You are here

The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, AD 271–855

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, AD 271–855

By Hendrik W. Dey. Pp. xv + 360, figs. 61. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $110. ISBN 978-0-521-76365-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

What’s in a wall? Far more than bricks and mortar, as we learn from Dey in this fascinating study of one of the most prominent and enduring monuments of imperial Rome, the Aurelian Wall. Surely Dey is not the first scholar to produce a monograph on this subject. Indeed, in recent years, there has been no lack of scholarly interest in Rome’s fortifications (e.g., B. Brizzi and L.A. Cardilli, Mura e porte di Roma antica [Rome 1995]; R. Mancini, Le mura aureliane di Roma: Atlante di un palinsesto murario [Rome 2001]). But to my knowledge, Dey is the first to go beyond architectural history to write a social and cultural history of the Aurelian Wall and its Nachleben. The result is a groundbreaking study that tells, in clear, sparkling prose, how Rome’s imperial fortifications came into being, transformed the city, and became a symbol of Rome’s imperial and Christian past.

The book is divided into six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. In the first three chapters, Dey deals with the wall as “object,” that is, a “thing acted upon and shaped by human forces” (9). In the remaining ones, he approaches the wall as “subject,” a structure that not only reshaped human activities unfolding around it but also redefined the city’s relationship with itself and the world outside. The study covers the period extending from the 270s C.E., when the wall was erected, to the ninth century, when interest in its upkeep faded away. The focus on the longue durée is welcome and enables Dey to stress permanence and continuity while at the same time showing that the wall was constantly being reinvented, becoming different things at different times.

Chapter 1 opens with an overview of the wall’s history followed by discussion of the chronology of its building phases. Careful observation of the “standing stratigraphy” of the wall allows Dey to draw several important conclusions concerning the dating and historical context of the main additions and repairs. His findings are not always new, but Dey often makes a more emphatic and convincing case, for instance, when arguing for an Honorian date for the post-Aurelianic doubling of the wall’s height (32–48).

Chapter 2 takes issue with the planning, building, rebuilding, and maintenance of the wall. Dey first considers the placement of the enceinte in relation to other traditional boundaries, namely, the pomerium, the limits of the Augustan regions, and the city’s customs boundaries. He then turns to the organizational effort and the mobilization of resources necessary to realize that massive project in less than 10 years. By imaginatively reconstructing the efforts that went into the procurement of material and labor, Dey sheds much light on the social, political, and economic life of the capital and shows how much the history of the wall is in fact the history of Rome.

The motivations for building the wall, its meaning, and message form the subject of chapter 3. Dey agrees with most scholars that the wall was built in response to external threats to Rome’s security (or to the perception of a threat). However, Dey speculates that the emperor’s concern to control a restless populace may also have been a factor. Calling attention to the challenges the revolt of the mint workers posed to the emperor’s authority, Dey suggests that Aurelian, then preparing to leave for the East, would have wanted to assert his authority in the city not only by protecting it but also by appeasing the crowd. The building would have employed thousands of workers, diverting them from potentially subversive activities, and, once built, the wall (with its garrison) enabled government more effectively to monitor the movement of people and supplies in and out of the city, protecting it from “invasion and sedition alike” (115).

In chapter 4, Dey analyzes the topographical impact of the wall on the city, the suburbium, and Rome’s image in late antiquity and beyond. The wall interrupted the centuries-old urban-suburban continuum, creating two separate spaces, inside and outside. Dey shows how this rupture altered the way people lived, worked, and moved. He suggests that, in the short run, the wall attracted intra-muros settlement, while at the same time creating a no-man’s-land in the immediate perimeter outside. Drastic changes followed in the patterns of traffic, transport, and trade inside the city and in the suburbs. Dey also convincingly argues that, in post-imperial Rome, despite the city’s reduced size and population, the wall remained an “elemental force” (7), shaping urban life and structuring patterns of settlement.

Chapter 5 explores how the wall changed the way Rome’s urban space was conceptualized. Not all scholars will be persuaded by Dey’s suggestion that Aurelian expanded the pomerium, making it coterminous with the wall, though he adduces strong evidence for it. Yet it is hard to argue with Dey’s observation that, in the fourth century C.E., the wall subsumed unto itself the functions of older administrative boundaries. Sections 3–6 of this chapter are full of fresh insights and original ideas. For instance, Dey argues that, in late antiquity, the wall took on a new “metaphysical” quality as the “threshold of the saints” (221)—the starting point of the “sacred ways” leading to the Christian shrines and cemeteries lying beyond its gates.

The last chapter deals with the “renaissance” of the wall in the eighth and ninth centuries, which Dey attributes to the ambitions of an assertive and increasingly independent Papacy. The extensive mural repairs under Pope Hadrian I and others were linked to the attempts of late eighth-century popes to project temporal power by taking on the responsibility for the defense of the city. In a time of relative peace, however, these repairs were but a form of “political theater” (272) that allowed the popes to advertise themselves as successors of Roman emperors. Here, as a symbol of Rome’s imperial might, the wall became a tool in the hands of popes eager to claim hegemony over the city and beyond.

There is much more to this book than I have touched on here. Dey has truly produced an outstanding piece of cultural history. Throughout the book, he demonstrates a remarkable command of a broad range of sources as well as deep knowledge of the topography of ancient and medieval Rome. The study succeeds in showing not only how the Aurelian Wall transformed Rome and the lives of its inhabitants but also how it came to embody the essence of Christian and imperial Rome. The book will become essential reading not only for Roman and Late Antique scholars but also for historians of the Early Middle Ages and the medieval Papacy.

The edition is of excellent quality. City plans and black-and-white photographs and drawings help navigate the argument. Five appendices present technical data and offer detailed treatment of aspects of Rome’s topography. The book also features a useful index and extensive bibliography.

Carlos R. Galvao-Sobrinho
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201

Book Review of The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, AD 271–855, by Hendrik W. Dey

Reviewed by Carlos R. Galvao-Sobrinho

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.GalvaoSobrinho

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.