I was lucky in my first view of Rome. It was on a Monday, and according to the modern style, was the 21st day of April in the year 609. The spell of drizzle that had been with us for the last few days of our journey on the road was now lifted. Before riding on ahead into the City, one of the soldiers who’d accompanied us told me that spring was now here with no chance of a relapse.
We entered through the Pancratian Gate, and, the great wall of Aurelian behind, we rested our horses atop the Janiculum Hill. We dismounted and ate a little breakfast of bread and cheese. From here, in the morning sun, we could see the seven hills and appreciate the City as a whole.
I had never seen anything so gigantic or magnificent. Within the immense circuit of its walls, Rome spread out for miles across in all directions. There was still a mist in the lower parts, and this prevented a full view. But I could clearly trace the circuit of those walls, and I knew that everything inside was Rome.
It was so vast, you could have dropped in the whole area of Canterbury and Richborough together, and had room to do it dozens of times over. As long as I could remember, I’d been hearing about Rome. I’d heard about it from Auxilius, who’d never been here. I’d read about it in the mission library. I’d heard about it from the missionaries. I’d heard much from Maximin, who’d been here so often, he nearly counted as a native. But nothing had prepared me for anything so terrifyingly wonderful.
One of the ancient Emperors—one from long before the seat of Empire was transferred to Constantinople—could find no better way to apprehend the size of his capital than to have all the cobwebs gathered from every building and heaped before him. It is often only in the accumulation of the individually small that you can make sense of the inconceivably vast.
No one did any such for me. Instead, I just stood there, gawping at the unimagined size of it all, and trying not to let Maximin see how overwhelmed I was.
“Big, isn’t it?” he said with a half-suppressed pride as he shook out his napkin for the little birds who twittered round and reached for his bridle.
“It is big” I agreed, trying to sound nonchalant. I wanted to put something into my voice that would say I too had seen big cities—Genoa, for example, and Pisa—and that Rome was just a larger version of these. But my voice trailed off as I looked again over the whole. In and around the central district, I saw clusters of buildings so huge I could barely conceive how they had been designed and constructed.
The two buildings I recall that most stood out in the general vastness were the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill and the baths built by Diocletian far over to the left. These dominated the City, dwarfing everything around them in height and sheer mass. Largely obscured by the Palace was another mountainous building that I later found was the great Colosseum—a stone amphitheatre so large that eighty thousand people at a time could watch the games that used to be held there.
But even as we rode in, and I strained to look up at the buildings on either side of the road, I could see that Rome, like everywhere else in my world, had seen better days.
This had, indeed, been apparent even before we reached the gate. There was a time when Rome was served by eleven aqueducts—long arched structures carrying in every day what I can assure you was three hundred million gallons of water. These fed the baths, the fountains, and many private houses. They poured into fishponds and even great artificial lakes.
But in the sieges of Rome that had attended the war of reconquest, the aqueducts were all cut. Some had been patched up afterwards. But most remained cut. The baths and the fountains all now were dry. The ponds that remained were become stinking, pestilential sewers.
I had seen how the aqueducts were cut on the last stretch of the Aurelian Way. For several miles, this is joined by the route of an aqueduct built by Trajan. About a mile from the City, the top level of arches had been smashed away, and the continual gush of water that still came down from the hills had made all the surrounding land into a marsh. Projecting from the rippled mud were the usual ruins—only there were so many of these, it was apparent that the City had once extended far beyond the walls.
Inside the walls, the City was falling into or was already in ruins. The great public buildings mostly remained. These were built of stone or massive brick arches. They had been stripped of their ornaments. The very marble facing had been pulled off the lower walls, leaving exposed courses of brickwork, with regular notches where the marble had once been attached. Here and there, too high easily to reach, massive bronze decorations showed something of what the old effect must have been. Below that, all was mean and bare. Every dozen yards or so, I saw plinths half-buried in the rubbish. The bronze statues advertised by the lush flattery of the inscriptions were all gone.
But so long as the roofs were sound, the main structures survived. They still survived when I was last there, hobbling out of the Emperor’s reach with a price on my head. Probably they will always be there.
But the less solid structures were already collapsing. We rode down streets of apparently magnificent buildings that towered seven or eight stories above the ground. But I could see daylight through the bare upper windows, where roofs and floors had fallen in. Sometimes, only the façade stood up, the rest having collapsed upon itself. Sometimes, the façades themselves had collapsed forward into the street.
Most of the side streets were choked with rubble. In the main streets down which we passed, rubble had usually been piled back against the walls, where it lay covered in grass and rubbish. Mostly, the middle parts of the streets were clear, and we directed our horses over radically worn but still serviceable paving stones.
Occasionally, though, what had been originally a wide avenue was now so constricted, we had to dismount and lead the horses over little hills of broken masonry. We did this by what had once been a junction of five wide streets. A colossal statue of some god or Emperor had collapsed on itself, and the body parts had been left where they fell, to be gradually buried under the accumulating rubbish of half a century.
Everywhere was the smell of damp brick dust and rotting filth. I could have shut my eyes and sworn I was back in Richborough. Here, as back home, pigs snuffed around for sustenance. Little clouds of steam swirled on the ground as the sun gained in power.
Those streets reminded me of nothing so much as rows of blackened, broken teeth. The occasional soundness only emphasised the neighbouring decay.
We passed through whole districts of silent, built up desolation. In ancient times, I am told, there had been over a million inhabitants. Now, the decline of power and trade and the ravages of war and plague had reduced the population to around thirty thousand.
Of course, this was a larger population than I had ever seen. I doubt if Canterbury when I first arrived there had more than five hundred people. But it’s all a matter of proportion. Canterbury was small enough to bustle even with five hundred people—the main street was often so crowded, you had to take your turn to get down it. Thirty thousand people in a city built to house a million produced an effect of almost total desertion.
Every now and again, my gaze was drawn upwards by a movement in one of the upper windows of the buildings. I’d catch a brief view of someone pulling back to avoid being seen. Once, I looked up to see a child’s face—showing pale and thin against the blackness behind. It gave me a long and mournful inspection, and then vanished.
It was around the churches and other religious buildings that the remaining population of common people was now clustered. These people squatted in the former palaces of the great, or had built squalid hovels from reused blocks.
As we crossed the Tiber and approached the central districts, we began to see people in the street. They shuffled about, mostly in rags, shopping at little stalls that sold spoiled fruit and old clothes and dried fish so stinking it would have turned a dog’s stomach.
Here and there, I did see people dressed in respectable clothes. I even saw a covered chair carried by four slaves. But persons of quality, I later found, usually stayed indoors until the sun was well and truly up, and the more dangerous human trash had vanished until the return of darkness.
We even went by a few of the great houses that hadn’t been given over to the poor. Heavily fortified, all remaining ancient elegances bricked up, they glowered blankly over the streets they faced.
We passed into what had once been a grand square hundreds of feet across, in which the central decorative column was toppled over and lay in broken sections, and the buildings on two sides were burnt out.
Here, we were accosted by about a dozen raddled old whores and some scabby rent boys. They dragged themselves behind us, offering their services. Though dwarfed by the surrounding vastness, the noise of their cries was the first we’d heard since passing through the gate.
Come, lie with me, O pretty lad!
And give me money and be glad
Some ancient creature of probably female sex struck up—though I thought long after it might have been a eunuch. The song was taken up by a few others, building to a choral detailing of inventive though unlikely pleasures.
Maximin ignored the various prostitutes. I gave them a momentary glance. I hadn’t had a fuck in months, nor a wank in days. But I could easily resist these charms. I kicked one of the boys over as he came too close, and half drew my sword as one of the whores held up supplicating hands that seemed almost to drip contagion.
Such was the posterity of the great Populus Romanus that once had set the world to order. Such was the fallen magnificence of a city that had once been adorned with the plunder of the world.