Antique Models for Spolia Fortifications


To understand the reasons for the premium placed on spolia in the Middle Ages, and to understand their reuse in mediaeval military structures, we must first turn our attention briefly to the models the spolia-builders were imitating. In the Greek and Roman world, city and fortress walls (and indeed the masonry walls of other monuments) frequently have a secondary function, which is to impress the visitor in the same way as the monuments contained within them. Like other monuments, they are symbols of civic pride, and reflections of the wealth and prestige of the cities they enclose and protect.[1] This conclusion is supported not only by the extreme care with which many of them have been constructed - a care which has nothing to do with structural solidity, but much to do with refinement - but also by opinions of antique authors. As Aristotle remarked, the wall should contribute to the embellishment of the city.[2] The same concern with making a good impression continues throughout the Middle Ages[3].


The concept of luxurious art and of its main materials (marble, and massive blocks of stone) as an important arm of the propaganda of the state - state art - has a long life. Although a full account would start with the city-fortresses of Mycenae or Tiryns (or perhaps further East, with the Hittites or Persians), and although Pericles’ beautification of Athens (not the walls, but rather the temples) provides the most blatant example of the political use of art, there are plentiful examples of Greek and Roman walls as works of art in their own right - constructed, that is, with more care than was needed merely for solidity or defence[4]. Winter[5] traces this aesthetic trend from the 5th century onwards, beginning in Ionia, and strengthening in the Hellenistic period. Aesthetics (rather than earthquake protection) are his suggestion for the use of polygonal and trapezoidal walling over plain ashlar; and he sees the use of complex surface ornament (and even architectural orders on towers) as confirming the place of the walls as the architectural facade for the whole city, rather than simple defensive ramparts. From the Hellenistic period, Pergamum provides the touchstone for the use of art and architecture as carriers of a political message; for the whole of the upper city buildings, sculptures and general opulence, were intended as a military – and hence political - statement of the achievements of the reigning dynasty, and designed to be admired from a distance as well as from nearby, as they “marched” in terraces down the high hill of the acropolis.


If classical Greek and Hellenistic walls are things of beauty in themselves, without any applied decoration[6], and stone the usual material (excepting Euromos), later walls are built to a similar ethos[7], and often aim at a similar but enhanced effect by introducing pilasters and columns, friezes and cornices and even reliefs, as at Sillyon, Perge, Isaura or Paestum.[8] In late Roman times, this concern for decoration can involve the decoration of gates with marble spolia and with fountains (as at Perge), or even with incorporating triumphal arches as actual gates in the wall (as was done at Patara or, in Italy, at Benevento). Gates and walls were symbolic as well as functional for the Romans[9], and some gates might well have incorporated sculptures[10]. Vitruvius, Hadrian’s architect conceded, in his handbook of architectural practice (I,5.8), the need sometimes to re-use earlier material, for convenience, if not for beauty: there must be laid down no rule beforehand; because we cannot have in all places the supplies which we desire. But where there are squared stones, or concrete or lava or baked brick or unburnt, we must use them. This is for convenience, not for beauty.


The decoration of such Roman and later walls is usually of marble, and ipso facto luxurious, because marble in architecture was an index of sophistication that the Romans of the later Republic imported from the East. The weight of this Greek and Hellenistic precedent might have been one of Augustus’ reasons for beautifying Rome, which had previous lacked the trappings which befited the dignity of its empire, as Suetonius says (Augustus XXVIII, 3ff.); so that Augustus’ boast to have left in marble that which he found made of brick was quite justified. He produced a topos which the Middle Ages, with their spolia, never tired of repeating[11].


This taste for marble veneer (usually over brick or cement cores) was to remain popular throughout the Empire, and the Middle Ages as well. Even the style of some mediaeval fortifications seems predicated on a desire to imitate earlier constructional and decorative methods[12]. In one respect, however, they differ from their Roman forbears. An interest in grandeur is clearly a characteristic of much Roman architecture - build it bigger and make it fancier being the general rule - and just as clearly modelled on places such as Pergamum. However, it was one that the Middle Ages could not follow, for their smaller population together with their more restricted territorial reach (the Byzantines not excluded) meant that their constructions were not only more modest, but also that earlier constructions would frequently be surplus to requirements. To a desire to model themselves on the classical past by using its remains was therefore added a large surplus of those very same remains[13]. Saradi suggests[14] very convincingly that the topos of city walls and their continuing beauty reveals the attachment of such authors to the ancient idea of the city, adorned with magnificent public buildings. As the transformation of the urban public space was becoming more profound in the early Byzantine period, the educated authors wanted to preserve a visual representation of the antique city by the excessive use of the rhetorical topos of the urban kallos. Underlying the rhetoric is the idea of the city as architecturally magnificent, while in reality it was progressively disintegrating.


We can confirm, however, that such propaganda actually worked in later centuries not only from the Umayyad imitation of Roman ceremonial gates such as the Porta Aurea at Diocletian's Palace at Split[15], but also from the admiring descriptions of the cities of Roman North Africa by Leo Africanus, or indeed from an anonymous account of the tenth-century Magyar occupation of Aquincum-Buda which specifically admires the walls as ipsique ibi civitates et munitiones ad defensionem sui fecerunt, aliaque aedificia multa, sicut adhuc apparet.[16] Indeed, the same propaganda aims are in evidence in the great spurt of wall-building in later mediaeval Italy. As Hogg remarks[17], as cities grew in wealth, their walls became symbols of civic pride and affluence. How much they were an effective defence and how much a civic symbol is sometimes hard to decide. Such traditions of direct imitation of the antique, which continued into the Middle Ages, appear in France in the various tours sarrazines[18] and, as bossed decoration, arguably forms a componente classicistica of Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s buildings.[19] The hellenistic fortifications at Pydnae, near Xanthos, and conveniently next to the sea, seem to have been occupied both Byzantine and Turkish times, so opportunity is here joined to familiarity with Hellenistic techniques, as it is with the Crusader work in the Citadel at Jerusalem[20].




[1] C. J. CLASSEN, Die Stadt im Spiegel der Descriptiones und Lauden urbium in der antiken und mittelalterlichen Literatur bis zum Ende des zwoelften Jahrhunderts, rev. ed. Hildesheim etc 1986. Pp. 26ff: for praise of Rome and Constantinople. First mediaeval eulogy is of Milan, imitated from that of classical cities, which he dates to pre-738 (cf. p.  37);

[2] Cited in A. W. LAWRENCE, Greek aims in fortification, Oxford 1979, p. 120;

[3] T. LEGGIO, Le fortificazioni di Rieti dall'alto medioevo al rinascimento (Quaderni di Storia Urbana e Territoriale, 4), Rome 1989, p. 14: in 1311 the contract for the construction of (some new) city walls at Rieti stipulated that the outer face be lapides aptati, i.e. squared, and the inner face lapides non aptati, i.e. unworked;

[4] GINOUVES & MARTIN, Dictionnaire méthodique, pp. 95ff, pp. 126ff & plates 18-26, pp. 34-7 for varieties;

[5]  F.E. WINTER, Greek fortifications London 1971, 78ff., 91. J-P ADAM L’architecture militaire grecque, Paris 1982, pp. 8ff. offers a convincing suite of analyses and photographs of the beautifies of various styles of Greek defence;

[6] L. KARLSSON, Fortification towers and masonry techniques in the Hegemony of Syracuse, 405-211 BC, in Acta Instituti Romani Regni Sueciae XLIX, Stockholm 1992: pp. 96-101 for bevelled edges and drafted margins, with a survey and references.

[7] SARADI, Kallos, cit., p. 40: the walls of Antioch are the ornament which provides security  (panegyric of Anastasius by Procopius of Gaza);

[8] WINTER Greek Fortifications, cit., pp. 190-1;

[9] G. ROSADA, Mura e porte. Tra architettura funzionale e simbolo, in Civilta dei Romani; Il rito e la vita privata, Milan 1992, pp. 124-39;

[10] L. BACCHIELLI, La porta di Augusto a Fano nella cultura antiquaria locale, in Atti e Memorie Deputazione di Storia Patria per le Marche 93 (1988), pp. 43-63 - reinterpreted by Giuliano & A. da Sangallo il Giovane with garlands and bucrania, as well as a pediment: so had they seen antique gates thus decorated? For the Torre di Boezio, which had spolia integrated into its structure, cf. C. MACCABRUNI, Pavia; La tradizione dell’antico nella citta medievale, Pavia 1991. Indeed, in the time of Opicinus, Roman funerary statues were in evidence on the gates of the city, as they are today at Spello;

[11] MORTET, Recueil, cit., I.128, Vita Sancti Odilonis, Abbot of Cluny, first half of 11th century, of whose work with marble solitus erat gloriari, ut jocundi erat habitus, ‘invenisse se ligneum et relinquere marmoreum’. The same point is made about he building of Saint Benoit sur Loire, ibid., I.38, 1005/1030, when Abbot Gauzelin brings in columns, and Scabellum pedum, marmor porfireticum. Altaria edtiam repperiens lapidea, effecit marmorea – and rebuilds the narthex, which was in brick, in marble – thereby attracting the brick/marble reference;

[12] ADAM, L’architecture militaire grecque, cit., pp. 24-5, 31 and figs 44-5;

[13] For a review, cf. F. E. WINTER, Problems of tradition and innovation in Greek fortifications, in Fortifications et défense du territoire en Asie Mineure Occidentale et Méridionale, Table Ronde Istanbul 1993, Revue des Etudes Anciennes, 96 (1994), pp. 29-52;

[14] SARADI, Kallos, cit., p. 49;

[15] Y. TABBA, Survivals and archaisms in the architecture of Northern Syria c.1080-c.1150, in Muqarnas 10, Leiden 1993, pp. 29-41, citing the palaces of Khirbat al-Makjar and Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, as well as the E gate to the mosque at Cordoba, AD 987;

[16] Cited in N. CHRISTIE, The survival of Roman settlement along the Middle Danube: Pannonia from the fourth to the tenth century AD, in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, XI.3 (1992), pp. 317-339; cf. p. 335;

[17] I. HOGG, The history of fortification, London 1981, p. 74;

[18] J. LACAN, Les Sarrazins dans le Haut Moyen Age français, Paris 1965, pp. 163ff & plates XXIV-XXVI;

[19] A. CADEI, I castelli federiciani: concezione architettonica e realizzazione tecnica, in Arte Medievale, VI.2 (1992), pp. 39-67; the author explains the bugnato in Swabian Imperial residences in Germany and Alsace as imports from the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, such as Korykos;

[20] C.N. JOHNS, The Citadel, Jerusalem: a summary of work since 1934, in Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities, Palestine, 14 (1950), pp. 121-190, reprinted as VII in D. PRINGLE, editor, Three Middle Eastern Castles frrom the time of the Crusades, Aldershot 1998;