The Late Empire Part 1 | Roman Architecture | Second edition
The historian Dio Cassius wrote: ‘After the death of Marcus [Aurelius] history passed from a golden empire to one of rusty iron’ (Dio, 72.36.4). In ad 192, 12 years later, Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, was murdered and there followed a brief period of struggle between several candidates. The final victor was Septimius Severus, born in Lepcis Magna in North Africa. His reign (ad 193–211) marked the end of the power of the great Roman families and of Rome as the centre of imperial power. It also marked the beginning of a rigid state bureaucracy that was to control every aspect of Roman life. In art there was a break from classicism and the pompous official art of the Antonines; in architecture, the Severans were more active builders than the Antonines. The first task that confronted the new emperor on his accession was to restore a large area of the Forum between the House of the Vestals and Vespasian’s Temple of Peace, which had been swept by fire in ad 191. He rebuilt the Temple of Vesta, the House of the Vestal Virgins and the Correa Vespasian, and reinforced the Clivus Victoriae with arches. While rebuilding the area a Marble Plan of Rome (Forma Urbis Romae) was prepared at a scale of about 1:240 (ad 203–211). Carved on 151 slabs of marble and measuring 18.10 × 13 metres overall, it was fixed to the wall of one of the halls of the Temple of Peace and shows the ground plan of practically every temple, bath, insula and street in the city. More than 10% of the total survives, some parts showing quarters of Rome that are completely unknown today. It gives fascinating glimpses of streets lined with insulae and horrea of the Ostian type as well as the occasional atrium/peristyle house (Figure 12.1). Like Ostia, Rome must have changed profoundly in the course of the second-century ad and most of the sprawling private dwellings must have given way to tall apartment blocks.
Perhaps the best-known monument of the Severan period is the large triple arch over the Sacred Way in the Forum, built to commemorate the emperor’s Parthian victories (Figures 3.4 and 12.2). A gigantic structure, 23.27 × 11.20 × 20.88 metres high, it was the largest arch erected up to that time and probably followed the pattern of some lost Antonine arches. Its position, on sloping ground at the foot of the Capitoline hill, added to its imposing effect. It has also been noted that it was built diagonally opposite the Arch of Augustus (Figures 3.5 and 3.8), but was much higher and bigger, thus linking the emperor’s achievements with those of Augustus while suggesting that he was greater. The arch is finely proportioned with three passageways flanked by free-standing Composite columns on high plinths supporting sections of projecting entablature. The inscription in the attic dates it to ad 203. On top of the attic was a massive bronze quadriga carrying the emperor. While the arch itself was conventional in its arrangements the sculptures rejected the Classical tradition and looked toward the late Empire. This is particularly evident in the four big relief panels above the side arches which represented episodes in the Parthian campaigns of 195–199 ad. The soldiers were carved as an undifferentiated mass, the folds of their garments indicated by the heavy use of the
Figure 12.1 Rome, Marble Plan. (After G. Carettoni, La Pianta Marmorea di Roma antica. Forma Urbis Romae [Rome: Comune di Roma, 1960], pl. LIII 453 a b c d.)
Figure 12.2 Rome, Forum Romanum looking NE. From left to right: Temple of Saturn, Column of Phocas, Temple of Vespasian and Titus, Arch of Septimius Severus; in the background, the Tabularium.
drill, while the emperor stood above them, a larger, more majestic figure. The Arch of the Argentario, dedicated by the money-lenders and cattle merchants to Septimius Severus is not strictly an arch at all because its passage was covered with a lintel, but it is an interesting and well-preserved little monument, 5.86 metres wide × 6.90 metres high. Today only the sculpted upper part with its poorly executed reliefs is above ground. One panel showed the emperor sacrificing, while his wife had her arms upraised in the eastern manner of prayer. The composition was awkward as if the spectators were no longer glimpsing a real event, but something posed for their benefit.
Severan ornament is usually extremely rich, harking back to the Flavian period. This is perhaps because Septimius Severus made so many repairs and additions to the Flavian Palace on the Palatine. He completed the projected bath building and made massive extensions to the SE corner of the palace supported on concrete substructures which are still a conspicuous feature of the hill. Travellers arriving at Puteoli (Pozzuoli) and Brundisium (Brindisi) would have reached Rome along the Appian Way which terminates close to this corner of the Palatine. The Severans were greatly interested in developing this part of the city, and no doubt with an eye to visitors from Libya Severus built a large and imposing structure to stand in front of this new wing, the Septizodium (SHA, Severus 19.5). Although it was entirely demolished in 1588–1589, it is known from 16th-century drawings (Figure 12.3). These show a massive screen wall with a single niche in front of which stood a three-storey high screen of columns, which makes it look very much like a free-standing version of the scaenae frons of a Roman theatre. Two niches are shown in fragments 7a and b of the Marble Plan.1 Because the word ‘SEPTIZODIUM’ runs a long way beyond the two niches on the plan, it has been suggested that the Septizodium may originally have been longer, perhaps with seven niches, the outer ones semicircular and the middle one rectangular like the Septizodium at Lambaesis.2 A fountain spout belonging to the Septizodium, now in the Palatine Museum, may suggest it was a nymphaeum, which raises the possibility that the
Figure 12.3 Rome, engraving showing the Septizodium (E. Du Pérac, I vestigi dell’antichità di Roma … Rome 1575).
urban function of the Septizodium was similar to scenic monuments like the nymphaea at Miletus and Lepcis Magna.
During the later second century ad there had been a growing awareness of the spiritual consolation to be found in eastern cults. Exotic religious practices were not in themselves unusual, as the numerous temples of Isis and Mithras at Ostia show, but official imperial patronage of such cults was rare at this time. Not surprisingly Eastern cults were promoted by Septimius Severus, who came from Lepcis Magna in North Africa and whose wife was the daughter of a Syrian priest of Baal. A temple in Rome was dedicated by Septimius Severus to Serapis, who protected his two sons and whose image he adopted in his final portraits. It is sometimes identified as the gigantic and dramatically sited temple, measuring 56 × 84 metres, which occupied part of the Piazza del Quirinale. Including the vast monumental staircase, 21 metres high, which led up to it from the Campus Martius, it was the largest temple ever built in Rome. Parts of it still survive in the gardens of Palazzo Colonna and the Pontifical Gregorian University. If the drawings of Palladio are correct the temple is the only one with 12 columns on its façade, each one of which was 21.17 metres high. The drawings also show Asiatic ornament of the kind found in late Hadrianic and early Antonine buildings.
In ad 211 Septimius Severus died in Eburacum (York) and was succeeded by his sons, Caracalla and Geta. In the following year Caracalla had his brother killed and his name removed from all monuments. In order to gain tax revenue he extended Roman citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the Empire, gave orders for a new bathing complex to be built and then embarked upon a series of campaigns with the aim of extending the Roman Empire eastward. The Baths of Caracalla, built between ad 212 and 216, were at the time the largest in Rome and remained one of the three largest (Figure 12.4). They were situated in the
Figure 12.4 Rome, Baths of Caracalla (ad 212–216), bathing block: plan.
same southern part of the city favoured by his father, and accessible from a new road, the Via Nova, parallel to the Via Appia (SHA, Caracalla 9). Opposite was the Mutatorium Caesaris, the place where the horses and chariots used by the emperor were kept for his journeys within the city (wheeled vehicles were not allowed in Rome during daylight hours). This part of Rome, beyond the Colosseum and called in the 17th century the disabitato (the uninhabited, elevated part of the city away from the Tiber) is still largely verdant. The massive gaunt walls of the baths are an impressive sight, unencumbered as they are by later structures. Set within a high enclosure, measuring 328 × 400 metres, which provided facilities such as a running track, gardens and libraries, is the main bathing block which measures 220 × 114 metres (138 metres including the projecting caldarium). Unlike the earlier Baths of Trajan, the bathing block is entirely detached from the perimeter wall. Its rather austere NE wall is punctuated by eight doors and an occasional window, which give little indication of the ingenious spatial effects of the interior. However, a study of the ground plan reveals that the complex is a masterpiece of design clarity, in spite of its functional complexity. A key factor in the design is the intersection of the two major axes in the middle of the frigidarium. The longer axis embraces the frigidarium and its adjoining exercise yards (palaestrae), while the shorter indicates the normal bathing sequence: caldarium (hot room), tepidarium (warm room), frigidarium (cold room) and natatio (swimming pool). The building is symmetrical around the short axis, so that all facilities were duplicated.
There are four sets of entrances on the NE side flanked by columns, the outer ones leading to a set of three rooms which give direct access to the palaestrae, and the inner ones leading to rooms at the sides of the nation, which give access to five rooms containing the apodyterium (changing rooms). The high NE wall was designed to shield the open-air swimming pool from the sun. The interior side of the wall, facing the nation, was decorated with two storeys of colonettes which framed niches encrusted with marble and polychrome glass mosaic. The niches were divided into three groups of three by four giant order columns. The glittering incrustations, mirrored in the sparkling water of the unroofed swimming pool, measuring 25 × 50 metres, must have been dazzling when glimpsed by the bathers entering from the frigidarium. The central room of the complex was the frigidarium, originally roofed with three cross-vaults buttressed on each side by three barrel vaults (Figure 12.5).
The cross-vaults, covered with polychrome glass mosaic, must have glowed in the light of the eight clerestory windows with the same exotic splendour as the mosaics of a Byzantine church. There were plunge baths under the four outer barrel vaults, while the middle ones offered a vista from the patio on one side through to the caldarium on the other. At the ends of the other axis were the palaestrae, onto which opened large semicircular exedras, once paved with the athletes’ mosaic now in the Vatican Museum. The tepidarium was a small room with the dual function of transition and insulation between the cold rooms on one side and the hot rooms on the other. As such, it formed a suitably modest prelude to the enormous circular caldarium, a huge domed room, 35 metres wide, lit not by an oculus, as was the Pantheon, but by windows. Over half of the rotunda projected from the perimeter wall of the block to gain full advantage of the afternoon sun. There are seven hot plunge baths in the thickness of the drum, each heated by its own furnace. Flanking the caldarium were hot rooms, probably both Laconica (dry heat) and sudatorium (sweating rooms) with vast windows facing SW to absorb as much of the sun’s heat as possible. Two of the rooms opening off the palaestrae were partially heated and may have been used for massage. Behind the hot rooms, staircases led up to terraces on the roof of the porticoes.
The baths were stripped of most of their furnishings over the years and columns found their way to Pisa cathedral and S. Maria in Trastevere during the 11th and 12th centuries.3 In
Figure 12.5 Rome, Baths of Caracalla, cold room (frigidarium), looking SE.
1545–1546 the excavations of the Farnese Pope Paul III uncovered some enormous pieces of sculpture, including the Farnese Bull, which stood in the middle of the SE palaestra; also the Farnese Hercules and the Latin Hercules, which stood between the columns on the SE side of the frigidarium, all now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. This rich decoration extended to every part of the baths. It has been calculated that there were 108 sculpture niches in the main bathing block. Furthermore, the planners of this remarkable complex not only had to take into account the bathing facilities, but also services, water supply, drainage and heating. It has been estimated that to build the baths a workforce of 6,000 would have been required, working 300 days per year over a period of four years.4 The architect not only had to plan a labyrinth of rooms, each of which imposed its own functional and aesthetic demands but fitted them remarkably skilfully into an almost perfectly rectangular enclosure. The result is a masterpiece of planning and possibly the most successful of all the major Roman bath buildings.
Caracalla was murdered in ad 217 and in the brief reign of his successor, Macrinus, formerly Prefect of the Praetorian guard, the Colosseum was struck by lightning. This caused a fire which consumed the wooden seating of the summa cavea as well as the wooden flooring of the arena. The damage to the building was so great that it had to be closed for many years and the games transferred to the Circus Maximus.5 Macrinus was succeeded by Elagabalus, a 14-year-old cousin of Caracalla, who encouraged the worship of the sun-god, with whom he identified, and hence spread the oriental cult of the living sovereign. He built a large temple of Sol Invictus (SHA, Elagabalus 3.4–5) in the area known as ‘Vigna Barberini’ where a succession of buildings have been found: a rich house of the Augustan period; Nero’s revolving dining room; and the Gardens of Adonis, which formed part of the Flavian Palace. The temple, measuring 40 × 60 metres, was peripteral with 8 × 12 columns and faced NW towards the Palatine. It was inside a collonaded enclosure, measuring 110 × 150 metres. In it Elagabalus assembled many of the most sacred pagan relics in Rome, the aniconic statue of Cybele, the fire of Vesta, the Palladium and the shields of Mars, in a syncretistic attempt to assimilate all these aspects of paganism into the worship of the sun. Elagabalus built himself a palace on the site of a large imperial property near St. Croce in Gerusalemme, complete with a circus, in which Elagabalus liked to drive his chariot (SHA, Elagabalus 6.3). It was originally c. 565 metres long × 125 metres wide, compared with c. 620 metres for the Circus Maximus and 520 metres for the Circus of Maxentius. He also built the Amphitheatrum Castrense, a small amphitheatre, measuring only 88 × 75.80 metres and later incorporated into the Aurelianic wall. Its façade originally consisted of three storeys of openings framed by Corinthian half-columns and pilasters. The western end of the circus, cut by the wall, was excavated in 1959 and it was found that the part of the circus outside the wall was 450 metres long. In the early fourth century ad the palace was the favourite residence of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena. Constantine turned a basilical hall into the church of S. Croce to house a fragment of the True Cross which Helena had brought from Jerusalem. The complex was known from the sixth-century ad as the Sessorian palace.
Several monuments are ascribed to his successor, Alexander Severus (ad 222–235), such as a monumental public fountain just outside the Esquiline gate, supplied by a branch of the Aqua Claudia or the Anio Novus. Although stripped of its marbles and sculpture, the brick-faced concrete ruins, 18 metres high, are still an impressive sight. The water entered at the back of the building, about 10 metres above the ground, and divided into five streams which flowed into an upper basin. It then ran through further jets down to a semicircular basin where people could draw their water. The Baths of Nero, which also seem to have been rebuilt by Alexander (SHA Alex. Sev. 25, 3–4), are described as one of the most beautiful buildings in Rome (Philostratus, Apollo. 4.42). The murder of Alexander Severus in ad 235 brought to a close the last stable dynasty for the next 50 years of anarchy and civil war. On several occasions, the Empire and even Italy itself were invaded. In this bleak period one building stands out, the baths on the Aventine built by the emperor Decius in his short reign of 22 months (ad 249–251). Measuring 44 × 70 metres, they were only one-eighth the size of the central block of the Baths of Caracalla, and their layout probably followed that of North African baths rather than the great imperial Thermae of Rome. Although designed as public baths, by the fourth century they seem to have been mainly used by the senatorial aristocracy whose villas filled the nearby area.
It is significant that by far the most substantial building project in the 40 years after the death of Alexander Severus was the construction of a 19-kilometre-long wall circuit for Rome, mostly built by Aurelian between ad 271–275. The very scale of the project and the fact that Rome now needed such protection must have added greatly to the sense of insecurity which began to make itself felt in the middle of the third-century ad. The new wall, 7.8 metres high × 3.5 metres thick, enclosed an area of 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres), over three times as much as the fourth century bc ‘Servian Wall’ which enclosed only 426 hectares (1,065 acres). The line of the wall followed defensive features whenever possible and left large, indefensible buildings outside. The number of earlier monuments incorporated into it, such as the Praetorian Camp, the Amphitheatrum Castrense, the Pyramid of Cestius (Figure 2.13), the Porta Praenestina (Figure 5.4), as well as stretches of aqueduct on both sides of it, are evidence that the wall was thrown up in haste. Built of brick-faced concrete capped with merlons, it had rectangular towers every 100 Roman feet (29.60 metres) projecting 3.5 metres and rising higher than the wall. The most important roads, such as the Via Ostiensis and the Via Appia, originally had gates with two arched stone openings, with a gallery above to house the mechanism of the portcullis and the garrison, and were flanked by large semicircular towers which rose to the same height.
A well-preserved gate is the Porta Asinaria, close to St.John Lateran, from which issued the Via Asinaria which joined the Tuscolana (Figure 12.6). In the early fourth century ad Maxentius began digging a ditch outside the circuit. In ad 402–403 Arcadius and Honorius raised the towers and gates a storey and the height of the walls to 16 metres. The two entrances through the gates were made into one by Belisarius (c. ad 530–540). The wall was repaired by Theodoric in the sixth century and in the ninth century and extended by Pope Leo IV to include the Vatican. Despite many subsequent alterations, the wall served as the city’s principal defence for 1,600 years and most of the circuit still stands. Aurelian’s other large project, the Temple of the Sun, is known from drawings of Palladio to have had a rectangular forecourt with apsidal ends. The temple itself was circular and was placed in the middle of a rectangular precinct. This feature and the fact that the funds for its building came from Palmyra, following the defeat of Zenobia in ad 273, links it with eastern temples, such as the Temple of Bel at Palmyra (Figure 11.17). The monotheistic dedication also suggests the eastern influence.
The half-century of troubles came to an end, temporarily at least, when Diocletian was proclaimed emperor in ad 284 in Nicomedia, which he declared to be the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. He quickly associated himself with a co-emperor, Maximian, appointing in ad 293 two subordinates or Caesars, Constantius Chlorus and Galerius, as designated successors, an arrangement known as the Tetrarchy. Each of the four was given control over
Figure 12.6 Rome, Aurelianic wall (ad 271–275), Porta Asinaria.
a portion of the Empire, which necessitated the creation of new imperial capitals. The consequent decentralisation of power was a further indication of Rome’s diminished position within the Empire. Diocletian expended much of his building energy at Nicomedia, where he had built a palace and circus by ad 304 (Lactantius, de mort.per sec . 17.4–5). It remained the most important city in the eastern Empire until the foundation of Constantinople in ad 324. Diocletian also spent time at Antioch whereby ad 303 he had built a palace alongside the large and important circus, which was c. 520 metres long, excluding the careers, and had a capacity of 80,000, making it one of the largest known.6
The buildings of Rome also required considerable attention following years of neglect and decay. In ad 283 a fire had swept the area between the Forum Julium and the Basilica Julia, with the result that much of Augustus’ work has been transmitted to us in brick-faced concrete. The Basilica Julia was reconstructed by Diocletian as well as the Curia Julia whose austere brick-faced concrete façade can be seen today, relieved only by the large entrance doorway and the three windows higher up (Figure 3.6). The lower part was originally covered with marble veneer and the upper stuccoed. It was an extremely tall building, internally 21 metres high, 18 metres wide and 27 metres long, following approximately the proportions prescribed by Vitruvius. The marble paving and wall decoration with statue niches framed by colonettes belong to the reconstruction. Recent studies have shown that there were no adjoining buildings, that it abutted directly onto the Forum Julium behind it and that there was a columnar portico in front of it.
In ad 303 Diocletian visited Rome to inaugurate a set of five pink Aswan granite columns erected upon the rostra to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Tetrarchy. Four of the columns, 36 Roman feet (10.66 metres) high, bore statues of the tetrarchs and the fifth, 40 Roman feet high, a statue of Jupiter. The base of one of them, the Decennalia base, carried relief sculptures, one of which shows the emperor being crowned by a victory as he pours a libation at a suovetaurilia (bull, ram and pig sacrifice). The sculpture has been described as ‘a pale, almost ghostly, reflection of the great achievements of Roman historical relief’.7 This was one of Diocletian’s projects which can be seen as harking back to the glory days of Rome. As too are a pair of bases in the Boboli Gardens of Florence, one of them showing a Victory in high relief with fussy classicising drapery, which may come from a triumphal arch erected by Diocletian (ad 294).
Diocletian’s greatest single project in Rome is the enormous bath building on Viminal hill which bears his name (Figure 12.7). Built of brick-faced concrete throughout, it seems to have been begun in ad 298 and completed in ad 305. Such a gigantic project implies a massive reorganisation of the brick industry. The outer enclosure, measuring 316 × 356 metres, was slightly smaller than that of the Baths of Caracalla, but its main bathing block, c. 144 × 244 metres, was considerably larger. Unlike the Baths of Caracalla, it is in the heavily built-up centre of Rome with the result that many parts of the building have been incorporated into later structures. For example, the great curve of the outer circuit wall has transmitted its shape to the Piazza della Repubblica. The octagonal hot room covered with an umbrella dome in the NW corner of the main bathing block was for a long time the Planetarium cinema, and the NW circular room in the outer circuit was turned into the church of St. Bernardo, making any attempt to trace the entire complex on foot a lengthy business. The layout of the main bathing block was similar to that of the Baths of Caracalla, with the two controlling axes intersecting each other in the middle of the frigidarium, and the block entirely detached from the perimeter wall. But there the similarities end. First, the perimeter wall of the Baths of Diocletian was punctuated by a regular series of curved and rectangular exedras, giving it the appearance of a defensive
Figure 12.7 Rome, Baths of Diocletian (ad 298–306), bathing block: plan.
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