Monday, 25 July 2016

Bad Emperors No.1

It's funny, but he looks nothing like Joaquin Phoenix, or Christopher Plummer, does he? Any TV series or movie that wants to depict someone from recent history always goes to great lengths to find someone who looks like them. We know from photos and newsreel what they are supposed to look like. When it comes to figures from the more distant past, that seems not to matter, despite there being portraits and busts of the real individuals. Producers and directors just don't seem to bother.
There are many busts of Commodus to be seen, in Rome and elsewhere. Probably the most famous is the depiction of him as Hercules which can be seen, flanked by a pair of Tritons, in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Hercules was a popular deity in Rome. Not just because of the strength and fortitude he embodied, but because he was supposed to have actually visited the city and killed a monster that lived in a cave on the Palatine Hill.
The Capitoline statue shows the Emperor Commodus with the attributes of Hercules - the skin of the Nemean lion, the club in his right hand, and the apples of the Hesperides in his left. The base of the statue has a couple of figures of Amazons, though the one on the right has long gone. They hold a pair of cornucopias, and there is a globe with astrological symbols.

Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus was born in 161 AD, the son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He became Emperor himself in 180 AD on his father's death, after acting as co-Emperor since 177 AD. He was the first Emperor since Titus to be the natural son of his predecessor. He was the youngest of twin boys - his brother dying at the age of 4.
He was made a Consul at age 15 - the youngest in history at that point. He became sole ruler when his father died fighting a campaign on the Danube.
He had little interest in the administration of the Empire - leaving that to his favoured officials - but he was popular with the army and the people for his staging of gladiatorial games, in which he did like to take part. He also liked to take part in horse races and chariot competitions.
In 182 AD a conspiracy to assassinate him, was foiled. It had been led by one of his sisters, Lucilla. She was exiled to Capri and later killed.
From this point Commodus began to play more of a part in the ruling of his Empire, but in an increasingly dictatorial style. He also tended to stay away from Rome, preferring his various country estates.
His chief adviser had been murdered during the conspiracy, and he promoted in his place a man named Cleander - not knowing that it was actually Cleander who had been the murderer.
Cleander would eventually over-reach himself and was put to death.
Over time, Commodus grew more and more megalomaniacal. He became obsessed with the cult of Hercules, seeing himself as the re-embodiment of the deity and thus a son of Jupiter, rather than the heir of Marcus Aurelius. He gave himself new names - twelve of them - and these became the new months of the year. Everything, and everyone, would be named after him - Romans now becoming Commodians. Nero's golden statue, which gave its name to the Colosseum, had its head replaced with his own.
In November 192 AD, an assassination attempt by some political rivals failed. The poison he was given he vomited up. Then on 31st December, his wrestling partner Narcissus strangled him in his bath. There then followed the Year of the Five Emperors, his successor - Pertinax - not lasting very long.
Initially his memory was damned by the Senate, but three years later he was deified on the request of the incoming Emperor Septimius Severus, who wanted to placate the surviving members of his family.
The chief source of information about Commodus comes from the writer Dio Cassius, and this has tended to paint him as very much a bad Emperor. Movies such as The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000) have entrenched this view. There were no mass persecutions of Christians under Commodus' rule. Rather, one of his officials actually freed many Christian slaves from the mines on Sardinia, and his mistress Marcia is said to have been a Christian herself.

The inclusion of a pair of statues of Triton in the group refer to Commodus' apotheosis - becoming divine. Triton was a son of Poseidon, and always represented as a Merman, with a human torso, covered in scales and barnacles, and a fish tail. Over time, Tritons became a whole species - aquatic cousins of the Centaurs. Disney fans will know that Triton is the father of Ariel, the Little Mermaid.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Dying Gaul(s)

One of the masterpieces of the Capitoline Museums, for many years this statue was thought to represent a dying gladiator. Indeed, the room in which it is to be seen - in the Palazzo Nuovo - is still called to this day the Hall of the Gladiator, because of this erroneous misidentification.

The statue is now known to represent a Galatian warrior, nude except for a torque around his neck, with short chopped hair and a moustache. He has a wound just below the right pectoral. It is known that the Gauls often fought naked, and with lime in their hair that made it look like that represented here.
It was found in the Gardens of Caesar, once owned by Julius Caesar, near the Via Salaria. After his assassination they were bought by the historian Sallust - becoming known as the Horti Sallustius. They later reverted to the Imperial Family and were much frequented by Tiberius. The Emperor Nerva died of a fever there in 98 AD.
The statue, along with others, was discovered in 1734 when the site was bought by Ludovici Ludovisi, nephew to Pope Gregory XV, in order to build a villa. Alongside it was another statuary group which can now be seen in the Palazzo Altemps, close by Piazza Navona, which contains other Ludovisi finds. This is the group known as "The Gaul Killing Himself And His Wife".

Here, another Galatian warrior has already killed his wife to prevent her falling into the hands of the Romans, and he is seen in the act of killing himself - plunging his sword into his heart through his chest. He has the same short chopped hair and a moustache, but this time wears a cloak - so may be of higher rank than the "Dying Gaul", perhaps his chieftain. Despite the fact that these two masterpieces reside in museums a mile or so apart, they were once part of a single composition.

As with many of Rome's greatest statues, the originals are thought to be Greek, and these later copies. The original for the Palazzo Altemps group was probably in bronze. It is known that the Greeks defeated Gauls who had attempted to settle in their territory around 279 BC. The date for these marble copies is not known. It might seem likely that, as they were found in gardens belonging to Julius Caesar, they dated from his time - commemorating his own victory over Vercingetorix - but equally they may have been commissioned by Sallust or a later Emperor in tribute to the deeds of the first Caesar.
Perhaps one day the two statues will be finally brought back together again, as Caesar, Sallust, or one of the later Emperors intended them to be seen.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Tomb of the Baker

Visit the Porta Maggiore, a busy road intersection and tram terminus, and you'll see the tomb of the baker Eurysaces. The tomb lies on the side facing away from the city centre, as it was tradition that people couldn't be buried within the city itself. The gate is really an overground conduit for a pair of aqueducts, named as it sits on a road that leads to S. Maria Maggiore. Take a close look at the image below and you'll see the channels that the water ran through.

These were the aqua Claudia and Anio Novus. Both were begun by Caligula, and completed under Claudius. Originally an aqueduct intersection, this only became a real gate when it became incorporated into the Aurelian Walls, sections of which can be seen on either side.

The tomb was already in existence when the gate was built. It dates to between 30 - 20 BC. The tomb survived for centuries as it was incorporated into a tower that was built onto the gate by the Emperor Honorius. It was only exposed during excavations in the 19th Century. The odd circular motifs are actually dough bins - in recognition of Eurysaces' trade. These are real bins, as there is the rusted evidence of the kneading mechanism inside each one. The columns are also created by real bread bins, standing one on top of the other three high.
An inscription reads: EST HOC MONIMENTUM MERCEI VERGILEI EURYSACIS PISTORIS, REDEMPTORIS, APPARET - This is the tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, baker, contractor, it's obvious! Eurysaces was an ex-slave who helped provide the bread dole for the Roman people - as in bread and circuses.

The tomb is fenced off and sits on a patch of scrubby grass, so you can't get too close to it. If you could, you would see the remains of a frieze around the entablature of scenes of life in a bakery. Plaster copies can be seen in the Museum of Roman Life at the EUR district. The remains of Eurysaces' wife, Atistia, were also deposited here. She was described as an "excellent woman", and her remains could be found in this panarium (bread bin). It is believed that Eurysaces' bakery was close by where his tomb now stands.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Temple of Minerva Medica

In one of central Rome's less touristy sections - standing alongside the tracks leading into Termini railway station - sits what has become known as the Temple of Minerva Medica. It has been known as this since the 16th Century, but it was never a temple of any kind.
It is a 12-sided building and it used to have a concrete dome. There is evidence of underfloor heating - which led some to think it was part of a baths complex - and the walls were veneered in marble, with statues placed in niches around the interior. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was made of thin panels of concrete attached to brick ribs. The roof survived until the 19th Century when it finally collapsed. The design was found to be too weak quite early on, as heavy buttresses were built into the structure within 20 years of its construction.

It is now widely believed to be a dining pavilion - part of a larger summer residence built by the Emperor Gallienus (253 - 268 AD). His horti (gardens) lay in this area, and he moved his entire court here each summer. Some 6th Century AD statuary was found embedded in Medieval walls built into the pavilion - suggesting the building was still in use at this time. With a busy road and tram-line on one side, and the railway tracks on the other, it is a remarkable survivor, which features in very few guidebooks.

Castrense Amphitheatre

A short distance from the church of Santa Croce Gerusalemme lies the remains of a small oval amphitheatre. Only the first and part of the second levels survive, but it originally had three tiers. The name probably derives from it being located next to the castra or barracks of the Imperial Cavalry. It is believed to date from the short reign of the Emperor Elagabalus (218 - 222 AD), designed to keep the Cavalry on his side. (The plan failed, as he and his mother were assassinated by their troops). It could seat 3500 spectators. Excavations in the 18th Century found a large number of large animal bones, so it is believed that the amphitheatre was used as a training ground for animals that would go on to feature at the Colosseum. It may also have been used for more intimate gladiatorial contests for the Emperor and his friends and family.

It owes its survival in part due to its incorporation into the Aurelian Walls in the 270's AD. This is when the open arcades were bricked up. There is a long section of well-preserved Wall in the area, running from the Castrense all the way to the Lateran.

According to Procopius the Aurelianic Walls were breached by the Goths in 537 AD at a weak point near the Praenestine Gate "at the animal enclosure" (vivarium). This may well refer to the Castrense Amphitheatre.