Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Gate in the Aurelian Walls - Our Second Stop

Our Western societies are in many ways based on the Roman Republic.  Or if you are in a more cynical mood, upon the later Empire.  But in either case we instinctively relate to Rome when we look at our own times and circumstances.  This can be misleading.  My initial thoughts when considering the Aurelian Walls were along the lines of our current debate on the role of immigration and on the building of literal walls.

But that does not seem to be very close.  The Aurelian Walls were built quickly and in response to an unimaginable catastrophe...hostile armies approaching Rome!  This had not happened for centuries.  So perhaps the better analogy would be the ring of fortifications that sprang up around Washington DC at the beginning of the American Civil War.

When L. Domitis Aurelianus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops in 270 AD you have to wonder if he was very happy about it. The Empire was a mess.  The Persians were ascendant in the East, having in fact captured the Emperor Valerian a generation earlier and supposedly keeping him alive as a human footstool!  Since then it was all rebellions, barbarian incursions, plagues and short lived Emperors who were raised up by their troops then in short order assassinated.  Repeat.

Things were so grim that Aurelianus decided to put a defensive wall around Rome.  He pulled it off in just five years - actually it was finished after he himself was assassinated - and it is in places sloppy work.  Existing buildings were incorporated into it.  Any kind of building material from grand to gritty was just tossed right in.  But darn it all his Wall worked.  It was still standing tall three centuries later during the interminable Gothic Wars that accelerated the Decline and Fall so abruptly.

Lets visit one of the main gates of the Aurelian Wall, the one that opens onto the Appian Way.

Porta San Sebastiano.  This is one of the largest and best preserved of the Aurelian Wall gates.  That makes sense as the Appian Way was not only the most famous "road leading to Rome" it was a major transportation artery as well.  The gate looks to have been built in various phases and that is exactly correct.  Aurelian and his crash program of 270-275 built a double passageway gate in a set of walls that corresponds to the lower segment of the above structure.  Maxentius, an Emperor who does not get the credit he deserves*, renovated and improved it. Even Honorius, that decidedly lesser ruler of the late, decaying Western Empire did some very effective upgrades, basically doubling the height of the entire twelve mile course of the Walls while reducing the openings to more defensible single lanes.  And of course Belisarius, one of history's truly great Generals, added additional features during the Gothic wars.  In medieval times and up into the modern era the gate had both defensive and commercial functions...it was a toll collection site for those wanting to enter the Eternal City.

The last real defensive use of the walls was actually in 1870 when the Bersaglieri breached the walls on their way to capturing Rome, ending the temporal power of the Pope, and bringing about the Reunification of Italy.**

Note the banner that says: Museo della Mura.  This is the Museum of the Walls.  It was open when we were there, and gives a nice sense of perspective on the structure.

But first lets see the Gate as we did, coming out from the City.

The first thing you encounter is the so called "Arch of Drusus".  This was a support for a now vanished aqueduct that served the nearby Baths of Caracalla. It was simply incorporated into the defensive system.  The actual gate can be seen beyond. Walls connected the two structures creating an enclosed courtyard that would have been a very uncomfortable place for any barbarians who had managed to sneak through the first gate.

Here is the arch from the other side, looking back towards Rome.  As you can see there are a bunch of somewhat barbaric looking people milling about. As this was "Via Appia" day there were large crowds of locals on hand.  Booths and tents for various causes were set up.

Here a bunch of kids are having fun on an obstacle course set up in the courtyard.

Of course it was necessary to go up the stairs into the gate.  Here on a platform actually right over the Appian Way a re-enactor is giving an impassioned speech about the duties of the Roman Soldier.  It was a little hard to follow but I did pick up "Punto gladius", which is at the point of the gladius, a type of short sword.

Looking out from the top of the tower you can see that the walls still remain an imposing barrier.  It would take more than a short sword to do battle along this defensive front.

Looking out over our route for the next phase of the trip.  The Appian Way continues onward.

* Maxentius was a very energetic Emperor, a towering figure compared to some earlier or later ones.  But he was the Pagan Emperor defeated by Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  The Church wrote most of the history of those times.  Constantine turned Christian and was dubbed "The Great".  Maxentius is largely a footnote.

** Oh, there was also a battle of sorts in 1943.  We'll get to that another day.


The Old Man said...

I do believe that you are spreading knowledge in a very "user-friendly" mode. I appreciate that muchly, amigo. TYVM.

Borepatch said...

I once walked from there to the Catacombs of San Callisto. Nice day. There was quite a nice restaurant right across the street from the catacombs.

Tim Wolter said...

might be visiting the same place tomorrow...