Archive for February, 2010

On top of the Esquiline

February 28, 2010

Coming from a culture which has been so steeped in Christianity, it can be easy to over-emphasise the switch from paganism to this new-fangled religion. The schoolboy question and answer would be: Q. When did Rome become Christian? A. Under the rule of Constantine. As ever, of course, things weren’t as simple as that. Ignoring the question of just how Christian was this sainted ruler and looking instead at your average joe worshipper, Christianity’s entry onto the main stage of world religions was more of a seeping cooption of pagan beliefs and values. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been bored by people pointing out that the 25th of December was a pagan festival before the Christians usurped it, but nevertheless, there is quite a lot of truth in the old chestnut. The geography of Rome is shaped by such practices.

In Pre-Christian days, a temple to Juno Lucinda, the goddess who would be invoked in childbirth, stood on the Esquiline Hill. Understandably unwilling to lose any divine assistance during that particular trauma, people m

ade sure that this particular remit was transferred to the obvious other candidate; the woman who had given birth to Jesus himself. As such, the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore stands on the hill today, and whatever ridiculous stories of miraculous snowfall marking the Church’s outer markings one might come across (, it’s this transferral of pagan values which would really seem to account for the location.

To the front and back of the church stand a column and an obelisk respectively. Both of these are of good sturdy classical stock and both stand where they do (at least partially) because of another common determiner in Roman geography: personal aggrandizement. The first of the two to be erected was the obelisk at the back of the church. The Latin inscriptions on each side of the base explain the provenance. The north east side, for example, reads:

Christi Dei

In Aeturnum Viventis


Laetissime Colo

Qui Mortui

Sepulcro Augusti



which translates as: “I who in sadness, formerly served the tomb of the dead Augustus, with greatest joy revere the cradle of Christ, the everliving God.” Augustus’ mausoleum, then, was the source of this obelisk. In his book The Latin Inscriptions of Rome, Tyler Lansford explains its curious location; whilst it stood at the back of the Church it was supposed to serve, it stood at the front of Villa Montalto. Essentially, it would seem that it was an effort by Sixtus V to increase the value of his property.

Moving over to the front of the church now, we reach a site familiar to me from my many journeys into town on the 71, la Colonna della Pace (or the Colum of Peace). This one’s also a testament to the ulterior motives of popes past. The last two lines of the south west inscription shed light on the rationale behind the erection.

te paule nullis

obticebo saeculis

Or translated, “About you, Paul, I will be silent in no age.” Never one to shy away from a bit of self-publicising, this is the same Paul (Paul V) who prompted the graffito “I thought it was supposed to be dedicated to Peter” after he had prominently placed his own name on the facade of the recently completed St Peter’s.

Leaving glory hungry popes behind us, let’s get back to the Column itself. Even in the middle of its large piazza and in front of one of the biggest churches in Rome, its size gives it an imposing presence. Looking at its provenance, it’s obvious why. This column originates from the Basilica of Maxentius, the monumental ruins of which stand next to the Forum just off the Via Sacra. There are better sites to visit if you’re after the feel of a Roman building, but if you want to get a feel for the epic scale of civic Roman architecture designed to impress, this basilica’s well worth a brief stop off.

In a brief digression, the Latin inscriptions underneath once more include mention of the Column’s origins but this time, however, the inscription makers got it wrong. From the south east side:

vasta columnan mole

quae stetit diu

pacis profana in aede

or “the column of vast bulk which long stood in the unholy Temple of Peace”. Centuries of misidentification of the basilica as the Temple of Peace would not be corrected until serious archaeological work began in the nineteenth century.

As you can see from the picture below, sometimes the Latin inscriptions can be difficult to make out. Fortunately, Rose got me The Latin Inscriptions of Rome for Christmas and it’s this that I’ve been copying the Latin from (and indeed, most of the translations). Before I finish with this post, I want to take a second to plug the book. Even for non-Latinists, the English translations make it a really worthwhile purchase for anybody with an interest in Rome’s history.

A little bit of papal propaganda for you


Piazza Navona and ancient Rome

February 16, 2010

Carnival’s in full swing here in Rome, and Sunday saw Rose and I dodging excitable children in fancy dress on Piazza Navona as we took in a little street theatre.

More exciting than any of that, however, was the opportunity to regale Rose once more with my Piazza Navona facts.  Well now, lucky reader, your face too can glaze over with that impassive far away look of excited anticipation, because today I’m writing about the Piazza’s connections with ancient Rome.

The shape was determined by the building which used to sit there; Domitian’s theatre.  Designed for Greek sports the Latinized Greek word for ‘struggles’ (agonales) was associated with the place.  Over the centuries, this name evolved into Platea in Agone, Piazza N’Agone, and finally, today’s Piazza Navona.

Now, bang in the centre of the Piazza is Bernini’s Fountain.  There’s plenty of stories that could be told about as (as Rose would verify) but as this blog is about ancient Rome, let’s head for the church behind it.  This is San Agnese in Agone (named after the location of those Greek struggles once more) and here we find another link to ancient Rome.

Agnes was a 12 year old girl of aristocratic stock living under the reign of a favourite emperor of mine, Diocletian.  Ordered to marry an acquaintance of the Emperor, she refused on the grounds that she was dedicating her body

A fornex under Piazza Navona

to Jesus.  In the earliest surviving account of the story (St. Ambrose’s writings) the girl was put to death upon this refusal, displaying a stoic bearing which impressed Ambrose immensely.  However, the Catholic Church wouldn’t be the Catholic Church if it didn’t squeeze some sex into the story, and so as the myth developed, the naked girl was dragged to a brothel to be raped (thereby satisfying a law which forbade the rape of virgins).  Both the rape and execution were supposed to have taken place at the spot of St Agnese in Agone.

At one side of the Piazza, you can find an open archaeology site showing an arch or fornex.  If there were any truth to the more colourful versions of the young saint’s death, it would be to somewhere like this she would have been sent; these fornices underneath the stadiums were infamous sites of brothels.  Indeed, “going to the arches” became an idiomatic expression for visiting a prostitute in Latin.  For anybody interested in etymology, our own term “fornicate” stems from it.

Being a family friendly blog, I don’t want to end on such a seedy note, so let’s return to St Agnes.  Her other major Church in Rome St Agnese Fuori le Mura can be found a couple of kilometres to the east of Termini on Via Nomentana.  This church was built over the catacomb which held her corpse, and it’s here that lambs are ritually shaved to provide the wool needed for part of a new archbishop’s ceremonial robes.  Apparently the sole reason for the location is Agnese sounds like agnus, the Latin for lamb.  I don’t know for how many centuries the Catholic Church has been using that particular pun, but for ignoring the increasingly exasperated groans of the world around and just powering on through with it they command my respect at least.

The beards of Emperors

February 2, 2010

Column inches across the world have been devoted to the ongoing question of Berlusconi’s hair transplant, and now that Bill Gates has weighed in on the issue (, fresh life might have been given to the farce.

The exasperated Silvio must look back to the glory days of imperial Rome wistfully; Not only was public prosecution of an Emperor absolutely impossible, not only was autocratic rule given for life, but the imperial hairstyle was spared the ridicule poured on the modern day equivalent.  In fact, such was the respect accorded to the imperial do that historians and archaeologists today are able to date statues based on which imperial figure’s hairstyle is being copied. Elongated bun on a female bust, hair drawn down on both sides of the head? Ah, that’ll be an attempt to emulate Septimius Severus’ wife, Julia Domna. Must be, ooh… end of the second century AD then.

However, lest Silvio envy his forerunners too much, it should be pointed out that there were limits. Julian the Apostate was Constantine the Great’s nephew, but instead of following the family trend of slipping towards Christianity, he developed a secret neo-platonic pagan zeal under the guidance of his tutor. Fully aware of the semiotics of beard growth, Julian revealed his secret religion upon his ascension to the throne and unleashed his newly unfettered whiskers on the world. In his short two year rule, the beard would grow into such a source of controversy that when the Emperor wrote a satire defending his controversially austere lifestyle, it was his beard which he named it after.

I’m going to go a bit off topic now, but this is probably the only post I’m ever going to write about imperial beards, so I quickly want to weigh in on the most famous of them all: Hadrian’s. Firstly, if anybody can tell me where the idea that it was grown to cover warts and scars originates from, I’d be extremely grateful. I often see it written, but it just doesn’t seem to ring true. Secondly, the idea that the beard was grown out of philhellenism is an old one, but I’ve seen it rejected by people recently. Instead, they argue that as an ex-military man, Hadrian got into the habit of not shaving whilst on camp. However, I can’t think of any other ex-Emperor with a military past (Trajan, Vespasian, etc) who had kept a beard as top dog, and the only bearded representation of an Emperor earlier than the man in question that springs to mind is a statue of the decidedly unmilitaristic Nero.  In fact, the original theory still holds plenty of water; Hadrian had lived in Athens before becoming Emperor (even becoming archon, or chief magistrate), and he maintained his ties to the city throughout his reign. His interests proudly displayed his love of all things Greek: architecture, poetry, philosophy and, of course, beards.

*If anyone’s interested, the Misopogon or ‘Beard hater’ is available here: