The difficulty of seeing Ancient Rome is that not much of it exists. The distinguished archeologist Rodolfo Lanciani documents this, and today we compare his ways of explaining its disappearance with those of Edward Gibbon.

Show Notes

In earlier times, when papyrus or parchment was in short supply, writing thought to be unimportant or offensive could be erased or covered over so that new writing could take its place. Such reused writing surfaces are called palimpsests, which is from the Greek for “rubbed again,” and sometimes the original writing can be rediscovered beneath the rewriting, as was the case with some works of Archimedes that were covered over by a 13th-century prayer book. I mention the palimpsest because it is one of the most common metaphors used to describe Rome. It often leads us to imagine a city in which new materials and new meanings cover over earlier ones, which remain available for the discovery of archeologists and the excitement of tourists, who are always stirred by talk of “underground Rome.”

This makes sense, but it is important to note that it is often impossible to recover the earlier writing on a palimpsest, and this is the case with ancient Rome as well. Its physical ruins are sometimes legible, but much, much more of ancient Rome has been irrecoverably destroyed. One question is what Ancient Rome was like, another is what caused so much of it to disappear. Today we will look again at the second of these questions.

Our first look at Rome’s physical destruction discussed its four causes as explained by Edward Gibbon; today we will review Rodolfo Lanciani’s book, The Destruction of Ancient Rome, to see what it adds to the account of Gibbon’s final chapter. My main scheme of organization will be to take Gibbon’s causes up one by one and see what Lanciani adds or changes.

The four causes Gibbon cites to explain the disappearance of ancient Roman monuments are as follow:

  1. The forces of nature,
  2. The deliberate vandalism of both barbarians and Christians,
  3. The cannibalization of materials by rulers and the common man,
  4. The effects of local wars over half a millennium.

Now let’s see what Lanciani says about the first there of these topics. We’ll have to return for the fourth in a later episode.

Lanciani certainly acknowledges the toll that earthquakes and floods have taken on the monuments of antiquity, and he reports that he encountered tree roots four inches thick that had worked their way between large stone blocks and compromised their stability. He devotes a chapter to the devasting flood of 856 and mentions a couple of others. But he clearly thinks that the damage done intentionally by human beings is more interesting, for it sheds light on our species and on changing circumstances in Rome throughout the ages. He also thinks human beings have done far more to make Rome disappear than nature has. No flood or earthquake ever removed entirely a large and ancient structure from Rome, but human beings did this over and over again.

I am reminded that during the Allied landings on the coast of Italy, Vesuvius erupted, and this led Churchill to reflect on the awesome power of nature as compared even to that of a powerful army. He is right, but human beings direct their power against one another, whereas Vesuvius had no target, so the Dresden Bombings, for example, took a much higher toll on human beings and their cities than Vesuvius did.

On Gibbon’s second cause, Lanciani clearly agrees that both barbarians and Christians deliberately vandalized Rome, but, as we will see, he is less inclined than Gibbon to emphasize Christian attacks. Regarding the barbarians, Rome was sacked twice by Germanic tribes in the fifth century. Alaric and his Goths sacked Rome for three days in 410. Genseric and his Vandals did likewise for 14 days in 455. Both raids were devastating, and Lanciani summarizes the most important losses in both cases. The Vandals had their ships waiting in Rome’s harbors, and they made repeated forays on which they carried off gold from the churches, half the gilded bronze from the roof of the Temple of Jupiter, the splendid works that filled the palace the Caesars used to inhabit, and, perhaps, even spoils and old trophies from the Jewish wars. It is a curiosity that in the next century, the sixth, many of these spoils, which had been seized from Rome, were carried in triumph to the capital of the Roman Empire; but now this capital was Constantinople, not Rome. For the details, read about the Byzantine army under Belisarius, which conquered Carthage, the Vandal capital in North Africa, and carried much of its wealth to the new capital of the old Roman empire.

Regarding damage to Rome done by Christians acting in the name of their faith, Gibbon is generally quick to remind that once the emperors became Christians, they had centuries to alter the monuments and statues of the once-pagan city, whereas invading tribes had a much more limited time. Moreover, Gibbon indicates that the Christian rulers also had religious motives to get rid of all artistic and architectural reminders of pagan practices, whereas the tribesmen simply wanted booty and wanted it quickly. Lanciani does not deny these differences, but he nonetheless does not find much evidence of damage in Rome caused by excessive zeal: that was a factor in the east, but not in Rome. He cites a certain Claudianus who reported in 403 that there were “vast multitudes of bronze and marble statues” still lining the streets and forums of Rome, and he infers from this and other such statements that many old pagan statues survived in Rome well past the time of the most intense culture wars, perhaps in part because Rome was no longer the center of attention, and its population was more attached to its old traditions. Gibbon cites acts of Christians’ violence against pagans and their monuments, but Lanciani helps us notice that most of the clear evidence for such attacks comes from the east. What happened in Rome is harder to say.

Gibbon’s third way of explaining the disappearance of ancient Roman monuments is their cannibalization by both rulers and the common man. Here Lanciani agrees completely and takes the subject much further: he introduces countless examples of structures and monuments mutilated or destroyed to serve the perceived needs of their destroyers. Both authors are struck by the quantity and beauty of the art and architecture that was destroyed, and both emphasize the utilitarian motives of those who did the destroying. It appears from both authors that it is sometimes possible for generations of human beings to cut beautiful art and architecture to shreds without any appreciation of what they are destroying.

The reuse of an old writing surface is called a palimpsest; the reuse of old building materials is called spoliation. The reused materials themselves are called spoils, but the Italian is usually used, spolia. Lanciani can help with the most important points about spolia in Rome.

First, the use of spolia began much earlier than the fall of Rome. You might remember that our episode on the Arch of Constantine, Episode 21, indicated that the best art on the arch is spolia taken from preexisting monuments erected in honor of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. And if you look at the upper level of the Colosseum, you will see that in places, especially on the north and eastern rim, the wall has been repaired with stone blocks and chucks of columns that were obviously not designed to be where they now are. So, there are two examples of spoliation from ancient Rome itself, one seeking beauty, the other seeking strength. Attentive walks in Rome will turn up countless others.

The beautiful spoils of ancient Rome were also used to build new walls and foundations in the Middle Ages. Lanciani concludes that statues were broken up for the specific purpose of building such walls, for they were not otherwise mutilated. Some of his excavations uncovered many such items evidently broken so that they could be arranged in walls supporting medieval buildings, and his judgment is that they were destroyed in complete disregard of their beauty. Their greatest perceived value was only that they were solid and so could support a foundation or wall, as mere bricks might also have done. Times were hard, and great works of art went unrecognized and unappreciated.

When Constantine built the first St. Peter’s, his builders took columns from many different locations in Rome. A later observer said he could not find two columns that matched, and a Renaissance architect who saw the old columns recorded in detail the many differences among 136 unmatching column shafts. As Lanciani puts it [quote], “Romans of the 4th century thought it less troublesome to rob splendid monuments of the Republic and early Empire of their ornaments already carved, than to work anew [other] materials.”  Lanciani never says it directly, but he seems to think that pagan structures were taken down in Rome not so much because of religious passions but because they could be put to new use in Christian churches or public buildings.

If destroying something is difficult, we need a reason to do it. One reason for dismantling an ancient structure is so that the material can be reused in something like its present form. It might serve as rubble for a new wall, a column for a new church, or, in the case of beautiful stone, it might be recut so as to be added to a new work of art. Another way of reusing travertine and marble is to toss it into a kiln and cook it. Its form would be utterly lost, as statues were turned into powder, but the resulting powder made lime, which was essential for plaster and had other uses as well. To my amazement, this is one of the main reasons we see such a small fraction of the former stones of Rome: they were cooked into oblivion.

The reuse of marble and travertine by recutting it or by burning it began early in Rome’s history, even during the days of ancient pagan Rome. But it appears that this cutting and burning became systematic in the late Middle Ages. During several long centuries, two groups of workers in Rome, two guilds, worked systematically to take advantage of the stones of ancient Rome. The Marmorar’ii spent their lives cutting marble; the Calcarar’ii spent their lives burning it.

The work of the cutters is easy to appreciate: we see it especially in the beautiful floors and walls of many Roman churches. Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and Santa Maria in Aracoeli are just three churches in which their work stands out. It takes a little extra effort to bring to mind what had to be demolished to make these walls and floors possible. The frequent disks in their designs, often of porphyry, are reminders of the many columns, large and small, that first served other purposes and later were sliced into disks, salami style. The second and third of the churches just mentioned offer clear examples of the reuse of columns brought whole from their former locations and pressed into new service along with other unmatching columns from other downed structures. Cut stone from Rome was also sent to Ravenna, Orvieto, Pisa, Lucca, Monte Cassino, Florence, and elsewhere. Lanciani thinks some even ended up in Westminster Abbey. Such was the work of the Marmorarii.

The fruits of the labor of the Calcararii are harder to recognize: plaster just does not stand out the way a beautiful marble floor does. But Lanciani was able to locate some of the kilns used to burn the marble into dust. Impressed by how many there were, he concludes that there was no great source of marble that did not have its own kiln. Since it was easier to move powder than large stones, kilns were built wherever there was a plentiful supply of material, which meant the Capitoline Hill, the Imperial forums, the Circus Maximus, the baths, and so forth. It is hard to believe that a beautiful statue would be burnt for such a purpose—Could they not have limited their burning to unshaped limestone blocks?—but at least one expert remarked that the best plaster was produced from burning the fine Parian marble used for the finest statues. How fortunate the statue of the Laocoon was not pulled out of the ground until this practice had begun to subside! Lanciani concludes, “Temples, baths, theaters, and palaces were demolished piecemeal; their marble ornaments were broken into pieces and thrown into limekilns, and even their walls overthrown and their foundations broken up for the sake of the stones or bricks with which they were faced.”

The cutting and burning were not limited to the city. Ancient Roman tombs were generally stone, above ground, and outside the city’s walls. The aqueducts also ran outside the walls, and like the tombs were readily available for exploitation. Innumerable tombs first were looted for their valuables, then cannibalized to get materials for road repair, and finally burnt for lime. As for aqueducts, Lanciani’s chief example concerns Pope Sixtus V, who authorized the dismantling of the Claudian aqueduct, whose arches spanned a distance of seven miles and were 120 feet high.

When it comes to Gibbon’s third reason for the disappearance of Rome, the demolition of an old but beautiful city to satisfy the perceived needs of a poorer and smaller Christian city governed by popes, Lanciani shares Gibbon’s regrets and adds many more details.

In the later Middle Ages, much of the new building in Rome was done by families to increase their safety, so towers and forts were the structures of choice. Although only a small fraction of these towers and forts remains in the city today, they are a fascinating sign of the times when Rome was riven by conflict among such families as the Frangipani, the Savelli, the Orsini, and the Colonna. Lanciani comments that “All sense of the beautiful, all appreciation of art, seems to have been lost for a time among the Romans,” which seems a likely consequence of living in a condition of frequent danger.

But with the coming of the Renaissance, the demand for old stone was not limited to forts and bunkers, it included palaces, grand churches, fountains, and restored aqueducts. In just the two decades before the new St. Peter’s was begun, six or seven large new churches were built, as was the Sistine Chapel. Papal palaces at both the Vatican and St. Mary Major were also rebuilt, and so were new residences for families with means. This created a new demand for the reuse of the old stones of Rome, which Lanciani estimates by watching the ruins of ancient Rome disappear.

He does this watching through the eyes of Poggio Bracciolini.  You might remember this Poggio as the humanist scholar from the middle of the 16th century, who recovered the one surviving manuscript of Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, and whose reflections on the transitoriness of all things human Gibbon cites in the last chapter of his long work. In any event, Poggio was a good observer, so Lanciani can then report on what went missing in the two and a half centuries between Poggio and himself. In fact, Poggio reports that he observed the disappearance of important structures and ruins even during his relatively short time in Rome. These included large parts of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, of the Temple of Isis near Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, of the Temple of Concord in the Forum, of the Colosseum, and of the town of Ostia Antica, at the seaport for ancient Rome.

Lanciani characterizes what Poggio saw as “wanton destruction,” but he also acknowledges that, at least in the Renaissance, the extensive cannibalizing of old Rome resulted in some extraordinary new structures. His ambivalence is nowhere more clear than in his treatment of Pope Sixtus V, who presided over demolitions too extensive for me to cover here, beyond listing that they included the large structure called the Septizonium that used to sit on the corner of the Palatine Hill near the Arch of Constantine, parts of the Baths of Diocletian, and the Claudian aqueduct. The pope’s unhesitating readiness to use ruins of the past is shown by these remarks, which he made to his chief architect, Domenico Fontana, with regard to a chapel he wants to build, [Quote] “You are authorized to excavate, seize, and remove from any place you think it expedient columns, marbles, travertine, and any other material necessary for the building and ornamentation of this chapel.”

While scandalized by these actions and by Sixtus’s seeming indifference to the destruction of Rome’s ruins, Lanciani concedes that Sixtus “raised structures which to this day command the admiration of the world.” Though I take this concession to be sincere, he is quick to return to the attack: “[There is] one act of vandalism that we can never forgive.” This is the destruction of the old palace of the popes at the Lateran, before they moved over to the Vatican in the Renaissance. Curious, but here we have a pope destroying in just a matter of months a Christian site that Lanciani considers to have been [quote] “of priceless value” and “the most wonderful museum of medieval art that ever existed.”  It’s a good reminder that the Renaissance popes did not limit their demolitions to pagan ruins, as the destruction of the first St. Peter’s also shows.

We have not yet discussed the effect of local wars on the disappearance of ancient structures and their materials, so let’s plan on coming back to this. Gibbon even judged it to be the single most important of the four causes he mentions.