Rome’s Ancient Via Tiburtina: From Neolithic Shepherds to Roma Gypsy Camps

An illegal Roma gypsy camp might be one of the last places you’d expect to find yourself on an expedition in search of an ancient Roman bridge. But this is what happened to Professor Hans Bjur and his colleagues as they were researching their project on the historical and modern context of one of Rome’s oldest roads.

As they made their way through a more neglected corner of Rome’s Ponte Mammolo suburb, they followed the directions to where the bridge should have stood, only to find themselves in the midst of a temporary settlement. While the Swedish researchers were the object of some scrutiny from the camp they had stumbled upon, Professor Bjur and his team were also fascinated to find a modern community living at the very site of the ruin they had come to examine.

For one thing it was colourful proof that the old via Tiburtina was far from a relic it still has life in it, on it and around it, which is one of the main themes of their book, Via Tiburtina Space, Movement and Artefacts in the Urban Landscape, officially launched in Rome on Friday.

A Road With History

The via Tiburtina runs from Rome’s city centre all the way to Tivoli once the residence of the emperor Hadrian. It was a key road for communications as well as transport during imperial Rome. Mounted messengers would have galloped up and down it, while blocks of travertine may also have been transported from the quarries near Tivoli into the mushrooming city (bigger blocks may have been shipped down the Aniene river to Rome).

The origins of the road lie far beyond the Roman civilisation. In earlier neolithic times, the route would have been used by nomadic cultures who lived off their herds of sheep or goats. They would drive them down from the Appenine hills (beyond Tivoli) to pasture on the flat landscape near the Tiber. This transhumance would have been a ritual act repeated with the seasons.

A Blueprint for Interdisciplinary Heritage Studies

The book, co-edited by Professor Barbro Santillo Frizell (director of the Swedish Institute in Rome) and Professor Bjur (a specialist in urban planning and design at the University of Gothenburg), was launched to the international market with a seminar held at the Swedish Institute in Rome on Friday, 11 December. A panel of four speakers were invited to give an appraisal, moderated by the University of Gothenburg’s Professor Ola Wetterberg (head of the Conservation Department).

The panel’s speakers were Graham Fairclough from English Heritage, Maria Margarita Segarra Lagunes from Universit Roma Tre, Paolo Liverani from the University of Florence and Gert-Jan Burgers from the Dutch Institute in Rome. They each gave their own reactions and thoughts on the book, which embodies seven years of interdisciplinary research involving 11 scholars with backgrounds in archaeology, ancient history, architecture, urban design and planning, conservation and art history.

The panel all agreed the book is innovative and a good springboard for further work. Its interdisciplinary approach went further than putting together chapters written by scholars from different backgrounds. The researchers would sit down and physically write together an approach the team found challenging. It required them to re-examine their own professional assumptions and to find a lingua franca to express their ideas clearly, free from their own faculty’s jargon. The team believes their project provides a blueprint for future interdisciplinary projects and approaches to studying and conserving heritage.

Questions on Heritage

Many topical questions about heritage preservation and perception are raised by the book, many of them discussed in detail by the experts at Friday’s seminar. Some of these questions include:

  • Changing Identities: Via Tiburtina is an example of heritage that has lost its identity having been transformed from a vital artery route between the two power hubs of Rome and Tibur (Tivoli’s name during Roman times), it is now a sprawling and mixed urban and industrial area, described by the team as ‘urban soup’.

  • Professional v. Local: The book touches on the subject of heritage management, and whether heritage sites should be managed by national/international organizations, or by local groups the argument being that since the heritage sites are placed within communities, then it is up to those people to look after the site as they see fit. The professional v. local argument is discussed in the third section of the book. English Heritage’s Graham Fairclough noted: Landscape is common it’s owned by the community, everyone shares it and is responsible for it.

  • Movement: Via Tiburtina is about movement in landscape. Buildings and monuments are disposable many of them go up and come down even within our lifetimes. Roads and boundaries remain. Geert-Jan Burgers said: The book offers new innovative ideas on heritage, which doesn’t just include artefacts and monuments, but also considers networks and the movement of people.

  • Contemporary Archaeology: The book is as much about the present and future as about the past. It gives an ‘integrated’ view of time. Mr Fairclough argued that ancient heritage sites are also contemporary because they exist now and they reflect our own culture as well as the culture of those who built them.

  • Changes: It’s inevitable that our landscape, and therefore the landscape of heritage sites, changes over time. So are we preserving heritage (which implies an element of keeping it static), or are we managing change?

  • Landscape: Mr Fairclough said that the book raised interesting questions about landscape and what we think our landscape is. To most people it might mean a pretty view of natural countryside. But it can also include the urban landscape, roads and industry. Landscape also changes with the seasons, with the time of day, with the decades/centuries/millennia. It also changes according to who you are and what you see.

  • People: Perhaps landscape is an idea, rather than a tangible ‘thing’. Because landscape changes according to people’s perceptions, to protect the landscape, you also need to protect the people who live there. Modern housing is often built along Roman roads or Medieval field boundaries.

The book was a collaboration between the University of Gothenburg and the Swedish Institute in Rome. The contributing authors on the book were Mir Azimzadeh, Hans Bjur, Olof Brandt, Barbro Santillo Frizell, Kristina Hellerstrm, Hkan Hkerberg, Allan Klynne, Katri Lisitzin, Brje Magnusson, Simon Malmberg and Jonathan Westin.

Via Tiburtina Space, Movement and Artefacts in the Urban Landscape is available to buy from the Swedish Institute in Rome. For more information contact: Swedish Insitute, Via Omero 14, 00197 Roma, Italy; +39 06 320 1966; or

Photos by B Knowles and the University of Gothenburg.