Falerii Novi – Huge Ancient Underground Roman City Reveals Its Secrets

The ancient Roman Empire relied on a network of cities that played a pivotal role in its domain’s administration, social organization, and economy. By the first century A.D., there were approximately 2000 cities across the Roman world, and one of them was Falerii Novi.

Ancient ruins of the city of Falerii Novi. Credit: Adobe Stock – Buffy1982

Historical records inform that Falerii Novi was founded by the Falisci tribe in 241 B.C, following the defeat of a revolt led by the inhabitants of nearby Falerii Veteres (now Civita Castellana). The fortified city of Falerii Novi in Lazio, Italy, was inhabited until the 7th century B.C, when it was abandoned and, more or less forgotten, lying buried beneath agricultural fields and olive groves.

“According to one source, 12th-century chronicler Zonaras, Rome forcibly resettled the defeated Faliscans to a less defensible location — Falerii Novi or “new Falerii.” Its construction, intimately associated with the Roman road Via Amerina, is a rare example of preserved Roman Republican urban planning.

The city was occupied through Roman antiquity and the early medieval period (6th and 7th centuries C.E.). It was on a key strategic trading route leading north from Rome, perhaps from Ponte Milvio, through central Italy.

We know little of its later history, except that the still-standing church of Santa Maria di Falleri was founded by Benedictines in 1036, disbanded in 1392, and the building was in ruins by 1571. It is now largely restored with excavated Roman roads visible beneath the floor.

Credit: Verdonck et al., Antiquity

When and how Falerii Novi became buried remains a mystery. How did such a large walled city become covered in so much soil? And what happened in late antiquity to cause its abandonment?” 1

In 2020, archeologists from the University of Cambridge and Ghent announced a detailed ground-penetrating radar mapping survey that resulted in finding a huge ancient underground city.

The Roman city discovered using radar was unlike anything seen before. Covering an area of approximately 30 hectares and being just under half the size of Pompeii, the town consisted of a bath complex, market, temple, a public monument, and a sprawling network of water pipes.

The ancient city discovered by the researchers was Falerii Novi, but the site was much too large to be excavated. Fortunately, high-resolution 3D images of buried structures allowed scientists to travel back in time and better understand what this place once looked like.

The GPS survey revealed “revealed previously unrecorded public buildings, such as a temple, a macellum or market building, and a bath complex. While these buildings fall within the expected repertoire of a Roman city, some are architecturally sophisticated—more elaborate than would usually be expected in a small town. More unexpected were two enormous structures adjacent to the walls. Immediately to the east of the north gate is an enclosure defined on three sides by a substantial portions duplex (covered passageway with a central row of columns) approximately 90 × 40m in size, opening onto the street. A pair of structures, each with a central niche, face each other within the interior of the complex.” 2

In their science study, the researchers explained they were not familiar with a direct parallel to this structure, but it was a public monument

The church of Santa Maria di Falleri in 1972. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to the scientists, one of the most incredible structures discovered during this survey was, without doubt, a colossal structure, over 100 meters long, thought to be a colonnaded temple against the north city wall.

The discovery of the ancient underground city of Falerii Novi is significant because understanding the earliest development of towns in Italy during this period is central to any comprehension of Roman imperialism itself. However, as Professor Martin Millett also explained,” the earliest phases of these cities, many of which have continued in occupation until today, lie deeply buried beneath later structures.” 3

The discovery of the ancient underground city of Falerii Novi emphasizes the importance of ground-penetrating radar mapping survey in the field of archaeology.

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