New Discovery at Ancient Roman Town Reimagines the Fall of the Roman Empire

After more than a decade of research, archaeologists and researchers have discovered that, contrary to original beliefs, a Roman Empire-era city survived much longer than thought. In fact, despite the decline of the empire, it continued to flourish as a community. The discovery has led historians to reconsider the stability of isolated Roman cities during the fall of the Roman Empire, changing our understanding of history as we know it.

Intermana Lirenas

Located in the Lazio region of central Italy, Interamna Lirenas was previously thought to have fallen into decline, like many other obscure Roman cities, and to have experienced the political and economic turmoil experienced in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. With the turmoil it gradually disappeared. However, new excavations have proven that the city was much more resilient than previously thought. It lived about 300 years longer than originally estimated.

"We started with a site that was so derelict that no one had ever tried to excavate it," said Alessandro Launaro, author of the study and head of the Intermena Lierense Project at the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge. "It's very rare in Italy." He added, “There was nothing on the surface, no visible evidence of buildings, just fragments of broken pottery. But what we discovered was no backwater, far from it. “We found a thriving city that has been meeting every challenge that has come its way for 900 years.”

How was the study conducted?

A team of archaeologists surveyed about 60 acres of land, mostly open fields, using magnetic and ground penetrating radar. Subsequently, they conducted a series of targeted excavations to uncover precise locations within the pre-ancient city. "We're not saying this city was special, it's more exciting than that," Launaro explained. “We think that many other average Roman cities in Italy were equally resilient. It's just that archaeologists have only recently begun to apply the right techniques and approaches to looking at it.

His work began long ago and took 13 years to complete. What began as a project to track the history of an average Roman Empire-era city over the course of several centuries turned into a remarkable discovery that changed the history of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Evidence of this is in pottery

One of the main ways the archaeological team was able to conclude that Intermana Lirenas flourished much longer than when it was first thought to have fallen was by studying the city's pottery. By analyzing the ordinary pottery of the average resident, rather than the impressive imported pottery owned by a few, the team was able to map the location and timing of citizen movement in the area.

The people of Intermana Lirenas, which had about 2,000 inhabitants, were making their own pottery rather than importing it from elsewhere. Researchers were thus able to determine that the city was able to avoid collapse until the late 3rd century. “Based on the relative lack of imported pottery, archaeologists have assumed that Interamna Lirenas was a declining backwater. Now we know that was not the case,” Laurano said.

In addition to pottery, the city's infrastructure also serves as evidence of the longevity of Intermana Lirenas. Located along the Liri River, the city probably served as a river port that would have helped maintain trade in the area. A large warehouse measuring 131 feet by 39 feet was discovered at the site, which was probably used to store tradeable goods. “River ports needed more than just warehouses,” Launaro said. “People spent a lot of time working and relaxing nearby, so they needed all kinds of amenities, like we got here.”

Researchers also discovered a rooftop theater large enough to seat 1,500 visitors. “The fact that the city went for a rooftop theatre, such a sophisticated building, in decline does not fit in with the backwaters. This theater was a big status symbol. It showcased the wealth, power and ambition of the city,” Laureano said. In fact, theater was growing rather than declining. The team found evidence that a wealthy donor had provided funds for improvements to the theatre.

The three bath house complexes and their continued maintenance even after the fall of the empire reinforce the notion that the city flourished for much longer than originally believed. Additionally, excavations revealed 19 courtyard buildings that may have served as markets, guild houses, apartments, or even warehouses, suggesting a permanent, thriving community at Interamna Lirenas.

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