From the tenth century BC onwards, during the Iron Age, the middle reaches of the Adriatic were dominated by the Piceni, who controlled trade through the area, including the amber route.
In literature, the Piceni are remembered as valiant warriors and also for the quality of their farm produce (grain, fruit, and wine).
Ascoli came into contact with the emerging power of Rome as a result of the trade along what was to become the Salaria consular road, which linked the Tyrrhenian coast to the Adriatic.
This was of great strategic and military importance for the Romans.
In 299 BC, Rome signed an alliance treaty with the Piceni against the Gallic Senones, allies of the Etruscans and Sannites, and were defeated (295 BC) in the bloody “battle of the nations” atSentinum (present-day Sassoferrato).
In 269 BC, the subsequent expansion by the Romans led to a rebellion by the people of Ascoli which, despite its defeat, managed to maintain its independence as a civitas foederata.
In 264 BC a colony under Latin law was founded at Firmum (Fermo), partly to keep the nearby Ascoli under control.
A symbol of the political decline of Piceno came with the construction of the Via Flaminia (219 BC).
From this time on, Piceno civilisation was inextricably linked to the destiny of Rome.
The Romanisation of Piceno took place between the third and first century BC, when the Roman settlements were often on the valley bottoms, along the main transport routes of the Via Salaria and the Via Flaminia.
In early 91 BC the Social War broke out between the Italic peoples (the socii) for the right to Roman citizenship.
And it was in Ascoli that the revolt started.
Besieged by the Roman army, it capitulated only in 89 BC.
Some of the lead missiles (glandes) that have been found bear the name “Italia” for the first time.
After the victory of the Romans (89 BC), the city was sacked and Ascoli was registered as part of the Fabia Tribe.
It flourished once again under the Emperor Augustus, with fine civic and private buildings.
It became capital of the Regio V as Picenumand later, in the third century, an autonomous province called Picenum Suburcarium.
Caput gentis, as it was known by the Romans, was Ascoli Piceno (Asculum).
Much remains of Roman civilisation in the city (Porta Gemina, the theatre, the remains of the forum and of the Via Salaria, the substructures of the capitolium, the bridge of Porta Solestà and the one known as “di Cecco”, and the extra moenia bridges, the pagan temple that is now the church of San Gregorio Magno, and the remains of the aqueduct, to mention only the most important).
All are worth a visit.
Special mention should be made of the lavish collections of the Museo Archeologico Statale which, amongst many other things, contains a beautifully preserved mosaic of exceptional quality.
The wealth of objects from Roman Piceno is so great that it has been decided to focus on four particular sectors (two from the Ascoli area and two from that of Fermo) in order to illustrate various aspects of the colonisation, which was also cultural, by the Romans in the area they conquered.
The Roman Theatre in Ascoli Piceno
The Roman theatre was discovered during excavations carried out between 1932 and 1959.
At the foot of Colle dell’Annunziata, formerly known as Colle Pelagico, with the semicircle of seats facing north in order to avoid the glare of sunlight on the spectators during the day, it was built over the remains of an even more ancient theatre.
The original construction dates back to the first century BC, and the restoration and enlargement work to the first half of the first century and to the second century AD.
The entire construction, which has a diameter of 95 metres, consists of the orchestra, thepraecintio, or corridor, and the cavea, or auditorium, which consists of 32 visible radials made of opus quasi reticulatum, with tesserae in local travertine stone.
The cavea, which rests against the slope of the hill, is held up by substructures and is isolated from the ground by a long drainage channel.
Most of the stage construction lies below the church of Santa Croce.
By the western entrance, a fine first-century semicircular exedra with walls in opus reticulatum is located within a rectangular room with an apse, faced with coloured marble.
It was the killing of the Roman magistrate Servilius in the theatre that sparked off the Social War.
After the Longobard invasion, the theatre was abandoned for centuries, and was used as a sort of quarry for building materials, both for immediate use and for the production of lime in one of the kilns found in the vicinity.
The Archaeological Park of Falerio Picenus
The Roman colony of Falerio Picenus was located in a strategic position at the fork in the road leading from Fermo to Ascoli and to Urbs Salvia (present-day Urbisaglia).
In 90 BC it was the site of a battle in which the Piceni army defeated the Romans led by Gnaeus Pompeius.
Discovered in the eighteenth century and studied ever since, the important archaeological area is now part of the Parco Archeologico, which contains a number of architectural works.
The Theatre, which was built in AD 43 and dedicated to the emperor Claudius, was built in brick with vaults in stone.
It adopted the classic layout used by the Romans for such buildings, with the auditorium and orchestra in a semicircle, and the stage complex in front.
The well-preserved structure, which has good static qualities, is the venue for an outstanding theatre season in the summer.
The ruins of the 5000-seat elliptical Amphitheatre, built in the first century AD, are close by.
Other archaeological remains from Roman times include the Well, which can still be used, the “Bagni della Regina” (the queen’s baths), a trapezoidal aqueduct reservoir, and the remains of the “Terme” (thermal baths).
The Museo Archeologico in Ascoli contains important finds from the various excavation campaigns.
The Archaeological Park of Cupra Marittima
The Roman settlement was located at Civita, on a small hill in Val Menocchia, not far from the modern town.
First a Municipium and then a Colonia Augustea, and ascribed to the Velina tribe, its importance was due to its natural harbour.
The territory of the Ager Cuprensis was was incorporated in the Regio V Picenum, one of the Augustan regions, and it was known for its high-quality farm produce.
A wealth of Roman artefacts.
The remains of the Forum, the Augustan podium with a flight of steps, and two more recent brickwork arches have all been unearthed.
Along the Adriatic state road, just outside the Roman city, visitors can admire the ruins of a suburban seaside villa with a frescoed nymphaeum (2nd-3rd cent.).
Ancient sources (Strabo, Geographica) refer to the existence of a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Cupra.
This was founded by the Tyrrhenians, who gave the name Cupra to Hera, in the area of Cupra Marittima, which itself takes its name from the ancient cult.
The goddess Cupra was particularly venerated by the Piceni.
The Museo Archeologico contains material from both the Piceni and Roman ages, from past and recent archaeological excavations, illustrating the daily life and identity of Cupra.
The Hellenistic Sanctuary of Monte Rinaldo
In the contrada of La Cuma di Monte Rinaldo, in a typically Piceno setting, with cultivated hills and querce camporili (oak trees planted at the centre of fields to provide shade), a sanctuary built by the Romans in the Hellenistic style in the late Republican era (2nd-3rd century BC) was discovered in the 1960s.
The archaeological site, on which work started in 1957, has not yet been fully explored.
We do not know to which divinity the temple was dedicated and on which city it depended, even though some scholars refer it to Novana, the mysterious city mentioned by Pliny the Elder, the whereabouts of which remain unknown.
The buildings were arranged on a series of terraces, with the stoa on the highest part acting as a scenic backdrop.
Villae rusticae, still to be unearthed, were built around the temple and were still inhabited in the early Middle Ages.
The complex consists of an open gallery 66 metres in length, a temple, and a rectangular building.
The arcade consists of a wall in blocks of sandstone and two parallel rows of columns, also made of sandstone.
The ones at the centre are Ionic, and the lower ones at the sides are Doric.
The ruins of the three-cella temple, with columns of the Tuscan order on the façade, lie to the south.
Traces of fire have been found, probably caused during the bloody Social Wars.
As in other sacred places in the Etruscan-Italic area, the gallery and temple were clad in terracotta elements that not only protected the wooden beams of the building but were also used for decorative purposes.
Several heads – both female and male – and parts of earthenware statues from the pediment have been found.
Scholars agree on the importance of the site, partly due to its considerable size, and on the reasons for its abandonment, which was caused by landslips.
The place was certainly important for the local population in the area.
The sacred complex was built near a spring: the presence of a well, between the temple and the gallery, and the remains of conduits, suggest that a cult related to water was practised in the sanctuary, because: “…water appears to be the natural constituent element of this sacred place.
And indeed water was used for the sanatio (healing) rites that were common in the central Italic area, with documentary evidence for them also on the Adriatic side.
These rites have been substantiated on Monte Rinaldo by the discovery of terracottas in the form of ex-votos from the third to the first century BC, in which, together with anatomical votive symbols (hands and feet), there are also heads, draped statuettes and oxen.” The discovery of these ex-votos attests to a confident and optimistic popular religious feeling, which has never disappeared altogether, for it still remains today.