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H.W. Pullen

Ancient Roman Marble

"Students of archaeology must surely, however, be well aware that there does not exist a single slab, or column, or tiniest fragment of ancient marble in any church or gallery or workshop in Rome, which was not brought there expressly at fabulous expense, and at the cost of infinite labour, by the very same old Romans who built the Palaces of the Caesars, and the Baths of Caracalla, and the Colosseum.

Under the rule of the Emperors, Rome was a city of marble. Every public building, and every private mansion of any pretension to luxury or elegance, glistened with marble, inside and without. Columns and surface walls and statues shone everywhere like polished mirrors; and, except in the case of wall-painting and mosaic pavement, no other method of decoration was known. And all this would have concerned but little the point for which I am now contending, if Rome had been a marble city merely because the Alban hills were marble mountains, and the Campagna a marble plain. The sumptuous embellishment of temples, baths, and patrician villas with costly marbles would then have been the most natural thing in the world, the material being close at hand. It surprises nobody to find brick buildings in a brick country, granite buildings in a granite country, and wooden buildings in a forest country, where there is neither brick nor stone. But, as a matter of fact, there was no marble anywhere near Rome. The surrounding district was purely volcanic, and furnished little else except travertine, tufa and peperino; so that the wholesale employment of marble on so vast a scale proves, first, a deliberate intention to beautify the city at any cost, and, secondly, a deliberate choice of this particular substance as the best means of doing so. Surely, when Emperors and Consuls went absolutely wild over the importation from far distant lands of the rarest and loveliest marbles for the adornment of their buildings, they then and there stamped upon marble decoration, as such, the impress of Roman antiquity, and secured for ever to slab and plinth and column the self-same dignity which invests the most imposing ruins of ancient Rome. It is not the fault of the marble that being costly, and a tempting object to greedy eyes, it has been stripped from off the walls, and the long thin lines of narrow bricks laid bare. And yet the bricks get all the credit of the antiquity...

To the thoughtful student of Roman history, whether classical or Christian, the investigation of ancient marbles is equally important and attractive. No reference either to the political, religious, or private life, of the wonderful people whose footprints we love to trace out along an interminable Sacred Way can be complete without it. It is impossible to exaggerate the affection which they entertained for marbles. After a conquest in time of war, the columns brought home from foreign temples and theatres were esteemed among the choicest of the spoil. In time of peace, when the rulers of the city could find nothing better for idle hands to do than persecute the heretics of the age, many thousands of Christians were condemned to labour in the quarries of Asia Minor or one of the Greek Islands, that the supply of marble should not fail. And this circumstance invests our subject with a positively sacred interest ; because it is nothing less than certain, that out of the 6000 columns now existing in Rome, many hundreds, at least, must have been excavated and fashioned into shape, and carved and polished, by a noble army of confessors, who had given up their goods, their liberty, and their homes, to keep our infant faith alive. We possess, unfortunately, no record of the amount of marble actually imported ; but some idea of its stupendous quantity may be gathered from the consideration that, although for upwards of a thousand years such treasures were in course of wholesale destruction by earthquake, inundation, and fire ; though columns without number were carried off or overthrown by barbarian conquerors as the Empire slowly fell; though huge blocks and capitals and friezes were powdered into dust by bricklayers and burnt into quicklime ; though probably not a hundredth part of her treasures yet remains Rome is still the richest marble city in the world."

Rev. H.W. Pullen, M.A., "Handbook Of Ancient Roman Marbles" (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1894) pp. 2-4