Ara Pacis Augustae, 13-9 BCE, Marble
Museo dell' Ara Pacis, Rome, Italy
Ara Pacis Augustae, 13-9 BCE, Marble
Museo dell' Ara Pacis, Rome, Italy
The Ara Pacis Augustae – commonly shortened to simply the Ara Pacis, or "Altar of Peace" – is one of the most important artistic monuments to remain from Augustan Rome, and a visual tribute to Augustus' rule. The structure – now housed in the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome, which is well worth a visit – comprises an altar placed within an elaborately decorated outer frieze. It was commissioned by the Roman senate in 13 BCE, in order to honour the emperor Augustus' return to Rome, as well as (more broadly) the peace he claimed his reign had brought, and consecrated in 9 BCE. What's particularly striking about the monument is the way that the visual programme brings together many of the themes also highlighted in contemporary literature at the time: natural bounty and pastoral ideals (see the inset of Tellus/Gaia, the earth-goddess, in the bottom right image above); mythical founders of Rome aligning in their blessing of Augustus' rule, including Romulus and Aeneas; and peace, built on victory in war. For a historian, however, it's the north and south friezes which are of special interest, because these depict actual (and, even more rarely, identifiable) Roman figures of state. In the detail showed above (bottom left), you can see Agrippa, Augustus' general at the Battle of Actium and son-in-law, shown on the left with his toga covering his head. One of his sons by Augustus' daughter Julia, probably Gaius, holds his toga, and looks up to a woman who stands behind Agrippa, who has been identified as Livia, the wife of Augustus.
Bronze figure of a gladiator, Bronze
The British Museum, London
Statuette of a gladiator, Bronze
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Gladiatorial combats – made famous in the modern world by Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000) – were hugely popular in Roman times, and took place in amphitheatres across the empire. Each gladiator was identified by the different assortments of armour and weapons he carried. The statuette on the right wears a combination of the weapons of the murmillo – sword (gladius) and oblong shield – and the armour of a hoplomachus (the term means "armed fighter" in Greek). On the left we see a thraex (literally "Thracian"), with his typical broad rimmed helmet, curved sword and small round shield. Gladiatorial games were so popular that statuettes like these were made across the Roman empire, often in either bronze or terracotta, depicting the different gladiatorial types. For more on gladiators in the ancient world, read this article by Professor Kathleen Coleman, a professor in the Classics department at Harvard and historical consultant for Ridley Scott's Gladiator.
Arles Rhône 3, 1st century CE, Wood
Length: 31 metres (102 feet)
Musée de l'Arles Antique
This Roman cargo ship of the 1st century CE was discovered in 2004, buried just 13 feet below the surface of the river Rhône in Arles, France (ancient Roman Arelate). Over 30 metres long, it is constructed with a flat base of oak planks, with the sides made of two halves of a fir tree. The ship sank carrying a cargo of 33 tons of stone from a nearby quarry; amphorae containing garum (Roman fish sauce) and a statue of Neptune were discovered nearby. One of the timbers is branded with the signature C L POSV, suggesting that a Gaius Lucius Postumius either owned or perhaps built the ship.
Scenes from the Painted Garden, from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, c.30-20 BCE, fresco
Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy
After the painted Odyssey cycle of our last entry, I was reminded of these beautiful paintings – perhaps my favourite of all from Rome, and coming a close second in the ancient world to the Thera landscapes. They originally covered the walls of the triclinium or dining-room of Livia, wife of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Though they're certainly aesthetically pleasing, it's their attention to botanical detail which I enjoy most. Each tree and plant species is painted with such care that they are identifiable, even now – you might be able to spot apples, lemons, daisies, roses, as well as bay laurel and maple trees. The illusion of a garden has been continued with the painting of a wall and fence around the allotment and the blue sky behind, populated by birds – as if the walls of the dining room have melted away and been replaced by a lush, continuously-blooming garden.
Cycle with scenes from the Odyssey, Fresco, 1st cent. B.C. (before 46 B.C.)
Frame: height 142 cm, width 292 cm
Musei Vaticani, Rome
Description from the Musei Vaticani collections website:
As we enter the era of the empire with Augustus (formerly known as Octavian), the first emperor of ancient Rome, there is perhaps no more fitting object to begin with than the Res Gestae, Augustus' autobiography. The Res Gestae (which translates into English literally as "things done," and forms a list of Augustus' achievements) was originally inscribed before Augustus' mauseoleum in Rome after his death in 14 AD, and supposedly written just before his death, though it seems likely that the text was in fact worked on and revised over Augustus' lifetime. The Roman original has not survived, but copies of the text were distributed throughout the empire; and the best-surviving copy was preserved on a temple to Augustus at Ankyra, Turkey (known as the Monumentum Ancyranum, and pictured in the top image). A replica is inscribed in Rome today, just facing the mausoleum of Augustus on the wall of the modern museum of the Ara Pacis (image below). A text, translation and commentary of the Res Gestae can be found here.
Coin with portraits of Cleopatra and Antony, Silver, c. 36 B.C.
Diam. 2.6 cm, Weight 15.22 g
The Art Institute of Chicago
Description from GREUEL, MARY. "Coin with Portraits of Cleopatra and Mark Antony." Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 35, no. 2 (2009): 34-93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40652400.
"This rare and exquisite silver coin portrays two of the most famous figures of antiquity, the charismatic Egyptian queen Cleopatra and the ambitious Roman warlord Mark Antony. Cleopatra ruled Egypt during the period when Rome was expanding its empire eastward toward the territories she controlled. By allying herself politically and personally first with Julius Caesar and, after his death, with Mark Antony, the queen hoped to maintain Egypt's autonomy and expand her own authority. The powerful political alliance between Antony and Cleopatra threatened Caesar's heir, his great- nephew Octavian, who in 33 B.C. defeated their forces in a decisive sea battle at Actium, which led to the pair's suicides.
"To pay their armies and satisfy their other debts, Antony and Cleopatra minted coins bearing their likenesses. This example is remarkable in that it depicts both the general and the queen. Antony, seen here at bottom, is framed by an inscription that identifies him as a commander and one of Rome's trio of rulers. He is represented with short hair, a flat nose, a strong chin, and a long, thick neck. Cleopatra, shown at top, has a profile that is startlingly similar to Antony's, right down to the Adam's apple on her massive neck. This similarity was purposeful, since other coins issued by Cleopatra display a distinctly feminine profile. More of her figure is depicted than is Antony's, including her upper torso, which showcases her legendary pearl jewelry. An inscription and a crown circling her carefully braided hair identify her as a queen; she was, in fact, Egypt's last.
"Cleopatra appears on the front of the coin, in the place of prestige, and Antony is on the back. This is unusual because, although she was queen of Egypt, her country was a subservient ally of Rome. By pairing their faces on coinage, the rulers advertised a powerful new partnership that put Egypt's enormous agricultural riches at the disposal of one of Rome's rulers. Antony and Cleopatra planned to govern Egypt equally and cooperatively - to the joint venture the queen brought her hereditary right to rule, while Antony brought Roman military power. Their coin relayed this message in its coupling of remarkably similar images and in the inscriptions circling the heads. This kind of bold statement undoubtedly offended their enemies in Rome, especially Octavian, and helped bring about their eventual downfall."
The "Ides of March" denarius commemorates one of the most famous events in history – the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Struck by the tyrannicide Brutus in late summer/early autumn 42 BC, it bears the portrait of Brutus himself along with (just visible across the top) the words BRUT IMP, or "Brutus the general" – particularly apposite, as Brutus and the other conspirators were at the time readying themselves for a battle against Caesar's supporters and heirs (the Battle of Philippi, which would take place later that year in October 42 BC). The reverse bears the striking inscription EID MAR – Eidibus Martiis, or the Ides of March, commemorating the date of Caesar's death – beneath the pileus, the cap of liberty given to freed slaves, symbolising the new liberty of the Republic, and two daggers, standing for the two principal conspirators, Brutus and Cassius. Only around eighty examples of this coin survive, as they were later recalled by the victorious Mark Antony and Octavian after Brutus and Cassius' defeat at the Battle of Philippi.
As we approach the end of the Republic, it is impossible not to mention Cicero, the great statesman and orator whose speeches and letters provide one of the most detailed accounts of this turbulent historical period. Cicero was born in 106 BCE in Arpinum, and rose through the ranks of the Roman political system against the odds to become consul in 63 BCE. During his consulship, he discovered and made public a plot against the Republic by the aristocrat, Catiline, and delivered a series of brilliant speeches later known as the Catilinarians, which would ultimately see the conspirators condemned to death. When Cicero's opponents claimed, however, that his sentencing of the conspirators without trial was illegal, Cicero was exiled in 58 BCE. He returned to Italy in 57 BCE and became one of the leading figures in the later years of the Republic, supporting first the general Pompey against Julius Caesar, and then Caesar's great-nephew Octavian against Caesar's former general, Mark Antony. When Octavian and Antony joined together to form an alliance in 43 BCE, however, Antony and Octavian together issued Cicero's name on a list of brutal proscriptions of enemies of the state; and Cicero was caught and killed as he left his villa in Formiae in December 43 BCE.
It is impossible to be certain of the identity of Cicero's villa; however, the villa above, Villa Rubino (now in private ownership) has historically been identified as belonging to Cicero. While it is likely no more than wishful thinking – several opulent villas have been discovered in the area, any one (or none) of which might have been his – it is tantalising to say the least to imagine the Roman orator departing from this 1st century BC nymphaeum (shrine to the nymphs, pictured above) and setting out to try to escape his death.
Today's artefact is particularly close to my heart. In 2006 I was lucky enough to take part in an archaeological dig in Pompeii with the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii (AAPP), working in the north-western corner of the ancient city (Region VI, Block 1). One of the many fascinating aspects of digging in this area of Pompeii was that it was particularly affected by the Social Wars, the civil conflict that tore apart Italy from 91 BCE when the "allies" of Rome revolted against the Romans – probably because they wanted full citizenship, to be "full members of Rome's club", as Mary Beard puts it. Pompeii was besieged by none other than Sulla, the Roman general and dictator who we saw in the previous History of the Classical World entry – and evidence of his attack still remains at the site today. In the first photo, the walls of Pompeii show evidence of ballista strikes – the ancient equivalent of cannon balls. The second image, from an earlier AAPP dig in 1999, shows lead shot – ancient bullets, launched from slings. It's a striking reminder that, even though we think of the cities of Italy as thoroughly Roman, it wasn't always the case – and that Romanness (or Romanitas) was both highly contested and highly prized.