The Three Romes: Caput Mundi

NB: What follows is highly cribbed from my notes of the excellent “History of European Urbanization” course taught by Robert Ostergren at UW Madison, Spring 2004.

Rome began as a series of villages, which grew into hill forts and then city states.  The site of the modern city was on the plain of Latium, a fertile plain able to sustain a sizable population.  It also had a high flowing and navigable river with sea access and almost from its inception it was an important cross roads between neighboring Etruscan cities to the north and colonial Greek city states to the south.  As Rome grew, it eventually conquered northern Italy en masse and the Greek cities individually.  It expanded from an egalitarian republic to a major imperial power and, by the 2nd century AD, had turned the Mediterranean Sea into a Roman lake and extended the empire as far as Britain (think Hadrian’s Wall).

Romans used urban planning as a major empire building tool – spreading their commerce and culture to (and collecting taxes from) their conquered populace.  Their cities expressed a constant need to control and organize through urban spaces.  Ironically, Rome itself was one of the least organized of its cities, growing organically and too quickly to have the rigid grid of new founded colonial towns imposed on it.

Where the Greeks had built mostly with dressed stone and marble, the Romans used bricks and concrete to cheaply make their buildings much more monumental in scale.  Typical Roman construction was two thin walls of brick with rubble infill between and then a facing of marble.  Even their columns were often brick with marble veneer.  They increasingly used columns as pilasters (attached to the wall for decoration) rather than as structure since they were relying on their hidden materials to hold up the ceilings.

As an example of Roman engineering ,the Pantheon stands out as the most famous Roman temple extant.  It has a massive Greek porch supported by Corinthian columns fronting a huge concrete dome.  The height and diameter are equal (Roman architects were very concerned with ratios) and the building is an engineering triumph – the concrete is heavier around the edges of the dome and thins toward the oculus.  Today it is a Christian church (the reason for its survival of medieval depredations).  But its structure is responsible for its out lasting earthquakes, floods and many occupations since 122 AD.

The nearby Roman city of Ostia (mouth) was a port base for the capitol and largely abandoned during the medieval and later periods before it was rediscovered in the 19th century.  Some pretty ‘medieval’ excavation methods were practiced in its un-earthing resulting in less knowledge than would be best but an amazing sprawl of foundations  streets, temple fragments and public spaces.   I spent a morning wandering the place and feeling alternately peaceful and free of the chaos of the city and a little haunted by the ghosts of the former residents.

So what happened to it all.

Well several things actually.  The impoverished medieval city habitually stripped Roman buildings of their marble for their own building purposes, they also took the metal pins and connections which held huge block structures steady, leaving them vulnerable to earthquakes, floods and general entropy to knock them down.  The Tiber had a nasty habit of flooding (until it was channelized in the 19th century) and silted up and or de-stabilized many Roman buildings.  An earthquake in the 9th century demolished much of the main forum.  In the middle ages, the forum area was reduced to pastureland and the Capitoline hill was called the hill of the goats for literalist reasons.

rome 11

Tune in next time to hear the embarrassing story of how the Holy Roman Emperor’s procession was interrupted by bad roads and slippery slopes and what the Pope decided to do about it.

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