12.03.20, Dey, The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome

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Gregor Kalas

The Medieval Review 12.03.20

Dey, Hendrik W.. The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome AD 271-855. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 376. ISBN: 978-0-521-76365-3.

Reviewed by:
Gregor Kalas
University of Tennessee

The Aurelian wall both surrounds Rome and has come to dominate the city's critical fortunes with its looming height that captures the imagination of scholars and travelers alike. As a late antique intervention, the wall (begun in 271 CE) organized the city's interior as much as it circumscribed the city's borders according to Hendrik Dey in his book, The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, AD 271-855. Dividing the interior of Rome (in urbe) from the peripheral areas (foris murum) significantly transformed the trajectories along which people and all their provisions moved: the wall featured sixteen major gates built in the third century CE with several major adjustments prior to the end of the ninth century which rarely sealed off the city and more frequently shaped the city's post-classical growth. As Dey tell the story, the wall did not rise as a fortress anticipating Rome's retrenchment from the world. On the contrary, Dey articulates that building the wall initially from 271-282 CE and subsequently from 401-403 CE indicate mammoth ambitions in both campaigns that effectively revitalized Rome's building industry and the city itself. Thus, Dey's book joins a growing shelf of recent books by authors who are uncomfortable with the narrative that the ancient capital lapsed into decrepitude as a consequence of military vulnerability. Dey presents evidence that inner-city Rome was rebuilt (such as after the devastating fire when Carinus was emperor in 283) while authorities implemented new systems of food distributions due to the reorganized urban administration that Aurelian set up. Thanks to Dey's research, it is now clear that the wall was not a calcified shell containing Rome's inhabitants, but a dynamic agent that allowed authorities to entertain, feed, govern, protect, tax, and transport Romans as well as their neighbors and guests.

This is a major story and one that one that Dey correctly recognized as worthy of attention to reverse the near oblivion into which scholarship on the ever-present Aurelian wall had fallen. The first chapter summarizes the story of the wall, building upon the important contributions of Lucos Cozza and Robert Coates-Stephens; Dey offers a clear outline of when the circuit measuring nearly 19 kilometers in length was built of brick-faced concrete. Under Aurelian the wall was constructed up to an initial eight-meter height and then doubled in stature during the reign of emperor Honorius from 401-403. In addition, Dey recounts that the inconsistent brickwork, clearly added after the campaign of Aurelian, points toward a series of fourth- century interventions. Yet Dey argues that there was no significant elevation of the walls during the reign of Maxentius (306-312), as previously had been believed. Further significant repairs can be traced to the fifth-century initiatives of imperial authorities followed by restoration campaigns under the Ostrogothic King and later by the Byzantine emperor's strengthening of the circuit in the sixth century. After the seventh century, responsibility for the upkeep of the wall fell to the popes with the final major extension of the enceinte attributed to Pope Leo IV (847-855).

The second chapter addresses who built the wall: it was an imperial initiative, according to Dey. In the late third century CE, the author argues, the director of Rome's public works (curator operum publicorum) oversaw all of the practical aspects of construction at the behest of the emperor, in this case Aurelian. Inscriptions recording repairs to the wall credit the fourth- and fifth-century campaigns to those serving as Rome's urban prefect (praefectus urbi), a position appointed by the emperor who also functioned as the leader of the senate. Even under emperor Honorius, when the wall dramatically increased in height, the senatorial office of the urban prefect clearly oversaw the construction bureaucracy. During the late third and early fourth centuries, Aurelian instigated and Constantine implemented reforms to Rome's corporations (collegia), making their labor obligatory. By the middle of the fifth century, the collegia had diminished on account of the burdens of their compulsory service, leading subsequently to more haphazard repairs undertaken by less professionally skilled citizens. Aurelian reorganized both construction workers and those in the food industry in a way that opens up a fascinating link between the two endeavors, since the emperor increased the grain and oil dole in addition to introducing subsidized provisions of pork and wine for those living inside the walls. Dey sheds light upon the Aurelian wall shaping the wider transportation network by charting how tracts of land beyond the walls were designated as vineyards for the subsidized wine provided inside the city, with the proceeds funding construction projects. The wall, implicitly, divided those country folk who produced food and drink from the urban residents who consumed it.

The reason for constructing the wall is the topic of the third chapter, which Dey subtly defines as going far beyond the practical and obviously clear purposes of defending Rome. Aurelian's new wall placed the imperial bureaucracy firmly in charge of the work force and further provided mechanisms for the emperors to control the aristocratic estates situated immediately within the city's confines. Additionally, the imperial coffers were augmented by the customs collections that the wall facilitated so as to fund the food distributions. Yet, after Aurelian's reign, the emperors rarely resided in Rome and they appointed local senators to offices administering all facets of the building industry and plausibly the oversight of food distribution as well. Dey's reading of Rome's late antique circuit as a sign of imperial authority at times feels slightly exaggerated in that the argument relies on ancient historians without according proper consideration to the senatorial inscriptions, such as that of the senator Longinianus mentioning repairs to the wall in 401. It is clear that Aurelian pioneered the wall to strengthen his own position as emperor and that his political motives help to explain how the beautification of the wall made it as impressive as it was defensive. Fifth-century embellishments such as crosses and star- burst patterns added under emperor Honorius in the early fifth century advance Dey's claim that under this Christian ruler the wall became an approximation of the heavenly Jerusalem as described in the Apocalypse of John. Yet earthly Rome was a physical entity while the celestial city was an ideal. The reading that Honorius' gifted court poet Claudian ascribes explicitly to the wall, revealing the victorious messages that redounded to the young emperor as he marched triumphantly into Rome in 404, provides more eloquent testimony to the early fifth-century ornament in the wall than the oblique allusions to the celestial Jerusalem.

The second half of Dey's book turns to the topic of how Rome changed after being encircled by Aurelian's wall. Chapter four considers the inner-city infrastructure that responded to the new enceinte such as the mills built on Janiculum and a new bridge, the Pons Probi, across which grain unloaded at the Tiber port could travel to reach the mills. In short, the walls furnish even more critical insights into Rome's food industry than had been suggested by Aurelian's initial expansion of the subsidized grain dole. Further, the heap of jettisoned amphorae at Testaccio was abandoned in the fourth century; thereafter, food was distributed in the Campus Martius from Monte Cittorio, a hill actually made up of newly discarded storage vessels. The major gates belonging to the wall giving way onto major urban corridors further defined the locations of early medieval charity centers (diaconiae). Thus, Dey argues persuasively that the contours of the walls actually defined the urban form within.

In chapter five, liturgical sources describing rites inside Rome's walls provide a lens through which to consider the papacy's definition of the city's confines. For example, the early medieval bishops sent the consecrated host only to priests ministering at urban churches. This information allows Dey to explain that the papal city demarcated within the walls continued the consolidated and contained Rome that had been created by Aurelian in the late third century.

The transference of relics from extra-mural shrines to churches within Rome's walls after the eighth century opens up the discussion of the so-called Republic of St Peter in chapter six. Under Pope Hadrian I (772-795), the wall was significantly repaired even though the entire circumference remained far outside of the retracted zones of habitation in the underpopulated medieval city. Dey captures eloquently how papal Rome had to keep the imperial boundaries for symbolism rather than defense. Leo IV (847-855) extended the walls around the Vatican and the Borgo, instigating the most significant papal transformation of the city's perimeter so that, according to Dey, the wall was no longer an adjunct to the city but instead Rome became subservient to the wall.

Dey's book is compelling in that the author has brilliantly captured how the Aurelian wall transformed Rome in ways that make its tower- studded infrastructure of crucial significance to considerations of late antique urbanism. Dey deserves lavish praise for recognizing and amending for an earlier gap in scholarship. Dey has filled in the lacuna by presenting a grand narrative of how Aurelian's wall functioned as the linchpin in the reorganization of Rome's governance, ritual life, the construction industry and the system of food distribution. Readers, finally, should be delighted that, thanks to Dey's engaging prose and expansive scholarship, the important story about the late antique walls remaking Rome's interior has now received expert treatment.

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Author Biography

Gregor Kalas

University of Tennessee