University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

What’s the Deal with Roman Walls, Anyway? Autopsy and Analysis of Rome’s Topography – Jordan Rogers


By: Anne Tiballi

January 17, 2018

I was warned about the alluring charms of Rome before I left. “You’ll fall in love.” “Coming back will be difficult.” “It’s hot in the summer.” The latter statement admittedly more enticing than I had expected. I jokingly replied that I might just remain for the year—where else should I be doing my research, after all, if not in Rome? But the power of the Eternal City’s scarred landscape, its ancient ruins sprouting from the modern city’s fabric as a reminder of its sometimes tame sometimes torrid history, quickly removed any facetious thoughts that I harbored. I did, indeed, fall in love; I did, of course, find it difficult to return; I did, in fact, think it was hot in the summer.

A big wall, with a big inscription. The author stands in front of a reproduction of Augustus’ Res Gestae at the Ara Pacis Museum. (Photo by Cara M. M. Rogers)
A view of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill, showing the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Curia Julia, and a number of other monuments and structures. (Photo by author)

Luckily for myself, I wasn’t left to my own devices in exploring the ruins of the ancient city. As a member of the Classical Summer School program at the American Academy in Rome (AAR), I had the opportunity of relying on the expertise of an entire community of scholars at the Academy as well as, more directly, the knowledge and patience of the director of the program, Dr. Genevieve Gessert, and the assistant director, Sophie Crawford-Waters (a Penn AAMW graduate student and fellow at the AAR). With their guidance, we were led from the bowels of Rome—almost quite literally, though we didn’t have the permesso to step inside the cloaca maxima—to Campania, stopping at any number of locations, such as Minturnae, Alba Fucens, Anxur, and Sperlonga, along the way. The 6-week program is designed as a crash course in the topographical development of Rome and its environs, beginning with the foundations of the city in 753 BCE, according to Varro, and ending with the rise of Christianity in the 4th-6th centuries CE. We found ourselves variably in necropolis, including the Vatican Necropolis, and in palatial spaces, such as Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. The sheer quantity of sites—their quality needs no comment—was astounding for such a compressed timetable. But in the end, I gained an intimate familiarity with the materials and structures that I have been reading and writing about for almost a decade. And for this opportunity, I am grateful to the Penn Museum’s summer fieldwork fund and the donors that made this trip a possibility.

The author enjoying a cool day at the Sanctuary of Jupiter Anxur. (Photo by Dr. Eleanor W. Leach)

As for my own research, my time in Italy was integral to developing further the seeds of my dissertation, which will focus on the development of material networks and their use in the Late Republic and Early Empire. As the city found itself shocked by moments of incredible political and economic stress—the Marian-Sullan civil war, the Social War, and the period of the triumvirates—building and development of the city’s fabric almost altogether halted. These pauses in major building projects in the end acted as opportunities for individuals like Sulla, Caesar, and Augustus to undertake massive building programs. But more importantly, it allowed new contractors and producers of materials the opportunity to gain access to an enlivened market that was now seeking building materials and craftsmen from as far away as Asia Minor. In light of exploring these changes, I am currently working independently with Cynthia Damon on researching the history of Ostia, a site whose importance to the city of Rome’s development and maintenance begins to solidify in the Late Republic as well. Inspiration for this research came not only from necessity—Ostia was the port through which overseas materials destined for Rome moved—but also from my experience spending the day at the site with the Classical Summer School. We were led through the site under the watchful eyes of Dr. Joanne Spurza, an archaeologist long familiar with the development of the port city and eager to share her wealth of knowledge to all of us. Here, more than at Rome, one can see what a bustling economic center might look like in plan. And, more importantly, as an extension of Rome itself we can get a better idea of the building techniques used in more mundane structures like the insulae, where the vast majority of the Roman population would have resided—and the construction of which served likely as the backbone of the construction industry.

An example of an Imperial insula from Ostia, showing the detailed eaves of the structure. (Photo by author)

I lost count of how many times I told my colleagues in the program that walls can tell beautiful stories if we ask them the right questions—who built the wall, where did the materials come from, who brought them here, who created the bricks themselves, how long did it take to create this wall, how much did it cost both in terms of money and labor—that bring together the best parts of social and economic history into a coherent whole. Because in the end a wall is more than a part of a building. It is an expression of the economic and social organization of a community, of its connections across the world, and of a complex interplay of people, institutions, and systems. The fact that we have such documents dotting Rome’s cityscape is a testament both to the durability of the medium, and to the curiosity and interest of all those who visit the city. It is just that sometimes, we need to be reminded how interesting those walls really are.

A detail from one of the walls of the College of Augustales in Herculaneum, exhibiting evidence for multiple phases and uses of different building techniques and materials. (Photo by author)

Jordan Rogers is a graduate student in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

 


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