Ancient Ruins and Medieval Forts

The Demolition of Ancient Rome

The look of Rome did not change only because it became a Christian city, it also lost the status and other more tangible benefits of being the capital of a vast Empire. That honor now went to Constantinople, which endured as the capital of the Roman Empire for another thousand years, when the Ottoman Turks overthrew it and renamed the city Istanbul. Historians now use the label “Byzantine Empire” to refer to this Constantinople-centered version of the old Roman Empire. For the city of Rome, the most important fact is that it no longer was included in the empire that bore its name: it was on its own in an increasingly dangerous world.

Christian Rome managed to build some spectacular churches, but its rapidly declining wealth and population, and its ever increasing insecurity, contributed to the judgments of the new religion to halt maintenance on structures and statues that were no longer wanted or needed. What need did the early Christians have of pagan temples, amphitheaters, or theaters, for example? And how could a tiny and impoverished population ever maintain them? Churches apart, the physical decline of Rome had begun, and wars and political tumult saw it extend to such important elements of the infrastructure as the aqueducts.


Not everything declined. Some structures were repurposed. Temples like the Pantheon and the temples of the Forum Boarium were converted into Christian Churches. So was the Roman Senate House. And the once-beautiful Mausoleum of Hadrian was transformed into a massive fortress, usually used by the papacy, sometime used against it. 

Castel Sant'Angelo

This view of the Castel Sant’Angelo shows also the angel sculptures that would guide pilgrims across it and remind them of Christ’s suffering for their sake. The hulking drum in the background guarded the bridge and the entire Vatican area. Soldiers were safe in it and could sally out to meet their enemy at well-chose moments. (Photo by Blake Buchannan.)

One telling visible change in Rome stemmed from the rise of family fortifications in the city, sometimes built into ancient ruins. They well convey a lasting message, that the dissolution of political power comes with dangerous and long-lasting consequences.

Medieval defensive modifications to a Roman amphitheater

Medieval defensive modifications to a Roman amphitheater (My photo)

The photo of the amphitheater above is not of the Colosseum but of a similar but smaller amphitheater in Nimes, in the south of France. In this case, those who restored it did not remove all of the alterations of the Middle Ages. The result shows that the old entertainment venue had been enclosed and fortified against attack. Similar insecurity afflicted Rome, and forts popped up all around the city and took advantage of the solid structures left by the Ancient Romans. Castel Sant’Angelo is the most obvious example: it turned the beautiful Mausoleum of Hadrian into a fortress. Observant walks through Rome will detect other examples of medieval forts or towers built on ancient remains, though much of this evidence has been lost in the attempt to strip away the medieval and return to the ancient. Hence we cannot see today how the Colosseum once served as a fortress and also as a religious site with a church on the arena floor.

Even Rome’s churches and monasteries found it useful to be fortified, and I was once a little surprised to note that the Sistine Chapel is all business on the outside. Its interior is decorated with the great frescoes of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and others, but its exterior is fortified against attack with machicolations and battlements.

The exterior of the Sistine Chapel

The exterior of the Sistine Chapel shows that it was built with defense in mind, as well as beauty and reverence.

The Vatican Walls

The massive Vatican Walls, first built in the ninth century, show that defense was an active concern. Unfortunately for the Church, they came too late to ward off Saracen attacks in the same century.

Below is a wall forming part of the Basilica and Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, situated between the Colosseum and the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. I include it as suggesting that in the Middle Ages, it was not amiss to fortify sites even in the heart of Rome. In this case, the structure surrounding the basilica was used as a residence for important churchmen, for what is now the Lateran was then the church most associated with the papacy. Not only is the Pope’s Cathedra there, but this is also where the popes lived and worked for centuries. They adopted their current residence at St. Peter’s only during the Renaissance, a mere 500 years ago. Since Santi Quattro Coronati is much further from the Vatican than from the Lateran, it lost its importance as a residence when the high church officials migrated to the Vatican.

The Basilica and Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati

The Basilica and Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati (My photo)

As if to confirm the need for defenses, Santi Quattro Coronati and its entire neighborhood were burned to the ground by Robert Guiscard in 1084, so most of what we see today dates only from the twelfth century, when the complex was rebuilt on a smaller scale. For another example of a fortified church and residence, visit San Saba, which is not too far away.

As forts grew up in the ruins of ancient Rome, so old Roman structures were transformed or otherwise exploited to suit the building needs of a new age. The wall shown above, for example, took advantage of foundations that had been built much earlier by the Ancient Romans. The Frangipani family built their fortress around the Arch of Constantine, and the Savelli did likewise with the Theater of Marcellus. For a more contemporary example of reusing the ruins of ancient Rome, note the charming condominiums built into the upper levels of this same theater.

But these same Romans, or their leaders, were also serious about churches and houses for the religious, so I should not suggest that ancient structures and materials were reused only for defensive purposes. Temples were turned into churches, and various parts of ancient structures, large and small, were used to beautify Christian churches in Rome (and beyond). We will reserve details for a pod, but the Pantheon began as a temple and has been functioning as a church for 1400 years; and if you take a good look at the Temple of Faustina and Antoninus Pius in the Forum, as we will do later, you should be able to figure out that it began as a temple and later became a church.

Medieval Romans made use of Roman structures not only by turning them into forts or churches; they also used them as quarries for beautiful and useful materials. The latter included iron clamps, for example, as the pockmarks on the Colosseum suggest. It is more staggering to realize that rather than seeking unquarried limestone from which to make lime, which is needed to make cement, plaster, and fertilizer, the hard-pressed medieval Romans collected the more readily available marble in the city, even if was in the form of statues or relief panels, and burnt it in kilns to produce lime. This they did for centuries, and it helps explain why there is so little left of the marble the Ancient Romans had used to decorate their city. Bronze statues were even easier and more profitable to melt down.

If this marble has essentially disappeared, it is still possible to see some of the stone the pagans had used to honor their gods and heroes. It turns up in Roman churches and convents. The relevant term is spolia, and a careful eye will see a lot of it. Easiest to note are the beautiful columns that line the nave of many of Rome’s churches and the floors that are so beautifully decorated with geometric patterns of colored marble. Where, I wonder, did these materials come from? We will address the question more carefully in an upcoming pod, but inspecting the columns and their bases in Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, or many other churches should give you a good idea of what I’m referring to.

From Halos to Nudes