You reach the Baths of Caracalla, the most imposing object after the Coliseum that one sees in Rome. These colossal structures are so many signs of their times. Imperial Rome plundered the entire Mediterranean basin, Spain, Gaul, and two-thirds of England, for the benefit of a hundred thousand idlers. She amused them in the Coliseum with massacres of beasts and of men; in the Circus Maximus with combats of athletes and with chariot races; in the theater of Marcellus with pantomimes, plays, and the pageantry of arms and costume; she provided them with baths, to which they resorted to gossip, to contemplate statues, to listen to declaimers, to keep themselves cool in the heats of summer. All that had been invented of the convenient, agreeable, and beautiful, all that could be collected in the world that was curious and magnificent, was for them; the Caesars fed them and diverted them, seeking only to afford them gratification, and to obtain their acclamations.
A Roman of the middle classes might well regard his emperors as so many public purveyors, administering his property, relieving him from troublesome cares, furnishing him at fair rates, or for nothing, with corn, wine, and oil, giving him sumptuous meals and well-got-up fetes, providing him with pictures, statues, pantomimists, gladiators, and lions, resuscitating his “blase” taste every morning with some surprizing novelty, and even occasionally converting themselves into actors, charioteers, singers, and gladiators for his especial delight. In order to lodge this group of amateurs in a way suitable to its regal pretensions, architecture invented original and grand forms. Vast structures always indicate some corresponding excess, some immoderate concentration and accumulation of the labor of humanity. Look at the Gothic cathedrals, the pyramids of Egypt, Paris of the present day, and the docks of London!
On reaching the end of a long line of narrow streets, white walls, and deserted gardens, the great ruin appears. There is nothing with which to compare its form, while the line it describes on the sky is unique. No mountains, no hills, no edifices, give any idea of it. It resembles all these; it is a human structure, which time and events have so deformed and transformed, as to render a natural production. Rising upward in the air, its moss-stained embossed summit and indented crest with its wide crevices, a red, mournful, decayed mass, silently reposes in a shroud of clouds.
You enter, and it seems as if you had never seen anything in the world so grand. The Coliseum itself is no approach to it, so much do a multiplicity and irregularity of ruins add to the vastness of the vast enclosure. Before these heaps of red corroded masonry, these round vaults spanning the air like the arches of a mighty bridge before these crumbling walls, you wonder whether an entire city did not once exist there. Frequently an arch has fallen, and the monstrous mass that sustained it still stands erect, exposing remnants of staircases and fragments of arcades, like so many shapeless, deformed houses.
Sometimes it is cleft in the center, and a portion appears about to fall and roll away, like a huge rock. Sections of wall and pieces of tottering arches cling to it and dart their projections threateningly upward in the air. The courts are strewed with various fragments, and blocks of brick welded together by the action of time, like stones incrusted with the deposits of the sea. Elsewhere are arcades quite intact, piled up story upon story, the bright sky appearing behind them, and above, along the dull red brickwork is a verdant head-dress of plants, waving and rustling in the midst of the ethereal blue.
Here are mystic depths, wherein the bedewed shade prolongs itself among mysterious shadows. Into these the ivy descends, and anemones, fennel, and mallows fringe their brinks. Shafts of columns lie half-buried under climbing vines and heaps of rubbish, while luxuriant clover carpets the surrounding slopes. Small green oaks, with round tops, innumerable green shrubs, and myriads of gillyflowers cling to the various projections, nestle in the hollows, and deck its crest with their yellow clusters. All these murmur in the breeze, and the birds are singing in the midst of the imposing silence.
You ascend, I know not how many stories, and, on the summit, find the pavement of the upper chambers to consist of checkered squares of marble; owing to the shrubs and plants that have taken root among them, these are disjoined in places, a fresh bit of mosaic sometimes appearing intact on removing a layer of earth. Here were sixteen hundred seats of polished marble. In the Baths of Diocletian there were places for three thousand two hundred bathers. From this elevation, on casting your eyes around, you see, on the plain, lines of ancient aqueducts radiating in all directions and losing themselves in the distance, and, on the side of Albano, three other vast ruins, masses of red and black arcades, shattered and disintegrated brick by brick, and corroded by time.
You descend and take another glance. The hall of the “piscine” is a hundred and twenty paces long; that in which the bathers disrobed is eighty feet in height; the whole is covered with marble, and with such beautiful marble that mantel ornaments are now made of its fragments. In the sixteenth century the Farnese Hercules was discovered here, and the Torso and Venus Callipygis, and I know not how many other masterpieces; and in the seventeenth century hundreds of statues. No people, probably, will ever again display the same luxurious conveniences, the same diversions, and especially the same order of beauty, as that which the Romans displayed in Rome.
Here only can you comprehend this assertiona civilization other than our own, other and different, but in its kind as complete and as elegant. It is another animal, but equally perfect, like the mastodon, previous to the modern elephant.