National Geographic : 1946 Nov
Dusk on the Street of Tombs No HEAVY wagons or laden carts were allowed during daylight on the crowded, narrow streets of Rome. But after sundown the high ways which led to the city gates from the surrounding country began to echo with the hoofs of mules and horses and the rumble of wheels as produce was brought in to feed the million inhabitants. The living were fed with provisions brought in at night past the houses of the dead, which stretched on either side of the paved roads for many miles into the Campagna. The old Appian Way today still leads between the ruins and overgrown traces of almost innumerable ancient grave monu ments. Most ancient towns thus buried their dead at their gates, without set ting aside hallowed ground compa rable to our churchyard cemeteries, but merely invading the open fields to left and right of the roads. The natural desire to keep kinsmen and families together and to bar intruders led to the erection of walled enclo sures. Often, burial societies were organ ized with like intent, ensuring an un disturbed resting place to all subscrib ing members. Where cremation was in favor, a wall niche in an under ground chamber would suffice for each; where entombment was de manded and the beneficiaries were numerous, their needs, expanding with time, ultimately produced the miles of subterranean passages and rooms called catacombs. Above ground, whether for sar cophagus or urn, engraved tablets and carved markers would preserve the identity of the family or clan or cor poration, or on occasion the individual deceased. The arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting were all em ployed to make important plots more memorable to mourning relative or casual passer-by. A miniature colonnaded mauso leum might alternate with a tall shaft carrying a marble vase, to be followed by some elaborate storied structure, according to the ambitions of the family head and the competence of his architect. Even where the detail was coarse and the execution poor, the cumulative effect of such a suc cession of monuments could not fail to be impressive, especially when the slender, almost black spires of the cypresses and the greener, spreading umbrellas of the pines added their somber note of movement or repose. At El Djem in Tunisia still stand the arcades of the fifth largest amphi theater ever built by the Romans. It once accommodated 30,000 spec tators. Today the once-irrigated and highly productive countryside about its site is all but empty arid waste. The ruins, like the tombs along the Appian Way and the Latin Way on the approaches to Rome, bear witness to departed glory. The Roman world of antiquity has passed away. But though outwardly it has disappeared or lies in ruins, many of its intangible glories sur vive. Its striving for a reasonable life ruled by law and order, its organized grouping of towns and cities into self administered states, its basic belief in individual human dignity and in equality under secure government all these have come down as a precious legacy to modern times. Our letters are Roman; our speech is nearly a third Latin; the very fundamentals of our science and learning are those which Greece began and Rome preserved and transmitted.