Two history walks in one week, both about the high point of Roman construction abilities during the Imperial era. The Colosseum is an obvious example, of course, and we got a fantastic behind-the-scenes tour, including basements and the attic story. Lights-out construction nerd stuff, but the really interesting part was the ongoing discussion between the antiquities scholars and the medievalists, who (mostly jokingly) talk about how much got removed during the 19th and 20th centuries to leave these places the way we see them. And it’s true–you can see from the beam holes carved into most of the old Roman structures that they were absolutely encrusted with timber additions that made them into homes, warehouses, even barns. That image, of course, hardly played into the Romantic fantasies of the grand tour, or into the fascist propaganda that sought to restore the Imperium along with the monuments. Again, what we see today is a distinctly modern take on the ruins, and I have to admit that seeing these things inhabited, like a middle ages version of the opening scene of Neuromancer, would if anything be even more impressive.
We doubled down on Wednesday with a walk through the Imperial Fora–built by Caesar, Augustus, and Trajan–and being able to see these at eye level, instead of the usual street level overview, made them both more overwhelming and actually more legible. These fora were sort of the mixed-use megastructures of their day, markets, warehouses, offices, courtrooms, general meeting places, and their scale is absolutely incredible. Trajan’s forum is especially impressive–the central basilica spanned something like 55 meters by 115 meters, all in stone and timber. We had James Packer, who’s the leading authority on these ruins, lead the tour, and to hear him talk about both what’s there and how its been variously interpreted brought things into focus a bit. Archaeology, of course, is as argumentative as architecture, with about as many absolute answers, and this issue of “stuff” versus “texts” seems to permeate their work in the same way that architectural versus construction history underlies many of the debates we have; they seem to do a better job of acknowledging the debate and the limitations of hewing too closely to one set of evidence or another.
One interesting lesson in tectonics. The eastern end of the Imperial Fora are still partly filled with medieval ruins, and once Prof. Packer pointed out the differences between Roman walls (perfectly aligned brick and stone, pretty homogeneous material) and medieval walls (pretty much anything goes, and almost inevitably incorporating marble fragments that were appropriated from ancient buildings) you could see the layering much more clearly. To the classicists, these are genuinely wailing walls–who knows what amazing Roman building those marble chips came from? But medievalists, only slightly tongue in cheek, see this as a brilliant recycling job. Nothing I’ve seen talks more clearly about the difference in technological culture between the two periods. Rome, we were told, went from a population of over a million to something like 10,000 after the fall of the Empire, and much of the Imperial Fora ended up being agricultural land as the population retreated to higher ground.