On our trip up the north Dalmatian coast last year, we missed seeing Asseria. It had been high on my list of ancient ruins to visit, but hey, you can’t do everything at once and it gave us an excellent reason to go back that way. It’s an iron-age hillfort, originally built by the Liburnians, then Romanized as they took over the area. Asseria gets a mention in ancient literature, and was a waystation on the road between Iader (Zadar) and Salona (Solin), capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. What it’s best known for these days, are its walls!
The walls really are pretty impressive. Unlike other ruined cities, where the remaining walls hardly rise above ground level, these are still 3m wide and 4m high, built of massive stone blocks that date from the Imperial Roman period, when the earlier Liburnian walls were extensively strengthened. In front of the main wall is a smaller one added in late antiquity, a period of considerable unrest on the Dalmatian coast. Recent research has shown that the northern wall is constructed on top of older fortifications from the 5th century BC.
In addition to the walls, there are a significant number of Liburnian funerary monuments, known as cipus. These were all made locally, so clearly the Benkovac tradition of stone-masonry goes back a long way! These are a quite distinctive cylindrical shape, rather phallic it has to be said, though you can see some Roman influences on the carving of the more ornate ones, now kept at the nearby Benkovac Heritage Museum.
So who were the Liburnians? Good question. Not writers, at any rate. We’re now crossing the grey divide between history and prehistory. Information about these folks comes from what they left, and from descriptions by Roman or other ancient authors and it’s pretty scarce. The Liburnians were a sea-faring lot, very skillful sailors, traded extensively up, down and across the Adriatic. From around the 9th century BC, they developed bases along the coast and on the islands. Stari Grad on Hvar, for example, was one of their settlements before it was ever colonized by the Greeks. They held islands in Central Dalmatia – Diskelados (Brač), Paros (Hvar), Issa (Vis), Ladesta (Lastovo) – as far south as Kerkyra (Corfu), the north coast as far as Istria, and they even had bases in Puglia in Italy.
After about 734 BC, pressure was put on by the Greek traders to remove these “pirates”. Dionysius of Syracuse was relentless in driving them out, and bringing in Greek settlers to hold them off, for example in Issa (Vis) and Pharos (Stari Grad) on Hvar in 384BC. The great naval battle that followed essentially wiped out the Liburnian fleet, and they never recovered the same power after that.
The Umbri tribe also pushed the Liburnians out of Italy, and in time, Liburnian territory shrank back to the small area on the coast by Zadar, plus the north coast and islands. In the 1st century BC, the Romans spread throughout the Adriatic, and Liburnia fell under their jurisdiction. As documented by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD, one of the communities was Asseriates (Asseria – Podgrađe). The Liburnian people continued to be known for their fast galleys and seamanship, and continued to live in their towns, even became quite properous as Romans.
Asseria was on an important Roman road – the shortest distance between Salona and Iader. It’s shown on the Tabula Peutingeria as “Aserie”, a couple of stops out from Iader, on the way to the fort at Burnum. Checking with the handy Roman routeplanning website Omnes Viae, I see it would have taken VII (7) days to travel the XC (90) miles all the way between the capital and Zadar. From that, I’m guessing that you walked it, and you stayed overnight in each town, which must have had inns for travellers to stay. Today, it’ll take you around an hour and a half to zip up the motorway from Split to Zadar.
Talking of travellers, that intrepid explorer of the Dalmatian coast, Abbé Alberto Fortis was here in the 1770s, climbing all over the walls and wishing he had the tools to dig with! Here’s what he had to say about Asseria:
A short mile from the castle (of Benkovac) lies the poor hamlet of Podgraje, which takes its name from the city, which in past ages stood where these wretched cottages are now scattered. Peutinger’s Itinerary places Asseria on this spot; it is the Assisia of Ptolemy, and the Assesia or Asseria of Pliny. This last author, after having specified the Liburnian cities that were obliged to attend the congress or diet of Scardona adds to the catalogue the free Asserians; and this people who created their own Magistrates and were governed by their own municipal laws, were, no doubt, more rich and powerful than their neighbours.
The vestiges of the walls of Asseria that still remain are a sufficient proof of what I have advanced; for their circumference is clearly distinguishable above ground, and measures 3600 roman feet. The space inclosed by them forms an oblong polygon, and they are built with common Dalmatian marble, but not taken from the hill on which they stand, as that furnishes only soft stone. The walls are invested both inside and out with this marble; some of the stones are 10 feet long and they are all of considerable dimensions. The thickness of these fortifications is commonly about 8 feet; but at the narrowest extremity, which falls towards the foot of the hill, they are eleven feet thick; and in some parts their height, still above ground, reaches to near thirty feet. In one place there are manifest traces of a gate: I stood upon the curve of its arch, which some inhabitants remember to have seen entire.
That arch had long fallen down when the first archaeological exploration of the site was started in 1898 by the Austrian Archaeology Institute from Vienna, only to be interrupted by the First World War. Excavations were resumed again in 1999, and research has been continuing since.
Fortis’ arched gate turned out to be a monumental triumphal arch, dedicated to the Emperor Trajan, who visited Asseria in 113AD. Both his name, and Lucius Laelius Proculus, the organizer of the party in his honour were inscribed on the gate. The excavations uncovered the foundations of the gate, along with parts of the decorated columns, capitals and pillasters. A careful reconstruction shows that it was over 7 m high, and must have been an impressive entrance to the city.
Trajan’s Gate replaced the earlier, more modest gate on the west corner, with the ancient road leading up to it. This would have been the primary gateway for the settlement, built on top on an older Liburnian gate set into the dry-stone wall.
In front of the west gate is a further rampart dating from late antiquity, in which they reused any handy-looking monumental blocks left lying around. One of those was stone relief depicting a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, now removed for safe-keeping inside the Benkovac Heritage Museum.
The Forum hugs the inside of the city walls on the southwestern side, where it would be protected from the worst of the freezing bura in winter. There is still part of the original paving to be seen, next to the 15th century church of the Holy Spirit that now occupies the space. Some of the former Roman monuments have gone into the building of the church walls!
Asseria was provided with fresh water thanks to a 3 km aquaduct from the spring of Čatrnja in the present village of Lisičić. In addition to the aquaduct, there were also cisterns for collecting rain water. Most of the houses would have been one story, single rooms, at least in the original iron-age settlement. In later Roman times, there were rather grander structures, especially around the Forum. Maybe one day there will be more in-depth explorations able to provide more insight.
In the end it seems that those massive walls were not enough protection against the invading hordes of Avars and Slavs in the 6th and 7th centuries and Asseria was left abandoned. It was still fairly empty the day we visited, though there are nice clear signs provided by the Benkovac Heritage Museum to help you understand what you’re seeing. The second part of our visit was to that very museum, located in Kaštel Benković on another hilltop nearby. The better preserved cipus, and other stone carvings are held there. As a plus – on the day we visited, they were hosting a wine-tasting and cultural event, of which more to come in a separate article!
Secret Dalmatia article: Lost Roman cities of Dalmatia – Asseria