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When did Rome begin to fall into ruin?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Arch of Constantine the Great on a postcard from the early 20th century
The Arch of Constantine the Great on a postcard from the early 20th century

Whenever I look at the ruins of ancient Rome, I wonder: how could these magnificent buildings be allowed to perish? Why have they not survived to our times? What a pity you can’t see them today…

When we think about the fall and ruin of Rome, our considerations are directed towards the barbarians, the city’s depopulation, the systematic demolition of old buildings and the use of demolition material to build a new Rome – first medieval and then modern. We think about the paradox of the Renaissance, when, fascinated by the beauty of ancient Rome, people decided to dismantle its remains (as in the case of the Roman Forum).

Today I would like to draw your attention to something completely different: in fact, the slow decline of Rome began long before 476 CE – the date of dethronement of the last emperor of the Western Empire, which was also the conventional end of the ancient world.

Let’s take a look at Rome in its heyday. Starting from the times of Augustus, subsequent emperors decorated the capital of the state with new, more and more monumental buildings – palaces, forums, temples, basilicas, porticos, triumphal arches, baths, aqueducts, etc. On the outskirts of the city, increasingly more beautiful palaces and park complexes belonging to the emperors grew, but also to the richest nobles. The state was rich so it could afford large investments.

However, as I mentioned in my previous entry, large buildings require a lot of strength and money for their maintenance and regular renovations. Vitruvius mentioned that when determining the value of a building, 1/80 should be subtracted from its initial value for each year since its construction. This is a perfect illustration of the problem: the great imperial buildings did not last forever. Like everything around us, they were ageing and deteriorating, requiring constant renovation. Hence, approximately every 50-100 years, each large building had to be thoroughly renovated to continue to serve its functions.

As long as the Empire was fabulously wealthy, the emperors and city authorities were able to finance new investments and bear the costs of renovating earlier buildings. But at some point, this efficient machine jammed, and it happened long before the fall of the empire. Even at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, during the reign of the Severan dynasty, Rome seemed to be at the peak of its power, although wars with the Germans in the north began to drain the imperial treasury. It was then that the monumental Baths of Caracalla were built. However, in the fourth decade, the country was gripped by a political crisis called the “crisis of the third century” – for half a century, Rome fell into the depths of civil wars, when the army or praetorians constantly proclaimed a new emperor, who quickly ended his reign – usually in dramatic circumstances. This break in Rome’s urban investment cycle did not make itself felt immediately; its effects had to wait several dozen years. Until Diocletian, practically no new buildings were built in Rome, and the short-lived rulers had more important things to do than renovating the centuries-old monumental buildings of the capital. It is symptomatic that at that time the most important construction investment in Rome was the Aurelian Walls. Even later, when the crisis was brought under control at the end of the 3rd century, the state’s finances deteriorated so much that little was built and renovations were postponed as much as possible. It’s time to say it straight: Rome was no longer the dazzling city it once was.

If someone walked downtown Rome at the beginning of the 4th century CE, they would see the blackened ruins of Caesar’s Forum, the burned temple of Venus and Roma, and neglected public and private buildings. Since the emperors rarely visited Rome, the great imperial residences must also have looked somewhat abandoned. The outskirts of the capital probably looked even worse.

The reign of Maxentius and Constantine the Great in the early 4th century CE was the final chord of Rome’s architectural greatness. Then the effort was made to build new colossal buildings: baths (known today as the Baths of Constantine – unfortunately they have not survived to this day) and an almost gargantuan basilica between the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, and later also large Christian churches. But above all, it seems that it was during the reign of these emperors that the last effort was made to restore Rome to its former glory. Preserved sources suggest that the old, falling-into-ruin buildings of Imperial Rome were renovated to dazzle visitors again. At the same time, however, comparative studies with other cities of the Empire (especially Ostia) suggest that the mentioned renovation program most likely covered only the very centre of the city. Unfortunately, the outskirts fell into increasing ruin and houses were abandoned. Constantine and Maxentius were not able to renovate all of Rome, only its most important monuments. The truth could not be hidden: increasingly deprived of its political importance and economic power, Rome inevitably fell into ruin. Sources from the first half of the 4th century mention, for example, collapsing gates or baths being taken out of service due to the risk of collapse.

An interesting proof of the city’s situation in the 4th century CE is imperial legislation, which includes regulations explicitly prohibiting the demolition of old buildings and limiting the construction of new ones, as well as prohibiting the removal of decorations from old buildings. The same regulations encouraged the restoration of former buildings to their former glory. Legislative initiatives repeated in the subsequent decades of the 4th century most likely brought poor results. Old buildings increasingly served simply as a source of cheap building materials. But could imperial legislation be effective if the government itself set a bad example? After all, the Arch of Constantine was built from “recycled” materials, and the repairs to the Bridge of Cestius in the 1470s were made using travertine excavated from the Theater of Marcellus… Although they didn’t help much, these regulations show that the ancients themselves were aware of the slow decline of the Eternal City, and at least on paper tried to take measures to prevent its further decay.

We know that in 357, Emperor Constantius II visited Rome and was impressed by its buildings. But other sources written just a few years after his visit suggest that the city was very run down and the lack of care for public buildings was conspicuous.

So when barbarians first arrived at the gates of Rome at the beginning of the 5th century CE, it was no longer the city we imagined at the height of its splendour. On the contrary, it was already devoid of political, economic and military significance. The city was in great decline, boasting a great history and extraordinary monuments, but even then these monuments were falling into ruin. Rome turned into a great open-air museum. ROMA was like an ageing duchess robbed of her estates – living in the past and hiding her miserable condition under rich clothes, but falling apart with age.

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