The Republic of clay returns to the Capitoline

Suetonius (69-122 A.D.) wrote in The Lives of the Caesars that Augustus could accurately boast that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. The context of the statement was the improvements to the city Augustus had made as sole ruler after he abandoned any idea of restoring the Roman Republic and instead subsumed all the major magistracies of the Senate, Tribunician powers and the entire treasury of Rome under his personal control.

The city, which was not built in a manner suitable to the grandeur of the empire, and was liable to inundations of the Tiber, as well as to fires, was so much improved under his administration, that he boasted, not without reason, that he “found it of brick, but left it of marble.”

Cassius Dio (155-235 A.D.) attributes the same quote to Augustus (Roman History, Book LVI:30), only he explicitly rejects the literal interpretation proffered by Suetonius.

“I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.” [Augustus] did not thereby refer literally to the appearance of its buildings, but rather to the strength of the empire.

A new exhibition at the Capitoline Museums‘ Palazzo Caffarelli presents a whole new view of that Republican city of clay via more than 1800 archaeological remains, most of which have never before been on display. There are bronze pieces, local stone and a tiny smattering of marble, but the overwhelming majority of the objects are made of terracotta and ceramic; ie, the clay/brick that Augustus was so proud of replacing.

Many of these works are fragmentary, recovered at various times at locations within the city and in its environs, but most of them were recovered from the sites of ancient temples on the Capitoline Hill and in the Campus Martius. They date to between the 6th century B.C. and the middle of the 1st century B.C., the heyday of the Roman Republic.

The exhibition focuses on the material remains that attest to the physical construction of the city, and curators used the latest technology to attempt to reconstruct how some of these fragments would have looked when intact during the Republic. For example, chunks of terracotta cladding slabs from a temple in what is now Largo Argentina (of cat shelter fame) have been set into a background image illustrating what the vividly-painted terracotta frieze would have looked like.

One group of largely ignored objects — pieces of terracotta figures discovered in the 19th century on the Via Latina leading south out of Rome — stands out for the high quality of craftsmanship and the importance to their religious function. Researchers determined that the 11 pieces were part of sculptures of the Capitoline Triad (deities Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) that adorned a temple pediment in the 1st century B.C. They then recreated the full-size sculptures by 3D-printing what was lost and integrating the original fragments into the reproduction in their proposed original locations. It’s a striking presentation that deploys technology in an innovative way to showcase fragmentary materials as close as possible to their original state.

The Rome of the Republic exhibition is open now and runs through September 24th of this year.

Gold glass “Rome” found in subway construction

The first and only known personification of Rome in ancient gold glass has been discovered during construction of Rome’s Metro C subway line. It was found at the Porta Metronia station where military barracks were unearthed in 2016. The gold glass artifact will go on display in a new subway station museum that will include an in situ exhibition of the barracks.

The iconographic theme is already well-known, but it is the first and only representation found so far on golden glass.

“Golden glass is already a very rare finding, but this has no comparison” according to preliminary findings, Simona Morretta, archaeologist of the special superintendency of Rome, explained to ANSA. “No golden glass with the personification of the city of Rome had ever been found before”.

Gold glass was a glass-making technique in which a thin layer of decorated gold leaf, often a portrait, was sandwiched between two layers of transparent glass. The leaf was glued to one glass discs first, then the design created by scratching away tiny areas of gold like an etching. A second glass disc was then superimposed on top of the etched gold surface and fused to create the roundel of a vessel or a medallion.

The process of embedding a thin film of gold inside glass originated in Hellenistic Greece (4th-3rd century B.C.), but glassmakers of the Late Roman Empire (3rd-4th century A.D.) refined it to create veritable portrait miniatures in medallions and the roundels of ritual vessels. The portraits could be strikingly realistic, and ones produced in Alexandria are sometimes eerily close cognates to the Fayuum mummy portraits in style.

Religious imagery was a popular motif for gold glass artifacts. Examples with Greco-Roman, Christian and Jewish iconography have been found, many of them deliberately broken and the decorated base affixed to the wall next to burial niches in the catacombs of Rome. About 500 pieces of Roman gold glass have been found in catacombs, almost all of them Christian. Pagan, Christian and Jewish gold glass vessels contain traditional phrases like “vivas” (“you live”) that were common Roman expressions of good luck and libation. This suggests they were produced by the same workshops and the imagery altered to appeal to people of different faiths.

There is no inscription on the recently-discovered personification of the Eternal City. She wears an Amazonian-style dress, a helmet with a plumed crest and a diadem on the forehead. She carries a spear across her chest. The details are very finely crafted, from the curls of her hair to the scrollwork on the helmet.

As with the roundels found in the catacombs, the gold Roma was cut out of a vessel, likely when it was damaged, and kept as a precious object for display. It was not mounted on a wall of the barracks, however. The military abandoned that site in the mid-3rd century and the structure left behind was cut down and buried. The tops of the walls were demolished and the site filled with debris. The gold glass was found in this fill layer which dates it to the early 4th century.

The Porta Metronia station is scheduled to open in late 2024. It’s a great location for a museum, a short, enjoyable walk from the Via Appia along a grassy park following a well-preserved section of the Aurelian Wall. I am looking forward to the prospect of walking that stretch again someday and enjoying a unique museum instead of just being cut off by construction chaos.

Hercules emperor mini-update

Preliminary cleaning and conservation of the statue of a Hercules-clad emperor found on January 23rd in the Appia Antica Archaeological Park has begun, and it’s remarkable what an effect tiny sharp scraping tools and water can achieve. 

First a bit of bad news. Something I suspected when first seeing the pictures but none of the original stories on the find stated is that the statue was broken during its discovery by the heavy machinery that was removing the old sewer pipe above it. You can see in the picture where it’s still covered in soil that there are bright white gashes on his abdomen, legs and club. The right leg is sheered off at the hip. His penis is no more. Now that the soil has been rinsed off, there is also visible scuffing in multiple places.  That damage is brand new, alas, inflicted by the digger when it made contact. 

The good news is most of the component pieces are large and can be pieced back together. The largest are the main body of the statue, the right leg and the tree stump it leans against. They also recovered Hercules’ club, his quiver, his left shin, part of an arm, the feet and base of the stump on a square base and a number of smaller fragments. I hope his genitalia are in there somewhere.

This video from the Ministry of Culture has very satisfying close-up views of the cleaning in progress. Way too short.

Man in Hercules suit found on Appia Antica

A life-sized marble statue of a Hercules figure has been discovered on the Appia Antica, the ancient road leading south out of Rome. He wears the skin of the Nemean lion, its open mouth on his head like a hat, its front paws tied at the clavicle like a scarf, its hind legs draped over his left arm. His facial features, however, do not match the iconography of Hercules. This is the portrait of a man wearing a Hercules suit.

The statue was not found in an archaeological excavation, but during construction of a new sewer line. The failure of a 19th century pipeline was causing sinkholes to appear in the Archaeological Park of Appia Antica, requiring drastic action over a wide area to repair. Archaeologists have been working with the utilities crews throughout the complex project. Weeks of earth moving had returned no archaeological materials when suddenly Hercules emerged 20 meters (65 feet) below street level.

The statue was unearthed on the second mile of the Appia Antica next to the Tomb of Priscilla (second half of the 1st century A.D.). It was found under the collapsed 19th century pipe that was being demolished by the earthmover. This was not its original location, but a secondary deposit. It was likely discovered during construction of the old sewer line and then just tossed into the soil layer underneath it. (There was zero archaeological oversight back then and people could well have chosen to simply bury the statue instead of going through the trouble of salvaging it.)

Without stratigraphic information, determining the age of the statue is difficult. Comparison to other artifacts is pretty much all archaeologists have to go on, and they’ve begun to research comparable works. They already have a hypothesis for the identity for the man behind the lionskin: the 3rd century emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, aka Trajan Decius.

During these very first analyses we found a decent resemblance between the portrait of our character in the costume of Hercules and Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, better known as Trajan Decius, who reigned from 249 to 251, when he was killed, along with his son Herennius Etruscus, in the Battle of Abrittus between Goths and Romans.

The face of “our Hercules”, although corroded, seems to share with the official portraits of Decius the “wrinkles of anxiety”, which recall Republican Roman portraiture and were aimed at representing the concern for the fate of the State, a virtue evaluated very positively in the high ranks of the empire. Other characteristic features are the treatment of the beard razor and the morphology of the eyes, nose and lips.

Decius was a senator and statesman before his soldiers acclaimed him imperator on the field, and during his brief reign, he made a priority of reviving traditional Roman virtues, religion and governance. He made himself consul every year, attempted to reinstitute the senatorial position of Censor (the magistrate who maintained the citizenship rolls) and promulgated the first official law persecuting Christians by demanding all Roman citizens sacrifice to Rome’s traditional gods for the safety and health of the emperor and empire.

During his brief reign, he made his mark on Rome with public works, building a luxurious new bath complex on the Aventine frequented by the wealthy residents of the neighborhood. Little of it remains today, but two statues were recovered from the site and are now in the collection of the Capitoline Museums. One of them is an unusual monumental basalt statue of Hercules as a boy. He wears the skin of the Nemean Lion draped over his head, paws tied around his chest. He holds his iconic club in his right hand (only the handle of it remains) and the apples of the Hesperides and in his left. Presenting himself clothed in Hercules’ attributes would certainly be in keeping with Decius’ emphasis on promoting traditional Roman virtues.

Healthy snacks, grilled meats at Colosseum tailgates

An excavation of the Colosseum’s sewer systems has revealed the ancient Roman versions of Cracker Jacks and ballpark franks and it’s melon and mutton. The study aims to learn more about how the ancient sewer and hydraulic systems operated under the Flavian Amphitheater with a particular focus on solving the mystery of how the underground was flooded during water spectacles. In January 2021, wire-guided robots were sent to video record and laser scan the drains and sewers under the arena. A year later, a stratigraphic excavation of the south collector of the sewer network began, clearing 230 feet of muck that contained archaeological treasure in the form of ancient garbage.

Sewers are often constipated with archaeological material from the very bowels of daily life in the ancient city, and the sewers under the Colosseum contain a unique variety of organic remains left by both the spectacles and the spectators. The excavation of the south collector brought in a rich harvest: the discarded remains of chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, figs, peach pits, plum pits, cherry pits, olive pits, blackberries, elderberries, melon seeds and grape seeds, evidence of the snacks consumed by the audience in the bleachers during the games. They didn’t just have snacks in the stands. It seems spectators rigged up braziers so they could grill up some meat, mostly pork and mutton, as they watched people and animals being butchered for sport.

Remains of animals who starred in the games were found as well. There were bones of bears of different sizes, possibly used in acrobatic displays, lions, leopards, ostriches and deer, likely used in the venationes (staged animal hunts). There were also dogs of different sizes. The smallest was less than a foot in height, but stocky and strong, a predecessor of the dachshund. Remains of plants that grew in the Colosseum showed a wide degree of biodiversity, ranging from blackberries to boxwoods and laurels. Some of the plants were spontaneous growth (the international animal and human feces spread led to hundreds if not thousands of different non-native plants taking root in the Colosseum); the evergreens were probably deliberately planted for landscaping.

The excavation also recovered artifacts. As you would find under the sewer grates of the sports arena today, there’s a lot of spare change down there. Archaeologists unearthed 53 bronze coins from the Late Imperial era, and a rare orichalcum sestertius struck in 170-171 A.D. to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the ascension of Marcus Aurelius to the imperial throne. Personal objects found include bone game dice, a bone pin and clothing elements (shoe nails, leather, studs).

I can’t embed this video from the Facebook page of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, but do yourself a favor and follow the link because it shows urban spelunkers from the organization Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome) exploring the sewer, squeezing through uncomfortably tight, mucky spaces and pointing out the brick stamps inscribed with the names of the makers which identify the period when that stretch of construction or repairs was done.