City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Remains of Rome

The Roman Empire came to an end many centuries ago, but there is still much of Rome left in the world to-day. The Romans live for us yet in their history, and also in the languages and laws of Europe, which are founded in large part upon the language and law of Rome. In another way also Rome and the life of her citizens are with us still. The Roman roads and bridges and walls can still be traced all over Europe, and at Rome a few great buildings remain which give us a faint idea of the grandeur of the ancient city. Moreover, by a strange chance, a Roman city

the city of Pompeii has been preserved for us entire, very much as it was toward the close of the first century after Christ; and in this we can draw near to the life of the people of Rome as it must have been eighteen hundred years ago.

You will remember, perhaps, that the Romans of the time of Cincinnatus lived partly in the country upon their farms, and partly in the city. Although the Romans of the empire were very different in their thoughts and tastes from those of the earlier days, they were like them in this, that they did not confine them-selves to a life in Rome. Every citizen who was able to afford it, had a house outside of Rome,—on some beautiful Italian lake, at the foot of the mountains, or on the seashore. The western coast of Italy was lined, in places, with the country houses, or villas, of the Romans; and one beautiful bay that on which the city of Naples stands—was noted for the number of the towns and villas which covered its shores.

Overlooking this bay, at the present time, is the lofty peak of Mt. Vesuvius. Travelers who visit the city of Naples to-day think themselves fortunate if they are there during an eruption of Vesuvius; for it is now one of the most active volcanoes of the world. Up to the first century after Christ, however, the Romans knew nothing of Vesuvius as an active volcano. Cities were built at its very foot; and one of the Roman writers describes Vesuvius as rising behind these towns, "well cultivated and inhabited all around, except the top, which is for the most part level and entirely barren, ashy to the view, and displaying great hollows in rocks which look as if they had been eaten by fire. So we may suppose this spot," he continues, "to have been a volcano formerly, with burning craters, which are now extinguished for want of fuel."

In the year 79 A.D., the fires of Vesuvius burst forth again, after their long, long rest, and brought destruction to the country around it.

It was the afternoon of a November day, and the burning heats of summer were now past. Many of the Roman visitors had left their country homes, and returned to the capital. Some, however, still lingered in their beautiful villas; and such of them as were not taking their afternoon nap, were reading, or busying themselves with other matters. In the cities nearby, life was going on as usual. In one place masons were at work repairing a damaged building; in the Forum, the shop-keepers were showing their wares to customers; in the crowded theatre men and women watched with wolfish eyes the struggles of the gladiators.

Suddenly a strange cloud, shaped like a pine-tree, with a lofty trunk and a cluster of branches at the top, was seen to rise above Vesuvius. As the people watched it, it continually changed in height; and sometimes it was fiery-bright in appearance, and sometimes it seemed streaked with black.

This was the beginning of a great eruption of dust and ashes, which lasted for days, and is said to have scattered its showers of volcanic dust as far as Africa and Egypt. At the same time, the land was shaken by earthquakes: and the sea drew back from the shore.

The people, in terror, fled in all directions, by sea and land, thinking the end of the world had come. Most of them escaped in safety, but some, who tried to brave the storm and remain in the cities, were lost.

When the eruption had ceased, it was found that a thick layer of ashes and mud was spread over the country around, and the towns which were nearest to the mountain were covered so deeply that only the tops of the tallest buildings were visible above the surface of the ground. As the years went by, other eruptions came, and added to the thickness of this covering. Then the top layer was gradually changed to a fine loam; and grass, and bushes, and even trees, sprang up and covered the spot where the cities lay buried. At last they seemed wholly lost to the memory of man.

For sixteen hundred years the cities about Mount Vesuvius then lay buried and lost to view. Then as well, deeper than usual, happened to be dug in the ground above one of them. There, many feet underground, ancient statues were found, and bits of sculptured marble. Search was made, and it was found that the well had struck the stage of a buried theatre. Then scholars began to remember the story of the destruction of the cities so long ago; and they began to dig elsewhere also.

From that time to this, the work of uncovering the buried cities has slowly been going on. Several museums are now filled with the pictures, statues and household furniture which have been taken from beneath the ashes of Vesuvius. The town which has been most thoroughly examined is Pompeii, of which over one-half has been uncovered. There we of the nineteenth century can see the houses and streets of the first century after Christ, very much as they were left when the citizens fled in fear for their lives through the showers of falling stones and ashes.

The removal of the covering over Pompeii has shown that the city had a forum, surrounded by temples and law courts, and other public buildings; and this, as at Rome, was the most splendid part of the city. But it is not for the public buildings of Pompeii that we care most: ancient temples, and other public buildings, as well preserved as these, may be found in other places. But the glimpse which we get into the private houses of the town, and into the life of the people in the streets and shops, this we can get nowhere else and it is this which makes our interest in Pompeii so great.

Let us leave the Forum, then, and go down one of the many streets that lead from it through the town. The first thing that strikes us is the narrowness of the streets. In some of the broadest of them, two chariots could scarcely have passed each other; and some of the ways are so narrow as not even to allow of the passage of one. The pavements are formed of large pieces of stone, joined together with great care; and the ruts worn by the passing wheels can still be seen in some of them. On each side of the street is a narrow walk for the foot passengers; this is raised above the level of the roadway, and large stepping-stones are placed in the middle of the street to enable the people to cross from one side to the other in rainy weather.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Passing along one of these streets, we notice that the houses are built out to the edge of the pavement, and have their plain and unadorned side toward the passers-by. They are built, as are the houses in many countries to-day,—about one or more inner courts into which most of the rooms open. Often the street side was occupied by shops which were rented out by the owner of the house, and which had no connection with the life of the house itself.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Let us enter one of these houses, and see how a Roman dwelling was arranged. We will choose one of the larger and finer buildings. The entrance is through a passageway which lies between two of the shops which make up the front of the house. There we find the Latin word for "Welcome" formed of bits of stone, in the mosaic work of the floor. Stepping over this, we enter first the large public hall, which you see plainly in the picture above. Here the master of the house received the visitors who came to see him on business, or to pay their respects to him. If they came from a distance, they might be lodged overnight in the small rooms which you see opening off from the hall on each side. The walls of this large room were decorated with paintings and drawings, and here and there we see places where the statues shown in the picture once stood. The floor here, and, indeed, all through the lower story of the house, was formed of blocks of marble or other stone, and usually the blocks were of different colors and were arranged to form a pattern of some sort.

In the centre of the floor of the room which we are examining, we see a square basin, several feet deep. When we ask what this was for, we are told that there was an opening in the roof above this, and that the basin was to catch the water which fell when it rained. Unfortunately, the roofs of the houses have, all been broken down or burned, and the rooms are now open to the sky; so we have to imagine this opening in the roof. In the beginning, we are told, it was left to let out the smoke and vapors from the fires; for none of the houses had chimneys, and the fireplaces were only metal pots or pans in which charcoal might be burned. We could not imagine ourselves, in our cold climate, living with such an opening over our heads; but in the warmer climate of Italy, this plan had many advantages. For one thing, the rooms were thus freely ventilated; and an awning, drawn across the opening, served to keep out the sun in summer.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Leaving the public hall, we come through another passage to the private part of the house, where the women and children dwelt, and where no visitor might come without a special invitation from the master. Here we find another court, with rows of slender, graceful columns about it. Opening off this court, are small low bedrooms, which we should think very uncomfortable; and here, too, is the dining-room, where the master of the house entertained his friends at dinner. Above this court, also, there was an opening in the roof, with a basin below to catch the water; and about the basin, between and behind the columns, there grew, perhaps, beds of blooming flowers and clumps of evergreens.

Only the ground floor remains of most of the houses of Pompeii; but there must have been a second story to all of the better houses, and sometimes even a third story. But the upper part of the house was for the use of the slaves and the dependents of the family, and could not have been so well arranged, nor so beautiful, as the lower portion.

Even if we had been the first, after its discovery, to examine this house, we should not have found the walls hung with framed pictures, as with us. Instead of that, we might, perhaps, have found its walls beautifully decorated with scenes and designs painted on the wall itself, which had kept their colors almost fresh in the darkness of the buried city. Some of these pictures have now been allowed to fade by exposure to the light and air; but many have been carefully taken down and preserved in the museums.

When these houses were first uncovered, many pieces of furniture were found in them; but according to our ideas, the Roman rooms must have seemed rather bare for living rooms. We should have found in them only a few chairs, some small tables, three couches in the dining-room—you will remember that the Romans reclined at their meals—some beds or couches in the bedrooms, and here and there high stands for their queer oil lamps. The form of these articles, however, was often most elegant; and at times they were made of very rich material and with great skill of workmanship. Besides such larger pieces of furniture, many smaller articles have been found, as the work of unearthing the city has gone on. Among these, we may name cooking vessels, vases, cups and fine glasses, combs, hairpins, polished metal mirrors, and many pieces of jewelry.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Besides the private houses, and the public buildings, many shops have been found in Pompeii. Most of these are just tiny little rooms in the front of the houses, and are entirely open toward the street. Usually we can tell what sort of a shop each is by the sign in front of it. Here is one with a wooden goat before it, and we know that it was a milk shop. Another has a large jar as a sign, and we know at once that it was a wine shop. The one with a snake before it was a drug store; and this one with a row of hams for a sign, we are told, was an eating house. Three bakeries have been discovered, and these give us a very good idea of how the bread of the Romans looked; for in the oven of one of them, eighty-three loaves were discovered, black and charred, but still keeping their original shape. L washing and dyeing shop, for the care of the woolen garments which were almost the only kind worn, has also been dis covered; and here the stone tubs may still be seen waiting for their contents, while on the walls are pictures of men standing in tubs and stamping with their feet, to show us how they were used in washing garments.

In one way the people of Pompeii were very much like some bad boys of our own day. They loved to scratch and write on the walls of the houses of the town, which, indeed, must have offered tempting chances to all by being so near to the sidewalk. So here, we find verses from the poets; and there, letters of the Greek alphabet, scratched by boys too small to reach high up on the walls. In many places advertisements are scratched in the plaster of the walls, and announcements of fights of gladiators, and performances in the theatre. Occasionally, too, we find pictures like the one shown on page 254, where a gladiator is seen coming down the steps of the amphitheatre, with a palm leaf of victory in his right hand. Such drawings and inscriptions are often found on the ancient buildings of Rome also. There, as at Pompeii, they must have been the work of the common people and the young boys, for the writers are usually very uncertain of their grammar and spelling.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


The old Roman life has been kept for us better in the city of Pompeii than anywhere else; for at Rome itself, the buildings and furniture and tools and ornaments of the people, did not remain unused and unchanged during the centuries. People continued to live in the greater city, through all the changes that the years brought with them; and they live there to this day. Only a few of the great monuments of the past, however, remain among them.

Do you wonder how the magnificent buildings of the older Rome, which were so solidly built of stone and marble, could have been so nearly destroyed, even in so long a stretch of time?

For many hundreds of years after the Roman empire of the West had come to an end, the people of the city knew little of the past, and cared still less about it. They used the old temples for churches, changing them to suit their purposes; and they tore down the finest buildings of the older city, in order to get stone for use in building new ones of their own. There is no doubt that, in this way, the Romans themselves have done more harm to the old city than all the armies that have ever captured Rome. If we could only learn the history and the former use of each of the marbles, stones and bricks, of which the palaces and churches of modern. Rome are built, our knowledge of the city of the Caesars would be almost complete.

In the fifteenth century the Church of St. Peter, the grandest in the world to-day, was begun at Rome, and rose slowly for more than two hundred years before it reached completion. The building of this church alone caused more destruction to the remains of ancient Rome than the ten centuries of ignorance that had gone before. Of the huge masses of marble of every color and size used in it, not an inch was dug from the quarries in modern times. They were all taken from the ancient buildings, many of which were leveled to the ground for the sake of one or two pieces only. At this time, also, the greatest sculptors that Italy has ever seen were flourishing; and they too found marbles ready to their hand in the fallen columns of the ancient temples. In this way, the materials of the most beautiful Christian chapel in the world, were taken from the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian.

If you ever go to Rome, and see the great arching dome of St. Peter's, and the other beautiful sights of the modern city, you must remember this. The new Rome which the eye sees contains the Rome of ancient times beneath its soil and in its greatest buildings, in something of the same way in which our language holds the old Latin words which have been worked over into a different form, and put to different uses in our speech. At first glance we see only that which is new, and we think that the old has completely perished; but, as we look closer and study into things, we find that all of the past is there also, if we only know how to find it.