Le Mura Aureliane
HENDRIK W. DEY, THE AURELIAN WALL AND THE REFASHIONING OF IMPERIAL ROME,
AD 271-855 (Cambridge University Press 2011). Pp. xv + 360, figs. 63. ISBN 978-0-521-76365-3. $110.
The Aurelian Walls of Rome are the largest, and one of the very best-preserved, monuments of antiquity: almost the entire circuit survives, an extraordinary 19 km in length, originally with 16 major gateways, and nearly 400 towers set every 100 Roman feet along its length.1 The circuit as first built under the emperor Aurelian in the 270s was impressive enough, but under
Honorius at the beginning of the 5th c. its height was approximately doubled, to a formidable 16 m, and its gate-towers massively enhanced. The main reason why the wall is so well preserved is because no later rulers of Rome could, or needed to, add substantially to this structure: it remained the final defence of the city until symbolically breached by the forces of a united Italy on 20 September, 1870.2 Unsurprisingly, it has attracted expert archaeological analysis: in particular, I. A. Richmond’s ground-breaking and beautifully illustrated City Wall of Imperial Rome of 1930 and, more recently, a series of detailed studies by L. Cozza, a scholar who was literally born to study the wall, since his childhood home included one of its towers.3 H. Dey’s book is not seeking to supplant any of this fundamental structural analysis, though he does add a few important structural observations, which we will come to below. His major aim, captured in his title (“… and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, AD 271-855”), is to explore the impact of the wall on the city, and indeed on the wider world, through late antiquity and into early medieval times.
This is a novel approach, eschewed by the austere structural analyses of Richmond, Cozza and others, and makes the book a serious addition to studies on the wall.4
Dey opens with a chapter on the structure of the wall and its various phases from Aurelian’s time into the 9th c. As he rightly points out, this is mainly a useful synthesis in English of current Italian scholarship, which has moved on from Richmond’s time, particularly in recognising that the substantial heightening of the wall is early 5th c. in date and not from the time of Maxentius, as Richmond believed. Dey also adds some interesting and useful observations of his own. In particular, he describes (24-27) a section of river-wall, with a well-preserved tower, that has apparently escaped serious scholarly notice, and he rightly points out that the history of the 1 English, perhaps following Italian (that favours ‘le mura aureliane’ over ‘le mura aurelianee’), has for the most part settled on calling the walls ‘Aurelian’, although ‘Aurelianic’ is undoubtedly the correct adjective for things connected to the emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelianus. The only section of the Aurelian Wall that does not survive well is the part in Trastevere. To appreciate the scale of the wall, it is worth walking its full circuit, though this is a pleasanter task in the quieter southern sectors than along the major highways that hug the circuit to the north, the deep cutting around
Muro Torto being particularly treacherous. 2 Papal defence, rendered hopeless by the withdrawal of French troops (as a result of the FrancoPrussian war), was no more than token. 3 I. A. Richmond, The city wall of Imperial Rome. An account of its architectural development from Aurelian to Narses (Oxford 1930). Cozza’s work consists of detailed analysis of the wall, section by section, starting in the southern sector of Trastevere and working clockwise round the circuit, taking its structural history right up to the present day (with, for instance, fascinating detail on the firing-slits added in the 19th c., and on the graffiti written by French troops in around 1849). Sadly, at Cozza’s death, he had only reached the Porta Tiburtina (about halfway round the circuit), though he had also published the short but important stretch between Porta Latina and Porta Appia. His articles appeared, over some 20 years, in BCom 91 (1986) and 92 (1987-88), AnalRom 20 (1992), 21 (1993), 22 (1994) and 25 (1997), and PBSR 57 (1989) and 76 (2008). Also fundamental, for the medieval history of the wall, is R. Coates-Stephens, “Quattro torri alto-medievali delle Mura Aureliane,” ArchMed 22 (1995) 501-17. 4 This cannot be said of the last, very brief, English-language monograph on the subject: M. Todd’s
The Walls of Rome (1978), though it has some good illustrations.
B. Ward-Perkins880 wall up to the 9th c. is more complicated than the three major identifiable and datable phases of building-work and repair: the Aurelianic, Honorian, and papal work of the late 8th and 9th c.
In the main text, and in two appendices (285-303), he identifies and discusses work on the wall that must be 4th c. (because it is sandwiched between Aurelianic and Honorian brickwork), and work that is probably later than Honorius and earlier than the 9th c. His most radical suggestion is that the great marble blocks at the base of the most elaborate gates (such as Porta Appia and
Porta Flaminia) are post-Honorian (tentatively Dey suggests they might date to a period shortly after the Justinianic Wars). His point, that the history of the wall must have many sub-phases, is a good one, but (as Dey himself says) these need further study.
In chapt. 2 (“Planning, building, rebuilding and maintenance”), Dey considers the practicalities and implications of such a massive project, beginning with a discussion of the placement of the wall, where he makes the very good point that the incorporation of buildings like Castro
Pretorio and the Amphitheatrum Castrense was probably done more to neutralise potentially dangerous structures (if left outside the wall-line) than to save on building-costs. In this chapter, Dey branches out into the wider implications of the wall, with an argument that such a huge undertaking must have required a substantial re-organisation of the labour-force of the city, and this helps explain the transition to the harsh system of demands made on Rome’s collegia in the 4th and 5th c. (100-9). As he acknowledges, the wall can only have been a catalyst in this momentous development, since it is a change that occurred throughout the Roman empire, but he is right to speculate about the impact of such a massive, and rapid, undertaking.