Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall

This is the last of the Rome 2017 photo posts, and then as promised last week, some more properly academic content will at last materialise. But right now, I hope you can forgive some more photographic antiquarianism. On the last full day of my stay in Rome so long ago, we went down to the Parco Archeologico Ostia Antiqua, which is the preserved ruins of Rome’s old semi-detached port city, Ostia. Now, this is a pretty amazing site and I could probably have wandered round it all day; there’s enough left that if you could visit a lot, you’d be able to learn the street layout and start treating it like an actual town which you knew.

View through some of the ruins of Ostia to the Capitolium

View through some of the ruins of Ostia to the Capitolium

But what has been preserved and conserved is basically presented as a Roman imperial site. I understand that Ostia survived in operation at least into the seventh century, but you won’t see that on the ground now.1 And that’s fine, but it means I have nothing much to say about it that’s relevant to the blog except to go look if you get the chance. Instead, here I want to do what I did on the day and stop briefly at the passage through the Aurelian Wall.

Section of the Aurelian Wall, Rome

A section of the wall

Now, the Aurelian Wall is also proper Roman, being named after the emperor who put it there during his brief reign of 270-275 (although in the context of the third century, five-and-a-bit years was actually a pretty good run and he did reunite the Empire during it… but someone still murdered him anyway).2 Quite why he did this, given that however bad the third century had got Rome itself had not been threatened, is debated: deep protection against invasions into Italy, or just placating or impressing the city on whom his continued latitude to operate as emperor depended? If the latter, as we’ve just seen, that didn’t work, but the walls have remained up in a large part of the city’s south-western area and, though much topped up and fixed up, remained the cornerstone of its defence throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Section of the Aurelian Wall seen from the Via Ostiense, entering the city

Section of the Aurelian Wall seen from the Via Ostiense, entering the city

So it is, in the sense I’ve already deployed, a medieval ruin as well as a Classical one, but on this occasion I do also have a real early medievalist point to including it. My main point to being there on the day was that I teach Aurelian and the so-called third-century crisis every year and wanted some pictures of the walls under my own copyright. Ironically, now that I have finally processed these, I’m rebuilding the module and may never teach the crisis again.3 But actually, in the processing, I found that I had accidentally stumbled across a genuine early medieval event in the material record, and it was here.

Route of the Via Marmorata past the Porta San Paolo, Rome

Route of the Via Marmorata past the Porta San Paolo

‘Here’ is the Porta San Paolo, where the Via Ostiensia enters the city by passing through the wall.4 The advent of motor traffic has made that a lot easier, as you can see from the previous two photos, but even in the time of Aurelian this was one of the bigger entries, having two rather than the normal one archways.

City-side entrances of the Porta San Paolo, Rome

The city-side entrances

However, the Porta has two faces, being comprised of that gateway I’ve just shown you on the city side, and another stood apart from it on the Ostia side, kind of like a barbican. Because the roads built around it have cut it off from the wall of which it was once part, and because those two gateways are linked up by their own walls, it now looks rather like its own tiny castle in the middle of a road junction.

The Castelleto or Porta San Paolo, Rome

It seems that for some reason I didn’t get a decent photo of the Porta from this angle, so this one is from Wikimedia Commons, and a day when the weather was clearly brighter, by Livioandronico2013own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, quite a lot has happened here. It did not, when Aurelian built it, have the two towers: those were put on by Emperor Maxentius, of whom we have heard here before, who actually had some reason to fear attack from the sea, though since he also had a mint at Ostia I’m not sure that’s why he did it.5 And then they were topped up by Emperor Honorius shortly before he gave up on defending the city and moved out to Ravenna leaving Rome eventually to be sacked by the Goths, then the Vandals and then pretty much all comers for the next fifteen centuries, not that he could himself have averted very much of that. But the towers you see there are still apparently Honorius’s, so this is actually one of the more intact and unaltered Roman structures in Rome.

The outer archway of the Porta San Paolo, Rome

My photo of the outer archway, not getting across quite the same structural defiance

But do you notice how out the front, there’s only one archway? You’d think that had potential for some quite serious traffic problems in the gap between the two walls, or even in the queue to leave the city, wouldn’t you? Why would Aurelian do that? And the answer is that he didn’t, and neither did any emperor. The architect here was actually a man who allegedly refused to be emperor, the Byzantine general Belisarius. During the war between the Ostrogoths and the Empire which we talked about a few posts ago, Rome was naturally enough a bit of a bone of contention, but also very hard to hold, because very big and somewhat broken down. Belisarius first succeeded in securing the city fairly soon after his arrival in Italy in 536. And apparently at that point he saw the Porta San Paolo (as it already was, even then) and rather than a potentially thriving commercial thoroughfare, beheld an unnecessary security risk and had the outer archway replaced with a single aperture through which traffic could more easily be blocked. Most of Belisarius’s tactical decisions seem to have been sound ones, although admittedly we have this from the pen of one of his staff officers (the inimitable Procopius, who actually records himself leading a mission out through this very gate), but on this occasion it wasn’t sound enough, as the Goths still managed to bust back into the city by this route in 549.6 So I’m assuming it was repaired at that point, but nonetheless the current gateway is a 6th-century modification and I will cheerfully count that as early medieval.

View of the Porta San Paolo down the Via Marmorata, Rome, showing the Aurelian Wall and the Pyramid of Cestius

Distant view of the Porta San Paolo down the Via Marmorata

So that is cool, at least from my point of view, but I still find the repeated siege of this gateway a bit difficult to imagine because, as you see above, this is not the only monument in the area. You don’t need to be especially sharp-eyed to be thinking at this point, “um, wait, isn’t that a pyramid?” And indeed it is, and the pyramid has actually been here longer than anything left around it, being the erstwhile resting place of one Gaius Cestius, who died during the very early years of the rule of Augustus, before it was probably clear to everyone that the Republic was in fact over, and had ordered this put up to house his remains.

The Pyramid of Cestius, Rome

The Pyramid by itself, with coincidental Fiat for scale

So obviously it was here when Aurelian put his walls up, in its own little enclosure, and with typical practicality here therefore used it as one point of a triangular bastion at this corner, and that is roughly why it’s still there.7 Wikipedia at the moment informs one that by then its identity was quite unclear, and not settled until Pope Alexander VII had it cleaned up, opened and emptied in the 1660s. Just to complete the layering, the remnants of the bastion which joined it to the walls were destroyed in what has been, for now, the last siege of Rome, in 1943, though somehow the Pyramid itself again survived. But it does add something extra weird to my picture of those battles of the mid-6th century to have one army of Greek-speaking Romans tangling desperately with an army of probably-Latinate Goths, both of whom thought they had a legitimate imperial right to hold Rome, fighting around a small pyramid containing the body of a man everyone involved had forgotten, because three centuries before an emperor had built it into a failed defensive vanity project. I have no bigger point to make than this, but it is strange what paths are left for history to take in these places where it piles up so densely, isn’t it?

1. See Lidia Paroli, “Ostia nella tarda antichità e nell’altomedioevo” in eadem and Paolo Delogu (edd.), La storia economica di Roma nell’alto Medioevo alla luce dei recenti scavi archeologici, Biblioteca di archeologia medievale 10 (Firenze 1993), pp. 153–176.

2. Alaric Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (London 1999), is one of the better Roman imperial biographies Routledge have put out, but is very determined to rescue a reputation from the ostensible ruin of the emperor’s career and the Roman economy. There is material to do that with, but there might be more special pleading going on here than usual.

3. Though I may, because for some reason or other students really stick to the topic in assessments. I suspect the essentially meaningless debate on whether the third-century crisis, which lasted fifty years but probably left some areas of the Empire more or less untouched, can really be called a crisis, looks like what they’re used to from A-Level. On that debate, compare for example Lukas de Blois, “The Crisis of the Third Century A. D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?” in Lukas de Blois and John Rich (edd.), The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire (Leiden 2002), pp. 204–217 and Wolf Liebeschuetz, “Was There a Crisis of the Third Century?” in Olivier Hekster, Gerda de Kleijn and Daniëlle Slootjes (edd.), Crises and the Roman Empire, Impact of Empire 7 (Leiden 2007), pp. 11–20.

4. That webpage just linked, Stefano Cassone, ‘Porta San Paolo’, Archeoroma <>, is my main source of information on the actual wall and gate in what follows.

5. My limited grip on Maxentius’s career mainly comes from Yann Rivière, “The Restoration of Order to the Roman Empire: From the Tetrarchs to Constantine” in Jean-Jacques Aillagon (ed.), Rome and the Barbarians: The Birth of a New World (Milano 2008), pp. 186–193, but it included having to take a fleet to Carthage to put down a usurper in 308, which obviously contains the possibility that the usurper could have done the journey too.

6. I have to admit that I got the 536 date from Wikipedia, and I can’t find the actual source of the idea that Belisarius closed up the gateway. Procopius mentions refortifications of the wall in 536, but not in this kind of detail, and a later blocking of all gates in 547 doesn’t appear to be what the Wikipedian responsible meant (Procopius, History of the Wars, Books V and VI, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 107 (Cambridge MA 1919), V.XIV.15 (pp. 146-147), and History of the Wars, Books VI (continued) and VII, transl. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 173 (Cambridge MA 1924), VII.XXIV.34-35 (pp. 366-369). Procopius’s own sally is mentioned in Wars V and VI, VI.IV.3-4 (pp. 318-319). I’m not going to worry about that for the purposes of this post, but anyone relying on this ought to be aware that I don’t necessarily endorse what Wikipedia says here.

7. The fourth-century historian Eutropius immortally describes Aurelian as “rather an emperor necessary for the times in some respects than an amiable one in any”, and this appropriation of a ridiculous funerary monument as fortification seems to me to fit with that just fine: Eutropius, Abridgement of Roman History, transl. John Selby Watson (London 1853), online here, VII.14.

5 responses to “Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall

  1. “the third-century crisis, which lasted fifty years”

    In much of history something that lasted fifty years might be classed as a chronic condition rather than a crisis. But not for Republican and Imperial Rome. What an extraordinary business it all was.

    • Well, that is indeed one of the arguments against the term: if it lasts for fifty years, it’s not a crisis, it’s a working system. But I can’t say what I think here, in case I ever do need to set the essay again :-)

  2. I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in…..Well I have enjoyed your foray into Rome: I was reminded of Dey’s book, and Maskarinec’s. The ‘defence in depth’ strategy often given to Diocletian was, I believe, begun by Aurelian, and the ‘monumentalising’ as an analogy of Jerusalem by Honorius is relatively unknown, or is ‘outshone’ by 410. The projection of East Roman (ie imperial) authority into post-imperial Rome always fascinates, and your Phocas article shows how close they may have come to ‘striking back’, prior to the rise of the Ishmaelites. Anyhow, thanks for the trip! :)

    • I have to admit that before I did these posts, I didn’t myself realise quite how much building effort Honorius sank into this city he was soon afterwards to abandon both personally and strategically. You have to wonder if he had any long-term plans at all. I don’t know Maskarinec’s work; does this mean I should?

      Also, yes, that was the particular earworm I first entitled this post with, well spotted :-)

  3. Evil Steve

    it’s probably worth a read (City of Saints) precisely because it adopts a methodological approach similar to yours in these posts, that evocative space between literature and archaeology. It’s stronger on establishing Rome as an importer of saints, and less strong on Rome as an exporter of saints, but still. I tend to think that Honorius was more successful than people give him credit for, but that’s another story :)

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