Ruins, and How They Get That Way:

A visit to Roman monuments recalls the price empires pay for the power to build themselves.

New York Times, August 11, 1991

Because jet engines now permit us to compress seemingly disparate experiences within the space of hours, I found myself exploring the ruins of Ostia outside Rome just the day after walking through Muir Woods north of San Francisco. Old redwoods give a needed long view on civilization and its discontents; the grove's largest trees, after all, were saplings when Rome was at its peak, and they thrived nicely on an uncharted coast through the collapse of that and subsequent empires.

The shaggy trunks of the great trees were exhaling steam after a heavy Pacific storm. Yet more than the forest itself, the water flowing though it caught my attention. While the other swollen streams in the Bay Area looked like torrents of cafe au lait, Redwood Creek was running perfectly clear though an undisturbed watershed. Steelhead were spawning on its gravel beds. Elsewhere in California, the fish are nearing extinction.

The next day, I was standing with a guidebook in the caldarium of one of the large public baths at Ostia, the former port of imperial Rome.Trees and water were still much on my mind. The luxury of steaming spas, I thought, must have taken an enormous amount of energy and exacted a corresponding price. Few Romans, however, made the connection between urbanity and disaster. That remained for a Vermont attorney named George Perkins Marsh. In his epochal book "Man and Nature," published in 1864, he suggested that Rome committed environmental suicide, and that the modern world had learned little from its example.

Ostia in its prime was a good-sized city at the mouth of the Tiber, 20 miles downstream from Rome. While much has been exhumed, a great deal remains under hummocky fields covered with German ivy and umbrella pines. What shows today — the warehouses, theaters, baths, temples, and apartment blocks — represents a vast investment in energy to fire the bricks and slake the lime necessary to build the city. Add to this the wooden forms needed to construct vaulting, the timber required for armadas of warships and freighters, the energy needed to heat buildings and to run such industries as bakeries, glassworks, potteries, and factories and we are talking about major and repeated deforestation. That, in turn, suggests cataclysmic erosion and big trouble downstream.

At the western end of Ostia's main street, I exited the city walls and passed a few ancient beach villas to what once was the coastline. Instead of breakers, however, a placid wheat field stretched out to a new housing project fed by a row of power pylons. Today's seashore is beyond sight to the west. Fields also bury the old quays along the Tiber River, which has moved somewhere far to the north where jet engines roar at Fiumicino Airport. As Rome's maritime port silted up in the first two centuries A.D., the Emperors Claudius and Trajan fought a losing campaign to maintain it by excavating new harbors and attempting to stabilize a silt-choked river. Their efforts were futile. Ostia was buried under the Tiber's growing delta.

Yet Ostia's ruins are paltry compared with those of Rome itself. The huge vaulted structures on the Palatine Hill continue to awe modern visitors, few of whom realize that they are looking at piles of frozen energy. The baths of Rome dwarf those of Ostia in size and in number. About 900 served a city of over a million at the peak of Rome's power. Some of those baths have retained the smokestacks from furnaces once perpetually stoked with wood. That fuel was at first floated down the Tiber from the Apennines, but it eventually was imported from as far away as the forests — now the deserts — of North Africa.

Strabo's "Geographia" notes that the wherewithal for the "ceaseless building of Rome" was supplied from the Apennines and Etruria, today's Tuscany. The spectacular erosional scars of Tuscany, such as the enormous gash eating the hill on which the town of Volterra perches, today sell a lot of postcards. But classical Rome was not entirely to blame for the Tuscan badlands; Florence, for example, may have inadvertently destroyed Pisa, its old rival, 50 miles downstream at the mouth of the Arno. While Pisa was waxing prosperous during the Middle Ages as one of the Mediterranean's leading ports, Florence was busily stripping the forests along the Arno to supply its own growing needs. In doing so, it laid the foundations for that revival of Roman power that we call the Renaissance, but it also unleashed catastrophic floods. When Florence conquered Pisa in 1406, it acquired a losing proposition as Pisa's harbor was rapidly silting up with the remains of Florentine farmlands and pastures. Instead of repeating the mistakes of Claudius and Trajan at Ostia, the Medici built an entirely new port at Livorno far from the Arno's winding delta. Pisa became a Tuscan backwater, famous for its floods and malaria.

The results of Rome's insatiable appetite, I believe, can be seen today at the ancient resort town of Tivoli, where I went on my last day in Italy. The playground of the Roman aristocracy rises on a hill at the base of the Apennines 25 miles east of the capital. Tivoli stands near the headwaters of the Aniene, one of the Tiber's major tributaries. The Aniene's waters fall into a deep gorge, providing the water pressure for the fountains and cascades that have made Tivoli famous. Nearby, Hadrian's villa covers over a square mile, and the wreckage of other gigantic structures also abound.

Downtown Tivoli features a standard Italian traffic inferno, so I headed immediately for the serenity of the Villa d'Este just off the main square. Once inside the grounds, I leaned over the parapet of the upper terrace to scan the Renaissance gardens below. But it was the mountains beyond that held my attention. Scoured of soil, the barren white limestone supports only a thin scrub and a few terraced olive groves.

Repeatedly stripped of forests to build cities, villas, and war fleets, the Apennines shed their soils down the Tiber's tributaries and dumped them on the lowlands. Workers excavating the Foro Largo Argentina in the late 1920s hit the streets of classical Rome 15 feet below those of Mussolini's capital.

Looking out from Tivoli over the Roman Campagna — that landscape so beloved of painters from Poussin on and still lovely just 20 years ago — I was a seemingly endless sprawl of new factories, tenements, and clogged roads simmering under leaden smog. It reminded me of the view of the Central Valley of California descending from the Sierra Nevada, itself now flayed of trees and soil.

As much as ancient Rome, the modern city depends for its existence and continued growth on the perpetual and rising input of energy. Rome has, after all, always been about power. That hunger for energy continues to exact a growing price.

Italians have largely put behind them that summer of five years ago when fresh vegetable were banned because of a cloud of radioactive dust drifting west from the meltdown at Chernobyl. This spring, Italians talked nervously of the unseasonably cool weather, wondering if it may be connected to the burning oil wells of Kuwait.

Rome's smog has now merged with that of other cities; from my plane window, as I left, I saw it extend across Europe and the Atlantic to the Americas. Once home in San Francisco, I watched on television the triumphal parade of legions returned from the provinces against the backdrop of the marble temples of Washington. The troops marched down the mall past jubilant throngs over a buried creek called the Tiber. Their victory, I thought, was Pyrrhic, for there are no new worlds to conquer, nor to flee to.

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