Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Pantheon and Hadrian’s Building Program

Meredith Worcester
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

Brief History of Hadrian
Hadrian’s Pantheon is one of the most famous and magnificent buildings of all time, having marked its influence on architecture contemporarily as well as in antiquity. As the most well preserved building in Rome, the Pantheon has a rich history, documented throughout time for its enigma of design, function, and meaning. Contemporary scholars still do not have a definitive answer for the meaning of the Pantheon, to the masses or its patron, Emperor Hadrian. However, scholars have many different interpretations about the meaning of the Pantheon.

In order to understand the grandeur of the Pantheon, a little background on its patron is necessary. Publius Hadrianus, known to many as Hadrian, was born in 76 A.D. in Spain. At an early age Hadrian took a strong affection toward Greek and Roman culture. This led him to be known by his peers as the “Greekling.” This fascination with Greek and Roman culture continued into his adult life, and partly explains his later choices in a building program.

During his lifetime, Hadrian lived through five Roman emperors prior to his own ascension to the title. Hadrian became emperor at age 41, after Trajan, his adoptive father died in 117. Throughout history, Hadrian was known for his undoubted intellectual and artistic brilliance. Hadrian was a special emperor compared to his contemporaries. It was this quality and genius that led scholar Edward Gibbon to describe the time when Hadrian ruled as “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous…when the vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” [1] He also had an interest in astrology and divination far beyond his call of duty as an emperor.

The concept and design of the Pantheon was original. It did not mimic any building program before or even any architectural forms of the time. This of course led to the complicated question of who the architect of the Pantheon was. Although Hadrian has been suggested, it is highly doubtful that Hadrian would have been the “head architect” in today’s sense of the word. A professional architect would have made the drawings and models, calculated the design details and the construction of the project, and the supervision of the complicated work.

Hadrian’s architects were known for their sophistication and audacity. Hadrian’s main projects were built during his reign, of which more than half was spent far away from Rome. This is one reason it is assumed he was not the architect mainly in charge of the projects, but heavily oversaw the building program. Also, it was less likely that in antiquity a passion for architecture was regarded to be as fitting for the educated landowner as it was in the eighteenth century. The phrase from Hadrian’s biography is “Hadrian built ‘with the aid of’ the architects Decrianus and Apollodorus,” although even these architects are strongly debated. This leads scholars to believe Hadrian had a strong hand in the conception of his building program unlike other emperors, but was not the chief architect in many cases.

Apollodorus could have designed the plans for the Pantheon; it was precisely his expertise as an engineer that could have completed its grandeur and sophistication. However, at this time Apollodorus was a popular name, which leads to problems with identification. Also, period texts debate whether Hadrian and Apollodorus were even on speaking terms. In a passage from the eighty volume history of Rome by Dio Cassius, in a volume abridged from Byzantine scholars, states that,

“[Hadrian] first banished and later put to death Apollodorus, the architect who had built the various creations of Trajan in Rome…. The reason assigned was that he had been guilty of some misdemeanor, but the true reason, was that once when Trajan was consulting him on some point he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted him with some remark: ‘Be off and draw your pumpkins. You don’t understand any of these matters’ – it chanced that Hadrian at the time was pluming himself upon some such drawing. When he became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech…Hadrian, the emperor…restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man. Indeed, his nature was such that he was jealous not only of the living, but also of the dead.” [2]

This passage is problematic, in that it is a mix of facts and fiction. Another period source that defamed Hadrian on various occasions, The Historia Augusta doesn’t mention him killing Apollodorus. It links the men without a bit of friction. The only period evidence provided thus far does not provide a concise answer to the architect of the Pantheon.

It seems difficult to understand the meaning of the Pantheon without an understanding of who the true architect was. However, in the 15th century, Antonio Filarete acknowledged the patron’s input with his analogy for the genesis of a building, likening the patron to its father, and the architect to its mother. As patron, Hadrian played a domineering role, unlike his predecessors. With an interest in architecture, unlike all emperors before him, Hadrian took his role of patron to a subsequent level. He became deeply involved in the execution and planning of his projects, so much so that scholars are easily able to distinguish his work.

Brief History of the Pantheon
The first Pantheon was constructed by Agrippa, Augustus’ general, son-in-law, and right hand man, between 27-25 BC as part of the Imperial building program for Augustus. However, Augustus refused this honor because he felt that placing a statue of himself alongside the gods was disrespectful to the divine order. Constructing a building for just one man or for one’s self as Emperor was not done at this time in history. This first building was probably destroyed or at least heavily damaged in the great fire of AD 80. It was then replaced or restored by Emperor Domitian, but then was struck by lightning in AD 110, after which a completely new building was required. The fact that the second building was hit by lightning would have been interpreted as extremely significant during the period. During this time, there were “lighting-interpreters” based on the fact that the Etruscan sky was divided into sixteen parts. They would try to figure out which part of the sky the lightning bolt came from. All that is known is that Hadrian rebuilt the building, altering its original design.

Hadrian began the building of the Pantheon in the Campus Martius on his first return trip to Rome as the new emperor in June or July of 118 AD. All structures in the Campus Martius were oriented on the cardinal points. This is important because Hadrian actually changed the orientation of the first two Pantheon buildings to coincide with these cardinal points, and faced the Pantheon to the north.

Physical Description of the Pantheon

In antiquity, the area surrounding the Pantheon would have looked completely different than the view we see today. A rectangular forecourt on the northern side of the Pantheon would have surrounded a three-sided portico. Also, during Hadrian’s reign the south, east and west sides of the rotunda were flanked by other buildings, and most importantly, on the south side, the Basilica Neptunis was erected during the time of Hadrian. On the east side the back walls of the Saepta Iulia reached the outer face of the rotunda. Unlike today, only the northern façade of the Pantheon was visible.

The structure of the Pantheon is very complex, however there are three constituent parts of the building, the rotunda, transitional block, and portico. The pediment on the portico was decorated with a frieze – you can still see the holes where the clamps which held the sculpture in place were fixed. The symbolism in Hadrian’s pediment would have linked the new building to the spirit of the old one. Some scholars believe the frieze was of an eagle, while others argue the pediment displayed a bronze cast of the Battle of the Titans.

The rectangular structure, called the transitional block, links the portico with the rotunda. As you enter the rotunda, around the oculus, the interior features a coffered ceiling, which during Hadrian’s time contained bronze star ornaments. This coffering was not only decorative, but also reduced the weight of the roof and lantern. The coffers for the concrete dome were poured in molds, probably on the temporary scaffolding; the oculus admits the only light (and rain). The original bronze doors still mark the entrance to the building.

The absence of windows in this space is vitally important. The dome provides all the illumination you need to see everything. Walking into the Pantheon you cannot see any other buildings. Not having any windows denies you any distractions from the building. This space was designed explicitly for this reason.

How the Pantheon addresses the goals of Hadrian’s Building Program
Hadrian’s building program was relentless. He has been likened to Louis XIV and Versailles or Justinian and the Hagia Sophia. As mentioned previously, Hadrian’s building program involved the participation of the emperor himself. He pushed the architects in directions he approved of. Hadrian was in power when Rome was in its peak of political and economic power, which allowed Hadrian to instigate new building projects continually. Hadrian must have expected to set the tone for important building programs in Rome, and other cities as well. He was a patron with noted philhellenic leanings. This explains his decision to include a typical Roman rotunda, while the portico is specifically Greek in inspiration.

Scholar William McDonald claims “Hadrian, the Pantheon, and the cultural texture of the early second century are all inextricably interwoven, and there can be no doubt that the conception of the building and the motivating personality behind its creation were Hadrian’s.” [3] Hadrian designed the Pantheon in its entirety in order to reconcile the opinions of the gods toward Rome. The Pantheon became a building to celebrate the imperial institution rather than its individual dynasties, as Agrippa had originally envisioned. This differentiation is precisely the aim Hadrian had while rebuilding the Pantheon, to celebrate the imperial order. He had the unique challenge to prove that the Imperial order was part of the Divine order. This is one of the reasons the Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon with a new design.

The new design reflected Hadrian’s desire “to prove that the Imperial order, with its rule of law and its care for the republic, was part of the divine order, initiated by it and subsumed to it”. [4] Hadrian believed the gods were unhappy with Agrippa’s placement of Augustus alongside deities and this lead to the fire and lightning that ruined the first two Pantheon structures.

Hadrian completely rebuilt the building of the Pantheon, and altered the original design. He transformed the original structure into an octastyle porch, and created a large forecourt. The rotunda is a sphere of brick-faced concrete. The interior wall of the rotunda had eight exedras, with eight alternating apses, making the sixteen divisions in the interior space. Also behind the rotunda Hadrian built a basilica dedicated to Neptune. Hadrian held court in the Pantheon rotunda, so that as his biography described it, “So that whatever was done was made public.”

Hadrian even used simple details, such as the marble floors that recall of the earth, with sphere and square shapes, just as the dome recalls the heavens. This symbolism also relates to the large scale shapes of the Pantheon. Some scholars argue this reinforces the symbolism of the Pantheon as a symbol of the Roman world, with Rome and the emperor at its center.

McKwen explains that Hadrian’s plea was to the celestial gods. It seems the Imperial order could be vindicated because of the way the Pantheon corresponds with the order of the 16 part Etruscan sky that orients the earth. Hadrian used design elements in the Pantheon in order to spread the message of the monument, and cement the symbolism he created.

The Pantheon has been extremely monumental to future generations. Various copies have been made, including monuments in Paris, London, and even a modern copy at the University of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson. Lastly, the Corinthian capitals on the façade of the Pantheon were a standard used by Renaissance architects.

While researching this topic there were many period stories and anecdotes that surprised me. However, the most surprising was the first time I actually saw the building. After reading and doing so much research, I was awe inspired. When I finally stepped inside, I was overcome by the enormous oculus and the feeling it evoked inside me. I had so much fun learning about the Pantheon, but even more fun being inside and wondering about the rich history of such an important monument.

Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000.

Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. Hadrian’s Rome. The Classical Review: Vol. 38, No. 2, 1988.

Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro, Daniel J Gargola, Richard J.A. Talbert, The Romans: From Village to Empire. Oxford University Press, New York, 2004.

Davies, Paul, David Hemsoll, and Mark Wilson Jones, “The Pantheon: Triumph of Rome or Triumph of Compromise”, Art History, v. 10, June, 1987.

Furnari, Michele. Formal Design in Renaissance Architecture, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, New York, 1995.

Hibbert, Christopher. Rome. Penguin Books, London, 1985.

Hutchinson, Paul. On the Structure of the Roman Pantheon. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 68, No. 1, 1986.

Joost-Gaugier, Christiane L. The Iconography of Sacred Space: A Suggested Reading of the Meaning of the Roman Pantheon. Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 19, No. 38, 1998.

Kempers, Bram. Painting, Power and Patronage. Allen Lane the Penguin Press, New York, 1992.

Marder, Tod A. Alexander VII, Bernini, and the Urban Setting of the Pantheon in the Seventeenth Century. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 50, No. 3, 1991.

McEwen, Indra Kagis, “Hadrian’s Rhetoric I: the Pantheon”, RES, vol. 24, Autumn, 1993.

Scaife, C. H. O. The Origin of Some Pantheon Columns. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 43, 1953.

[1] McEwen, Indra Kagis, “Hadrian’s Rhetoric I” RES, Vol. 24, Autumn, 1993.

[2] Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000.

[3] MacDonald, William L., The Pantheon, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1967.

[4] McEwen, Indra Kagis, “Hadrian’s Rhetoric I” RES, Vol. 24, Autumn, 1993.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Il Colosseo: On the Politics and Propaganda that Persisted Past Previous Periods in the Colosseum

Anthony Arpin
Honors in Rome - WInter 2007

It is impossible to understand why people act the way they do across cultures, let alone millennia. However, given the evidence historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, etc. have been able to conjure up, it is now understood that there existed a time in Roman history where people were popularly and successfully entertained with various forms of murder. These forms included gladiatorial games, animal hunts, and prisoner executions. Granted it is beyond the scope of this paper to completely account for these activities, but this paper will provide some insight as to why the games were put on and why the audiences were so hooked. The murderous activities being discussed all took place at the Colosseum, possibly the greatest living monument in all of ancient history. Though gladiatorial games took place in other locations before the Colosseum’s construction, none were of equal or greater scale than those that were carried out in this centerpiece of Rome. General knowledge about the Colosseum and Gladiator games comes from popular media and commonly held myths that may be misleading or outright false. The historical evidence we do have consists of theories that may or may not be true. Even written records dating back to the time of the operational Colosseum tend to embellish or exaggerate what was possible at the time. This is not to discredit the amazing feats of the Romans (achieved with a lot of slave labor), but to portray the most accurate representation of the Colosseum’s history that science can offer.

First, it is important to understand the conditions in which the Colosseum’s creation came about. Rome was on the verge of a civil war. The hated emperor Nero had built a palace for himself, called the Golden House, after a fire raged through Rome in AD 64. Circumstances worsened for Nero in AD 68 when the Senate stripped him of his powers; which eventually caused Nero to flee and commit suicide. Then, Civil War broke out in the year 69, the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’. One of those emperors, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, commonly known as Vespasian, became victorious.

In AD 70, Vespasian and his son Titus sacked Jerusalem and returned to Rome victors with huge riches. Though the Golden House of Nero was quite hated, part of it was put to use by Vespasian and Titus for Imperial needs. A huge private lake that Nero had built became site of the, now and then famous, Colosseum. As stated by a poem by Martial:

Where the stupendious theatre’s vast Pile

Is rear’d, then Nero’s Fish-ponds were e’er while

Rome’s to it self restor’d; in Ceasar’s Reign

The Prince’s Pleasures now the People gain.

Facts about the Colosseum that are known for sure are that it was built for the people, ordered by Vespasian, funded by taxes and the spoils of war with Jerusalem; however, the artist or architect remains unknown. One theory that exists is that Virgil (who died many decades prior to construction of the Colosseum), Rome’s greatest poet, is the creator, but this and other theories are unfounded. No knowledge of the author or architect survives. Historians know that Vespasian died before the completion of the Colosseum in AD 80, but his son Titus saw its completion.

The name of the monument we use today, Colosseum, is an adopted name. At the time, it was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, after Vespasian’s family name. Vespasian preserved the statue of Nero, ‘The Colossus’ that stood outside of the Colosseum. To further confuse this issue (as the statue of The Colossus no longer exists), the eighth century scholar Bede stated, “So long as the Colisaeus stands, Rome also stands, when the Colisaeus falls, Rome will fall too” that is commonly attributed to the Colosseum, but it actually refers to the statue of the Colossus. Rome fell not long after the actual Colossus fell, which made it a better prediction of Rome’s fate.

The Colosseum is quite an architectural spectacle; it amazes people today as it did nearly 2000 years ago. The Colosseum stands 157 feet tall, 615 feet long and 510 feet wide. An inherently immense structure, it is considered even more impressive since it was not built into a hillside or a depression just like other amphitheatres of the time , but on a level surface. Because a lot of the Colosseum was lost, pillaged, rebuilt and maintained, it is difficult to ascertain specific details about the Colosseum. Archeologists cannot accurately date the various parts of the Colosseum, since what remains today isn’t exactly the same as when it was first built. There was a major rebuild in the third century when lightning struck the Colosseum and burned it. Half of the outer wall is destroyed. The marble facings, paintings, decorations, the floor and the seating no longer exist. Nevertheless, as much of the outer structure remains as it once was.

There are four arcaded stories; the first three are open archways, each with their own distinct architecture. On the ground floor are columns of the Doric order, the first floor colomns of Ionic, and on the second, columns of Corinthian. The third story also has Corinthian columns, but there are windows instead of arches. This was both traditional and innovative in using multiple established types of column; this is something that came to be copied by many generations. Then, on the roof are sockets that are said to have held up the roof of the Colosseum. The most probable theory is that there was a large mast and boom construction (similar to that of sail ships of that time period and it is probable that sailors operated this), which allowed the raising and lowering of the roof, as well as the retracting of the roof in order to keep it from being destroyed during storms.

There are eighty entrances to the Colosseum that allowed easy access for a great number of people. All but four of these entrances are numbered; the ones not numbered lie on the four ‘corners’ of the stadium that was reserved for performers, emperors, and those presenting the shows. Upon entering, the seats are ranked hierarchically (even though seats were to be free). The ringside seats (like today) went to the richest, from Senators, to Knights, and then to normal citizens, and lastly to slaves and women (except the Vestal Virgins). The Emperor and the Vestal Virgins had special box seats. The capacity of the stadium has been argued to have held as high 90,000 people, to a more realistically 40,000. The rich could easily leave their seats from the lower levels, avoiding the people from the upper level who had to funnel into a tight area, so as to let the rich out first and alone. The floor was covered with sand (Latin word for sand is arena), which was used to soak up blood and other remains. Surrounding the arena was a wall to protect spectators (though the action might get very close with a rampaging elephant).

Below ground is even more complicated than above ground. There are many passageways, tunnels and storerooms. There were trapdoors and elevators to bring scenery or exotic animals into view. These underground structures are probably not part of the original plan, and were most likely built under Titus’ successor Domitian.

When the Colosseum opened in AD 80 under the emperor Titus,, a hundred days of gladiator games, executions and beast hunts commenced. The beasts were not only local, but wild exotics, including lions and tigers and bears, elephants, rhinos and hippos. Women were even involved in these beast hunts. The executions themselves were extravagant, often portraying famous or mythological people in a play that resulted in their death. All of this was for the entertainment of the citizens of Rome.

The extent of the bloodshed seems to be over exaggerated by the poets who recounted the events, or within the records of the officials putting on the shows. An example of this would be the depiction the expense involved in putting on shows, the capture and transport of wild and dangerous animals from great distances, the training and purchase of Gladiators, as well as the famous mock sea battles where the entire stadium was flooded (this is much disputed on how many times this occurred, or even if it occurred in the stadium).

Within a short period time of history, thousands of gladiators were said to have fought and died in the Colosseum; however, the lives of the Gladiators wern’t as bad as it has been made out (though it was no cakewalk either ). The average Gladiator possibly fought twice a year, which entailed a few dozen matches in his lifetime. His lifespan sometimes exceeded that of the peasants (aside from untimely deaths). The Gladiators achieved a celebrity status (though were still shunned as slaves), received gifts, food, and women.

Pollice Verso (1872) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum)

There were supposedly many different types of fighters, each with their own unique fight style (either from their native country or given to them by their trainers). They were at the mercy of the Emperor or those putting on the show, such as senators. The thumbs turned meant death, though it has been thought that thumbs down means death, thumbs up is life; or thumbs up and in meant death, down and out and (and away) meant life, or thumbs turned (pointed towards the chest meant death) and a closed fist meant life. Most of these details come from the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, who gathered as many facts as he could about the Colosseum. There is no undisputable evidence about the gladiators at the Colosseum, other than the fact that many Gladiators fought there. Today there are visible ruins of a training camp with an underground passageway next door to the Colosseum.

The spectators themselves were involved in the happenings of the Colosseum. It was a place to gather and speak with each other, and to see the many stratifications of Roman society. Though the seats were ‘free’ for citizens, the tickets were probably handed out by elites, for favors or money. Since the majority of tickets were probably given to the more wealthy first, there wouldn’t have been a mishmash of the super elite and the dirt poor. This is because the stadium held nearly 50,000 people at any given time, and the adult male population (which were the primary attendees) in Rome totaled approximately 250,000; this meant that no more than a fifth of the population was present at any given time.

Vespasian, the original patron’s goal was to have the people forget about Nero, and to have a place to go when there was downtime all the while being fixated on a given spectacle (this was to prevent the mob from gathering on their own). Further, this large gathering of people allowed them to voice their opinions to the emperor. The original patron’s goals were not achieved with respect to Nero, because Nero became immortal because of the name Colosseum. Vespasian succeeded dearly with the second goal. The games went on for hundreds of years after their inauguration, keeping the public’s attention on entertainment, showing them the power and might of Rome.

Later emperors used the Colosseum to gain respect or love from the citizens. They would put on lavish shows, and shower their audience with gifts, sometimes food, gold or other surprises. They were attentive to the games, never busying themselves with their imperial duties. On the contrary, bad emperors would do terrible things. Either throwing spectators into the ring when no more prisoners were left to be executed, or join the ring as a gladiator themselves; Commodus most famously did this. Commodus would kill animals and other gladiators himself to boast his skill. The emperors didn’t want to be surpassed by the games they put on, so they tried to suppress this in their own ways. The Colosseum was to show the image of the Emperor to its citizens, and what he could do for them.

The citizens loved the bloodshed, and there is little indication (besides from abject Christians and the first century philosopher, Seneca) that there were objections. The costs of the games led to their eventual downfall (also linked to the fall of Rome). Damages to the Colosseum and upkeep were very expensive, as well as the shows that were put on. The games became fewer and fewer, and the end of the Colosseum, as the Romans knew it, ended.

However, this was not the end of the Colosseum and its many uses throughout history. It became home to the homeless, vendors, and even a dumping ground. The Colosseum also became a great supplier for builders pillaging marble, stone and iron. Considering the amount of spolia gathered, much of Rome may have some of the Colosseum in it. Eventually the Christians took over the Colosseum, making it a holy site and home to the many Christian martyrs (there is no evidence supporting this, just myth and speculation). It became a Christian symbol nevertheless, and a small church was erected. Eventually Christians lost power over the Colosseum and archaeologists won in their pursuits to begin excavating the area.

After the Church had nearly permanently left the Colosseum, Mussolini took over, sponsoring excavations, and built a road right next to it. Mussolini put up a cross that still stands today, praising Pope Pius XI, King Victor Emmanuel II, and himself. Mussolini used this site as a tool of propaganda, and put up the cross to appease the Catholics.

Though the structure as it stands today is in poor condition, and much of it is gone and is unlike its original form, it still is influential to current amphitheatres. It also stands among existing amphitheatres as one of the biggest and most extravagant ever constructed. The style of the Colosseum was mostly influential to other Roman architects and artists of the time. The use of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns within the same façade was a style that was repeated due to its influence. What most amazes people today, is the sheer size, beauty and workmanship put into the Colosseum. It has survived for nearly two thousand years, and remains intact even after all iron supports were removed, thanks to a huge foundation underneath. The Romans planned well for the Colosseum survival to this day.

What most surprised me about the Colosseum when I researched is not only little we know about the ancient workings of the Colosseum, but also how much was made up much later than when the games took place or exaggerated (or misinterpreted later) of the content of the games. I learned so much about gladiators, far more than the extent that this paper provided, and their lives were quite interesting. I was amazed at how much was put into a single game, and how much these games must have cost. I still can’t figure out how they captured and maintained these wild exotic animals, and brought them back live enough to fight. The ingenuity of the Romans is only eclipsed by the brutality of the games. As much as we shun the games, I wonder if we would have been caught in the spectacle as so many of the Romans did. Sure, we watch movies with insane amounts of violence and gore, but real life is so much different. Still, the wonders of Rome will never cease to amaze the world or me.


Benko and O’Rourke. The Catacombs and the Colosseum. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press 1971.

Coarelli, Filippo. The Colosseum. Los Angeles : J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.

Hopkins and Beard. The Colosseum. Great Britain: Profile Books Ltd, 2005.

Luciani, Roberto. The Colosseum : architecture, history, and entertainment in the
Flavian amphitheatre, ancient Rome's most famous building. Novara : Istituto geografico De Agostini, c1990

Winkler, Martin. Gladiator Film and History. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

“The Colosseum.” History Channel.

“Unsolved History Roman Colosseum” Discovery Channel.

“Secrets of Lost Empires Colosseum” Nova.

Morgan, Geoffrey. The Rise And Fall Of The Colosseum.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Turtle Fountain

Veneta Tashev
Honors in Rome -Winter 2007
Small Presentation

On a sunny day when one wonders off in Rome one is bound to stumble upon a fountain, one of the boundless number created throughout the ages and part of Rome’s extensive network of ancient aqueducts. One of my favorites is the Turtle Fountain or as the Italians say Fonte delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei. The piazza is named after the family who owned two buildings and the courtyard, this is called paganica, and it is a member of the Mattei family who sponsored the creation of the fountain. The casual observer would note that the marble fountain has a high main basin and four shell shaped lower basins and above each a bronze youth is standing with his hair blown by the wind. A careful observer would see that each boy is stepping on a fish from which mouth water pours into the shell basin below it and that each boy has an outstretched hand towards the high basin from which a turtle is stepping onto the basin edge. An expert observer would not miss that the boys are not identical; that the turtles are not touching the youths’ hands and that the fountain is made of different types of marble.

The architects of Fonte della Tartarughe are Giacomo della Porta and Taddeo Landini. Della Porta is the one who did the overall design and Landini the one who is accredited with the design and execution of the youths. The fountain was completed in 1588 and its water comes from from the Acqua Vergine, said to contain the best water of all the aqueducts. It interesting to look a bit more into the history of Della Porta (1533-1602). He is a very well known sculptor and architect. He is the one who finished Michelangelo's Dome of St. Peter's and also the one who build the two small fountains on Piazza Navona: Fontana di Nettuno (1574) in the north and the Fontana del Moro (1576) in the south.

Not many know but the turtles did not exist when the fountain was created. Originally the fountain was supposed to have eight fish – specifically eight dolphins. Four of them we still see today – the ones under the boys’ feet. The other four should have stood where we see the turtles today. They were designed, but ether never put up or taken down shortly after that. The boys stood with empty outstretched hands for about a century before the situation was remedied. In 1658 Pope Alexander VII renovated the fountain and commissioned Bernini for the job. The baroque artist ingeniously added turtles, that have just stepped of the youths’ hands. Some people argue that it was an unknown artist who added them and others that it was a student of Bernini. However given that Pope Alexander VII was an avid patron of Bernini and that the artist had used turtles in the past on other fountains, such as the Palazzo Barberini fountain, I believe that most likely it was Bernini responsible for the turtles. They are a very suitable choice, for they are marine creatures in harmony with dolphins.

We know that the renovation was sponsored by Alexander VII by the inscription that was left on the fountain. If one stands in front of it and walks counterclockwise reading each plaque on the bottom we acquire the phrase: Alexander VII Annopontif(icatus) IV resturavit ornavitque. The latest restoration to this date has been done in the summer of 2006, when the grime and minerals that had stuck to the marble and bronze was removed to reveal the gorgeous shades of the different marble and the shinny and detailed figures of the youths, fish and of course of the turtles.

Most sources never mention the reason for the building of the fountain, there are a few however that talk of a love story, weather we choose to believe it o not is left to us. The story goes that one of the gentlemen who belonged to the Mattei family was well known for having loose purse strings. He fell in love with the daughter of a merchant and wanted to marry her, but the father would not hear of it, he did not believe that someone with no respect for money could be wealthy enough to support his child. Angry Mattei decided to disprove him. Thus he commissioned the fountain. When it was completed he invited the merchant and his daughter for dinner and they accepted. On their visit Mattei showed them the fountain and said “So, now you can see I am not poor but rich. I only do this because I love her.” Unfortunately a marriage agreement was not reached, but the fountain still stands today. Another story says that the merchant lived across the piazza from the Mattei and the daughter’s windows looked down on the fountain. She was in love with Mattei and once the marriage agreement failed she could not stand to look upon the symbol of their love, so she had her windows sealed. Today when one looks up along one of the walls on the piazza one can see two windows, which don’t look to any room, but instead are brick walls.

Partesi, Ludovico and Rendina, Laura.“Roman Fountains by Bernini.” Ingegneria per la Cultura. Fratelli Pabombi srt, Rome, July 1999.

Travelers blog:

Another source with more details:

Forum, Markets and Column of Trajan

Kristina Dahlberg

Honors in Rome – Winter 2007


Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, was born September 18th, 53 AD in the city of Italica. Commonly referred to as Trajan, the Roman Empire achieved its greatest historical extent under his rule. Trajan was the son of a prominent Italian senator and general, Marcus Ulpius Traianus. Trajan served in the Roman army and Syrian army when his father was governor of that province. Trajan quickly rose through the ranks, becoming nominated as Consul in 91 AD with Domitian was emperor at the time.

It was at this point that Trajan brought Apollodorus of Damascus to Rome. Apollodorus was a Greek architect, engineer and sculptor who designed Trajan’s forum and Column as well as being widely acknowledged as the main architect of the Pantheon.

Trajan took a significant part in Domitian’s wars along the Rhine River, as well as others under Nerva’s short rule. When Nerva became emperor, Trajan was appointed as governor of upper Germany. Nerva was the first emperor to select his successor by potential rather than paternal relation. Nerva was also considered to be the first of the “five good emperors of the Roman Empire”, a series of five emperors all chosen by adoption and known for less tyrannical and oppressive policies. Nerva became emperor after the murder of Domitian, and his seat in office was not considerably stable. To cement his rule, Nerva chose the popular Trajan as his adopted son in the summer of 97. Trajan was highly respected and succeeded to power without issue.

The Forum of Trajan was the last in a series of grand imperial constructions that were intended to complement the fairly limited space of the Roman Forum. Domitian specifically had taken a personal interest in the architecture of Rome and wanted to add to the existing imperial constructions, so he began the construction of a vast Forum, including clearing out markets that citizens had previously used in the area. During Nerva’s short rein of 96 to 98 AD, he did not permit the resumption of Domitian’s forum because he was otherwise occupied with foreign affairs. The neglect of the construction of the Forums continued as Trajan first assumed office, as Domitian’s costly constructions had consumed the imperial treasury.
Construction of the forum did not continue until the Dacian wars, which provided Trajan with the funds to complete the Forum and its lavish buildings. The construction of the Forum began in 106 AD, and most of the buildings were complete by 112 AD. The Column of Trajan was dedicated in 113 AD, and upon Trajan’s death in 117 AD he was cremated and buried inside it. In the next 11 years Hadrian had completed a temple to Trajan, now defied, which was completed in 128 AD. Though not constructed by Trajan, the temple likely was planned in advance and constructed in the Forum itself.


The forum was designed as “a rectangular, axially symmetrical, and frontally orientated plaza that was framed by the Basilica Ulpia and the adjacent East and West colonnades and separated from the rest of the city by high fire walls.” (Packer 174) The Basilica Ulpia, divided the piazza from the Column of Trajan, two opposite Greek and Latin libraries and, later, the Temple of Trajan were all hidden by the law court. Curving around the eastern hemicycle of the forum were Trajan’s markets, a complex of shops and offices for Roman citizen use.

The Forum of Trajan was influenced by the large scale temples of Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as markets and shrines of the Hellenistic east. The forum also incorporated some local architecture; the Theatre of Pompey and the Forum of Augustus himself, which really influenced much of the plan and the “cool classicizing style of the architectural elements.”(Packer 174) “Apollodorus’s plan for the Forum of Trajan was an intelligent blend of oriental, Greek, Italic and Roman elements that visually expressed Rome’s unique position as the capital of the Mediterranean World.”(Packer 174)
The Markets of Trajan were fairly innovative in that they were the first to incorporate an indoor shopping experience. All markets previous had been a series of outdoor shops.

The Markets were truly revolutionary in that they did not utilize one supporting column but instead were able to successfully disperse the weight through a series of arches. The markets also show extensive planning in “the relationships between the streets and shops, the functional locations of the stair systems and ramps, and the pains taken to bring adequate lighting and ventilation to nearly every roofed space.” (Packer 25) The markets were roofed by a concrete vault raised on piers, serving the dual purpose of providing cover and also to allow in air and light.

The Forum of Trajan, again, borrowed heavily from other sources and this is evident even in the equestrian statue of Trajan in the center of the forum. This statue heavily imitated the equestrian statue of Caesar in the Roman Forum. Trajan’s column was innovative in its design of the rotating depiction of the Dacian wars, which was depicted, arguably, to great effect. Although it was common to engage the viewer, and force one to focus on a particular tomb, none arguably, was able to do so with quite as much success as Apollodorus in the Column of Trajan.


The Markets of Trajan were again created as replacements to former markets, destroyed by Domitian to make way for the Forum. The shops inside the markets varied in size, though most were rather small, the customer would have actually approached the door from outside and then have been served. The rooms at the level of the Forum would have been occupied by cashiers of the imperial treasury, while shops at higher levels would have been given to private venders.

The Column of Trajan was designed to attract attention and keep the focus of the viewer, for only “disinterest or neglect means a true ‘death’.” (Davies 56) Many believe that the design was not successful because of the awkward viewing angle as well as the fact that because of the location of the Basilica Ulpia and the surrounding libraries, the viewer would not have a sufficient amount of space to back away from the column so to view the various scenes depicted. However, according to Davies’ article, the Column of Trajan was successful in its task of maintaining reader focus because circumventing the column was fairly ritualistic and insured that attention was maintained.

The Forum itself was decorated extremely lavishly with marble from all over the world. The extensive flashy use of different colored marbles emphasized the imperial power able to organize extensive human and monetary resources that was able to provide Rome with such expensive foreign material. “Although composed of simple geometric elements, the plan of the forum must have seemed enormously complex to the ancient visitor.” (Packer 37)
The Forum constantly revealed itself to the visitor; “a series of unfolding surprises, with each new perspective revealing something new.” (Davies 57) The Basilica Ulpia hid much of the Column of Trajan, the libraries and the temple from view, the Column of Trajan was “only fully visible from the north terrace of the Basilica Ulpia of the Steps of the temple.” (Packer 175) “Consequently, these architectural “secrets” transformed a casual walk through the forum into a series of progressive visual revelations...” (Packer 176)

The Forum was a complex structure, chosen to be an optimum method of political propaganda because it would continue to be an essential part of everyday life for many Romans utilizing the libraries, law office or, usually, the markets. The complex was designed chiefly to glorify the new Roman Empire and his military victories in Dacia. The citizens of Rome required the explanation of necessity and benefit of the Dacian wars, as wars are generally costly and often fruitless.

Trajan’s primary operative was to remain in power, and he had learned from past Emperors such as Domitian how fickle public opinion could be. Trajan and Apollodorus apparently consequently conceived of the Forum of Trajan as the triumphant climax in the series of imperial propaganda that were designed to maximize public opinion by showing a understanding and concern of a Roman citizen’s needs.

The Forum and Markets were created for the people, to show off an aggressive grandeur, which was successfully gained from the Dacian wars. The Forum of Trajan was designed to show off the competence, strength and superiority of Rome to its citizens and visitors. This is entirely evident in the monument at the center of the Forum. This depicts the figure of Trajan mounted on an impressive steed, with the symbols of war and victory held high. The richness and exoticness of the materials chosen to use also ensured a similar effect. “Expensive imported marbles and standards and statues of gilded bronze that crowned the surrounding buildings were the unmistakable signs of an overwhelming imperial prosperity and achievement.” (Packer 187)
The Column itself is the most clearly attempting to convey a message. The Column is an obvious tribute to Trajan’s wars, with the bottom half devoted to the first Dacian war, and the top half devoted to the second Dacian war. The column is designed with very little actual battle scenes in an attempt to downplay the actual atrocities and realities of war. Instead the column depicts more peaceful scenes, always showing Roman soldiers in complete control. The Roman soldiers depicted struggle almost exclusively in the direction of the spiral itself, this allows the viewer to add his or her own strength when viewing and essentially is simply another technique in which to downplay the reality of war.
Roman society was fairly poor at the beginning of Trajan’s rule, largely due to Domitian’s lavish building. In many ways Trajan’s conquests of Dacia were viewed as costly rather than valuable by the common people because of the large cost of war in general. Thus Trajan was required to show what money was gained from these conquests, and he did this not only in the excessive grandeur but also in placing “From Spoils” on many of the columns in the Forum itself to further cement this idea.


As the Forum of Trajan borrowed heavily from other monuments it does not appear to be considered extremely influential. However, the Markets of Trajan were extremely influential and revolutionary in form, and essentially were the birth of the shopping mall experience.

The Column of Trajan continues to fascinate us to this day because of the stunning artwork portrayed. The artwork continues to astound and inform audiences to this day. Historians look to the intricate artwork for clues on how wars were fought, what kind of weaponry was used as well as many other historical clues. A perfect example of the influence of the Column of Trajan is the Column of Marcus Aurelius, now standing in the Piazza Colonna. This Column borrows heavily from Trajan’s Column, utilizing the circumventing imagery effectively. The Column is so similar in fact, it is often confused with Trajan’s.


The most fascinating find during my research was the through extent that the propaganda infiltrated every aspect of the construction of the Forum and Column of Trajan. Knowing how many specific instances could be explained in such minute detail was eye opening for me and really made me realize how many other Roman monuments were just as carefully constructed. This knowledge has made me rethink the way in which I approach any monument constructed by the governing body in power.

Another fascinating bit of information was the sheer detail that one could see and learn by studying the Column of Trajan. One could learn a great deal of historically significant and fascinating information simply by thoroughly reading into the Column’s artwork. The information that fascinated me the most involved the fact that all of this information – the way in which the statues were poised as well as the hand gestures, would convey their meaning to the Roman citizen clearly with little effort. An uneducated Roman citizen would be much better positioned to read the artwork of the Forum of Trajan than some of the most learned historians today. This realization of what really is meant by 2000 years of history, and how much can change in culture and our understanding of it is the most profound ‘take-away’ of this project and presentation.


Beard, Mary, and John Henderson. Classical Art : From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Davies, Penelope J.E. The Politics of Perpetuation:Trajan's Column and the Art of Commemoration. American Journal of Archaeology, v. 101, 1997.

Hedrick, Charles W. History and Silence : Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity. Texas: University of Texas P, 2000.

Heiken, Grant, Renato Funiciello, and Donatella De Rita. The Seven Hills of Rome : a Geological Tour of the Eternal City. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Macdonald, William. The Architecture of the Roman Empire. 2nd ed. Bingham, NY: Yale UP, 1982. 75-83.

Packer, James E. The Forum of Trajan in Rome. 1st ed. London, England: University of California P, 2001.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Ara Pacis Augustae

Brian Spencer
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

By the late first century B.C., Augustus and the ruling Roman elite were intensely conscious of Rome’s position as heir and administrator of the Greek legacy in all its cultural, political, and economic ramifications. But they were also committed to the belief that the Roman state could meet the imperial challenge only by renewing and revitalizing popular belief in the national mores and institutions which had been progressively eroded by the decades of military and political strife, social unrest, and cultural confrontation endemic to the Late Republic (Castriota 3).

In general terms, precisely this harkening back to a golden age of peace and plenty is the cultural story that was both perpetuated by and gave rise to the Ara Pacis Augustae. It is a perfect example of, as dictated by the fashion of the time, the use of traditionally Greek forms to promulgate a new distinctly Roman ethos, specifically one legitimizing the position of the new emperor (Castriota 4). The original site of the Ara Pacis Augustae was consecrated on July 4, 13 B.C., shortly after Augustus’ return to Rome after successful campaigns in Gaul and Spain, and the completed monument itself was finally dedicated on his wife’s birthday, January 30, in the year 9 B.C. (Conlin 3). Because the leitmotif of his reign was peace, Augustus often chose to have his image and his monuments associated with peacetime scenes of myth and life, and such is the case with the Ara Pacis. Thus, the Ara Pacis, though it may have nothing to do with war, conflict, or the traditional form in which we may envision “propaganda,” is still a deliberate piece of propaganda in that it represents a bold statement of the sweeping reinvigoration of Roman society that Augustus hoped to accomplish with his reign. As a final introductory caveat, the Ara Pacis we know today was reconstructed in 1938, but the original was “probably identical”1 with the richly carved Augustan altar that bears its name today” (Janson 143).

Architecturally, the Ara Pacis is in keeping with more general, traditional Greek altar design, of which first century BC Romans saw themselves as caretakers and inheritors. However, the only known structure closely resembling it is the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, a Hellenic-period Greek kingdom near the coast of modern-day Turkey (Janson 144). In this manner it was somewhat nontraditional. There were differences in the construction of the building and the size of the altar, but “none of these disparities affects the fundamental typological identity of both monuments” (Castriota 35), and thus the monument was in keeping with the Greek tradition, though it has no parallel in Greece proper.

Above: Altar of Zeus – Pergamon (now in Berlin) Below: Ara Pacis Augustae - Rome

The Ara Pacis is about 6.1 meters tall, and 11.63 by 10.52 meters at its base (ARA PACIS). It is constructed entirely of gorgeous white marble, and enhancing its beauty are the intricate friezes about its surfaces. “The Ara Pacis consist of two main components: the altar proper, which rests on a high, U-shaped base approached by four marble steps on the west face; and a precinct wall that surrounds the altar” (Conlin 4). It currently stands in Rome, on the spot to which Mussolini relocated it as part of his “Roman theme park,” under the shelter of a controversial new building by American architect Richard Meier. The controversy arises both from the building’s post-modern design and from a faction of Italians that believe a project of such import to Italian history and heritage should be given to an Italian architect (Seabrook 56). Interestingly, when the Ara Pacis originally stood on the edge of the Campus Martius, the altar was oriented so that the individual making the sacrifice had to turn his back to the Campus Martius—and, by implication, the God presiding over that field—thus dedicating his full attention to pursuits of peace (Freibergs 7). However, more important than the monument’s physical characteristics is the meaning of the carvings.

The Ara Pacis has two main friezes on its outer precinct walls and four smaller ones on the smaller corner wall surfaces, as labeled below, as well as intricate adornment on the altar itself and inside the precinct walls.

The Tellus relief provides an interesting place to start, as its meaning has long been in contention in scholarly circles. In the frieze, there is a representation of an Earth Mother figure surrounded by images of abundance, such as stalks of wheat, fruit, a cow, a sheep and poppies. This figure’s identification has proven to be difficult due to a glut of symbols in the relief that are traditionally associated with various goddesses. The figure has been tagged not only as a broad range of Greco-Roman fertility goddesses including Tellus, Venus, or Ceres, but also as peace herself: Pax (Castriota 66). There are also two infants on the figure’s lap. Instantly, Romulus and Remus spring to mind, though they have no characteristics that make certain identification possible. There are also two wind deities, velificantes, representing the land and sea winds that breathe life into the farmland of the Roman Empire (Casstriota 70). Regardless of ambiguities, the Tellus frieze sends a powerful message forecasting the peace and plenty that Roman citizens will enjoy in the Pax Augustae.

There is, however, further meaning in the difficulty scholars have had in determining the exact identity of the Tellus figure. Castriota writes that the “mixed iconography could reflect the religious syncretism” (71), indicating that the frieze is meant to show the concordance of the major earth goddesses. He goes on to argue that this agreement among these goddesses is, elsewhere in Greco-Roman art, an indication of peace—indeed, without the goddesses in agreement no peace is possible. With this intentional ambiguity in the identification of the Tellus figure, the observer is called upon to see all of the goddesses in harmony, and to make the conclusion that they, cooperatively, endorse Augustus’ reign and mean to reign their blessings down upon it.

Diagonally across the monument from the Tellus frieze is the Romulus and Remus relief. In this scene, the god Mars watches over his offspring, Romulus and Remus, as they are being suckled by the she-wolf. This depiction of the Roman foundation myth serves to remind the viewer of a return to the roots of Roman society, and especially a revival of morality that Augustus is trying to accomplish. Furthermore, the scene is propagandistic in that “contemporaries… would have been reminded that Augustus renewed the Lupercalia” (Freibergs 9). The Lupercalia was the Roman festival of fertility on the date of the modern Valentine’s Day, and so revitalizing its celebration would have been seen as a step in the trend toward rediscovering a glorious past.

Looking to one’s right facing the front of the monument, one finds the frieze traditionally credited as Aeneas. The identification of this frieze has recently been challenged in scholarly circles. The new theory states that the frieze may actually have been meant to be taken as a representation of Numa Pompilius and not Aeneas. If this is the case, then there is a great deal of added propagandistic significance in the frieze. If we are to assume that this frieze represents Aeneas, then several incongruities with other portrayals of the scene arise. He appears bizarrely barefoot, middle-aged, wearing an archaic-era Italian toga, with a full beard and long, free hair, offering a sacrifice. The customary depiction of Aeneas, though, is a young, armored man full of valor, most often beardless. Further, in the Aeneid myth, Aeneas offered sacrifice when he arrived in Italy to fulfill the terms of a prophecy, yet this figure is obviously later in life than the traditional representation of Aeneas at his arrival (Rehak 196).

Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, was known for the era of peace, order, and law his subjects enjoyed under his reign. The figure’s barefoot state and his garment suggest the sculptors aimed to portray a simpler age than the early first century A.D., and the sacrificial content of the scene has relevance in that Numa is said to have offered sacrifice to Mars to avert war with the Sabines in the Campus Martius, the original site of the Ara Pacis (Rehak 196). This interpretation provides a strong link between the Ara Pacis’ purpose (to commemorate Augustus as a Prince of Peace) and the contention that the panel represents Numa, not Aeneas. Furthermore, the depiction of Numa in such a “fatherly” light suggests that the mantle and responsibility of a preserving peace in Rome was being “handed down” from Numa to Augustus (Rehak 197).

Another interpretation of this frieze is that the Numa/Aeneas figure is portrayed ambiguously on purpose, with the intention of conjuring up in the mind of the viewer the virtuous qualities of both men. This explains several incongruities in the interpretation of the scene as Numa, as opposed to Aeneas. For example, it explains the appearance of the Penates, a shrine to the Trojan household gods that Aeneas purportedly saved from the sack of Troy, in the frieze. It also explains why another figure in the frieze bears many visual cues characteristic of depictions of Aeneas’ son, Ascanius. This interpretation of the frieze as intentionally ambiguous seems to allow the viewer the best of both worlds—both the visage of Aeneas, with its message of the infusion of dignity and morality from the Trojan tradition and the image of Numa, with his mantle of peace.

If the Numa/Aeneas panel represents responsibility being handed down to Augustus, then the grand procession frieze on both sides of the building that depicts the Emperor Augustus taking up that mantle and leading the Roman people into a new era of peace. Though only 308 of 611 figures in the procession scene can be attributed to the original Ara Pacis due to reworking of the marble both before and after the procession friezes were discovered in the sixteenth century (Conlin 46), there is no disagreement in the scholarship that the original scene bore a resemblance to one we see today. Fortunately for the purposes of this paper, the changes to the scene do not undermine the propagandistic nature of the procession panels.

In order to understand the procession panels of the Ara Pacis, a review of the Augustan agenda is first necessary. This paper has already discussed Augustus’ wish to be portrayed in a peaceful setting and his harkening back to a “golden age” of morality, but there is also another key aspect of Augustus’ social program, his focus on strengthening the Roman (especially middle-class and patrician) family. “In particular, it was necessary to encourage marriage among the upper classes to check a falling birth rate” (Brunt 46). Thus arose the Leges Juliae de maritandis ordinibus and De Adulteriis, “Julian Laws on the Marriage of the Orders” and “On Adultery.” These laws created economic incentives for married couples, especially those with three or more children and punished those who were unmarried and adulterers (Brunt 47).

It is fitting, then, for this focus to be reflected in Augustus’ propaganda, and indeed it is. One notices in the processional friezes of the Ara Pacis the abundance of depictions of children. In contrast, statues and carvings featuring children are noticeably rare elsewhere in Late Republican and Early Imperial art; yet on these friezes, they accompany their elders to the sacrifice in great numbers. This sends a clear message that Augustus’ new regime values children and wants the Roman citizenry to use the new age of Augustan peace to reproduce and spread Roman culture and morality.

Another interesting thing about the procession panels is that they provide an example of a theme in this paper: the appropriation of Hellenic forms and their synthesis into subtly new Roman ones. Though the portraiture shows influence from the Hellenic style, there is a key difference from the traditional Greek form. Whereas the Greeks always portrayed mythical scenes as allegorical representations of real events (Janson 142), the Roman figures in the procession are clearly meant to be recognizable individuals. Augustus himself, in the dress of a sacrificial priest and his chief general, Agrippa, are a few of those identifiable (Janson 143).

Diagonally across the Ara Pacis from the Aeneas/Numa frieze one finds the depiction of Roma. Though the frieze is mostly missing from the Ara Pacis, scholars know what the scene would have looked like from a copy of the Ara Pacis elsewhere in the Empire. The figure in depicted is a female warrior at rest atop her armor, which bears the crest of Rome. This has led scholars to believe that the figure is an embodiment of the city of Rome herself. She is at rest—enjoying the Pax Augustae—but also vigilant and watchful (Freibergs 11).

A particularly interesting part of the Ara Pacis’ sculpture is the under-discussed “floral friezes.” These have been neglected by many scholars, and even at times dismissed as mere decoration, but this is certainly not the case. The strangeness of the floral friezes lies in the fact that they are full of traditional Greek Dionysian symbols, such as six large grape vines and no fewer than ten sprigs of ivy, though Augustus’ divine patron was Apollo all throughout his career (Castriota 88).

It is especially fascinating that Augustus would adorn his Ara Pacis with such a plethora of Dionysian symbols in light of the fact that his goal of establishing a new Roman Empire under his stewardship came under threat so many time from men claiming Dionysus as their patron and from Dionysian propaganda. For example, at the end of the era of the Second Triumvirate, when Augustus (still Octavian at the time) fought Antony for control of the Roman domain, Antony had associated himself strongly with Dionysus, calling the God his “special protector” (Castriota 88). Further, if the historical record is to believed, Antony was himself Dionysian in character, and Octavian’s propaganda sought to make him, and his Hellenic ethics look morally bankrupt—an easy task when contrasted with Octavian’s staunch, Roman conception of order and his association with Apollo, a God of moderation (Castriota 89). Therefore, Octavian’s famous victory at Actium was meant to be seen as “a moral and cultural victory in which a new order founded on Western, Italian excellence triumphed over the decadent, Hellenic east” (Castriota 89).

The appealing image of Dionysus was also used against Rome by many other parties, including Mithridates VI, the charismatic New Dionysos King of Pontos in the early first century B.C., who sought to break Rome’s power in the east. Further, during the Social War in late Republican times, a coalition of Italian states allied against the Roman hegemon attempted to use the broad plebeian appeal of Dionysian, utopian propaganda to incite riots and uprising among Roman citizens (Castriota 90-1).

Given this history of Dionysian elements in society being so antithetical to Augusts’ vision for his ordered, Italic empire, why was Augustus so eager to adorn his monument with the traditional Greek symbols of Dionysus? The answer is that, by integrating Dionysus into the art of the new regime, Augusts sent the message that the God was a supporter of the new power structure, effectively dismantling and subverting his opponent’s propaganda. By appropriating the symbols of Rome’s enemies, Augustus was essentially engaging in a brilliant campaign of counter-propaganda. This fits with the theme of the assimilation of traditional Greek symbols into a new Roman ethos. The Dionysian symbols may have been Greek in form, but in light of the times they were quintessentially Roman.

The Ara Pacis represents a seminal work in the history of Augustan propaganda; this paper has discussed the friezes and how they each support and legitimize Augustus and the Pax Augustae. A central theme of this discussion has been Augustus’ attempt to cast his regime as the revitalization of Roman order, culture, and morality. The ways by which he accomplished this were numerous; this paper has discussed several. He synthesized accepted, traditional Greek art and architectural forms into a subtly distinct Roman style for his new regime, and this gave it a special legitimacy through an invocation of the weight of history. Further, he portrayed himself as the bringer of peace and plenty to a Roman citizenry accustomed to war and conflict. Finally, he assimilated the propaganda of Rome’s enemies, thereby turning it to his own utility. In all, the Ara Pacis is an essential piece of the legacy left by one of history’s first propagandists.

“ARA PACIS AUGUSTAE.” NZACT, Classics New Zeland. 12/2/2006

Brunt, P.A. and J. M. Moore (editors). Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achievments of the Divine Augustus. Oxford University Press, 1967.

Castriota, David. The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1995.

Conlin, Diane Atnally. The Artists of the Ara Pacis: The Process of Hellenization in Roman Relief Sculpture. The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Janson, H. W. History of Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Ney York, 1971.

Freibergs, G. et al. “Indo-European Tripartition and the Ara Pacis Augustae: An Excursus in Ideological Archaeology.” Numen 1986, Vol. 33, pp. 3-32.

Rehak, Paul. “Aeneas or Numa? Rethinking the Meaning of the Ara Pacis Augustae.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 83, No. 2. (Jun., 2001), pp. 190-208.

Seabrook, John. “Roman renovation.” The New Yorker 2005, Vol. 81, no. 11, 2 May, pp. 56-63.


1. “Identical…” Sic: later sources disprove this contention, eg. Conlin 46, see but the gist of the text—that the original Ara Pacis probably looked very similar—is certainly true and supported elsewhere in the literature.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Baths and Bathing in Ancient Roman Society, The Baths of Caracalla

Katie Furia
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007


In the words of Seneca, a Roman rhetorician and writer (ca. 54 BC - ca. 39 AD), “The baths, the wines and Venus corrupt our bodies, but the baths, the wines and Venus are life” (Piranomonte, 55). My research suggests that Seneca was right—baths and bathing were of great importance to the ancient Romans. The baths helped maintain good health, luxury, and indulgence for Rome’s citizens; they were often considered a public good for society; and many emperors throughout the history of imperial Rome bestowed public baths to their people as a generous gift. Bathing in ancient Rome is an interesting topic to study today, as public bathing is an unusual ritual to many contemporary cultures, and much about Roman baths still remains a mystery. This paper explores the history, engineering, and architecture of the Baths of Caracalla in particular, how baths functioned in Roman society, and Emperor Caracalla’s motivations behind his inauguration of the Baths.

A History of the Baths of Caracalla
One of the most famous thermae, or grand bath establishments, of Rome—once considered one of the seven wonders of Rome—are the Baths of Caracalla. They are second in size only to the Baths of Diocletian, dated almost a century later, and the Caracalla complex still stands with two upper stories and two underground levels. Septimius Severus commissioned the Baths in 206 A.D., and his son, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Bassianus, nicknamed Caracalla, inaugurated them in 216 A.D. His successors, Heliogabalus and Alexander Severus, added porticos (porches with roofs supported by columns or piers) and other decorations (Piranomonte, 3). After the reigns of Heliogabalus and Alexander Severus, Emperor Aurelian undertook restorations of the Baths after a fire, as did Emperor Diocletian by working on the aqueduct called forma Iobia. Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, otherwise known as Emperor Constantine, also modified the caldarium (hot baths) by inserting a semi-circle apse, evidence of which is shown in an inscription preserved in the underground level of the complex. Romans used the Baths of Caracalla for three centuries until 537 A.D. when they were forced to abandon them after the siege of Rome by Vitige, the King of the Goths, who severed the aqueducts with the intention of cutting off the Roman water supply. From that moment, the Baths lost their importance, and years of abandon followed, during which the monument was probably used as a cemetery for pilgrims who fell ill during their voyage to Rome (Piranomonte, 3-4).

There is some evidence of restoration to the aqueduct dating up to the ninth century by Pope Adrianus I, Sergius II, and Nicolaus I, and as early as the twelfth century, the Baths of Caracalla were used as a quarry for material for the decoration of churches and palaces (including the Church of Sta. Maria in Trastevere). According to the records of the fourteenth century, the Baths were used as vineyards and gardens during that time because large quantities of water were available. However, a few years after the papacy of Julius II, the site deteriorated significantly because of the excavations carried out by Pope Paul III Farnese for the construction of his new palazzo. Between 1545 and 1547 Pope Paul III Farnese unearthed large statues, precious objects, bronzes, and colossal marble groups, which proved to be a fundamental moment for the history of the Baths, as they fell into a long period of oblivion shortly after the excavations. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Pope Paul V conveyed the Baths to the Jesuits of the Roman Seminary to be utilized as a playground for children. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, interest in the grandiose architecture of the building was renewed, and artists such as Falda, Giuliano de Sangallo, Palladio, and Nolli produced their now famous designs (Piranomonte, 4-5).

In 1824 Count Egidio Di Velo carried out systematic excavations in the central body of the building, uncovering the famous mosaic floors depicting athletes, which are now preserved in the Vatican museums. Excavations continued to be conducted from the middle of the nineteenth century to 1996, uncovering pieces such as a rich domus (home), mosaic floors, marble floors, frescos, statues, capitals, columns of porphyry, the torso of Hercules, the ancient plan of the Baths, the library, the Mythraeum (temple in honor of the god, Mithra), and a water mill. The stage of the Opera Theatre was also installed in the caldarium in 1939, and in the 1980s, restorations of the southern wall with cisterns, the southwestern library, and the Temple of Jupiter were carried out (Piranomonte 5, 7, 10).

The Engineering, Art, and Architecture of the Baths of Caracalla

The Baths of Caracalla occupy a huge rectangular area of approximately thirty acres. The construction of the site was a great feat of engineering and the first of its grandeur. According to Olympiodorus, a fifth-century chronicler, the thermae could seat 1,600 bathers at one time. The sloping site on which the Baths lie was altered by creating a vast rectangular platform that was partially cut into the hill on the south and southwest sides (Yegül, 154-155).

The northernmost side of the site was constructed using brick arches, which also formed the substructure of the platform and the underground levels utilized for facilities. The opposite side was enclosed by a wall that supported and contained the hill, which was quarried for material used in the construction of the baths. All the service galleries, underground passages, sewers, and storage areas are in the lower level (Piranomonte, 13).

To give some perspective about the vastness of the project of building the Baths, it has been calculated that 9,000 workers were employed daily for approximately five years. The bricks alone, both used in the underground and above ground areas, numbered several million. There were at least 252 columns, sixteen of which were more than twelve meters high. The aqueduct aqua Nova Antoniniana guaranteed the water supply whose waters derived from the aqua Marcia aqueduct, amplified by the tapping of new springs. The aqueduct arrived on the southern side of the Baths, and emptied into eighteen cisterns, which guaranteed an augmented supply of water when needed for maintenance. From the cisterns, lead tubes branched off and, under pressure, supplied water to all the areas of the building, with various complicated routes and branch lines, which reached all the pools and fountains throughout the Baths. The sewer system was developed around a large central gallery that was about ten meters below the floor level of the Baths, into which sewage and rainwater would flow. The entire heating system was under the caldarium with the praefurniai, the hypocaust (a hollow space or system of channels that distribute heat from a furnace), storage rooms and hallways for wood, and the cauldrons for heating water. The ovens burned an average of ten tons of wood a day (Piranomonte, 13-14).

The Baths themselves include cisterns, libraries, large exedras (a room or covered area open on one side, used as a meeting place), gardens, a stadium, a caldarium that had several pools, a laconicum (sauna), a palaestrae (exercise room), an apodyterium (dressing room), a natatio (outside pool), a frigidarium (cold baths), a tepidarium (warm baths) that had two pools, a vestibulum (chamber), the Mythraeum, the underground levels, and the xystus, the garden with arcades that surrounded the central body of the building (see diagram). The frigidarium was a large hall that was the actual center of the main body of the Baths and the caldarium constituted the most remarkable part of the thermal complex.

Among some of the art and architecture that once decorated the Baths were columns made of grey Egyptian granite in the frigidarium, large arches that framed the beautiful mosaic-faced niche walls of the natatio, marble floors with granite and porphyry set within squares in the large hall, fountain pools, mosaics and frescos in the Mythraeum, floors made from oriental colored marbles and glass paste mosaics and marbles on the walls, stucco paintings and hundreds of statues in the niches of the rooms, the most important halls, and the gardens (Piranomonte, 22-25, 32, 27). In fact, the Baths of Caracalla were a seemingly inexhaustible source of statuary, art objects, and building material before the reign of Farnese pope Paul III (1534-49). Among well-known pieces from the Baths are the Farnese Hercules, Achilles and Troilos, the Punishment of Dirce (the “Farnese Bull”), a colossal Athena, a Victory, A Maenad, a heroic male nude, a head of Antonius Pius and the head from a full statue of Caracalla (Yegül, 152, 154). The Baths of Caracalla were similar to other ancient Roman thermae in terms of their layout and function, but never before had a public bath been so vast, complex, or opulent.

Roman Baths and Society
According to Fikret Yegül, “the universal acceptance of bathing as a central event in daily life belongs to the Roman world, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that at the height of the empire, the baths embodied the ideal Roman way of urban life” (Yegül, 30). Roman baths had many functions beyond helping ancient Romans maintain basic hygiene, and their public nature created the proper environment for social intercourse varying from gossip to business discussions. There was even a cultural and intellectual side to baths, as some grand establishments like the Baths of Caracalla also incorporated libraries, lecture halls, colonnades, and promenades while assuming the character of a Greek gymnasium (Yegül, 30).

It is important to distinguish the two primary types of Roman baths: balnea and thermae. The primary difference between the two seems to have been one of ownership and scale. Balnea were small establishments, sometimes privately owned and fitting into available city lots, while thermae, such as the Baths of Caracalla, were almost always owned by the state or the city, occupied large areas, and often stood free in the middle of an open park-like precinct. Most baths, balnea as well as thermae, were public and their use was generally not limited to a certain group or class of people (Yegül, 43).

For Romans, bathing was a luxury as well as a necessity. It was a pleasure deserved at the end of a hot day of hard work or travel, a treat expected from a host, or a comfort after a cold day. It is important to note that the quality of design and construction of the public baths was far above average. Fikret Yegül writes of the pleasurable sensory experience offered by baths: “vast spaces filled with light; marble tubs sparking with clear, warm water; gentle soothing massage; perfumed oils and soft, fresh towels” (Yegül, 30-31). Although it is difficult to visualize the opulence of the interiors of the baths because the actual remains of luxury are scantily preserved, such decorations included lofty vaults, marble veneer walls and floors, silver basins and spigots, mosaics, statues, and bronze lion-head fountains (Yegül, 31).

For this reason, many baths, including the Baths of Caracalla, catered to a wealthy class. Some of the baths might have catered to certain interests and professional groups, resembling club-like centers or modern cafés or lounges. However, as a rule, a majority of the more than eight hundred small baths and eleven thermae of fourth-century Rome were open to anyone who could pay the miniscule entrance fee. Even some baths that had special endowments were free. In fact, many Roman emperors visited the baths and enjoyed bathing with their subjects. This provided the emperor (or any high-powered political aspirant) with a chance to appeal for public support or increase popularity, for the baths were the ideal institution with which to create the illusion of a class-less society, “where wise man and fool, rich and poor, privileged and underdog, could rub shoulders and enjoy the benefits afforded by the Roman imperial system” (Yegül, 32).

Although some emperors tolerated heterogeneous bathing, it was also a general rule that men and women bathed separately. However, independent units for different sexes, even in the largest baths, were extremely rare. The common practice was to assign the sexes to different hours for bathing, women often reserving the morning while men reserved the afternoon. After a regular Roman workday (which ended by noon) and a light lunch, many men went to the baths and stayed there for several hours. Two o’clock in the afternoon was specified as the best time to bathe. Occasionally, night bathing did occur, but because of the difficulties and costs of providing artificial lighting, it was not usual and not encouraged (Yegül, 32-33).

The first thing to do upon arrival at the baths was to undress in a special room called the apodyterium. It was not uncommon for well-to-do Romans to show off their high stature by bringing slaves to the baths to carry and keep watch over their personal belongings while they bathed. Unlike the Greeks, Romans did not think it proper to exercise or bathe in the nude, but they did not consider it proper to enter the exercise ground or the hot rooms of the baths in street clothes and shoes. Roman gymnastics were a prelude to bathing, but they were only seen as a form of recreation and not intended as training for competition. In addition, the ancient medical profession believed that bathing, exercise, massage, and diet were principal elements to maintaining good health. However, a workout at the baths was to come to an end as soon as a light sweat built up so that the body would not be completely tired before bathing (Yegül, 33-35).

Among the popular sports at Roman baths were playing ball, running, wrestling, boxing,fencing, and light swimming. Many sports were carried out in the palaestrae, a special room for ball games, but many of the larger baths had spacious halls that could be used for indoor athletics.

After the exercise or playing of sports, the order of bathing required a movement from warm to hot through a number of rooms of varying temperatures; the primary stations are called the tepidarium and the caldarium. Bathing ended with a cold plunge into the frigidarium. Some bathers also enjoyed special sweating rooms, called the laconicum or sudatorium. Anointing was essential to exercise, either before or after, and it was customary to finish bathing by rubbing the body with prepared cosmetics, oils, and perfumed unguents. This description of the bathing ritual is not the rule, but it does provide a general framework that allows for variations and describes the ritual recommended by doctors and the medical traditions of antiquity (Yegül, 37-39).

Besides being part of maintaining good health, baths also provided venues for entertainment. Public baths like the Baths of Caracalla, with their vast halls, palaestrae, and gardens served as ideal stages for traveling jugglers, gymnasts, conjurers, jesters, and musicians. A good bath almost always called for a good dinner afterwards, as this would make a typical Roman’s day complete (Yegül, 39). Nevertheless, public baths did not always provoke praise from everyone. According to Fikret Yegül:

The disapproval of the excessive material luxury represented by baths; the objection to the worldly and wasteful lifestyle encouraged by them; and the condemnation of the sexual licentiousness and moral delinquency associated with the baths were among the major issues raised by conservative critics and constituted the basis for Christian opposition to bathing several centuries later. (Yegül, 40)

In this way, the critics of the baths often associated them with a lazy and wasteful lifestyle, excessive drinking, gluttony, overindulgence, and immoral and sexual indiscretions. However, bathing could also be a way to find a cure for illicit pleasures, as many people would bathe to sweat out and sober up after a night of indiscretion and indulgence (Yegül, 41-42).

Lastly, the operation of the larger Roman baths, such as the Baths of Caracalla, generated the force of a major industry. Next to the Roman army and the construction industry, public baths probably employed the largest section of the work force. The building and operation of baths required permission from local rulers, and baths had to pay an income tax. However, baths were established as a form of a public gift, so they were often primarily funded by the state or the city, although they were also sometimes funded by private subscriptions. Whether motivated by patriotism, philanthropy, or a political device for gaining popularity, the results of any type of donations for baths meant an improved urban environment for Rome and its citizens (Yegül, 43-45, 47).

Caracalla’s Motivations to Build the Baths
Caracalla was the emperor of Rome from 211 A.D. to 217 A.D. He has been remembered as a ruthless and bloodthirsty ruler because he brought about the downfall of his father-in-law, the political leader, Plautinus, through false reports and murdered his more popular brother, Geta, after his father’s death. However, Caracalla did extend Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire, albeit for financial more than philanthropic reasons (Columbia Encyclopedia, Caracalla). By granting citizenship to all inhabitants, he levied more taxes to fund grand projects such as the construction of the Baths (Baumgart).

As was mentioned above, many emperors built public baths for their subjects in an attempt to gain popularity and create the illusion of a class-less society. Most likely, these same motivations are also part of what drove Caracalla to build the Baths. However, there were also much deeper political and psychological reasons for why Caracalla built his grand Baths. For instance, Caracalla believed he could carry on the legacy of Alexander the Great by uniting the empires of Persia and Rome. First, he united all his divided subjects in the common bond of citizenship in order to prepare for this proposed union (Johnson, 2). Second, with the revenue from the taxes, Caracalla attempted to buy the allegiance of his soldiers in preparation for an ambitious campaign to extend his father’s conquests into old Persia (Columbia Encyclopedia, Caracalla).

In this way, the construction of the Baths of Caracalla was almost entirely driven by the selfish political motives of Caracalla himself. Although some could see granting Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants and bestowing a public gift in the form of a thermae as altruistic and generous (and many Romans were genuinely grateful for the Baths since they were a peaceful oasis in which they could escape from the bloody wars that the empire was involved in under Caracalla), it is likely that Caracalla did not see it as such. Baths were an ideal institution for uniting the Roman populace, and historians seem to agree that during the imperial era of Rome, Caracalla believed that the unification of Romans was imperative to successful campaigns of conquest. He would do this by any means necessary, even if it meant driving Rome into debt, to which the construction of the baths did ultimately contribute. In the end, the Baths were an integral part of Caracalla’s ambitious goal to achieve the fame and praise enjoyed by Alexander the Great himself.


Even without its famous decorations and even in its ruin, the Baths of Caracalla still attract admirers from across the globe. Many find the Baths to be provocative because of their vastness, grandeur, and complexity, and many take joy in imagining the society and rituals that accompanied bathing in ancient Rome. The Baths of Caracalla certainly had an influence on later generations, as the frigidarium itself inspired the architecture of many subsequent public buildings of the imperial era, such as the Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Massenzio. In addition, the architects who built the Chicago Railroad Station and Pennsylvania Station in New York in the 1800s copied the architecture of the frigidarium perfectly, and Italians have used the ruinous caldarium of the Baths of Caracalla as a theatre for their famous opera (Piranomonte, 7, 23-24). It seems apparent that we also still admire the baths today because it was a public space that any Roman could enjoy. This fact constituted the most surprising and interesting finding of my research, as many associate imperial Rome with vast cultural and societal inequalities. To imagine thousands of people of different classes enjoying the same thermae in ancient imperial Rome is to imagine a progressive movement in the midst of a ruthless ancient culture. The true tragedy is that the Baths did not function for longer than three centuries, for it seems likely that the public Baths would be just as popular in modern-day Rome as they were almost eighteen hundred years ago.



DeLaine, Janet. The Baths of Caracalla: a study in the design, construction, and economics of large-scale building projects in imperial Rome. Journal of Roman Archaeology; Portsmouth, Rhode Island. 1997.

Ed. DeLaine, Janet and D.E. Johnston. Roman Baths and Bathing: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Roman Baths held at Bath, England 30 March - 4 April 1992. Thomson-Shore; Dexter, Michigan. 1999.

Fagan, Garrett. Bathing in Public in the Roman World. University of Michigan Press; Ann Arbor, Michigan. 1999.

Piranomonte, Marina. The Baths of Caracalla. Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma; Electa, Milan. 1998.

Yegül, Fikret K. Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity. MIT Press; Cambridge, MA. 1992.

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