The transformation of a meagre entryway amidst a city’s macabre memories into a grand portal surrounded by the idyllic gardens of Roman aristocracy.

Setting the Scene

Porta Esquilina, or the Esquiline Gate, once stood where the Gallienus Arch can now be seen. It was positioned in the eastern portion of the Servian wall on the southern end of an artificial defense mechanism, known as the agger (Dionys. IX.68, 1890)(Figure 1). As it currently stands in modern Rome, the grand single archway that remains of the refurbished gate is tucked away among the quiet townscape only really catching the attention of those who happen to be passing by and the enthusiasts of Roman history, who might seek it out. If one were to travel back about 2,400 years ago to the gate’s inception, they would witness this small entryway acting as an eerie highway, marked by the graves of paupers and slaves being watched over by Rome’s funerary goddess, Libitina.

A Gate of the Servian Wall

Porta Esquilina was one of 16 gates built into the Servian wall, the remains of which are peppered throughout modern Rome. The wall gets its name from Servius Tullius, the 6th king of Rome, who was originally believed to have constructed the wall in the 6th Century BCE. Despite the date of construction being contested, potentially pushing the date forward to the 4th Century BCE, well after the rule of Servius, the name has managed to stick (Holloway, 1996, p. 91-92). The Esquiline portion of the wall is constructed of tuff a form of volcanic rock extracted from the Grotta Oscura quarry, a mine approximately 15 kilometres from the city (Holloway, 1996, p. 92; Lancaster, 2005, p. 13)(Figure 2). From this information it has been concluded the original Esquiline Gate would have been comprised of the same tufa.

The Ancient Bottleneck

Whether on purpose or not, the Esquiline Gate was positioned in a very economically strategic position (Malmberg and Bjur, 2011, p. 365). The flood plains, rivers and plateaus of landscape beyond the eastern wall forced any traffic coming towards the city from this region to be funneled into the gate. Furthermore, a large amount of produce generated near the gate was comprised of perishable goods. As such, the best choice for producers was to conduct their business at the market place just within the Esquiline Gate. The gate would have also experienced increased foot traffic in comparison to the others of the Servian wall as the forum just within the gate frequently hosted a market referred to as the nundinae (Malmberg and Bjur, 2011, p. 366). The constant business of these traders hosted in and around the Esquiline entrance resulted in the gate becoming one of the most congested points of movement along the Servian Wall.

Renovating Rome

In fact, it was due to this traffic nightmare that the gate was to eventually be pulled down and reconstructed as a triple-arch in the 1st century BCE (Holland, 1946, p. 58)(Figure 3). The original gate would have only just accommodated for single lane traffic as it was a mere three metres wide, not at all built to withstand the pressure of concentrated Roman trading. The new travertine gate, therefore, was designed with three portals spanning just over a combined seven metres (Malmberg and Bjur, 2011, p. 373)(Figure 4). According to Holland (1946, p. 57) this replacement is a rather unique example of a triple arch as it does not conform to the common structure found across the rest of Europe. Normally the archways would be set equally in a lateral direction, though in the case of this new gate the side portals were staggered equally backwards from the larger central arch. It is through this unconformity that the arch can be approximately dated to the Augustan era reconstruction program which saw to reconstruct Rome’s busiest portals into the city (Malmberg and Bjur, 2011, p. 373). In 262 CE, the gate was altered and rededicated to the emperor Gallienus and his wife, evident from the inscription which remains upon the arch (Holland, 1946, p. 58). Despite the surviving gate being with only one of the three original entryways, passing through the grand archway of Porta Esquilina today continues to invoke the memory of the grand city of Rome to which it once led.

From a Memory of Death to a Vision of Life

The graveyard of the common folk and a general dumping ground marked by a shrine dedicated to goddess of funerals, Libitina, were oddly placed no more than 100 metres from Porta Esquilina. The grimness of this area was only to be bolstered by the performance of public executions just within the gate. To top it all off, if the city were to experience events resulting in widespread deaths, the agger would act as a mass burial site (Lanciani, 1890, p. 65). These customs and practices lead to the gate becoming an active reminder of the city’s darkest moments. It seems this combination of macabre memories littered across the landscape just beyond the Esquiline Gate became inspiration for the advisor of Augustus, Maecenas, to renew the scenery with the addition of gardens (horti) to his estate (Horace. I.8.14, 2005). This revitalizing and soothing image that was introduced to the gate’s surroundings encouraged other nobilities to further develop the area with gardens of their own (Malmberg and Bjur, 2011, p. 364). Thus, the Esquiline Gate that greeted the city’s citizens and visitors amongst a landscape of misery was now surrounded by tranquil landscapes of abundant gardens built by aristocracy.


Dionysus of Halicarnassus 1890, Roman Antiquities, Book IX, Chapter 68, Translation by E Cary, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Holland, L B 1946, ‘The Triple Arch of Augustus,’ American Journal of Archaeology, 50(1), pp. 52-59.

Holloway, R R 1996, The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium, Routledge, London.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) 2005, The Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, Book I, Satire 8.14, Translation by A S Kline [Accessed: 20 May 2020].

Lancaster, L C 2005, Concrete Vaulted Construction in Imperial Rome: Innovations in Context, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lanciani, R A 1890, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York.

Malmberg, S and Bjur, H 2011, ‘Movement and Urban Development at Two City Gates in Rome: The Porta Esquilina and Porta Triburtina,’ in R Laurence and D J Newsome (eds.), Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space, Oxford University Press, New York pp. 361-385.

Further Reading

Platner and Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Rome, in particular their entries on Porta Esquilina and Horti Maecenatis.

For a brief introduction to the Servian Wall, watch this video provided by The American Institute for Roman Culture.

Notes on the Servian Wall gives a far more detailed background on the Servian Wall and it’s construction.

This page on Roman Architecture by Mark Cartwright explores the different building materials used throughout Rome. The section Materials and Techniques contains descriptions of Tufa and Travertine along with the reasoning behind their use.

Ancient Rome in Light of Recent Discoveries, specifically pp. 64-67, provides a fascinating image of the region around the Esquiline Gate while it was still used as a graveyard and dumping ground.

Dominique Bezzina

Dominique Bezzina is a penultimate Archaeology student majoring in geophysics at Macquarie University. As a part of her PACE internship, she is working under Ray Laurence to generate content for the MQ City of Rome Blog. Dominique has a keen interest in understanding how past humans interacted with their environment and studying the ancient remains of that relationship.