Posts Tagged ‘Trajan’

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