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The landscape around Bellinzona in early times looking northwards (Silvano Gilardi).

The age of the Roman Empire

Under Emperor Augustus, the Alpine region was incorporated into the Roman Empire as the result of a series of military campaigns. To take the Rhaetia in 16/15 BC, the Roman troops used a pincer strategy, encircling the enemy on both sides and bringing in reinforcements. They attacked from the south, setting up a base camp at Bellinzona, where they built a castle on the rocky outcrop of Castelgrande. Traces of this construction (remains of the castle wall and other minor finds) came to light during archaeological excavations carried out in 1967. In the 1st century AD, following the consolidation of the internal administrative structure of the Roman State and the transfer of the limes imperil to the right bank of the Rhine, the castle lost its original function and fell into disuse. It is certain that the site was fortified again in the 4th century AD during the Diocletian-Constantinian reform of the Empire and its defence system. The latter consisted of setting up military positions as far south as possible and creating successive protective belts supported by a series of fortresses and watchtowers. The innermost line of defence, to protect Italy, consisted of a chain of fortifications strategically situated at the southern outlets of the Alpine valleys. This defence system made the construction of a castle in Bellinzona imperative. Halfway through the 4th century, therefore, quite extensive fortifications were built on the top of Castelgrande rock, capable of housing a whole cohort (1000 troops), should the necessity arise. At the southern edge of the flat area on which the castle was built, archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of the fortified wall with a gate that was later bricked up.
It can be assumed that the town and county (comitatus) of Bellinzona originated at this time as people gradually settled in the area around the rock to engage in the various commercial and productive activities which were essential for the efficient functioning of this Roman settlement. Bellinzona is mentioned for the first time as an administrative district in documents dating from the 11th century. Its parish church, dedicated to Saint Peter, appears to have been built in the 5th or 6th century within the vast castle perimeter. The efficiency of Bellinzona's fortifications was successfully demonstrated in 475, when a formation of 900 Alemannic soldiers which had managed to cross the St. Bernard Pass was defeated at the battle of «Campi Canini» (near what is now the village of Arbedo, north of Bellinzona) and forced to beat a retreat.

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