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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

by Rodolfo Lanciani

published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company
Boston and New York, 1898

Text, maps and black & white illustrations are in the public domain.
Any color photos are © William P. Thayer.


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p206 CHAPTER VIII

THE POLICE AND FIRE DEPARTMENT OF ANCIENT ROME.

Among the many points of resemblance which one discovers in comparing the leading features of life in ancient Rome and modern London, that concerning the organization of the police is perhaps the most striking. Regular troops, in the modern sense of the word, infantry as well as cavalry, were not allowed to take up permanent quarters in Rome, and so are they excluded from London; they were garrisoned within a certain distance of the metropolis, ready to answer any sudden call in case of extraordinary emergencies. The only bodies of troops tolerated in Rome were those attached to the person and to the special service of the emperor: the praetorian guard, corresponding to our European gardes impériales et royales, and a few select horsemen, called in ancient times equites singulares; in modern, cent-gardes, or horse-guards, or cuirassiers du roi. These men, however, praetorians as well as equites singulares, had nothing to do with the maintenance of public order; in fact, they were decidedly against it, and their barracks were nothing but hot-beds of disturbance and riot. The protection of the great metropolis was intrusted to a select body of constables, 7,500 in number; a number which corresponds very well to the 9,000 policemen of modern London. The only difference in the organization of the two bodies is that the Roman vigiles — this was their official name — had to perform at the same time the duties of firemen and policemen; and neither duty p207was a sinecure, as we shall see in the course of the present chapter.

Ancient Rome has never enjoyed a good name for its respect of private property and the personal security of citizens. The principal cause of disorder is to be found in the almost incomprehensible fact that the metropolis, in which all the wealth, luxury, and comfort of the world was concentrated, was kept in perfect darkness at night! How this could have happened in such a civilized age — why the plain, simple idea of a system of public illumination was not conceived and adopted — is a mystery around to solve. Yet excavations at Pompeii, Ostia, and other well-preserved antique cities fully confirm the fact. Not a trace of a bracket fixed to the front of a house, or of a rope or small cain drawn across the street to support lamps or lanterns, has as yet been found, and probably none ever will be. People took advantage of moonlight when the moon illuminated the streets; but during quite half of the year, and when the silvery satellite was veiled by clouds, they made use of lanterns, the frame of which was generally of bronze, the other part of glass, or of tin plates of horn, or of oiled linen. People of the lower classes carried lanterns themselves; gentlemen and noblemen were preceded in their nocturnal strolls by a valet or slave, called by Cicero laternarius SIC, and by Suetonius servus praelucens, who lighted their path, sometimes with a lantern, sometimes with a torch.

In consequence of this state of things, as soon as the twilight had vanished, shopmen and merchants were obliged, for safety, to lock up their premises; and the solitary streets, plunged in darkness, wore a sinister look, and became dangerous for the passer-by. The shop and house doors were closed in a very ingenious way, inwards or p208outwards, according to the requirements of the case. The doors were composed of three or four pieces of solid board, sometimes of a double thickness, and these pieces were made to slide, one after the other, in a groove made for the purpose in the threshold and the architrave; then a cross-bolt, the two ends of which were inserted in hollows sunk in both the door-posts, was drawn from the inside. When the door was opened and fastened from the outside, locks and keys were made use of, the arrangement of which is now perfectly well known, since Giuseppe Fiorelli, formerly director of excavations at Pompeii, and now general director of antiquities in the kingdom of Italy, conceived the happy idea of taking plaster casts of the impressions left by Pompeian doors on the soft volcanic ashes under which that lovely city was buried.

So precarious were the conditions of public security in Rome, and so great the audacity of burglars, that even windows were locked at night, as described by Pliny the elder, or else protected by railings, — a custom which has prevailed down to our own age, and which gives to the stately palaces of modern Rome the aspect of prisons. I need not say that house-doors were watched day and night, especially at night, by the ostiarius, or janitor, who carried a staff in his hands. The janitor, generally assisted by a dog, could be called from the outside by ringing a bell. In early times, and even during the Empire, although and exception to the ordinary rule, the attendance of the janitor was sometimes secured by fastening him by a chain to the entrance. All these precautions were not deemed superfluous for the protection of private property.

Rome and the Campagna have been afflicted, from time immemorial, by two plagues, mendicity and brigandage, which after having infected the district with more or less p209violence for nearly twenty centuries, have been finally thoroughly extirpated by the Italian national government, and relegated to a place among the legends of the past.

Mendicity was practised at certain definite points as a means of dragging out an idle existence. In the city, beggars haunted chiefly the bridges and the gates; that is to say, they haunted places the narrowness of which would sometimes stop, and always slacken, traffic, and expose passers-by to the full importunity and impudence of the brotherhood. For the same reason they took up their abode on the clivi, or steep ascents of public roads in the Campagna, where they were sure that even the fastest horses and the lightest carriages would be obliged to slacken their speed. Famous amongst all was the Clivus Aricinus, a steep gradient of the Appian Way, just outside the gates of Aricia, fifteen miles from Rome, which is represented below. On this ill-famed slope swarms of filthy professional beggars used to take up their station, to tax the benevolence of travellers with their importunities. They actually followed riders and drivers up the hill, harassing them with their vociferations, until the victims, to rescue themselves from such a persecution, would throw a handful of coins among the p210dirty crew, which ransom would make them stop and fight one another, and leave the traveller alone. On these occasions wonders could be seen, — the blind recovering eyesight, the crippled and paralytic recovering the use of their limbs, and the like, — scenes and incidents which the traveller in modern Spain, or in Italy of fifteen years ago, has certainly witnessed.

As regards the exploits of robbers, highwaymen, and brigands, accounts have been left by ancient writers, and are sometimes engraved on the tombstones of the victims. Travelling on the great consular roads of Italy was always made disagreeable by publicans, or toll and octroi collectors, and by innkeepers insatiable of undue gain, and sometimes made dangerous on account of the precarious conditions of public security. There were regular associations of brigands in central and southern Italy, and also in Sardinia, against which the Emperor Tiberius dispatched bands of Jews, who had received military drill, hoping that the two contending parties would destroy each other. The geographer Strabo mentions other such associations as flourishing in Corsica, Pamphylia, and Pisidia.a In consequence of this state of things, timid or prudent travellers were obliged to place themselves under the protection of the escort accompanying distinguished magistrates, ambassadors, governors, proconsuls, and other public officials.

In Italy, the greatest insecurity prevailed, as a rule, at the end of civil wars. Even the short journey from Rome to Tibur was at times extremely insecure. Augustus, at the very beginning of his reign, attempted to stop the evil, and covered the while Empire with a network of military and police stations, the number of which was largely increased by Tiberius, his successor to the throne. The highwaymen caught by these patrols were executed on the spot, p211without ceremony, or else were held prisoners to be devoured by wild beasts at the next show in the amphitheatre. The audacity of these men was such that sometimes they would ride to the very gates of the city, and make there a razzia of horses and beasts of burden. The Pontine marshes and the dense forest near Cumae, called the Silva Gallinaria, were considered the most dangerous of all to cross. Juvenal says that the expeditions sent, under extraordinary circumstances, to chase the brigands from their haunts succeeded in restoring security for the time being; but as soon as the troops were withdrawn the hydra would again raise its head. The disturbances which usually followed the election of an emperor always caused a revival of brigandage. When Septimius Severus, in his general reform of the Roman military system, caused the praetorian soldiers, or body-guard, to be drafted from the provinces watered by the Rhine and the Danube, instead of Italy, as had been done before, Italian youths, inclined naturally to military life, gave themselves up to brigandage, as a means of enjoying their favorite sport of war. The disaffection of the younger generation, thus neglected by Septimius Severus, reached such a point that an intrepid chief, Felix Bulla, succeeded in putting the whole of Italy to ransom for two years, crossing it from end to end and from sea to sea, at the head of an army of six hundred brigands. Betrayed, finally, by the woman he loved, he was caught by the police, and ended his adventurous career in the arena, devoured by wild beasts, amidst the applause of a numberless multitude.

Ancient epitaphs very often speak of persons murdered in encounters with brigands. I have described in the third chapter the assault committed by Mauritanian robbers on Nonius Datus, an officer of the engineers of the third legion, p212on his way from Lambaese to Saldae. A tombstone discovered near Oteyza, Spain, speaks of the murder of a Roman knight, only twenty years of age, named Calaetus. Another, discovered on the bank of the Danube, commemorates L. Julius Bassus, president of the town council of Drobeta, and quaestor, interfectus a latronibus.º His death was avenged by a brother, named Julius Valerianus. Three sons, likewise, in an inscription discovered in the same province of Moesia, state that they had revenged the murder of their mother. The most interesting of these epitaphs, however, is an inscription discovered sixteen years ago, near the farm of La Magliana, six miles from Rome, on the high road leading to Porto. This tombstone, which belongs to the beginning of the third century of our era, describes how a schoolmaster, named Julius Timotheus, only twenty-eight years old, and held in high estimation in Rome, having gone out for an excursion on the Via Campana with seven of his pupils, fell into an ambush, and was murdered by the thieves, together with his young companions. This wholesale slaughter, accompanied almost within sight of the walls, and on the line of the great traffic between Rome and its harbor (Portus Augusti), must have created an intense excitement in the capital, and must have given occasion to some extraordinary measures towards the extirpation of the evil, inasmuch as I have not been able to find, either in books or in inscriptions, any further accounts of acts of brigandage, in the neighborhood of Rome, after the beginning of the third century.
 

Another source of annoyance, and, in some cases, of real personal danger, came from meeting, in the dark streets, parties of fashionable youths returning home from a late debauch. Woe to the peaceful and unoffending father of a family, who chanced to meet one of these drunken parties p213in the darkness! The poor man was insulted, beaten, wounded, and occasionally his clothes were torn off, so that he would remained exposed to the full violence of the winter frost.

One peculiarity of ancient Rome, common, I dare say, to all large capitals not belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race, was the perfect accordance of all classes of citizens in evading, as much as they could, police regulations: for instance, those concerning the protection of passers from the fall of tiles and flower-pots, the free use of the city streets, and the proper construction of scaffoldings and new structures of every kind. That citizens were seriously injured and even killed by the accidental fall of pots from window-gardens, and of tiles from roofs not kept in proper order, is a fact positively asserted by Juvenal and Gaius. is describe in the tenth chapter the obstructions which made traffic almost impossible in the narrow and tortuous streets of Rome, in spite of edicts promulgated by the magistrates to stop this evil. As regards accidents occasioned by the fall of scaffoldings and of hurriedly-built structures, I shall quote one instance, which is connected, besides, with another source of public disturbances and riots, — the insane passion of the populace for races and jockeys, and for special horses and special jockeys, a passion which often brought on bloody encounters.

Before the reign of Domitian, the agitatores circenses, or charioteers of the circus, a state institution, magnificently lodged, fed, and endowed, were divided into four squadrons or factions, named albata, prasina, russata, and veneta, from the white, green, red, or blue color of the caps and jackets of their champions. Domitian increased the number of squadrons to six, by the addition of the factio aurata, the "golden," and of the factio purpurea, the "purple," p214organized and supported from the inexhaustible resources of the privy purse. The first bad example of fanaticism for a special squadron or color was set by the emperors themselves. Tacitus says that Vitellius put the care of riders before that of the government. Caligula was such an ardent partisan and supporter of the squadron of the greens that he spent the greater portion of his time in their stables, rioting with them until a late hour of the night. Sometimes one squadron would remain popular and enjoy the favor and partiality of the turbulent crowds for a period of years. From the time of Caligula to the end of the empire of Hadrian, the greens always maintained supremacy, never losing the confidence and affection of the public. This fact makes us understand better the following passage in the ninth satire of Juvenal: "The whole of Rome has flocked to the circus to‑day, and the uproar of the crowd can be heard miles away. I understand from this that the greens have, as usual, won the day; otherwise I should see the city in deep mourning, just as if the consuls had been slain over again in the battle-field of Cannae." With good reason Juvenal himself asserts that one jockey alone could make in a short time one hundred-fold the income of a celebrated lawyer, — centum patrimonia causidicorum.

They amassed their prodigious fortunes in two ways: first, by getting the prizes established for the different races; secondly, by taking their share in betting, and, I dare say, by conspiring with boo-makers. On May 20, 1878, we discovered, not far from the stables of the green squadron at S. Lorenzo in Damaso (in prasina), a pedestal dedicated to a jockey of African extraction, named Crescens. According to the inscription on this pedestal, Crescens, when only twenty-two years old, had already gained 1,558,346 p215sestertii, a sum equal to $65,000. The greatest of Roman jockeys, the William Archer of classic times, the famous Diocles, left to his son a fortune of 35,863,120 sestertii, equivalent to $1,250,000.

Horses were not less beloved than their riders. Inscriptions, mosaic pictures, bronzes, frescoes, have not only perpetuated their names and valiant deeds, but have transmitted to us even their effigies. Here is a copy of the precious mosaic discovered near Gerona, Spain, in 1884, representing a chariot-race, with the names of the champions inscribed near each group of runners. The four thoroughbreds with which the young Crescens won his first race were called Circius, Acceptor, Delicatus, Cotinus. In destroying the towers of Sixtus IV, which flanked the Porta del Popolo, we found some bas-reliefs, representing the five horses, Palmatus, Danaus, Ocean, Victor, Vindex, which bas-reliefs had been removed by the Pope from the tomb of the famous champion, Publius Aelius Gutta Calpurnianus. The names and effigies of these runners were cut upon various domestic utensils, objects of daily use, and even children's toys. In our p216storerooms in the Capitoline museum, we keep a couple of leaden wheels of a very small cart, evidently the toy of a child two or three years of age, on the circumference of which the names of famous horses and jockeys are engraved. In Rome, in the Via Porta S. Lorenzo, and at Ostia, in the Via delle Pistrine, I have myself found two handles of pocket-knives, of bone, both ornamented with the head and name of a certain horse, Nereos, and of his jockey Euprepes, the beautiful.

Fancy what an incredible amount of labor fell upon the poor Roman policemen on race days, and generally on days of popular entertainments in theatres, amphitheatres, circuses, and the stadium. The Circus Maximus alone could accommodate 285,000 spectators, all comfortably seated; the Circus Flaminius, 150,000, and the Colosseum, 87,000. This mania for spectacular shows, and the assemblage of these gigantic crowds, very often gave occasion to not less gigantic catastrophes, in comparison with which the recent ones of the Ring Theatre at Vienna, of Nice, Marseilles, Brooklyn, the Opéra Comique in Paris, and Exeter, sink into insignificance. Tacitus relates that, in the year 27 after p217Christ, a certain Atilius, a man sprung from the lowest classes of the city, obtained the right of building a temporary wooden amphitheatre near Fidenae, now Castel Giubileo, five miles outside the Porta Salaria. As, under Tiberius, athletic and gladiatorial shows had become quite a rare occurrence, on account of the indifference, even antipathy which the emperor himself felt towards them, an enormous crowd met at Fidenae, to enjoy the novelty of the exhibition, and at same time to enjoy an excursion up the green valley of the Tiber. These spectators ad scarcely taken their seats on the wooden steps, when, in a moment, and with a terrific crash, the whole structure gave way, and buried under its ruins the entire assembly. Tacitus, who had at his disposal and who consulted the official reports of the police, assures us that the number of dead and wounded amounted to 50,000. The town was struck with profound terror and amazement. Noblemen turned their palaces into hospitals. matrons and maidens of the aristocracy took the office of nurses. "We had an example in those eventful days," says the historian, "of the fine old times, when, after a great battle, the town was turned into one affectionate family, in which the able portion gave up all their time and attention to the disabled." The Senate made new regulations for the safety of public places of entertainment; generous subscriptions came to the relief of the sufferers; and, to make the similarity with modern cases more perfect, just as the author of the Marseilles catastrophe was fined only a few hundred francs, so Atilius, the author of the Fidenae slaughter, was only banished from Rome and from Italy.
 

There is no doubt that all the evils and accidents I have described must have kept the vigiles constantly on the qui p218vive; still, I have not yet mentioned their principal duty and labor, as firemen. I do not think there has ever been a town so often and so thoroughly purified by fire as ancient Rome was. That conflagrations on a large scale should have occurred in the first two or three centuries of its life was natural enough, since its houses were mostly of timber and covered with thatched roofs. I admit also the possibility of great fires after the city, burnt down and destroyed by the Gauls A.U.C. 364, was reconstructed with stone and brick, because, as soon as those barbaric hordes were swept from the region of the Seven Hills by Camillus, the only care and solicitude of the patres patriae was that the city should be rebuilt quickly, not that it should be rebuilt regularly and well. Livy relates that as soon as the decisive words of the centurio, hic manebimus optime, were heard through the Forum, the populace at once gave up the idea of migrating to Veii, and that antiquata lege promiscue urbs aedificari caepta; they began to rebuild their houses, with no consideration whatever for regularity, for the straight line, or for aesthetic and sanitary laws. Bricks and tiles were distributed gratuitously; every one was allowed to quarry stones wherever they could be obtained, and to establish lime-kilns in the very heart of the city. The eagerness to gain the prize promised to those who would complete their constructions in twelve months' time made them despise the straight line in the new streets and lanes; and the desire of gaining more ground caused them to increase the size of the houses at the expense of that of the streets. "This is the reason," Livy concludes, "why the drains, which before the fire of the Gauls ran under public land, now run irregularly under private property; this is also the reason why the plan of Rome is more erratic than that of any other great city."

p219 No wonder that, under such adverse circumstances, we hear of fires sweeping periodically over whole quarters of the capital. Such was the fire described by Livy in chapter twenty-seven of the twenty-sixth book, by which all the shops and houses surrounding the Forum, the palace of the high-priest, the fish-market, and the region of the Lautumiae, were levelled to the ground; such also was the fire described by Livy in chapter twenty-six of his forty-seventh book, a fire by which the region of the Forum Boarium, from the modern Piazza Montanara to the foot of the Aventine, was totally devastated. I need not speak of the most fearful of all conflagrations, — of the conflagration which, under Nero, in the year 65 of our era, annihilated two thirds of the great metropolis, — because I have had occasion to describe it in my fifth chapter, on "The Palace of the Caesars."

In all these reports of fires, however, there is one thing which I fail to under, and that is how fire could have attacked, injured, or altogether destroyed edifices built of marble and bronze, without a particle of timber or other combustible matter. Take, for instance, the Pantheon of Agrippa, which ancient writers assert was twice burnt, — once under Titus, once under Trajan. There is not an atom of it capable of catching fire; not even French pétroleurs could do the slightest harm to it. It is also a mystery to me how the Colosseum could have been set into a blaze by a thunderbolt, on August 23, A.D. 217, and that it should have taken not less than six years to repair the damage. Still, the fact is proved by the testimony of Dion Cassius (lxxviii. 25), by the coins of Severus Alexander, showing the view of the restored amphitheatre, and by the amphitheatre itself, the upper tiers of which appear to have been rebuilt in haste, with materials taken from other edifices.

p220 As to smaller fires, of single houses and premises, they were almost a daily occurrence. In fact, they broke out so often and so unexpectedly that there sometimes arose suspicion of the owners themselves having set the property on fire; because, although the Romans did not possess, as far as we can judge, fire insurance companies, yet such munificent contributions were made by friends and clients to the sufferers that it was in many cases a fortunate thing to be burned down. Martial, in the fifty-second epigram of the third book, speaks of a certain Tongilianus, whose house, worth two hundred sesterces, had been rebuilt, after a suspicious fire, at a cost of ten thousand, raise by the subscriptions of friends. Juvenal, in the third satire, describes the zeal of those who, not satisfied with rendering p221pecuniary help to the sufferers, made them also presents of statues, pictures, books, and furniture.
 

Let us see now in what way Rome tried to protect itself from so many perils, risks, and casualties.

At a very remote age the direction of the police was intrusted to three magistrates, called triumviri nocturni, because their principal duty was to watch for the safety of the city at night. Valerius Maximus speaks of one of them, P. Villius, being fined quia vigilias neglegentius circumierat (for not having kept with diligence his nocturnal watch), and of other triumviri who were punished because they had not run with proper speed to extinguish a fire which had broken out in a jeweller's shop on the Sacra Via.

The triumviri capitales was composed of a body of men belonging to the familia publica, "servants of the commonwealth," stationed in groups of twenty or thirty in the neighborhood of the gates of the town, and furnished with the most elementary instruments known to our firemen, such as ladders, saws, pickaxes, and ropes. In process of time, these servi publici having become insufficient to meet the requirements of a largely increased population, companies of volunteers were formed for the extinction fires, and for helping the triumviri gratuitously in the accomplishment of their duties. These companies, however, did not enjoy particularly the favor of the government, whether republican or imperial. In the thirty-third letter addressed by Pliny the younger, when governor of Bithynia, to the wise Emperor Trajan, permission is asked to form a body of one hundred and fifty volunteer firemen at Nicomedia. The answer of the emperor is not favorable to Pliny's proposal, because, he remarks, societies originated with a praiseworthy idea often degenerate into political sects, and p222become a permanent source of disturbance and danger to state institutions.

In the year 6 B.C., a fire having destroyed a large district of Rome under the eyes of Augustus, that emperor at once decided to reform the service, and enrolled for this purpose a body of freedmen, seven thousand strong, which was divided into seven battalions, or cohortes, and placed under the command of an officer of the equestrian order. The body was distributed and lodged throughout the city, so that each battalion could watch two of the fourteen regions, or wards, into which the city itself had been divided by Augustus. The seven companies of each battalion were placed under the orders of centuriones, or captains; each battalion under the orders of a colonel, or tribunus; and the whole body under a general or prefect of police, called praefectus vigilum. The cost of the maintenance of the corps was charged against the public treasury; and as the state of the public treasury was not very flourishing at the time, Augustus not only suppressed unnecessary outlays, such as the subsidy which used to be allowed to magistrates who gave, in their own private name, gladiatorial shows, but also increased the public revenue by instituting a new contribution, called the vicesima quinta venalium (twenty-five per cent. on the sale of slaves).

Every time a fire took place the prefect of the vigiles was obliged to open an official inquiry, and judge of the case, sitting in court. Of course no penalty was inflicted in case of a pure accident; but if the fire had been caused by negligence, the culprit was punished either by a solemn public admonition, or, in the worst cases, with castigation, the number of strokes being fixed according to the degree of the culprit's responsibility duly ascertained. incendiaries were handed over to the higher court of the prefect of the p223city, and sentenced to death. However, as the spirit of the police regulations of Rome was rather to prevent than to punish, the prefect of the vigiles was authorized to watch and examine kitchens in every house, and whether the furnaces and heating apparatus worked properly. Another of his duties was to supervise wardrobes at the entrance of the great thermae, and to pass judgment upon the wardrobe-keepers, or capsarii, every time the loss of wraps or overcoats was complained of by a customer. Imagine what the life of these poor magistrates must have been, if they put any particle of zeal into the accomplishment of their functions, obliged as they were per totam noctem vigilare, and to sit the whole day in court, dealing with the worst class of roughs and vagabonds. Some of the cases brought before them were discussed for eighteen years; that is to say, for a space of time considerably longer than that occupied by the famous Tichborne case. Near the church of S. Antony, on the Esquiline, inscriptions have been discovered relating to a process instituted in the year 226 of our era by the collegium fullonum, the corporation of washermen, against the curator aquarum, or superintendent of public aqueducts, on account of a certain supply of water to which the corporation claimed to be gratuitously entitled. The controversy lasted from the year 226 to 244, and was finally settled by an elaborate sentence of the prefect of police, the very text of which, engraved on a marble pedestal, has been discovered in the above-mentioned place.

The policemen themselves, whom Augustus at first enrolled among freedmen, did not enjoy, as usual in European cities, the favor of the populace; and as in modern Rome the guardie di publica sicurezza are called all sorts p224of names by the roughs and their sympathizers, so the classic vigiles were nicknamed sparteoli by our forefathers. Yet this ludicrous and sarcastic denomination is not devoid of interest for the archaeologist, because it is evidently derived from spartum; in other words, it shows that the firemen used to carry water in buckets of spartum, made water-tight with a coating of pitch or tar. To console them for the want of public sympathy, the emperors increased periodically their privileges and their accommodations, and conceded to them the rights of Roman citizenship, not after the expiration of their term of service, as was customary, but after only three years of good service. The captains, in case of promotion, had the right of serving in the praetorian guard; and their prefect usually exchanged the department of police first for that of the annona, then for the governorship of Egypt, the highest dignity which a Roman knight could reach.

In my opinion there is no single instance better adapted to show the difference in the accommodations of ancient and modern practice than the comparative study of their lodgings or barracks. In Rome there were seven main barracks, called stationes, and fourteen corps de garde, or detached posts, called excubitoria. Of the seven stations, four have been discovered; of the fourteen excubitoria, only two. The barracks of the first battalion, which contained also the headquarters of the whole corps and the offices of the commander-in‑chief, were found during the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII, Barberini, in 1644, at the northern extremity of the Piazza dei SS. Apostoli, in the foundations of the Palazzo Muti-Savorelli, now Balestra. Their remains were examined and described by Lucas Holstenius. He speaks of huge halls, ornamented with columns, p225pedestals, statues, marble incrustations, mosaic pavements, and of waiting-rooms and offices, having marble seats around the walls, which were covered with finely designed frescoes. Amongst the statues raised to gods and emperors in the vestibule and in the atrium of the barracks, only eight were discovered, in a more or less fragmentary state; they represented the Genius cohortis primae vigilum, Caracalla, Gordianus Pius, Furia Sabinia Tranquillina (his empress), Constantine, Constans, Valentinian, and Gratianus. If the site occupied by these barracks were not actually covered with palatial and costly structures, such as the Palazzo Muti-Savorelli and the convent of S. Marcello, it would be well worth while to excavate it again, for I have come across documents proving the existence there of some remarkable works of art. In the archaeological memoirs of Pietro Santi Bartoli, imperfectly published by Fea, are the following memoranda: —

"Amongst the many exquisite works of leading Greek chisels discovered by Cavaliere Giovanni Battista Muti in rebuilding the foundations of his palace, at the northern end of the Piazza dei SS. Apostoli, there was the bas-relief representing Perseus and Andromeda (now preserved in the Casino of the Villa Doria-Pamphili). Two more bas-reliefs were brought to light, of the same perfect workmanship; but by order of the Cavaliere Muti they were broken in pieces, and buried again under the foundations of the palace."

As regards the adjoining convent of S. Marcello, Pietro Santi Bartoli says: "In laying the foundations of that wing of the convent which lies towards the Palazzo Muti, and overlooks the same Piazza dei SS. Apostoli, many columns and ancient marbles were discovered, and among them a fine statue of colossal size and in perfect preservation. p226By order of the monks, it was buried again." It is worthy of consideration how, in my native city, even fate seems to be inspired by archaeological instincts. Who in modern times has taken possession of this convent of S. Marcello, built on the site of the barracks and headquarters of the ancient Vigiles? The superintendent of police himself, the Questore di Roma, with his staff of Guardie di Publica Sicurezza.

The barracks of the second battalion were discovered during the pontificate of Clement XII, on the road leading (at that time) from the Esquiline to the Porta Maggiore, and corresponding to the ancient Via Labicana. Affixed to the walls of the edifice were inscriptions commemorating the dedication of a tetrastyle temple in honor of Jupiter Dolichenus, and of a Nymphaeum, by Claudius Catulus, prefect of the Vigiles in the year 191, together with some of the officers of the second battalion. The site of the barracks of the third battalion is unknown.

The site of the fourth Statio, in the neighborhood of the church of S. Saba, on the so‑called Pseudo-Aventine, was revealed, as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century, by the discovery of a pedestal dedicated in the year 205 to the emperor Caracalla. On the left side of this pedestal the following remarkable document was inscribed:

"Severus and Caracalla emperors, to Junius Rufinus, prefect of the Vigiles, greeting. You are hereby authorized to punish with the rod or with the cat-o'-nine-tails (fustibus vel flagellis) the janitor or any of the inhabitants of a house, in which fire has broken out through negligence. In case the fire should be occasioned not by negligence but by crime, you must hand over the incendiaries to our friend Fabius (Septimianus) Clio, prefect of the city. Remember also that one of your duties is to discover runaway slaves and to return them to their masters."

p227 We have now reached the barracks of the fifth battalion, what occupied, as I shall presently show, the higher platform of the Villa Celimontana, formerly belonging to the ducal family of the Mattei di Giove, and now the property of Baron Richard von Hoffman. An inscription was found in that part of the villa which overlooks the church of S. Stefano Rotondo, describing how a shrine, dedicated A.D. 111 to the Genius of the fifth battalion, had been restored forty-five years later, in 156. Another inscription, discovered in the same place in 1735, speaks of another aediculum dedicated to the same Genius in the year 113. The shrine itself, or, at any rate, one of the many shrines of the barracks, seems to have been found and brought to light in the sixteenth century in this neighborhood, more precisely in the garden then belonging to Uberto Strozzi of Mantua. I describe it to show what an p228extraordinary display of art and luxury there was in a chapel belonging to ordinary police barracks. The shrine was built in the shape of a small temple, circular outside, octagonal inside, and was surrounded by a colonnade of the Corinthian order, with shafts of porphyry, capitals, frieze, and cornice of Carrara marble. Each of the eight sides of the interior was ornamented with a niche for statues, of which niches four were semicircular, four square. One of these last served as a door. In the corners of the octagon there were eight columns of porphyry, supporting an exquisitely carved frieze.

The discoveries I have described were cast into the shade by those made in January, 1820, a little to the left of the main gate of the same Villa Mattei, or von Hoffman. At a depth of thirteen feet, two marble pedestals, five feet high, were dug up; they were found standing in their original position, on a tessellated pavement, and bore the complete rolls of the battalion. The first pedestal had no dedicatory inscription, but began at once with the rolls of the first company, commanded by Captain Caesernius Senecio. The inscription on the second pedestal began with the following words, which I translate freely: —

"To the Emperor Caesar M. Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla, the pious, the fortunate, consul for the third time, son of the late Emperor L. Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax, this pedestal and this statue have been raised by the officers and men of the fifth battalion of police on July 6th, under the consulship of Faustinus and Rufinus" (the year 210 A.D.). Then follow the names of the superior officers, of C. Julius Quintilianus, prefect of police and general commanding the corps; of M. Firmius, adjutant-general; of L. Speratius Justus, colonel of the fifth battalion; of the captains commanding the seven companies; p229of the four physicians and surgeons attached to the barracks; and lastly, of the two officers to whom the care of erecting the statue had been intrusted, namely, the captain and the standard-bearer of the first company.

The importance of these two documents, however, is far greater if we take into consideration the rolls of the men. In the year 105, which is the approximate date of the first pedestal, the battalion numbered 115 officers and sub-officers, and 930 men. In the year 110 the number of the former had decreased to 109, the number of the latter had increased to 1,013. Taking as the average strength of a battalion, 1,033 men all told, the whole police corps of imperial Rome must have numbered 7,231 men. The strength of each of the seven companies varies from a minimum of 125 to a maximum of 173, the seventh or last company excepted, which numbers scarcely 94 men, probably tirones or recruits in course of training.

The sites of the sixth and seventh barracks have not yet been ascertained.

Before leaving the subject of police and firemen I must add a few words on the comparatively recent discovery of one of the detached posts or corps-de‑garde. The discovery of the excubitorium, or outpost, of the seventh battalion, stationed in the fourteenth region, Trastevere, took place in 1868 near the church of S. Crisogono. It appears that the police authorities established outposts according to circumstances, at special points of the district where disturbances were most likely to take place. For this purpose they rented a private house, or portion of a private house, and stationed men in it, until the requirements of public security made a further move necessary. The house discovered in 1868 seems to have been rented by the police for a long term, at least from the reign of Caracalla p230to that of Philip the Arab; in other words, for more than thirty years. It is an elegant structure, with mosaic pavements, fresco paintings, marble fountains, baths, and heating apparatus. The importance of the discovery, however, does not come from the beauty of the building, but from the many inscriptions scratched in the plaster by the policemen themselves, during the ours of indoor rest, which inscriptions admit us into the most intimate secrets of barrack life, and reveal to us every minute detail of the daily routine of the men, their own feelings towards their emperors and officers, and other items of police life. The language they use in scrawling their sentiments is always direct and plain, very often profane. I refer those of my readers who wish to know more on this subject to the essay by the late Dr. Wilhelm Henzen (L' escubitorio della settima coorte dei Vigili), published in the "Annali dell' Instituto, 1869."


Thayer's Note:

a In Corsica, V.2.7; in Pamphylia, XII.7.2‑3; in Pisidia, XII.6.4‑5. Strabo frequently mentions bandits, brigands, and robbers in many other places as well.


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