Mosaic inside the Museum Civico Archeologico (by G.dallorto, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons)
Proceeding our journey, we finally cross the ancient citadel perimeter at the intersection between Via Torino and Via Stampa, where the southwest part of Mediolanum extended.
Arriving at Via Brisa, up to the 5th century CE, we would probably be next to the ancient town’s most important site: the Imperial Palace of Mediolanum, the city’s core.
Tucked away in the crowded centre stand the remains of what were once the imperial residences when Mediolanum became the capital of the Empire in 286 BCE.
As previously mentioned, Mediolanum was a vital hub of the northern part of the Italian peninsula called Gallia Cisalpina. This strategic position led to further city developments, culminating in the most significant period of urban splendour between the 3rd and 5th century CE when the city was chosen as the imperial capital. New enlargements and embellishment projects led first by Maximian, its first emperor, had the city’s architecture magnified.
It is assumed that this imperial area was dedicated not only to the Emperor’s residence but also as a political reference centre for ambassadors, nobles and exponents of the upper classes, as well as incorporating official areas and quarters for the imperial guard.
In Via Brisa, the archaeological site shows the remains of what was the heart of the Roman Empire. It is possible to admire an open-air archaeological site with traces of private and official rooms, places of worship and royal residences. The remains represent only part of a vast district that stood just a few steps away from the adjacent Roman Circus. Remarkably, the nearby civic archaeological museum in Corso Magenta is still well preserved and intact, one of the two original towers that marked the entrance to the stadium. This unmistakable red-brick building was part of the entrance gates from which chariots started racing during the competitions. During the medieval period, the tower was used and adapted as the bell tower of the church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, known for its magnificent frescoes and artworks.
Here we have to imagine a completely different place, a real high-speed track, where the athletes, known as “aurigus”, competed while riding a horse or chariot. Each competition consisted of modern track races, where athletes drove around the circuit several times as fast as possible to win the title. These events were a way for the athletes to show their skills and agility and, above all, competitions of courage and bravery. In front of the crowds and the Emperor himself, athletes competed for honour, risking their lives due to the high probability of accidents or falls.
In the 5th century CE, the circus bordered the southern defensive perimeter of the city and, for a short stretch, was even part of the city wall itself. With its 470 metres long and 85 metres wide, this colossus could seat tens of thousands of spectators and probably host the entire city population.
In this regard, great monuments such as the circus and the amphitheatre provided the Emperor with meaningful and unique opportunities to present himself and appear to his people to reassert and consolidate his power.