Ancient Rome recycled into building materials

The Pantheon of Rome, surviving wonder of Antiquity

A chapter in two parts, about both destruction and survival. First, the destruction of the buildings and statues of Rome from the end of Antiquity until 1869. Then a description of possibly the greatest surviving wonder of Antiquity, the Pantheon.

Rome recycled

First, this chapter recalls that in the 4th century AD, the sights of Rome included 424 temples, 80 statues of gods made of precious metal, 64 statues of gods made of ivory, 22 equestrian statues, 36 triumphal arches, and 3,785 bronze statues.
And 28 libraries, the largest with 20,000 books.

No one bothered to count the marble statues, as it was said there was at least one marble statue for each Roman, in a city were hundreds of thousands of people lived.

But can looting by Goths, Vandals or any other invader account for the disappearance of the vast amount of stone that comprised the 424 temples and the marble statues too numerous to count?

Slowly, the Eternal City crumbled as the repeated sackings, the lack of maintenance of the aqueducts, and the desertion of the temples took their toil. Rome was becoming a shadow of its former self.

In terms of hygiene and housing, the Romans of the Middle Ages lived as if Rome of the Republic and Empire had barely existed.

Imperial Rome had 28 public libraries, but by the late 4th century an historian wrote that “the libraries are shut up forever like tombs”.

Not only had the Romans lost vast amounts of the Ancients' knowledge, they also lost their ambition. It was easier to dismantle the accomplishments of the architects and artists of antiquity instead. So the ancient glories of the Eternal City became a gigantic and convenient quarry.

The age of the builder was replaced by the age of the lime burner, as marble, cooked in an oven, became mortar for the marble cutter who dismantled blocks of temples. Destroying temples and statues as lime was such an industry that a district of Rome was even named 'Lime-pit'.

The statues now pride of place in museums were discovered “broken in fragments, ready for the lime-kiln, as mounting-steps, as mangers in stables ... fragments of an exquisite statue of Venus built into a wall ... a very great number of fragments of the most beautiful statues, which had served as building materials”.

The Pantheon

For 1,500 years there was nearly constant destruction, as it was easier to dismantle ancient Rome than to go to the trouble of quarrying fresh stone. Yet, somehow one temple, although immense in size, escaped the lime burners.
There is no need for digital reconstitutions to help imagine how it may have looked in its prime. It is hiding in plain sight, in the centre of Rome, where one just has to stroll, find a large portico with grey granite columns, walk through the door, and wonder.

The chapter describes at length the Pantheon's history and importance.

And gives a reminder that Raphael had “to ensure that what little remains of this ancient mother of the glory and renown of Italy is not to be completely destroyed and ruined by the wicked and the ignorant”. Even a Pope's architect had to complain that “ruins were sold like oxen for the meat-market”.

The last assault on the Pantheon was done on the orders of Pope Urban VIII, who proudly boasted having turned the surviving bronze of the Pantheon into cannons. The entrance of the marvel is still inscribed today with the inscription “Pope Urban VIII used the ancient remnants of the bronze truss for the Vatican columns and for machines of war, that a useless and all but forgotten adornment might become in the Vatican temple an embellishment for the apostolic tomb and in the fortress of Hadrian the instruments of public defense”.

Melting the Parthenon bronze into cannons was deemed worthy because “he raised it to worthier destinies, because it is becoming that such noble material should keep off the enemies of the Church rather than the rain”.

The chapter describes more bronze melting in Rome at the time, even taken from the most venerated churches of Rome. Beyond describing the odds of the Parthenon surviving destruction and greed, this chapter illustrates how it is a truly unique wonder, and one of the greatest examples of human genius.


This is a preview of the chapter describing the destruction of the monuments of ancient Rome and a rare surviving wonder, the Pantheon, from the book Lost Treasures.