Archive for the ‘archaeology’ Category

The Pantheon: the emergence of modern religious practice?

May 29, 2010

Once you get over the size of the Colosseum, it loses a large part of its appeal. It’s something I enjoy more from the outside than in, if I’m being honest (although the current exhibition on gladiators is pretty good). The Forum, on the other hand, is an incredible place to visit, but you only get real satisfaction if you know a lot about it already. To anybody else, it takes an awful lot of imagination to appreciate the place after both time and archaeology have wreaked their havoc. The Pantheon, however, is almost as good as it ever was. 500 years ago, Michelangelo attributed its splendour to “disegno angelico e non umano” (angelic and not human design) and very little’s changed since then.

Originally built by Augustus’ right hand man Agrippa, the Pantheon was destroyed by lightning in the reign of Trajan. These days, Hadrian is usually given credit for the building, although his decision to recreate the original inscription coupled with Cassius Dio’s claim that it had been built by Agrippa* might suggest that the ancients focussed less on the building as its function. There have been some recent claims that Trajan might have been responsible for the start of construction after the discovery of some early date stamps on some of the bricks used in the building. However, it’s hardly impossible that these bricks had sat waiting to be used in a builder’s yard, and the vast majority of stamped bricks are from Hadrian’s reign. Furthermore, the writers of later histories (such as the Historia Augusta) probably had access to the Emperor’s now sadly lost autobiography, and as they ascribe the building to him, I’m sticking with Hadrian.

Originally, the building would have looked pretty traditional from the outside to your average Roman schmo. High Podium, facade orientation, colonnaded porch ya da ya da ya da. However, everything changed the moment you walked through the giant bronze doors. Anybody standing in Piazza San Pietro can’t make out the famous dome of the Church; the angles in play mean that the facade blocks it off entirely until you walk down Via Risorgimento. Something similar happened with the Pantheon, although there was no Via Risorgimento equivalent. The ‘Piazza’ it was built in was much smaller that the modern day Piazza Rotonda, and the complex which the Temple was a part of was designed to conceal the revolutionary shape from view. Not until you entered would you realize the dome was there.

So we’re inside now. Our Roman has entered the Temple. He’s clocked the multi-coloured floor and recognizes the imperial message of the materials used to build it. With material from Egypt (North West Africa), Carthage (North East), Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and (we think) Gaul, that’s material from literally every corner of the Roman Empire. He’s noticed the oculus (the big hole in the roof), and the circle of sunlight streaming through it (which is moving around the room as the day progresses). If he’s a vaguely astute chap, he’ll immediately get the connection with Hadrian; this Emperor was famous for his attention to the Provinces and spent the majority of his rule visiting them all in person. At the same time, he’d have been giving some thought to the shape of the place. Generally, Roman temples were not round (although there were exceptions) but ever since their Etruscan roots, the Romans had often built circular tombs (check out the Mausoleum of Augustus for an example). By adding this element of death to the godliness of a temple, what emerges at the other side of the equation is the imperial cult. The only entities who would both die and be worshipped as gods were the emperors themselves. The Pantheon may well be a temple to “all the gods” as its Greek name suggests, but it seems that it’s to some of the newer ones in particular.

There’s something strange going on, however. The modern idea of a congregation meeting inside a religious building to pray together etcetera was incongruous in traditional Roman religion. The rites would happen outside the temple; inside was a private ‘house’ for the god worshipped there in which only his or her priests were allowed in. Yet obviously, Hadrian did not go to all this effort for a couple of priests. Turning to Cassius Dio again, there is a mention of the Senate meeting in the Pantheon, but certainly not on a regular basis and even this doesn’t seem enough. I would suggest that the Pantheon was designed to be seen by the rank and file Roman as well, and if so the building marks a transition from ancient to modern religious practice.

And if none of that excites you, the Queen Marherita buried in there is the woman the pizza was named after. The Pantheon: something for everybody.

*This is usually explained away as a mistaken attribution. However, Cassius Dio tells us that a fire destroyed the original Pantheon in 80 AD, so he’s well aware that Agrippa hadn’t built the version he knew.


Trajan’s Column

March 22, 2010

The faintly unsettling room which houses the plaster casts of the complete frieze

I remember reading a great comic a few years ago explaining the theory of comics.  If I remember correctly, it was by a chap called Scott McCloud.  It was informative, amusing, thought-provoking and a great example of the places the comic form could be taken.  However, the fact that it arose from a genre never quite at ease with itself (whatever comic fans say, the careful defences of the form that we all have ready to reel off at a moment’s notice is an indication that we don’t really believe comics have been accepted into the realms of ‘art’), means that at one point the author went on a bit of a desperate search for pedigree and tried to trace the history of comics through Egyptian tomb art and so on.  The thing is, though, you would never write an analysis of 1950s pulp fiction as belonging to the same tradition as something like Beowulf, and any attempt to do so would be dismissed.  If you did set out to do so, there would indeed be certain parallels that could be drawn, but before we go on I think we’re all going to have to agree that the exercise would still be pointless.  That said, I’m going to be hard pushed to fight back the temptation not to fall into the McCloud trap for today’s post.  This week I had a chance to really take in Trajan’s Column and to a man who grew up on my Dad’s old copies of Creepy Worlds and Amazing Adventures, it’s very difficult not to note the similarities.

First, a bit of background.  Trajan’s column was built at about 110AD as part of a forum complex celebrating his victories over the Dacians (modern day Romania).  What with an ever expanding population, Trajan wanted to add another forum to the 5 which already stood in the valley.  Seemingly trumped by the lack of space, the Emperor and his Chief Engineer from the Dacian campaigns, Appollodorus of Damascus, got together and decided what to do about that particular pickle.  With characteristic Roman élan, they decided to simply remove a massive chunk of the Esquiline Hill.  The base on the column tells us that the column was actually built

Ad declarandum quanta altitudinis

Mons et locus tan[tis oper]ibus sit egestus

0r, “in order to indicate how lofty was the hillside removed through such mighty works”*.  It’s nice to believe that the column genuinely did mark the exact height of the hill which formerly stood there (putting it at 38m), and unless I find some evidence to the contrary, I’m going to go along with that story.

On the column, carved in great detail are the exploits of the Roman army in Dacia.  In fact, the level of detail is a little confusing.  When you stand by the column today, the height renders it impossible to really follow the narrative thread at all, and when it was built, the two libraries (one Latin and one Greek) which flanked the column would have made it even more difficult to make out any intricacies (although the paint that would have been there originally might have helped sharpen some details admittedly).  Had it not been for the Museo della Civilta’ Romana, I would have remained in the dark about what exactly was on the column.

Some of the barbarian dead

Romans in testudo formation

The man himself in one of his many appearances

What the hell, it’s nothing short of a comic.  It’s sequential art in which our hero Trajan periodically reappears in the different ‘panels’ to save the day.  It’s so much more interesting than that description lets on, however, and for a number of reasons.  Firstly, from a historical perspective, the details of life on campaign are transmitted more fully than one might have expected from what we would have assumed to be empty propaganda.  Only about a quarter of the pictures involve fighting.  The rest contain such mundane features as chopping down trees to build camps and so on.  You see soldiers chatting to each other, and most surprisingly there seems to be a homosexual couple depicted.  In the battle scenes, details such as the weaponry and armour of both the Romans and their enemies are carefully depicted.  We see the Dacians with their ‘battle sickles’, for example, and we see the Romans with their shields raised in the famous tortoise position.   In terms of art as well, the column holds its own.  Despite the frieze being 190 m long, the variety of techniques it employs (realism, allegory, implied narratives) make the whole thing interesting from start to finish.  Finally, for a piece of art one would expect to be so triumphalist, Trajan’s Column includes a real sense of pathos.  The agonised deaths and the strewn corpses that litter the battlefields show an understanding of the suffering of war which renders the modern day term ‘propaganda’ misleading at best.

So there you have it.  Get yourself over to Trajan’s Column, proof that comics are art.  Sort of.

*Translation Tyler Lansford

The centre of Rome

March 12, 2010

Last weekend saw me and Rose turn host as Kat and Olly (Rose’s cousin and her cousin’s boyfriend) came to stay.**  I’m going to explicitly set out the unwritten code which dictates guest behaviour in Rome: Having accepted hospitality, one is duty-bound to act interested as Sam Romes on.  And as per usual, Rome on I did.  In my head, what typically happens is that I transform into a Jackanory-esque story teller and unleash the tales of Roman glory.  “Come on kids, gather round!  Today’s story is about the architectural orders of columns!” At which point, we all embark on a shared adventure into the world of the Doric, the Ionian and the Corinthian.  When I finish, just as I’m preparing myself for my guests’ uproarious applause, I glance about me and I see they’ve been unable to maintain that interest they’d so courageously summoned at the start.  Kat and Olly, however, stayed with me to the bitter end, going so far as to ask extra questions.

I can’t remember most of the ones that went unanswered now I’m afraid, but I remember two from in the Forum.  The first was “there’s a shelter over this bit.  Is it important?”  The bit in question was probably the umbilicus urbis, or Rome’s belly button.  As its name suggests, this was the centre of the ancient city.  Or at least, a centre.  Interestingly, the sources seem to refer to 3 sites which would have qualified as the central point: The Umbilicus, the Mundus or Vault and the Milliarium Aureum or the Golden Milestone.  The Mundus was a ditch into which the original settlers of Rome threw the first fruits of harvest as well as soil from their original home town upon moving to this new settlement.  The Golden Milestone was a monument set up by Augustus to signify the single point to which all those roads which led to Rome actually led.  The Umbilicus Urbis was, er, the centre of the city.  The only source I’ve been able to find it mentioned in (the Notitia*) is a simple list of ancient monuments.  Having not entirely answered your question then, let’s move on.

As for the second question, I’ve had even less luck.  I’m appealing for help now.  Anybody who can shed light on why an extension cable would have been hanging out of a side door on the arch of Septimius Severus, please put me out of my misery.


**I’ve separated this bit from the rest of the blog so that I can hijack There Boy for personal, non-Rome related use.  If you’re not Kat or Olly, well frankly I don’t know what you’re still doing here. You two, it really was lovely to have you both here.  If you don’t throw that crayfish party come summer, then we’re going to have to do it ourselves.

Somebody: Why's this here?

The Side of the Arch of Septimius Severus

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.

Roman interior decoration

November 21, 2009

We’ve just got back from the Scuderia del Quirinale, which is currently holding an exhibition on Roman art. Now this morning, had somebody else said that to me, I’d immediately be thinking of white statues of semi-draped goddesses and virile heroes. It’s a different Sam who stands before you now; a Sam who laughs at his earlier naivety. Roman art also includes pictures of semi-draped goddesses and virile heroes.

The exhibition’s split into 2 parts; the first being dedicated to what we’d call interior design I suppose, and the second being more the type of thing you’d expect to find in a gallery (portraits, still lifes etc). Both had some wonderful exhibits, but it’s the first part that seems to have made the greatest impression on me. You see, I’ve read books which have told me about the bright colours of Roman interiors, but whatever, in my head the classical world has always been characterised by white marble buildings.* Finally though, today’s museum trip has allowed me to dispel the last remaining vestiges of this image of pristinity. With examples dating from throughout the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, Roman houses of the period were anything but bland.

In these days of cream Dulux and a tastefully displayed Van Gogh print, it would be difficult to imagine matching 1 or 2 of the themes with a 3 piece suite and some curtains but, and I’ll bide my time before springing this on Rose, the idea of having the adventures of Ulysses painted on a massive scale directly onto our living room walls has now been firmly planted.

If anybody gets a chance to pop in, the exhibition’s on until January and it really is worth a visit.

*Actually, reaching that stage of visualisation was difficult enough. After having seen one too many Harryhausen films as a kid, that white marble filled my ancient Greece and Rome in the form of ruins housing fearsome plasticine monsters.

Pasta outside Castello San Angelo

November 8, 2009

The Barilla pasta magnets on currently displayed proudly have prompted this week’s post.  They’re a new addition to our kitchen after we were given them during the celebrations of international pasta day last Sunday.  I imagine that for anybody else reading this, your own celebrations were fairly low-key, but for those of us in Rome, Milan and Naples, Barilla saw to it that we were fed bowl upon bowl of free pasta.

In Rome, the celebrations were held in the Giardinni San Angelo next to Castello San Angelo.  To look at this castle, you’d struggle to find any suggestion of the work of ancient Romans, and as far as I know, you’d eventually have to give up on the fruitless quest; there are no signs at all.  However, originally the castle was built as the tomb of Hadrian.  His statue still stands in the gardens and his name is given to the nearby piazza Adriana, but the building itself has been drastically altered.

The original building was designed by the Emperor himself who had always held a considerable interest in architecture.  It was a grand, white marble structure, and if the Pantheon is any guide (another project the Emperor was involved in) it would no doubt have been a fabulous building. It was known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian until the sixth century, but before we look at why the name was changed, it’s time for some background.

After the Roman Empire in the west had fallen, Rome had become something of a ghost town.  The papacy continued to operate from there, but otherwise the city’s halcyon days of political and cultural significance were behind it.  Hobbes described the papacy of the time as “the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave.”  Pope Gregory I began to change all of that, however, and under his guidance, the city was successfully portrayed as a destination for pilgrimage.  With the tourist trade dollar flooding in, Gregory began to claw back the glories of old Rome.

However, none of this rejuvenation could happen until the plague that was coursing through Rome had ended. That supposedly happened after Gregory saw a vision of St Michael above the Mausoleum and the name was changed accordingly.  After that, pope after pope added to and reinforced the building to make it the Vatican’s defensive stronghold.  During the 1527 sack of Rome, one pope remained holed up in there for months.  It was this period that saw the Castle become the building we recognise today.  (And incidentally, it was also in this period that Hadrian’s remains were removed elsewhere and later destroyed in a fire).

As we sat next to the castle munching on our trofie al pesto, I noticed an inscription explaining that the park we were sitting in had been created by another figure from Italian history, namely Mussolini.  Whilst you see his building work etc on a daily basis over here, it came as a surprise to see something carved in stone explicitly naming him as responsible for the Gardens.  Rather than rewriting history, however, the inscription was left as it was; as yet one more layer of history serving as a backdrop to contemporary Rome and all of its pasta-based events.

the all new Roman Forum

October 18, 2009

When you go to the Roman Forum, you go for one thing: ancient Roman history. You line up outside, put your ancient history face on, and prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by all things antique. I may well sneakily indulge my secret love of tacky history crap by stealing the occasional glance at the makeshift stalls nearby, but otherwise we’re all together on this one – ancient history please.

The thing is, however, that’s not necessarily what you’re getting in the Forum. Very few of the buildings and monuments are from the classical era: the Shrine of Juturna (in its current form) dates ‘back’ to the 1950s. That might be an extreme example (although not ridiculously so – similar examples can be found) but the number of buildings dating back to the heady days of Roman domination can’t extend to much more than 5 or 6.* We’ve reached the crux of things; does it matter? In his book the Roman Forum,** David Watkins thinks not. His basic argument is that the interesting thing about the Forum is the interplay between the ages. The use of the Forum has been adapted to the needs of every epoch since the fall of the ancient Romans, with churches built on the foundations of temples and so on. Watkins goes as far as to describe the views of a nineteenth century archaeologist (who believed that building the 16th and 17th century Farnese Gardens on the site was a “sin”) as “astonishing”. Part of me agrees that the Forum’s continued life is a cause for celebration, but at the same time, I can easily empathise with that earlier archaeologist. Watkins’ background is in architecture and the history of classical archaeology, but for the amateur historians/ lay classicists (such as myself) who visit the Forum for the world of Caesar and co, well frankly, we want the old stuff.

And yet, last weekend was the first time I’ve visited the Forum since moving to Rome. Knowing the rather later provenance of the buildings there in no way impaired my enjoyment. As I stood by the Rostra (built 1904), it was very easy to imagine Mark Antony orating over the body of Caesar; standing next to the nineteenth century Arch of Titus, one could easily envisage triumphing emperors making their way down the Sacra Via. On an earlier visit to the Circus Maximus, a site with no modern development, I got none of that. I was standing in an oval hole in the ground.

It seems then, that what I want (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) is a shrine to history -somewhere that will pander to my own vision. If what I’m seeing is genuinely ancient, all the better, but otherwise I’ll settle for verisimilitude. I labour under the sweet illusion that anybody reads this blog, and assuming that anybody who does so is similarly interested in the topic, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Does it matter that the Forum isn’t exclusively ancient? Why do you visit historical sites?

*The Tablinarium, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Arch of Septimius Severus and a few columns from the Temples of Vespasian and of Castor and Pollux.

**As most of my books are still in England, I don’t have many with me. I have relied almost exclusively on Watkins’ book for the facts in this post.