Exploring the Field of Mars

Prior to researching this area of Rome, I had not come across the name Campus Martius before. As a history and mythology enthusiast, however, I was eager to find out more about this significant area of the famous city. Guided by the ancient writers and ancient geographers, I have found my way through the Field of Mars, and offer you, the reader, with a guided tour. Imagine arriving at the great iron gates, peering through to the marshland beyond, dotted with crops and altars. As time moves forward, impressive buildings and statues are constructed, covering the grass and overshadowing the altars. The sound of horses’ hooves thunder into the ground, chariot wheels churning up the dirt behind them in the Circus Flaminius — an arena built for great tests of horsemanship. Outside the palaestra (gymnasium) nearby, a ball game is taking place. Some athletes run laps around the area, feet pounding into the damp grass, while others stretch out tired limbs in the morning sun. These are the scenarios which would have been observed by passers-by in the Campus Martius.

A Marshland

Although the Campus Martius, as a specific area, is difficult to define and, inevitably, shifted over time with the needs and wants of the Roman people, it is certain that the Campus was a stretch of land between the river Tiber and the Pincian and Quirinal Hills. This area was marshland and experienced seasonal periods of inundation. The first human-made addition to the scenery was an altar constructed in the centre of the plain, which was dedicated to Mars, the Roman god of war. Apart from the altar to Mars, the field remained relatively empty (with the exception of seasonal army quarters) until the fifth century B.C, when a space for the census was cleared (Livy 4.22.7). Mars was not only the god of war to the Romans, but also of agriculture. Strabo (5.3) tells us that crops covered the rural areas of the Campus, and that the view of the hills beyond the Tiber was something extraordinary; a “spectacle which the eye abandons with regret.” In Livy’s History of Ancient Rome (2.5), he mentions the sacred crop of corn which grew on the Campus Martius, which due to its sacred location had to be routinely harvested and disposed of, as to consume it would have been an act of sacrilege. The campus was scattered with ponds, swamps and streams, such as the Petronia Amnis, which was the largest stream in the area. There was also a small area of woodland, which contained the groves Aesculetum and Lucus Petelinus.

War and the Campus Martius

War was such a recurring theme for Rome, that between 415 B.C and 264 B.C, its citizens only experienced thirteen years of peace. The Campus Martius became a military camp during Rome’s war with the Volsci (an ancient tribe from the regions surrounding Rome) which started in 389 B.C. The campus also saw close combat. According to Diodorus (14.117), all able-bodied men of fighting age in Rome were armed and marched out to counter a Volscian attack on the Roman camp at the Campus Martius. Military service was a seasonal in the early republic, soldiers would gather in the Field of Mars each spring, and were discharged from service in the autumn. The campus would have seen off the troops and welcomed them home. The Punic Wars, which began in 264 B.C and ended in 146 B.C, saw rapid construction on the Campus Martius of temples dedicated to the gods that also celebrated Rome’s victories over her enemies. Military rituals were held in the campus, such as the Equirria (horse races), held on February 27 and March 14. The October Horse ceremony was held on October 15 — another racing event — which ended with the sacrifice of a winning horse. The Campus Martius also acted as an assembly ground for the Roman navy.

The Navalia (Roman shipyards) have been discovered along the edge of the river Tiber, which date to around the fourth century B.C. This port was in frequent use between 146 and 135 B.C, and was likely designed by the Greek architect, Hermodoros of Salamis. During the imperial era, the shipyards of the Campus Martius were converted into animal housing for the Circus Maximus during the imperial era. (Pliny 36.4.110) During the civil wars of the last century of the Republic, Sulla established military quarters within the Campus Martius, where his troops were to await orders by the gates, regarding Marius’ forces who had assembled within the city walls. Similarly, Octavian’s troops occupied the Campus Martius while advancing on Crassus’ troops within Rome.

Who owned the Campus Martius?

The Campus Martius was not always owned by the state, and there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the timeline of ownership. According to Livy, in one tradition the Field of Mars was privately owned by the Tarquin family, but became state property following their exile. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was the final king of Rome, and ruled from 524-509 B.C. Once acquired by the state, the land was consecrated to Mars. However, in another tradition, communicated by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the land had been dedicated to Mars at an earlier time, and was later seized by the Tarquin. Orosius suggests that, from the republic’s early days, the campus was state owned, and that Sulla was the first to sell the campus to private owners, due to financial pressure caused by the threat of war with the Kingdom of Pontus.

A varied landscape.

The Campus Martius acted as the lungs to the beating heart of Rome. It was a gateway to life and death, a training and assembly ground for soldiers and sailors, the place they would await orders to march into battle, and the place survivors were welcomed home. The campus was later a recreational ground and a hub of activity, where athletic games and entertainment were held for the citizens of Rome. If you get the chance to visit this marvellous city, I encourage you to keep this piece of history in mind, and to imagine the area as it once was, all those moons ago.


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Shannen Broun

Shannen is an undergraduate student of Macquarie University, who has studied a Bachelor of Arts in Modern History. Throughout her degree, Shannen has studied Ancient History through electives and has discovered her passion for the ancient world. Learning about and understanding the past is important to her, and she hopes to make history exciting and accessible to readers through her future work and research.