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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Altered Aspects of Rome
By Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
 
From ‘Historical Essays of Edward A. Freeman,’ Third Series

THE TWO great phenomena, then, of the general appearance of Rome, are the utter abandonment of so large a part of the ancient city and the general lack of buildings of the Middle Ages. Both of these facts are fully accounted for by the peculiar history of Rome. It may be that the sack and fire under Robert Wiscard—a sack and fire done in the cause of a pope in warfare against an emperor—was the immediate cause of the desolation of a large part of Rome; but if so, the destruction which was then wrought only gave a helping hand to causes which were at work both before and after. A city could not do otherwise than dwindle away, in which neither emperor nor pope nor commonwealth could keep up any lasting form of regular government; a city which had no resources of its own, and which lived, as a place of pilgrimage, on the shadow of its own greatness. Another idea which is sure to suggest itself at Rome is rather a delusion. The amazing extent of ancient ruins at Rome unavoidably fills us with the notion that an unusual amount of destruction has gone on there. When we cannot walk without seeing, besides the more perfect monuments, gigantic masses of ancient wall on every side,—when we stumble at every step on fragments of marble columns or on richly adorned tombs,—we are apt to think that they must have perished in some special havoc unknown in other places. The truth is really the other way. The abundance of ruins and fragments—again setting aside the more perfect monuments—proves that destruction has been much less thorough in Rome than in almost any other Roman city. Elsewhere the ancient buildings have been utterly swept away; at Rome they survive, though mainly in a state of ruin. But by surviving in a state of ruin they remind us of their former existence, which in other places we are inclined to forget. Certainly Rome is, even in proportion to its greatness above all other Roman cities, rich in ancient remains above all other Roman cities. Compare those cities of the West which at one time or another supplanted Rome as the dwelling-places of her own Cæsars,—Milan, Ravenna, York, Trier itself. York may be looked upon as lucky in having kept a tower and some pieces of wall through the havoc of the English conquest. Trier is rich above all the rest, and she has, in her Porta Nigra, one monument of Roman power which Rome herself cannot outdo. But rich as Trier—the second Rome—is, she is certainly not richer in proportion than Rome herself. The Roman remains at Milan hardly extend beyond a single range of columns, and it may be thought that that alone is something, when we remember the overthrow of the city under Frederick Barbarossa. But compare Rome and Ravenna: no city is richer than Ravenna in monuments of its own special class,—Christian Roman, Gothic, Byzantine, but of works of the days of heathen Rome there is no trace—no walls, no gates, no triumphal arch, no temple, no amphitheatre. The city of Placidia and Theodoric is there; but of the city which Augustus made one of the two great maritime stations of Italy there is hardly a trace. Verona, as never being an imperial residence, was not on our list; but rich as Verona is, Rome is—even proportionally—far richer. Provence is probably richer in Roman remains than Italy herself; but even the Provençal cities are hardly so full of Roman remains as Rome herself. The truth is, that there is nothing so destructive to the antiquities of a city as its continued prosperity. A city which has always gone on flourishing according to the standard of each age, which has been always building and rebuilding and spreading itself beyond its ancient bounds, works a gradual destruction of its ancient remains beyond anything that the havoc of any barbarians on earth can work. In such a city a few special monuments may be kept in a perfect or nearly perfect state; but it is impossible that large tracts of ground can be left covered with ruins as they are at Rome. Now, it is the ruins, rather than the perfect buildings, which form the most characteristic feature of Roman scenery and topography, and they have been preserved by the decay of the city; while in other cities they have been swept away by their prosperity. As Rome became Christian, several ancient buildings, temples and others, were turned into churches, and a greater number were destroyed to employ their materials, especially their marble columns, in the building of churches. But though this cause led to the loss of a great many ancient buildings, it had very little to do with the creation of the vast mass of the Roman ruins. The desolation of the Flavian amphitheatre and of the baths of Antoninus Caracalla comes from another cause. As the buildings became disused,—and if we rejoice at the disuse of the amphitheatre, we must both mourn and wonder at the disuse of the baths,—they were sometimes turned into fortresses, sometimes used as quarries for the building of fortresses. Every turbulent noble turned some fragment of the buildings of the ancient city into a stronghold from which he might make war upon his brother nobles, from which he might defy every power which had the slightest shadow of lawful authority, be it emperor, pope, or senator. Fresh havoc followed on every local struggle: destruction came whenever a lawful government was overthrown and whenever a lawful government was restored; for one form of revolution implied the building, the other implied the pulling down, of these nests of robbers. The damage which a lying prejudice attributes to Goths and Vandals was really done by the Romans themselves, and in the Middle Ages mainly by the Roman nobles. As for Goths and Vandals, Genseric undoubtedly did some mischief in the way of carrying off precious objects, but even he is not charged with the actual destruction of any buildings. And it would be hard to show that any Goth, from Alaric to Totilas, ever did any mischief whatever to any of the monuments of Rome, beyond what might happen through the unavoidable necessities and accidents of warfare. Theodoric of course stands out among all the ages as the great preserver and repairer of the monuments of Ancient Rome. The few marble columns which Charles the Great carried away from Rome, as well as from Ravenna, can have gone but a very little way towards accounting for so vast a havoc. It was almost wholly by Roman hands that buildings which might have defied time and the barbarian were brought to the ruined state in which we now find them.  1
  But the barons of mediæval Rome, great and sad as was the destruction which was wrought by them, were neither the most destructive nor the basest of the enemies at whose hands the buildings of ancient Rome have had to suffer. The mediæval barons simply did according to their kind. Their one notion of life was fighting, and they valued buildings or anything else simply as they might be made use of for that one purpose of life. There is something more revolting in the systematic destruction, disfigurement, and robbery of the ancient monuments of Rome, heathen and Christian, at the hands of her modern rulers and their belongings. Bad as contending barons or invading Normans may have been, both were outdone by the fouler brood of papal nephews. Who that looks on the ruined Coliseum, who that looks on the palace raised out of its ruins, can fail to think of the famous line—
    “Quod non fecere barbari, fecere Barberini”?
And well-nigh every other obscure or infamous name in the roll-call of the mushroom nobility of modern Rome has tried its hand at the same evil work. Nothing can be so ancient, nothing so beautiful, nothing so sacred, as to be safe against their destroying hands. The boasted age of the Renaissance, the time when men turned away from all reverence for their own forefathers and professed to recall the forms and the feelings of ages which are forever gone, was the time of all times when the monuments of those very ages were most brutally destroyed. Barons and Normans and Saracens destroyed what they did not understand or care for; the artistic men of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries destroyed the very things which they professed to admire and imitate. And when they did not actually destroy, as in the case of statues, sarcophagi, and the like, they did all they could to efface their truest interest, their local and historical association.
  2
  A museum or collection of any kind is a dreary place. For some kinds of antiquities, for those which cannot be left in their own places, and which need special scientific classification, such collections are necessary. But surely a statue or a tomb should be left in the spot where it is found, or in the nearest possible place to it. How far nobler would be the associations of Pompey’s statue, if the hero had been set up in the nearest open space to his own theatre; even if he had been set up with Marcus and the Great Twin Brethren on the Capitol, instead of being stowed away in an unmeaning corner of a private palace! It is sadder still to wind our way through the recesses of the great Cornelian sepulchre, and to find that sacrilegious hands have rifled the resting-place of the mighty dead; that the real tombs, the real inscriptions, have been stolen away, and that copies only are left in their places. Far more speaking, far more instructive, would it have been to grope out the antique letters of the first of Roman inscriptions, to spell out the name and deeds of “Cornelius Lucius Scipio Barbatus Gnaivod patre prognatus” by the light of a flickering torch in the spot where his kinsfolk and gentiles laid him, than to read it in the full light of the Vatican, numbered as if it stood in a shop to be sold, and bearing a fulsome inscription recording the “munificentia” of the triple-crowned robber who wrought the deed of selfish desecration. Scipio indeed was a heathen; but Christian holy places, places which are the very homes of ecclesiastical history or legend, are no safer than the monuments of heathendom against the desolating fury of ecclesiastical destroyers.  3
  Saddest of all it is to visit the sepulchral church of St. Constantia—be her legend true or false, it makes no difference—to trace out the series of mosaics, where the old emblems of Bacchanalian worship, the vintage and the treading of the wine-press, are turned about to teach a double lesson of Christian mysteries; and then to see the place of the tomb empty, and to find that the tomb itself, the central point of the building, with the series of images which is begun in the pictures and continued in its sculpture, has been torn away from the place where it had meaning and almost life, to stand as number so-and-so among the curiosities of a dreary gallery. Such is the reverence of modern pontiffs for the most sacred antiquities, pagan and Christian, of the city where they have too long worked their destroying will.  4
  In one part however of the city, destruction has been, as in other cities, the consequence of reviving prosperity on the part of the city itself. One of the first lessons to be got by heart on a visit to Rome is the way in which the city has shifted its site. The inhabited parts of ancient and of modern Rome have but a very small space of ground in common. While so large a space within the walls both of Aurelius and of Servius lies desolate, the modern city has spread itself beyond both. The Leonine city beyond the Tiber, the Sixtine city on the Field of Mars—both of them beyond the wall of Servius, the Leonine city largely beyond the wall of Aurelian—together make up the greater part of modern Rome. Here, in a thickly inhabited modern city, there is no space for the ruins which form the main features of the Palatine, Cœlian, and Aventine Hills. Such ancient buildings as have been spared remain in a state far less pleasing than that of their ruined fellows. The Pantheon was happily saved by its consecration as a Christian church. But the degraded state in which we see the theatre of Marcellus and the beautiful remains of the portico of Octavia; above all, the still lower fate to which the mighty sepulchre of Augustus has been brought down,—if they enable the moralist to point a lesson, are far more offensive to the student of history than the utter desolation of the Coliseum and the imperial palace. The mole of Hadrian has undergone a somewhat different fate; its successive transformations and disfigurements are a direct part, and a most living and speaking part, of the history of Rome. Such a building, at such a point, could not fail to become a fortress, long before the days of contending Colonnas and Orsini; and if the statues which adorned it were hurled down on the heads of Gothic besiegers, that is a piece of destruction which can hardly be turned to the charge of the Goths. It is in these parts of Rome that the causes which have been at work have been more nearly the same as those which have been at work in other cities. At the same time, it must be remembered that it is only for a much shorter period that they have been fully at work. And wretched as with one great exception is their state, it must be allowed that the actual amount of ancient remains preserved in the Leonine and Sixtine cities is certainly above the average amount of such remains in Roman cities elsewhere.  5
 
 
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