Friday, October 23, 2009

Bust of Caracalla goes on the auction block

A bust of Lucius Septimius Bassianus, better known as Caracalla, a nickname thought to be derived from a hooded Gallic cloak that he regularly wore, is slated to be auctioned at Bonhams Antiquities in London on October 28, 2009. The sculpture with its characteristic frown is expected to bring up to ₤250,000.

[Image: Bust of Caracalla. Photo courtesy of Bonhams]

The Roman marble bust of the Emperor Caracalla depicts him turning sharply to his left, his face contorted in a characteristic forbidding frown, his creased forehead with curving eyebrows drawn together, the eyes deep-set with articulated pupils. The nose is broad with a short moustache above his downturned mouth, his strong chin cleft and covered with a short curling beard, his hair composed of tight curls with drilling, the thick sideburns joining his beard. He wears a paludamentum draped around his shoulders.

This bust is of the 'Sole-Ruler' type, dating to the period after he murdered his brother and co-emperor Geta. Other examples of this type are in the Museo Capitolino Montemartini, (inv. 2310), the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, the Vatican Museum and the British Museum. A head in the Acropolis Museum, Athens has some of the closest stylistic similarities. - Culturekiosque Art and Archaeology News

Caracalla's, features reflect his mixed Punic/Berber and Syrian descent, being the son of Roman emperor, Septemius Severus who hailed from Leptis Magna in Libya. I think his face also reflects the savagery that marked his reign from 198 (co-ruling with his father) to 217 CE. In addition to assassinating his brother, Geta, the family of his former father-in-law Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, his wife Fulvia Plautilla and her brother, he slaughtered over 20,000 hapless citizens of Alexandria when rumors reached him that the people there had been mocking his claim that he killed his brother in self defense.

Caracalla was equally brutal and duplicitous in his foreign affairs. In 216 CE, he triggered a war with Parthia after accepting a marriage proposal then slaughtering the guests who arrived for the wedding celebration.

He made only two relatively positive contributions to the people of the Rome and the empire. In 212 CE, he issued the Constitutio Antoninian that granted citizenship to all free men in the Roman Empire. Before this time, only inhabitants of Italia or their descendants living in provinces along with a small number of nobles and client kings held full citizenship. Caracalla issued this edict to increase the number of people subject to more Roman taxes to replenish his imperial coffers. He may have also used the legal device to increase the number of men who could serve as legionaries rather than mere auxiliaries in the Roman Army. Scholars point to this event as one of the reasons the professional Roman military became barbarized. Also, With Roman citizenship no longer an enticement for enlistment, this edict may have inadvertently led to the recruiting difficulties of the Roman army by the end of the 3rd century CE.

Between 212 and 216 CE, Caracalla constructed his second contribution, the Baths of Caracalla, a complex of buildings covering over 33 acres. Its remnants are now viewed by millions of tourists each year approaching Rome on the freeway from the Leonardo da Vinci - Fiumicino airport. It is also a stop on the Archaeology bus tour that picks up visitors at Termini Station.

The massive structure not only included the requisite cold, warm and hot bathing facilities that accomodated up to 16,000 bathers, but libraries, gymnasia, shops, and colossal statues including a sculpture representing the myth of Dirce.

[Image: Farnese bull sculpture group depicts the legend of Dirce who was tied to a wild bull as punishment for abusing the mother of Amphion and Zethus. Photographed at the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch]

Dirce was the wife of Lycus, king of Thebes. Dirce's niece, Antiope, was seduced by the ever amorous Zeus, king of the gods, and impregnated. Antiope's father was furious with her so she fled to King Epopeus of Sicyon who took her for his wife. Her father, killed himself in disgrace but before he died he asked his brother, King Lycus to avenge him by punishing King Epopeus and Antiope. King Lycus marched on Sicyon and slew King Epopeus then gave the hapless Antiope to his wife Dirce to serve as her maid. Dirce hated her niece, probably for her beauty, since that is often considered a normal female rationale in Greek mythology and usually the reason women attracted Zeus, and treated her cruelly. Dirce had given birth to twin boys, Amphion and Zethus, after King Lycus captured her, and, who, like many offspring of Greek deities, were exposed but found and raised by a kindly shepherd.

One day, Antiope escaped her cruel mistress and found her way to the cave where her sons lived. When she explained who she was and what had happened to her, Amphion and Zethus rose up and slew King Lycus and tied Dirce to the horns of a wild bull. After her gruesome death, Dirce was cast into a spring on Mount Cithaeron or, as some versions relate, she was transformed into a spring by the god Dionysos because of her devoted worship of him.

Unfortunately, this myth was supposedly recreated in the Roman arena during Christian persecutions, although Christian persecutions did not occur during Caracalla's reign, with the exception of limited activities in North Africa.

[Image: Christian Dirce by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902), Warsaw National Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

The Dirce sculpture is now known as the Farnese Bull after it was excavated from the Baths of Caracalla in 1546 by a team funded by Pope Paul III who was looking for artwork to place in his new residence, the Farnese Palace. It eventually wound up in the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli in Naples where it can be seen today.

When I think of the Baths of Caracalla, I also envision the pleasant scene of beautiful Roman women lounging before the luxurious pools as depicted by one of my favorite artists, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Actually, the women's clothing is a little more Victorian than it should be and the scene depicts men bathing alongside women that was not accurate either but you get a definite sense of the size and sumptuousness of the halls and how much bathing was viewed as a shared social experience in the Roman world.

[Image: The Baths of Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899, Oil on canvas, courtesy of The Art Renewal Center]

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