Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

Dutch return head of Julia Domna to Italy

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

The head of a statue of Roman Empress Julia Domna that almost wound up on the auction block in Amsterdam has been returned to Italy after the Carabinieri Art Squad determined it had been recently stolen. In May of 2015, a man and a woman attempted to sell statue head through Christie’s Amstersdam office. The appraisers and experts were immediately suspicious, as they well should have been, and Christie’s lawyer called the Art Squad.

The piece, one foot high and dating to the 2nd century A.D., wasn’t on the Art Squad’s list of stolen and looted artworks, but their experts were able to trace its origins to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, the imperial country retreat/enormous palace built by the Emperor Hadrian in second and third decades of the 2nd century. A number of Severan dynasty portrait busts were unearthed at the villa during excavations in the 1950s, evidence that it was used by the imperial family well into the 3rd century. It was last on display in 2012 at an exhibition held in the Museum of the Canopus. Someone apparently stole the head after that, possibly from storage.

The auction house cooperated with the investigation, suspending the sale so the Art Squad and the Dutch police could work together to research the head. In addition to confirming the true origin of the object, the joint investigation identified two Dutch citizens who were illegally in possession of the statue head. Armed with all the evidence, the police confiscated the portrait and returned it to representatives of the Carabinieri Art Squad. It will be kept with authorities in Rome while the legal case proceeds. When it’s all over, Julia Domna will go back to Hadrian’s Villa with all her family members.

Born in what is today Homs, Syria, to a wealthy family of senatorial rank, Julia Domna was the second wife of Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 A.D.). He chose her because she had been prophesied to marry a king, and Severus was a rising political and military star with ambitions for the imperial throne. They married in around 186 A.D. Their union was by all accounts a happy one. She was intelligent, highly educated, a patron of philosophers and politically astute. Severus relied on her counsel and very unusually for the time, took her with him on military campaigns.

Julia Domna bore him two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who hated each other bitterly. She tried to smooth things over between them and their father — Caracalla co-ruled with his father from 198 until his death — to ensure a smooth succession, never a simple thing at the best of times, and certainly not when a new dynasty was in play. When Severus died in Eboracum (modern-day York), he left the empire to both Caracalla and Geta. His last words to them, reported by Cassius Dio, “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.”

This was not advice the young men chose to follow to the letter. Caracalla had his brother killed by members of the Praetorian Guard before the year was out. He did follow his father’s dictum when it came to soldier pay, showering them with bonuses so generous that he soon had to debase the currency. It didn’t buy him security, though. In 217, he was killed by a disgruntled soldier egged on by the Praetorian Guard Prefect Macrinus, that same Macrinus who would just happened to become the next emperor.

During Caracalla’s six years of solo rule, his mother did all the grunt work of being emperor. Caracalla was on campaign most of the time, so it was Julia Domna who took on the onerous duties of administering a vast territory where every single legal dispute, no matter how picayune, was adjudicated by the emperor. The amount of paperwork the imperial administration had to deal with was staggering, hence the staff of thousands of slaves, freedmen, clerks, translators, etc. necessary to keep the wheels turning. Caracalla showed a mark disinterest in this aspect of the job, while his mother proved willing and able. After she heard of his assassination, Julia Domna committed suicide.

Her distinctive style, evident in her portraiture, and her great power and influence during the reings of her husband and son, make her busts among the most recognizable. The one, the only forensic hairdresser Janet Stephens covers Julia Domna’s styling in videos on her YouTube Channel.

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Renewed Circus Maximus reopens after 6 years

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

According to Livy’s account of early Roman history in Ab Urbe Condita, the first iteration of the Circus Maximus was built in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills by Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome, in the 6th century B.C.

Then for the first time a space was marked for what is now the “Circus Maximus.” Spots were allotted to the patricians and knights where they could each build for themselves stands – called “ford” – from which to view the Games. These stands were raised on wooden props, branching out at the top, twelve feet high. The contests were horse-racing and boxing, the horses and boxers mostly brought from Etruria. They were at first celebrated on occasions of especial solemnity; subsequently they became an annual fixture, and were called indifferently the “Roman” or the “Great Games.”

There’s no archaeological evidence for this (or for much of an anything else to do with the putative kings of Rome, for that matter). The low-lying area would have been subject to regular flooding and was probably farmland. A drainage system would have made it possible for the field to be used for horse races, but the wooden stands were temporary and rebuilt many times. Permanent wooden seating was built in 329 B.C.; the first stone seating (for senators, of course) was built in the 190s B.C.

It was Julius Caesar’s ambitious building program that developed the Circus Maximus into something more akin to our image of it. He built stands on both sides down the full length of the track, with the trackside seating reserved for senators. Equites (knights) got the next rows and the plebs got the nosebleed seats. There were shops under the galleries where sports fans could get a bite or place a bet. It was all still wood, though, and was seriously damaged by fire in 31 B.C. and the great conflagration of 64 A.D. during which Nero so notoriously strummed the lyre. The stone Circus Maximus as we know it now was built by Trajan in the first years of the 2nd century and commemorated on a bronze sestertius minted from 103 to 111 A.D. At its largest, it was 600 yards long and 140 yards wide and could seat a quarter of a million people.

When I lived in Rome in the 80s, the Circus Maximus was open, but there wasn’t much to see. You could picnic on the grassy slopes which once held stone and wood bleachers, go jogging, walk your dog. At night it was something of a shady place frequented by the demimonde, as it were. More recently it’s been a venue for concerts and other public events. It was basically a large oval field with some bits in the middle and at the ends. In 2009, the city initiated a program of excavation and restoration to create an archaeological park worthy of such a great icon of the Eternal City. While excavations will continue, the newly revived Circus Maximus is now open to visitors.

The excavation has uncovered many artifacts and structures long obscured by the overgrowth. Archaeologists have found more than 1,000 bronze coins, fragments of gold jewelry, and perhaps most excitingly, the bottom of a glass goblet with the image and name of a horse engraved in gold. Named after the legendary king of Alba Longa, descendant of Aeneas of Troy and grandfather of Romulus and Remus, Numitor the horse holds a golden palm branch in his mouth, attribute of the goddess Victory. This is the first time any kind of horse-related artifact has been found at the stadium which held chariot races for 1,000 years. The image of Numitor the lucky horse will be the new logo of the Circus Maximus.

A wealth of architectural remains have been revealed on the Palatine end of the track. Visitors will now be able to walk two stories of galleries: the lower one that senators walked to reach their trackside seats and the upper one the plebs used to reach their bleachers. From there, they can walk along the paved road unearthed during the recent excavations which features a large water trough made of travertine slabs. They can see the latrines used by the same ancient audience members, and the shop fronts, brothels, money changers and betting parlors underneath the galleries.

The Torre della Moletta, the 12th century tower built by the powerful Frangipani family as part of a fortification system that extended up the Palatine, has been restored and a new staircase added to the interior so visitors can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy a spectacular view of the Circus Maximus. In the hemicycle behind the tower, large marble fragments of the ancient structure discovered during the excavations have been tidily arranged in the grassy space: steps, cornices, column capitals, thresholds of shops, marble columns and the architectural elements of the triumphal arch of Titus discovered last year. Some of the bronze letters of the inscription dedicating the arch to Titus’ conquest of Judea — previously known only from a 9th century transcription — were found during the excavation, a wonderful surprise given how much ancient bronze was melted down in the Middle Ages.

Archaeologists plan to continue excavations. They are hopeful that something of the ancient spina, the central strip that in its heyday boasted two Egyptian obelisks, an altar to the gods and the lap counters (first egg-shaped, later dolphins) so memorably portrayed on the screen in Ben Hur, might still slumber under the earth. Maybe the remnants of the original track or drainage system are down there 30 feet underground. Any discovery at all from the archaic era would be a massive archaeological bonanza.

The Circus Maximus will be open to tourists (tickets cost three to five euros) every day from now through December 11th. After that it will be open on weekends only, weekdays by appointment.

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Villa of one of the last pagan Roman senators found

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a grand Roman villa outside of Florence. The luxury home was unearthed on private property in what is now the village of Capraia by archaeologists and students from the University of Pisa. So far the team has found a hexagonal structure with six rooms which they believe to include a dining room suite with multiple triclinia. It is of monumental scale, 100 feet in diameter with ceilings estimated to be 50 feet high. Multiple polychrome mosaic floors survive, including a scene of a wild boar hunt in the main reception area. They have also found the remains of the hypocaust system that heated the villa’s baths, namely the hollow space under the floor with pillars of tile (pilae stacks) that supported the floor of the hot room.

The villa dates to the 4th century A.D. and is an exceptional example of a late antiquity country estate. The size and complexity of the villa is so impressive that dig leader Professor Federico Cantini believes the only comparable aristocratic villas from that period are found in Constantinople, then still just a few decades into its tenure as the new capital of the Roman Empire. The mansion was enlarged in the 5th century only to be plundered and abandoned in the 6th. There is also some evidence of occupation in the late Middle Ages, probably by people who were stripping what was left of it for building materials.

An inscription on a stone slab found at the villa identifies the owner as Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a well-known and highly esteemed 4th century senator who had a distinguished political career and who was at the epicenter of the last significant attempt by the few remaining non-Christian members of the aristocratic ruling class to preserve traditional Roman religions in the face of the onslaught of legislation and Christianization practices that would destroy them. Praetextatus held high political and religious office. He was governor of Tuscany and Umbria, consular of Lusitania, proconsul of Achaia, urban praetor, praetorian prefect to Emperor Valentinian II and consul-elect (he died before he could take office). His many religious titles and priesthoods included augur, quindecimvir (guardian of the Sibylline Books), pontifex Vestae, pontifex Solis, sacratus Libero et Eleusinis and curialis Herculis.

He and his close friend and senatorial colleague Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who was a very wealthy scion of the patrician Aurelian family and who was known to have at least a dozen country villas of his own, worked together to restore the traditional Roman religions. When he was urban praetor, Praetextatus petitioned the emperor for the restoration of sacred objects looted from temples. When he got the go-ahead, he assigned the job of collecting whatever was left to Symmachus. In 384 A.D., Symmachus wrote an open letter to Valentinian II asking for the return of the Altar of Victory to the Curia, a letter which is still famous today, mainly in conjunction with the equally famous rebuttal written by Ambrose of Milan.

Later that year, Praetextatus died. The city plunged into public mourning and there was an outpouring of grief from Romans of all religions. His wife of 40 years, Aconia Fabia Paulina, had her eulogy for him, apparently a version of her funeral oration, inscribed on his funerary monument. She shared his religious convictions and held many religious honors herself, and in the oration she said he was now in the heavens where, gods willing, she would soon join him. And she did.

Saint Jerome used Praetextatus, whose death had so roiled the city, as an example of how the most exalted, respected pagan will spend eternity in sulfurous agony while the most miserable, derided, self-abnegating Christian will be raised to glory in the hereafter. From his Letter XXIII to Marcella written in 384 A.D., the year of Praetextatus’ death:

Now, therefore, in return for her short toil, Lea enjoys everlasting felicity; she is welcomed into the choirs of the angels; she is comforted in Abraham’s bosom. And, as once the beggar Lazarus saw the rich man, for all his purple, lying in torment, so does Lea see the consul, not now in his triumphal robe but clothed in mourning, and asking for a drop of water from her little finger. How great a change have we here! A few days ago the highest dignitaries of the city walked before him as he ascended the ramparts of the capitol like a general celebrating a triumph; the Roman people leapt up to welcome and applaud him, and at the news of his death the whole city was moved. Now he is desolate and naked, a prisoner in the foulest darkness, and not, as his unhappy wife falsely asserts, set in the royal abode of the Milky Way. On the other hand Lea, who was always shut up in her one closet, who seemed poor and of little worth, and whose life was accounted madness, now follows Christ and sings, “Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of our God.”

We know that Praetextatus and Paulina had two houses in Rome, one on the Esquiline whose vast gardens reached what is now Termini railway station and one on the Aventine. Now we know they had a huge country palace in Tuscany. The excavation will be open to the public this weekend, on Saturday afternoon from 3:30 to 6:30 PM, and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM. Professor Cantini and the University of Pisa team will be present to explain the site to visitors.

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Hercules Room restoration begins

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

Thanks to a generous grant from the Silvano Toti Foundation, the Hercules Room of Rome’s Palazzo Venezia is now getting a much-needed restoration. The Palazzo Venezia was built in the middle of the 15th century at the behest of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II. The stones used to build it were taken from the Colosseum, just a short jaunt to the southeast. One of the first buildings in Rome with Renaissance architectural elements, the Palazzo Venezia would outlive many later Renaissance buildings which were damaged or destroyed by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

In 1564 the Pope granted use of the palace to the Most Serene Republic of Venice for its embassy. From the end of the 18th century until World War I, it was the seat for the Austrian ambassador to the Holy See. At war with Austria-Hungary, the Italian state claimed it in 1916. Benito Mussolini claimed the Map Room in the Palazzo Venezia for his office and many a newsreel captures him speechifying from the balcony to adoring crowds below. He even built a secret bunker in the basement.

Today the palace is a national museum, home to thousands of works of art. While the building was modified repeatedly over five centuries, it still holds many original decorations from the 15th century. The Hercules Room is perhaps the most sterling example, with its frescoes depicting the Labours of Hercules and elaborately carved and painted wooden ceiling. Located on the piano nobile (the first floor where the receiving and private rooms of the noble family were), the Hercules Room was at one end of the Pietro Barbo’s apartment. Once he was elevated to the Throne of Saint Peter and got new digs in the Vatican, the room was used to store pontifical vestments. The highest part of the walls are decorated with eight panels displaying scenes from the Labours — Hercules and the Nemean lion, Hercules and Antaeus, Hercules with one of Geryon’s head of cattle, Hercules and Geryon, Hercules slaying the dragon Ladon, guardian of the Apples of the Hesperides, Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind, Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds, and lastly, Hercules and the centaur Nessus. Frescoed between the Labour panels are little putti, garlands, architectural motifs and the coat of arms of Pope Paul II.

Some past scholars have attributed to the great master of perspective and antique motifs Andrea Mantegna who famously frescoed the exquisite Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. Others attributed them to an unnamed artist at the pontifical court. The artist remains unknown today, although scholars believe he was probably from northern Italy. The restoration and study of the frescoes will give experts the opportunity to revisit the authorship question.

The restoration is expected to take four months, from July to October. They will be a busy four months. On the agenda are the cleaning of the frescoes, the strengthening of the plaster layer and paint layers, revising past restorations and disinfecting and disinfesting the wood ceiling. Restorers will also investigate the techniques used in the original painting of the frescoes.

Restorers Isabella Righetti and Rita Ciardi told ANSA that renovation work is urgently needed because of repeated and heavy-handed work carried out in the past. [...]

The restorers also said dried pigments used in previous restoration works hid the artworks’ original colors.

“By cleaning them, we hope to rediscover the polish of the paintings, which were supposed to look like large windows that were open towards the outside”.

Free guided tours of the room will be offered to the public starting in September so visitors will have the chance to view the restorers at work.


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Rome subway build finds Praetorian guard barracks

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Construction of Rome’s third subway line, Metro Line C, has made a sensational discovery: the remains of a 2nd century Praetorian Guard barracks. Thirty feet under Via Ipponio between the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of St. John in Lateran in the historic center of Rome, the barracks cover an astonishing 1,753 square meters (18,870 square feet) of surface area (ed note: the AP story says it’s 900 sq meters, but all of the Italian press reports the larger figure so I’m going with their data), and that’s just what’s been exposed thus far. They were built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), only to be demolished just over a century later during construction of the Aurelian Walls (271-275 A.D.). The demolition was thankfully half-assed, leaving impressive ruins — the walls are up to five feet high — which were then buried.

There are 39 rooms, each four by four meters (13 x 13 feet), that open onto a central hallway. Some of the rooms, likely the officers’ quarters, are richly decorated with mosaic floors and frescoed walls. The bricks in the walls bear the stamp of the imperial kilns from 123 and 136 A.D., which is how the structure was dated. There’s also a mass grave on the site. So far 13 skeletons have been excavated from it and a few artifacts including a bronze coin and a bronze bracelet.

A number of military remains have been discovered in the neighborhood. Under St. John in Lateran is the Castra Nova Equitum Singularium (built under Septimius Severus, ca. 200 A.D.), a couple of blocks northeast under Via Tasso is the Castra Priora Equitum Singularium (Trajan, ca. 100 A.D.), and west of that near the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo is the Castra Peregrina (Augustus, 1st century A.D.).

Work on Metro Line C began in 2007 and has been beset by funding problems, corruption scandals and wonderful but expensive and time-consuming archaeological discoveries. While the subway tunnels themselves have been dug 80 feet below the surface to avoid hitting constant ancient roadblocks, the new stations can’t avoid bumping into thousand of years of history. The barracks site was discovered during construction of the Amba Aradam station and the city authorities tried to keep the news under wraps to avoid having to announce work on the line was suspended yet again.

The newspaper Il Tempo broke the news of the find last Wednesday, publishing a story complete with quotations from a letter about the find written by Francesco Prosperetti, Special Superintendent for the Archaeological Area of Rome. In the letter Prosperetti describes the discovery as exceptional and in such a good state of conservation that it would not be possible to pursue the idea of dismantling it, finishing construction and then rebuilding the structure in its original context. The barracks complex is so large it occupies the entire southern half of the station and extends beyond it. The northern half of the station is also replete with archaeological remains that haven’t been explored so it’s not known at the moment what they are or the impact they’ll have. As for how so large and complete an ancient structure could have been missed by preventative archaeology done on the site before construction began, Prosperetti notes that archaeologists took core samples which pointed to ancient boundaries under a massive modern structure, but they were buried so deep underground it wasn’t possible to explore them in the preliminary stages.

The subway company now has to figure out how to proceed, and however they go about this, it’s likely going to cost time and money. Metro Line C is already the most expensive subway construction project in history. In a press conference Monday, Prosperetti gave assurances that both the great archaeological importance of the find and the Metro budget and deadlines would be respected. The plan is to integrate the ruins into the station, creating the first fully fledged “archaeological station” in Rome, all without extra expense or delays. If that sounds less than entirely believable to you, that’s because it is.

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Massive illegal dumpsite found in Roman catacomb

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Roman police have discovered tons of refuse, everything from household trash to industrial waste, illegally dumped in the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. catacombs of Tor Fiscale, an archaeological park in east Rome. Situated on the Via Latina near the junction with the ancient Appian Way, the Tor Fiscale park is part of the vast Appian Way Regional Park. The small park is dense with archaeological riches. It is at the crossroads of six Roman and one Renaissance aqueduct whose arched galleries dominate the landscape alongside the 13th century tower that gives the park its name. It is replete with remains of ancient luxury villas, homes, tombs and underground caves dug out of soft volcanic tufa. Initially carved to quarry the stone, the caves were used by early Christians for gatherings and burials during the imperial era when the religion was viewed with suspicion and its adherents sometimes persecuted.

Authorities came to suspect something was rotten underground during an investigation of illegal car scrapyards and waste disposal rackets in the area. On January 26th, about 20 people — police officers, personnel from Italy’s Regional Environmental Protection Agency (ARPA), municipal workers and members of the archaeological speleology organization Sotterranei di Roma (Undergrounds of Rome) — worked together to explore miles of the underground tunnels. They found a shocking amount of waste, including old refrigerators, mattresses, electronics, tires, batteries, hundreds of bags of organic materials full of various molds that may have been used in the cultivation of mushrooms.

In one of the deepest tunnels, they found a veritable lake of greasy black goo that is likely used motor oil. On the surface alone this lake of hydrocarbon pollution covers about 200 square meters (2,150 square feet), and preliminary analysis found the lake is more than a foot deep, so the total volume of toxic filth in this one spot alone is something in the neighborhood of 800 cubic meters (28,250 cubic feet). At some points the vaults of the tunnel appear to be impregnated with the goop, suggesting it was dumped from above rather than transported deep into the caves. The team took samples of the fluid to identify it and they will examine the surface to locate the entry point. There will also be extensive testing to assess whether the oil has seeped into the water table.

After making the shocking discovery, police used drones to fully explore the network of bat-and-mice-infested tunnels to try to establish the extent of the dumping.

It is thought that local businesses and residents have been using the site to cheaply dispose of their unwanted goods for years. Police even discovered that unscrupulous dumpers had drilled shafts down into the caves from above, which they used as rubbish chutes to quickly dispose of their unwanted goods.

Authorities have closed the entrances to the caves on Via Demetriade and Via di Torre Branca, but of course that won’t stop people from using their homemade garbage chutes. The municipal police are investigating the case in the hopes of finding who is responsible, at least most recently, for this ruthless assault on Rome’s cultural history and environmental health.

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Raiders of Alaric’s lost tomb

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Anybody who thought that appeal of the witch trial was a waste of state resources better get their Valium dispensers locked and loaded. At a press conference on Wednesday, October 21st, a committee of politicians and scientists announced they’ll be searching for the legendary treasure-filled tomb of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, under a river flowing through Cosenza, a city in the region of Calabria near the toe of Italy’s boot.

“It’s a real-life Indiana Jones hunt,” said Francesco Sisci, the project coordinator.

“You have a legend of long-lost treasure, even the Nazis – Heinrich Himmler came here in 1937 to try to find the hoard for Hitler. He stayed in a Swabian castle. This is the stuff of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg.

“If there really is 25 tons of gold, it would be worth around one billion euros at today’s prices,” he said.

When the project coordinator invokes Indiana Jones, you know it’s legit. This scheme is the brain child of a committee formed last year by the municipality of Cosenza to develop new cultural and touristic events around the legend of Alaric. The tomb doesn’t actually have to be found, therefore, in order for the search to fulfill its ultimate goal of promoting Consenza’s greatest claim to fame. Which is a good thing, because the odds of finding said tomb are so miniscule they make the Richard III parking lot excavation look like a sure shot.

Alaric, once a leader of a band of Gothic foederati (irregular troops who fought with the Roman army) under Emperor Theodosius I, has gone down in history as the first invader to sack Rome in 800 years, since the Gaul Brennus in 387 B.C. Rome wasn’t actually the capital anymore when Alaric took it in 410 A.D., however. It hadn’t been since 286 when Diocletian made Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) the capital of the Western Empire.

Alaric besieged Mediolanum during his first invasion of Italy in 401, spurring the young and feckless Western Roman emperor Honorius to move the capital to Ravenna in 402 because it was surrounded by marshes, well-fortified and had direct access to the Adriatic, ideal should a hasty escape become necessary. His personal safety was his only interest. The new capital was horribly situated to protect Italy from barbarian invaders. It was only through the efforts of Flavius Stilicho, Honorius’ top general and former regent during the emperor’s minority, that Alaric’s army was kept at bay on multiple occasions from 401 until 408 when Honorius had Stilicho arrested and executed, ostensibly for conspiring to overthrow him.

In the first decade of the 5th century, Alaric besieged Rome three times, but he wasn’t just in it for the pillage and loot. He wanted the emperor to appoint him commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army and grant him huge tracts of land in Pannonia. Putting pressure on Rome, which while no longer the capital was still seat of the Senate and the symbolic center of the empire, was a means to those ends. The first siege after Stilicho’s death in late 408, ended with a massive payoff. According to Zosimus’ New History, the Senate gave Alaric 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk robes, 3,000 fleeces dyed scarlet in exchange for him lifting the siege.

One year later Alaric’s forces besieged Rome again after the failure of negotiations with Honorius. This time only the proclamation of a new emperor would do to get Alaric to lift the siege, and so Priscus Attalus was installed as puppet. While Attalus and Alaric had some military successes in Italy, enough to scare Honorius into preparing a flight to Constantinople, they soon hit the wall and Alaric dumped his puppet less than a year after installing him. He tried negotiating with Honorius again, but gave up for good after a sneak attack from Honorius’ Goth ally Sarus when Alaric was waiting to meet the emperor at the appointed time.

On August 24th, 410 A.D., the Visigoths reached the Salarian Gate of Rome. This time there was no siege. Alaric’s army spent three days sacking Rome, but it was quite respectful, as sacks go. They didn’t set it on fire — only a few public buildings were burned down for strategic reasons — and they spared the churches of Saint Peter and Paul. They didn’t indiscriminately kill people either, although they enslaved thousands.

Laden with the treasures of 800 years of Roman history, the Visigoths turned south where Alaric hoped to cross over into Sicily and from there to Africa, the granary of the empire. His fleet destroyed by storms, he never did make it to Sicily. A few months after the sack, Alaric suddenly became ill and died in Consentia. Jordanes describes the aftermath in his 6th century history of the Gothic people Getica:

His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus near the city of Consentia — for this stream flows with its wholesome waters from the foot of a mountain near that city — they led a band of captives into the midst of its bed to dig out a place for his grave. In the depths of this pit they buried Alaric, together with many treasures, and then turned the waters back into their channel. And that none might ever know the place, they put to death all the diggers.

So. That is what the Cosenza search is up against: a tomb rumored to have been dug underneath a river in a location known only to slaves killed before they could share that knowledge. Past attempts to find the fabled treasure have all involved digging along the riverbank, a blind, clumsy approach that this new effort will eschew in favor of the latest technology.

By matching contemporary accounts by Roman historians with the local geography, the researchers have found five places where they think the treasure may lie. They include a 1.5 mile stretch of river that runs through Cosenza but also caves near the nearby village of Mendicino. [...]

The latest technology will be used to search for rectangle-shaped “anomalies” underground in the hunt for the fabled tomb of Alaric, said Amerigo Giuseppe Rota, the geologist leading the project.

“We think Alaric was buried at least five to six metres underground. But in the last 1,500 years the river bed has risen by about 1.5 metres, so his tomb could be up to eight metres below ground now,” he said.

Sure, why not? It could be. It could also not exist at all. The whole diverted river story could be a legend written 140 years after the events it purports to describe. The idea that there are 25 tons of gold under the Busento River is fanciful at best. The Visigoths would not have buried all of their Roman loot with Alaric. Even if the sources are correct that he was buried with his horse and treasure according to pagan custom (Alaric was an Arian Christian, but he held to some of his people’s traditional religious practices as well), they would have been grave goods, not tons and tons of gold.

Anyway the caper isn’t expected to cost much. The early geophysical surveys were funded by private donors and while there’s talk of the government in Rome chipping in, public funding isn’t likely to materialize anytime soon.

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Imperial ramp of Domitian opens to public

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

For the first time since it was discovered in 1900, a monumental ramp built by Emperor Domitian in Rome opened to the public on Tuesday, October 20th. Domitian built the ramp in the second half of the 1st century A.D. to connect the Roman Forum, the administrative and political heart of the city, to the imperial palace complex of the Palatine, the city’s center of power. With high walls flanked by storerooms, the imperial ramp went up seven levels with six turns between them and was as much as 35 meters (115 feet) high. Of the seven original ramps levels, four remain, but they are more than sufficient to convey the majesty of the space and the symbolic significance of the steep ascension from popular politics to imperial might. Visitors who walk the ramp will emerge atop the Palatine to a breathtaking view of the Roman Forum that before now regular folks haven’t had the chance to experience.

Also restored is a great hall which in the early Middle Ages was converted into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Built no later than the 8th century, the Oratorio is adjacent to the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua, famed for its rare frescoes, and signficant portions of the Oratorio’s original Byzantine frescoes have survived as well. They date to the 8th and 9th centuries and depict a procession of saints and possibly St. Anthony of Egypt. The floor is made of repurposed marble fragments in a random jigsaw arrangement. The Oratorio has been accessible to the public in a limited way before, but just on its own. The new restoration has reintegrated it into the ramp, making it the entrance to Domitian’s complex.

The ramp was discovered by architect, engineer and archaeologist Giacomo Boni. Boni was appointed director of excavations of the Roman Forum in 1898 and he dug until works were interrupted by World War I in 1916. The years between 1899 and 1905 were particularly intensive. Boni made major discoveries during this time, among them the Lapis Niger and Vulcanal, the Regia, the Aedes Vestae (shrine of Vesta), an archaic necropolis next to the temple of Antoninus and Faustina and the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

When he unearthed the imperial ramp of Domitian, he set about restoring it almost as soon as he found it, rebuilding the fallen brickwork of the vast vaulted ceilings of the first two levels and clearing the path all the way through to its connecting point with the Clivus Victoriae, a sloping road that went uphill from the Velabro, a former swamp between the Tiber and the Forum, to the top of the Palatine. The section of the ramp linking to the Clivus is still undergoing work, but is scheduled to open to visitors in March.

A temporary exhibition (it ends January 10th, 2016) inside the ramp puts on display a selection of the most important ancient artifacts discovered during the excavation of the Forum. Also on display will be surviving 17th century wall frescos Boni stripped from the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice before demolishing it to expose the more ancient and glamorous Santa Maria Antiqua which had been part of Domitian’s imperial palace complex before being converted to a Christian church in the 6th century. The hall that would be transformed into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, in fact, was just underneath Santa Maria Liberatrice.

This short clip from the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome has a few images of the 1900 excavation and the ramp as it is today.

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6th c. B.C. home rewrites map of archaic Rome

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

The remains of a home from the early 6th century B.C. discovered under a palazzo on the Quirinal Hill indicate the archaic city of Rome was much larger than previously thought. Built during the putative reign of legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius (578–535 B.C.), it is one of the most ancient homes ever found in Rome and is uniquely well preserved.

The domus was built on a rectangular floor plan 3.5 by 10 meters (11.5 by 33 feet) with was divided into two rooms. The entry point was probably an attached porch. The foundation of the home was tufa, a soft volcanic stone Romans used to build everything from temples to the Cloaca Maxima. The walls were wood covered in clay plaster and about 10 feet tall; the roof was tile.

Palazzo Canevari, built in 1885 to house the Royal Geological Office and its vast natural history collection, is on the Largo di Santa Susanna, close to a mile northeast of the Roman Forum. Just before the Palazzo Canevari was purchased by a real estate firm in 2004, preventative archaeological surveys began. Initial excavations revealed a large block of tufa that was initially thought to be part of the Servian Wall, a section of which is still visible above ground in the Large of Santa Susanna.

A 2013 excavation unearthed more of the structure and determined it was part of the walls of a large 5th century B.C. temple complex. Judging from the extant sections of the walls, the temple was at least 25 meters (82 feet) wide and 40 meters (131 feet) long, which would have made it one of the largest temples in Rome. No evidence was found of which god the temple was dedicated to, but ancient sources record two temples on the Quirinale Hill: a temple of Quirinus and the Capitolium Vetus sanctuary dedicated to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva.

Underneath the temple remains was found the skeleton of a newborn infant dating to the 7th century B.C. The temple and the burial fit with what archaeologists believed the Quirinale area was used for in the archaic period: a sacred precinct with temples and a necropolis. The discovery of the domus upends that belief.

“This building is basically absent in archaic Rome, and there are only traces in the Forum area. The home was probably used for about 50-60 years prior to when the temple was built that was discovered in 2013,” Mirella Serlorenzi said during a press visit, who directed the excavations on behalf of the superintendent’s office.

“The position of the house near the temple hints at it being a sacred area, and that whoever lived there was watching over what happened therein. But it is even more important that we can now retro-date the urbanization of the Quirinal zone. The Servian Walls encircled an area that was already inhabited and not a necropolis.” “This means that Rome at the beginning of the sixth century was much larger than what we expected and not closed in around the Forum,” she added, stressing that “the excavations will continue for months more. But everything depends on what we find.”

Today the building is owned by the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti bank who are planning on using it for office space. It’s not certain what they’d do about the archaeological treasure in the basement, but it will not be infilled. Other palazzi in Rome have full-on archaeological museums underneath them, like the Palazzo Valentini, for example.

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Pieces of triumphal Arch of Titus found in Circus Maximus

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

Arch of Titus relief of Roman soldiers carrying spoils from the Temple in JerusalemThe Arch of Titus which still stands today at the end of the Via Sacra next to the Roman Forum, famous for its period depiction of spoils from the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., is an honorific arch commemorating the emperor’s greatest deeds and apotheosis, not a triumphal arch. Built by his brother Domitian in 82 A.D., the year after Titus’ death and deification, it’s often called a triumphal arch because of the high relief depictions of Roman soldiers carrying the treasures of the Second Temple — the seven-branched Menorah, the silver trumpets, the Table of the Shew Bread — in Titus’ triumphal procession of 71 A.D.

Apotheosis of Titus relief on the vault of the Arch of TitusThat’s just one motif, however. The central panel in the single arch’s soffit relief depicts Titus being carried to the heavens by an eagle. The inscription also emphasizes the recently deceased emperor’s divinity: “SENATUS/ POPULUSQUE ROMANUS/ DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F(ilio)/ VESPASIANO AUGUSTO” (The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the divine Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian).

Titus’ real triumphal arch was erected in 81 A.D., the year he died, at the curved east end of the Circus Maximus. The triple arch was explicitly dedicated to Titus’ conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. It’s not very well known today because in the Middle Ages it fell victim to the Roman thirst for building materials, leaving only old epigraphic records, coins and drawings testifying to its existence. It was still standing with a relatively intact capital Codex Einsiedelnsis, page 71v with inscription from the triumphal Arch of Titus at the eastern curve of the Circus Maximus, author unknown, ca. 800 A.D.when one of the anonymous authors of the Codex Einsidlensis (Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326) recorded the inscription in Inscriptiones Urbis Romae, an invaluable record of pagan and Christian epigraphy on monuments in the city of Rome that was written in the late 8th, early 9th century.

A marked contrast with the inscription on the extant arch, the wording on the Circus Maximus arch’s inscription leaves no doubt that it was a genuine triumphal arch:

Senatus populusque Romanus imp(eratori) Tito Ceasari divi Vespasiani f(ilio) Vespasiani Augusto pontif(ici) max(imo), trib(unicia) pot(estate) x, imp(eratori) XVII, [c]o(n)s(uli) VIII, p(atri) p(atriae), principi suo, quod praeceptis patri(is) consiliisq(ue) et auspiciis gentem Iudaeorum domuit et urbem Hierusolymam, omnibus ante se ducibus regibus gentibus aut frustra petitam aut omnino intem(p)tatam, delevit.

The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the Emperor Titus [snip many titles], because by his father’s counsel and good auspices, he conquered the people of Judaea and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which all of the generals, kings, and peoples before him had either failed to do or even to attempt.

In the 12th century the central arch was used as part of the Mariana aqueduct that Pope Calixtus II built to convey fresh water to the city in 1122. A few years later the powerful Frangipani family had control of the Circus Maximus. They built a mill powered by the Mariana and a tower, the Torre della Moletta, was integrated into the Frangipani’s defensive fortifications extending up the Palatine. Modest homes and squatters’ huts grew up all over what had once been a triumphal arch. The grounds of the Circus Maximus were converted to agricultural use, irrigated by the Mariana.

Engraving of Circus Maximus in antiquity, Arch of Titus right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600.
Engraving of Circus Maximus ca. 1560 when it was irrigated farmland, mill, tower, dwellings and decaying fortifactions right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600

After the Unification of Italy in 1870, construction of the huge retaining walls along the banks of the Tiber and the Lungotevere boulevards cut off the Mariana or drove it underground into culverts. Most of the medieval construction around the Arch of Titus was demolished in the 1930s and 1940s, leaving only the tower, where Saint Francis of Assisi reputedly stayed on his last trip to Rome in 1223 as guest of the Graziano Frangipani’s widow and Franciscan lay sister Jacopa, still standing. Excavations at the time revealed medieval canals and walls made of ancient marbles pilfered from the arch.

Remains of Arch of Titus at Circus MaximusNow archaeologists excavating the eastern hemicycle of the Circus Maximus have found large blocks of Carrara marble (marmor lunensis) that were part of the ​​attic, entablature and columns of the Arch.

Archaeologists found more than 300 marble fragments of the monument, some of them the size of a small car.

They discovered the bases of the four giant columns that formed the front of the arch, as well as the plinths on which they rested and traces of the original travertine pavement.

From the remains experts were able to calculate the arch’s original dimensions. It was 17 meters (56 feet) wide, 15 meters (49 feet) deep with columns 10 meters (33 feet) high. The full height including the attic has yet to be determined. In antiquity there was the monumental bronze sculpture of a quadriga on top of the arch which would have added significant vertical heft.

Excavation is difficult because the remains were found about 10 feet below ground level, which is on the wrong side of the water table. Further digging is going to require blocking off the water in the area, a particular challenge considering a river literally ran through the arch and its ruins for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists want to reconstruct as much of the arch as possible using the technique of anastylosis which attempts to put the ancient pieces back together as accurately as possible with only the modern materials necessary for structural stability. In order to do that, they’ll have to find a solution to the water seepage problem and a million euros, two daunting prospects. Since that’s sure to take time, the foundations will be reburied shortly for their own protection. Meanwhile, archaeologists are working on a virtual model of the triumphal Arch of Titus.

Here’s a puny slideshow of the site. The only really good views of the waterlogged excavation I could find are in this unembeddable ( :angry: ) Italian TV news story.

 

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