We have now spent several episodes discussing the so-called “Triumph of Christianity,” partly with the help of Edward Gibbon. After 250 years of being persecuted, Christians somehow got the upper hand in the fourth century, the century of Constantine, and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Pagan practices were made illegal, and the old superstition gradually died out.
This shift in fundamental opinions about the purpose of life and reasons we should live morally issued in consequences of almost unfathomable importance, a true transformation of the Western World. Observant visitors to Rome should see evidence of this transformation and welcome the invitation to ponder it. One place we have noted it is in the Hall of Constantine, whose ceiling fresco bears the name, “The Triumph of Christianity.” The main frescos on the four walls of the room record ways in which Constantine contributed to this triumph. Rather, they represent the opinions Renaissance popes wanted to promote about Constantine, and they happened to do so in a way that enhanced their own legitimacy as both spiritual and temporal rulers. Doubts about the reliability of the papal explanation opened the way to more historical approaches, such as that of Edward Gibbon.
Merely noting how densely populated Rome is with churches offers another invitation to think about how Christianity became so prevalent. Still another is Rome’s relative absence of monuments from the pagan past.
You may object to my referring to a “relative absence of monuments from the pagan past.” Millions of tourists come to Rome every year, partly to see the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Column of Trajan, and other such ancient sites. And then there are baths, aqueducts, temples, and theaters and amphitheaters still standing not only in Europe but also in Turkey and northern Africa. But although we do see the impressive ruins that have survived, we cannot see directly the many ancient monuments that have disappeared. Yes, there are three impressive triumphal arches standing in or near the Roman Forum, but there used to be over thirty. Yes, there are several ancient temples still standing in Rome, but there used to be several hundred. Yes, there is still visible evidence of the aqueducts that used to supply Romans with tens of millions of gallons of water per day, but they are no longer a dominant feature of the cityscape and surrounding countryside.
To get a better idea of what has been lost, consult a reconstruction of Ancient Rome as it was at its architectural peak. There are several sites online that show how thickly populated with imposing buildings the city once was. One such site is called Virtual Rome and is maintained by the University of Reading. There is also the Plastico di Roma Imperiale, a large 3D map of imperial Rome constructed at Mussolini’s direction in the 1930’s. It’s about 50 feet by 50 feet, but is unfortunately enclosed in the Museo di Civilta’ Romana, the Museum of Roman Civilization, which has been closed for renovations for almost a decade and shows no signs of reopening. I’ll put links on my website, but if you just do a Google search for “3D images of Ancient Rome,” you’ll have a good shot at seeing how remarkably grand the city once was.
It is beyond me to say with confidence just how many grand structures there were in Rome at its peak, but here are some figures cited by Rodolfo Lanciani, a nineteenth century archeologist who devoted much of his life to the investigation of Rome’s ruins.
He cites a document from the time of Constantine called the Notitia Regionum Urbis Romae. Among other things, it lists 10 basilicas, 11 baths, 36 marble arches, 423 temples, 22 large equestrian statues, 80 gilded statues of gods and 77 in ivory, and many more of distinguished human beings. If you go on a hunt for temples in Rome today—I mean ones that are more or less intact—you will find perhaps 4 or 5, not 423. Of equestrian statues, only one survives, and the vast majority of statues is nowhere to be found. The few of those that did survive, in whole or in part, were beautiful enough to excite the admiration of Michelangelo and the other leaders of the Renaissance.
Getting a better sense of how much of Ancient Rome has disappeared helps to sharpen the question of how, when, and why it disappeared? What caused the destruction of so many of the sturdy monuments of Ancient Rome? General curiosity makes this question interesting for several reasons—what various forces of nature are especially threatening to buildings as solidly built as the Colosseum, for example—but I’d especially like to know how much of this destruction was caused by human beings acting intentionally. What motives led people to play an active role in the dismantling of ancient structures?
As with most fascinating questions, the answers are not crystal clear, but some answers are still better than others. Since we discussed Gibbon in the last two episodes, and since he offers his thoughts in a neat package, I’ll begin with him. Then, in my next podcast, I’ll add to his answer with the help of Lanciani and others.
As we saw in our last episode, Gibbon discusses the destruction of paganism and its practices in chapter 28, but he postpones discussion of the destruction of Rome’s monuments until the very last chapter of his six-volume study, more than 2,000 pages later. I suspect his postponement is partly because paganism was dead by the fifth century, but Rome’s ancient monuments were still being destroyed as late as the 17th and 18th centuries. A second possible reason for putting this discussion at the very end of his long work is that it makes for a melancholy conclusion to his study as a whole. It helps to summon up meditations on the vicissitudes of fortune, which, as Gibbon puts it, “spares neither man nor the proudest of his works; [it] buries empires and cities in a common grave.”
Gibbon explains the destruction of physical Rome by reference to four causes. These are
- Natural causes such as fires, floods, and the general effects of time
- Direct and purposeful attacks on the monuments by both Barbarians and Christians
- The seizing of materials so they can be reused on other projects and in other ways
- Fighting and civil disturbances among the Romans themselves
To begin with his second point, it is now no surprise that Gibbon attributes some of the destruction of ancient monuments to the early Christians, who hated paganism and felt sure that demons inhabited the pagans’ consecrated spaces. It is a typical touch of his to list the Christians’ destructiveness side-by-side with that of the barbarians: he seems to wish to teach or at least to annoy his Christian readers by likening the deeds of some early Christians to those of the Germanic tribes long deemed barbaric and blamed for the fall of Rome. It is part of his project in general to shift at least some of the blame for this fall from the barbarians to the Christians.
Gibbon is not alone in attributing such destruction to early Christians, and contemporary authorities such as Ramsay MacMullen argue along similar lines. But what evidence do they have? The history of Rome from the early centuries of Christianity is not so detailed as to record the demolition of many individual temples or statues, but since some dramatic cases of violence done to temples or other pagan monuments were known—such as the destruction of the Temple of Serapis and the Mouseion in Alexandria—these invite the inference that other structures also vanished owing to Christian hatred of paganism and the desire to see it tossed into the dust bin of history.
Surviving statements by several Christian authorities call for such destruction in vivid terms, and these strengthen the case for inferring that what happened in Alexandria also happened in Rome and elsewhere. For example, a sermon by St. Augustine calls for the smashing of all pagan symbols. He justifies this by saying that “all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated! [This] is what God wants, [what] God commands, [what] God proclaims!”
And then there is the following statement by Pope Gregory about St. Benedict’s foundation of his famous monastery at Monte Cassino, to the south of Rome:
“There was an ancient temple there in which Apollo used to be worshipped according to the old pagan rite . . . . When [Benedict] the man of God arrived, he smashed the idol, overturned the altar and cut down the grove of trees. He built a chapel dedicated to St. Martin in the temple of Apollo and another to St. John where the altar of Apollo had stood. And he summoned the people of the district to the faith by his unceasing preaching.”
Speaking also of Pope Gregory, the distinguished scholar Richard Krautheimer remarks that Gregory was approved, not blamed, for having been believed to have burnt Rome’s ancient libraries on the grounds that the Holy Word of God was far superior. I think there were 6 or 7 public libraries in ancient Rome, some with Greek texts as well as Latin. None survive.
Machiavelli says that whoever “reads of the policies of Saint Gregory and of the other heads of the Christian religion will see with how much obstinacy they persecuted all the ancient memories, burning the works of the poets and the historians, ruining images, and spoiling every other thing that might convey some sign of antiquity.”
It helps to make these accounts plausible if we remember that there was then no liberal tradition teaching the separation of church and state, and neither pagans nor Christians would have thought it reasonable to say that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, whatever it might be. The early Christians had suffered persecution for their faith: to some, it was clearly more important than life or death. Intelligent leaders defended its moral and intellectual superiority to the crazy old pagan superstitions. Sad though it is to say it, it is understandable that pagans, their buildings, and their books came under direct attack. Even in our time, with a liberal tradition that preaches toleration and openness, loud voices were recently calling for the destruction of offensive monuments, and both the extreme Left and extreme Right continue to express anger and hatred for those whose views are different. Even some universities insist on adherence to particular points of view on sensitive subjects. Our own culture wars can help us understand the even more intense ones of Constantine’s Century, and vice versa.
So, Gibbon and the scholars I’ve read attribute some of the destruction of ancient monuments to the actions of Christian zealots, but not all of it. Far from it. Even Gibbon, widely suspected of anti-Christian bias, makes it clear that he sees other causes as far more important. The first cause he mentions concerns the general effects of the passage of time, which of course brings with it fire and floods. In this connection, Gibbon notes damage caused by the flooding of the Tiber River, which was not fixed in a determined channel until a century after he died. He makes the good point that in prosperous times, the damage from fires and floods can be repaired, as was the case even with the extensive damage done by the Great Fire in Nero’s time. But in poorer and less populated ages, it simply gets worse, which explains how it happened that the Forum filled in with up to thirty feet of flotsam and jetsam, as I gather is beginning to happen to some beaches around the world. Earthquakes also played a role in bringing buildings down in Rome, and the spreading roots of plants also helped to separate blocks once joined together.
All this is clear and simple, and I find modern illustrations of the need for maintenance all around my house, whose driveway is riven with deepening cracks and whose roof has lost enough shingles that it’s time for action. A more dramatic contemporary example of the cost of neglect is the case of several once-impressive buildings in Detroit, including several churches, a children’s zoo, a theater, and a central station. Just see my web site or do a search for Detroit’s Abandoned Places.
Third on Gibbon’s list is the seizing of materials for reuse on other projects and in other ways. Imagine a thousand years without anything like a Home Depot; a thousand years without quarries operating efficiently to produce new stone in nice, neat blocks; a thousand years without mines producing the ores that could then be processed to make various metals. And now imagine that a city of 50,000 people lives among the structures that were once sufficient to support a population ten or even twenty times as big. The later inhabitants will inevitably be led to neglect and cannibalize the buildings for which they have no other use and to alter others to suit their needs. Thus the great structures of antiquity often became the equivalent of mines or quarries.
Nor is all such reuse done by the common folks eking out a living among the ruins. The powerful rulers of the day sometimes wanted to embellish their capitals, so they might send their wagons or ships to Rome to get the requisite materials. Gibbon cites Charlemagne, several Byzantine emperors, and Robert Guiscard, as examples of this practice, and Constantine himself made Constantinople great partly at the expense of Rome.
Gibbon’s fourth cause for the destruction of ancient monuments is the almost unimaginable extent to which Rome was rocked by local wars for centuries. The sad spectacle of the city’s physical losses is now rivaled in his account by that of civil strife and its human toll, and this contributes to the melancholy conclusion of his work as a whole. As Gibbon puts it,
“The licentiousness of private war . . . violated with impunity the laws of the [Legal] Code and the Gospel, without respecting the majesty of the absent sovereign, or the presence and person of the vicar of Christ. In a dark period of five hundred years, Rome was perpetually afflicted by the sanguinary quarrels of the nobles and the people, the Guelphs and Ghibelines, the Colonna and Ursini.”
Apart from the direct damage done by urban warfare, heightened insecurity leads to defensive measures. In the case of medieval Rome, this meant that some ancient structures were converted into forts with towers, while others were dismantled to provide the material for this repurposing. In the former category, Gibbon names the triumphal arches that served as the foundation for added fortifications, and he suggests in general terms that similar conversions transformed structures like the theaters of Pompey and Marcellus, the Colosseum, the mausoleum of Hadrian, and so forth. It is understandable but partly a shame that archeological restorations tend as much as possible to strip structures back to their original form, for this makes it harder for us to see how, for example, the Arch of Constantine was converted into a fort by the Frangipane family. Still, some sketches survive from former ages, and we still have a handful remaining of the many towers that once served the security and interests of powerful Roman families. Gibbon adds that even churches were protected by fortified walls, as you can still see from the examples of the Vatican and Santi Quattro Coronati.
I’m persuaded that these four causes were at work in the dismantling of a great city, and I’m struck that at least the third of them—the reuse of ancient materials—was still taking a toll as late as the 17th century, so the destruction of Rome took over a thousand years. But I think Lanciani and others can help us be more precise about which of these causes did the most damage. Since this has a bearing on what motivates us human beings to destroy beautiful things, I think it’s a topic worth returning to.
 Rodolfo Lanciani, The Destruction of Ancient Rome, p. 49
 See MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire 100-400, 95 and elsewhere.
 See Machiavelli, Discourses, II.5. It looks as though John of Salisbury would be a good source, esp his Policraticus, 8.19.