Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Roman Triumph

Kristin Storaasli
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

Imagine yourself in the Roman Forum. Everyone in the city has turned out to fill the theaters and scaffolds erected for the big ceremonies. Three days of festivities welcome the victorious general from his military campaigns abroad. The victor himself appears finally in the long triumphal procession, pulled in a chariot by four horses, and dressed in the most magnificent purple robe. The tune of trumpets, screams, and claps fill your ears as you strain to see one of the many carts fills with glimmering treasure pass by. To the ancient Romans, huge public spectacles such as the triumphs uplifted public morale and glorified Rome and her citizens. Hundreds of such triumphs occurred in Rome between 220 and 70 B.C. and continued into the years of the Empire and even into modern times.

Legend has it that Romulus, the founder of Rome, first instituted the triumph, marked by the carrying of trophies and concluding with a sacrifice. Romulus was said to have dressed in a purple robe with a wreath of laurels around his head. He rode in a chariot drawn by four horses to retain his royal dignity. Although these beginnings are attractive, it is more likely that the Roman triumph was a product of the Etruscan kings of the sixth century B.C. The Etruscan word triumpe is derived from Greek thriambos which can be equated with the Latin tripudium, meaning a musical beat or dance (interestingly observed frequently in the tombs of Tarquinia). Even the triumphal arches derived their architectural shape from the Etruscan portals.

Over the years the route, dress, and significance of the triumphal processions didn’t changed much. The triumphal procession was originally a king’s victorious return from a military campaign with his army to give thanks to the gods. The purposes of the Roman triumph were to acknowledge the power and victories of the Rome army, purify the victor, soldiers, and city of blood and guilt associated with war, appease and honor the gods for their role in the victory, and justify the military campaigns to the senate and people of Rome. A triumph could only be granted by the Senate following certain criteria. First, the general must be a magistrate with the right of command. Second, he must have defeated a foreign enemy in a just war. Third, it was necessary for the general to bring back prisoners and trophies of the defeated city. He must also have killed at least 5000 men. Lastly, the war must have been brought to an end so the army could take part in the ceremony. The Senate also voted for the grant of public money for the expenses of the triumph.

The triumphal procession commonly took longer than one day, and closer to three. It began when the Senate and magistrates met the general and his army in the Campus Martius where the soldiers laid down their weapons before entering the city. The procession entered the city through the Porta Triumphalis, and advanced counterclockwise past the Forum Boarium and Circus Maximus, around the Palatine Hill,
along the Via Sacra, through the forum, and up the Capitoline to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

At the front of the procession marched the magistrates and members of the senate as a reminder of the state’s approval of the event. Next came the trumpeters and carts filled with the spoils of the victory such as armor, gold, silver, and art. Carts displaying re-enactments of the battles followed. Laurel or gold crowns presented to the victorious general by the defeated towns came next followed by white oxen with gilded horns, covered in garlands, with attending priests. The chief captains of the defeated army and hostages preceded the appearance of the general himself who rode in a chariot drawn by four horses. He was dressed in a silk purple toga with intricate gold thread designs. He wore a laurel wreath and carried in his right hand a laurel branch and in his left an eagle-topped ivory scepter. Following the triumphator were Roman citizens who had been rescued from slavery and lastly came the soldiers of the army. Interestingly enough, for a procession so magnificent and splendid, a slave held above the triumphator’s head a golden crown while whispering into his ear, “Look behind you and remember that you are a man” to remind him that he was mortal. When the procession reached the Capitoline Hill the chief captains of the defeated army were executed. The general ascended to the Capitol where he laid his laurel branch and wreath on the lap of the statue of Jupiter and the white oxen were sacrificed. A feast for the Senate followed while the troops were entertained in the temple of Hercules.

Other forms of triumphs did exist. An ovatio could be granted by the Senate to those whom it wished to honor but whose victories didn’t meet all the criteria for a triumph. It was first held in 503 B.C. In an ovation the triumphator proceeded on foot or horseback instead of by chariot and was preceded by flute players instead of trumpeters. He wore a crown of myrtle, held no scepter, and offered a sheep to Jupiter. An individual could also use his own expenses for a triumph if the Senate didn’t approve of one. These triumphs did not occur in Rome, but rather at the Temple of Jupiter on the Alban Mount, the first being in 231 B.C.

The emblem of the splendor of the triumph and power of Rome was the triumphal arch. Arches were significant and immediately recognizable. Their decorations commemorate and celebrate the triumph and triumphator and often depict the triumphal procession itself. One such arch, the Arch of Titus, was erected in 81 A.D. by Titus’ brother, Domitian, in celebration of Titus’ victory over the Jewish revolt. In the right inner portal Emperor Titus is standing and driving his chariot. He is followed by winged victory who crowns his head in laurel. He is led by the personification of the goddess Roma. This illustrates the first time real figures along with divine and allegorical ones appear on a single monument. On the left inner portal soldiers parade by with the spoils of war, including the seven-branched golden menorah from the Temple of Jerusalem. The soldiers appear too big to fit through the arch projected in the background, making it seem as if they have to turn to get there and that we are spectators watching the procession. The movement also portrays the actual direction the procession would move through the arch. The empty background of the portals gives the feeling of atmosphere and the shallow background figures give the illusion of deep space. The Victories that appear in the spandrels and the inner decorations of the arch are in great shape, although the arch has been restored, especially after being incorporated into a medieval fortress of the Frangipani family.

Much of the imagery on the three-bay Arch of Septimius Severus is descended from the Arch of Titus. The victories in the spandrels of the central arch carry trophies on long sticks. Their body, drapery, and wings are less gently modeled in the old classical style and are more harsh and linear, representing a change in the artistic style of the time. River gods fill the spandrels of the side arches. The square area over the side arches depicts narrations of exploits of the emperor. The inscription on the attics records that he fought against Arabs and the Parthians. Severus is depicted on the arch with his sons, Caracalla and Geta, and the style of the figures is shorter and stubbier and the folds are more schematic.

A third arch belongs to Constantine, who is best known as the first Christian emperor who, as legend has it, converted to Christianity after seeing a cross cast across the sun before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. His triumph commemorated the victory over the tyrant and usurper Maxentius. The Arch of Constantine was begun in 312 A.D. and actually incorporated pieces of many of Maxentius’ monuments after the Senate passed a damnation memoriae (eternal damnation) on Maxentius. The Arch of Constantine is located where many of Maxentius’ monuments were clustered. The theme of the arch is a celebration of the decennalia or ten-year rule of Constantine, even though he was only yet in power for three. Constantine’s arch is architecturally similar to the Arch of Septimius Severus. Victories are in the spandrels of the main arch and river gods are in the spandrels of the side arches. Both are descended from the Arch of Septimius Severus, but they are flatter and rather unattractive. More interesting is the use of spolia, or bas reliefs carved several centuries earlier and used to adorn the monuments of other emperors. Some heads were recut to represent contemporary figures. Constantine used these spolia from monuments of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. He believed that he embodied the ideals, reputation, and virtues of these great leaders. He also believed the celebration of their deeds matched his own.

Flanking the inscription on the attic of this arch are panels illustrating the success and formal military role of the emperor that came from a monument of Marcus Aurelius. The standing figures are of Dacian prisoners from a Trajanic monument. The roundels are from Hadrian and refer to abstract qualities to be associated with Constantine. Below the roundels are panels showing the events leading to Constantine’s victory and his first official acts in Rome. One act, the oratio, was a public speech Constantine gave in the Forum. He stands on the raised Rostra in the Roman Forum surrounded with ministers and members of the imperial party dressed in togas. Two seated statues of Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian flank him and stare straight ahead. Romans in short tunics stand on the side with heads turned. In the background stand the five-columned monument of the Tetrachs, the Basilica Julia, the Arch of Tiberius, and the Arch of Septimius Severus. The other panel portrays the donatio, or a gift of money to the people of Rome at the Emperor Constantine’s expense. Constantine is raised and surrounded by ministers. The Roman people turn to him adoringly and the four scenes above depict someone distributing money while another with a scroll keeps records.

Of particular importance are the many depictions of Sol Invictus, the sun god, whose characteristic gesture is an outstretched right hand, on the arch. Constantine’s father worshipped the sun god and it is possible Constantine believe Christ was behind sun-worship, evidenced by the fact that he was supposedly converted by an image in the sun. There was constant tension between Constantine and the Senate due to his religion. For the first few years of his reign, Constantine abided by the old traditions and laws. He even participated with the sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter during his triumph. Although there are no recognizable Christian symbols on the arch, depictions of Sol were used as a bridge between paganism and Christianity. Early Christian art depicts a man on a chariot drawn by white horses, beams of light emanating from his head, with a raised right arm. This is a depiction of Christ with symbols associated with Sol. December 25th is the birthday of both Sol Novus and Christ, and the church often compared Christ to the sun.

Even today, hundreds of years later, arches still survive and celebrate the deeds and achievements of the ruler and perpetuate in the public consciousness the memory of an emperor. Although the triumphal arch represented victory in war, there are many other monuments in Rome that represent other aspects of Roman virtues. It is interesting to observe other examples of the Roman desire of spectacle and memory throughout history. Why has the route, order, and dress of triumphal processions remained relatively similar over the centuries? What kind of similarities exist between the Roman triumphs and tombs and sarcophagi of the Etruscans, from whom the triumph was likely originated? Roman triumphs and ceremonies were performed for centuries and were an important part of Roman life. With a history rife with wars, the triumphs were a powerful symbol of the glory of Rome.


Kleiner, Fred. The Arch of Nero in Rome: A Study of the Roman Honorary Arch Before and Under Nero. Rome: Girgio Bretschneider Editore, 1985.

Payne, Robert. The Roman Triumph. New York: Abelard-Schuman, Ltd., 1962.

Peirce, Philip. “The Arch of Constantine: Propaganda and Ideology in Late Roman Art.” Art History 12 (1987).

Ramage, Nancy, and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall Inc., 2001.

Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Touati, Anne-Marie. The Greak Trajanic Frieze: The Study of a Monument and of the Mechanisms of Message Transmission in Roman Art. Stockholm: Bohusläningens Boktryckeri AB, Uddevalla, 1987.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ostia Antica: A Glimpse at Ancient Roman Housing

Mandy Tollefson
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

The city feels like a ghost town, but without the cowboy themes of a stereotypical Midwestern settlement. Foundations and walls line where homes and public buildings once stood, but the derelict structures are crumbling at the edges. Anyone today can still see where merchants touted their wares and where the common person went to worship the gods. Such contractions – what obviously once happened there contrasted with how it appears today – are at the heart of Ostia’s charm.

History of Ostia
Most scholars today agree that the Roman port city of Ostia was founded around 630-620 BC by Ancus Marcius, the Roman king at the time. The location, now sixteen miles from Rome, had several benefits. Because the area was located on the mouth of the Tiber River, leading to Rome, it was the perfect place to provide protection to Rome. Attacking fleets would have to go through Ostia to get to Rome, which allowed it to be a buffer zone as well as give Ostia time to warn Rome about the attack. Its location also allowed for ease of transporting goods. Smaller ships were able to travel the river right to Rome, but larger ships could not fit. Instead, they would go to Ostia, unload their goods onto barges, and then bring the load to Rome. Also, Ostia was located on and near some very valuable salt mines, providing the empire with a steady supply of salt. When the city became larger, the Ostians used huge warehouses to store Sicilian and Egyptian grain, which would then be taken upriver and distributed through the empire. Ostia was invaluable to Rome.

Ostia experienced slow growth from its founding until the expansion of the Republic. However, by the Punic War era (264 BC to 146 BC), Ostia was gaining importance and was even protected by a wall. A pirate attack in 67 BC scared some of the Roman citizens away from living in such an exposed location. However, once the threat of pirates was gone, the city became a kind of resort town for wealthy Roman merchants. The merchants built many large villas, and it quickly became a desirable place to reside. While the most ancient remains of the city come from the second half of the 4th century BC, many of the important and well-preserved buildings come from the beginning of the AD era. This is because of the interest Imperial emperors took in Ostia, particularly Augustus and Hadrian. Augustinian renovations began right around the change from BC to AD. Hadrian took it upon himself to continue these improvements in his reign, and under his rule the town truly changed into a prosperous city.
Like so many great cities, however, Ostia eventually declined. “This shift began in the 4th century when the imperial seat was moved from Rome to Constantinople in 330 AD. For years, it rode a rollercoaster: the city experienced renewal, downfall, revival, neglect, rebuilding, and disregard. Sacks by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals of Genseric in 455 made the city very undesirable. The final blow came with the shifting of sand dunes in the 5th century. Not only did these shifts make the city removed from its direct contact with the sea, but the shallow waters bred malarial mosquitoes. The city had to be abandoned to avoid the disease – one variation of what is now called Roman Fever.

What distinguishes this city from other ancient Roman cities is how well preserved it is today. It was not covered in ash, such as Pompeii, yet many of the buildings (particularly the first floors) remain today. The city, after its abandonment in the 5th and 6th centuries, remained largely untouched until the end of the 19th century. Visitors can still see homes, temples, theatres, and other important areas of public concern. Most of what remains dates from the Imperial period, but certain areas (including the necropolis outside of the landward gate) date from the Republican era. Such preservation provides significant insight into the forms and functions of Roman housing.

Form of Roman Atrium Housing

The upper classes lived in homes called domus (Appendix 1). These homes were used as a way to display the wealth and luxury of the upper class. Usually rectangular or square, in the most basic form they were similar to the houses of today. The residential areas fit into the symmetrical, regular, and planned aura of Ostia. Only the temples and other unusual buildings, such as theatres or baths, did not follow this format.

In the Roman atrium house itself, the home would be grouped around two different parts, the atrium and the peristylium. The atrium was the front section of the house. Visitors would walk through the vestibulum, the small corridor from the front door that led into the main section of the home. Here, they would find themselves standing in the atrium.

The atrium was a kind of receiving room, meant to show the riches of the family as the guests were moved into whatever room they were intended for. A pool in the center, called the impluvium, collected rainwater that came through the hole in the roof of the house. Nearly always ornately decorated, the impluvium would drain rainwater into an underground water tank. Some scholars believe that a bed would be placed opposite of the main entrance. This was meant as a symbol of the sanctity of marriage, because the atrium was originally the bedroom of the mother of the family. Also, busts of the patriarch of the family and ancestors would be displayed in the atrium.

There were five main types of atriums in Roman housing. The first, atrium tuscanium, had no columns; the weight of the ceiling would be carried by the rafters. This appears to be the most popular type of atrium, despite its greater cost. Atrium tetrastylums had one column at each corner of the impluvium. The atrium corinthium was similar to this, but the hole in the roof was larger and supported by more columns. The atrium displuviatum had a roof that sloped toward the side walls instead of the middle, and so a large amount of rainwater had to run off other outlets than the impluvium. Finally, the atrium testudinatum was the lowest quality type of atrium. There was no opening in the roof at all, so an impluvium or columns were not necessary. This type was only seen in very small and unimportant houses.

To the sides of the atrium were the alae, small rooms off to either side, which do not seem to serve a purpose. Early homes had covered atriums and light would enter through the windows of the alae. Even after the invention of open atriums, the alae were still included, most likely out of tradition instead of practicality.

A cubiculum was a Roman bedroom. There would be several around the atrium as well as around the peristylium, although they would be larger in the latter. The bedrooms seem to have a much lower importance in the Roman house than the common rooms. Because they were on the edge of the house, they had low ceilings and were often stuffy and cramped. Sometimes, a small antechamber called the procoeton would be located in the front of the bedroom, where a personal servant would sleep. Excavators continually find floor mosaics that clearly mark where the bed should be placed.

The culina, the kitchen, was where the family servants or slaves would cook for everyone. They were often hot in the summer, because of the cooking fires. There would be a small entranceway from the side of the house leading to the kitchen, so that the slaves would not have to use the front entrance. This entrance was also used by the master of the house, on occasion, in order to discreetly enter or leave the home.

Behind the atrium was the tablinium, which served as a reception room, office, and study. Business would be conducted in this room. On the other side of the tablinium was the peristylium. A curtain would separate the atrium from this room, and doors or a screen would cut it off from the peristylium. On hot days, ventilation would be increased by opening all passageways.

The tablinium led into the peristylium, one of the most important areas of the home. It was the garden; it was a place for the family to sit, entertain, and enjoy themselves. Columns supported the open roof, herbs and flowers (especially roses, violets, and lilies) were grown in the open air, and statues, artwork, and furniture littered the room. On sunny days, the room would be used as an outside dining area. This area was more private, because it was away from the immediate public eye.

The triclinium was the official dining room. Earlier, the Romans would eat in the atrium, tablinium, or other rooms. However, when the tradition of reclining while eating became popular, a certain room was constructed to eat in. Some homes even had more than one triclinia so that the family could choose where to eat each day. The dining room, as the center for a very important social activity to the Romans, was vital; often ornately decorated, it was one of the central rooms in the home as well. The exedra, a room located behind the peristylium, was another type of informal dining room or lounge. It was treated as a garden room and was another place for friends to gather.

Located in the front of the house but without any entrances to the interior, the taberna were used as shops. Usually owned by the inhabitants of the house, these rooms had brick counters near the entrance to display goods and one or more back rooms for storage. Often, the tall ceilings of these rooms would be split into two floors. While the bottom floor would be the selling area, the top would either be storage or could be used as housing for a very poor family that was loyal to the home’s owners.

Each room in a Roman atrium-style house had a very specific purpose, and was not only located in its position for a reason, but also was decorated according to its purpose. The types of rooms in the home and what the rooms were used for did not vary greatly from house to house; the personal home was used to display power, prestige, and personal wealth. Even the Romans tired of such extravagance, however, and decided to make their homes more of a personal space. Each room was utilized for one or two particular uses, and when the Roman idea of housing changed, the rationale behind certain rooms shifted as well.

Function of Roman Atrium Housing
Two homes located in Ostia, the House of Fortuna Annonaria and the House of Amor and Psyche, provide clear examples of the shifting Roman mentality toward the function of their homes. In the early houses, the atrium was the most important room. Front doors would be left open, and anybody walking by would be able to see the ornate richness of this room. However, as can be seen by these two homes, by the later period of building, Romans valued their privacy much more.

The house of Fortuna Annonaria has many innovations that set the home apart as a very wealthy residency. The raised floor in the sitting room is the earliest known example of radiant heat at Ostia. Significantly, the atrium is no longer used as the open courtyard that it once was. It is still located in the front of the house, but not as ostentatiously as it once was. This shift is most likely indicative of an increased value placed upon privacy. The wealthy owner of this home is still involved in public life, most likely as a merchant or politician, but he is able to enjoy his wealth without having to constantly feel like he needs to impress his neighbors.

Likewise, the house of Amor and Psyche shows this same feeling of a shift toward emphasizing family life as opposed to public life. This home is the completion of the atrium house cycle. Actually built into the walls of an older building, it is laid out in a manner that shows how important privacy had become. The attention is not on the atrium, but on the inner garden, the peristylium. The rooms are not as numerous but they are larger than before, and the artwork that survives is better and more intricate. Very tellingly, the front door does not lead into a common room but into a right angled corridor. One cannot walk by the home, even if the front door is open, and see directly into the house. This further decline in community life and even greater focus on self and the family ends the cycle of Roman atrium housing, showing how personal privacy had become a respected and desired quality for homes and as a lifestyle.

Unlike the wealthy patricians, the lower classes did not live in such splendor. They inhabited insulae, or apartments. The number of people living in these apartments greatly outnumbered those in private homes. While Ostian records are not available, a 4th century AD record from Rome lists 46,602 insulae, compared to 1,797 private homes. Ostia has some of the best remaining insulae in Italy, particularly because of Nero’s fire in 64 AD that destroyed much of Rome and the apartments within that part of the city. These cramped quarters were very important to how the city worked because so many of the laborers in the area lived in them.

Usually between three and five stories high, insulae were not usually structurally sound buildings. They were mostly framed with timber, which made fire a constant threat. However, Ostian insulae were made of brick-faced concrete, which is one of the reasons that we can still see them today. The bottom floor would be a store, and the store owners and other tenants would live in the floors above. The lower an apartment, the more desirable it became, and stone staircases led to upper rooms.

The presence of insulae led to a group living atmosphere. There were no cooking facilities in individual rooms, and only the ground floor had bathrooms. Sometimes there would be no bathrooms in the building altogether, and they would be located outside. A common area would usually be provided for cooking. A central courtyard was in nearly every insulae, which not only provided light and ventilation to the rooms, but also houses a common cistern for the upper stories. Some of the buildings housed between 100 and 300 tenants. These very different forms of living did not allow the privacy that the domus did, and sharply contrasted the upper class against the lower one.

One of the major differences in Ostian times and today is is that only poor people would live in apartments in that day. Now, an apartment can be a very desirable place to live, particularly in a big city. Also differing, the higher apartments are currently popular, and penthouses are on the top floor. Without having to walk up flights of stairs with water for the family, the view outweighs the height.

The way that housing has, paradoxically, changed so much and yet remained the same over thousands of years is stunning. Because the city is so well-preserved, visitors today can wander its streets and easily envision what the city was once like. The abandoned city, virtually forgotten for hundreds of years, still has similar housing shapes, road patterns, and public areas to the cities of today. I found myself continually astonished by how I felt as though at any turn, I could walk into a house and almost find myself living exactly as the Ostians did in their day. Having such a spectacular example of Roman housing from thousands of years ago truly brought the Roman people to life in my eyes.


Aldrete, Gregory S. Daily Life in the Roman City : Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia. Berkeley: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Gazda, Elaine K. Roman Art in the Private Sphere: New Perspectives on the Architecture and DĂ©cor of the Domus, Villa, and Insula. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Harsh, Philip Whaley. The origins of the Insulae at Ostia. Rome: The American Academy in Rome, 1935.

Packer, James E. The Insulae of Imperial Ostia. Rome: American Academy in Rome, 1971.

Stambaugh, John. “Ostia.” Chapter 18 in The Ancient Roman City. John Hopkins University, 1988.

Stambaugh, John. “Households and Housing.” Chapter 10 in The Ancient Roman City. John Hopkins University, 1988.

Packer, James E Title The insulae of imperial Ostia by James E. Packer Pub info [Rome] American Academy in Rome, 1971