Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


Home | Prev | Next | Contents


After this rapid walk through the more interesting parts of the capital, we may consider one or two connected topics of natural interest.

Amid all this splendour and spaciousness of public buildings, what is the aspect of the ordinary streets? In this respect Rome was by no means fortunate. As in Old London, Old Paris, or Old New York, the streets had for the most part grown up as chance circumstances would have it. There were very few thoroughfares laid out straight from the first like the Flaminian or "Broad" Road. Alexandria and Antioch were the creations of monarchs who began with a clear field and a consistent scheme. Their straight, broad streets might well be the envy of the capital. The Romans, then as now, possessed the engineering genius, but they could not well undo the work of a struggling past, which had necessitated the crowding of population, within the defences of a wall. They knew how to supply the city abundantly with water, and how to drain it with sewers of great capacity and strength. The chief of such sewers--the Cloaca Maxima--which passed underneath the Forum to the Tiber and was laid down more than twenty-five centuries ago, is still in working order. But no republican or imperial government ever took it in hand to Hansmannise the city, even after one of those devastating conflagrations which might seem to have cleared the way. It is true that all traffic of vehicles, except for special processions, for Vestal Virgins, and a few other cases--was forbidden for ten hours in the day. All through the morning and afternoon there were no wheels in the Roman streets, unless some public building imperatively demanded its load of stones or timber, or unless the few privileged persons were proceeding in their carriages to some festival. Nevertheless the rich men and women in their litters or sedan-chairs, attended by their servants or their clients; the porters carrying their heavy loads; the itinerant hucksters; and the ordinary man on errand or other business bent, made up crowds which were often difficult to pass through.

Another consequence of the old compression within narrow walls was that, as population increased, the houses grew more lofty. How high the Romans built, or were allowed to build, in republican times we cannot tell. The tendency was certainly to build higher and higher, and sky-scrapers would perhaps have become the rule if the ancient Roman had understood the use of materials both sufficiently light and sufficiently strong, or if he had been forced to establish his work on secure foundations. In point of fact there had been, and there continued to be, too much of jerry-building. Houses sometimes collapsed, and many were unsubstantially shored up. A flood or an earthquake was apt to find them out, and there was frequent peril in the streets. The majority of the abodes of people of humble means were not like those in smaller towns, such as Pompeii, still less like those in the country. They were "tenement houses," large blocks let out in rooms and flats, and it was natural that landlords should make haste to run them up and to increase the number of their stories. When Augustus became emperor he enacted what may be called a Metropolitan Building Act, which insisted on firmer foundations and limited the height to 70 feet. That act was apparently still in force in the age of Nero, and we may take it that along the more frequented streets the houses commonly ran to a height of four or five stories. They looked the taller because of the narrowness of the street itself. While it is perhaps, though not necessarily, an exaggeration for the epigrammatist--who lived "up three pair of stairs, and high ones"--to say that he could touch his opposite neighbour with his hand, it is at least an indication of the truth. Some of the narrower lanes between blocks cannot have been more than a few feet across.

Nor does it appear that the occupants' of rooms opening on the streets were very particular as to what they threw out in the way of rubbish or dirty water. It is true that there were aediles, or officers to look after the order of the streets and public places, but their efforts seem to have been mainly directed to preventing conspicuous obstruction. Practices which we should regard as heinous were treated lightly or disregarded. To make matters worse, the shopkeepers, who occupied the lower fronts of most of such houses, took the greatest liberties in encroaching upon the roadway when exhibiting their wares, and it was not till twenty years later than our date that the Emperor Domitian ordered them to keep within their own thresholds.

Apart from the question of the freedom of traffic, it can be readily imagined that, with all the wooden counters, doors, and shutters down below, and with the disproportionate quantity of woodwork in the beams, floors, and even walls above, fires were of the commonest occurrence, and, with streets so high and narrow, the conflagration of a whole quarter of the town was speedy and complete. Augustus had divided the metropolitan area into fourteen regions, and had distributed over these a force of 7000 watchmen to keep the peace and to deal with fires at night; but it was not to be expected, if a fire occurred in a lofty block, that this body, assisted or hampered by the neighbours, could do much with the buckets, siphons, and wet blankets which formed the extinguishing apparatus of the time.

Another serious danger, or, when not danger, at least discomfort, came from the trick which the Tiber has always had of flooding the lower parts of the city. Somewhat later than our date the river restrained by strong stone embankments, which one had to descend by steps in order to reach the river at the ferries or other boats; but this must have been but inadequately achieved in the early period of the empire, and a severe flood might bring the houses in the Velabrum, for example, tumbling about the ears of their inhabitants.

* * * * *

On the whole the streets of Neronian Rome were neither very comfortable nor very safe to walk in. At night there was no lighting, except when, at some great festival, illuminations might be made by order of the emperor for a whole night or perhaps a series of nights. In ordinary times torches and lanterns must be provided by yourself, and even the 7000 watchmen scarcely gave you a full feeling of security. The precise arrangements made for scavenging are unknown, but presumably it was done by the public slaves under the supervision of the aediles. It is, however, easy to discover from contemporary complaints that the streets were often annoyingly wet and slimy.

One thing the ordinary Roman appears never to have minded, any more than it is minded at the present day. This was noise. There are studious men enough in ancient literature who complain that sleep or study is impossible in Rome. They exclaim upon the bawling of the hawkers, the canting songs of the beggars, the banging of hammers, the sing-song of schoolboys learning to read in the open-air verandahs or balconies which often served as schools, and the shouting in the baths. All night long there was the rattle of carts and the creaking of heavy waggons. But the average Roman cared, and still cares, very little for quiet or sleep, and no emperor attempted to check the annoyance. Perhaps he could devise no check. Perhaps he himself, being on the Palatine, and his counsellors, being in their own comparatively secluded houses on the hills, scarcely realised the full enormity of the nocturnal roar of Rome. In any case the fact of the noise is unquestionable. It was then very much as it is now if one tries to sleep in rooms in the Corso or the Via Babuino. The saying that "God made the country and man made the town" is met with in a Roman writer of the age of Augustus, and the noise is one factor in the difference.

The ancient Romans, we have said, were masters of practical engineering, and a chief glory of the city was its abundant supply of water. Apart from the Tiber and the natural springs, there were in the year 64 at least eight aqueducts bringing drinkable water into the city. It was the emperor's concern to see to this matter, as he did to the corn-supply, but in practice he appointed what he might call his Minister of Water-supply, and gave him liberal means to provide a large staff of engineers, surveyors, masons, pipelayers, inspectors, and custodians. It is a common error to imagine that the Romans were ignorant of the simple hydraulic law that water will find its own level, and to suppose that their aqueducts were built in consequence of that ignorance. In point of fact they knew the law as well as we do. Their earlier aqueducts were conduits almost wholly underground; their later were all on arches. When they wished to carry water to a height within the city, up a watertower to a distributing cistern, or to the top storey of a building, they did so by pipes, just as we should; but when they brought water from forty miles away they preferred to bring it in channels lined with impermeable cement and carried upon arches, which wound across the country according to the levels in order to avoid the excessive pressure of too steep a gradient. The reasons for their choice are simple enough. Their chief difficulty was in making pipes of iron of sufficient capacity. On the other hand, it was easy to construct a cemented channel in masonry of any size you desired. In the next place the water about Rome rapidly lays a calcareous deposit, and it is much easier to clear this from a readily accessible channel than from pipes buried in the ground. The pipes which the Romans commonly made were of lead, bronze, or wood. None of these could be made and cleared cheaply enough to serve for the volume of water required for household use, the baths, and the public fountains of Rome. Meanwhile slave labour was inexpensive, and the cost of building an aqueduct of any length was of little account to the Roman.

When the water reached the city it was conducted into settling and distributing reservoirs and its flow regulated. Thence it was carried by pipes, mostly of lead, wherever it was required. When Agrippa was minister of water-supply he constructed in the city 700 public pools or basins and 500 fountains, drawing their supply from 130 collecting heads or reservoirs. And it is to the credit of Agrippa and of Rome that all these pools, fountains, and reservoirs were made pleasant to the eye with suitable adornment. There is mention of 400 marble columns and 300 statues, but these are to be regarded as only chief among the embellishments.

The streets of Rome were commonly paved with blocks of lava quarried in the neighbourhood from the abundant deposits which had formed in a not very remote volcanic period.

The materials employed for substantial building were various; in the older days red and black tufa--a stone so soft as to require protection by a layer of stucco; later the dark-brown peperino, the golden-creamy travertine, marble white and coloured, and concrete. The modern visitor to Rome who regards the ruins but superficially would naturally imagine that many of the edifices were mainly constructed of brick. In reality there was no building so composed. The flat triangular bricks, or rather tiles, which are so much in evidence, are but inserted in the face of concrete to cover the nakedness of that material. Concrete alone might serve for cores and substructures, but those parts of the building which showed were required to present a more pleasing surface. At the date of Nero this might be achieved by a fronting of marble slabs and blocks, but more commonly it was obtained by means of the triangular red or yellow tiles above mentioned. In buildings of slightly earlier date the exterior often presented a "diamond pattern" or network arrangement of square pieces of stone inserted in the concrete while it was still soft. The huge vaults and arches affected by the Romans made concrete a particularly convenient material, and nothing could better illustrate its strength than the tenacity with which it has endured the strain in the unsupported portions of the vaults of the Basilica of Constantine. Any of the more imposing buildings which were not mainly of concrete were composed of blocks of stone, held to each other by clamps soldered in with lead. Few, if any, such buildings were made entirely of marble. In the case of those composes of the other varieties of stone already named, the surface was commonly coated either with stucco or with marble facings attached by hook-like clamps fixed into the main structure Externally the appearance of Rome--so far as its public buildings are concerned-was that of a city of marble. The present having been for centuries torn away, either to be used elsewhere, or more often to be burned down for lime.

[Illustration: FIG. 28.--BUILDING MATERIALS. (From Middleton.)]

Prev | Next | Contents