From baths to quarry to tourist attraction

Went to the Baths of Caracalla the other day. First impression was that it was comparable with London’s dear old Battersea Powerstation: red brick, massively imposing,  not looking its best. It’s certainly a site that dwarfs much of the other extant (or exposed) remains in Rome from the Empire era.

I’m very ignorant about ancient Roman history, but what particularly interests me – and what I plan to read about once I’ve finished the fascinating Rome: Whispering City by Richard Bosworth – is what happened during the period of transition between the last Roman emperors and the new rule of the “barbarians”. I’m using pesky inverted commas because I’m reluctant to say German chieftains or suchlike, as no one seems to know the true origins of Oadacer, the chap who deposed Romulus Augustulus in 476AD. He was, however, known to have been a general in the Roman army, so there’s some continuity already – he wasn’t completely foreign, alien to Roman culture.

Wandering around the shell of the baths, I wondered what happened in and after 476AD. Did the staff (including slaves)  simply stop coming to work? Did punters arrive to find the doors locked and have to forgo their daily bathe? Or did life continue in much the same manner for decades, until the Gothic Wars in the 6th century when the technical systems were apparently knackered by Ostrogoths, who joined the list of armies who have invaded and romped around in Rome over the centuries.

The slow change of society is hard to grasp, and visiting such a place you only get a bare backbone of its history: built 212-216AD; fell into disrepair after the fall of the Western Empire; was used as a quarry during the middle ages; was pillaged for its statuary etc from the Renaissance onwards (most famously the Farnese Hercules); was deployed as a theatre by Mussolini. Very little remains of the details and decoration, bar some sections of frieze and restored mosaic. It takes an agile mind to extrapolate from this:

To this:

That’s not a great illustration, but it has the virtue of being colourful – these places would have been highly decorated.

This is a great image, by CR Cockerell, but it’s kinda drab:

Anyway, to get back to my original musings – this is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see in a CGI time-lapse or somesuch. That’s not available though, so I’ll have to bolster my imagination the old-fashioned way: via books. Currently agonising over which book on the fall of Rome to buy. There are inevitably a lot, and books are effing pricey here in Rome, especially if you’re British, with our poor exchange rate.

When I was very young, my mum used to go shopping down the high street with a basket, visiting the green grocer, the butcher, the baker, and, er, Woolies, most likely. These days almost all grocery shopping occurs in supermarkets, and those independent high street shops are long gone, replaced by chains of mobile phone shops or hot milk drink franchises. That’s just in 30 or so years.

So the fabric of cities does change tangibly – albeit slowly – and even after mere decades you can look back and play a time-lapse in your mind. Presumably something similar happened at the Baths. Maintenance wouldn’t have been so assiduous, service would have worsened, prices would have risen… In fact, it sounds somewhat akin to what’s happening with services and facilities in a country like UK or Italy during this Depression (or is it just a Recession? Or “economic downturn?”).

Life expectancy in 4th century Rome would have been what, around 40 (if you survived childhood)? So individuals would have been unlikely to have been able to note the kind of changes I’ve seen in the high street of my home town. And if no one was alive to remember what things were like 50 or 60 years ago, presumably no one would really have mourned the gradual diminishment of services and eventual functional death of something like the Baths of Caracalla, other than perhaps an intellect elite who read history.

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2 Comments

Filed under Main thread, Rome

2 responses to “From baths to quarry to tourist attraction

  1. Ma

    Dan, this is a wonderful and informative piece of writing. I wonder if you will in the end gather your musings together and perhaps publish them. You are quite right about my early grocery shopping expeditions – now it is either the local producers market or infrequently the supermarker.

  2. fran

    i find it spooky, walking around these ruins of an ancient glory in an era when the sense of decline is palpable. recession, depression, all those things in the air, in the news – it adds another dimension to all these historical stories of civilisations in decline. so strange, walking the streets of this grand city, monumental and proud and yet boarded up, crumbling, ankle deep in litter, scrawled with graffitti. maybe rome has always been like this. eternally beautiful, and yet dying, with a population that is both proud but indifferent. fascinating writing Dan. I feel like I am discovering the city through you in a way I never could from my desk in the Roman countryside…

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