Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
“Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered”
– The Ruin, Old English Poem, c. 8th-10th century
It is hardly surprising that across Europe in the early middle ages, many people living in the post-Roman world thought that the earth had once been inhabited by giants. With the collapse of the Western Empire, many of the major metropolises across western Europe suffered vast declines in population – by the late 5th century Rome’s population had shrunk from over a million to less than 400,000, and by the middle of the 6th century, after Justinian’s reconquest of Italy, it plummeted to a mere twenty thousand. A combination of disruption of the countryside, the breakdown of trade networks and supply lines, and the effects of ongoing war, famine and repeated cycles of plague, the 6th century was an age of disappearing cities and towns.
Indeed, in this period, many cities and towns vanished altogether, only to show up later in the archaeological record. The crumbling remains were either entirely abandoned or quarried for materials. In some major cities, the shrinking population abandoned the city centre to live on the fringes, where access to agricultural land was easier. Major edifices were repurposed, making use of the cavernous spaces between pillars, for example, which could be bricked in with a ready-made roof. Amphitheatres were fortified and piled up with houses built upon the rows of seats. In Rome, such was the scale of the city that it broke up into a series of small villages, with shepherds grazing flocks through the abandoned, overgrown streets. It was the world’s first true apocalypse, the first collapse of a “modern” civilization.
This photograph shows the immense brick walls of the Baths of Caracalla. Constructed between AD 211 and 217, they remained in use until the aqueducts were cut in Rome during the devastating Gothic War fought between the Eastern Empire and the Ostrogoths from 535-554. The baths complex covered an area of 25 hectares, with the main building no less than 228 metres long and 116 metres wide, reaching to a height of 38.5 metres. It could accommodate up to 1600 bathers and contained libraries, gymnasiums, restaurants and shops. It required thousands of slaves to maintain and had its own aqueduct built to supply the water. As it lay on the outskirts of the ancient city, it was left almost entirely abandoned for centuries after its water supply was cut. The immense and impressive statuary which adorned the vast complex, such as the Farnese Hercules, was not recovered until the 16th century, almost a thousand years after it fell into ruin.
This photograph shows a view looking from the frigidarium (cold bath) into the natatio (swimming pool), which was roughly of Olympic length, with dimensions of 54 x 24 metres. The epic scale of the wall dwarfs the human subjects and goes someway towards highlighting just how massive this structure was, and, indeed, still is. An hour-long visit to the bath is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon in Rome.