All Roads Lead to Venice

Newly Discovered Roman Road Found on the Floor of the Venetian Lagoon



Last week, archaeologists announced the discovery of an old Roman road, remnants of docks, and indications of large buildings, sitting on the bottom of the Venetian lagoon. Romans left the Veneto, the Province which includes the lagoon and the contemporary city of Venice by 475 A.D. as their Empire fell apart, so this road is important because it is concrete evidence of stable and active life in the lagoon before that time. Beyond taking in the idea that human artifacts can survive after being submerged for centuries, these finds also poke a giant hole in the traditional story of the very founding of the city Venice.


Every guidebook to Venice tells the same story — the city was established when barbarians came raging down from the north. These invaders arrived brandishing clubs, screaming and yelling, and then chased the freighted people who lived on the mainland that surrounds the vast Venetian lagoon into the water for safety. According to this story, these cowering survivors then built a new life in that watery expanse, erecting lean-tos for shelter and surreptitiously fishing for food as they cowered on unstable sandy islets. These freighted exiles, as the story goes, eventually evolved into the flourishing trade nation called The Republic of Venice.

This mythological story has been repeated so often in travel guides, Venetian history books written by non-Venetians, and told to tourists as they stand in Piazza San Marco, that most visitors accept it as fact. But there is little evidence that this we-survived-barbarians-and-thrived story is real. The myth survives because it’s a good story, and it serves the purpose of making Venetians a population with a special history. Such origin myths are essential for any group coming together as a community because they make for a unified identity which in turn fosters working collaboratively to make sure the community survives and thrives. In that sense, the barbarian story works well. It makes the early Venetians heroes — ok, they fled, but they survived in the “harsh conditions” of the lagoon because they were made of tough stuff.

But the idea that barbarians were responsible for scaring people into the lagoon which in turn gave birth to Venice has no basis in fact. The only part that can be substantiated is that barbarians did pass through Northern Italy and overran towns on the mainland set on the edge of the lagoon. Atilla the Hun stopped by in 435 A.D., the Visigoths in 500 A.D., and the Lombards in 588 A.D., but how locals reacted is unknown. Maybe the hoards did kill and pillage, but they didn’t conquer, nor did they settle down and infiltrate and rule the locals. These intruders weren’t interested in empire building, only in taking resources, which surely they did. But whoever might have picked up and run into the water could easily have gone back to their holdings because the invaders quickly moved on. More telling, the archaeology of the city of Venice, surrounding islands, and the lagoon show that humans were already living permanently across lagoon islands long before the barbarians visited. These established lagoon dwellers are the ancestors of today’s Venice, and apparently, they had a nice road.

The Venetian lagoon is not the easiest place for archeological studies. Obviously, anything buried long ago on the various islands would be subjected to water damage and decomposition. Shifting tides, rising sea levels, and disappearing islands also make this area an archeological nightmare. But over the years, and with improving archeological techniques, there have been exciting discoveries that paint the real picture of the founding of Venice.

The island of Torcello, northwest of central Venice, was the first fully inhabited communal place in the lagoon, as the discovery of a tile walkway. On top of that walkway is evidence of small wood-framed houses built on tile and stone footings, and those houses had cooking hearths and pebble walkways. This community dates from 500 A.D. There are also walls inside the standing church on Torcello that date to the 5th century. People running from barbarians don’t stop to build permanent housing and sidewalks on unfamiliar land, nor do they build a stone church on the run.

To the northeast of today’s Venice, archaeologist Albert Ammerman and his team found parts of a small wooden boat 2.8 meters below ground level on the island of San Francesco del Deserto. The fragments of the boat date from 425–550 A.D. Nine inches below that boat are also remnants of a wharf that is presumably even older.

 Ammerman also took core samples under the Venetian church San Lorenzo which sits in the middle of modern Venice, and those cores revealed bits of brick, mortar, slag, tile, and pottery, all permanent building materials dated to 550 A.D. The stratigraphy of all these sites also shows that building was often done on landfills which meant these early people were already reconfiguring the lagoonal islands for their use as far back as 425 A.D.; they already considered these islands their home and were renovating and expanding their holdings. At that point, Rome was a fading power, and Byzantium in the East had the right to rule the Venetian lagoon but left it alone. In fact, in 466 A.D. the island dwellers formed a collective government structure and based it in the city of Grado on the mainland at the northern end of the lagoon.

The recently identified Roman road is significant not only because of its date but also because that road was clearly part of a network of Roman roads that brought goods from the Adriatic to the mainland and beyond. At that time, the area of the road was not under water and the paving stones had been placed on dry land. Today that area is a well-traveled water channel.

These discoveries point to only one scenario — people lived successfully in the lagoon long before the barbarians showed up. That means the uniqueness of Venice is not based on some myth that ancient Veneti people ran and hid in the lagoon and eventually made a new life for themselves. Instead, they should be admired for figuring out how to adapt to a water-and-island-based life, taking advantage of the vast recourses the lagoon provided. The Venetian lagoon was a paradise of abundance that could be exploited, managed, and harvested if you knew how to row a boat.

Venice was not created out of fear, or as a hiding place. It was, instead, born as a lifestyle in a lagoon that was paradise.


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