Monte Testaccio’s name comes from the Latin word testa, meaning potsherd. It is also known as Monte dei Cocci, which in Italian means “Potsherd Hill”.
It’s a reference to the waste materials that slowly raised the hill, i.e. the amphorae discarded from the nearby harbor on the Tiber. It is about 700 meters around, reaches 45 meters of height, and covers an area of 22,000 square meters, with approximately 25 million stacked amphorae.
Thanks to dating techniques and to the painted or stamped inscriptions on the potsherds, we can estimate that the mound formed between 140 AD and the middle of the 3rd century.
Most of the amphorae stacked in the mound, perhaps as many as 3/4 of them, are oil vessels from Baetica (Baetica was a Roman province in what is now Andalusia). The remaining fragments are from oil vessels from Africa.
The hill’s fame and popularity is tied first and foremost to Carnival celebrations called ludus Testaccie (“games of Testaccio”), which were first documented in 1256 during the papacy of Alexander IV, and renewed every year until approximately 1470.
In the 1600s a new leaf was turned when Pietro Ottini and Domenico Coppitelli purchased the lot next to the hill in order to open some grottini (small grottos), which would house a growing number of taverns (and today have been turned into famous restaurants and nightclubs).
As a consequence, Monte Testaccio went from medieval feasts’ greasy poles to the lavish banquets of the Ottobrate, i.e. the one-day outings people from Rome typically went on in the month of October.
During the Second World War, an entire antiaircraft battery was installed on the hill. It was removed at the end of the war, but four platforms used for cannons are still visible.
History of Testaccio
Testaccio is the 20th district (rione) in Rome.
It comprises the flat area South of the Aventine Hill and East of the Tiber, and is named after Monte Testaccio, a hill formed by potsherds (called testae in Latin) that were stacked over the centuries, coming from the amphorae used to transport goods to and from the Ripa Grande harbor.
It is estimated that Monte Testaccio, which stands approximately 45 meters high and has a circumference of nearly 1 kilometer, is made of about 25 million stacked amphorae – a huge number that can be explained only by imagining a careful placement of potsherds, which were pressed and deliberately placed on the top of the mound.
Some of the fragments show painted inscriptions called tutuli picti, which state the name of the exporter that had used the amphora.
Passion plays were performed on Monte Testaccio during the Holy Week; the cross that is atop the mound today is a modern reminder of these ancient celebrations.
The Emporium port (on the bank of the Tiber, near Via Romolo Gessi) dates back to Roman times, and was the final terminal for the unloading of goods and raw materials such as oil, marble, wheat, and wine from Spain and Africa.
From the 2nd century BC the port facilities’ gradual shift to the South led to the occupation of this area, outside the city walls.
Many businesses flourished in the area, the most important one being the sale of marble – hence the name of Via Marmorata. Consequently, large public and private buildings for the temporary storage of goods were constructed. The buildings were abandoned after the end of the 3rd century, and the barbarian invasions of the 5th century led to the area’s depopulation.
From that moment the arable land in the area was managed by the Monasteries on the Aventine Hill.
Until the 19th century, the area was used for religious and popular festivals, as a gateway to the Basilica of St. Paul.
Testaccio was established administratively in 1921. The site’s urban transformation started at the end of the 19th century, following the construction of a modern food processing facility and of the surrounding working-class district.