A step from where Julius Caesar was killed, in via delle Botteghe Oscure, there is the Balbi Crypt, a site that has been deeply investigated by a group of passionate and talented archaeologists between the 1980s and 1990s.
Balbi Crypt was a colonnade connected to the smallest theater of Rome built by Lucius Cornelius Balbo in 13 B.C.
The theater now lies under the Mattei Palaces; the area of the Crypt was wisely purchased by the Italian State and revealed the rich and changing life of the city of Rome through a remarkable amount of marbles and artifacts from different centuries.
A significant portion of the imposing perimetric wall of the Crypt is still standing, with its big travertine blocks and half columns falling after the earthquake in 847 AD, patiently recomposed piece by piece.
Under the IV century floor, there are other levels to discover: the ancient foundation wall of the nearby Porticus Minucia, an office used in ancient times to distribute wheat to the Romans freely. Still, today Romans are questioned: 'Are you a Roman from Rome?'.
Few know that this comes from the ancient right of the Romans born within the city walls of free distribution of wheat.
In the Middle Ages, leaning on the external wall of the Crypt, the few citizens who survived the barbarian invasions started to build huts; then, as the level of life improved, they were replaced by houses and palaces whose sewage system can still be seen. Meanwhile, the building which once connected the Crypt to the Porticus Minucia was decaying, and a street called via delle Botteghe Oscure (the street of dark shops) took its place.
The most exciting part of the Crypt is the Exedra. Liberated from the above modern houses, the Exedra was known theoretically by the specialists through the Forma Urbis, a huge ancient marble map of Rome built at the time of Septimius Severus and preserved only in a few parts. One of these parts shows exactly this semicircular part of the crypt.
Hadrian transformed the Exedra into a luxury public toilet that could comfortably house 40 people; after the fall of the Roman Empire, the area was filled by the 'Calcare,' kilns to transform the ancient statues into cement for the new constructions. The archaeologists found two bodies buried in the ancient toilet system in this area. The population could not leave the city during sieges, and the remains of a donkey were killed during an earthquake by the sudden roof falling.
The Exedra was later connected with a monastery named Church of Santa Maria Domine Rosae and partly transformed into a praefurnium (oven) to heat the air and create a steam room to restore the tired pilgrims and the priests hosted in the monastery. The Balneum (private bath) dates XI century, but it is based on the bath system of the Ancient Romans.
The Jesuits later enlarged and transformed the Church into an Institution to save the 'Miserable Virgins' from prostitution.
Behind the Exedra, outside the crypt, a very well preserved ancient street divides some insulae (apartment blocks) transformed in the IV century into a domus (rich house) and, after the fall of the Roman Empire, into a fullonica, a shop to dye color in the fabrics. The place did not have a good smell then, so to fix the colors, they used urine.
On display in the above museum is an incredible amount of materials that prove the changes of this strategic point of Rome: pottery, jewelry, working instruments, and amazing graphic reconstructions.
A less known site that helps to drag the Middle Ages out from the Darkness.
The area is full of nice restaurants close to the Jewish ghetto and the Pantheon.
Don't miss the map of the Balbi Crypt on the window facing via Caetani, which gives you an idea of the position of ancient buildings in relation to the new ones.
Along the via delle Botteghe Oscure you will also find two columns from the temple of the Nymphs, which was once in the center of the Porticus Minucia. Also, those columns had to be re-erected as they were found on the ground fallen during an earthquake hidden by the new constructions.
I would recommend visiting this site on Saturday and Sunday when the most exciting part, the Exedra, is open to the public, at 10.45, 11.45, 12.45; 14.45, 15.45, 16.45. Always check the openings time as they can change.
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