Established by the Greeks when they colonised the Salento peninsular, or the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot, Otranto became an important port for the Romans. Then as now, Otranto is the easternmost Italian town. And with its natural harbour, the port’s strategic position has meant it was considered the gateway to the east. Otranto is still called “Porta d’Oriente.” Sadly, for those seeking signs of a Roman past, nothing remains in situ. Two enigmatic statue bases, however, bear testimony to Hydruntum’s former Imperial glory.

Medieval walls surrounding the older part of Otranto. Puglia.
Medieval entrance to the old town of Otranto, Puglia.

Walking through the imposing walls into Otranto’s Centro Storico it is the town’s Medieval past that is immediately apparent: the walls surrounding the old town, the castle, and cathedral. Interestingly, the 11th century castle is the setting for what is generally thought to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764. To the right of one entrance in the town walls are a few marble and granite columns that I assumed were Roman.

Marble and granite columns in Otranto.

Marble and granite columns securely fastened to the Medieval wall in Otranto.

Although one guidebook says the cathedral was built on the ruins of a Roman house, I had not read any other mention of visible signs of a Roman past in Otranto today. So, I took an obligatory photograph of the stone columns, looked about for an information panel, found none and quickly carried on to the Byzantine Chiesa di San Pietro.

While walking along the narrow Corso Garibaldi to the Byzantine church I saw two carved blocks of stone set into the doorway of an 18th century palazzo (see in the photograph below). From my cursory glance I thought they looked like Roman altars. Given the promise of spectacular ancient frescoes in the church, I did not give them any attention. It was not until the next day when passing again that I noticed both stones had a Latin inscription.

The two statue bases on either side of the entrance to the Palazzo Arcella in Otranto.

The two Roman statue bases set, now part of the stone framework of a door.

Later in my hotel room (I stayed at the wonderful Hotel Palazzo Papaleo, highly recommended – and just around the corner from this doorway) I searched online for information about these carved stones but found nothing. It was only when I got home and started searching online databases for Roman inscriptions, and transcribing and translating the inscriptions that I found out what the inscriptions say and also something of their significance. My efforts were greatly assisted by an article in Italian by Alfredo Sanasi published in the Italian magazine Il delfino e las mezzaluna in 2014 (an Italian version is available on the Fondazione Terra d’Otranto website)

Close up of the two statue bases showing the honorific inscriptions to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Verus.

IMP[ERATORI] CAES[ARI] M[ARCO] 
AVRELIO ANTO
NINO AUG[USTO] TRIB[UNICIA] 
POT[ESTATE] XVI C[ON]S[ULI] III
DIVI ANTONINI F[ILIO] DIVI
HADRIANI NEP[OTI] DIVI
TRAIANI PARTHIC[I] PRO[NEPOTI] 
DIVI NERVAE ABNEPOT[I] 
D[ECURIONUM] PUBLICE D[ECRETO]

To the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, holding tribunician power sixteen times, designated consul for the third time, son of the divine Antoninus Pius, nephew of the divine Hadrian, great-grandson of the divine Trajan conqueror of the Parthians, descendant of the divine Nerva, officially set up by decree of the councillors.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius © Pierre-Selim/Wikimedia

IMP[ERATORI] CAES[ARI] L[UCIO] 
AV/RELIO VERO AUG[USTO] 
TRIB[UNICIA] POT[ESTATE] II CO[N]S[ULI] II 
ANTONINI DIVI F[ILIO] 
DIVI HADRIANI 
NEP[OTI] DIVI TRAIANI 
PARTHIC[I] PRON[EPOTI] 
DIVI NERVAE ABNEPOTI
D[ECURIONUM] PUBLICE D[ECRETO]

To the Emperor Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus, holding tribunician power twice, designated consul for the second time, son of the divine Antoninus Pius, nephew of the divine Hadrian, great-grandson of the divine Trajan conqueror of the Parthians, descendant of the divine Nerva, officially set up by decree of the councillors.

© Transcriptions and translations mine, please contact me if you find errors.

Bust of Lucius Aurelius Verus.

Lucius Aurelius Verus © Pierre-Selim/Wikimedia

So it turns out the two inscribed stones were not altars at all. They are in fact typical statue bases bearing honorific inscriptions to emperors, the emperors being Marcus Aurelius and and his adopted brother Lucius Aurelius Verus. Sadly nothing remains of the statues that stood on these two bases. They were probably destroyed in the Christian era as being pagan.

Why were these two statues erected in Otranto?

When Emperor Antoninus Pius died on 7 March 161 AD he was to be succeeded by his son Marcus Aurelius. As is clear in Marcus Aurelius’s first book of Meditations, he had a deep affection for his father, and refused to take office unless his adopted brother Lucius received equal powers. The Senate agreed and granted Lucius the imperium, the tribunician power, and the name Augustus. For the first time, in 161 AD Rome was ruled by two emperors: Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus. Lucius reigned until his death in 169 AD, while Marcus continued until 180 AD.

So it is not surprising that there should be statues to these two emperors. But why here in southern Italy?

Soon after the death of Antoninus Pius in March 161 the King of Parthia invaded the the Kingdom of Armenia. At the beginning of 162 AD it was decided that Lucius should direct the Parthian wars himself, with Marcus Aurelius staying in Rome. Given the strategic importance of the Roman port of Hydruntum, the gateway to the east, it is highly likely that Lucius and his army set sail for Syria from here.

It is equally likely that Marcus Aurelius also set sail from Hydruntum when he toured the eastern provinces in the early 170s. But as that was after Lucius’s death it is unlikely that the statues were erected then. They were more probably erected to honour Lucius when he left for the Roman – Parthian War of 161 to 166 AD.

The doorway to Palazzo Arcella at 41 Corso Garibaldi in Otranto, with the statue bases on either side.

The entrance to Palazzo Arcella, 41 Corso Garibaldi, where the two statue bases can be seen in Otranto today.

Wondering around the old parts of many Italian and Greek towns it is not uncommon to come across carved stone that is obviously from Classical times used in more recent buildings – even when the latter are several hundreds of years old. On many Greek islands you can not miss old stones in newer buildings, or spoila.

At first glance it may seem an obvious and sensible thing to do, take stone that is already dressed, readily available and use it again. Why go through the trouble and expense of sourcing new, unprepared stone when it is there for the taking. When looking more closely at specific examples of the re-use of ancient stone in more recent buildings, archaeologists are increasingly thinking there is more to it that straight-forward logistics and economics. And the re-use of stone from Hadrian’s Wall at Hexham Abbey is a good example.

The circumstances in which Marcus and Lucius’s statue bases were incorporated into the doorway of the 18th century Palazzo Arcella seem to be lost. Did they just look nice, or was the owner making a statement? The Arcella family have a long association with the nobility of the Kingdom of Naples. Placing these statue bases on either side of the entrance to a noble family’s palazzo, with their honorific inscriptions to two well known and much revered Roman Emperors clearly visible, is surely more than using up old bits of stone lying around from years gone by.

Rushing along the Corso Garibaldi to get to the Byzantine church before it closed, I could so very easily have missed these statue bases. They certainly are not on any list of ‘must see sights’ in Otranto. Perhaps they are not as spectacular as the Byzantine frescoes in the Church of Saint Peter or the vast Norman mosaic covering the floor of the nave in the cathedral. Perhaps they will only interest a small group of people. But these ‘humble’ statue bases are related to important events in the Roman Empire, they provide an insight into Otranto’s place in that empire, and the continued veneration of the empire and its emperors into the 18th century and beyond.

The green pin marks the location of the doorway within Otranto's Centro Storico, at 41 Corso Garibaldi.