Ambassador of Rome

5 January 2010

Ambassador of Rome

This reenactor stands close to the Colosseum. If you give him some money, you can stand next to him, and someone will take a photo of you, the Colosseum, and an ancient Roman. And what a beautiful Roman he is! His helmet crooked, his leather cuirass too short, his belt somewhere near his ribs, his legs covered with tights.

The reason why I asked my travel companion to take this photo, is that I was surprised that he was allowed to stand over there, where thousands of visitors gather every day. Being next to the Colosseum makes you some kind of ambassador of Rome. If I were the city’s mayor, I would create a license system and make sure that the people over there are perfectly dressed. The reenactors of XXX Ulpia would certainly love to offer advice. Right now, this man represents Rome. This is the way the city wants to be seen.

Severus’ right-hand man: Plautianus

4 January 2010


It would be strange if I wouldn’t post some new articles on ancient Rome. After all, I just spent a holiday in the urbs ipsa. And indeed, I wrote two pages on Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, the praetorian prefect of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who transformed the old office. His daughter Plautilla also received a brief article; the poor girl had to marry Caracalla, a union that was very unhappy. She was executed by her husband.

In the Vatican, we took photos of the sarcophagus of Sextus Varius Marcellus, who is perhaps best known as the father of Heliogabalus, but is far more interesting than you’d expect. One could write a novel about the man.

I also added a piece on Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages. The connection with my Roman holiday is that we saw his bust in the Vatican Museums. Finally, Bill put online an article on “Recent Discoveries on the Palatine Hill” – recent in 1913 that is, but interesting nevertheless, if only because it is written by the great Boni himself.

Vespasian Exhibition in the Colosseum

1 January 2010

Head of a statue of Vespasian from Narona (Museum of Vid)

Until January 10, there’s an interesting exhibition in the Colosseum, dedicated to – well, they say it’s about Vespasian (r.69-79). I have some doubts about that, but there are indeed many objects illustrating the reign of the man who seized power after a civil war, was a capable ruler, restored the Empire, founded the Flavian dynasty, and died with the not-so-famous-but-impressive last words that “an emperor ought to die standing” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 24.1). The reigns of his sons Titus and Domitian are also covered.

Many of the objects, like the statue that was excavated in Narona, I had never seen before – Croatia is still on my wish list. The Haterii relief, which shows several buildings from the Flavian era, is in a part of the Vatican Museum that is always closed when I’m there, so I was glad to finally see it. There were some objects from the Temple of Peace, which has been excavated in the last decade and which I had never seen before. I finally saw the Lex Irnitana, for which I once travelled to Seville (it turned out to be in Madrid and was not accessible).

All in all, it was interesting collection of objects. Yet, there were curious omissions. Conspicous by absence were the Cancelleria reliefs. Yet, they are pretty large and may have been too big to move. Less understandable is that there is nothing about the British campaigns, in which Vespasian obtained ornamenta triumphalia and laid the foundation of his fortune. The Jewish War is also neglected, although I noticed one photo.

In other words, the first sixty years of Vespasian’s life remain uncovered; instead, the exhibition is about Vespasian’s final decade and the reigns of his sons. This exhibition, interesting though it is, is not about Vespasian, but about the Flavian era. I wonder of the organizers have realized that they crossed a line: scholars should speak the truth, and although I realize that you may try to give it some kind of spin, the basic story must be reliable. That is no longer the case.

Access to the Forum Romanum

31 December 2009

The Curia Julia and the central part of the Roman Forum, seen from the Palatine

There used to be a time when a visitor to the Roman Forum went to one of the entrances, bought a ticket, and could roam across the ancient ruins wherever you liked. I fondly remember how my girlfriend and I once had lunch, sitting in the grass, somewhere within the ruin of the Basilica Julia.

This changed in 1997. From then on, the Forum was accessible for free, which was -above all- practical. If you were staying in the Via Cavour, as I sometimes did, and needed to be at the Foro Boario, you could make a shortcut and did not have to make a detour around the Capitol. At the same time, many momuments were no longer accessible, like the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Basilica Aemilia, and the Basilica Julia. This was unpleasant, but it made sense. The number of visitors had increased and it was impossible to guard everything properly.

This year, I discovered that you have to buy tickets again. I would have expected that they would now reopen the closed monuments, but they haven’t. In fact, they closed things that used to be accessible, like the Horrea Vespasiana.

I do not like this at all. In an ideal world, everything is free and you can see everything. I understand that this is not possible and I realize that we have to live with one of the systems described above: either you pay for a ticket and can see everything, or you get free access but will find some monuments closed. What I find outrageous, is that they have managed to combine the disadvantages of the two systems: we now have to pay to see closed monuments.

Commemorating the dead (or not)

27 December 2009

The Colosseum

I already blogged on the Christian martyrs venerated in the Colosseum, and pointed out that there is no evidence that Christians were killed on that terrible place. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite. No Medieval list of martyrdom sites mentions the Colosseum. There is actually more evidence of Jewish martyrdoms: the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) mentions an emperor ordering a rabbi to be thrown into an arena full of wild animals. It’s not much, but more than we can say about Christian martyrs.

Yet, you will not find a Jewish memorial in the Colosseum, and not because our Talmudic scene deals with an amphitheater, not the amphitheater of Rome. The reason is much more profound.

Christians will go to the places where people have been killed and say their prayers, believing that God will hear them. The Omnipresent is also present where atrocities have taken place. To some extent, secular people share this idea: even though they will not say a prayer, they erect monuments on crime scenes. In Rome, the memorial of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre is a case in point.

This is not the way Jews look at things. Places like the Colosseum are somehow outside the realm of God’s goodness. This means that there are better places to say your prayers, and even if we had absolute certainty that out rabbi faced martyrdom in the Colosseum, there would still not be a Jewish monument. The locations of the horrors are not the place of worship, and are best abandoned.

I am not saying that this view is better than the Christian/secular view. Nor do I think that we should abandon the Colosseum altogether. Yet, the Roman archaeological authorities, who have always been able to present their many treasures in an often beautiful fashion, ought to be capable of creating a more dignified atmosphere at the Colosseum – without shouting tourist guides, without exceptionally amateurish reenactors, without souvenir shops. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve heard from the tourist authorities, a proposal to organize gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum again, was singularly revolting. Rome should be capable of inventing something better.

Counting gods

3 August 2009
The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 1981, Ramsay MacMullen published his Paganism in the Roman Empire, a great book on, well, paganism in the Roman Empire. What I have never forgotten, is how the American scholar tried to investigate which gods were really popular. He used the indices of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, counted the deities to which people had dedicated inscriptions, and discovered that people in, for example, North Africa venerated other gods than the people in Gaul and the German provinces.

This tedious labor must have taken lots of time. Today, we have digital archives and can do the same job in one evening, for example with this nice databank. I know this, because I checked some thirty deities, trying to zoom in a bit more than MacMullen has been able to. One of his categories was “Gaul & Germany”, and I needed to know whether there were differences between Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. I compared my results to Latium (minus Rome). Here are the results; the popularity of the deities is relative to Jupiter (=100).

Latium Germania Inf. Belgica
1 Mars 194 Matres 168 Mercurius 139
2 Venus 101 Jupiter 100 Mars 136
3 Jupiter 100 Nehalennia 67 Jupiter 100
4 Fortuna 92 Mercurius 43 Liber Pater 84
5 Hercules 71 Mars 37 Apollo 52
6 Silvanus 45 Hercules 34 Hercules 41
7 Diana 44 Fortuna 21 Sol/Mithras 37
8 Sol/Mithras 43 Juno 16 Matres 30
9 Victoria 40 Diana 16 Minerva 19
10 Cybele 36 Sol/Mithras 16 Diana 13
11 Juno 30 Apollo 11 Juno 13
12 Ceres 28 Minerva 11 Fortuna 8
13 Isis 25 Isis 8 Victoria 8
14 Mercurius 25 Silvanus 8 Venus 5
15 Apollo 24 Victoria 7 Silvanus 3

I had expected that Jupiter and Mars would be the only gods to make it to the top-5 everywhere, but there were a few surprises. In the first place, the relative unpopularity of Isis, Minerva, and Neptune. In the second place, the popularity of Mercurius and Liber Pater in Belgica, who must be “romanized” local gods. In the third place, I had not expected that Silvanus -extremely popular in Italy- was also pretty well-known in the north. In the fourth place, I had expected Cybele to rank high in Germania Inferior and Belgica, because she is well-known from representations (statuettes can be seen in any museum); but this popularity is not matched in the epigraphical record.

Finally, the people of Latium were “wide” polytheists, venerating many gods, while the people of the north concentrated on a few deities. This was the greatest surprise – I had never realized that there might have been various degrees of polytheism.

And of course, what MacMullen already knew remains valid when we zoom in on smaller geographical units: that book on ancient mythology you have, you can throw it away. Those twelve Olympic Gods were completely irrelevant.

New in the Antiquaries’ Shoebox

14 July 2009
Drawing of a pyxis from Smiths Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Drawing of a pyxis from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Several years ago, LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer started to put online some articles from scholarly journals. He called this section of his website the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and every now and then, he adds to it. The articles may be a bit old, but at least you do not need an expensive JSTOR account.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 140 articles. The latest contributions are on seven places in Italy called Ferentum and Ferentinum and on Roman Milestones and the Capita Viarum (which also deals with more than one place called Nuceria). Finally, it’s a somehow reassuring thought that someone has written an article on The Roman Craze for Surmullets.


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