Sardinia at the time of the Roman Empire: the towns

Even though Sardinia had become part of the Roman Empire in 238 BC, until well into the first centuries AD the punic culture and language remained very much alive, for example in institutions like the chosen magistrates for the towns which were still called suffetes (judges) 1. The Romans managed to gain more control over the island than the Punics had ever done and as a consequence the provincia Sardinia romanized more thoroughly in the course of the centuries under Roman rule.

The Romans left their traces in Sardinia, in the orginally phoenician-punic towns and in the newly founded colonies such as Turris Libisonis (Porto Torres), in the network of roads and bridges that connected the towns and in the innumerous archaeological finds that are dated back to the roman periods: statues, inscriptions, milestones, earthenware. In the past decennia underwaterarchaeology has enhanced significantly knowledge of Roman Sardinia: through the excavation of shipwrecks and their cargoes like the one found near the island of Mal di Ventre which was loaded with bars of lead.

The Roman urban culture

Although Roman society was highly ubanized and had a money economy, the foundation of wealth and prestige remained the possession of land. Senators did not occupy themselves with commerce and traders, who could only climb up as high as the knighthood (ordo equester) on the social ladder, invested their money in land as soon as they had accumulated some wealth. Still the town and the forum were the political center of the Roman empire and at the same time the place where the wealthy could enhance their prestige by investing in public buildings, organizing public games and eventually having a statue of themselves placed on the forum. Provincial towns reflected in this the ultimate political center of the empire, Rome. It was basically the strength of the roman system, of the roman civil rights, the social order and the economic prosperity the empire brought, that local elites were bound to and at the same time instrument of Rome's bureaucracy 2. In Sardinia it was no different.

The capital of the provincia Sardinia had become Carales, since 38 BC a municipium Iulium civium Romanorum as a result of the support the town had given to Julius Caesar and Augustus 3. The second important town became the newly founded Colonia Iulia Turris Libisonis (Porto Torres), in the north of Sardinia. Both towns had the largest harbours of the island and from here all kinds of products were shipped directly to Ostia, the main harbour of Rome. The importance of both towns can als be deduced from the mosaics at Ostia that read the texts: Navicularii et Negotiantes Karalitani and Navicularii Turritani, shipowners and traders of Cagliari and shipowners of Turris 4. In these two towns and in the former phoenician-punic towns new buildings were erected in stone and masonry: temples, theatres, baths and even acquaducts to improve the watersupplies. In inland Sardinia new centres became important, like Forum Traiani or the Colonia Uselis (Usellus) and on the eastcoast Olbia facing the Italian peninsula was to become another important harbour.

Roman urban architecture

The political and economical center of the Roman town was the forum, the marketplace. Around this forum statues of important magistrates were placed and in the buildings facing the forum goods were traded and public hearings or debates took place. In Nora the forum is still visible although it is stripped of all statues and surrounding buildings. In Tharros the forum is less obvious and archaeologists suspect it was located between the area of the two columns and the baths of the Convento Vecchio, based on inscriptions found in that area. In Fordongianus the forum was located next to the baths, near the river Tirso 5.

In the towns the baths (Thermae) were the most prominent buildings, sometimes with monumental aspects, often with two or more floors, built in brick or in natural stone, and mainly dating back to the second and third century AD. Very suggestive are the baths of Forum Traiani (Fordongianus) where natural hot water was used that springs from the the vulcanic underground and which was mixed with cold water from another spring nearby. The oldest part of the baths are built with trachite stones, the newer parts in brick and cement (opus vittatum mixtum) 6. In Nora there are even four different bathing complexes, the largest is the Terme a Mare and lies nearest to the shore. The division of the building in atrium, apodyterium, frigidarium,tepidarium and calidarium is still visible. In Nora you can also see how richly decorated these baths must have been, with mosaics on the floor and the walls covered with marble 7. In Tharros the largest baths are those of the Terme di Convento Vecchio, and as the name suggests, in later times it became a convent until Tharros was abandoned 8. The baths played a very important role in Roman social life, here people met and talked business and gossip.

The largest (amphi-)theatre in Sardinia is that of Cagliari (Caralis), carved out of the rock in a hillside. Even nowadays it is still used for shows and performances. The theatre of Nora is the best preserved, the lower part of the seats and the semicircular cavea are still intact. Of the scaena (scene) only the foundations are left, here a large jar that would have served to amplify the voices of the actors is still in place. The theatre was built in the first century BC and restructured in later centuries 9.

In Tharros the amphitheatre would have been located on the hill of Su Muru Mannu. There are still traces of a large ellips shaped building near the phoenician-punic tophet that by that time had been dismantled 10.

The monumental temples of Nora and Tharros were built in the Roman period on the place of the former punic temples. In Nora the most interesting temple is that of Eshmun/Esculapius, the god of healing. The detail of the division of the apsis in two separate rooms reveals the punic origin in the temple architecture 11. Next to the theatre in Nora a Roman temple is located and on the central hill there are still the remains of a temple dedicated to Tanit. In the towncentre Tharros the foundations of two temples are visible: the tempio monumentale and the tempio a pianta di tipo semitico 12. It is difficult to say whether these temples were dedicated to Roman deities. Whether an Augusteum was present near the forum of either Nora or Tharros is not known. The Augusteum was a temple dedicated to the cult of the Roman emperor and could be found in every Roman town with the status of municipium.

The temple of Antas is an example of a temple built in a non-urban context. This temple had been in origin erected by the punics and dedicated to the god of the Sards. It was rebuilt by the Romans in a latin style. The Romans called the god of the Sards Sardus Pater and assimilated the deity to that of Hercules. In the same way as the punics had done before them the Romans obtained in this way the loyalty of the local tribes that worked in the mines 13.

During the Roman period watersupplies were continued to be kept in the punic waterbassins (bagnarola). However the Romans in addition built also aqcuaducts for some of the towns. In Tharros the remains of a 580 meters long acquaduct are still visible outside the town. It was used to fill the Castellum Acquae in the centre of the town with water from a well just outside the town 14. In Nora and Tharros the Romans repaved the roads with basalt slabs and improved the sewer systems of the towns.

Houses and workshops were still mainly built in punic or north-african style, opus africanum, where the space between large rectangular stones placed at some distance from each other were filled with smaller stones and plastered 15. In Nora there are also the remains of a few patrician houses with relatively well preserved mosaic floors and impluvium with four columns (tetrastylium) at the center like a kind of small garden 16. Much of the town planning has been preserved in Nora and Tharros because these were abandoned in the middle ages under pressure of the arab raids on Sardinia. Large parts of the townquarters that have been excavated still give some insight in how daily live must have been in these towns.



1 Mastino 2005: p. 214; Mastino 2004: p. 102
2 Wes 1978: p. 286-288
3 Mastino 2005: p. 215
4 Mastino 2005: p. 186; Mastino 2004: p. 108; Finzi 1982: p. 157-158
5 Mastino 2005: p. 260-261 (Tharros); Zucca 1986: p. 28 (Fordongianus); Tronchetti 1986: p. 20 (Nora)
6 Zucca 1986: p. 26
7 Tronchetti 1986: p. 43-51
8 Acquaro 1999: p. 62
9 Mastino 2005: p. 234; Tronchetti 1986: p.23; Finzi 1982: p. 186
10 Mastino 2005: p.266
11 Tronchetti 1986: p. 57-60; Finzi 1982: p. 188
12 Acquaro 1999: p. 56-59
13 Zucca 1989: Il tempio di Antas ; Mastino 2005: p. 408
14 Mastino 2005: p.265; Finzi 1982: p. 144, describes the acquaduct of Cagliari and also Nora would have had a kind of acquaduct (p. 186)
15 Acquaro 1999: p. 64-65 (Tharros); Tronchetti 1986: p. 34-35 (Nora)
Tronchetti 1986: p. 52-57


Sources for the Roman Sardinia are apart from the main work of Attilio Mastino, Storia della Sardegna Antica, a series of booklets published by the editor Carlo Delfino, Guide e Itinerari, in which archaeologists describe the various sites and provide background information on the excavations.

1. Acquaro, C. e C. Finzi 1999, Tharros, Sassari
2. Finzi, C. 1982: Le città sepolte della Sardegna, Roma
3. Mastino, A. 2004, La Sardegna romana in: Storia della Sardegna, ed. M. Brigaglia, Cagliari, p. 75-130
4. Mastino, A. 2005: Storia della Sardegna Antica, Sassari
5. Tronchetti, C. 1986, Nora, Sassari
6. Wes, M.A., H.S. Versnel en E.CH.L. van der Vliet 1978: De wereld van de Oudheid, Groningen
7. Zucca, R. 1986: Fordongianus, Sassari
8. Zucca, R. 1989: Il tempio di Antas, Sassari

Last updated 06/01/2014

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