Luni: The city’s history

The city of Luna at the mouth of the Magra, because of its position at the border between Liguria and Eturia (region VII which was attributed by Augustus), and said in sources, some Ligurian and some Etruscan; the city’s name has been interpreted as that of the goddess Luna, whose cult is witnessed by inscriptions, or probably deriving from the sweeping line of its port.

Controversial is the identification of the Portus Lunae recorded by ancient sources and especially by Strabone, by some identified with the Gulf of La Spezia, from others with the port at the mouth of the Magra river where in fact segments of the port’s pier buried in sand have been brought to light.

Originally the city was at the sea, while today it’s almost 2 km away; the ancient coastline has been recognized with the help of aerial photographs and by the examination of the soil.

The city had risen as a roman colony in 177 B.C. to assure definite possession of the Ligurian coastal area, protection of the port, and control over the Ligurians. The last revolt of the Ligurians was quelled, as we know from the Fasti Trionfali, in 155 B.C. by M. Claudio Marcello, consul for the second time (inscription lunese on the abacus of a marble column that sustained his statue, in Museum).

The city is crossed by the via Aemilia Scauri, regarded by the censor who had it built in 109 B.C., probably on a pre-existing layout: in reality it’s the continuation of the via Aurelia from which its name was taken, built in II A.D. from Rome to Pisa, and subsequently prolonged, beyond Luni, then to Genoa. The city, that belonged to the Galeria tribe received new colonies under Augustus (their patron) to whom a base was dedicated.


Various literary sources speak about the city, but principle information regarding its everyday life is revealed from the numerous inscriptions that mention magistrates, representatives from the business class (industrial and commercial), professional associations and many cults with different divinities.

The forests covering the Apennines provided wood; Strabone witnessed at that time, as in the Middle Ages that the river transported huge tree trunks all the way to the city, excellent for construction beams.

At Luni big forms of Lunian cheese were shipped, which Pliny considered the best in Etruria. But the richness, after the decline of its importance as a military base during the struggle with the Ligurians, was guaranteed with the marble veins. At first used locally and restrictedly, Lunian marble was soon widespread in Rome, in Italy and in the eastern provinces for statues and in architecture, the quarries became imperial-owned.

Also in the III and IV centuries its economy was not decreased, testified by the numerous oriental and western mint coins; a Lunian inscription in bronze (now at the Bologna Museum) patronage board from the gallienic age cites Luni, “splendid city our lunensis”.


Proof of the great importance of Luni for the spread of the new Christian religion by one of its citizens, Eutichiano, in 275 A.D. he was elected to the pontificate. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city, off the course of invasions, continued to thrive as an important maritime center kept by the Byzantines and a bishop’s see that exerts administrative and political power besides religious, and under the Longobard dominion the rights of a city were represented with the issuing of autonomous coins, even of poor alloy.

The city had suffered destruction from the Rotari and incursions by the Normans and the Saraceni, tormented by floods, malaria and feudal struggles, and still being on the via Romea it was an attractive center for the emperors (the Ottons, Frederick I, etc.). Only in 1204, with the transfer of the bishop’s see to Sarzana, does the city become just a name, and it’s called in writings “the cursed”, cited by Dante amid the dead city and again mentioned by Petrarca as “once famous and powerful and now only a naked and useless name”.

The Excavations

During the Renaissance Luni awakened the interest of humanists and antique dealers, then in the 1700’s scholarship took over and finally archaeological research at the beginning of the 1800’s under Carlo Alberto’s reign and at the end of this century for salvaging reasons the local manufacturer C.Fabricotti assembled a remarkable collection, which ended up at the Civic Museum of La Spezia and another small part at the Academy of Fine Arts in Carrara.

After 1950 excavations were begun by the Ligurian Superintendence for Antiquity, and begun again more extensively from 1970 in collaboration with the Archaeological Institute of the University of Milan with contributions from the CNR. The central unit and some monuments of the city inside its quadrangular belt have been brought to light; the eastern gate only partially excavated, visible in some segment the huge irregular masses of the Apuans and the lateral structures of the walls today enclosed and on which rural roads pass.

The modern road of St. Pero crosses the roman house with mosaic flooring: Hercules with a bow, the seasons, and a suit of dancing figures.

At the north western sector in a peripheral position, near the town walls, rises the main ruins of the city: the Great Temple, long considered the Capitolium for the gabled fictile sculptures (now at the Archaeological Museum of Florence; you encounter their photographic models at the Luni Museum) in which the Capitolina triad, Apollo and Artemide-Luna have been recognized and, once thought to be a production of Etruscan art, are today considered neo-Attic urban works from the II B.C.

The temple reduced to a crumbling unit with a three-celled layout and afterwards to a single cell with a floor of crushed earthenware and inscriptions from druumvir inspectors (now in Museum) that also belong to the founding epoch of colonies and reveals the various republican stages.

Luni building
Luni building

During the imperial age the podium was raised and consequently enlarged the entrance stairway: the large marble lintel bears the dedication of Antonio Pio. In this area excavation is in progress and rooms on the sides of the square have been revealed where the loricated marble statue was found, that is, personage with armor, now in the Museum.

In the north eastern angle of the city the theatre has been dug, or better Odeon, small covered theatre, in very poor condition also because of the vandalized excavations of the 1800’s. Interesting for the layout, the building is inserted in a rectangle with a portal on three sides, with a series of walled-bases for statues, the cavea very ruined, various phases of the pulpitum and stage system are recognizable, a single gear is preserved from the stage pit.

In the western part of the city there are remains of the central basilica that is the nucleus of that which is visible today, only the ruins of the bell tower and apses. The 1800’s excavation had brought to light numerous bases with inscriptions from magistrates and emperors from the low empire, and used again in the St. Maria basilica raised on a roman building that was supposed to be the senate-house. Different phases are recorded: the important late medieval structures, precisely Carolingian, to which the main Romanesque apse can be added.

The city is crossed from east to west by the via Aurelia, that constitutes the principal road, brought to light with its pavement in some stretches, while the other big artery from north to south, the principle hinge, linked the port to the center of the city, insuring with its covered canal water drainage to the sea. The hinge stops in front of a monumental complex consisting of two squares paved with polychrome marbles symmetrically placed at the sides of a building surrounded by a wide open space paved with white marble.

On the eastern side there is a domus (excavation in progress) with rooms paved in polychrome marbles that form geometric motifs, frescoes and an ample garden, an area with fountains whose center is the building nucleus of a monument probably honorary and in the back a hall, seat of a collegium.

In this area you encounter a deposit of dolia defossa, big pitchers in clay on which measuring capacity is marked, that contained grain.

Behind these there is the ruins of a building called the temple of Diana, for the discovery of a small relief of Diana. Probing under the square’s marble pavement has revealed older houses from the republican age.

The fulcrum of Luni’s urban layout surfaced during the last excavations is constituted by the Forum, stripped almost entirely of its marble floor and with stretches of its marble canal that ran around it, the porticoes on the long sides, the public building mentioned with its columned facade, while on the short northern side separated from the via Aurelia, rose the Capitolium, that is the three-celled temple dedicated to the Capitolina triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) fashioned after the Capitolium of Rome.

The majestic polygonal foundation is found today at the Museum, but only some of the decorative terrecottas used for veneering and finishing have survived. The marble inscription Filgur conditum (buried lightning, or better, secret intentions) now in the Museum, refers to the temple hit by lightning and it’s proof of the reverential fear for objects hit by lightning considered as an expression of the sacred. On three sides around the temple there is a basin-fountain and a marble portico along which were bases for statues.

Outside the city looms the amphitheatre, still well-preserved in the lower structure of the stairs, cavea, the anular and radial corridors and the arena’s entrance hall (it was crowned with a covered arcade; built in corvo stone with marble veneering, it’s attributed to the Antonini age and could contain around 6,000 spectators, it staged gladiator shows and a mausoleum once believed to be a lighthouse, a crumbled nucleus of a cylindrical monument.

The Museum

In the Museum, built in 1964 rather inappropriately close to the most important ruins in the center of the ancient city, there are exhibited detailed, updated maps of excavations, the aerial photo and the map of the city (repeated schematically also outside the Museum on a big slab of stone); also exhibited is a summary of the city’s historical events and panels with a photographic selection of the most important ancient objects emigrated from Luni.

In the hall there are statues exhibited of a gowned personage, a julius-claudia princess with a cornucopia, a loricate, inscriptions of Claudio Marcello, of Acilio Giabrione, crushed earthenware from the floor of the Great Temple; there are also capitals and a geometric mosaic from the republican age.

In the gallery there are elements of architectural decorations, some marble heads; in the glass cases, small bronze objects, fragments of frescoes, a splendid glass goblet (millefiori) from the roman villa at Bocca di Magra, small marble capitals for pilasters, a bronze cornice from the theatre, weights, seals for bricks and amphorae, amber, glass, gems, oil lamps, a wide selection of ceramics, testimony of different products and lively commercial trading.

On the walls fragments of clay decoration from the Capitolium and the Great Temple are exhibited. In the hall containing the photographic panels portraits discovered during the last excavations: Augustus with a civic crown, Agrippina Maggiore, Tiberio Gemello’s bust

Where to stay in Luni

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