Nesactium - Nesazio - Vizače
Archeology



The Histri and Nesactium

Pre-Roman and Roman Nesactium (site map) was located on a hill rising above the small Budava river, near the village of Valtura above a bay on the south-eastern coast of Istria about 10-11 kilometers from Pula. It is situated in an idyllic environment of low groves, vivified by bird song in the spring and almost burned by summer heat, which people in the surrounding villages today call Vizače, a corrupted version of Nesactium. 

In his work Ab Urbe Condita, Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) mentioned three cities in his account of the war between the Histri and Romans at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. - Nesactium (the capital), Mutilla, and Faveria. Although it had been supposed, even before the excavations started, that Nesactium should be identified with Vizače - the names also seem to be somehow related, the discovery of a votive altar dedicated to emperor Gordian (3rd century AD), where the Res Publica Nesactfiensium is mentioned, removed all doubt about the glorious past of the place. 

Stories and legends concerning this lonely place containing many traces of antiquity were interrupted by the digging tools of archeologists who removed the veil from the secrets of Nesactium, the capital of the Histri. 

The archeaoligical excavations performed at Nesactium at the beginning of the century helped to uncover the historical reality of the legend about the glorious past of this Istrian town.

Excavations of the site, which began at the beginning of this century, have produced finds from a prehistoric necropolis, as well as from Roman and early Christian structures. Nesactium was actually a Histrian hillfort, or fortified settlement, of Istria's pre-Roman inhabitants. It is here that the final and decisive battle took place between the Histri and the Romans in 177 BC, following which the Histri came under Roman rule. 

The Roman conquest of Istria in 177 BC

The Celtic invasions from the north and the establishment of Greek colonies on the eastern coast of the Adriatic were not particularly important events for Istria and its inhabitants, yet they mark a period in which the culture of the Histri slowly began to transform itself from prehistory into history. When the Histri are first mentioned as a people in the historical written sources of the Greeks and Romans, there is still no record of the town of Pula. The centre of the Histri in southern Istria was Nesactium, a hillfort to the north of the present-day Valtura, above a bay on the south-eastern coast of Istria, at a distance of only ten kilometers from Pula. It is also one of the most important archeological sites, with remains of a prehistoric cemetery, a Roman municipium, and early Christian basilicae from the period up to the 6th century.

The writers of ancient times make it clear that the Histrians (Histri) were well known for piratical activities. This was one of the main excuses for the Romans to conduct their first campaign against them as early as 221 BC, after they had conquered the north of Italy and the territory of the Veneti.  This expedition probably ended with the surrender of the Istrian natives, and the Romans were content with simple promises that their ships would not be attacked any more. It is generally thought that the hillfort at the site of present-day Pula may have been destroyed then, as a century and a half later it was no longer mentioned. One cannot imagine that Histri would not have had a strong and important hillfort on such a favourable place - near a spring on the coast by a deep and well protected bay where ships could be anchored. However, written historical sources which could confirm such a supposition are lacking. Piracy was almost endemic in certain areas of the Mediterranean throughout Classical Antiquity: it was such an ordinary occupation that it can almost be considered as a sort of economic field. Only great states with sufficient political and military power were able to confront such a phenomenon, as the safety of maritime travel was the principal measure of success for the states of that period.

To strengthen their defences the Romans created the military settlement of Aquileia/Oglej. The Histrians rightly regarded this as a threat to their independence, and in 181 tried to prevent the building of the settlement. They were defeated, but the peace did not last for long. 

'King' Epulo (aka Epulone or Aepulo), whose name to the Romans resembled a Latin word which means a party-goer or even a drunkard), an uncompromising ruler, eager to fight, took the leadership of the Histrians and immediately began preparing to resist. The Romans sent an army against him in 178 BC, with expectations that were at first not fulfilled. On the contrary, one foggy morning the Histrians shrewdly surprised and routed it, so much so that the Romans had to abandon on the field of battle all their supplies of food and wine. This, however, was in turn fatal for the Histris, who despite their physical superiority and warlike ardour were, according to contemporary descriptions, much given to dissolute habits. As a result, by late afternoon they were in a complete drunken stupor and were easily defeated, many being killed and the survivors taken captive.

The Histri became famous for their epic resistance against the Romans. After the initial setback, the Romans subdued them only after receiving very substantial reinforcements from Rome. In 178 B.C., the decisive battle began near the legendary Nesactium. Consul A. Manlio Vulsone marched with many legions against the Histri who opposed the strengthening of the colony of Aquileia. They were led by King Epule who was elected to his station. For a long time the Histris put up a resistance for two years from their tribal, political and religious centre. But when the Romans diverted the river that for protection circled the fortifications, the Histris became convinced that it was a miracle - 'miraculo terruit abscissae aquae', as it was described by the Roman historian Livy - and seized by panic, in order that they should not be taken alive, they started killing their women and children and throwing them over the walls in front of their horrified enemies. King Epulo also, like so many of his fearless warriors, died by his own hand, run through by his own sword.

The few who survived were taken prisoner by the Romans and became slaves. Even though the Histri still put up a resistance in the fortresses of Mutila and Faveria, which the Romans completely destroyed after the battle just described, the defeat near Nesactium decisively ended the independence of Istria. The two days of popular festivities which were organised in Rome provided a tangible proof of the importance that the Romans gave to this victory over the Histrians.

The fall of Nesactium to the Romans was the final event of the so-called second Histrian war, during which the Romans conquered the Histri and took the possession of all major strategic points from which navigation along the southern and western coasts of Histria could be controlled. After Nesactium fell, the independence of the Histrian culture, as well as the political independence Histri as a tribe (or confederation of tribes) ceased to exist, although they had been present in the peninsula for almost a whole millennium.

Early Roman Rule

The Romans introduced a net of military stations along the coast after 177 B.C. just to control the coastal sea route and to put an end to the piracy of the Histri. This is an indication that the Histri were still not completely subdued and that Rome had not yet completely conquered the whole peninsual, since the Romans at first had occupied only the towns of the coastal strip inherited from the Greeks and from the Histri. There are no traces of cities, settlements of colonists, or Romanization that has been discovered. This was only the first phase of direct contacts between the autochthonous Histri and the Roman world. We can only imagine how sporadic the influences of the new civilization on the old culture were: the two communities lived almost completely separated from each other, but their weak and rare contacts represent the beginnings of the subsequent systemic process of acculturation, which was in full progress by the time when the first cities - coloniae and municipia - were established.

It is probable also that a small Roman military garrison was stationed at the Kastel (castelliere, castle) of Pula, as the bay of Pula was one of the best and largest anchorages in the northern Adriatic. As time progressed, civilian and commercial life must have started to develop around that military station or small fortress. Commerce often played a more important role than military operations in Roman conquests, because merchants used to penetrate new areas considerably before the armies. Trade itself often caused subsequent conquests, because Rome was sometimes involved in the affairs of certain tribes precisely in order to protect the interests of its merchants. This was probably what happened in Istria, in the period between 177 and 54 BC, when only merchants were interested in expanding their activities in Istria as a whole. However, in that period Rome was still fighting with other tribes and peoples on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, so that Istria was not yet "ripe" for a more intensive Romanization.

The Romans at first entrusted Istria to the authority of the governor of Gallia, who was charged with administering civil and military affairs. A third of the land became property of the State (ager publicus), and hence it could be claimed that the Romans carried out the first agrarian reform in Istria. The Istrians were particularly damaged by the prohibition of trade, which provoked repeated revolts against the authorities.

Once the whole of Istria was conquered by the Romans, another page of its history was turned. Several administrative, economic, and architectural changes occured in Nesactium. In addition to Ab Urbe Condita by Titus Livius, there is another historical text that mentions Nesactium: Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) refers to "...oppidum Nesactium..." in his famous work Naturalis Historia. It follows that Nesactium was included in the list of Roman cities as an independent municipium in the middle of the first century A.D. Romans restructured the City's urban form, they built temples, a forum, thermae, and tavemae on a plateau that represents the highest point of the settlement. Luxurious private houses with porticoes and cisterns appeared on the slopes, gradually extending towards the Budava valley. 

A marble statue of a seated goddess, the Great Mother of the Gods (Magna Mater Deorum), Nesactium, 2nd cent. (Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula).

Although on1y the foundations of temples were preserved and conserved until the present, analogies and votive inscriptions found on the spot allow us to reconstruct the religious life of the Roman city in broad outlines. Autochthonous Histrian deities were not erased from memory and they were worshipped besides the official Italic deities. Ships from all parts of the classical world sailed into the Bay of 200 Budava, and such intemational relations brought with them the cults of oriental and Egyptian deities, as well as large amounts of everyday utensils. 

The presence of the Histri can still today be proven from many place names, which are often better preserved in the interior than on the coast. The oldest and most important coastal Istrian towns, Trieste/Trst (Tergestum), Pula/Pola (Pietas Iulia) and Poreč/Parenzo (Parentium), which became Roman colonies between 50 and 40 BC, preserve in their names their Histrian origins, as does Buzet / Pinguente (Piquentum) in the interior. Certain towns also acquired the status of a fortified town (oppidum): Roč / Rozzo (Rocium), Pićan / Pedena (Petina), Koper / Capodistria (Aegida), Piran / Pirano (Pyrrhanum), Umag / Umago (Sepomagum), Novigrad / Cittanova (in late Latin Neapolis and in mediaeval sources Aemon(i)a and Civitas Nova), Visače / Monticchio (Nesactium), Labin / Albona (Albona) and Plomin / Fianona (Flanona).

The Archeological Park

The site of Nesactium contains remains of a necropolis (a prehistoric cemetery) dating to the first half of the first millenium B.C., a Roman municipium, and early Christian basilicae from the period up to the 6th century. As an archeological park, it provides the visitor with an opportunity to view the progress of excavations and the discovered fragments of relics in a small exhibition organized by the Archeological Museum of Istria in what used to be a guard house. The exhibition consists of objects, photographs and ground-floor plans of former structures.

In the large Histri necropolis has been found some 250 tombs which, in addition to ceramic cinerary urns, also contained other ceramic and metal items. All those finds are today housed in the Archeological Museum of Istria, in Pula. 

Still visible in the area of the settlement are the outlines of the Forum - the central square - with three temples, the central one being the largest. Also found in the middle of the settlement were the remains of Roman thermae and of two basilicas dating from the early Christian era. The Romans built their residences - two of which have been researched, although traces of them are no longer visible - on the outer, lower strip of the terrain.

Above: remains of a Roman Temple at the Forum of Nesactium

The approach to Nesactium is along a narrow paved road from Valtura, where once stood Roman graves which were placed along main routes. The irresistable force of time has reduced them to a pale memory preserved only in reports from the archeaological excavations. Today, Nesactium is a kind of archaeological park, whose gates, "Porta Polensis" lead us into the interesting historical world of this site. More than 800 meters of city walls were discovered in Nesactium between 1932 and 1934; these findings have important consequences for our understanding of the long and thrilling history of this place. The walls built in the 5th century AD follow the shape of the terrain, built upon earlier Roman walls and the first prehistoric ramparts. They are 1.60 meters wide, and up to two meters high. They are interrupted at several spots, but the defensive "castelliere" function was confirmed by the existence of square tower foundations and a subsequently erected bastion that supported part of the weakened rampart. 

The so-called Double or Janus Head from Nesactium (?), 6th cent. B.C. (AMI Pula)

At the very entrance to the city, by the rampart, between the Roman and the prehistoric gates, located several dozen meters to the north, there was a rich prehistoric (i. e. Histrian) cemetery. Urns and objects placed as contributions in the graves point to several layers of inhabitation and burial at the site, extending from the 11th century B.C. to the Roman conquest. Home-made objects and rich imported goods relate Nesactium and the culture of Histri to almost every culture of the Mediterranean and of the CentraI Europe. During the first centuries of the Histrian culture, objects were imported from Etruria, Greece, the Alpine regions, and later on the Histri adopted other influences into their own concept of culture. In the sixth century B.C., a particular kind of artistic monument was produced in Nesactium. These stone panels and statues, figural monuments representing animals and humans represent a unique phenomenon in Europe. They were mostly discovered in the cemetery, but some of them were found, unfortunately, in secondary use. The manner of production and their stylistic features point to a high cultural level of the Histri, whose civilization developed under a continuous influence from neighbouring regions, but also to the way they adapted themselves to their own cultural environs. 

A red-figured Attic vessel, ca. 520 B.C., from Nesactium (AMI Pula)

Today, almost all the material objects from Nesactium can be viewed in the Archeological Museum of Istria (AMI) in Pula; the Museum itself was established in order to preserve the numerous finds discovered in the first systematic excavations carried out in 1902.

The objects from Nesactium represent an important part of that collection, which presents distant periods in the history of the southern part of the Istrian peninsula. They were found in tombs excavated between 1901 and 1904, datable to the 9th-5th centuries B.C. All graves except one were cinerary, and they form two groups according to grave architecture - those with a simple buria1 of ashes or urn in the ground, and those with a stone slab construction. Many tombs had a rough wall enclosure around them.

Pottery from Nesactium is rich in both form and decoration. It is rough in its structure, with one or no handles, with a wide rim or a simple recessed edge. The decoration patterns comprise circles, spirals, semi-circles, and horizontal ribs in relief. Another type of pottery are the black, polished vases, with an engraved pattern filled with a white paste, usually forming meanders or other geometric ornaments. The rim is usually wide and outward. A third type is represented by the black, polished jugs, with a high handle, decorated with oblique ribs or a linear and pointed zig-zag pattern. 

An especially important find was the discovery of a grave containing a large number of domestic and imported pottery vessels beneath Roman temples. The vessels were found in 1981, and the fact that some of them were not produced in Istria can probably be related to the piracy that was a part of the Histrian economy. 

The bronze objects, especially situlae imported from the eastern Alpine and Cisalpine regions, are particularly important. They include a water pail made of bronze sheets and decorated with a scene of a naval battle; such decorations have never before been observed on similar objects from Slovenia, Austria, and Northem Italy.

Above & below: Two fragments from the same situla

The decorations are formed by typical elements of the Venetic culture: the customary cart and the holy horse. The Histri population left various evidences of this kind, fact that the writers [of the cited source of this text and image] state confirms that they belonged to the Venetic stock. (Museo Archeologico dell'Istria)

Sources:

  • Robert Matijašić, Klara Burić-Matijašić, and Duko Marušić-Čiči (photographs), Classical Pula and environs, Zaviajna naklada "akan Juri", (Pula, 1996)
  • Darko Darovec, A historical outline of Istria, Chapter: "Ancient times" - http://www2.arnes.si/~mkralj/istra-history/ancient.html
  • The Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, Guide III (Pula 1986)
  • Pula 3000, Libar od Grozda (Pula 1997)
  • Europe Veneta - http://www.prah.net/europaveneta/situla/pictureindex.htm

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Created: Friday, March 01, 2002; Last Updated: Wednesday, February 11, 2015
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