[Excerpt from Epistle #11 sent out on July 31,2003

UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER WITH THE HISTORY

 AT SOUTHERN ISTRIA (CROATIA)

 

After 3-day stay on Brijuni Island we toured around Istria South visiting Medulin first before turning northwards to our next 3-day stop at Rovinj. En route we passed through the village Valtura where we noticed an archaeological signboard of a place named VISAČE or NESACTIUM. We followed that sign and soon we came upon a narrow farm track looking conspicuous so we were looking for somebody to ask about the direction. Soon we met two ladies who told us that we are on good track and to continue for some 500m until we would come to a gate where the road ends. We found the right place with a locked gate but our informants arrived soon after and showed us how to bypath the blocked entrance. We have arrived at a rather old archaeological site of that one could see some foundations of a Roman Temple at the Forum of Nesactium Municipium and of two early Christian Basilicae from the period prior of the 6th century.

 

   

The access road from Valtura village to the site of Nesactium or Visače

at bottom left in this aerial picture viewing south.

 

I never heard anything about NESACTIUM or VISAČE before and I could not get any prospect or information locally from a small site office that was locked. Back home I went through various Lexica and searched with GOOGLE in Internet where I have found enough data to compose the following story about

 

 

NESACTIUM alias VISAČE (South of Istria)

 

ISTRIA IN PRE-ROMAN TIMES

 

The pre-Roman and Roman NESACTIUM location is on a hill rising above the valley of small Budava River and near the village of VALTURA. This now-a-days village is not far away of a bay on the south-eastern coast of Istria and some 11km far from City of Pula. Its an idyllic environment of low groves is a birds sanctuary in the spring and almost burned by summer heat for people from a nearby smaller village named VIZACE - that name could be a corrupted version of Nesactium.

 

Titus Livius (Livy), Roman historian, mentioned in his work “Urbe Condita” three cities Nesactium (the capital), Mutilla, and Faveria in connection with the wars between the HISTRI and Romans at the beginning of 2nd century B.C. One had assumed that Nesactium should be nearby of Vizace even before the excavation started. When a votive altar dedicated to the Emperor Gordian from 3rd century A.D. was discovered one could prove that the engraved names there could be in some way related as mentioned in the “Res Publica Nesactiensium”. This place of Nesactium has had a glorious past and many stories and legends told regarding this lonely place that contained so many traces of antiquity too. The subsequent archaeological diggings removed the veil from the secrets of Nesactium that was the famous capital of the HISTRI that was an autochthonous Illyrian tribe.

 

  

The map at left map shows South Istra today and in the enlarged section NESACTIUM at right. 

 

The archaeological excavations began early in the 20th century and helped to uncover the historical reality about the glorious past of this Histrian town. These excavations have produced finds from a prehistoric necropolis, as well as from Roman and early Christian structures. Nesactium was a Histrian hill-fort or fortified settlement of Istrian pre-Roman inhabitants. The final and decisive battle took place between the Histri and the Romans in 177 B.C. and the Histri subsequently came under Roman rule.

 

The HISTRIS as inhabitants of a somehow isolated Peninsula of Istria couldn't expect any particular danger from the Celtic invasions coming from the North or from the creation Greek colonies on the Adriatic western coast. At those times began the transformation of Histrian culture from the pre-history into the history. The Histri as a tribe were mentioned in Greek and Roman written historical sources but there no record of the town of Pula as such. The centre of Histris of Nesactium was located at the southern Istria where a hill-fort existed and that is the most important archaeological site now. Archaeologists uncovered here remains of a prehistoric cemetery, a Roman Municipium (Municipality) and two early Christian basilicas that date before the 6th century.

 

  

Sculpture of the two-headed-god Ianus (Janus). 

 

Ancient writers described the Histrians (or Histri) to be known as buccaneers and by their piratical activities. After the Romans conquered the North of Italy and the Territory of Veneti they had a good excuse to check upon the Histrians activities by 221 B.C. already. The Roman first expedition probably ended with the surrender of some natives who might have promised that they would not attack Roman galleons anymore. It is most probable that Romans have destroyed a hill-fort of Histri sited close to present-day Pula is it was not mentioned ever after. Such a strong and important hill-fort placed at a favourable place certainly would have been a rather important to the Histris. This former Pula hill-fort was most likely located near a coastal spring in a deep and well protected bay where ships could be well anchored. There are no written historical records that would confirm that the piracy was almost endemic along certain coastal stretches of the Mediterranean throughout the times of Classical Antiquity though. The piracy was an ordinary occupation that could have been considered as a kind of economic line to general works too. Only established antique states with sufficient political and military power could confront pirates and guarantee safe maritime travel and transport of goods that was so essential for their economic success and survival.

 

 

ISTRIA DURING EARLY ROMAN TIMES

 

Romans created the military settlement of Aquileia (Oglej) to strengthen their positions in Istria. Histrians regarded this as a threat to their independence, and in 181 B.C. attempted to prevent building of this settlement but were defeated subsequently. Then King Epulo (aka Epulone or Aepulo) took over the leadership of Histrians. He was an uncompromising ruler, eager to fight, and started preparations to resist Romans straight away.  Romans sent an army against him in 178 B.C. but Histrians shrewdly surprised them on a foggy morning so that Romans had to abandon the battle field and all their supplies of food and wine. This was too fatal for Histris who, despite their physical superiority and warlike fervour, had succumbed to their depraving habits. By late afternoon of the same day they were in an utter drunken stupor so that the returning Romans defeated them easily by killing many and taking survived Histrians to the captivity.  

 

   

The park site of excavated Nesactium or Visače with the part of churchyard at right.

 

The Histri were famous for their epic resistance but subsequently Romans succeeded smashing it after receiving substantial reinforcements from Rome. The decisive battle started when Consul Manlio Vulsone marched with many legions against the Histris later in 178 B.C. The Histri resisted for two years at the hill-fort of Nesactium that was their tribal, political and religious centre. After some time passed the Romans diverted the Budava River that circled the fortifications. The Histris thought it was a miracle and seized by panic and not to be taken alive, started killing their women and children and threw them over the walls in front of their horrified enemy. King Epulo like so many of his fearless warriors killed himself by his own sword. The Roman historian Livy described it as the “miraculo terruit abscissae aquae”.

 

The survivors were turned into slaves but some Histris continued to resist at in their remaining fortresses of Mutila and Faveria.  The Romans destroyed them soon after the battle of Nesactium thus ending the Histrian independence with a total certainty. After this second Histrian war the Romans possessed all major strategic points in Istria and secured the navigation along the peninsulas coastal stretches. After the fall of Nesactium Histris lost their political independence as a tribe or as a confederation of tribes and their culture ceased to exist despite it had been present on the peninsula for almost a millennium.

 

 

ROMAN GOVERN THE ISTRIA PENINSULA

 

The Romans erected a chain of military stations along the coast after 177 B.C. to control the coastal sea routes thus ending Histris piratical incentives. Still Histri were not subdued yet since Romans had occupied the towns and the coastal strip at first only. No traces have been found of Romanization in cities or settlements of colonists in this first phase of contacts between the autochthonous Histri and the Romans. The sporadic contacts and influences of the Roman culture toward the indigenous one took some time before the cultural amalgamation could get underway. This progress started when the Romans had established their own settlements and built own cities aka coloniae and munciepiae. 

 

Probably a small Roman military garrison had been set up at the Kaštel (castelliere, castle) nearby of present Pula and in the bay that had one of the best and largest anchorages in the northern Adriatic. The civilian and commercial life had developed around such a military station or a small fortress and it played an important role in Roman conquests as the merchants penetrated into new areas even before Roman armies did it. The trade itself often caused subsequent conquests particularly when Rome was involved in some affairs with certain tribes and in order to protect the interests of its merchants. This happened so in Istria between 177 and 54 B.C. as Rome had to fight with other tribes and peoples along the Adriatic coast in the move ahead eastwards. Thus inner parts of Istria were not ready for more intensive Romanization yet. The Roman authority was entrusted to the governor of Galia and a third of the land had become State property (ager publicus). The Romans carried out the first agrarian reform in Istria and prohibited Histrians to trade that provoked them to revolt against the authorities.

 

   

Partly reconstructed Roman Nesactium showing the basilica built-up walls as today.

 

When the Romans conquered and appeased the whole of Istria several changes took place in administration, economy, and architecture at the previous Nesactium. Then the city became an independent municipality by mid of 1st century A.D. The Romans built there an urban form with temples, bathhouses and taverns on the highest plateau of the former settlement. Private comfortable houses with porticos and cisterns were constructed on gentle slopes and the urbanization extended into the Budava valley below. The indigenous Histrian goddesses were not erased from memory and were worshipped besides the official Italic deities too. Some oriental and Egyptian cults existed that was proven by a large amount of found everyday utensils there too. The later were brought in by ships from various parts of the classical world that came to anchor in the Budava Bay.

 

Many names of present places in Istria preserve the Histri source like Trst or Trieste (in Italian) from Tergestum, Pula or Pola from Pietas Pulia, Poreč or Parenzo from Parentium, Buzet or Pinguente from Piquentum, Piran or Pirano from Pyrrhanum, Umag or Umago from Sepomagum, Visače or Monticchio from Nesactium etc.

 

 

THE ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE AT VISAČE (NESACTIUM)

 

The archaeological site of Nesactium contains remains of a necropolis (a prehistoric cemetery) dating back to the first half of the first millennium B.C. Also there is the Roman municipium with thermae and early Christian basilicae dating to a period prior to the 6th century. A visitor could view the progress of excavations at that site and see a few discovered fragments of relics and artefacts in a small guard house - provided it is open and that contains some photographs and ground-floor plans of former structures. The approach pathway leads to the Porta Polensis of old Nesactium that also is the present entrance to the archaeological site.

 

   

The excavation of Nesactium (Scavi de Nesazio) started by the Italian Government in 1902.

 

The first systematic excavations started in 1902 uncovering a rich prehistoric Histrian cemetery dating back to the 11th century B.C. continuing up to the Roman conquest in 2nd century B.C. One had found in these tombs home-made objects and rich imported goods that relate the Histrian culture and the place Nesactium to almost every Mediterranean and Middle European culture. Pottery from Nesactium is rich both in form and decoration showing circles, spirals, semi-circles, and horizontal ribs in relief. Other types of pottery are black polished vases with an engraved pattern filled with a white paste and in a form of meanders or other geometric ornaments.

 

       

Excavated objects at Visače are two situlae and a Roman vessel at centre.

 

Some black polished jugs having a high handle are decorated with oblique ribs or a linear and pointed zigzag pattern. A grave discovered in 1981 contained vessels that were not produced in Istria and probably originate from piratical activities of the Histris. The recovered bronze objects, particularly the situlae, are water pails made of bronze sheets were decorated with naval battle scenes normally not found on similar ones originating from eastern Alpine and Cisalpine regions. 

 

Objects from some 250 tombs of Histris and Romans were found mostly along the access route and are kept the Archaeological Museum of Istria (AMI) in Pula including other discovered ceramic and metal artefacts. One had located two Roman residences outside of the city walls at a lower level but those are not discernible anymore. Some 800 meters of Nesactium city walls have been uncovered between 1932 and 1934 as built by Romans during the 5th century A.D. These walls follow the terrain contours and were erected upon earlier Roman ramparts and over first prehistoric stockades too. They are 1.60 meters wide, and up to two meters high with several interruptions of defensive looking castellierae as confirmed by the square tower foundations there.

 

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Literature notes:

 

For this compilation I have used few general Lexica and the web-page created by Marisa Ciceran in March 01, 2002 and updated by November 20, 2002. Copyright 1998-2002 IstriaNet.org, USA.

 

See also at URLs:

 * <http://www2.arnes.si/%7Emkralj/istra-history/ancient.html> of Darko Darovec about

    ”A historical outline of Istria” and

* <http://www.istrianet.org/istria/archeology/situla-veneti.htm> (in English).


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Author's note:

 

When writing about the Roman siege of NESACTIUM I remembered a large wall depiction that hung in the corridor of my Primary School (1931-36) in Osijek (Croatia). The scene represented the Romans attaching a hill-fort with all their military paraphernalia in the surrounding similar to the one of now-a-days Visače. The defenders fought fiercely against the intruding Romans and in desperation were throwing women and children on the attacking soldiers. Was this picture showing the battle for Nesactium?

 

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DISCLAIMER : On URL: http://www.cosy.sbg.ac.at/~zzspri/ published pages are originals and authorized by copyright of Zvonko Z. Springer, Salzburg 1999.

Email Zvonko Springer at : zzspri@aon.at