The Evolution of Firefighting in Ancient Rome

The Evolution of Firefighting in Ancient Rome
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Thursday 18 April 2024, 22:23 - Last updated: 9 May, 18:18
During the Republican period (509 BC - 27 BC), a body of slaves, whose number and organization are unknown, was used to protect the city from fires and to perform surveillance tasks in the streets, especially during nighttime hours. It was in 6 AD that Emperor Augustus founded the Militia Vigilum, the first true corps of trained and organized firefighters in history, which at the time of its founding numbered 600 vigiles, soon to be increased to 7,000. Augustus, who had divided the city of Rome into fourteen regions, placed them under the control of seven cohorts, two for each region, composed of about 1000 men each who were housed in barracks and guard posts. Each cohort was therefore responsible for service in two regions and had the statio, that is, the barracks, in one of them and an excubitorium, that is, a guard post, in the other. In addition to military equipment, the equipment of the vigiles consisted of simple tools such as lamps for night patrol services, buckets, brooms, siphones (a kind of hydrant with leather tubing for fighting fire), axes, grappling hooks, hoes, saws, poles, ladders, and ropes, as well as some centones (wet blankets used to smother flames). The total area to be surveilled was the entire Urbe and included more than 400 neighborhoods with about 150,000 buildings where more than a million inhabitants lived. In each unit, the vigiles specialized in various duties: there were the aquarii, comparable to modern firefighters, the balneari, in charge of supervising public baths, the horreari, responsible for the surveillance of warehouses, the sebaciarii who took care of night lighting and also performed public safety service. The most burdensome task was nonetheless that of extinguishing fires, which were very frequent in a city with multi-story houses built of wood, numerous and particularly concentrated especially in the current area of Trastevere. It was precisely in Trastevere that in 1865-1866, during an excavation undertaken for the recovery of ancient artifacts, an excubitorium dating back to the end of the 2nd century AD was discovered at a depth of about eight meters below street level. From the very first phases of the excavation, the destination of the rooms brought to light was immediately clear due to the presence of graffiti on the walls where the VII Cohort of the Vigiles was repeatedly mentioned, whose headquarters had to be in the Campus Martius and which was responsible for the surveillance of the IX region (Circus Flaminius) and the XIV (Trans Tiberim). The dating of the excubitorium, which was adapted in an already existing private building, is certainly attributable to the first decades of the 3rd century AD as the graffiti, often dated, belong to the years between 215 and 245. Despite the good state of conservation of the monument and the documentary value of the graffiti, the excavated area was abandoned for about a hundred years with serious prejudice to the conservation of the masonry structures and especially of the mosaics and painted plasters. Only in 1966 was the monument covered while in 1986 the architectural decoration and remains of the paintings were restored. An analytical study conducted by the architect Giancarlo Salamone also included a delineation of the following metric and architectural plans of the hypogeum. Crossed through a modern staircase the significant difference in height between the street and the artifact and passed an atrium, one enters a large hall where in the center there is a hexagonal-shaped pool with concave sides. The hall was originally paved with a black-and-white mosaic decorated by a horse, a goat, a snake, and two tritons, one with an extinguished torch, symbolizing tamed fire, the other with a lit torch facing the sea, to indicate the water that is used to extinguish the fire. The splendid mosaic, captured in a late 19th-century photo, mysteriously disappeared during the second world war and it is conceivable that it was probably taken as war booty. On the wall opposite the hall, an arched door leads into the lararium which once contained the image of the tutelary genius of the vigiles and still retains some traces of fresco of garlands with female figures. To the left of the hall, a door leads into a passageway room which opens onto three rooms; in the arch of the door, a fresco with a geometric pattern that encloses a putto and sea horses is visible. In one room the floor is of cocciopesto with a manhole cover in the center, probably being a bathroom, while the destination of the other two rooms characterized by an opus spicatum floor, that is, bricks arranged in a herringbone pattern, is uncertain. A further room at the end of a corridor was certainly a warehouse given the presence of a dolium, a container typically used to store grain, oil, wine, or other foods, buried in the floor. Of the hundreds of graffiti, most of which has been lost but documentation remains, there is one that reads: lassum sum successorem date, that is, "I am tired, give me a replacement". The entrance to the Excubitorium is at no. 9 via della VII Coorte but the site has not been visitable for some time due to a lack of funds that can make it accessible to the public.
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