Today, Libarna sits in the Piedmont region in north west Italy, between the modern towns of Serravalle Scrivia and Arquata Scrivia. Its closest cities are Milan and Turin to the north and Genoa to the south. In ancient times, the region of Piedmont was known by the Romans as “Gallia Cisalpina”.
The earliest evidence of human settlement in the region dates back to the Neolithic period, during the 4th and 3rd millenia BCE. The next period from which we have evidence is quite a bit later, during the Iron Age, specifically from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, when there may have been a settlement somewhere in close proximity to what we now know as Libarna.
During the first half of the 2nd century BCE, Rome was conducting military campaigns against the prominent tribes of the region and it is believed that Libarna was likely founded around this time. The year of 148 BCE is generally considered to be the earliest time that a Roman settlement would have been founded as it is the year the consular road, the Via Postumia was opened after the conclusion of the Second Punic War. The Via Postumia was the major trade route in northern Italy and connected the Etruscan city of Genoa on the west coast to Aquileia on the east. Libarna was strategically positioned along this major trade route as an important stopping point. It was built on a flat plain, protected from flooding, where it was easy to obtain supplies of water by digging wells and the natural formation of springs. The valley is crossed by both the Scrivia and Borbera rivers, important for trade, and is surrounded by hills providing excellent materials for construction. In particular, we know that sandstone from Serravalle was cut into large paving stones to line the streets of the city. The river pebbles and sand were also used for masonry and concrete when building commenced.
Most of the remains standing today date to the early Imperial period from the 1st century CE, which indicates a period of economic change within the area. Libarna would have been a beautiful and prosperous city at its height. Cisalpine Gaul was described by Cicero as the “flower of Italy” and an ornament of dignity for the empire, due to the relative peace between municipal towns and Roman colonies as well as the joint support for Rome and the Roman people. Less than 100 years after Cicero, Pliny the Elder also referenced Libarna, calling it “the splendour of Liguria”.
After the 2nd century, less evidence in the city has been revealed, although tombs and a pottery kiln dating to the 4th and 5th centuries have been identified, demonstrating that the city was still occupied. It is believed that there was some activity in the early medieval period, demonstrated by the presence of a church and cemetery, however there is little evidence of this at present.
Libarna was likely abandoned some time after the 6th century and is now mostly covered by farmland. This period of decline and abandonment is not well understood, and although there is some evidence for medieval structures in the area, this is poorly documented. It became a citta morta or “dead city” and soon fell into ruin.
REDISCOVERY AND EXCAVATION
Today, all that is visible of the Roman city is the amphitheatre, two insula blocks, a Greek style theatre, and a few segments of city streets, all of which comprise the current archaeological park run by the government. Some other buildings have been excavated in the past but have since been covered up in order to better preserve them.
The history of the excavations at Libarna begins relatively late compared to other Roman sites in Piedmont. It is believed that the study of Libarna began before the 19th century although, as is typical of the 1700s, we do not have any records of these studies. It was known from ancient records that there was a town in the region known as Libarna, but it took a long period of time for these ruins to be recognised as Libarna, and for a while there was some confusion between the towns of Libarna and the remains of Dertona (modern day Tortona) and which was which.
The first modern records we have are from an ecclesiastical scholar, Giuseppe Antonio Bottazzi, born in the area in 1764. Bottazzi documented a number of ruins now no longer visible, including the baths, which were excavated by archaeologists from the Soprintendenza during our time there in 2016. Bottazzi also carried out some excavations of his own, although these were focused on the Greek style theatre close-by.
At this time, Libarna looked very different to how it looks now. It was a place marked by large buildings, abandoned and in ruins, but still impressive in their size and height. Bottazzi and the archaeologists that followed leave no doubt from their records that the state of preservation of buildings such as the baths was very good. They describe being able to walk inside buildings, under arches, and remark that the generation before them was even able to see complete structures.
Sadly over time, looting and further decay took hold of the city, particularly as land became scarce, and as a result many ruins were purposely knocked down in order to create space for farming.
After Bottazzi, the 19th century witnessed the beginnings of rescue excavations that would continue sporadically until the current day. These excavations were conservation efforts in response to large constructions projects rather than research driven study. These included the building of the Royal Road “dei Giovi” from 1820-1823, and the development of railway lines at the beginning of the 20th century.
More systematic excavations were completed under the direction of G. Moretti in the 1930s, Finnochi in the 1970s and Zand in the early 2000s as evidenced by the now extant remains of the amphitheatre, Greek theatre and insula blocks.
Now it the LULP’s turn to take the baton and research this fascinating city. We hope to be able to increase knowledge and interest of ancient Libarna, and the northern region is general, which is relatively understudied in comparison to other regions in Italy.
There is more information about Libarna’s history available on the official Libarna Archaeological Area website, where you can also find a in depth guide to the city.