Thursday, September 10, 2015

Was Nero's Domus Aurea as big as the ancient sources claim?

A history resource article by  © 2015

I really enjoyed reading the article about the restoration of Nero's Golden House, the Domus Aurea, in the September/October issue of Archaeology Magazine.  I especially appreciated the pictures as both times I have attempted to tour the Domus Aurea I have been thwarted.  In 2005, there was a sign at the entrance saying the site would open in the afternoon but when I went back to the entrance at the designated time, no one was around.  The second time I returned to Rome in 2009 I was told the Domus Aurea was deemed unsafe to visit and closed for repairs.

High vaulted ceilings of the Domus Aurea must have given a feeling of insignificance
to visitors.  Photographed by Mauro Orlando © 2015.  Reproduced with permission
via cc by-nc-nd 2.0.

According to the article, the structure suffered extensive damage from vineyards that were planted atop Nero's buried  palace in the 18th century.  A large public park was also built over the site in 1871 and enlarged by Benito Mussolini in the mid 20th century.  All of the plants and trees' roots have broken the ancient mortar between the stones of Trajan's baths sitting atop the palace and chemical compounds released by the roots have seeped down into underlying structures as well.

Just the sheer weight of all the plants is placing a strain on the palace's structures even though the innovative flat arches and brick-faced concrete support structures are among some of the strongest of the ancient world.  The article mentioned a laurel tree that weighed over 30,000 pounds when it was removed and I remember standing by one about that size when I was there.

I was under the impression that most of the beautiful frescoes that inspired the artists of the Renaissance had crumbled from the walls but I see by the pictures in the article some are actually still intact!

Delicate floral patterns and mythological beings on a white background seen in frescoes of the Domus Aurea inspired decor throughout the Roman Empire including the Temple of Isis in Pompeii.  Photographed by Francois Spilliaert © 2011.
Reproduced with permission via cc by-NC 2.0.

I think there are a lot of misimpressions about the Domus Aurea that architectural researchers hope to clear up once they have an opportunity to explore the remains more thoroughly.  The construction of the Domus Aurea is one of the key events leading to the downfall of the Roman emperor Nero.  The size of the structure alone was used to accuse Nero of causing the great fire of 64 CE so he could build a spacious new palace and "live like a human being".  But was the structural portion of his original Domus Aurea really that big?

In his 1981 journal article "The Domus Aurea Reconsidered", P. Gregory Warden points out that the Domus Aurea was essentially a landscape park in which the architectural components were subordinated to a greater landscape design.  Although earlier scholarship tried to estimate an overall size of 80 hectares of land, Warden suggests the complex covered a much smaller area about half that size.  He also points out that architectural remains in the Esquiline wing, essentially the only extant portion of the palace, indicate it is not even entirely Neronian.  He claims the eastern section is Flavian in date.

Furthermore, much of the Domus Aurea was actually rebuilt over Nero's original palace, the Domus Transitoria as shown in the Archaeology article.  I originally read this in a book and was surprised since it appears to contradict claims that he cleared the center of Rome for his own use, contrary to ancient propaganda.  The expansive gardens, animal menagerie and artificial lake adjacent to the palace did consume quite a bit of property but they were open to the public sort of like Central Park in New York.

In his 1960 text, "The Golden House of Nero", scholar Axel Boethius distinguished between peristyle and portico villas and described the Domus Aurea as the portico type.  Warden summarizes Boethius' views:

"Lavish portico villas of the 1st century A.D., with spectacular views of the mountains or seacoast, are commonly shown in Campanian paintings.  They had also been built by emperors before Nero, although, of course, never in Rome.  Nero, however, did much more than import a landscape villa into the heart of Rome; the audacity of his design, or at least the design of his planners, Severus and Celer, was that he imported the landscape as well.  He took advantage of the devastations of the great fire of 64, combined new land with Imperial possessions, probably usurping some private holdings and public monuments as well, turned them all into a large park.  The entire complex, as Boethius noted, was much more than a villa, or architecturally perhaps much less; it was a landscape park in which the villa was but a component.  Buildings, perhaps more correctly termed "pavilions," would have been scattered about, and the individual sections would have been linked conceptually rather than physically." - P. Gergory Warden, The Domus Aurea Reconsidered

With this type of arrangement, determining the size of the actual Domus Aurea has proved challenging.  Warden says there has been too much reliance on a topographical study by C.C. Van Essen published in 1954.  Since that time, whenever a new structure was found within the area described by Van Essen as the Domus Aurea, structures have been accepted as such based on topography alone.

"However, if we examine these fragments of what is purported to be the Domus Aurea, we find a confusing diversity of construction techniques and architectural styles." Warden says.

One such example is the nymphaeum found at the intersection of the Vile del Monte Oppio and the Via delle Terme di Traiano.  Although designated as part of the Domus Aurea, the nymphaeum is not aligned with the Domus Aurea and none of the brickwork appears to be Neronian.

"The nymphaeum is roofed with an elaborate system of groin vaults," Warden explains, "In the entire Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea there are only two groin vaults, considered the earliest existing examples of their kind, and they are found in the eastern part of the building, a section whose date, as we shall see, is problematical'.

I realize most of us are not architects, so, what is a groin vault?  In his excellent lecture, "Construction Revolution - Arches and Concrete", part of the Great Courses series Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon, Professor Stephen Ressler of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, explains that a groin vault is the shape formed when two barrel vaults intersect.  He then demonstrates how the Romans used concrete poured over a wooden frame to create a groin vault.  (Professor Ressler uses models throughout his course to demonstrate construction processes and I find them quite helpful to understand various Roman engineering techniques.)

Groin vaults were used extensively in the construction of Trajan's Market particularly the aulus portion but were not characteristic of Neronian architecture or the western portion of the Domus Aurea.  Warden also notes that all three of the brickstamps found at the nymphaeum are Trajanic in date.

Warden contends that nothing north of the Esquiline wing can be safely attributed to the Golden House.  Apparently buildings to the east of the site of the artificial lake have been found to be from a later date as well.

Lavishly decorated vaulted ceiling in the Domus Aurea circa 1999.  Photographed by Jacqueline Poggi © 1999.
Reproduced with permission via cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Warden admits there are many Neronian-era structures on the Palatine but thinks they should probably be attributed to the Domus Transitoria although a cryptoporticus linking them may have been built in conjunction with the Domus Aurea.

In 2009, Roman archaeologists excavating the Domus Aurea found remains of what they think may have been Nero's famous rotating dining room on the Palatine Hill.

"The rotating dining room had a diameter of more than 50ft and rested upon a 13ft-wide pillar and four spherical mechanisms that rotated the structure.  
The mechanism was a feat of Roman engineering, and moved thanks to the spheres beneath the wooden floor of the room, kept in constant movement by water being forced against them. Quite how this worked is still being researched. 
Experts believe the dining room could be up to 60m long, but have so far uncovered several supporting pillars, one 4m in diameter, as well as a perimeter wall. 
Archaeologist Maria Antonietta Tomei told how it was the circular shape of the building and the stone spheres that led the team to believe they had found the rotating dining room."  - Nick Pisa and Claire Bates, Roman Emperor Nero's legendary rotating dining room uncovered by archaeologists, The Daily Mail, September 30, 2009.

But, If you read Suetonius' biography of Nero, his distinction between structures within the Domus Transitoria and the subsequent Domus Aurea is a bit hazy.

"There was nothing more ruinously wasteful however than his project to build a palace extending from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which he first called ‘The Passageway’, but after it had burned down shortly after completion and been re-built, ‘The Golden House’. The following details will give a good idea of its size and splendour...Inside there was gold everywhere, with gems and mother-of-pearl. There were dining rooms whose ceilings were of fretted ivory, with rotating panels that could rain down flowers, and concealed sprinklers to shower the guests with perfume. The main banqueting hall was circular with a revolving dome, rotating day and night to mirror the heavens." - Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Nero, Book Six: XXXI 

Furthermore, Warden says literary sources point to Neronian builders focusing their efforts on areas other than the Palatine.

"There are also undoubtedly remains of Neronian structures to the south, on the edges of the Caelian in the area of the Temple of the Deified Claudius," Warden writes, "These Neronian works ...are considered to have been more like facades and porticoes with elaborate hydraulic works than buildings proper."

So, according to Warden, an analysis of the topology would indicate the Domus Aurea was centered on the artificial lake and hugged the slopes of the surrounding hills where structures there were hardly more than theatrical facades for elaborate landscape effects.

View of the Colosseum, once Nero's artificial lake, from the Domus Aurea.  Photographed by Jean-Pierre Dalbera © 2011
Reproduced with permission via cc by 2.0.

Then Warden tackles issues with differences in construction and the chronology of extant remains.

He points out that the most obvious differences in the remains on the Esquiline are the fact that the western section of the complex is primarily rectilinear with a porticoed southern facade and relatively traditional while the eastern half of the complex is structurally complex with its octagonal room with flat arches and a domed concrete ceiling with oculus, groin-vaulted subsidiary rooms and an apsed nymphaeum.

Innovative flat arches and concrete domed ceiling with oculus of the spacious
octagonal reception room of the Domus Aurea.  Photographed by Jacqueline Poggi © 1999.Reproduced with permission via cc by-nc-nd 2.0

The two sections are also fused awkwardly and there is a distinctive difference in mortar color from one section to the next.

"Some of the brickwork of the Esquiline wing is very similar to brickwork in the Colosseum," Warden observes. " least some of the brickwork of the Esquiline wing is probably Flavian in date.  The crucial question is whether the later brickwork represents minor alterations or an entire building phase."

The degree of decoration may also point to later construction in the eastern section.

"...the concrete dome of the octagonal room still shows signs of the planks of the wooden armature onto which it was cast.  Further, there is no evidence that the concrete of the dome was ever stuccoed or revetted.  While this eastern section may never have been finished, the western section was not only completed but also fully decorated, and it was also extensively restored in later, probably Flavian times."

Although Nero dedicated the Domus Aurea before his death, it, like many buildings in antiquity that were dedicated before completion, may not, in fact, have been completed.  Suetonius, in his biography of Otho, mentions that Otho put aside 50 million sesterces for the completion of the Domus Aurea.  This would indicate that it was not finished at the time of Nero's death.

Detail of a fresco in the Domus Aurea.  Photographed by Francois Spilliaert © 2011.
Reproduced with permission via cc by-NC 2.0

Cassius Dio recounted that Galeria, the wife of Vitellius, found the place too gloomy for her taste and that Vespasian preferred the Horti Sallustiani instead.    Pliny the Elder notes that the famous sculpture of the Laocoon, reported found in either the Termae Traiani or the Domus Aurea, resided in the palace of Titus.  Since this structure has never been identified, some scholars think the eastern part of the Domus Aurea may have been identified as the Domus Titi.

The Trojan Priest Laocoon and his sons attacked by sea snakes because Laocoon had tried to warn
the Trojan citizens of the danger of bringing in the wooden horse.  This sculptural group was found
"in the palace of Titus" in the general area of the Domus Aurea in 1506.  Photographed by
Mary Harrsch at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City © 2005

Warden points to one more literary source indicating a portion of the Domus Aurea was, in fact, Flavian.

"The complex spatial planning of the eastern half would accord well with our view of Flavian architecture, and in support of a Flavian date there is one more piece of evidence. Eusebius, writing at the beginning of the 4th century A.D., mentions in a long list of Flavian monuments a certain Mica Aurea, the remains of which have not been identified. It has been suggested by A.M. Colini, on the basis of the name, that the Mica Aurea could have been a pavilion or a section of the Domus Aurea which was restored under Domitian."

As an architectural historian, Warden raises the question that if the eastern section of the Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea is not the work of Nero's famous architects, Severus and Celer, but is instead the work of Domitian's architect, Rabirius, historians should perhaps not view the original Domus Aurea as the revolutionary structure marking the turning point of Roman architectural engineering when concrete replaced opus quadratum as the material of choice "to express newer and freer definitions of interior space".

As a student of Roman politics, I think this entire discussion makes me wonder if most of the hype around Nero's lavish lifestyle was just one more example of imperial Roman propaganda used to villify yet another deposed emperor!


Warden, P. (1981). The Domus Aurea Reconsidered. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 40(4), 271-278. Retrieved September 7, 2015, from

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: Master and God by Lindsey Davis

A history resource article by  © 2015

The very first book written by Lindsey Davis I ever read  was The Course of Honour about the relationship between the Roman emperor Vespasian and his mistress, the freedwoman Antonia Caenis, set against the backdrop of Vespasian's rise to power in the years leading up to the Year of the Four Emperors.  It has remained one of my favorites.  I recently finished "Master and God" and found it too a very compelling tale of the relationship between a wounded and psychologically damaged Praetorian Guard  and a freedwoman serving as a hairdresser in the imperial palace of Vespasian's son, Domitian.  The characters were placed so the reader could gain insight into the life of this controversial Roman emperor across the fifteen years of his reign and observe his effect on members of his court, his legions and other members of the aristocracy.

We first meet the male hero of the novel when he is serving as an officer of the vigiles, Rome's combination force of firemen and night watchmen.  We learn that Gaius Vinnius Claudianus was raised by a gaggle of loving aunts and two older brothers after the death of his mother.  He grew up strong and handsome and joined the military, like his late father, who served as a Praetorian Guard at the end of his military career.  We learn that Vinnius (he goes by this name until he joins the guard) has received the Civic Crown for valor defending a tribune in a ferocious battle with spear wielding barbarians.  His personal sacrifice, however, includes the loss of his left eye and disfigurement of the left side of his handsome face.

Fragmentary Marble head of a Helmeted Soldier Roman
Early Imperial Flavian period 69-79 CE.  Photographed
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch
© 2007 
Vinnius is self conscious about his appearance and has his desk turned so his undamaged right profile is seen by visitors entering his office.  We also learn he is intelligent and observant and enjoys the procedural tasks involved in crime investigations.

We then meet the female protagonist, Flavia Lucilla.   A pretty fifteen-year-old, Lucilla has come to the vigiles to report a theft of her mother's jewelry.  She explains that the jewelry was given to her mother, an imperial hairdresser, by her boy friend.  As Vinnius gently questions the girl, he begins to suspect her mother simply hid the items so she could play upon her boyfriend's sympathy and get more.  As his questions become more probing the reality that Lucilla may have been misled by her mother begins to dawn on the young girl as well.  But she refuses to retract her complaint, indignantly referring to Vinnius as "pretty boy".  He simply smiles and turns toward her saying that condition has long passed.  Although she is startled for a brief moment by his appearance, she is not repulsed by him.

Bust of a Roman man found in Ostia between the
theatre and Vigiles barracks 110-120 CE.
Photographed at the Terme di Diocleziano venue of
the National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009
Vinnius promises to investigate the case just as his adjutant rushes in to report a massive conflagration.  The fire of 80 CE, the second major fire to gut the heart of Rome in less than 20 years, has begun and would rage for the next three days.

Most people are generally aware of the so-called "Great Fire" of 64 CE during the emperor Nero's reign and that some of the ancient sources notoriously claim Nero played the lyre and sang while Rome burned.  The conflagration has also been immortalized through subsequent religious teachings as the reason for the first major persecution of the early Christians.

Nero Watching Rome Burning by Alphonse Mucha (1887)
However, widespread destructive fires have been recorded throughout Rome's history.  In the Republican period the rapid and haphazard construction needed to house Rome's burgeoning population resulted in a number of catastrophic blazes (and I doubt a particular individual or even a group was blamed for them).

In his journal article "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome" published in 1932, H.V. Carter points out that dating back to to the Gallic invasion of 390 BCE, there had been no fewer than 15 documented fires, of which seven were widespread conflagrations and seven others involved the loss of at least one important public building.

"Remembering that our sources are limited, particularly for the early part of the period, and that ancient writers almost invariably confine their accounts of fire to those involving only the more important structures, we may safely conclude that the figures given fall well below the actual occurence of fires which were considerable in extent and of serious consequences." - H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"

Brennus and his share of the spoils by Paul Jamin (1893).
Fires became an even more common occurence in the Imperial Period.

"...we can say that in the imperial period destructive fires in Rome were far more numerous than in that of the Republic.  This was due to the fact that a greatly increased population, larger supplies of food and clothing necessary for its maintenance, and an inevitable increase in homes, tenements, shops and warehouses necessary for domestic and business life, produced still greater congestion in certain already overpopulated quarters, a condition which, as affecting fire risk, was not adequately offset by improved building, either in plans or materials used, or by facilities sufficient for checking and extinguishing fires." - H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"

Carter says there were at least nine fires recorded during the reign of Augustus, the most destructive being the fire of 6 CE that destroyed so much of the city Augustus immediately reorganized the vigiles to make the unit more effective.

The Roman emperor Augustus as Pontifex Maximus
photographed at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009

Five major fires were recorded during the reign of Tiberius.  The fire of 36 CE burned the long side of the Circus Maximus facing the Aventine then spread to the Aventine itself.  It caused so much destruction that Tiberius, sometimes criticized as "stingy" by contemporaries and possibly even some scholars, donated over 100 million sesterces to its victims to rebuild their homes.

A bronze statue of the Roman emperor Tiberius (not Augustus) with head veiled (capite velato)
preparing to perform a religious rite found in Herculaneum 37 CE.  Photographed at the
Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California by Mary Harrsch © 2014
The emperor Claudius was not spared either.

"In 54 [CE] the Aemiliana district (in the southern part of the Campus Martius) was leveled by a stubborn fire which lasted for at least a day and two nights.  The emperor, when the regular firemen augmented by a body of his own slaves were unable to cope with the flames, summoned the common people from all parts of the city to assist the fire fighters, and paid on the spot each helper so enlisted a suitable remuneration for his service.  In this same conflagration was burned (and apparently never rebuilt) the temple of Felicitas, in or near the Forum Boarium.  It was in front of this temple, embellished with statues of the Muses by Praxiteles and by other works of art, that Julius Caesar had the misfortune to break the axle of his chariot when celebrating his triumph in 46 BCE. -  H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"
Posthumous portrait head of the Roman Emperor Claudius
from the reign of Nero 54-68 CE .  Photographed at the
Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington by
Mary Harrsch  © 2015
Nero's "Great Fire" lasting six days and seven nights was probably the largest conflagration to ever strike the Eternal City but the fire of 80 CE was second only to it.

"In the year 80 [CE] flames raged for three days and nights, burned a large section of the Campus Martius, and, moving thence in a southeasterly direction, devastated the Capitoline hill.  Dio Cassius (LXVI, 24), after naming eleven structures that were consumed (including the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus with its surrounding temples), adds: "Anyone can estimate from the list of buildings that I have given how many others must have been destroyed."  it is probably that at least five additional important public buildings were in whole or part destroyed by this same fire.  Naturally, too, a large number of public and private buildings of secondary importance wedged in among the principal ones were swept away at this time." -  H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"

Carter points out that fire was responsible for the destruction, wholly or partially, of the Temple of Vesta five times, the Regia and Theater of Pompey at least four times, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the Basilica Julia and the Basilica Aemilia three times and the Theater of Marcellus, the Pantheon and the Colosseum twice.

Remains of the Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum
in Rome, Italy.  Over the course of Rome's history the
Temple of Vesta was destroyed five times by fire.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2005
In the novel Davis mentions the destruction of the Pantheon and I was startled by this.  Although I knew Hadrian had "refashioned" the Pantheon, I assumed at least part of it was the original structure built by Marcus Agrippa, like a lot of other people, because of the inscription on its front facade.  I guess I should have read up on it before I visited the structure for the first time in 2005.  In fact, the Augustan Pantheon was totally destroyed by the fire in 80 CE. Domitian subsequently rebuilt the Pantheon which was destroyed again in 110 CE.

A spectacular vertirama of the interior of the Pantheon by Christopher Chan © 2010. Reproduced with permission via
CC by-nc-nd 2.0
But, it is the destruction of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus that is the site of our hero's next courageous act and the deed that will bring him to the personal attention of the young Flavian princeling, Domitian.  This time his bravery will win him an appointment to the Praetorian Guard and give him the opportunity to personally serve the man that will become emperor in less than a year.

Meanwhile, Flavia Lucilla learns to craft the huge crescents of curls that will become a hallmark of feminine style during the Flavian period and increasingly spends more and more time at the palace herself.

Portrait of a woman of the Flavian period, marble possibly
a  portrait bust of Julia, daughter of Titus Marble, 80-90 CE
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch
© 2005
As in the relationship between Vespasian and Caenus in "Course of Honour", the on-again off-again nature of Vinnius and Lucilla's relationship creates an underlying thread of sexual tension that helps to drive the story forward.  Just when you think they are finally going to get together, Vinnius' brothers saddle him with a newly widowed mate and Lucilla eventually ends up married to some stodgy poet who wears socks!!

The couple finally recognize their feelings for each other but Domitian has named himself censor for life and reinstituted the old Augustan morality laws so an affair could be literally fatal.  Then Decebalus, the king of Dacia, begins raiding Roman outposts along the Danube and Domitian announces he will handle the problem himself, taking the Praetorian guard and our hero along with him.

Bronze portrait of an ancient Dacian photographed at the
National Military Museum, Buchareșt, Romania by
Cristian Peter Marinescu-Ivan © 2009
Reproduced with permission via CC by-sa 2.0

I knew Decebalus had been defeated two decades later by Trajan, hence the carving of Trajan's Column to commemorate the event.  But I didn't realize as a young leader, Decebalus (then called Diurpaneus) had given Domitian trouble in Moesia back in 85 - 86 CE, surprising the Roman governor, Oppius Sabinus and annihilating a legion, probably the V Alaudae, which disappears from the military records at this time.  Domitian and his Praetorian Prefect Cornelius Fuscus arrive and the ever-micromanaging Domitian reorganizes the province into two separate provinces, Moesia Inferior and Moesia Superior.  Then Domitian orders the IIII Flavia from Dalmatia, and the I and II Adiutrix to the region to replace the lost legion and prepare for an attack on Dacia.

Scholars are divided by what happened next.  Some say Domitian handed the command over to Fuscus and returned to Rome.  Other scholars think Domitian personally led a successful operation against the Dacians and returned to Rome where, it is recorded, he celebrated a double triumph.  In any event, a contingent of the Praetorian Guard remain with Fuscus and in 87 CE Fuscus crosses the Danube where his army (that includes our hero Vinnius) like that of Oppius Sabinus, is ambushed and destroyed at a mountain pass the Romans called Tapae (widely known as the Iron Gates along what is now the modern Romania-Serbia border).  The battle becomes known as the First Battle of Tapae.

Scene of the Second Battle of Tapae with Jupiter Optimus Maximus overlooking Roman troops depicted on Trajan's Column in Rome, Italy.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
Although Davis does not describe the battle in as much visceral detail as Harry Sidebottom or Douglas Jackson would, she provides enough context and suspense to leave the reader breathless.

So how will our female protagonist carry on with the worst years of Domitian's tyranny still ahead? You'll need to read the novel to find out but I assure you Davis will keep you guessing about the ultimate fate of her protagonists until the last paragraph!

Because Domitian is not one of the main characters of the narrative, Davis has to get very inventive to provide background information about this controversial emperor.  In one chapter she does so by introducing a non-human character named Mosca - a house fly.  Suetonius tells us that at the beginning of his reign Domitian would spend hours alone every day catching flies and stabbing them with his needle-sharp stylus.

"Once, on being asked whether anyone was closeted with the Emperor, "Vivius Crispus answered wittily: 'No, not even a fly!'." - Suetonius, Domitian, The Twelve Caesars

Mosca makes all kinds of observations about the solitary human inhabitant of her environment as she prepares to annoy him, oblivious to the corpses of her relatives splayed beneath Domitian's stylus.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Master and God" and have elevated it to one of my favorite Lindsey Davis novels.

To learn more about Domitian and the other Roman emperors mentioned in this post I recommend The Great Courses series Emperors of Rome by Professor Garrett G. Fagan of Pennsylvania State University.


Carter, H. (1932). Conflagrations in Ancient Rome. The Classical Journal, 27(4), 270-288.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Boxer among 50 Hellenistic Bronzes in Getty Center exhibit

A history resource article by  © 2015

Terme Boxer photographed at the Palazzo Massimo alle
Terme in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century Greek
original by Apollonius 
I was excited to read that one of my favorite ancient bronze sculptures, "The Terme Boxer", is part of an exhibit of 50 large scale Hellenistic bronze sculptures at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on display until November 1, 2015.  I have been fortunate to see the sculpture twice at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme venue of the National Roman Museum on two different visits to Rome and now it is coming here!  I browsed through the press materials and see that several other bronzes I am familiar with are also in the exhibit including the "Sleeping Eros" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the bronze and copper "Portrait of a Poet (possibly Sophocles)" and the "Portrait of a North African Man" from the collections of The British Museum and the Getty's own "Victorious Youth" and "Herme of Dionysos".

In the Great Courses lecture series "Art across the Ages" Professor Ori Z. Soltes of Georgetown University explains that when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and brought much of India under Greek influence, the exchange of cultures resulted in a shift of emphasis in art from the more distant religious deities to more human subjects with which viewers could identify.  Although the blended cultures had features familiar to different members of society, a sense of alienation was also experienced.

"With alienation came the need for gods that are not merely diminished Olympians but actual humans such as Heracles and Alexander, and for gods that exhibit "sympathos" (feeling with us) and "empathos" (feeling one with us)," Soltes observes.  "Hellenistic art is art that engages the moment and shows and interest in the extremes of human experience..."The dialogues of tension and relaxation, of revelation and concealment, of motion and stasis, are spoken..."

Soltes says Hellenistic art is often about blurred lines between established human demarcations.  He points out that "Sleeping Eros", one of the sculptures in this exhibit, blurs the lines between innocence and danger.  The sleeping babe belies the divine power of the son of Aphrodite who can shoot an arrow imbuing even a god like Apollo with mad lust while another of Eros' arrows can fate an innocent maid like Daphne with disgust for her ardent suitor to the extent that she begs her father for escape and her father responds by transforming her into a laurel tree.  (This tragic tale is the subject of one of my favorite sculptures of all of those I have seen, Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne", a work of almost translucent marble that resides in the Villa Borghese in Rome.)

Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne" photographed at the Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy
 Jean-Pierre Dalbéra © 2011 reused with permission.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Getty Center will be hosting a bronze casting workshop that will give participants the opportunity to create a medallion using the lost-wax casting process as well as a portrait sculpting workshop using the exhibit as inspiration.  On October 25, Andrew Stewart, professor of ancient Mediterranean art at UC Berkeley will trace the origins and development of Greek victor statues from the 6th century to the Hellenistic period.

Here's the official press release:

During the Hellenistic era artists around the Mediterranean created innovative, realistic sculptures of physical power and emotional intensity. Bronze—with its reflective surface, tensile strength, and ability to hold the finest details—was employed for dynamic compositions, graphic expressions of age and character, and dazzling displays of the human form. 

Closeup of the hands of the Terme Boxer photographed at the
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch
© 2009. 1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century
Greek original by Apollonius 
On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from July 28 through November 1, 2015, Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is the first major international exhibition to bring together more than 50 ancient bronzes from the Mediterranean region and beyond ranging from the 4th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D.  
“The representation of the human figure is central to the art of almost all ancient cultures, but nowhere did it have greater importance, or more influence on later art history, than in Greece,” said Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “It was in the Hellenistic period that sculptors pushed to the limit the more dramatic effects of billowing drapery, tousled hair, and the astonishingly detailed renderings of veins, wrinkles, tendons, and musculature, making the sculpture of their time the most lifelike and emotionally charged ever made, and still one of the highpoints of European art history. At its best, Hellenistic sculpture leaves nothing to be desired or improved upon. The more than 50 works in the exhibition represent the finest of these spectacular and extremely rare works that survive, and makes this one of the most important exhibitions of ancient classical sculpture ever mounted. This is a must-see event for anyone with an interest in classical art or sculpture.” 

Bronze and copper portrait of a poet, "The Arundel Head"
200-1 BCE Smyrna, Turkey.  Photographed at
The British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Potts continued: “The Getty Museum is proud to collaborate on this project with our colleagues in Florence at the Palazzo Strozzi, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana, along with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C..” 
Large-scale bronze sculptures are among the rarest survivors of antiquity; their valuable metal was typically melted and reused. Rows of empty pedestals still seen at many ancient sites are a stark testimony to the bygone ubiquity of bronze statuary in the Hellenistic era. Ironically, many bronzes known today still exist because they were once lost at sea, only to be recovered centuries later. 

Bronze Portrait of a North African Man from
Cyrene.  Greek 300-150 BCE
Photographed at the British Museum by
Mary Harrsch © 2006.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is especially remarkable for bringing together rare works of art that are usually exhibited in isolation. When viewed in proximity to one another, the variety of styles and techniques employed by ancient sculptors is emphasized to greater effect, as are the varying functions and histories of the bronze sculptures. Bronze, cast in molds, was a material well-suited to reproduction, and the exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to see objects of the same type, and even from the same workshop together for the first time. For example, two herms of Dionysos – the Mahdia Herm from the Bardo National Museum, Tunisia and the Getty Herm were made in the same workshop and have not been shown together since antiquity. 
“The Mahdia Herm was found off the Tunisian coast in 1907 together with the cargo of an ancient ship carrying many artworks from Greece,” said Jens Daehner, one of the curators of the exhibition. “It is the only surviving case of an ancient bronze signed by an artist (Boëthos of Kalchedon). The idea that the Getty Herm comes from the same workshop is based on the close match of the bronze—an alloy of copper, tin, lead, and other trace elements that’s like the DNA of bronze sculptures. The information that these two works yield when studied together is extraordinary. It is a perfect example of how revealing and instructive it is to contemplate Hellenistic bronzes in concert with one another.”
Herm of Dionysos Attributed to the Workshop of
Boëthos of Kalchedon 200-100 BCE
Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch
© 2010
The exhibition is organized into six sections: Images of Rulers, Bodies Ideal and Extreme, Images of the Gods, The Art of Replication, Likeness and Expression, and Retrospective Styles.  
“Our aim in bringing together this extraordinary group of the most significant ancient bronzes that have survived is to present these works, normally viewed as isolated masterpieces, in their larger contexts,” said Kenneth Lapatin, the show’s co-curator. “These stunning sculptures come together to tell a rich story, not only of artistic accomplishment, but also of the political and cultural concerns of the people who commissioned, created, and viewed them more than two thousand years ago.”  
Closeup of Sleeping Eros Greek 300-100 BCE.  Photographed at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2007.
 Among the many famous works is the so-called Head of a Man from Delos from the National Museum of Athens, a compellingly expressive portrait with well-preserved inlaid eyes. The dramatic image of an unknown sitter is believed to date from the end of the second or beginning of the first century BC.  
The iconic Terme Boxer on loan from the National Roman Museum, with its realistic scars and bruises, stands out as the epitome of the modern understanding of Hellenistic art, employing minute detail and an emphatic, arresting subject. The weary fighter, slumped and exhausted after his brutal competition, combines the power and pathos that is unique to Hellenistic sculpture.  
Closeup of the scarred face of the Terme Boxer photographed
at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009
 Although rarely surviving today, multiple versions of the same work were the norm in antiquity. A good example is the figure of an athlete shown holding a strigil, a curved blade used to scrape oil and dirt off the skin, known in Greek as the apoxyomenos or “scraper”. This exhibition brings together three bronze casts—two full statues and a head—that are late Hellenistic or early Roman Imperial versions of a statue created in the 300s BC by a leading sculptor of the time. This was evidently one of the most famous works of its time and copies were made well into the Roman Imperial period.  

Closeup of Victorious Athlete, "The Getty Bronze"
Greek 300-100 BCE.  Photographed at the
Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch  © 2010
 Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is curated by Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin, both of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; with the participation of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.  
The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, also titled Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, edited by Daehner and Lapatin. The richly illustrated book is the first comprehensive volume on large-scale Hellenistic bronze statuary and includes significant new research in archaeological, art-historical, and scientific essays. Published by Getty Publications, it is designed to be the standard reference on the subject.  
From October 13-17, 2015 archaeologists, art historians, conservators, curators, scientists, and students will convene at both the Getty Villa and the Getty Center for the 19th International Congress on Ancient Bronzes, which will use the exhibition and related research as a resource and address bronzes of the Hellenistic age and other periods through lectures and study sessions. More information can be found at

I would encourage any of you who will be traveling to the Los Angeles area between now and November 1 to make time to view this astounding collection of ancient art.  The exhibit then travels to Washington D.C. where it will be on display at the National Gallery of Art from December 13, 2015 - March 20, 2016. 

Roman Archaeology Timeline