Richard Hodges investigates pestilence and climate chaos in the eternal city
The trams rumbling along the Viale Trastevere wake me. The bell announcing morning prayers at San Crisogono tolls a little later. From my terrace, I can see the Ponte Garibaldi and the many roofs stretching away to the distant onion dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle. The Tiber is in flood way upstream, but not here, so it lies way below its high canalised embankment. This bucolic setting in Rome bids any viewer to think it is eternal. Outside, though, not all is as it appears from my terrace. The never-ending piles of rubbish attract rats that hasten brazenly over the cobblestones. The pavements are crumbling, the only clean sections being swept by enterprising migrants who invite pedestrians to pitch a coin into soup bowls beside signs in crude cursive. Everyone knows Rome is in crisis. House prices are going up, visitors arrive in droves to occupy a spiralling number of Airbnb rooms, but civic life in this eternal city is visibly waning.
Under my apartment block lies the ancient Roman fire-station – the Excubitorium – known as Corte VII. Normally closed to the public, you can get a permesso, and a kindly inspector from Rome’s superintendency will open it up. I cannot stress how worthwhile and thought-provoking these ruins are. Excavated in 1866 by Angelo Pellegrini on behalf of the Vatican, it remained open and uncurated until 1966. Sad to say, this 1966 roof is no longer trustworthy. Bits plunge into the excavated bowels of the fire station below, necessitating that we can only stand at the door and not enter. Still it is extraordinary, if you let your imagination loose.
Rome’s fire service was set up by Augustus in AD 6, when the city’s population numbered an estimated million souls. The Excubitorium was the watch-house of the 7th cohort of the vigiles, the brigade that took care of the Transtiber (region XIV). The city’s brigade was composed of 3,920 men, divided into seven cohorts of 560, each subdivided into seven centuries of 80 men. Each cohort had responsibility for two regions, with a watch-house in each where they kept their kit. The vigili were constantly on the lookout for fires and could break into property to stop a fire spreading.
The Corte VII building was a brick-built townhouse dating to the earlier 2nd century that was transformed into the fire station at the end of the century. From the step, you look into a dark courtyard with a fountain in the centre. To the right is an elegant porticoed niche that, for all the world, looks like a door. In fact, it was for a shrine and faces a door that leads to the left into the two- or three-storey multi-roomed fire-house. Benching followed the walls of the atrium. Red plaster once covered the benches and walls to conceal the brickwork, and, according to the excavator, was vandalised by hundreds of graffiti made by the firemen as they whiled away their downtime.
Descending into this now anonymous excavation, the enormity and complexity of life in ancient Rome at its zenith is nothing less than awesome. Did firemen from here cross the Tiber to fight the great AD 80 fire in the Campus Martius, seat today of the Crypta Balbi, the museum dedicated to Rome’s final centuries and immediate afterlife?
Heading for the Crypta, as Italian archaeologists affectionately call it, my visit to the Excubitorium sets me thinking. Of late I have been reading Kyle Harper’s Fate of Rome (2017), a spirited, provocative, and well-written new book that almost, if not quite, attributes the end of Rome to climatic conditions and the bubonic plague.
In this faux thriller, Harper leads his readers smartly through Roman imperial history from Augustus to the 7th century. Cleverly, he inserts climatic change as a causal vector along the way. The fire station under my apartment block, it would now appear, was constructed during the Roman Climatic Optimum. In this period, the Mediterranean tessellation of microclimates enjoyed warm, wet, and stable weather, causing the Alpine glaciers to melt. The empire of Augustus and his immediate successors, according to Harper, was a fecund, giant greenhouse. This was what Edward Gibbon famously described as the ‘happiest age’.
There were adverse consequences for Rome’s metaphorical soul, the river Tiber, which regularly broke its banks, most often in late summer halcyon days. Pliny the Younger describes furniture floating through the streets. The Optimum ended in the Antonine period with a smallpox plague. Catastrophic late summer floods that doubtless engulfed the firemen in the Excubitorium were the breeding ground of infectious diseases like bacillary dysentery and malaria, but these were eclipsed by a smallpox pandemic that carried away as many as 150,000 of Rome’s citizens in mid-to-late AD 166. It was, writes Harper, ‘a pathogen bomb’.
Rome and its empire bounced back, of course. But, by the 5th century, civic management was in poor shape, and probably led to the desertion of the Excubitorium. Worse followed, as Harper colourfully describes. Climatic change ushered in the Late Antique Little Ice Age, a period in the 6th to 7th centuries of cooling and winter storms causing extreme flooding in the capital as well as colder climes. If this wasn’t bad enough, a pernicious disaster struck in the form of a promiscuous killer, Yersinia pestis, carried by an oriental rat flea. The pest arrived from the Indian Ocean and first devastated the cities of the eastern Empire.
In the midst of a war between the Ostrogoths and Byzantium, traders and mariners unwittingly transported the flea to Rome. In AD 542 it decimated the eternal city. As Harper says, the Colosseum had been spruced up for games in AD 520, and by AD 590 the new pontificate of Gregory the Great could have easily accommodated the city’s surviving 10,000-20,000 souls in the fabled arena. (The lugubrious Byzantine historian, Procopius, estimated that the city’s population had plunged to a pitiful 500 citizens.) As Pope Gregory balefully noted, ‘the end of the world is no longer just predicted, but is revealing itself’. How many firemen survived this onslaught, one wonders?
Not everyone is convinced by Harper’s apocalyptic history. There are troubling details such as the dead bodies and the faunal evidence of the rats themselves. Plague pits are simply absent. Urban burials, though, suddenly become ubiquitous in all parts of the metropolis soon after this catastrophe. Civic attitudes to death, it appears, had been badly battered by the heinous impact of the pestilence. As to urban rodents, amazingly excavations in Roman cities have produced plentiful evidence of woodmice seeking refuge in metropolitan habitats, and even edible dormice. (Apicius’s 1st-century cookbook, De re coquinaria or On the Subject of Cooking, describes how these were treated as a delicacy, bred and fattened in special pots before being stuffed, cooked, rolled in honey and nuts.) Unlike dormice, rats are pretty much invisible. One reason may be that rat bones only turn up in fine mesh sieving of archaeological levels. Precious few digs here have resorted to this technique. The negative evidence not unnaturally adds fiery fuel to debates among scholars about the plague. Could a city that boasted a civic facility as sophisticated as a well-oiled fire brigade, besides the grandeur of temples and palaces, have been so easily crushed? Rome obviously remained as a vibrant place, but what kind of place?