News that construction crews in Rome recently stumbled upon archaeological ruins during the expansion of a subway line isn’t really surprising. What makes this latest discovery fascinating is that they may have uncovered the barracks of the elite Ancient Roman Praetorian Guard.
The find has the potential to uncover as-yet unknown details about this legendary force of soldiers.
The discovery was made as crews attempted to continue a long-delayed construction project to expand Metro C near an interchange at the Colosseum, the Atlantic reported. Construction at this spot in the city’s metro system has been delayed constantly for a decade as crews unearth archaeological treasures and run out of money.
Not much has been revealed about the typically Roman discovery, but photos of the remarkable site have been released. They reveal a sprawling barracks that date to the 1st century AD, which is about the time Hadrian ruled the Empire, Forbes explained.
The site is located 30 feet below street level and stretches over 10,000 square feet, with 39 rooms and a 328-foot-long hallway, BBC News reported. As subway construction continues around them, archaeologists have found a bronze coin, bronze bracelets, black-and-white mosaics, and frescoed walls, the Associated Press reported.
They’ve also found the skeletons of 13 adults in a collective grave.
Culture Ministry spokesperson Rossella Rea called the find “exceptional.”
“It’s exceptional, not only for its good state of conservation but because it is part of a neighborhood which already included four barracks. And therefore, we can characterize this area as a military neighborhood.”
The Praetorian Guard have played a significant, and frequently bloody, role in Roman history. They were created by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, and acted as his bodyguards and private military force.
According to bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove, who wrote about the find for Forbes, the men who enlisted in the force served to protect Roman generals during the Republic and then the Emperor during the Imperial period.
Thousands of men served on this elite force. At first, when August created them, they were spread among nine legions of 500 men each; eventually, he increased that number to 1,000.
Their primary role was to protect the Emperor, but they also patrolled Rome on foot and horseback. They also dabbled in politics, usually violently, and they assassinated Caligula in 41 AD and installed Claudius as his successor. The guard also deserted Nero, helped overthrow Galba, and declared Domitian emperor after Titus’ death.
While the Praetorians hailed from Italy during the 1st and 2nd centuries, by the time of Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, their composition became much more worldly, reflecting the geographic breadth of the Roman empire.
Thus, the guard’s demographics changed, and the new recruits potentially introduced diseases and other genetic markers from their far-flung homelands. The 13 skeletons found during the subway construction could show where they came from and how diverse this elite force actually was in the 2nd century. Certainly, Killgrove speculated, examination of the remains will offer a fascinating insight into the lives of these Roman soldiers.
Although few details have been leaked about the subway construction find, the photos released of the remains raise a few questions. Notably, the skeletons appear to have been found in a mass grave, which is odd in Rome. The Roman people were more often buried individually.
Photos reveal the bones piled together as if the location were a secondary burial site (meaning the remains were reinterred there after the body decomposed). However, context is needed to better understand the nature of their burial.
As for the subway construction, it will continue. The head of archaeology in the Colosseum area, Francesco Prosperetti, said the station will have to be redesigned. Construction staff will work around the ruins and the line will open in 2020 as planned.
Interestingly, officials are already planning to turn the discovery into Rome’s first archaeological subway station.
Archaeologists in Israel are currently studying the cargo of a shipwrecked merchant vessel that sunk 1,600 years ago while carrying precious metal treasures.
[Photo by Alessandra Tarantino/AP Images]