Aurelian Walls

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Aurelian Walls (Mura Aureliane), constructed in Rome, Italy, between 271 CE and 275 CE under the rule of Roman Emperor Aurelian, replaced the earlier Servian Wall that was built in the 4th century BCE.

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Overview

The city walls encompassed not only the seven hills of Rome but also the Campus Martius and the Trastevere district on the right bank of the Tiber River. It appears that the banks of the river within the city limits were not fortified, except for the area around the Campus Martius.

The total area enclosed by the walls measures 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres). However, it should be noted that the wall passed through inhabited areas, as the city itself covered a larger expanse of 2,400 hectares or 6,000 acres, according to Pliny the Elder's account in the first century CE. He suggested that the densely populated regions, known as extrema tectorum or "the limits of the roofed areas," extended approximately 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) from the Golden Milestone in the Roman Forum.

Construction

circa 270 CE

The Aurelian Walls constituted a complete perimeter spanning a distance of 19 kilometers (12 miles), encompassing an area of approximately 13.7 square kilometers (5.3 square miles). Constructed using brick-faced concrete, the walls boasted a thickness of 3.5 meters (11 feet) and a height of 8 meters (26 feet), with a square tower erected at intervals of 100 Roman feet (29.6 meters or 97 feet).

During the 4th century CE, the walls underwent renovations that effectively doubled their original height, resulting in a towering structure measuring 16 meters (52 feet). By the year 500 CE, the encompassing circuit was fortified with a remarkable assemblage comprising 383 towers, 7,020 crenellations, 18 primary gates, 5 secondary gates, 116 latrines, and 2,066 large external windows.

Notable Sections

circa 270 CE

Section WS1
The wall-section (south WS1) of the Aurelian Walls connects the Porta Ardeatina to Porta San Sebastiano and forms part of the southern boundary of the Aurelian era city of Rome. This section of the Aurelian Walls is 360 meters in length and contains ten watchtowers.

Gates

circa 270 CE

Among the many fascinating features of these formidable fortifications, the gates of the Aurelian Walls serve as prominent entryways, linking the bustling metropolis with the outside world. These gates, each bearing its own unique architectural style and historical significance, provide a glimpse into the grandeur of Rome's past and stand as enduring symbols of the city's strength and resilience. From the Porta del Popolo in the north to the Porta San Paolo in the south, each gate holds stories of triumph, conquest, and cultural exchange, offering visitors an immersive journey through time. Embark on an exploration of Rome's illustrious past as we delve into the gates of the Aurelian Walls, a gateway to the captivating world of ancient Rome.

The Aurelian Walls of Rome encompassed a total of 18 gates, each playing a crucial role in the city's defense and connectivity. Starting from the northernmost gate, the Porta del Popolo, visitors were greeted by its grandeur and adorned with iconic twin Renaissance-style towers. Moving clockwise, the Porta Pinciana stood as an elegant entrance to the city's prestigious Villa Borghese gardens. Continuing along the walls, one would encounter the Porta Salaria, named after the ancient salt road it guarded, which served as a vital trade route for the city. As travelers ventured south, they would reach the Porta Tiburtina, once a gateway to the ancient town of Tivoli. The Porta Praetoria and the Porta Esquilina followed, offering passage to the Esquiline Hill, one of Rome's famous seven hills.

Further along the walls, the Porta Maggiore emerged as a noteworthy site, displaying an impressive double archway adorned with intricate reliefs and inscriptions. This gate marked the intersection of two ancient aqueducts, the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus, emphasizing the importance of water supply to the city's survival. Continuing south, the Porta Latina allowed access to the Via Latina, an ancient road that connected Rome with the southern regions of Italy.

As the walls reached their southernmost point, the Porta Appia, also known as the Porta San Sebastiano, stood as a monumental gateway guarding the Appian Way, one of Rome's most important and historic roads. This gate featured massive towers and defensive structures, showcasing the military might and strategic significance of this entrance. Just a short distance away, the Porta Ardeatina offered passage to the Appian Way as well, providing a convenient alternative for travelers.

Other notable gates included the Porta Ostiensis, serving as a gateway to the port city of Ostia, and the Porta Portuensis, providing access to the bustling port of Rome. Additionally, the Porta San Paolo, located near the Pyramid of Cestius, stood as a testament to Rome's connections with the Mediterranean world, granting entry to the Via Ostiensis and facilitating trade and commerce.

Each of these gates, with its distinctive architectural features and historical significance, offers a glimpse into the grandeur and complexity of ancient Rome. Through these portals, generations of Romans and visitors alike passed, leaving indelible marks on the city's rich tapestry of history. The gates of the Aurelian Walls remain standing, a testament to the resilience of Rome and an invitation to explore the captivating stories that lie within.

Pre-Existing Structures Incorporated

circa 12 BCE

Pyramid of Cestius
At the time of its construction, the Pyramid of Cestius was situated in a rural area outside the city walls of Rome due to the prohibition of tombs within the urban confines. However, as the imperial period progressed, Rome experienced substantial growth, resulting in the pyramid becoming surrounded by various structures by the third century CE. Originally, the pyramid occupied a space enclosed by low walls and was accompanied by statues, columns, and additional tombs. Excavations conducted in the 1660s CE unveiled two marble bases in close proximity to the pyramid. These bases contained fragments of bronze statues that were originally positioned atop them. An inscription, as recorded by Bartoli in a 1697 CE engraving, was inscribed on these bases, providing further historical context.

circa 50 CE

Aqua Claudia
The Aqua Claudia was integrated into the Aurelian Walls during their construction in the third century CE. The Aqua Claudia was an ancient Roman aqueduct that supplied water to the city of Rome. It was originally constructed by the emperor Caligula in the first century CE and later completed by the emperor Claudius in the second century CE.

When the Aurelian Walls were built between 271 and 275 CE, the Aqua Claudia was incorporated into the defensive structure. The walls were constructed to fortify and protect the city, and by integrating the aqueduct into the walls, it served a dual purpose of providing water supply to the city while also contributing to the defensive capabilities of the walls.

This integration involved creating openings or channels within the walls to allow the flow of water from the aqueduct. By incorporating the Aqua Claudia into the Aurelian Walls, the Romans were able to ensure the continued water supply to the city even during times of siege or attack.

The integration of the Aqua Claudia into the Aurelian Walls was a strategic and practical decision, demonstrating the Roman engineering prowess in maximizing the functionality of their infrastructure for both defensive and civic purposes.

circa 135 CE

Tomb of Hadrian
The Tomb of Hadrian, also known as the Castel Sant'Angelo, located near the Tiber River, a short distance from the Vatican City. It was originally constructed as a mausoleum (a separate structure) for the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century CE. However, over the centuries, it underwent various transformations and was eventually incorporated into the defensive fortifications of Rome during the construction of Aurelian Walls.

Later on in the 5th century CE, during the decline of the Roman Empire, the tomb was converted into a military fortress, serving as a refuge and stronghold for various ruling powers. The popes of Rome also utilized the Castel Sant'Angelo as a fortified residence and a safe passage connecting it to the Vatican. A covered fortified corridor, known as the Passetto di Borgo, was constructed to link the castle to the Vatican, allowing the pope to escape in times of danger.

While the Aurelian Walls and the Castel Sant'Angelo share the purpose of defense and fortification, they are separate structures with distinct historical significance. The Aurelian Walls were built in the 3rd century CE to encircle the city of Rome, while the Castel Sant'Angelo has a rich history as a mausoleum turned fortress. Both, however, stand as remarkable testaments to the ingenuity and resilience of ancient Rome.

circa 220 CE

Castrense Amphitheater
Emperor Elagabalus (reigned 218-222) constructed the Castrense Amphitheater (Amphitheatrum Castrense) during the early years of the thied century CE. Its construction can be dated based on the style of the bricks and the absence of brick stamps. This amphitheater was a part of the Horti Spei Veteris, a complex of palatial gardens created by the emperors of the Severan dynasty.

When the Aurelian Walls were built (271-275 CE), the open arches on the outer walls of the amphitheater were sealed off. This marked a shift in its purpose, as it ceased to be used for spectacles and became a defensive fortification. Additionally, the ground level around the amphitheater was lowered during this time.

In the sixteenth century CE, the remains of the second floor were demolished to serve military needs. In the eighteenth century, an underground area known as a hypogeum was discovered beneath the arena. It contained the remains of large animals, leading researchers to believe that the spectacles held in the amphitheater involved hunting and the killing of wild animals.

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