A Fashionable Trend in Urban Living

The Post-Herulian Walls looking south to the Parthenon.

The city of Athens suffered a devastating sack in 267 CE at the hands of a tribe from south-Scandinavia, the Herules. The destruction changed the ancient city. Some fifteen to twenty years later a new wall taking in a much smaller circuit was constructed out of the ruins of this sack, the so-called Herulian Walls. The smaller area better represented the change from powerful city state in the fifth century BC to smaller university town of the third century CE. This delay demonstrates a remarkable calm and suggests that there was more to late antique wall construction than fear of invasions. 

Why walls appeared in the third century CE in cities across the Roman empire and proliferated through to the fifth century is still very much part of today’s historical debate. Some argue that walls are an obvious defensive response to events of the third century where Rome’s frontier became less secure and invasions intensified. Others take the more complex view that walls were an assertion of power, an advertisement of authority. As Rome, the center of the Empire, was the first city to construct new walls in Late Antiquity, it became a model, a fashionable template that kicked off a strange urban trend. Probably, both views are correct.

While the third century did not own crisis any more than other centuries - the fourth century saw religious revolution; the fifth, a territorial one - the Roman Empire was less secure than in its Julio-Claudian days and life for its citizens had become harder. The death of the last Severan emperor in 235 sparked decades of multiple and chaotic accessions to the throne. Military and political revolts saw the Empire lose Gaul and Roman Spain before being reunited under the emperor Aurelian. It was a period of economic depression and high unemployment that led to discontent at home. It was also the century where foreign invasions became a rising threat. The Iuthungi raid of 270-1 was the second such raid to threaten Rome within a decade and it left the city exposed. Aurelian’s forces defeated the raiders but the capital was shaken and for the first time in living memory, Roman urban dwellers regarded themselves as vulnerable.

Today's Aurelian Wall from the Porta San Sebastiano.

Aurelian’s response was to build a strong defensive wall around Rome. Begun in 271, the circuit ran for twelve miles, enclosing an area of 5.3 square miles, almost doubling the area previously enclosed by the now-redundant Servian Walls. The new walls included the Janiculum Hill, on the west side of the Tiber and the Campus Martius to the north. Eighteen gates filtered traffic in and out of the city.  Its impressive stature, at 26ft high and 11.5ft thick, was designed to ensure security in the event of renewed attacks and to assuage the fears of a restive populace.

At the same time, a serious revolt of workers in the city erupted and it is said that seven thousand of Aurelian’s soldiers were killed. Many historians believe that the construction of the Aurelian Wall was designed to alleviate widespread dissatisfaction that had led to this revolt. The wall offered employment and a diversion of potentially destructive energy. It also showed the populace that the emperor was invested in their welfare and security.  Leading members of the senate had been complicit in the revolt, and the wall may also have been intended to overawe the equestrian classes. By enveloping the city, Aurelian was in effect controlling it. The traffic of people and supplies now took place under his sanction. The building of the wall must have revolutionized customs collections, making it more difficult to avoid payment on staples and luxury items passing into the city. This in itself - the creation of a system of city tolls - would be reason enough to explain the wall-building momentum of cities across the Empire in Late Antiquity.

Smaller versions of Aurelian’s audacious wall were soon being built across the Empire.  In The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, Hendrik Dey shows how Aurelian’s costly and impressive monument became a model of civic grandeur that was emulated across the Empire. In Milan, where the court had transferred in the reign of Valentinian II, a new wall was erected to augment walls already in place. On the Rhine, the building of Trier’s new walls were commemorated on a double-solidus medallion struck in 316.

A wave of wall building began in Gaul and Spain during the late-third century, overseen by a strongly centralized government seeking to secure important urban centers. Wall-building styles in the Gallic cities of Amiens, Bordeaux and Orleans, constructed during the reign of Diocletian, bear remarkable similarities. The same is the case for circuits in the Spanish cities of Gerona, Zaragoza and Leon, among others, where similar building techniques, such as five-to-six meter thick walls and a large number of projecting towers, recur throughout. 

By the time Constantine personally paced the outer limits of his new wall for his new Rome in 324, on a triangular promontory on the shores of the Bosporus, it would seem that walls had become an indispensable part of the late antique urban kit. Among the many amenities Constantinople had - a sixthcentury source tell us that there was a theater, the Hippodrome, with a royal palace beside it, along with a forum that he adorned with statuary and a giant porphyry column - were its dramatic walls.

The heightening of the Aurelian Walls in the reign of Honorius is said to have corresponded with a heightened intensity of military activity within the empire. By the early fifth century, Christianity, if not practiced by the majority, was the state sanctioned religion. Rome, as the burial place of Peter and Paul, required refashioning as the Christian capital of a newly emerging Christian empire, and its model was Celestial Jerusalem, the idealized Christian metropolis - an image that many Christians knew from their sacred texts, like the Book of Revelation. As depicted in Chapter 21 of the Apocalypse of John, the jewel in the Celestial Jerusalem’s urban makeup is its mighty, outsized walls. Was the Christian emperor building a celestial city on earth by enlarging Rome’s walls? It is an interesting idea to consider: that streets and monuments of the city both shaped and reflected the way Romans view their world.

The Theodosian Walls in Istanbul Today.

Aurelian’s decision to encircle Rome with a wall was at once practical and radical. It was the beginning of an enterprise that ended with the reign of Diocletian. It might be that the renovation and additions to the wall in the reign of Honorius, were just as radical, if not quite so practically motivated. It is well known, that the Huns, Persians, Arabs and many other groups were deterred by the size and scale of Constantinople’s walls, but that does not mean that the motivation to build those walls was that simple. These were the proud capitals of the Roman Empire, as expressed in the fifth century through the building programs of powerful Christian emperors with the resources to actuate their dreams. 


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Brian Merlo