by Roderick Conway Morris

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Skulpturensammlung, Dresden
A relief panel from a second-century funerary monument, showing a scene from a butcher's shop.

Art, Propaganda and Death in Ancient Rome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 12 January 2013


If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,' Edward Gibbon wrote in 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'

In so declaring, the English historian was following the lead of a number of Roman and Renaissance authors, who took an equally rosy view of the state of the empire and humanity during the second century.

At first glance, by its very title 'The Age of Equilibrium, 98-180 A.D.: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius,' the third in a series of exhibitions on art and society in ancient Rome at the Capitoline Museums, seems to be endorsing this traditional historical assessment that stretches from Pliny the Younger through Machiavelli and Gibbon into modern times.

But a strength of this latest show, curated by Eugenio La Rocca and Claudio Parisi Presicce with Annalisa Monaco, and especially of its catalog, is that, while achievements are recognized, darker aspects are not whitewashed and the dominant role played by propaganda in public art of the era is highlighted.

The reputation the second century won as a golden age was substantially based on the unusual stability of the political establishment during this period and on the economic prosperity that helped to nurture.

That stability was largely the result of the abandonment of the direct hereditary principle in the imperial succession in favor of the practice of adopting suitably talented candidates. Thus Nerva adopted Trajan in 97 A.D.; Trajan's second cousin Hadrian succeeded him in 117; Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius in 138, who adopted his son-in-law Marcus Aurelius as his own successor.

In a return to the old system, Marcus Aurelius was succeeded in 180 by his son Commodus, whose behavior became increasingly deranged. As everyone who has seen 'Gladiator' now knows, Commodus developed a penchant for taking a personal part in gladiatorial displays (yet in reality met his end not in the arena but when he was strangled in his bath).

The first room of the show, 'The Leading Actors,' introduces us to the stars of the epoch in the form of more than 40 portrait statues and busts of the emperors, their wives, daughters and favorites.

What is immediately striking in the representation of the male players is that they are so often depicted in some form of military dress.

This introduces one of the central paradoxes of this notional age of peace and harmony. For while the Emperor Augustus, a victorious general and founder of the imperial system, was seldom represented as a warrior, the emperors of the second century relentlessly emphasized this role.

The empire reached its greatest extent - an area of 3.5 million square kilometers, or 1.35 million square miles, with an estimated population of 55 million - during the reign of Trajan. Much of what he did to transform Rome is still visible from the Capitoline Museums or within a few minutes' walk. The Trajan Forum was the largest and grandest of all the forums and the so-called Trajan Markets on the hillside above are well preserved. Nearby are the remains of the huge Trajan Baths on the Oppian Hill - the first to include a library, park and cultural complex - which was to serve as the model for all subsequent monumental baths. Vast infrastructure projects included a new port at Ostia, canals, quays, aqueducts and sewers.

But these improvements were mainly financed by war booty, especially what was gained from 101 to 106 during the conquest of Dacia - a kingdom centered on present-day Romania and Moldova.

These wars were celebrated in the spiraling friezes of Trajan's Column on the edge of the Trajan Forum, the first column of its kind and the first depictions of an emperor on campaign. The Trajan Forum itself was adorned with multiple images of the Dacian Wars in the form of statues, reliefs and decorative elements of the victorious emperor and of defeated Dacians.

Hadrian, who had fought in the Dacian Wars, abandoned his predecessor's policy of expansion and concentrated on consolidating the empire's existing borders. But despite his image as a peacemaker, he put down the Jewish revolt led by the self-declared messiah Bar Kokhba (132-135) with resolute savagery, refounding Jerusalem as a pagan military colony. Hadrian, too, left his monumental mark on Rome, most prominently in the Pantheon and his mausoleum, now Castel Sant'Angelo.

Of all these emperors, Marcus Aurelius, thanks to his 'Meditations,' has gone down in history as the ideal Roman philosopher-emperor. Yet his contemporary public image in art remained that of the warrior, as can be seen in the busts and reliefs in a subsequent section of the exhibition of 'Historical Reliefs,' which continues the theme of this art as propaganda.

The reliefs lead on to the circular hall that is now the home of the magnificent gilded bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, as the armor-clad victor over the German tribes. The victory is also celebrated on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colonna, which shows him leading his troops and includes scenes of the massacre of prisoners and of violence being inflicted on women and children.

This bellicose imagery, so ubiquitous in the Trajan Forum as to turn it into a kind of Dacian War theme park, was not confined to the official depiction of emperors and their deeds, as is illustrated in a parallel section in the first room of the exhibition on 'The Language of Art.'

Tumultuous battle scenes became popular on sarcophagi during this period. There are three examples here, all revolving around the crushing of mythical and actual barbarian tribes.

The second century saw a progressive shift away from cremation in favor of burial (and interment in sarcophagi for those who could afford it), perhaps in imitation of Hellenistic practices. As the last section of the exhibition, entitled 'Tombs,' demonstrates, this is a trend that encouraged more elaborate sepulchers and also had the fortuitous effect of enriching posterity's knowledge of various aspects of Roman everyday life.

This section opens with the famous sarcophagus, remains and grave goods of the teenage girl Crepereia Tryphaena, unearthed close to the Tiber in 1889. She was not only buried with her own jewelry, including a precious brooch with an engraved amethyst cameo, a gold necklace with beryl pendants, pearl earrings and a gold engagement or wedding ring, but also an exquisitely fashioned ivory doll with articulated limbs.

Crepereia's body was placed on her side, with her head inclined toward the doll. Along with this lovely plaything were buried the doll's miniature clothes, necklace, earrings and other jewelry as well as tiny combs, mirrors and a little jewel case, faced in ivory and bone. The doll's minutely carved hairstyle is a meticulously realized version of one made fashionable by the Emperor Antoninus Pius's wife Faustina Major and their daughter Faustina Minor.

Crepereia's family name indicates that they were freed slaves, perhaps originally from Syria or Egypt, but they had clearly risen in the ranks and were likely attached in some way to the emperor since the tomb was within the estate of an imperial villa. The luxury doll (probably made in Alexandria) and expensive jewelry also indicate the family's prosperity.

But as some of the subsequent sarcophagi and funerary panels show, monuments also preserved information about more humble classes. One panel here has a vivid relief of a Roman butcher shop. Another pair of reliefs gives two scenes of a deceased artisan's life: one of him at his anvil and another in an apron behind the counter of his shop, proudly displaying for sale an array of the metal tools he had manufactured.

The Age of Equilibrium, 98-180 A.D. Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius. Capitoline Museums, Rome. Through May 5.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024