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Crypta Balbi

Crypta Balbi


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Theater of Balbus and the "Crypta Balbi" (Rome)

In 13 BC, proconsul Lucius Cornelius Balbus (minor) built the Theatre of Balbus in the Campus Martius of Rome, likely from the spoils of a military campaign by order of Augustus (Cassius Dio 54.18.2 Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Pliny) 36.59-60).

Very little is mentioned of the theatre in ancient writings. It's location was debated for decades until pieces of the Forma Urbis were finally pieced together in the 1960's. Excavations of the theatre began in 1981 and are still ongoing, however, the main portion of the crypta finished in 2000. Today what has been excavated can be seen at the Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi (National Museum of Rome), which is located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure, 31, (corner of Via M. Caetani).

The museum is located in what was the crpta or courtyard in the rear of the theater's complex behind the stage. This courtyard was the smallest of all of Rome's major theatres. Here patrons would stroll between acts of a performance and seek refreshments much like a modern theatre's main lobby.


In 13 BC, proconsul Lucius Cornelius Balbus (minor) built the Theatre of Balbus in the Campus Martius of Rome, likely from the spoils of a military campaign by order of Augustus (Cassius Dio 54.18.2 Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Pliny) 36.59-60).

In 1981, digging on a derelict city-centre site in the Campus Martius between the churches of Santa Caterina dei Funari and San Stanislao dei Polacchi, Daniel Manacorda and his team discovered the colonnaded quadriporticus of the Theatre of Lucius Cornelius Balbus, the nearby statio annonae and evidence of later, medieval occupation of the site. These are presented in this branch, inaugurated in 2001, which houses the archaeological remains and finds from that dig (including a stucco arch from the porticus).

As well as new material from the excavations, objects in this museum come from

* the collections of the former Kircherian Museum
* the Gorga and Betti collections
* numismatic material from the Gnecchi collections and the collection of Vittorio Emanuele III of Savoia,
* collections from the Roman Forum, in particular a fresco and marble architrave from the late-1930s Fascist deconstruction of the medieval church of Sant'Adriano in the Curia senatus.
* Museum of the Palazzo Venezia
* the Capitoline Museums
* the communal Antiquarium of Rome
* frescoes removed in 1960 from the church of Santa Maria in Via Lata

The archaeological remains, guided by a member of museum staff.

The first section ("Archaeology and history of an urban landscape") presents the results of the excavations, and puts them in the context of the history of the area. As well as the remains from the site itself, this section also tells of the Monastero di Santa Maria Domine Rose (begun nearby in the 8th century), of medieval merchants' and craftsmen's homes, of the Conservatorio di Santa Caterina dei Funari (built in the mid-16th century by Ignatius of Loyola to house the daughters of Roman prostitutes) and of the Botteghe Obscura.

A second section (" Rome from antiquity to the middle ages.") is the Museum of Medieval Rome and illustrates the life and transformations of Rome as a whole between the 5th and 10th centuries AD.


Contents

Founded in 1889 and inaugurated in 1890, the museum's first aim was to collect and exhibit archaeologic materials unearthed during the excavations after the union of Rome with the Kingdom of Italy.

The initial core of its collection originated from the Kircherian Museum, archaeologic works assembled by the antiquarian and Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher, which previously had been housed within the Jesuit complex of Sant'Ignazio. The collection was appropriated by the state in 1874, after the suppression of the Society of Jesus. Renamed initially as the Royal Museum, the collection was intended to be moved to a Museo Tiberino (Tiberine Museum), which was never completed.

In 1901 the Italian state granted the National Roman Museum the recently acquired Collection Ludovisi as well as the important national collection of Ancient Sculpture. Findings during the urban renewal of the late 19th century added to the collections.

In 1913, a ministerial decree sanctioned the division of the collection of the Museo Kircheriano among all the different museums that had been established over the last decades, such as the National Roman Museum, the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia and the Museum of Castel Sant'Angelo.

Its seat was established in the charterhouse designed and realised in the 16th century by Michelangelo within the Baths of Diocletian, which currently houses the epigraphic and the protohistoric sections of the modern museum, while the main collection of ancient art was moved to the nearby Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, acquired by the Italian state in 1981.

The reconversion of the area of the ancient bath/charterhouse into an exhibition space began on the occasion of the International Exhibition of Art of 1911 this effort was completed in the 1930s.

History of the building Edit

The palace was built on the site once occupied by the Villa Montalto-Peretti, named after Pope Sixtus V, who had been born Francesco Peretti. The present building was commissioned by Prince Massimiliano Massimo, so as to give a seat to the Jesuit Collegio Romano, originally within the convent of the church of Sant'Ignazio. In 1871, the Collegio had been ousted from the convent by the government which converted it into the Liceo Visconti, the first public secular high school of Italy. Erected between 1883 and 1887 by the architect Camillo Pistrucci in a neo-cinquecentesco style, it was one of the most prestigious schools of Rome until 1960. During World War II, it was partially used as a military hospital, but it then returned to scholastic functions until the 1960s, when the school was moved to a newer seat in the EUR quarter.

In 1981, lying in a state of neglect, the Italian government acquired it for 19 billion lire and granted it to the National Roman Museum. Its restoration and adaptation began in 1983 and was completed in 1998. The palazzo eventually became the main seat of the museum as well as the headquarters of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma (Agency of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities of Italy, in charge for the archaeological heritage of Rome). The museum houses the ancient art (sculpture, painting, mosaic work and goldsmith's craft from the Republican Age to the Late Antiquity) as well as the numismatic collection, housed in the Medagliere, i.e. the coin cabinet.

Ground floor and first floor Edit

The ground floor features the notable bronze statues of the Boxer at Rest and the Athlete.

One room is devoted to the mummy that was found in 1964 on the Via Cassia, inside a richly decorated sarcophagus with several artefacts in amber and pieces of jewellery also on display. Sculptures of the period between the late Roman Republic and the early imperial period (2nd century BC to 1st century AD), include

Second floor Edit

Frescoes, stuccoes and mosaics, including those from the villa of Livia, wife of Augustus, at Prima Porta on the Via Flaminia. It begins with the summer triclinium of Livia's Villa ad Gallinas Albas. The frescoes, discovered in 1863 and dating back to the 1st century BC, show a luscious garden with ornamental plants and pomegranate trees.

Basement Edit

The Museum's numismatic collection is the largest in Italy. Among the coins on exhibit are Theodoric’s medallion, the four ducats of Pope Paul II with the navicella of St Peter, and the silver piastre of the Pontifical State with views of the city of Rome.

History of the building Edit

The building was designed in the 15th century by Melozzo da Forlì for Girolamo Riario, a relation of Pope Sixtus IV. There is still a fresco on one wall of the rooms in the palazzo that celebrates the wedding of Girolamo to Caterina Sforza in 1477, showing the silver plates and other wedding gifts given to the couple. When the Riario family began to decline after the death of Pope Sixtus IV, the palazzo was sold to Cardinal Francesco Soderini of Volterra, who commissioned further refinements from the architects Sangallo the Elder and Baldassarre Peruzzi.

When the Soderini family fell on hard times, he in turn sold it in 1568 to the Austrian-born cardinal Mark Sittich von Hohenems Altemps, the son of the sister of Pope Pius IV. Cardinal Altemps commissioned the architect Martino Longhi to expand and improve the palazzo it was Longhi who built the belvedere. Cardinal Altemps accumulated a large collection of books and ancient sculpture. Though his position as the second son in his family meant Marco Sittico Altemps became a cleric, he was not inclined to priesthood. His mistress bore him a son, Roberto, made Duke of Gallese. Roberto Altemps was executed for adultery in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V.

The Altemps family continued to mix in the circles of Italian nobility throughout the 17th century. Roberto's granddaughter Maria Cristina d'Altemps married Ippolito Lante Montefeltro della Rovere, Duke of Bomarzo.

The Palazzo Altemps became the property of the Holy See in the 19th century, and the building was used as a seminary for a short time. It was granted to the Italian state in 1982 and after 15 years of restoration, inaugurated as a museum in 1997.

Collections Edit

The palazzo houses the museum's exhibits on the history of collecting (sculptures from Renaissance collections such as the Boncompagni-Ludovisi and Mattei collections, including the Ludovisi Ares, Ludovisi Throne, and the Suicide of a Gaul (from the same Pergamon group as the Dying Gaul) and the Egyptian collection (sculptures of eastern deities). The palace also includes the historic private theatre, at present used to house temporary exhibitions, and the church of Sant' Aniceto.

History of the building Edit

In 1981, digging on a derelict site in the Campus Martius between the churches of Santa Caterina dei Funari and Santo Stanislao dei Polacchi, Daniel Manacorda and his team discovered the colonnaded quadriporticus of the Theatre of Lucius Cornelius Balbus, the nearby statio annonae and evidence of later, medieval occupation of the site. These are presented in this branch of the museum, inaugurated in 2001, which houses the archaeological remains and finds from that dig (including a stucco arch from the porticus).

Collections Edit

As well as new material from the excavations, objects in this exhibition space come from

  • the collections of the former Kircherian Museum
  • the Gorga and Betti collections material from the Gnecchi collections and the collection of Victor Emmanuel III of Savoy
  • collections from the Roman Forum, in particular a fresco and marble architrave from the late-1930s Fascist deconstruction of the medieval church of Sant'Adriano in the Curia senatus.
  • Museum of the Palazzo Venezia
  • the Capitoline Museums
  • the communal Antiquarium of Rome
  • frescoes removed in 1960 from the church of Santa Maria in Via Lata.

Basement Edit

The building's basement contains archaeological remains. Access is only by guided tour.

Ground floor Edit

The first section ("archaeology and history of an urban landscape") presents the results of the excavations, and puts them in the context of the history of the area. As well as showing the remains from the site itself, this section also tells of the Monastero di Santa Maria Domine Rose (begun nearby in the 8th century), of medieval merchants' and craftsmen's homes, of the Conservatorio di Santa Caterina dei Funari (built in the mid-16th century by Ignatius of Loyola to house the daughters of Roman prostitutes) and of the Botteghe Oscure.

First floor Edit

A second section ("Rome from Antiquity to the Middle Ages") is the Museum of Medieval Rome and illustrates the life and transformation of Rome between the 5th and 10th centuries AD.



The artifacts in the museum, meanwhile, are actually much more extensive than I’d expected, with artifacts like the Forma Urbis Romae, a 60-by-45-foot marble map of the city that Emperor Septimius Severus mounted in the Forum to help 3rd-century visitors to the city. (Today, obviously, only fragments remain. But it’s still cool to see).

How can you not love the map of the theaters of Pompeo, Balbus and Marcellus with the Tiber river and the surrounding neighborhoods? With this map in mind, try to find the ruins of these structures during your walks in Rome.

Here’s a scene depicting the distribution of wheat to free citizens of Rome in the Porticus Minucia.

Here’s an illustration that shows the juxtaposition of the ancient Porticus Minucia and the modern Via dell Botteghe Oscure.

I find this layering of the city fascinating. The urban landscape changed almost completely during the last two millennia. Yet, you can see remains of the past scattered around everywhere in the old center of Rome. This is one of the reasons why 2, 3 or even 6 days in Rome are not enough to see everything in this impressive city.

Crypta Balbi is also one of the museums in Rome where you can go underground to see the ruins of ancient aqueducts and catacombs. On a hot summer day, you’ll have the opportunity to chill and to recharge your batteries for the afternoon.

Here’s a fragment of the original aqueduct in the theater of Balbo. You don’t have to be an engineer to marvel at the ingeniousness of those builders and architects. Can you see how those segments were shaped to secure the insulation of the aqueduct?

These are only a few reasons why I love Crypta Balbi so much. It manages to depict the life of Romans throughout centuries. It tells the story of generations of people who lived here. It allows us to take a glimpse into their day to day life and habits. You can see even some of the board games they used to play thousands of years ago.

There are also lots of other daily use items, coins, and fashion accessories.

When you’ll go outside, you’ll see all those ruins in Rome in a new light. Rome gives “recycling” a whole new meaning. In this society, nothing gets lost. Just like Castel Sant’ Angelo has been a tomb, a military fortress and a papal residence, the other buildings in Rome were repurposed to fit new functions over and over again to this day.

I always hated history, and yet I’ve spent about two hours in the museum of Crypta Balbi. If I were to tell you three things to see in Rome if you don’t have time for anything else, I’d say Crypta Balbi, Ostia Antica and Palazzo Altemps with the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus.


Crypta Balbi museum

students exploring an active archaeological site, where some of the remains of the Theater of Balbus are being discovered

It has been pointed out to me that certain classes get more coverage and attention on this blog than others, and one of the classes that many people truly regret not signing up for and which isn’t apparently getting too covered here, is Jan’s class entitled “topography and urban history of Rome in antiquity and the middle ages”. Jan Gadeyne is teaching at too many universities to count (at the same time), with a PhD in archaeology and ancient art history, he from time to time appears in a documentary about one of the themes he studied, he is an active archaeologist… And there are probably many more facts that I don’t know about Jan.

In short, I will thus be writing today about our visit to the Crypta Balbi Museum which, I think, was at least for myself and some of my colleagues the most eye opening class or museum visit when it comes to understanding Rome. This is due to the fact that Jan’s class is preoccupied mainly by why something like renaissance could even happen and isn’t necessarily just enumerating works. By asking simple questions as “why”and “how” the whole point is to get to the very root of the matter, and then eventually be capable of recognising and making connections between the trees of the forest while making sense of it all. And so in this class one goes to the very roots of Rome, to the famous antiquity of this city, but also the sometimes overlooked and understudied early and late middle ages that are after all in many ways an incredibly important preface to then renaissance, which from at least my own point of view is perhaps more of an echo of the past with many modern additions.

With Jan’s enthusiasm and ever present good mood, we thus set out to explore the Crypta Balbi Museum. With a clear, structured and straight to the point discourse we went through the whole museum, uncovering the history of the site of the museum, where the Theater of Balbus once stood, and was later overtaken by artisans during the middle ages, compiling layer after layer of history one on top of each other. Visiting the museum and going through the finds excavated from beneath us wasn’t however the crown jewel of the visit. My only assumption is that since Jan is an active archaeologist himself, he obviously knows the circle of archaeologists in Rome, and thus this is not the first time that we gained access to the backstage of an excavation site, making all of the history so much more real and fascinating, all still fuelled by Jan’s measured and non-oppressive enthusiasm and passion for the subject.

We climbed down into the courtyard of the block where the museum is, to experience the more raw and unprocessed excavations, where ancient mosaics from the Theater of Balbus can be seen, with a medieval glass furnace sitting almost on top of it… As mentioned this isn’t the first time that we have visited excavations or active restoration sites that animated the course to a level that is truly unique only to this course at Cornell in Rome, when it comes to history. On another occasion, when we were visiting the Baths of Caracalla, we were also given access and a lecture by Jan about the underground spaces usually closed off to the public.

But perhaps the most exciting visit during one of our classes in the past, was the visit of the Basilica Porta Maggiore which is located many flights of stairs underground, has extremely humid air with little to no ventilation and is still being worked on by archaeologists, and completely inaccessible to the wider public, making it thus once again a truly unique and special experience. One leaves from the class sometimes exhausted, but definitely in a positive manner and rather excited, because given the structure of the course, one carries away from it an extended sense for critical thinking in architectural history, rather than just a number of references.

exploring the excavation site of the Crypta Balbi museum


Crypta Balbi, Rome

Perhaps the most intriguing branch of the National Museum of Rome is Crypta Balbi standing upon the remains of the 13th-century Theater of Balbus. The latter, complete with numerous medieval artifacts filling up three floors, were uncovered during archaeological excavations. They say the best way to explore this museum is by working one's way upward, starting from the basement, walking through dark passageways amid the theater's ancient columns, checking out, among other remnants of the past, a fragment of an ancient depot once used for stocking grains collected from the nearby farms.

The museum displays images of Rome, the way it looked from the very beginning up until the present day, as well as artifacts attributed to various historical periods - pottery, fragments of glass, seals, ivory, collections of coins and precious stones, plus Medieval frescoes, marble slabs, and many others. Those in love with archaeology will find this museum particularly interesting, especially the 3D reproductions of Roman buildings from different ages.

Why You Should Visit:
An extremely interesting site for the story of the stratification of the city it tells.
You can see all of the layers of Rome's development history in cross-section.
An excellent relaxing way to get one's mind around life in ancient Rome.

Tip:
A ticket to Crypta Balbi also grants access to three other branches of the National Museum of Rome, namely: Palazzo Massimo, Baths of Diocletian, and Palazzo Altemps. The ticket is valid for three days and is a true value for money.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 9am-7:30pm

Want to visit this sight? Check out these Self-Guided Walking Tours in Rome . Alternatively, you can download the mobile app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from iTunes App Store or Google Play. The app turns your mobile device to a personal tour guide and it works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.


Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class centred on the old ‘Pirenne thesis’, the work of the turn of the 19th/20th-century Belgian historian Henri Pirenne arguing that the Islamic conquests broke up the trade networks of the Mediterranean and that this, rather than any political epiphenomenon like when there were emperors where, was what really constituted the end of the Roman world. 1 I use Pirenne as a lever to open up questions like how we determine the end of historical eras and how historians debate and evidence really large-scale arguments, and these days it works OK, but as I recounted in that post, I have always struggled to find a good primary source with which to teach it. The translation of an infamous and probably forged royal toll charter for the monastery of Corbie which I currently use is working OK, but what I initially wanted&mdashand, as that post says, found doesn’t exist&mdashwas a clear but reasonably detailed account in English of the ceramic finds at the Crypta Balbi in Rome, largely because it was with those that someone first got through to me about me this stuff. 2 So when I and my partner’s family actually went there in summer 2017, I did my best to equip myself with means to make my own teaching tool.

We should probably start with what the Crypta Balbi actually is. 3 Firstly, it is not a crypt, which I realise may not be obvious. What it was was a theatre, built by one Balbus in the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), with a considerable attached building around a courtyard, which is the so-called Crypta.

Reconstrucion maquette of the Roman crypta, theatre visible behind the courtyard

The area caught fire in AD 80, however, and subsequently bits of the damaged complex served numerous different roles, including (ironically) a possible base of the Roman fire brigade, a monumental public latrine, grain distribution centre, temple and, most importantly, a substantial private house built over the lowest levels of the old crypta. By the fifth century, the complex had been hedged in by private housing and a new road along one edge, across from which a monastery of San Lorenzo was established.

Remains of a column from the Theatre of Balbus or the original Crypta Balbi

By the 6th century, though, skipping over quite a lot of imperial history, times had changed. 4 Rome had been cut off from its tax spine by the Vandal conquest of Carthage in 439, the emperors now ruled either from Ravenna or Constantinople or both, and the old imperial capital had shrunk considerably. Coping with the new circumstances, we find that the occupants of the big house in this generation either sold off or converted parts of the complex for use as workshops and a public kitchen, and indeed in one small tragic place, a double infant burial. (What’s more tragic is that the poor kids’ skeletons are now on display in the Museo, one might think, but never mind that now.) Finally, in 618, there was an earthquake which substantially damaged the place and it seems to have gone out of use, after which some of its old outdoor space seems to have been taken over for use as a burial ground (and indeed possibly an outdoor space) for the monastery of San Lorenzo. That takes the story into the 9th century at least (when another earthquake damaged the ruins still further), and then whatever account I was trying to build from the signage stopped prompting me to take photographs. 5

Stonework probably from the Monastero di San Lorenzo. I really loved the inventive cross-design interlace on the piece at the right.

So how do you make a source out of this, Jonathan, you may justly ask, and the answer is that during all of this time, this place was piling up stuff in considerable quantities. The current Museo is pretty catholic (though not enough to rebury the children, ahaha not funny) about exactly where the stuff it displays came from in some cases, with material from the site being freely mixed in with other material from nearby, but at least the signage does actually make that clear, and the displays that result are pretty impressive.

The main display space of the Museo

I mean, one could just set this single display, as long as one had the captions…

… except that you’d also want this display specifically of stuff made in the local workshops (or stuff like that stuff)…

… and then how could you leave this out?

But when it comes to ceramics, they can afford to work off their own stock more equally, and the reason for this is that pretty much throughout the house’s four-century history, the occupants were dumping whatever ceramics broke, either into small rubbish pits in the rooms concerned, or into a huge big rubbish dump in their own basement (next, as it happens, to an old house Mithraeum which you can also visit).

The famous basement dumping zone, now empty

The apsidal end of the erstwhile Mithraeum

Ceramic remains from the Mithraeum

What that means, of course, is a massive, more or less stratigraphically laid down, deposition history of what ceramics a rich family in Rome could get hold of from the second to the seventh centuries. I mean, one presumes that what they were actually buying was oil, wine, honey, garum (a Worcester-sauce-like condiment) and so on, but since they bought it in amphorae and jugs, presumably alongside other stuff in more perishable containers, what we see is the ceramics. And they are quite a big deal in terms of assessing theses which argue the end of an economic trading system.

An illustrative display of ceramics, one of quite a few in the Museo and showing the kind of density of record we’re talking

You see, we (the collective late antique and early medieval Academy, I mean, not me specifically) are quite good at determining dates and origins of late Roman ceramics. This is partly because of the fact that some of them are actually marked…

Late Roman ceramics, of which though I didn’t take photos to check, apparently&mdashsorry&mdashthe upper register of African Red Slip stuff almost certainly bears hallmarks underneath

… but mainly because of the seminal work of a guy called John Hayes, and the huge edifice since built upon it, to compare piles and piles of the stuff from different places until it became clear which things were being made where and roughly when. 6 And what that means is that you can turn a display like the one above into a display like the one below…

Representative imported ceramics and an origins map

… and then match particular styles of amphora and so on…

Ceramics, mainly storage amphorae, from the erstwhile kitchen

Quite distinct amphorae (I think 3rd-century, from this Dressel chart where I see these as no. 27&mdashbut I don’t know how far that classification has changed, I admit)

… to particular points of origin, and make it clear that these people had access to really quite the spread of goods.

Distribution map by type, showing points of origin

That map in its context, with a comparative one of the 8th-century situation below it

You see, around the beginning of the seventh century, we see a sharp shift. Imported ceramics pretty much cease to be found here, as indeed does coinage.

Coinage display, running from 1st to 7th century and then stopping the last small pile at the right is captioned just "illegibile" Yup, I’ve been there too, Signor Curatore…

It’s not that there’s nothing on site at all, it’s just much more local in origin.

8th-century ceramics, all from Lazio and points immediately south

Display of various 7th- to 9th-century objects

Fancy belt buckles, which as we all know only barbarians wore so must mean immigrants, right? Well, no, but nonetheless, they’re not like the dress fastenings of a time before

Now obviously the chronology of this works pretty well if you’re Henri Pirenne or wish him to have been right. At the beginning of the seventh century, the eastern Mediterranean went into a paroxysm of war, first between the Roman Empire and Sasanian Persia and then, still reeling, between both of those two separately and the new religious movement that was Islam, and by the middle of that century, Persia no longer existed, the Romans had lost about half of their territory and Islam ruled from the far eastern edges of Iran to about halfway along the North African coast. 7 And lo, at the beginning of the seventh century the people in the Crypta Balbi stopped receiving imported ceramics. Even the signage in the Museo explains this in terms of the Islamic conquests.

You can maybe read this yourself if you embiggen it, but in case not, the significant bit is four paragraphs up from the bottom, and says:

“Due to the spread of Arab domination over the ancient Roman provinces and the dismissal of the Byzantine officers from Rome, the mechanism of long distance trade stopped.”

So surely this is the time to say quod erat demonstrandum, Pirenne was right? 8 Well, annoyingly for some perhaps, I’m going to say no, or at least, not from the site, and the reason may already be obvious to you. Remember how I said above that this place became part of the area used by the monastery of San Lorenzo after it went out of use, because of an earthquake? That earthquake happened in 618, in the middle of the war between Rome and Persia and sixteen years before Muhammad’s flight to Medina. Wanna bet the house going out of use has something to do with fancy smashed pottery no longer piling up in its basement? I’m not an archaeologist but I’m going to stick my neck out and say there’s probably a connection. And if what we’re actually seeing here, then, is not a strangling of imperial trade networks cancelling the availability of imported goods, but a sudden, abrupt and very singular collapse in demand at one site only, followed by a change of use and maybe ownership at some remove in time, then Pirenne’s is probably not the story this place tells.

Medieval ceramics, waiting to tell their own story

Now, sadly, that also means I probably have to stop trying to make a teaching example out of it, even though others keep doing so. 9 But it has made for a pretty good blog post, if I say so myself, and maybe that can be of use for others.

1. I gave these references last time but it can’t hurt to give them again: Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. Bernard Miall (London 1939) and for a recent historiographical update Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Thesis” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. 184–208.

2. I’m not honestly sure when that was, either I first really learnt about Pirenne when teaching, and I have a feeling that I owe my previous grip on the issue to Chris Wickham’s Trevelyan Lectures in Cambridge in 2003, which would be quite ironic given what Chris thinks of the Pirenne thesis (see his Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 821). But then, for all I now remember, if it was indeed Chris I first heard about it from, he may have been using exactly the argument about the Crypta Balbi that I develop below, in which case, sorry Chris…

3. In what follows I’m resting partly on the Museo’s signage, of which I was careful to take numerous photos, and Daniele Manacorda et al., Crypta Balbi: Museo nazionale romano. English edition, trans. Joanne Berry and Nigel Pollard (Milano 2000), pp. 7-27.

4. Weirdly, this period is hardly covered in Manacorda et al., Crypta Balbi there’s some explanation of the general change in the city, pp. 50-78, but though that looks like a lot it’s mainly pictures and art history stressing that this was not a cultural descent into barbarism, and very little is said about any wider historiography. As will be seen below, this is at sharp variance with the actual museum signage and I wonder if there is some disagreement that explains why I mainly have to rely on it for what happened at the site in this period. Again, it is possible that Signor Dr Manacorda has seen the problem I see below with the Museo’s account, and has had to gloss round it.

5. Here, while the museum signage runs out, Manacorda and colleagues get going again, and Crypta Balbi, pp. 28-47 cover the period from the 9th century to the present day. It’s really just the period for which the site is mostly sited that’s not covered in the narrative…

6. John W. Hayes, Late Roman Pottery (London 1972) there is now a regular conference on Late Roman coarse wares that is where this stuff is happening, and some kind of starting resource here.

7. If this is not a familiar story to you, then the first few chapters of Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025 (Basingstoke 1996), will sort you out.

8. The seminar paper to whose report that link goes now exists, posthumously alas, as Mark Whittow, “Pirenne, Muhammad, and Bohemond: Before Orientalism” in G. E. M. Lippiatt and Jessalynn L. Bird (edd.), Crusading Europe: Essays in Honour of Christopher Tyerman, Outremer: Studies in the Crusades and the Latin East 8 (Turnhout 2019), pp. 17–49, DOI: 10.1484/M.OUTREMER-EB.5.117314.

9. For example, Olof Brandt, “Interpreting the Archaeological Record” in Philip Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford 2009), pp. 156-169 at pp. 160-161, or Simon Loseby, “The Mediterranean Economy” in Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume I: c. 500‒c. 700 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 605–638 at p. 609.


Jerry Stratton, June 21, 2015

I could believe this was a crypt, if it was called “the crypt of…”. (Sailko, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In the May/June issue of Archaeology, Marco Merola describes the uses put to unused shrines after the fall of Rome. Sometimes they were even looted while in use.

They have also uncovered a shrine dating to the second or third century A.D. dedicated to the goddesses Artemis, Aphrodite of Aphrodisias, and Isis, and the gods Meleager and Dionysus. Several centuries later, the shrine was still in use, despite some of its column capitals having been removed and used as tables in nearby homes. Evidence shows that in the years between the seventh and ninth centuries, a shrine to the god Mithras became a stable…

The place is called the Crypta Balbi not because it was a crypt, but “because the colonnaded portico and theater that enclosed the large courtyard made it dark inside even in broad daylight.”

Of course, several centuries later, the locals may not remember why it was called Crypt of Balbus, merely that that is its name, and there must be a reason. Why, the place is cold even in the summer!

If a shrine can become a stable (and isn’t that just begging for the kind of divine retribution that leads to adventures) after a few centuries, what kinds of uses can shrines and temples be put to millennia later? Your border castle wasn’t built on an old burial ground, it is the old burial ground! And the old burial building used to be a temple of Aphrodite.


Address, opening hours and admission

Address: Via delle Botteghe Oscure, 31 – Rome (tel. +39 06 6780167). Opening hours: 09.00 till 19.45. Closed: Monday, January 1, December 25. Admission: 10 Euros (EU citizens age 18-25: 5 Euros any nationality age 0-17: free). Combi-ticket Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi, Terme di Diocleziano: 12 Euros (discount: 6 Euros). There can be a surcharge of 3 Euros in case of special exhibitions.

History and desciption

The original connections and hallways between the buildings were kept intact.

Thanks to the archeological excavations that started in the 80’s and took about 20 years it has been possible to get a good idea of the different building methods through the centuries.

In the Roman times there was a big courtyard with a portico around it, which was connected to the Theater of Balbo. During the middle ages and the Renaissance this courtyard was transformed and became part of the 8th century Monastero di Santa Maria Domine Rose, the 11th century patricians’ houses behind the walls of the Crypta and the 16th century Conservatorio di Santa Caterina dei Funari.

The ground floor of the museum shows the developments in the historical center of Rome, as understood from the excavations, while the 1st floor highlights Roman culture between the 5th and 10th centuries, by showcasing tools used by the artisans of the time.

Except for the artifacts found in the Crypt itself there are also objects found in the Fori Imperiali and on the Colle Oppio and Celio hills.

The important coin collection comprises the Gnecchi and the Vittorio Emanuele III collections.


Watch the video: Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano, Crypta Balbi manortiz (May 2022).