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.
< previous section | next section >