Sand of time: Rome

No, this is not about the popular Prince of Persia game- and movie franchise. Rather, it is about the condition in which historical monuments are preserved up to this day. I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to visiting historical places and monuments in and around Europe. I’ve visited my fair share of castles, cities and museums from the moment when I was old enough to hop along with my parents on holiday. Becoming a student of history, and more specifically Ancient Roman history, only made things worse, at least when viewed from the perspective of those people at home who had to read my travel stories with a healthy amount of jealousy. While I tried my best to provide the most spectacular narratives possible, making it seem as if that one small temple near that mountain lake was the most idyllic ever (which it was; honest), it often occurred to me that several monuments had clearly suffered much worse conditions than other locations (which I’ll never admit to my loved ones at home). 

Of course, as many of you will know, there can be a number of reasons for this. One of them is simply the fact that a location, building, fortification, castle, etc. can fall into disuse over time. A certain mountain top or river bank can be a perfect strategic position for a castle or fortress during one period, but become completely useless when borders change. Due to the fact that such abandoned monuments provide locals with a handy source of building materials, such buildings often won’t last long, at least not intact. One should always keep in mind that, while many people in our own age greatly value historical objects and buildings, this was certainly not the case during the Middle Ages and Early Modern era (I know that many of you already know this, but it never hurts to stress it once more). Aside from these tests of time, larger constructions have been deliberately destroyed because they impede ‘modern’ progress (as is often the case with ancient or medieval city walls), and, in addition, many historical  buildings have suffered from (more recent) wars, earthquakes, and other calamities (as was the case for many cities during WWII, of course). 

The most effective method for buildings to survive the ages is for them to remain in use. A nice example is the Pantheon in Rome, built as a Roman temple, which only remained intact because it was made into a church at the start of the medieval period. Actually, ‘intact’ is not the right word: the bronze ceiling of the portico was melted down by order of Pope Urban VIII in the seventeenth century. I still find it bitterly ironic that this very same pope used much of this bronze, taken from a catholic church, to make bombards for the Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel). 

Still, when visiting Rome, it is clear that, nowadays, the city is doing its part to preserve what is still standing. The city center is basically one huge museum, where history can be found on nearly every corner. A rather interesting meaning of ‘sand of time’ can be found on the Roman forum: the forum lies several metres below street level, which clearly shows that a city can accumulate a lot of sand in 2000 years of history, literally burying the older streets and buildings  over time. That we can actually visit the Forum nowadays is due to several excavations ordered by the Italian dictator Mussolini, who wanted to emphasize a connection between his regime and that of his famous Roman ancestors. However, while this provided current tourists with the opportunity to walk the streets once visited by Pompey and Julius Ceasar, his own agenda was more important than a proper study of history. After all, one of the main roads to the Colosseum, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, runs straight through the Roman Forums (burying and/or destroying everything in its path) only because Mussolini wanted to be able to look at the Colloseum from his office at the Piazza Venezia. And Mussolini was not the only one: for the building of the huge monument of Vittorio Emanuele II at the end of the 19th century, the local government pulled down several medieval buildings which would have provided a wealth of information about life in medieval Rome. 

On the other hand, as an historian I am shocked every time someone dares to lay a finger on anything with any historic value, so I might be overreacting at times.

Of course, as mentioned above, many things are still standing. Most notably (at least for us at Medieval Warfare) both the Castel Sant’Angelo and large parts of the Roman Aurelian Walls are still intact. The latter was built by the Roman Emperor Aurelian between 271-275, and enclosed most of Ancient Rome. The walls were built in response to the growing threat of barbarian tribes during the third century. The city’s garrison was never large enough to fully man the walls – which ran for 19 km – but the walls served as a proper deterrent against a barbarian attack on Rome (after all, most barbarian tribes at that time were unskilled in siege warfare, and mostly relied on hit-and-run tactics against easy targets). In the fourth and fifth century, the walls were doubled in height and improved. While it was difficult to properly defend every section without a huge garrison, the walls still formed a formidable barrier for any attacking enemy. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455 (by the Goth Alaric and the Vandal Genseric respectively), but only because the gates were opened by traitorous slaves or by the inhabitants themselves. The siege by the Gothic king Totila in 546 was only successful because the city ran out of food, not because the walls were breached. The same Totila ordered his men to raze the walls in order to prevent an effective Byzantine defense of the city during the ongoing Gothic Wars, but they only destroyed one-third.  What was left of the walls held back another Gothic siege (again, the city was taken by treachery), as well as several other sieges by Lombards and Arabs, though the latter sacked St. Peters’ Basilica (which was located outside the walls). The only really successful attack on the walls themselves was that made by the mutinous troops of emperor Charles V in 1527, though one might argue that this was a direct result of the numerical superiority of the Imperial army. 

The few members of the Swiss Guard, less than 200 in number, bravely held back the attacking troops so that Pope Clement VII could flee to the Castel Sant’Angelo. You can read about this sack of Rome by the Imperial troops in Vassilis Pergalias’ article about the Swiss Guard in Medieval Warfare III.2. 

As for me, I will use this reference to end this blog, and I’ll return to you next week with more on monuments and their condition.

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