artifacts of Fiesole, only the curves and crossings of Florentine streets tell the ancient story of Florentia. But grab your map, this guide, a bus ticket, and rev up your imagination: perhaps Florentia, once dead, may come to life again.  



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