The monument.

One of the more important streets in ancient Rome was the Vicus Iugarius which ran out of the north end of the Forum (by the temple of Saturn) along the foot of the Capitoline Hill. The street ran west, through the sacred boundary of the city, towards the markets and sacred areas by the old port on the bank of the Tiber.

At about the point the Vicus Iugarius passed from the city into the port district of the Forum Boarium it bifurcated and ran through a double arch in the so-called Servian Walls called the Porta Carmentalis, (the "Gate of Carmenta"). Remnants of a later version of this old gate (rebuilt in brick-faced concrete) are perhaps to be identified amongst the archeological remains at the Area Sacra di Sant' Omobono with its twin temples. By the time of the late republic, the Servian Walls had lost their effectiveness because the city had simply spilled out past them, and the Porta Carmentalis retained only its symbolic value.

The gate was named for Carmenta, a local minor divinity assimilated by learned speculation of the late republic or Augustan age to the mythical mother of Evander, the Arcadian Greek whom Vergil portrays as settled on the future site of Rome in Aeneid, Book 8.

Why is it interesting?

This city gate is interesting because it shows two things; first, how Roman legends surrounded it and gave it an added, and unexpected symbolic value; and how people who study Roman archaeology and topography have been able to see beyond the legends and make sense of this monument.

The legend.

In 479 BC, according to the semi-legendary annals of the city, 306 warriors of the Fabian family (the gens Fabia) exited by what was later assumed to be the right hand opening (as you look at it from the city side) to fight a sort of private little war against the people of Veii north of Rome. These were annihilated almost to a man, and in typical Roman fashion, ill omen was attached to leaving the city by the right hand arch, which was nicknamed the Porta Scelerata. Or so the legend runs.

The topographical facts.

But in fact, the wall of Rome containing the gate did not exist when the plucky Fabians went forth to battle. Enough of that wall survives today to see that it was built of a distinctive yellowish stone called Grotta Oscura. We know where the stone was quarried, and that is deep within the territory of Veii--which the Romans only acquired nearly a century after the Fabians' destruction (396 BC is the traditional date). The wall with its gate went up long after the Fabii departed! Why did their story get connected with the gate?

The solution.

The Roman topographer Lawrence Richardson thought hard about this inconsistency and arrived at a solution. The name Porta Scelerata (which certainly carries inauspicious connotations, and perhaps a hint of religious pollution, since Latin scelus means something like 'crime', or 'wickedness' and can veer into the realm of 'misfortune' or 'calamity') is an old one and predates the invented story of the Fabian departure.

The story of the Fabii arose with great probability in the era after the Romans started writing their history (after 250 BC or so) and smart authors with little information to go on tried to fill in the gaps. This is also a reasonable guess because the writer who invented the story of the Fabian departure did so at a time when people had forgotten that the Servian Walls had gone up in the mid-fourth century. (Indeed, the Romans called them the "Servian Walls" because they assumed in ignorance that it went back to King Servius Tullius in the sixth century BC.) How long after (say) 375 BC would people be ignorant enough about the walls to attribute them to a period centuries earlier? I don't know, but "a long time after the walls were built" is surely a safe answer.

Richardson points to a few pieces of evidence that bodies of the dead were carried out the Porta Scelerata in order to be burned in the vast empty area (in mid-republican times, that is) of the Campus Martius. The ancients generally were nervous about the dead, and they developed many odd rites in dealing with them which betrays that societal nervousness. The Romans in particular were careful to get the dead outside of the sacred limits of the city (called the pomoerium), and they developed practices to clean up the religious pollution stemming from contact within the household (and city) with the dead.

It makes a certain amount of sense, then, that the gate by which the dead were carried out thus got the nickname Porta Scelerata. But this is just half of the story. If corpses exited the city from this gate because the Vicus Iugarius was one handy route out to the Campus Martius, it makes reciprocal sense that the great triumphal parades enjoyed by successful generals--which were prepared in the Campus Martius--entered the city by the same gate (and we know they did this).

But there were two arches in the gate. Richardson makes the smart and defensible suggestion that people entered the city through the Porta Scelerata, its ill-omen attaching to exiting the city; and that people exited by the Porta Triumphalis (the other arch of the gate), but did not enter this way because it was reserved symbolically for triumphators. This imposed a sensible traffic flow in everyday life interrupted only by funeral corteges and triumphal parades.

An interesting piece of supporting evidence.

Richardson summons an interesting historical fact which not only is better explained by his theory, but which also helps illustrate the situation posited by his idea. The emperor Augustus died in AD 14. As in so many parts of his extraordinary life, his death was marked by honorific exceptions to the normal rules.

Augustus was cremated in the Campus Martius, where his vast mausoleum still rises (in truncated form) today. We are specifically told he was escorted by a cortege of senators. And, we are told, he was taken out the Porta Triumphalis as a special honor. Why would this be special? Because normally the dead went out the other arch of the gate (the arch by which the living entered).

Augustus' corpse was in some way treated as though it were free of the polluting effects of normal corpses (and the senate made him a god of the Roman pantheon right away). But in going out the exit of the living, Augustus' corpse was in fact leaving the city by the age-old triumphal route, and accordingly, not only did this neat arrangement evade the unfortunate associations of the Porta "Scelerata," but it took the very last act of the man's life (if I can put it that way) and associated it (like so much else he had done) with notions of victory and triumph.

Richardson is a smart person with strongly held opinions. He is wrong often enough, but always interesting, and his solution to this old conundrum seems to me both right and interesting. If it has a flaw, it might be that it is a little too neat.


Coarelli, Filippo. 1995. Roma. Guide Archeologiche Laterza 6 (Laterza).
Richardson, jr., Lawrence. 1992. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (Johns Hopkins). See p. 301 for the arguments summarized here with references to the ancient sources.

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