Ancient city walls are formidable monuments of human industry freighted with a host of potent associations. In this book, Hendrik Dey takes as his topic the massive 19km circuit of stone walls built around the city of Rome during the reigns of Emperor Aurelian (270-275) and his successor Probus (276-282). Still visible in many places in the modern city, the Aurelian Wall was a massive public works project that required the marshalling of material and human resources on an impressive scale. Most studies of this sprawling enceinte have dealt almost exclusively with the study of the physical fabric of the structure, the dates of its construction and renovation, and its relationship to the architectural history of the late Roman Empire. Dey’s ambition is much broader. His study sets out “to explore Rome’s relationship with its Wall (and vice versa)” (p. 7) from its construction in the late third century until the ninth century, when interest in the upkeep of this massive structure waned. In the first half of the book, Dey treats the building of the Aurelian Wall and the impact of this process on the city of Rome and its inhabitants. In the latter half of the book, he examines how the Wall informed the legal, administrative and religious boundaries of the city and remained a powerful symbol of Roman authority throughout the early Middle Ages, long after the disappearance of imperial power in the western provinces. The predominant theme running through this study is Dey’s sense that “the Wall increased in prominence, physical and mental, in inverse proportion to Rome’s contracting topographical, economic, and imperial horizons.” (p. 10).
The opening chapters of Dey’s book introduce the reader to the Aurelian Wall as a monumental structure and examine how it was built and for what purpose. Chapter One provides an architectural portrait of the construction and augmentation of the Wall over the course of six centuries. In its original iteration, the concrete, brick-faced Wall encircled the urban center of Rome. It measured on average 8m high and 3.5m thick and boasted many dozens of square towers, sixteen large gates to accommodate the traffic of the city’s major arteries, and an equal number of smaller entrances ( posterulae) for lesser routes. While some minor renovations to the structure occurred in the fourth century, it was only in 401-403 that Emperor Honorius undertook a massive rebuilding campaign that nearly doubled the height of the Wall and raised the towers by a full story. Repairs to the fabric of the Wall continued intermittently throughout the fifth and sixth centuries. The Liber pontificalis indicates that the bishops of Rome only became fully involved in its upkeep at the beginning of the eighth century and remained invested in its care until about 850. Archaological evidence read in tandem with the infrequent but persistent references to repairs of the Wall found in the written record provide a compelling portrait of a living structure that retained its practical value from the age of the Tetrarchy to the Carolingian period. Chapter Two considers the practical and logistical challenges of building the Aurelian Wall. Much of what follows in this chapter is inference, as there is almost no direct literary evidence for the details of the execution of this massive urban building project. The planning and placement of the Wall probably fell to the emperor and high-ranking government officials. Many factors would have determined its contours: the availability of imperial lands, the course of aqueducts, the impact of construction on preexisting buildings and neighborhoods, and the tactical effectiveness of the Wall itself. While there is no doubt that the building of the Wall was an imperial initiative, a large number of high-ranking public officials would have also played a major role in its completion. Provisions had to be made to secure the building material, which included new bricks and tufa as well as recycled materials, and to assemble and organize the huge labor force that would have also been necessary to complete the project. Dey concludes this chapter with a brief consideration of the lasting administrative impact of this undertaking, arguing that it was part of “an extensive series of Aurelianic reforms that saw the more important corporations bound to the service of the state, the range of government-subsidized commodities expanded, and the creation of a new treasury, the arca vinaria, to help defray the cost of public works formerly underwritten to a greater extent by private munificence.” (p. 109). Chapter Three asks why Aurelian constructed the Wall in the first place and why subsequent generations thought it necessary to renovate it, sometimes drastically. To be sure, the primary purpose of the Wall was always to protect the city of Rome both from external threats like barbarian incursions, but Dey teases out some other possible benefits of this project. In the aftermath of violent civil unrest in 271 caused by a rebellion of mint workers, the construction of the Wall provided paid employment “for thousands of potentially idle hands” (p. 113) and the completed Wall would have served as a testimony of the all-encompassing embrace of imperial power in the capital. Dey also links the building of the Aurelian Walls with the spread of other urban circuit walls in the western Roman provinces between the late third and fifth centuries, concluding that “[w]here once it had been forums, baths, and theaters that represented the essence of classical urbanism across the Roman world, it was now walls that did so.” (p. 131). Less convincing is his inference that the heightening of the Wall under Honorius was somehow inspired by the celestial Jerusalem, described as a city with “a great and high wall” in the Apocalypse of John, and the concomitant influence of the Wall on depictions of Jerusalem in contemporary church decoration in Rome.
The second half of Dey’s book concerns the impact of the Aurelian Wall on the civic infrastructures of Rome and suggests how it realigned the religious boundaries of the city and served as a symbol of temporal power long after the disappearance of the western empire. Chapter Four asserts that the building of the Wall provided a distinct boundary between urban and suburban space that stimulated new patterns of settlement within its confines and contributed substantially to the reform and realignment of the movement of food and people around the city. Chapter Five argues that the Aurelian Wall replaced and enlarged the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city of Rome demarcated by white stones inside of which it was forbidden to bury the dead. Dey certainly could have done more with this topic by including a digression on the history and meaning of the pomerium and some discussion of its etymology ( post moenium – “beyond the wall” – according to Livy I.44.5; see Roland Kent, “The Etymological Meaning of Pomerium,” TAPA 44 : 19-24). This chapter also examines how the Wall divided Christian ecclesiastical districts and how by the Carolingian period the activity of Roman bishops like Paschal I (817-824) dissolved the boundary-setting function of the pomerium by investing intramural churches with the bones of Christian saints that had previously been interred outside of the Wall. Chapter Six considers the history of the Aurelian Wall between the reigns of Justinian and Charlemagne. It was only in the eighth and ninth centuries that the bishops of Rome turned their attention to the Wall in repeated campaigns of repair and rebuilding. Their initiatives were largely pragmatic, but Dey also sees in them a symbolic potency: by laying claim to the Aurelian Wall, popes like Hadrian I (772-795) expressed their temporal authority in the absence of an imperial presence in the old capital. At the end of the chapter, Dey carries the symbolic import of the Aurelian Wall even further – probably too far – by tethering it to the prominence of walls in poetic evocations of urban spaces in sources as disparate as the Old English elegy The Ruin and Alcuin’s Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Euboricensis ecclesiae about his hometown of York. These discussion of Carolingian Rome would have benefitted from the insights of Caroline Goodson’s book The Rome of Pope Paschal I: Papal Power, Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817-824 (Cambridge, 2010) or the earlier articles that were propedeutic to her monograph.
Hendrik Dey’s The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome is a bold and adventurous book. In many places, it demands a certain amount of generosity on the part of the reader, as several of its claims are based almost entirely on inference or conjecture. Qualifying phrases like “[h]ard data in support of these hypotheses are hard to come by” (p. 207) are not uncommon. I would have liked to have seen Dey engage at greater length in his introduction with the “materialist” (some would say “catastrophist”) turn in early medieval studies represented by the recent work of Bryan Ward-Perkins (the western provinces) and Robin Fleming (Britain). It seems to me that the living history of the Aurelian Wall, both in terms of its practical function and its symbolic value, with continuities from the third century to the late Carolingian period offers a challenge to the narrative of dire material decline that is enjoying currency in recent scholarship. More specifically, I would suggest assigning Dey’s book in a graduate seminar alongside another recent work about a late Roman enceinte: Rob Collins’ Hadrian’s Wall and the End of Empire: The Roman Frontier in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries (Routledge, 2012). The conversation is sure to be fruitful.