Pula is a major port and industrial center in western Croatia and one of the main tourist attractions thanks to the legacy of the Roman culture. It is in the City of Pula that we find the most spectacular group of Roman monuments. To anyone who has stood on the hillside back of the great amphitheater and watched the golden glint on the bay at sunset through its arcades, or who has seen it at the same hour from the water, rising luminous and ethereal, there is no amphitheater in the Roman world, even the Coliseum, that gives as keen a thrill of artistic delight. The very barbarous gutting of its interior by the medieval Venetians, to use its blocks of famous Istrian stone for building material in Venice, has heightened its unique beauty by turning the arcades of the enclosure, which are in perfect preservation, into as many symmetrical picture frames. One cannot, however, claim an Augustan date for this amphitheater, as for that of Salona, the attribution to the time of the Antonines is in harmony with its style.
But the rest of the Roman architecture of Pula is almost certainly of the Augustan era; the city gates, the Colony Arch, and the Capitolium, or Temple of Rome and Augustus, all bear the marks of this time. The most interesting is, of course, the Arch called Porta Aurea, or Arch of the Sergii. Certainly, no local artist could have designed this Arch of Pula, but one of the foremost Hellenic artists in Roman employ.
The early Augustan date of this Arch is not understood; neither has it been recognized by any critic as a colony arch; but both of these facts are certain, and the first is vouched for by its inscriptions, which prove that it was built out of funds given by Salvia Postuma of the family of the Sergii, and was surmounted by statues of the men of this family, who were the first magistrates of the new colony. In the center of the attic stood the statue of Sergius Lepidus, who is described as aedile and military tribune of the Twenty-ninth Legion, and on either side were those of the brothers L. Sergius and Cn. Sergius, both aediles and duumvirs of the city. The mere fact that Sergius Lepidus was tribune of the Twenty-ninth Legion is enough to prove the Augustan date of the Arch, because this legion was disbanded about 30 B.C., after the battle of Actium, and went forever out of existence, together with many other legions, which were no longer needed after the close of the civil war with Marc Antony.
From other sources, the date of the raising of Pula to the rank of a colony can be fixed as at any rate earlier than 27 B.C., and probably than 29 B.C., because its official name was Colonia Pietas Iulia. It is known that all the Augustan colonies founded during and after 27 B.C. were named Augusta, while the earlier ones, founded under the Triumvirs (43-30 B.C.), were named, as this one is, Julia. Further, the emphasis given to the memorial character of the foundation by the addition of the prefix pietas might indicate, for the foundation of the city, the earlier part of this period, near to Caesar’s death, perhaps the years just after 42 to 39 B.C., when Asinius Pollio was reconquering the country for Augustus. It may be then, i.e., in the disbanding after Philippi, that Sergius brought here the veterans of the twenty-ninth legion, rather than after the battle of Actium, and became chief magistrate of the new colonia deducta. As for the exact date of the Arch, it is a well-known fact that shortly after 27 B.C., when Augustus had worked out a permanent constitution for the empire, making him absolute ruler, the statecraft of the new regime required the recognition of the divine transcendency of the Emperor, and the dedication to him alone of all public monuments, especially such records of the establishment of the Roman civic rule as these arches. After this time, no dedications of public buildings to private individuals were permitted by law: such arches as those of the Sergii at Pula, the Gavii at Verona, the Julii at S. Remy, and the Campani at Aix-les-Bains, are, therefore, all earlier in date. History and politics are the indispensable illuminators of archaeology. For these reasons, Graef’s ascription of this Pula arch to the age of Trajan is a simple impossibility. Even artistically, he proved to be wrong, for the exquisite scroll-decoration of the inside pilasters is purely Augustan, as is every other feature.
The Arch that resembles it most closely in style both of its pilasters and of the victories in the spandrels is that of Cavaillon in Southern France, which is also early Augustan. Might not some of the neo-Hellenic artists of Provence be responsible for the Arch of Pula? For some reason, which we cannot now understand, this Arch was placed not outside the walls, on the pomerium line, but inside the main city gate, the triple-arched, so-called Porta Minerva. It cannot have been moved here from outside the walls to preserve it, at the time of some barbarian invasion. It was made to form the inner face of the court of this gateway. Only from old lithographs and prints can we understand this arrangement, for the ignorant “archaeologist,” who undertook the early restorations at Pola, in 1826, thought the Augustan city gate was medieval and tore it down. It must have been the Porta Praetoria of the original colony, and its keystone had the bust of the protecting goddess of the city, whom the local archaeologists dubbed Minerva. Fortunately, several other primitive city gates remain the simple, single arched Porta Herculea (Gate of Hercules), so-called from the youthful, heroic head and greaves on the keystone; the more architectural, double-arched Porta Gemina (Twin Gate); and a small gateway leading to the Forum, or Capitolium, of the Augustan city. The Porta Herculea is built with so extraordinary a diagonal archway that it is quite evident the road, the limits, and shape of the city had been determined before its construction, as was the case, for instance, with one of the gates at Pompeii.
In the interesting congeries of fragments inside and around the temple of Augustus, which has been transformed into a Roman museum, there are several sections of friezes that belonged to architectural monuments of a triumphal character. One series hints at another arch like that of the Sergii, with its frieze of arms and armor, its vessel’s prow and oar, pointing in the same fashion as it does to both naval and military victories, such as were those of Augustus over Antony. Another section of frieze, divided into triglyphs and metopes, has in each metope a group of arms or armor, some of Gallic character. All this accentuates the military position of the city’s founders.
The temple itself, dedicated to Rome and Augustus, is still a splendid specimen of Augustan art. Originally it was a double temple of the type familiar from monuments of a later date, in different colonies of the Roman world. The two stood side by side in a sacred enclosure, with a space between them, and represented the imperial equivalent of the Roman Capitolium, the worship of Dea Roma, and of Augustus, the viceroy of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Old prints show how much more remained over a century ago. One of the facades is still superbly intact, with four very high Corinthian columns supporting the gable, and two others at the ends, in front of the antae, forming the customary deep Roman portico. The details of the ornamentation of the gable are particularly perfect and among the none too numerous bits of pure Augustan temple detail.
If so much still remains of Pula, it is because, when the engineers of Napoleon I. visited it and pronounced it the greatest military harbor of the Adriatic, it was practically an abandoned town, with a few hundred inhabitants, and had been so since the close of the Middle Ages.