By Lucie Laumonier
The Romans constructed buildings and infrastructure all over Europe. What was the fate of these sites in the Middle Ages?
The collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century had for a long time been seen as a sharp turning point in history, a hinge between the civilized Roman past and the ‘barbarian’ era of the so-called dark ages. Recent scholarship has successfully challenged the idea of a brutal fall and swift shift in usages and customs. Post-Roman Europe shows signs of continuity with the empire, whether in its political organization, social stratification or culture, in association with German traits.
In parallel, archaeological findings inform on the way in which Roman infrastructure and buildings transformed after the fall of the empire. From abandonment to continuity and transformation, the fate of Roman infrastructures in early medieval Europe illuminates the varying ways in which populations connected with the Roman past and adapted the architectural remains of the Empire to their new socio-political context.
The present overview of Roman infrastructure in the early Middle Ages, however, comes with important geographical variances. In southern Europe, closer to the centre of the Western Roman Empire, continuity had more prevalence than in the British Isles, where romanization had been shorter and shallower.
Abandonment and Disuse
The fall of the Roman Empire and the so-called German migrations caused a movement of resettlement and reorganization of communities, attested at different degrees across Western Europe. In England and in the northern regions of the Roman Empire, its collapse went hand in hand with degradation of its infrastructures, more pronounced than in Southern Europe.
The near abandonment of London in the fifth century exemplifies that trend. Londinium declined rapidly during that century and fell into ruins. The Saxons established a settlement called Lundenwic west of the Roman walls of London. Lundenwic had become a thriving commercial town by the seventh century.
Besides, without a central state and the collection of taxes, maintenance of bathhouses, aqueducts or amphitheatres was impossible—and sometimes undesirable. In England for instance, a large amphitheatre built by the Romans in Chester, Cheshire, in the first century CE, fell into disuse from the second half of the fourth century. Once the Roman army left Britannia, circa 410, the local population scavenged the amphitheatre to reuse its masonry.
In the south of France, the aqueduct of Nîmes was already badly damaged in the fourth century. Built c. 40–50 CE, the aqueduct transported water over 50 kilometres to Nîmes. In the early sixth century, the aqueduct was no longer functioning and the town’s Visigothic rulers did not repair it. As in Chester, the masonry was reused to build houses in the surroundings. Some aqueduct stones were used to cover sarcophagi found in one of the cemeteries of Nîmes.
The abandonment of Roman infrastructures at the opening of the medieval era resulted from a series of interconnected phenomena. Cultural changes fuelled the disaffection of amphitheatres and bathhouses, perhaps perceived as irrelevant in the new order of society. New patterns of settlements signified a large urban exodus; people left cities for smaller communities and the urban infrastructures degraded rapidly. Finally, there was no central state able to coordinate maintenance work and repairs.
Despite the above factors, evidence of continuity in the use of Roman infrastructures and in human settlements abound. This is especially true in Italy and in the south of Gaul, closer to the heart of the former Empire, but England provides ample evidence of that trend. The city of Newcastle, for instance, was probably established by the Romans and remained settled to the present day.
Continuity in settlements is especially visible in the north of Italy, where three-quarters of the Roman towns still exist today. While their population drastically lowered at the beginning of the medieval period, these settlements were not abandoned and flourished again at the height of the Middle Ages.
Even London experienced resettlement after a period of disuse. In the ninth century, in the wake of devastating Viking attacks, King Alfred the Great ordered the Lundenwic population to move to the former Roman city, which walls were restored. From thereon, the former Roman city bore the name Lundenburgh.
In Italy, the conquests of Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century are largely responsible for ensuring continuity in usages, as well as maintenance of infrastructures. The imperial walls of Rome, for instance, underwent several restorations from the Justinian reconquest up to the ninth century. By then, the pontifical treasury was the one financing the maintenance work of the city’s walls.
The aqueducts of Rome experienced a similar fate. Damaged by the Gothic wars, they were repaired after the Justinian conquest. Although sources suggest that they only functioned intermittently, popes of the early Middle Ages carried out major repairs to the aqueducts to ensure the city’s water supply. The aqueducts of Rome were still functioning in the eleventh century, though they were being gradually abandoned.
Adaptations and Repurposing
A third outcome for Roman infrastructure, somewhere between abandonment and continuity, was also prevalent across Europe. In many cases, Roman infrastructure was modified and adapted in various degrees to better serve the needs of local populations—whether agricultural, military or religious.
One of the most common Roman settlements in Western Europe was the villa, an agricultural domain centred on a usually lavish mansion that belonged to the Roman aristocracy. In the early Middle Ages, many residential areas of villas were swiftly converted to agricultural or industrial purposes, such as oil pressing, storage, food processing, pottery production and even ironworking.
A number of other Roman villas were repurposed into churches. Out of around 161 Anglo-Saxon churches that were certainly located in former Roman buildings, more than half had been villas. But types of Roman buildings turned into churches were very diverse and included, among others, military forts, temples and bathhouses.
In Leicester, for instance, an Anglo-Saxon church was built over a former Roman palaestra, a sort of wrestling school consisting of a rectangular court surrounded by colonnades. The city of Rome offers many examples of early medieval repurposing. At the end of the sixth century, for instance, Pope Gregory the Great transformed the baths of Agrippa into a nunnery. In the 630s, the former Roman Senate building was converted into a church (Sant’Adriano in Foro).
Besides churches and agricultural buildings, some late antique monuments were fortified to serve military and defence purposes. In England, the amphitheatre built in the city of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, was turned into a fort shortly after the Romans left Britannia. To defend themselves from the Saxon invaders, local leaders had a ditch dug along the sides of the building, narrowed its entrances and erected timber buildings within the amphitheatre. The stronghold fell in the sixth century and the amphitheatre/fort was abandoned.
A similar example comes from the above-mentioned city of Nîmes, also known for its Roman amphitheatre, built at the close of the first century CE. In the fifth century, the town’s Visigothic rulers repurposed the amphitheatre and turned it into a small fort, called “castrum arenae,” or “castle of the arena.” A few centuries later, a couple hundred houses had been built within the amphitheatre for the local population.
In England, the repurposing of Roman infrastructures often occurred after a period of disuse that followed the departure of the imperial troops. In Gaul, Italy and Spain, however, where the Roman Empire only gradually faded out, repurposed sites had no specific period of disuse or abandonment: the conversion happened slowly, mirroring the gradual acculturation that marked the opening of the medieval era.
Rome did not disappear in one day. Archaeological findings illuminate the processes of resettlement and restructure typifying the first centuries of the Middle Ages. Landscapes were changing, people were adapting to new realities. And, even when abandoned, Roman sites served as extraction sites from which building material could be reused.
Finally, there was no rule governing the abandonment, continuation or transformation of Roman infrastructure. Some were repurposed then abandoned. Others were abandoned then resettled.
One final note. Repurposing existed before the Roman Empire fell. The Mausoleum of Hadrian, in Rome, was turned into a fortress in 401, decades before the collapse of the empire. Likewise, temples devoted to Roman deities had been turned into Christian churches long before the empire fell.
Tyler Bell, The Religious Reuse of Roman Structures in Early Medieval England (Archaeopress, 2005).
Helena Hamerow, Early Medieval Settlements: The Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe, 400–900 (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Top Image: Painting of the Roman Aqueduct at Nîmes by Hubert Robert (1733–1808)