2/28/13 - rome shrinks from one million to 20,000 citizens

In today's encore selection -- by 1400 A.D., Florence was the leading city on the Italian peninsula, Rome's population had declined from over a million people at the height of the Empire to a mere 20,000 people, and Christian tourists shunned and denigrated classical Roman artifacts in favor of such relics as the finger bone of St. Thomas:

"In the early 1400s the Eternal City must have been, in most respects, a wretchedly uninspiring sight, a parent that the Florentines may well have wished to disown. A million people had dwelled in Rome during the height of the Empire, but now the city's population was less than that of Florence. The Black Death of 1348 had reduced numbers to 20,000, from which, over the next fifty years, they rose only slightly. Rome had shrunk into a tiny area inside its ancient walls, retreating from the seven hills to huddle among a few streets on the bank of the Tiber across from St. Peter's, whose walls were in danger of collapse. Foxes and beggars roamed the filthy streets. Livestock grazed in the Forum now known as il Campo Vaccino, 'the Field of Cows.'

"Other monuments had suffered even worse fates. The Temple of Jupiter was a dunghill, and both the Theater of Pompey and the Mausoleum of Augustus had become quarries from which the ancient masonry was scavenged, some of it for buildings as far away as Westminster Abbey. Many ancient statues lay in shards, half buried, while others had been burned in kilns to make quicklime or else fertilizer for the feeble crops. Still others were mangers for asses and oxen. The funerary monument of Agrippina the Elder, the mother of Caligula, had been turned into a measure for grain and salt.

"Rome was a dangerous and unappealing place. There were earthquakes, fevers, and endless wars, the latest of which, the War of the Eight Saints, witnessed English mercenaries laying waste to the city. There was no trade or industry apart from the pilgrims who arrived from all over Europe, clutching copies of Mirabilia urbis romae (The Wonders of Rome), which told them which relics to see during their stay. This guidebook directed them to such holy sights as the finger bone of St. Thomas in Santa Croce, in Gerusalemme, the arm of St. Anne and the head of the Samaritan woman converted by Christ in San Paolo fuori le Mura, or the crib of the infant Savior in Santa Maria Maggiore. There was a hucksterish atmosphere to the city: pardoners sold indulgences from stalls in the street, and churches advertised confessions that were supposedly good for a remission of infernal torture for a grand total of 8,000 years.

"The Mirabilia urbis romae did not direct the attention of the pilgrims to the Roman remains that surrounded them. To such pious Christians these ancient ruins were so much heathen idolatry. Worse, they were stained with the blood of Christian martyrs. The Baths of Diocletian, for example, were built with the forced labor of early Christians, many of whom had died during the construction. Antique images that had survived a millennium of earthquakes, erosion, and neglect were therefore deliberately trampled underfoot, spat on, or thrown to the ground and smashed to pieces."


Ross King


Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture


Penguin Books


Copyright by Ross King, 2000


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