The wealth and variety of natural resources in the area of Brescia, as well as the ease of communications, guaranteed by the ancient routes which converged around the hill called Cidneo, had all helped to determine a thriving economy as early as the 5th century B.C., at the time of the first settlement.
Brescia was the most important city in this area at the time of the Cenomani. According to Polibius and Livy it became a city governed by Latin law in 89 B.C., graduating to full roman law between 49 and 42 B.C. under Augustus the city received the honorary title of colony and an organic urban plan was laid out, including fortification walls and an orthogonal street network, as well as wealthy mansions.
The Monumental centre of the ancient city is still visible today along the street called Via dei Musei, corresponding to ancient decumanus maximus. the ancient city centre includes the Capitolium, a temple erected by order of emperor Vespasian in 73 A.D., dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; opposite the Capitoliumis the ancient Forum, a porticoed square, bordered on the southern end by a basilica; at the foot of the hill rose the city’s Roman theatre.
During the Republican period a worship centre had occupied this space; a unique specimen in Northern Italy, this largely well preserved temple is decorated by very high quality mosaics and frescoes created by artisans from central Italy.
In many of the city’s neighbourhoods a number of roman residential areas have been identified, where residences held rich mosaics and frescoed walls. the city, which the Longobards reached in 569 A.D., was quite different from the roman Brixia; once paganism was abandoned, and especially after the fall of the roman empire, the urban organization began to slowly collapse.
The main city axis shifted West, towards the new buildings dedicated to christian worship, which rose in the area of today’s piazza Duomo, outside of the roman city walls.
The eastern half of the city was abandoned and the buildings partly deprived of theirvaluable marble. With the sole exception of the ancient theatre, which remained in useas a place for meetings and assemblies, all ruins were covered by the earth transportedby runoff from the Cidneo, the hill which overlooks the city on its northern side.
Many areas within the walls by this time were used as pastures. Led by Theoderic, the Goths had settled in
Brescia between the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century A.D., only occupying the eastern neighbourhoods in limited numbers.
In the area of Santa Giulia there is evidence of human habitation within the walls of old buried roman domus which jutted out from the ground, which had been subjected to minimal adaptation work, which was carried out with reused roman materials. on the other hand, along the decumanus maximus, within an enlargement of the city’s fortifications to the West, the Goths built the so-called Palatium.
The Longobards settled in Brescia presumably in 569 A.D., in the same year of their arrival in Italy, and entrusted its government to the Duke Alachis.
The city’s importance grew after the Longobard conquest, which turned the town into one of the main bulwarks in the effort to resist the threat posed by Franks and Byzantines.
The importance of Brescia mirrors that of its establishment, which played a first rate role in the Kingdom’s history.
Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum explicitly mentions Brescia regarding the discussions between Perctarit and his son Cunipert, which concerned the concession of the Duchy of Brescia to Alachis. This was because by doing so, Cunipert would “give his enemy the strength to Reign”.
Paul adds: “This is so because in the city of Brescia there have always been large numbers of noble Longobards”. He thus underlines the importance and strength of the city, from which two Longobard Kings rose to the throne: Rotari and Desiderius.
Moreover, according to the Historia Langobardorum, the Longobards had as their ancestress Gambara, mother of two brothers named Iborand Aio: the name ‘Gambara’ is still today present in the territory of Brescia. It is both the name of a small town in the plain in the province of Brescia, as well as the name of one of the most ancient noble families, the counts Gambara.
Rotari, the Duke who governed the city, became King and in 643 A.D. he published an Edict which bears his name, and which contains the Longobards’ first written laws.
Under King Desiderius and his wife Ansa, Brescia reached the pinnacle of its prestige, as testified by the public royal patronage clearly manifest in the monumental size and wealth of decoration of the Monastery of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia. This Monastery was founded by the royal couple.
The defeat of King Desiderius in year 774 meant the city fell under carolingian rule.
On their arrival in Brescia the Longobards at first took up strategic positions of control, concentrating on the two opposite ends of the decumanus maximus, the main roman road which crossed the city from east to West. To the West, in the same area of the Late Antique Palatium, the seat of authority during Gothic rule, the Longobards built the curia ducis (namely, the ducal court); instead to the east, in the direction of Verona, there were the royal areas. The enceinte, built under Emperor Augustus - which dated from the 1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D.-, was still in use. Within its perimeter, in the large abandoned areas of the roman city, the Longobards built their simple homes and begun tilling the land and engaging in small scale cattle grazing.
Archaeological research has identified a settlement characterized by: systematic reuse of the ruins of roman buildings; scattering of habitations both within the old city blocks, or insulae, as well as along the city streets, thus occupying public areas; a prevalence of single room habitations with walls built using a mixed technique including wood, masonry and using clay as a binding agent; the custom of discharging refuse on site, leading to the progressive raising of the levels of use; the custom of burying the dead close to the houses.
All this points to promiscuity between habitations and manufacturing facilities, and burials, which are typical traits of postclassical settlements. these characters are particularly remarkable in the very area in which the Monastery of San Salvatore will be eventually built. It is here, in fact, that a rather poor settlement is attested, which shows many signs of the fact that handicrafts were practiced there. Habitations here mainly consisted of huts with earthenware floors spread over a level of roman mosaic floor, and with walls comprising wooden upright poles placed firmly in the ground.; the spacious halls of the roman domus type residences, whose walls stuck out over the levels of debris, were subdivided by means of screens made of wattle or pelts.
It was only during the second half of the 7th century that the wood huts were pulled down, and the first masonry buildings were erected by trained masons, who built walls made of stone chips and mortar: a Church was built, which preceded the one which would be founded by Desiderius, and included at least three buildings and a well cistern, all surrounding a central courtyard
A second building phase is recorded in mid the 8th century: Desiderius, Duke of Brescia was presented with fiscal estates by King Astulf, whom he had loyally served.
In 753 A.C. Desiderius and his wife Ansa began building a Benedictine nuns’ Convent, called San Salvatore, and entrusting its direction to their daughter Anselperga, who thus became the nunnery’s first Abbess.
Three years later, in 756, Desiderius became King of the Longobards; he fostered the ambition of starting a royal dynasty and generously endowed the convent, which had meanwhile acquired the relics of saint Julia, a gift of his son Adelchi in 761 A.D.
Around the conventual building the Longobard aristocracy encouraged the building of structures to be used as housing for the pilgrims and for the poor.
The Monastery became part of the widely diffuse monastic network which spread all through Longobard territory and played a primary role in contemporary society, both as a religious point of reference, as in the field of economy and politics. Its royal foundation conferred to this monastic community remarkable independence from the Diocese’s religious authority, together with financial independence and ample power over the surrounding area, as well as a string of donations and privileges.