This short pod explains how much ground level has changed over Rome’s long history, which in turn enables us to understand better how transient some human achievements are, how depopulated Rome became during the Middle Ages, and how much we need to use our mind’s eye if we are to going to see Ancient Rome well.

Show Notes

We observe better if we know what we are looking for, and I here suggest you keep an eye out for evidence of the way the street or ground level of Rome has changed over the centuries. Doing so deepens our understanding of how transient some human achievements are, how depopulated Rome became during the Middle Ages, and how much we need to use our mind’s eye if we are to going to see Ancient Rome well.

Note a few examples should spark you to notice other such changes on your own and to ponder their causes.

It is easier for debris to accumulate in a valley than on the top of a hill, so the effect I mention here is more pronounced in the lower parts of Rome than in the higher. Here are a few examples.

Roman temples usually sit on elevated platforms, so why does the Pantheon only have one step up? And why is the entire piazza in front of the Pantheon higher than the temple porch, so we walk downhill as we approach the temple?

To help your thinking, take a walk around the Pantheon. Narrow excavations around the perimeter show the original ground level to have been quite a bit lower than the level today. The ground has risen up all around the Pantheon and in the surrounding area. How many steps up to the front platform do you think are buried there?

Rome's Pantheon used to sit high: now it is below the level of its piazza

Blake Buchannan’s photo of the Pantheon and its Piazza indicates that we today walk downhill, not up, on approach the magnificent temple. It wasn’t this way in ancient times!

Rome’s most famous and most visited piazza is Piazza Navona. It shows no obvious traces of having been an ancient structure. But if you walk around its north end, you can see the foundations of the ancient structure that gave the piazza its racecourse-like shape. It happens to have been a stadium built by Domitian, the tyrant of the Flavian Dynasty whose Villa we discussed last week, in our first visit to Castelgandolfo. Note how much you must descend to reach the ancient ground level of Domitian’s Stadium. Again, it’s clear that the surface level of Ancient Rome was much lower down than the surface of today’s city.

The most dramatic examples are just beyond Piazza Venezia. One is the whole area of the Forums. They are all low down! The main street through them, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, rests on centuries of accumulated rubble and debris and is thus at the level of today’s Rome. Archeological excavations on both sides take us down to the level of ancient Rome, which look to me to be on average about twenty feet lower than street level.

Clearly, the Forum filled with detritus and mud, so the place Marc Antony persuaded the Romans to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war was just a cow pasture for ten or more centuries.

Temple of the Divine Faustina and Antonius Pius

Blake’s photo of the Temple of Faustina shows how high above the current ground level is the former entrance to the church, which was used in the Middle Ages.

When you are in the Forum and look patiently at the Temple of Faustina, you should see the signs that it was at some point converted into a Christian church. And where is the door for that church? Perhaps thirty feet above ground level. Now that modern archeologists have removed centuries of debris, the door is high above ground and a good indicator of how much the level of the Forum has changed.

As for the Church of San Clemente, I’ll just say, “Visit it.” Or, rather, “Visit them,” for there are two churches there, one stacked on top of another, and that’s just the beginning.

The lower parts of Rome used to be a flood plain for the Tiber, so they flooded regularly. When the floods came, they deposited all sorts of debris wherever they went. Remember that for centuries, Rome’s population was low, often under 50,000, so it was impossible to maintain all the aspects of a city that had been home to a million or more citizens. So floods were one of the reasons the street level of the city rose. They were also the reason that the New Italy built walls along the Tiber, so it would cease its regular invasions of the city proper.

Markers on the sides of buildings indicate the levels reached by the Tiber during memorable floods. Such markers are fairly obvious on the corner of San Rocco (which is by the Ara Pacis), on the façade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, on a pillar of the Santo Spirito Hospital, and elsewhere.

So here is my suggestion for the day: keep an eye out for signs of changes in Rome’s ground level, note markers that record floods, visit San Clemente, and, especially, imagine a once-great imperial capital becoming so neglected that it fills up with mud.

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