Located at the Southern tip of of the Istrian peninsula, Pula sits at a location highly appreciated by ancient civilizations. It is a town of extraordinary beauty and culture with a three thousand year long history. This important Istrian port boasts a rich and varied cultural heritage that has attracted visitors for centuries.
According to legend, Pula was founded by the Colchians, who pursued the Argonauts here after the latter had stolen the Golden Fleece. They called it Polai, signifying “city of refuge”.
Pula was originally founded as a fortified settlement of the Histri, the pre-Roman inhabitants of Istria after whom the peninsula is named. In the Illyrian period, until the arrival of the Romans in 177 BC, Pola was no more than the surroundings of nearby Nesactium, the political, administrative, military and religious centre and capital of the Histri. As a result of intensive colonization, trade routes, as well as the importance of its military position, Pola took over the leading position. Numerous trades developed in that period: agriculture, viticulture, olive-growing, fishing and pottery for the transport of olive-oil, wine, wheat and fish.
Pola was elevated to colonial rank between 46–45 BC under Julius Caesar as the tenth region of the Roman Empire. During that time the town grew and peaked at about a population of about 5,000. Pola became a significant Roman port. During the civil war that followed Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Pola took the side of Cassius, since the town had been founded by Cassius Longinus, brother of Cassius. After Octavian’s victory, the town was demolished. It was soon rebuilt at the request of Augustus’s daughter Iulia and was then named Colonia Pietas Iulia Pola Pollentia Herculanea. Pola was transformed into an imperial city where some of the best examples of Roman architecture were built.
The rich itinerary of ancient monuments definitely begins with the amphitheatre, locally known as the Arena. Set a short walk north of the city centre, its outer walls are remarkably preserved. It is one of the best preserved amphitheatres and justly compared to the Colosseum in Rome, the Arena in Verona and the amphitheatres in Pompei, Nimes and Arles in France, and El Jem in Tunisia. Today, the arena is used as a venue for many concerts and film festivals.
An early arena made of wood was constructed when Augustus ordered Pola to be rebuilt. This was replaced by a successively enlarged stone building completed during the reign of Vespasian. Such a large structure (132 m x 105 m) had to be built outside the city walls along the Via Flavia, the road from Pula to Aquileia and Rome. The amphitheatre could hold about 20,000 spectators.
Since the amphitheatre was built on a slope, the part facing the sea consists of three stories, while the other part has only two stories. The exterior wall consists of 72 arched and rectangular apertures constructed in limestone.
The amphitheatre at Pula is unique as it features four rectangular towers that had been included into the outer wall mantle. Each of them held a wooden staircase leading to the top rows and to a water reservoir. The reservoirs were filled with rainwater that fed a fountain used to refresh the spectators in the heat.
A series of underground passageways were built underneath the arena along the main axis from which animals and fighters could be released while stores and shops were located under the raked seating. Today the underground area hosts an permanent exhibition devoted to viticulture and olive growing in Istria in ancient times. The exhibits include reconstructions of machines once used for the production of olive oil and wine (mills, presses, vessels) and amphorae used for storing and transporting olive oil and wine.
Amphorae are specific vessels that were used for storing and transporting olive oil, wine, salted fish and preserved fruit. The characteristic Istrian amphora has a very pronounced egg-shaped body with a long neck narrower than the body and small handles on opposite sides.
Two other notable and well-preserved ancient Roman structures are the 1st-century AD triumphal arch, the Arch of the Sergii and the temple of Rome and Augustus.
The Temple, situated in the Forum, was dedicated to the goddess Roma and the Emperor Augustus. It was constructed between the year 2 BC and AD 14 when the Emperor died. According to its shape it follows the typical pattern of the Roman temples but its function changed through the years. With the ending of the pagan ancient era its original pagan function ceased and the temple was afterwards used as a church and a granary. In the beginning of the 19th century it was used as a museum for stone monuments.
The temple of Augustus was built on a podium with a tetrastyle portico of Corinthian columns. It is 17.65 m long, 8.5 m wide and 13.17 high. The temple was part of a triad consisting of three temples. The Temple of Augustus stood at the left side of the central temple, and the similar temple of the goddess Diana stood on the other side of the main temple.
The temple of Augustus is one of the most beautiful examples of early Roman imperial temple architecture.
In 1944 the Temple of Augustus was hit by a bomb and completely destroyed. It was reconstructed between the years 1945 and 1947 and nowadays it houses a collection of ancient stone and bronze sculptures.
Although the larger central temple has not survived, the whole back side of the Temple of Diana is still clearly visible due to its incorporation into the Communal Palace built in 1296. The temple of Diana is believed to have been constructed at the same time and in the same style as the Temple of Augustus.
A short walk from the Forum, at the south-east entrance to the town centre, stands the Arch of the Sergii (a famous patrician family in ancient Rome). This arch was built at the end of the 1st century BC (around 29 and 27 BC) by Salvia Postuma Sergii with her own money, in honour of the three members of her family who took part in the battle of Actium.
The 8 meter high Arch was constructed in Corinthian style with strong Hellenistic influences. It is richly adorned with relief decorations of grapevines while its centre depicts a scene of an eagle fighting a snake. Two winged victories stand between the inner half columns. Above the cornice, rest the stone pedestals were the sculptures of the three members of the Sergii family we laid with inscriptions. The sculptures have not been preserved.
In Roman times the whole city was surrounded by walls and was entered through twelve gates. In the 19th century, the walls had become old and unnecessary so they were pulled down. Parts of the walls however have been preserved until today.
Seven gates were located near to the sea and five gates were built inland. Three of the five inland gates have been preserved. Standing between two medieval towers, the Gate of Hercules is the oldest surviving Roman structure in Pula.
A carving of the head of Hercules and his club is clearly visible at the top of the arch.
A damaged inscription bearing the names of two Roman officials can be found next to the club. The first one, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, was Caesar’s father-in-law while the second one, Lucius Cassius Longinus, was the brother of Gaius Cassius Longinus (one of the two leading instigators in the assassination of Julius Caesar). They had been entrusted the duty to establish a Roman colony in the bay of Pola. Today the Hercules gates is the entrance to the seat of the Italian Community.
Just a hundred meters away from the Hercules gate stands the most beautiful Roman gate in Pula; the Porta Gemina also called Twin Gates. It was built between the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd century AD.
The Porta Gemina was once the entrance to the city. Its road led to the Arena and further to Nesactium.
The Twin Gates today lead to the Archeological Museum of Istria (sadly closed to visitors since April 2013) and the Roman Theatre. In addition to the Amphitheatre, Pula had two theatres during the Roman period. The larger one, which has not been preserved, was situated outside the city walls, on the slopes of Zaro hill (Monte Zaro). The other theatre known as the Small Roman Theatre was situated within the city walls. It was built in the 2nd century AD.
The remains of the scene, semicircular orchestra and cavea have been partly reconstructed.
Roman floor mosaics are one of the wonders of Pula. Many are kept in the Archaeological Museum of Istria. After the bombing of World War II, remains of Roman houses with mosaics were found under the block of houses. The most impressive and popular of all mosaics from Pula is the “Punishment of Dirce” which has been preserved in-situ.
The subject of this artwork is the horrifying punishment inflicted on Dirce by the sons of Antiope whom she had mistreated. The twins Amphion and Zethos are tying her to a bull who will drag and trample her to death. The entire floor is divided into 40 areas dominated by geometrical patterns with animal details (fish and bird). The mosaic covered the floor of a central room of a Roman house, probably from the 3rd century.
There is another Roman house named the Agrippina’s house located on the southeast corner of the Roman forum. A marble bust of the empress Agrippina Minor was found in 1988 during excavations.
Here you can take a virtual walk through Pula.
For more information about Pula, visit the official site of the Pula Tourism Office here.
Further photos can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.