Rome is a necessary pilgrimage for a historian of any period. Although the Colosseum, built at the height of Imperial Rome, now dominates the popular imagination, and tourist trails, in March 2017 undergraduate and postgraduate students from the Department of History and Welsh History explored a neglected period in the city’s fascinating history – Late Antiquity. Historians now use the term to refer to the centuries between the end of the Classical Period and the Middle Ages. Traditionally viewed as the Dark Ages – with few historical records, declines in population and living standards, and social and political chaos – the highly influential work of the historian Peter Brown has led to historians, such as our own Dr Alexander Sarantis, to look again at the period on its own terms, rather than through grand narratives of Decline and Fall. Our trip – launched in conjunction with Dr Sarantis’s module “The World of Late Antiquity: barbarians, bishops and the transformation of Rome, A.D. 284-641” – explored the physical remains of this dramatic period in Rome itself.
On the first day, we saw the towering and intimidating Aurelian Walls, built 271-275 AD. These walls are a physical testament to the growing insecurity of the later empire. Roman citizens had prided themselves on how, during centuries of expansion, their city had not required great fortifications. During the “Crisis of the Third Century”, however, the Roman Army struggled to hold back barbarian tribes that invaded northern Italy and the walls were required as a desperate emergency measure.
After exploring the walls (one of the towers was later occupied by a medieval hermit!), we proceeded along the Appian Way. The road was of considerable strategic importance in the Roman Empire and Republic. In 71 BC, after the rebellion of Spartacus, 6000 slaves were crucified along a section of it. Our own progress was considerably less dangerous (despite the traffic) and was improved by the presence of a friendly hound christened “Appian Way Doggo” (“Aurelian Walls Doggo” had been sighted on a bus to the outskirts of the city that morning but showed a disappointing lack of interest in Late Antique architecture).
Along the Appian Way we saw the gigantic ruins of the Circus of Maxentius. The best preserved in Rome, this was built by a rival of the famous Emperor Constantine who played a pivotal role in the empire’s conversion to Christianity. Constantine had defeated Maxentius just outside Rome itself and, on the Thursday, we visited the Arch of Constantine, built to celebrate that victory. In his talk on the monument Dr Sarantis highlighted that, intriguingly, the Arch does not have a single obviously Christian symbol on it. Rome itself, unlike its Emperor, had not converted overnight.
When returning along the Appian Way, we visited my favourite site of the trip – the Catacombs of San Sebastiano. We toured the dark, evocative, narrow labyrinth of tunnels and tombs, covered with early Christian graffiti – a thought-provoking contrast to the triumphant Christianity we found elsewhere on the trip. For example, on Thursday morning, we were guided around two late Roman Christian churches, with the help of Rob Coates from the British School of Rome. Dr Coates gave up his free time to provide an enlightening tour of the church architecture, the site, and how it all tied into the historical context (and, helpfully, translated the Latin inscriptions). We were very grateful for his expertise and the way in which he patiently explained the complex history of the site. The mosaics are incredibly well preserved, and provide a vivid testament to the speed with which Christianity did take hold among the imperial elite.
As someone who has always wanted to visit the Eternal City, this trip was a fascinating exploration of a less famous, but equally dynamic and fascinating, aspect of Rome’s incredible history. My thanks, on behalf of all who attended, to Dr Alexander Sarantis and Dr Arddun Arwyn for organising and leading the trip and to the History and Welsh History Department, and Aberystwyth University, for their generous sponsorship of what was an enlightening foray into the often dark and neglected depths of Late Antiquity.
Ryan Kemp, Third-Year PhD student, History and Welsh History Department, Aberystwyth University http://aber.academia.edu/RyanKemp