Ancient Rome thrown into the limekiln
Most of the treasures of Antiquity can only be left to the imagination: destroyed by intolerance and greed, by accident, or by time itself, they only are fragments of stone or words. Of the list of the Seven Wonders, the only one still standing, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, only do so because of their sheer size; despite having been quarried for over 1500 years, that size has allowed them to still stand more than 4,500 years later.
As to the other six wonders, one can walk on a pier, in a field or in a desert and be lucky to find enough fragments to fall into a reverie and imagine the temple, the mausoleum or the statue that used to stand there.
No building of the Eternal City, Rome, made it to the “wonder of the world” list. What would have been the potential wonders of Rome in Antiquity? According to guidebooks of Rome as it was in the mid 4th century AD, the sights of Rome offered plenty of choice:
- 424 temples
- 304 shrines
- 80 statues of gods made of precious metal
- 64 statues of gods made of ivory
- 22 equestrian statues
- 36 triumphal arches
- 3,785 bronze statues
And no one even bothered to count the marble statues, as it was said there was at least one marble statue for each Roman, in a city were hundreds of thousands of people lived. There also were imperial palaces, immense baths, aqueducts and circuses. And 28 public libraries.
Yet, Rome does not look like this anymore, so what happened? Did the barbarians destroy ancient Rome? The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken in 410 when the Goths of Alaric sacked and looted Rome, before then burning the palaces of the wealthy after having emptied them of their portable riches. Three days of horror and they left packing with gold and silver treasure. As they were Christians, they spared the basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. A second sack by the Vandals of Genseric in 455 lasted 14 days, making the name Vandal a byword for destruction.
But can looting by Goths, Vandals or any other invader account for the disappearance of the vast amount of stone that comprised the 424 temples and the marble statues too numerous to count? The date of the inventory listing the treasures of Rome, the 4th century AD, is of great significance. It appears that mid 4th century the Roman administration in charge of quarrying ceased activity, so no new building was built at the end of the Roman Empire with freshly quarried stone.
Up until then the Roman Empire quarried and transported stone from afar, from Greece, Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, and built hundreds of monuments, as well as aqueducts, baths, sewers etc. But the materials for the first great building done during the 4th century, the basilica of Saint Peter, the world’s largest church, were plundered from nearby monuments.
When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, a new set of laws, the Theodosian Code, would seal the fate of the temples. Per the Code, “the temples shall be immediately closed in all places and in all cities, and access to them forbidden, so as to deny to all abandoned men the opportunity to commit sin”. Those worshipping differently “We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment”. And worshipping statues “if any persons should be proved to devote their attention to sacrifices or to worship images, We command that they be subjected to capital punishment”.
As a result, the 424 temples, 304 shrines and thousands of statues ceased being useful. The Eternal City slowly crumbled as the repeated sackings, the lack of maintenance of the aqueducts, and the desertion of the temples took their toil. Rome was becoming a shadow of its former self. With the abandonment of most of Greek and Roman knowledge, the ability to build to the same scale and quality was lost. Romans of Antiquity could visit lavish baths and relax in warm water. In the most upscale baths they could enjoy libraries and two comfortable reading rooms, one for Roman works, the other for Greek.
But in terms of hygiene and housing, the Romans of the Middle Ages lived as if Rome of the Republic and Empire had barely existed.
Imperial Rome had 28 public libraries, the largest containing 20,000 books, half Greek, half Latin. By the late 4th century an historian wrote that “the libraries are shut up forever like tombs”. Two centuries later, the largest library in Italy only had 120 books. In a world with barely any books, there was only so much one could do.
Roman genius undone
Not only had the Romans lost vast amounts of the Ancients’ knowledge, they also lost their ambition. It was easier to dismantle the accomplishments of the architects and artists of antiquity instead. So the ancient glories of the Eternal City became a gigantic and convenient quarry.
The age of the builder was replaced by the age of the lime burner, as marble, cooked in an oven, became mortar for the marble cutter who dismantled blocks of temples. Before, Rome traveled afar to seek coloured marbles, to Turkey and Egypt. Now, to decorate Italian cathedrals, the precious coloured marbles ancient Rome had brought from long distances were cut into small pieces to make mosaics.
During the Renaissance, ancient Rome was deemed worthy of rediscovery. The statues now taking pride of place in the world’s great museums were found among building material : “the statues lie broken in fragments, ready for the lime-kiln, or are made use of as building material. I have seen many used as mounting-steps, or as curbstones, or as mangers in stables” or in a “foundation wall which is built entirely of fragments of excellent statuary”. Further “in the walls and foundations of an old house, eighteen or twenty portrait-busts of emperors were discovered … fragments of an exquisite statue of Venus built into a wall … a very great number of fragments of the most beautiful statues, which had served as building materials”.
High quality marble was particularly sought after as “many torsos and statues discovered in digging cellars used to be thrown into the kilns, especially those sculptured in Greek marble, on account of the wonderful lime which they produced”.
The dissembling of ancient works is one of the reasons why antique statues are so incredibly rare; the practice explains how one of the celebrated statues of antiquity, the Hercule Farnese, was found broken in different parts, the torso in the ruins of a bath, the head at the bottom of a well, and the legs ten miles away. At least it was saved.
Another widely recognised masterpiece was left where it was found: “masons discovered a marble group of the Laocoön, broken into many pieces. Whether from ill will or from laziness, they left the beautiful work of art at the bottom of the trench, and brought to the surface only a leg. It was a replica of the Belvedere group, considerably larger, and so beautiful that many believe it to be the original”. The reason why such an important statue was left buried? “The slovenliness of the masons who were afraid they should get no reward for the trouble of bringing the group to the surface”.
Such were the conditions of the times when great artists, such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and later Bernini, who “discovered seven statues broken in pieces and built into a wall”, tried to salvage past treasures. For them, it was a way to learn how to build monuments as impressive as those from Antiquity. Architects need technical knowledge, so how many books about ancient art and architecture survived for them to build the Renaissance? Only one.
The loss of books was so immense that only a single book of architecture, Vitruvius’ treaty, reached the Renaissance.
The Renaissance was meant to rediscover Rome’s ancient past, while at the same time feeding off it, treating remains of the past not as monuments to admire, but to sell off as quarry. The building of Renaissance Rome resulted in another great wave of destruction, as fragments of temples which may have been worthy of admiration were still dismantled. The Coliseum was so efficiently plundered that a single contractor was able to extract 2,500 cart-loads of stone from it in only 9 months.
Ancient Rome was dissolved in the kilns. There were so many ovens swallowing buildings and statues that a district of Rome was named ‘Lime-pit’.
So much so that it prompted artists to complain. Raphael wrote to Pope Leo X, and reminded him of “the great achievements of the Romans, the wondrous skill shown in the opulence, ornamentation and grandeur of their buildings” which were amazing enough to be considered “more likely to be fables than facts”.
Then Raphael mentions his “enormous grief at the sight of what you could almost call the corpse of this great, noble city, once queen of the world, so cruelly butchered. And yet, why are we complaining about the Goths, Vandals and other perfidious enemies of the Latin name when the very men who, as fathers and guardians, should have defended Rome’s wretched remains did in fact spend a great deal of time and energy trying to destroy those relics and to expunge their memory? How many Pontiffs, Holy Father, allowed ancient temples, statues, arches and other buildings, to fall prey to ruin and spoliation? How much mortar was made from the statues and other ornaments of the ancients? I would go so far as to say that all this new Rome that can be seen today, however grand, beautiful and marvellously ornamented with palaces, churches and other buildings, is built using mortar made from ancient marbles”. Raphael’s call “to ensure that what little remains of this ancient mother of the glory and renown of Italy is not to be completely destroyed and ruined by the wicked and the ignorant” fell on deaf ears, as not long afterwards a Pope allowed his services to feel free to tear down and dig as much ancient marble as they pleased.
Even the Pope’s own architect complained that “ruins were sold like oxen for the meat-market”. City officials protested that “it is clearly seen that the antiquities of Rome are disappearing every day, on account of the search for marbles”.
Building 400 temples, 11 aqueducts, immense public baths and sewers systems only took the ancient Romans centuries of ambitious construction work. Yet, even if destroying is easier than building, it still took 1,500 years to dissolve their efforts into the kiln.
The last time the wonders of ancient Rome were destroyed was in 1869, when Pope Pius IX had a section of the antique gate dismantled as building material.
This article is an extract of the chapter “Ancient Rome recycled into building materials — the Pantheon, surviving wonder of Antiquity” from the book “Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of human genius by intolerance and greed”.
Sources : Rodolfo Lanciani, The Destruction of Ancient Rome: A Sketch of the History of the Monuments, and Pagan and Christian Rome, and The ruins and excavations of ancient Rome.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, The Theodosian Code and Novels, and the Sirmondian Constitutions, translated by Clyde Pharr, XVI.X.4, XVI.X.6, XVI.I.2.
The Library with 20,000 books was the Ulpian Library. One of the first libraries of the medieval era was Cassiodorus library at the Vivarium monastery.
Raphael Sanzio and Baldassare Castiglione Letter to Leo X (c.1519), in “The Letter to Leo X by Raphael and Baldassare Castiglione, c.1519,” in Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks, Palladio’s Rome: A Translation of Andrea Palladio’s Two Guidebooks to Rome.