Did you know that Milan was one of the capitals of the Roman Empire? the news is little known and always amazes my guests when I say it during my guided tours.
Milan, or Mediolanum, became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 286 AD. The Roman Empire was extensive and had many “management” problems. Emperor Diocletian divided the imperial territories into two large areas; thus, the Eastern and Western empires were born.
Diocletian became emperor of the eastern empire and gave the trusted general Maximian the task of managing the western one. In addition, he elected two vice emperors.
Thus was born the tetrarchy, a divided command (a power of four people). Two coexisting emperors called Augustus and two vice emperors called Caesars managed the empire from four different capitals.
Maximian, also known as the Eurculean, chose Mediolanum to become the main seat of his court.
He was well aware that Mediolanum’s position was strategic. The quiet provincial town founded by the Celts a few centuries earlier is located a stone’s throw from the main mountain passes. Moreover, it is in the centre of a plain where the main roads intersect. Its strategical position could thus guarantee control facilitated by rapid movements (however fast it could be travelling at the time).
Mediolanum was then renowned for its wealth and because model citizens inhabited it. It was an elegant city with splendid public buildings (a theatre, an arena, a forum with its temples) protected by mighty walls. Emperor Maximian had them enlarged, restored and then wanted to build a circus, his imperial palace, a horreum (a warehouse for foodstuffs) and finally build some imposing baths that would take his name: the Herculean baths.
A few years later, another emperor named Constantine celebrated his daughter Constance’s wedding in Mediolanum. Moreover, In 313 AD., in the same place, he signed a document that guaranteed freedom of worship to all the empire’s inhabitants.
To understand how important Milan, or rather Mediolanum, was in Roman times, we can rely on the words of the poet Ausonius. Visiting it, he wrote words of praise, saying that everything is terrific in Mediolanum; “it is a wealthy and exquisite city”, he said.
You may wonder where the ancient Mediolanum’s remains are and if they are still visible.
The answer is yes, the archaeological remains are there, but often people walk by without seeing them.
I always tell my groups that my city is to be discovered, as its beauties are not very visible. Under Duomo square, for example, we have so much to see. Visit the archaeological area of the cathedral or take a walk in the Duomo’s subway station; you will find surprising things. Under the building that houses the Chamber of Commerce, one can see the remains of the Roman theatre. Under the church of San Sepolcro, one can see what remains of the Roman forum. Behind our beautiful archaeological museum, you can admire the remaining parts of the ancient circus, the mighty protective walls and a watchtower.
I have given you only a few examples. To see more, come and visit Mediolanum or, better, Milan, contact me, and together we will go to the discovery of the ancient Mediolanum, an elegant imperial capital.
Click to watch our video: The ancient Mediolanum remainings.