Venice, the floating city, owes a curious debt to Attila the Hun. " The Scourge of God" sent the Venetians fleeing in 452 A.D. from their city, Altinum, to found Venice deep in the marshes on the edge of the Adriatic.
But despite the best efforts of Attila (and the Venetians, who carted away the stones of their sacked home to build Venice), archaeologists have mapped the lost city, detailed in the current Science.
"Now we have a rather unique opportunity of finding an abandoned Roman city," study lead author Paoli Mozzi of Italy's Padua University told Science. "Now we can really start to make some kinds of reasoning about the way the city lived."
A combination of drought and aerial photography in July of 2007 conspired to reveal the location of Altinum, reports the team. Infrared images showed how drought affected corn and soybean crops growing over the site, in turn revealing the streets, buildings and even the large canal that once ran through the middle of the vanquished city. Cut through the 10-foot rise of the town, the canal was a surprise, Mozzi says, suggesting Altinum was a mini-Venice before Venice.
"The right constellation of circumstances — a site that has not been settled since Late Antiquity, and a severe drought — have combined to enable these particularly illuminating photographs to be taken and interpreted," says Harvard classicist Kathleen Coleman. "Altinum was one of the most important cities in northern Italy because of its strategic position as a hub where routes over the Alps, around the top of the Adriatic, and down the eastern seaboard intersected."
The city flourished "throughout the period of the Roman Empire, and it must have been very prosperous, since the Latin poet Martial mentions that the villas along its waterfront were as beautiful as the famed resort of Baiae on the Bay of Naples," near Pompeii, Coleman says. "It was also thought until recently that its marshy site meant that it didn't need any walls, but now we can see a substantial wall along its northwest boundary."
An Italian tribe, the Veneti, settled the city around 500 B.C., and by 131 B.C., when one of Rome's famous roads, the Via Annia, reached the city, it had become part of the Roman Republic. "With a size comparable to Pompeii, Altinum is the only large Roman city in Northern Italy and one of the few in Europe that has not been buried by medieval and modern cities," the study says. After the city's sack, the Venetians moved to islands just north of modern Venice.
Along with the surprising canal, other monumental structures visible from the mapping effort include a Roman theater, Odeon for musical performance, amphitheater, forum with shops and basilica for legal matters. Archaeologists will consider targeted excavations of the important sites from the maps, Mozzi suggests.
Although archaeologists study ancient riddles, they aren't averse to modern methods to make discoveries, turning to chemistry, carbon dating, satellite and aerial photos to make advances in recent decades, such as the map of Altinum.
Even Attila the Hun could appreciate that idea. The legendary warlord embraced new siege engines to scourge Europe during his reign, which ended in 453 A.D., one year after the sack of Altinum.