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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Monte Testaccio in Rome

What is Monte Testaccio?

Monte Testaccio is an artificial mound of ancient pottery that was used to transport olive oil from Rome’s provinces to the capital.

Monte Testaccio

Monte Testaccio History

In the southern part of the Testaccio neighbourhood is an unconventional ruin, an ancient garbage dump that is now a lofty 50-metre hill where trees and vines have taken root. Monte Testaccio is made from millions of discarded amphorae, the terracotta vessels once used to transport goods to ancient warehouses. The pieces, steadily piled up over 200 years (roughly from the turn of the millennium up to the middle of the 3rd century AD) were systematically unloaded and accumulated after being emptied in the nearby river port. The hill, whose name derives from the Latin testa (meaning earthenware), in reference to the material with which it was artificially constituted, comprises only vessels used to transport olive oil from Rome’s provinces to the capital.

Unlike the vessels used to move agricultural goods, the Romans weren’t able to repurpose these amphorae for future construction, since the residual oil made the remnants of the terracotta too fatty for reuse. The problem of quick, hygienic, and economical disposal of amphorae was thus solved with this landfill. Fragments were stacked with the maximum economy of space, forming almost a wall of terracotta. Lime is the only material that holds together the clay debris, upon which a layer of soil has allowed for the growth of vegetation, giving the hill stability and the appearance of natural relief.

Several fragments retain a trademark imprinted on one of their handles, while others have written notes, including the name of the exporter, indications on the content, checks carried out during the trip, and pertinent dates. Monte Testaccio is therefore a first-hand source on the development of the Roman Empire, the commercial relations between the capital and provinces, and, of course, eating habits in antiquity.

Once the landfill function ceased in the Middle Ages, Monte Testaccio began to assume a different role in the history of Rome as a venue for popular events and public games. One of these, the Ludus Testacie, was a lively and gory event that seemed to consist of sending bulls down the hill where men below fought to kill them by sword.

In the 17th century, the hill changed its face when Pietro Ottini and Domenico Coppitelli purchased the surrounding land in order to open up some grottini, or small picturesque caves. These were intended to house the increasing amount of local taverns, and today have been turned into a number of popular restaurants and nightclubs. The western side of the hill looks onto a former slaughterhouse, still animated by various different commercial activities.

The mound also served a purpose during the Second World War, when an entire anti-aircraft battery was installed there. It was dismantled after the war, but is still visible in the remains of four platforms built for anti-aircraft guns.

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