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Bill Thayer

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A Record of a Night of Terror (maybe)

[image ALT: A small piece of marble pavement with some circular spots, the size of coins, that might be rust.]

On the night of August 23rd, A.D. 410, led by Alaric, an immense army of Goths erupted into Rome, looting and burning the City. After eight hundred years of safety from foreign enemies, it was a traumatic shock from which she never recovered: 50 years later the Roman Empire would be gone.

The same sequence of events was to happen to Constantinople, the second Rome. Sacked in 1204 by a northern army after not nine hundred years of security, she fell in 1453: a death in slow motion, as it were, but historians agree that the earlier shock was in large part responsible.

Part of the folklore of this awful event is that Alaric's troops moved in so fast, that the merchants in the Basilica Aemilia had no time to fold up shop: the abandoned merchandise burned away into nothingness, and the ghostly trace of melted coins can still be seen in the marble pavements.

It seems odd that there should be no other trace of metal objects, doesn't it?

A reader of this page, also, writes: "I wonder whether, in contact with flames this hot (even though copper and bronze melt at relatively low temperatures), the marble shouldn't have been more obviously calcined?"

These photos of mine were quite skeptically taken: these rust-colored round spots appear under the eaves of a corrugated metal roof over some long-standing excavations at one end of the basilica. Georgina Masson, one of the more seductive authors to tell the story of panicking merchants and burning Rome, says the spots are green, by the way.

[image ALT: A small piece of marble pavement with some circular spots, the size of coins, that might be rust.]
So are these in fact melted coins?

In the lower central portion of the image above, you can zoom in to greater-than‑lifesize and judge for yourself; or maybe this other nice photo from Kalervo Koskimies's Vedute di Roma site will help you make up your mind.

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Page updated: 17 May 08