Monday, August 27, 2007

The Pantheon and Hadrian’s Building Program

Michelle Christopher
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

After visiting the Pantheon and admiring its elegant design, the artist Michelangelo proclaimed “desegno angelico e non umano,” that it was the design of angels and not of man. Although it was built almost two thousand years ago with basic materials, the Pantheon is still revered as an architectural masterpiece. Despite numerous restorations and renovations over the past few centuries, the main building is largely intact and contains much of the ancient, original marble that was imported for the temple. The Pantheon as it is seen today is the result of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s substantial building program that included the construction of bridges, temples, monuments and even entire towns. In order to understand the history and significance of the Pantheon, it is important to first examine the man who is responsible for the building as it stands today.

Both Hadrian and his predecessor Trajan were from Italica, Hispania, in modern-day Spain. Hadrian’s provincial origins led to his reputation as a “man of the Empire, not the capital” which he proved with his extensive travels as emperor. The emperor who would be known simply as Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus on January 24, 76 CE. Many of his ancestors served as magistrates and his most notable great-great-great-grandfather was a senator during the reign of Julius Caesar. When Hadrian’s father died in 85 CE, he became a ward of his second cousin, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, known as Trajan. Trajan, a respected soldier, received orders to go to Rome and Hadrian was brought with him to the capital. Trajan eventually gained more power as a favorite of the Senate’s and eventually became the first non-Italian emperor of the Roman Empire. In order to strengthen his connection to Trajan, Hadrian eventually married Trajan’s great-niece, Sabina. By 101 CE, Hadrian had become a senator and started the break in tradition that resulted with more provincials gaining senate offices. Over the next several years, Hadrian built a successful career as an officer with victories that included the capture of Mesopotamia and the annexation of the Kingdom of Armenia. When Trajan died suddenly in 117, his wife Plotina declared that Trajan had formally adopted Hadrian on his death bed and named him as his successor. As a result, Hadrian was acclaimed emperor on August 11, 117 (Grabsky 135).

Despite the centralization of power in Rome, Hadrian traveled extensively to tour the provinces and legions that safeguarded Rome. In fact, 13 of his 21 years in power were spent outside Italy in other provinces. He was distinctive as an emperor because he did not want to expand the Empire, as Trajan and many other emperors before him did, but instead he wanted to strengthen its boundaries (Grabsky 145). In 122, Hadrian initiated his building program with the construction of a wall to cover the 73 mile border between Britain and the Roman Empire. Hadrian’s Wall was a visible statement of Roman authority in that it served a barrier against small raids and isolated the Empire from other neighboring areas (Grabsky 150). During his travels, Hadrian made many improvements for various other provinces outside of Rome. He especially had a fondness for all things Greek. For instance, he wore a close-cropped beard usually associated with the ancient Greek philosophers, despite the tradition of clean-shaven emperors. He also declared himself a citizen of Athens and constructed several monuments while visiting the city. During his visit during the winter of 124 CE, Hadrian commissioned a new aqueduct, completed the temple of Zeus, ordered the construction of a new library and built a new quarter of town called Hadrianopolis. As a result of his extensive travels and his reputation as “the greekling,” some Italian subjects believed that Hadrian’s allegiance was to Athens, not Rome (Brown 57). In response, Hadrian launched a program of restoration and building projects within the capital. Within Rome, he built landmarks including the Temple of Venus and Rome, a temple to the deified Trajan, and the Castel Sant’ Angelo, which he built as a mausoleum for himself and his descendents (Birley 283). It is interesting to note that in all his travels, Hadrian paid respects to local gods by visiting principal shrines and restoring or building new shrines.

However, not all of his attempts at building were successful. In 130, Hadrian tried to rebuild the ruins of ransacked Jerusalem in his name. On the site of the Jewish Temple, he began building a temple to “Jupiter and the Emperor.” The revolt by the Jews in response to his desecration of their temple resulted in the only major war of Hadrian’s career that resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. Eventually Judaea was abolished and renamed Syria Palaestina and the hatred between Jews and non-Jews grew (Grabsky 165). However, since Christians were not included in the conflict and therefore were not excluded from Jerusalem, the city became overtaken by Christians. At the end of his travels, Hadrian retired to Tivoli, an one square mile estate that he populated with replicated copies of sights seen during his travels. His estate had approximately 300 acres of pleasure gardens, reception halls, baths, a library, guest quarters for his advisors to live in and a man-made island to serve as Hadrian’s private retreat (Brown 45). In preparation for his death and eventual succession, Hadrian adopted Lucius Commodus in the summer of 136, but when he unexpectedly died, Hadrian chose a senator Antoninus who already had the favor of the Senate. Soon after, Hadrian died leaving only his nephew Annius Verus, who would be known as Marcus Aurelius, to continue his legacy as the adopted son of Antoninus (Birley 290).

Of all of his achievements and buildings that displayed his adept skill for design, the Pantheon is the most impressive and well-known. Despite all of the fascination and admiration surrounding the Pantheon, surprisingly little is known about its true origins. Its architect is unknown, but the discovery of date stamping on bricks has led historians to determine that it was built between 118 and 128 CE in the Piazza della Rotonda in the Campus Martius area. In fact, the largest historical indicator of the architect and patron of the Pantheon, the inscription carved into the façade, is misleading. The ancient Latin inscription on the entablature on the exterior reads “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM ·FECIT”, or “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three times consul, built this.” Although it is can be assumed that Agrippa, who was the lieutenant, advisor and son-in-law to emperor Augustus, was the architect and creator of the temple that now stands in Rome, this is an inaccurate assumption. Agrippa built the original Pantheon on the same site in 25 BCE as a temple dedicated to all of the Roman gods (“pan” meaning all and “theon” meaning god). However, this original structure was destroyed by fire and eventually the restored version erected by Domitian was struck by lightning and also burned beyond repair. These temples were replaced by the present structure that was built by the emperor Hadrian in approximately 125 CE. Although he clearly retained the large inscription on the exterior portico of the Pantheon, Hadrian left few traces of the original temple.

It is unclear why Hadrian would intentionally mislead visitors about the origins of the Pantheon. The Roman emperors were not known for their modesty, and it seems unlikely that Hadrian would have humbly deflected praise for his creation, especially when considering the grandeur and awe-inspiring design of the Pantheon. However, historians have speculated that there were both personal and political reasons for Hadrian’s inscription. Hadrian was a connoisseur of architecture and it is possible that he wanted to memorialize Agrippa, the man who oversaw the construction of many buildings in the Campus Martius area. In addition, Agrippa was associated with the deified emperor Augustus and therefore the inscription served as a public reminder of the connection between Hadrian and the late, beloved Augustus (Sullivan 60). The inscription is significant mainly because it is an unusual and bold declaration that cedes credit of a significant building to another person.

The Pantheon continues to be celebrated as an architectural wonder because of its innovative design that has been preserved even after 1,875 years of continuous use. The pagan temple survived the Middle Ages when Pope Boniface reconsecrated the Pantheon as a Christian church dedicated to martyred saints in the early 7th century. As a result, while decay and modernization have eradicated all of the other ancient buildings in the Campus Martius, the pantheon remains entirely intact with only its original decorations missing.

The architecture of the Pantheon makes it a sight to behold for both architecture and history buffs and even tourists who travel to see the grand temple. The Pantheon was innovative in both its design and scale. The exterior portico has a distinctly Classical look, which is indicative of Hadrian’s reverence for all things Greek. There are sixteen monolithic Corinthian columns made from red and gray granite that was carved in Egypt. The columns are arranged in three aisles, with the center aisle leading to the front door and the other two side aisles leading to statues, possibly one of Augustus and one of Hadrian or Agrippa. Each column is 41 feet in height, 5 feet in diameter and weights approximately 60 tons. The structure sits on a foundation of ringed concrete 24 feet wide, 15 feet deep and is reinforced by a web of stress-relieving arches that are embedded in its walls (Brown 61). When it was first built, the Pantheon was raised upon a flight of five steps that are now partially buried by the natural rise in ground level. This elevation of the portico would have contributed to the awe that ancient visitors experienced when visiting this impressively large temple. Additionally, the bronze metal covering the dome and beams of the Pantheon would have also glowed brightly in the sun, thus adding to the impressive and intimidating effect of the temple on its original visitors. The design and dimensions of the exterior suggest that the interior is a rectangular, dimly lit space with a flat ceiling. However, the Pantheon was revolutionary because it was a departure from conventional Greek temple architecture that focused on the exterior as the most extravagant and decorated part of a temple. Most western architecture before Romans was mostly concerned with the exterior appearance of buildings. The Romans pioneered a new style of architecture by inventing new building types, most notably the public baths and basilicas, which placed more emphasis on the design and function of the interior. The Pantheon is the prime example that represents the shift in emphasis, as its vast exterior is secondary to the impressive interior.

The interior of the Pantheon is completely different from the expectation that a visitor has when viewing the exterior. Instead of a rectangular room with a flat ceiling, the inside of the Pantheon is a vast circular space capped by a floating dome that is amply lit by light that streams in through the prominently featured oculus. The size of the interior was also a revolutionary development in construction that serves as a reminder of Roman innovation. The large dome structure was constructed when 5000 tons of concrete, a Roman invention, was poured over a wooden hemisphere framework supported by scaffolding. The ceiling’s distinctive coffers were also created in this way with 140 convex wooden molds serving as their framework (Morgan 39). Originally, the roof was covered in sheet metal with bronze rosettes in the center of each coffer. This would have reflected the light that came in through the only source of natural light, the eight meter wide circular opening, or oculus, at the top of the domed roof. The oculus allows visitors to have a different viewing experience of the Pantheon, depending on the current weather. On a sunny day, a circular beam of bright light moves gradually across the interior making the interior of the Pantheon a giant clock face that marks the daily passage of light and time. When it is raining, rain spirals in through the oculus and is diverted by the gently sloping floors to drains in the rotunda. The Pantheon interior was also distinctive as a temple because its architecture is the main feature, which contrasts with its contemporary, conventional temples that were designed to be simple rectangular contains that feature the statue of the god to whom the temple was dedicated. Instead, in the Pantheon, it has been suggested that the gods were on the periphery in the openings against the circular wall.

There is no doubt that the design of the Pantheon was the primary concern of its architects because of the precision with which it was built. The famed Pantheon dome is a perfect half sphere which, if it were extended downward, would fo rm a full sphere that would just touch the floor of the circular interior exactly at its center. The function of the Pantheon as a temple dedicated to all of the gods also played a part in its awe-inspiring design. The pattern of circles and squares is repeated throughout the floor and columns and the very design of the entire building, with a rectangular portico with a rotunda attached. The circles represent the heavens while the squares symbolize earth. The combination of circles and squares signifies the ancient belief in the necessary and constant interaction between the heavens and earth. The lower two thirds of the dome is inset with five rings of coffers with each coffer consisting of four receding levels of squares that are pushed together toward the upper edge of each coffer. This off-center placement of the squares in coffers all around the dome gives the visual effect of increasing intensity. The coffering abruptly stops near the peak, which enhances the illusion of the remainder of the dome being suspended without any simple means of support. The dome was most probably designed in this way to serve as a reminder of the heavens. This connection would have been clearer in ancient times because each coffer has a bronze rosette in the middle, which reflected light that came in through the oculus. These rosettes were arranged precisely like planets in orbit around the sun, represented by the oculus. This realization has led to the suggestion that the statues in the Pantheon represented celestial deities such as Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus), Saturn, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Apollo and Diana. While these features would have enhanced the religious ceremonies that took place in the Pantheon, they also served a purpose in the more public, civic proceedings that were held in the temple.
The Pantheon was more public than most temples with Hadrian often holding judicial court there. As a result, the Pantheon became a visible declaration of Imperial power. The layout of the dome and bronze rosettes representing the starry heavens also makes the visual suggestion that Hadrian, who would have sat under the light from the oculus surrounded by the statues of gods, was divinely blessed as Roman emperor. In this way, the Pantheon served as an example of political propaganda. Eventually, with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Pantheon lost its political and civic importance. Fortunately, the Pantheon was preserved as a church that was in continuous use for almost two thousand years with few restoration and renovation attempts.

When one considers how many years have passed since the original construction and the number of additions and alterations to the Pantheon, it is amazing that the structure is intact and minimally altered. The exterior of the building is mainly unaltered and only the original decorative accents have changed since the original restorations by Septimius Severus and Caracalla. The exterior portico would have been more intimidating and impressive when it was first built because it was raised up on a flight of five marble steps that have since been covered by the rise in ground level. The sculptures in front of the Pantheon are also gone but their original placement and design has been speculated. For instance, remains of a statuary base and the pattern of clamp-holes suggest that there was a sculpture of an Imperial eagle with outspread wings. Along with the statues, the metal that once decorated the Pantheon is also long gone. In 663, the Byzantine emperor Constaans II removed the bronze tiles that covered the exterior of the vast dome and its lead replacement has been dated to the 8th century. In addition, in the 1620s, Pope Urban VIII had 200 tons of bronze from the supporting beams and the portico roof removed in order to make cannons. Coincidentally, these same cannons were eventually melted to decorate the tomb of the first Italian king, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, who is now entombed in the Pantheon (Speller 240). The most infamous additions to the Pantheon were the two bell towers that temporarily topped the entrance. Pope Urban VIII added these distinctly non-Classical bell towers that clashed with the Classical architectural style of the Pantheon during a restoration effort in 1626. These bell towers became known as “Bernini’s ass’s ears”, which is an inaccurate attribution because Carlo Maderno most probably designed them and Bernini was openly critical of them. In response to years of widespread criticism of this addition, the bell towers were removed during another restoration in 1882. The main building has been greatly preserved because of its reconsecration in 609 by Pope Boniface IV. This change from pagan temple to the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs has resulted in its interior decoration featuring Christian frescoes. Also, the main apse where Hadrian would have held court is now the main altar of the church. The transformations of the area around the Pantheon have also greatly affected the way that modern visitors view the temple.

Over the past centuries, there have many several natural and constructed changes to the Campus Martius area that have changed the way that modern visitors view the Pantheon and surrounding areas. The Pantheon now occupies an entire city block and seems to tower over other more modern buildings in the Piazza della Rotonda, but its original relation to its neighboring buildings was more complicated. Other buildings were probably closely built near the Pantheon on two sides, which would have de-emphasized the exterior walls of the rotunda, thereby disguising the abrupt transition between the rotunda and the rectangular portico (Sullivan 61). In 1711, Pope Clement XI ordered the construction of a new fountain centerpiece and the creation of the forecourt piazza while Alexander VII had the level of the surrounding piazza lowered to provide a better view of the building’s façade. Modern researchers have also suggested that a low-roofed colonnade enclosed the forecourt piazza (Speller 240). Despite these numerous additions and improvement efforts, the Pantheon still stands intact in the same site it has inhabited for the past two thousand years.

Although natural decay and renovations have significantly changed the landscape of Italy’s capital, visitors can still travel to the Pantheon and imagine the splendors of ancient Rome. Centuries after the construction of the Pantheon, artists would admire the vast dome and draw inspiration from its ancient design. For instance, in his extensive research for the dome he would build in Florence, Brunelleschi traveled to Rome to study the Pantheon’s famed vault. Even today, students of architecture marvel at the ingenious, basic materials and methods that were used to build such a grand and impressive structure. Almost two thousand years after its erection, the Pantheon continues to be relevant primarily because it is a well-preserved visual link between ancient Rome and the modern, metropolitan city that was built above its ruins.

Figure 1: The famed dome and oculus of the Pantheon

Works Consulted
Birley, Anthony R. Hadrian the Restless Emperor. London: Routledge, 1997. 283-300.

Brown, Dale. Rome: Echoes of Imperial Glory. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1994. 45-68.

Grabsky, Phil. I, Caesar: Ruling the Roman Empire. London: BBC Books, 1997. 135-164.

MacDonald, William L. The Pantheon: Design, Meaning and Progeny. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002. 12-14, 27-43, 76-92, 131-132.

Morgan, Julian. Hadrian: Consolidating the Empire. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group,
Inc., 2003. 38-39.

Speller, Elizabeth. Following Hadrian: A Second-Century Journey Through the Roman Empire.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 223-241.

Sullivan, George H. Not Built in a Day: Exploring the Architecture of Rome. New York: Caroll
& Graf Publishers, 2006. 60-67.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Augustus and the Golden Age

Megan Su
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

Octavian, eventually known as Augustus, was the first emperor of the Roman Empire. He ruled from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. During his long reign, he brought peace and prosperity to the war-torn Mediterranean world that lasted about two centuries – The period came to be called the Pax Romana. It is universally agreed that Augustus was perhaps one of the greatest and most influential figures in Roman history. He brought Rome into the Golden Age and claimed to have transformed Rome from a city of brick into a city of marble. The Romans recognized his firm sense of duty and welcomed his reforms and the lasting peace which accompanied them.

The murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. was just one of the many events that led to the beginning of Octavian’s reign and the Roman Empire. It was not until after Caesar’s assassination and the discovery of the contents of his will that Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, became aware that Caesar had nominated him as his personal heir. At the time, Marc Antony was still Consul and believed that he could one day step up to power, but he was placed in a serious disadvantage because of the position Octavian now held.

For a while, Octavian and Antony ruled alongside one another, each in control of a portion of the Roman Empire. However, their relationship soon turned into rivalry for power and conflict. After the battle of Philippi, where a Republican army was defeated by Octavian and Antony, both Brutus’s and Cassius’s killed themselves (Caesar’s assassins) and Caesar was declared a god, despite Antony’s previous efforts. Caesar’s stature ultimately influenced Octavian’s image, as he was recognized as a god’s son.

Meanwhile, Antony, who was in command of the Empire in the east, became involved with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, even though he was married to Octavian’s sister. This turn of event permitted Octavian to call both Antony and Cleopatra enemies of Rome. This consequently renewed civil war.

The inevitable and final battle between the two parties arrived in 31 B.C. at the Battle of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra’s navy was destroyed by Octavian forces, which was commanded by Octavian’s friend Marcus Vispsanius Agrippa. Octavian’s fleet overwhelmed the ships of Antony and Cleopatra who fled to Egypt and committed suicide within a year. Alas, peace was achieved.

The title of Augustus, meaning “the exalted”, was given to Octavian in 27 BC by the senate upon his return to Rome. He established himself as the leading man of the state with tactful strategies of winning over the public and placating Republican opinions. The Empire itself consisted of the same constitutional offices as those found in the Republic, except Augustus was in control of all aspects of Roman public life.

Augustus may not have possessed the “personal magnetism” of Julius Caesar but he did have characteristics of his own that made him a great leader. He was disciplined and spread that strict discipline everywhere he went, maintained the loyalty of his friends, and chose his officials carefully. Augustus was considered cold-hearted at times; even when it came to his family, but it was mainly because of his idea of upholding a simple and well-regulated life. (Hibbert, 34).
During his long and prosperous reign, Augustus improved and expanded Rome in many ways – he kept the people of Rome content with liberal supplies of food and entertainment, established an effective police force, claimed that he restored no fewer than 82 temples in Rome, completed the Forum of Caesar, and worked on a temple to Mars Ultor, which was used to illustrate Mars as the avenger of his adoptive father’s murder. He also commissioned an enormous number of public works such as roads, bridges, forums, temples, market halls, and bathing complexes.

Although Augustus never claimed to be a god himself, he widely advertised himself as the son of a god. He had many sculptures made, especially those depicting him as a youthful hero and military commander, and imperial portraits and arches covered with reliefs that reminded the public of his great deeds. Many of these pieces of artwork were not historically accurate, but they were made to mold the public’s opinion of the Emperor – to have them see him as a godlike leader. Augustus and the artists he employed effectively used art and architecture for propagandistic ends.

The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar that symbolizes Augustan peace and celebrates the era of prosperity and security during the rule of Augustus. It is one of the most famous examples of Augustan monumental sculptures in Rome. It is the epitome of how Augustus used art to manipulate the public’s opinion and glorify his deeds. The Ara Pacis is a public monument that is a propaganda statement for the good image of the emperor.

Two entrances.

In antiquity, the Ara Pacis was used as a sacrificial altar where officials, priests, and Vestal virgins offered an annual sacrifice. The original location of the altar was on the eastern edge of the Roman district called Campus Martius, close to Via Flaminia, which was the road taken by Augustus when he re-entered Rome. The Ara Pacis was also near Augustus’s mausoleum, Agrippa’s baths, and a large sundial. The significance of this sundial was that on Augustus’s birthday, the gnomon, the indicator of the sundial, was designed so that the sun would cast a shadow that aligned with the doorway of the Ara Pacis. (Ramage, 123). This reiterated the message to the Roman public that Augustus was responsible for the new peace the Romans enjoyed.

It was decreed by the Senate on July 4th, 13 BC to celebrate Augustus’s return and the peace he brought to the Mediterranean world after three years’ absence in Spain and Gaul, settling matters in the western Empire. However, it was not dedicated until 9 BC. It took 3.5 years to complete the altar of peace by some of the best sculptors of the day. And like most historical relief sculptures, the artists were anonymous, but they most likely originated from Greece because of Augustus’s fondness for Greek art.

The Ara Pacis is rectangular and made out of white Carrara marble, which is a very famous type of marble used in ancient Rome. (In some cases, Carrara marble was valued above all others because of the mineral’s perfect shape). Furthermore, the Ara is composed of a sacrificial altar in the interior, surrounded by precinct walls, elaborately carved in relief, which is a specific carving technique that was used throughout the monument. The top half of the walls consist of reliefs of figures while the bottom is composed of acanthus leaves, swans, lizards, and flowers.

There are essentially two entrances: one facing the east and one facing the west (when it’s placed in its original location), and it has been suggested that, from the Roman’s perspective, the doorways were linked to the idea of peace. The main entrance, the doorway with the steps, consists of friezes that illustrate the origins of Rome:

The top left side, which is almost entirely lost, represented the Lupercal, the cave in which the she-wolf nurtured Romulus and Remus, and the wolf connection to the divine origins of Rome. 

The top-right panel depicts Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the son of the goddess Venus, sacrificing the White Sow. 

The idea here is that having Aeneas, the founder of the Julian line, on the Ara Pacis illustrated a key element of Augustus’s political agenda for his new Golden Age -- it reflected Augustus as a decedent from a god, equating to how he should be portrayed as a god. Another interesting detail about this particular frieze is how it also reflects Augustan religious agenda -- many of the religious symbols associated with religious orders are present, including the patera (an offering plate), the libation jug, and the lituus (a curved staff). Many ancient Romans identified with religion by different objects and their symbols, therefore by having such prominent Augustan religious symbols on a monument dedicated to him, people were more likely to obey and practice religion. Such aspects of the Ara Pacis were used to spread a specific message to the public -- the importance of acknowledging and respecting an entity higher than himself.

The two sides of the Ara Pacis display two processions with figures that march from the back to the front. The southern procession composes of mainly senators, while the northern side is the imperial procession, composed of the principal figures, perfectly ordered by family and rank: priests, augurs, lictors (attendants). Octavian, flamens (priests), Agrippa (Augustus’s chief advisor), the young Cains Caesar, Livia, Tiberius, Antonia Minor and Drusus with their son Germanicus, Domitia and Domitius Ahenobarbus, and Maecenas. The general purpose behind these two processions is to show the dualism of Roman rule – the Senate and the family of Augustus.

The inclusion of children in the imperial family procession is especially significant because it is a reminder of the social program Augustus established. Augustus was concerned about a decline in the birthrate among the Roman nobility, so he enacted a series of laws designed to promote marriage, marital fidelity, and raising children. Portrayal of men with their families on the Ara was intended as a moral exemplar. Augustus also portrays his grandsons on the panel because they were important to him and he had hopes that they would play a role in continuing his dynasty. (Ramage, 120). Essentially, Augustus wanted to ensure the growth of the population.

Artistically, Augustus was interested in Classical Greek art, and wanted to show how artistically advanced Rome was as well by taking Greek art styles and developing them into a new, sophisticated Roman style. So, in the case of the imperial procession, the sculptors altered the heights of the figures by adding children to avoid the monotony of too many toga-wearing people with heads all at the same level, which was a style seen in Greek art. The artists also changed the stance and direction of the figures, using very low relief carving at the background level to indicate the figures behind. This technique was similar to the features on the frieze on the Parthenon in Athens, which was important to Augustus because in this way he could connect his dynasty’s greatness to that of Athens in the 5th century BC. Furthermore, it is important to note that the procession looks especially realistic because the artists showed some of the feet projecting beyond the edge of the relief, which is another technique used by the Greek. (Ramage, 121).

The entire bottom half of the Ara Pacis is covered with scroll reliefs that symbolize the peace and the plenty that Augustus brought to the Empire. It can be interpreted as a symbolic reference to the wealth of the Golden Age – abundance of naturally grown vegetation and the sprouting of cultivated plants from weeds.

On the left, upper-back panel, it is suggested that the woman holding the babies on her lap is Tellus, Mother Earth, and the babies represent fertility. Others have also suggested that the woman perhaps represents Pax (peace), which is maybe a more logical interpretation because it directly correlates with the overall theme of peace: she is epitomizing the fruits of Pax Augusta – all around her the earth is in bloom and the animals of different species live peacefully side by side. Personifications of refreshing breezes, Earth, sky, and water were all incorporated into this picture of peace and fertility.

The panel on the upper-right is quite damaged, but it demonstrates Rome as the armed goddess Roma seated on a pile of enemy armor. However, she is armed to illustrate that she is prepared for battle just in case she is needed again. For now, she can rest since peace is at hand thanks to Augustus.

The garlands are located at the inner-upper sections of all four precinct walls. Not one is completely identical with another. They are each composed of fruits from all four seasons, both wild and cultivated. The idea is that even though certain fruits are meant to bloom at a specific time during the year, they all bloomed magically at the same time to illustrate that Augustus’s peace spanned the entire year.

White cows are also located on the insides of the precinct walls. They were the sacrificial animals of Pax (peace), so including bleached skulls is an appropriate decoration for the sanctuary of the goddess of peace and the function of the altar.

The inner-side frieze of the sacrificial altar consists of six Vestal virgins (the virgin holy priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth) carrying implements of sacrifice. While the outer-side portrays the procession of sacrificial animals – an ancient ceremonial scene. Both of these processions are reiterating the purpose and significance of the Ara Pacis.

Like most ancient Roman monuments, as time wore on, the Ara Pacis was abandoned, forgotten, and eventually buried. But in 1568, 9 blocks of the altar’s friezes were discovered during an excavation to build the Palazza Fiano. Then 300 years later, in 1859, the base and side relief panels were discovered. Essentially, pieces of the altar were found all over the place -- some were acquired by the Grand Duke of Tuscany; others, after passing through various hands, found their way into museums in Rome and into the Louvre in Paris.

In the late 1930’s, during the rise of Italian Facism, Benito Mussolini ordered for the altar’s reconstruction and decided to have it installed in a building beside the Tiber as the highlight of his new theme park. He selected Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, who was one of Mussolini’s favorite architects, to design this. Mussolini envisioned himself as the new Augustus, therefore this project implied his supposed bond with ancient emperor-conquerors. “A wall of Morpurgo’s building also carried the text of “Res Gestae Divi Augusti” or “deeds of the divine Augustus”: the emperor’s memoirs recounting his triumphs such as Mussolini’s pride in his “new” Ara Pacis.” (Riding). The altar was finally reconstructed in 1937-1938 from hundreds of fragments and even then, it was as a propagandistic device.

Today, the Ara Pacis sits in a museum along the Tiber River called The Ara Pacis Museum, which was designed by an American architect named Richard Meir.

When I first began my research and analysis of the friezes, I was already amazed by the art, technique, and all the imagery behind each of them just by flipping through photographs. But it was not until I was actually standing in front of the Ara Pacis, starring at it face-to-face, that I was fully impressed and mesmerized by what I was seeing, especially by its grand size.
The talents of the artists are undeniably remarkable, particularly when one takes into account its massiveness. The incredible amount of patience, precision, and thought that had to go into the construction of it is noteworthy.

Even though the Ara Pacis is not in its original location anymore and has been reconstructed, it continues to glorify the very essence of Augustus and all that he stood for. The incredible detail and symbolism that surrounds the Ara cannot be ignored or unappreciated. As one strolls around the Ara Pacis and takes the time to analyze each frieze and the symbolism behind them, there is no doubt that Augustus’s political and social agendas, as well as the peace and prosperity he brought to the Empire is well exemplified. As the viewer, we are reminded of the Golden Age and the undeniable power and influence Augustus held. By having people today continue to see and understand the significance of the Ara Pacis proves that Augustus has not been forgotten and is still recognized as one of the greatest figures in Roman history.

D’Ambra, Eve. Roman Art in Context. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993. 27-52.

Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of a City. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. 32-36.

Kleiner, Fred S., and Mamiya, J. Christin. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Harcourt College Publishers, 2001. 264-268.

Ramage, Nancy H., and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 1991. 116-123.

Riding, Alan. "Richard Meier's New Home for the Ara Pacis, a Roman Treasure, Opens." 24 Apr. 2006. The New York TImes. 23 Aug. 2007 .

Simon, Erika. Ara Pacis Augustae. Germany & Austria: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth Tubingen.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Universal Pastime: Ancient Roman Bathing and the Baths of Caracalla

Mindy Szeto
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

“I must go and have a bath. Yes, it’s time,” writes a Roman schoolboy in his exercise book almost 1800 years ago. “I leave; I get myself some towels and follow my servant. I run and catch up with the others who are going to the baths and I say to them one and all, ‘How are you? Have a good bath! Have a good supper!’” (Yegul, 30) Such was the accepted universality of bathing as a daily event in the lives of all Romans - young or old, and regardless of one’s sex, race, religion, or wealth, all were invited and expected to have a “bene lava,” a good bath. Visiting one of many public bathhouses was the norm, as no extensive bathing facilities existed in most Roman dwellings. Imperial thermae were the grandest of the public baths. The high level of expertise needed for their construction and the expense of the luxurious décor within meant that oftentimes only the emperor had the resources to commission them. Small privately owned baths called balneae were more common, but fell far short of the thermae in terms of facilities, opulence, and scale.

In fact, the Baths of Caracalla, one of the most famous thermae, was second only to the Colosseum in terms of large scale building projects (Menen, 92). As evidenced by their size alone, they did much more than fulfill a basic hygienic necessity. They served as community centers, providing all the facilities needed for the ideal urban life – a highly desirable balance between physical health and intellectual well-being. One could find gyms, shops, gardens, libraries and lecture halls at the baths. Since entrance fees were often partially or completely subsidized by the government or wealthy individuals, common people could enjoy the available recreation, education, and entertainment. To them, the baths were so important that, according to Yegul, “among the most effective punishments that could be imposed by the government on a community was the closing down of its baths for a period of time” (Yegul 30). Indeed, a daily habit was transformed into a civic institution and eventually became an essential part of Roman identity. It would have been un-Roman not to bathe (Yegul, 2).

Caracalla (186 – 217 CE), an emperor of the Severan dynasty, also recognized the importance of the baths, but for a different reason. The construction of lavish thermae was an immense public work, and it was a given that popular support of the emperor would skyrocket upon its completion. They were richly adorned with trophies, inscriptions, and sculptures, all constant reminders of the prosperity and peace brought by the emperor to the mighty empire. As sources of pride for the community, thermae-building could bestow a lot of power on those who dared to undertake it. It was therefore a useful propaganda tool for an emperor who desired a means to a political end – for example, to bring himself honor and esteem, or to ensure the outcome of an election (Raaschou-Nielsen, 149). Hoping to establish a lasting legacy and increase his popularity with the Roman people, Caracalla insisted on building his namesake baths at all costs. He was an unpopular military dictator who developed a reputation early on for being psychotic and bloodthirsty. There are accounts of Caracalla’s many quirks stemming from his obsessive desire to resemble Alexander the Great. For instance, he would always walk with his head tilted to the right, to emulate Alexander’s pose in famous works of art (Piranomonte, 51). He was also prone to bouts of “mad logic,” as demonstrated by Menen in an excerpt from one of Caracalla’s dialogues: “It is clear that if you make me no request, you do not trust me, if you do not trust me, you suspect me, if you suspect me, you fear me, if you fear me, you hate me. Off with his head…” (Menen, 150) Whether one had a request or lack thereof did not matter when Caracalla craved violent severity; he was a dangerous man. Originally, Caracalla’s father Septimius Severus, the first of the Severan emperors, had planned for Caracalla to rule the empire jointly with his brother Geta and his mother Iulia Domna. Caracalla had other plans. He murdered Geta in 212 and, with the purchased support of the army, left more than a thousand Romans dead in the process of securing his emperorship. It is no wonder that he needed the thermae to give his reputation a boost.

Bust of Emperor Caracalla. Rome, Roman National Museum, Palazzo Massimo at the Baths (Piranomonte, 51)

Septimius Severus began building the baths during his reign, and had left his son a full treasury to continue construction. But the project proved so expensive that Caracalla resorted to extorting the necessary money from wealthy senators. He became popular among the poor, however, who now had a wonderful community center offering all the best pleasures of Roman urban life.

So attractive were these pleasures that baths tell the story of Romanization and urbanization throughout the empire; in fact, the empire’s extent could be indicated by the presence of balneae and thermae. The bathing custom was an effective tool for assimilating conquered peoples into a single, standard culture. Even with its many differences and similarities, the vast imperial Roman civilization could be unified by a coherent pattern of practices that featured bathing’s universal prevalence as its mainstay. It was an activity with the potential to involve the entire urban population and was not confined to the elite like many other Roman pastimes (Raaschou-Nielsen, 149).

History and Origins of Bathing
The act of bathing itself was not a uniquely Roman hobby. As is common with many facets of the ancient Roman world, they borrowed practices from other cultures. In this case, the Romans developed the Greek custom of bathing daily in small private balneae (Menen, 191). Thus, the first baths in Italy were small domestic balneae meant to provide a “good sweat,” a folk remedy for seasonal ailments (Yegul, 50). It is in these balneae that the three basic elements of a Roman bath are first seen: a caldarium (hot room), a tepidarium (warm room), and a frigidarium (cold room). They were privately owned and small, often sharing their walls with surrounding buildings. Though most were open to the public, a potent combination of increasing public interest in bathing and a strong prospering economy led to the construction of thermae, which replaced old and disused balneae. In contrast to the balneae, thermae were huge freestanding structures almost always owned by the state or city and could cater to hundreds of bathers at once (Yegul, 43).

Demand for bathing facilities was at an all-time high. Where people had normally taken a bath about once every ninth day, by the time of Commodus in the late 100’s every Roman bathed once a day, if not more – Commodus himself is said to have to taken a bath 7 to 8 times a day (Raaschou-Nielsen, 137). Bathing truly became a way of life, and Romans were in love with it. A highly sensational and enjoyable experience, to bathe was to soak in a warm clear pool for hours, muscles still tingling from a soothing massage, eyes dazzled by glittering treasures and smooth marble surfaces, while taking in the peaceful echoes of falling water and the aroma of sweet-smelling ointments and perfumes. It would awaken both body and mind. Furthermore, the shared, egalitarian experience of bathing with others was socially satisfying, It encouraged a “classless world of nudity that encouraged friendships and intimacy” (Yegul, 5), and often preceded dinner feasts full of social companionship and entertainment. Bathing had a special place in the structure of a Roman day, an irreplaceable part of a grand ritual of delightful luxury.

The Bath Ritual
The bath itself was highly ritualized. According to the poet Martial, the best time to bathe was 2 o’clock in the afternoon, after lunch and a short siesta. Since the Roman workday was confined to the morning hours, men would often stay at the baths for several hours, until dinner. If one’s schedule did not allow it that day, the bath could possibly be postponed, but under almost no circumstances should it ever be skipped. Still, bathing at night was not encouraged. Large windows provided most of the lighting, so most baths closed before dusk. Fuel was too costly to allow frequent use of artificial lights such as oil lamps. But even with the presence of artificial light, baths were large buildings with negligible security in place – they hid enough danger to make even the most courageous bather think twice about a nighttime excursion.

Most bathers arrived in the mid-afternoon, each carrying their own set of bath equipment. For the wealthy, it was a status symbol to be carried to the bathhouse on a sedan chair with a train of slaves bearing garments and implements in tow. This would include their exercise and bathing garments, sandals, linen towels, and a cylindrical metal box called a cista that stored oils, perfume, and sponges. As the Romans did not have soap, strigils were used for scraping oils off the skin after a massage and exercise.

Flasks of anointing oils and perfumes, the contents of a typical cista, are depicted on the left. 
The utensil on the right is a strigil, a curved metal blade for scraping excess oil from the body after bathing. 
This would also be stored in the cista when not in use. Naples Archaeological Museum (Yegul, 34).

Most people, however, carried their own equipment and could only afford one professional assistant to anoint and strigil them.

The first stop upon entering the baths would be the apodyterium, much like a modern-day locker room with shelves and cabinets to store clothing and personal effects. There were benches for slaves and servants to sit and keep watch over their masters’ belongings, as theft was quite common. The bather would undress here and move to one of many heated rooms for an oil massage before exercising in a courtyard called a palestra. The exercise was not meant to be strenuous; only athletes exercised vigorously. For ordinary people, working up a light sweat was enough to reap health benefits. Ball games were very popular with both men and women. Men favored running, wrestling, boxing and fencing, while it was more suitable for women to swim in the natatio (the swimming pool) or roll a metal hoop called a trochus with a stick.

Mosaic probably depicting a competition for women athletes, 
not ordinary practice. It was usually considered unacceptable for women 
to exercise with weights and dumbbells. Sicily, Piazza Armerina, 4th cent. (McManus)

The second-floor rooms above the palestra were most likely used for sunbathing, massage, or plucking unfashionable body hair. Professional hair-pluckers called depilators were available for hire in these rooms (Yegul, 33).

The tintinnabulum bell announced the opening of the hot baths, and when it rung, all activity in the palestrae would immediately cease. Excited bathers could either go to a sauna-like sweating chamber called the laconicum, get anointed with oil a second time, or soak in the warm tepidarium to start the bath in earnest. The general order of movement from room to room proceeded from the warm tepidarium to the hot caldarium. The bath ended with a plunge in the cold frigidarium. Of course, “one bathed as one wished” (Yegul, 39) and this was not a fixed routine.

Bathers tended to linger in the admirably illuminated caldarium and frigidarium, which were common meeting places for social gatherings and performances. Traveling entertainers such as jugglers and musicians were always present, as were vendors of food and wine. There was something for everyone here, whether it was the sensual dip in the pool and the possibility of getting a tan from the sunlight streaming through the sparkling windows and water, the merriment of eating and drinking with friends in the hot baths, or the peace of contemplative thought after a stirring oration at one of the lecture halls.

Reconstruction drawing of the frigidarium at the Baths of Caracalla,
 illustrating the building’s grandeur. Viollet le Duc, 1867 (Keller)

One could imagine the sounds emanating from the many different rooms of the baths and blending together in the large central frigidarium. Unfortunate enough to live next to a city bath, Seneca wrote a critical and satiric account of the deafening din:

“…panting and grunting hearties as they swing weights; the smacking noise of body massage; someone yelling out the scores of a ball game; and the commotion caused by a thief caught stealing. To these noises were added the singing of the man who likes his own voice under the vaulted halls; the enthusiast who splashes indelicately in the public pool; the shrill voice of the hair-plucker advertising his trade, or worse, the yelling of his victims; and the incessant cries of the cake-seller, the sausage-seller, the candyman, each with his peculiar tone and style…” (Yegul, 32)

Social Impact
When bathers finally began to leave around dinnertime, friends would say goodbye with “Salve lotus!” This can be translated as “I hope you have bathed well.” In ancient Rome, no one was barred from the all-important pursuit of bathing well; anyone who could afford a negligible entrance fee, usually no more than half a cent, could attend one of the eleven thermae or choose from more than eight hundred balneae in Rome that were open to the public. Subsidized by endowments, some were even free (Carcopino, 254).

Since bathing was such an affordable luxury for all, people from many different walks of life could mix freely. There is no evidence of any formal social segregation whatsoever occurring at the baths, and generally, bathhouses were not built specifically to serve any particular classes of clientele (Fagan, 206). The grand thermae of Rome were located to allow easy access from all areas of the city. Many Roman emperors enjoyed bathing with their subjects in the public baths, where they could rub shoulders with the lowliest laborer and gain popular support. This created the temporary illusion of a “classless society,” and as bath scholar Fagan suggests, public bathing was a social leveling system. Some argue that de facto social segregation still occurred, as the wealthy would bathe surrounded by a throng of slave attendants. In fact, during the height of the empire such idleness was considered fashionable, and it was chic to be “thought incapable of doing anything except to have sex and eat” (Menen, 197). It is interesting to note that this life of excess and leisure was made possible by the Roman economy’s dependence on slave labor.

However, the status of slaves at the baths is unknown. They definitely served as attendants while their masters bathed, but direct evidence as to whether they could actually use them as customers is in the form of scarce graffiti or inscriptions on the walls of certain bathhouses (Fagan, 200). It is possible that some slaves had the opportunity to bathe while on duty, but not all attendants would be so lucky – for example, the vigilant slaves who guarded their masters’ clothes in the apodyterium were flogged if they left their post.

Also, Roman medicine promoted bathing as a remedy for many illnesses. With an average life expectancy of 30 years, Romans lived short lives and fell ill often. Thus, as there were no separate facilities for medically prescribed bathing, the healthy and the sick often bathed together. This was another social leveler, albeit detrimental in terms of public health (Fagan, 85).

Integration by gender was not tolerated on the same level. Men and women usually bathed separately, and though some emperors tolerated mixed bathing, the women who visited heterosexual baths did not have the best reputations. More common was the practice of assigning different bathing times: women would bathe in the morning while men would bathe in the more desirable afternoon hours (Yegul, 33).

Bath Architecture and Technology: The Baths of Caracalla
A large part of the enjoyment associated with public bathing was due to the grand beauty of the bath building itself. To reiterate, the vast thermae of Caracalla was a massive treasury-draining construction effort. 9000 workers were employed daily for five years from 212 to 217, and they used several million bricks and more than 252 columns total. 16 of those columns were more than 12 meters high. The whole complex, including the gardens surrounding the central building, occupies a rectangular area of about 337x328 meters and could accommodate up to 1600 bathers at a time (Piranomonte, 13). An extensive network of underground passageways was used for maintenance and storage.

Plan of the Baths of Caracalla, with the 
main features labeled (Piranomonte, 16).

As can be seen from the figure of the plan, the central building was symmetrical. To accommodate the huge volume of customers, the Romans found it more effective to increase the number of rooms rather than their size. The number of entrances and passageways to a room, not its size, determined the flow of the crowd (Delaine, 45). Additionally, the main heated rooms – namely the tepidarium and caldarium – tended to be smaller and situated along the axis of the building, which expedited the heating process.

Solar heating was well-understood, so the caldarium windows were oriented towards the south to make the best use of the sun’s warmth. But that alone could not get the air hot enough, so the Romans developed the hypocaust system. Hypocaust means “fire underneath,” and literally, there were fires burning under the floor. Pillars called pilae raised the caldarium floor about three feet, and large tiles were laid on top of these pillars, to be covered with a layer of concrete and marble. An underground furnace provided the fire; the hot gases it created were drawn through the floor space, and heated the floor as they rose and spread out. A series of stacked clay tubes called tubuli lined the insides of the walls and created vertical channels for gases to rise through the walls. Apertures in the roof allowed gases to escape. Heat circulation could then continue and the air inside the caldarium would heat up.

Diagram of hypocaust system (Yegul, 358).

The hypocaust did not heat the water, which was still cold having traveled by aqueduct to the baths. Heating water for the heated pools - 7 hot pools in the caldarium and 2 warm pools in the tepidarium - was accomplished by lighting fires under metal boilers underground. It is not known exactly how hot the water was, but there are accounts of heavy drinkers being carried out unconscious (“Roman Bath”). To maintain these kinds of temperatures, up to 50 furnaces total would be burning at once, consuming an average of 10 tons of wood a day (Piranomonte, 15).

The lofty interior spaces of the central rooms owed their size to the Roman technique of vaulting, which made use of a complex combination of many arches to support the weight of the roof. Before vaulting, ancient builders such as the Greeks supported their roofs with a forest of columns. This greatly compromised the amount of interior space. The Roman solution to this was to build the roof in two curved halves, separately. The weight of a keystone dropped in at the top would push down and outwards on the sections, holding the roof together and freeing up space underneath ("Roman Bath").

Section of the frigidarium wall at the modern-day 
Baths of Caracalla, showing extensive vaulting. (Prins)

None of this would have been possible without the advent of waterproof concrete, arguably the most important technology the Romans developed. The starting material was limestone, cheap and readily available. Heating the stone drove off the carbon dioxide and turned limestone into quicklime. Quicklime was then soaked, or ‘slaked,’ in water to make lime. The Romans added sand and rocks to the lime putty, mixed in crushed tile for waterproofing and included volcanic ash if possible. The end product was a distinctive pink concrete, found in almost all Roman buildings ("Roman Bath").

More available space also meant more room for lavish decorations. Hundreds of bronze and painted marble statues stood in every niche, and the important halls featured fountains and extensive polychrome marble facing. Indeed, every available surface would either be painted or covered with a mosaic. Fragments of stucco decorations can still be seen, attached to the walls of the frigidarium.

Colored mosaic from the floor of the eastern palestra. 
Materials for the many mosaics in the baths came from 
all over the empire; for example, yellow marble was imported
 from Numidia, green-veined marble came from Carystus, 
and granite and porphyry came from Egypt. To bathers, this served
 as a constant reminder of Rome’s far-reaching influence and power. 
(Prins, “Floor Mosaic”)

Fragment of mosaic located on the terraces of the 
eastern palestra, depicting a cupid on a sea monster. (Prins, “Cupid”)

However, the original décor is all but completely missing. The Baths of Caracalla were abandoned in 537, after only three centuries of use. As if confirming the prominence of bathing as important part of Roman identity, the fall of the empire coincided with the demise of the baths. Invading Goths severed key aqueducts, cutting off the water supply to Rome. The baths were too far from the city center to be properly defended and were therefore abandoned. As early as the 12th century, they were quarried for building material to decorate churches and palaces (Piranomonte, 4). Four centuries later, the Farnese Pope Paul III excavated the baths for the purpose of decorating a new palazzo. The statues and precious objects that were being taken from the baths caused great interest among the public; due to increasing removal and relocation of artifacts, the site deteriorated quickly.

At first, how the Romans were able to spend half of one’s waking hours every day bathing seemed strange and impossible to me. The concept seemed less strange when considering the slave-driven economy, which allowed a life of leisure for most of the empire’s citizens. Whether slaves were allowed to bathe is still uncertain.

Given the scale and the relatively short time it took to build the bath, it can be inferred that a strong economy and construction industry was solidly in place during Caracalla’s reign. The Severan period is often considered the high point of Roman construction (Delaine, 10). Gone was the time of architectural uncertainty and experimentation. The hundreds of baths built prior to this period provided countless laboratories for attempting new construction methods, and out of this creative experimentation came the development of waterproof concrete, vaulted ceilings, and innovative heating technology.

Though much of the baths’ original grandeur has been stripped away, the impressive ruins still stand as a monument to the sophistication of ancient Roman architecture. The Basilica-like, granite-columned hall of the frigidarium alone has directly inspired the architecture of many subsequent structures. Buildings as recent as the Chicago Railroad Station are exact copies of bath architecture (Piranomonte, 24). Caracalla’s thermae is therefore an excellent case study; it showcased Roman achievement in architecture and artistic design, and utilized the best of the technology available.

Statue of Hercules found in the frigidarium 
of the Baths of Caracalla, It is often called the 
Farnese Hercules due to its recovery and subsequent 
acquisition by Alessandro Farnese in the 1540’s. 
Naples, National Archaeological Museum. (Piranomonte, 39)

The wonder and admiration surrounding the art at the baths still exists, but it is art uncredited; we cannot attribute the stunning statues – even the Farnese Hercules - to any one artist or school of artists at all. Instead, this indicates the high standard of art at the time; the skill that went into the creation of those works was nothing out of the ordinary. An army of tradesmen worked diligently to complete them, with wondrous skill that was unmatched until the time of the Renaissance. Even parts of the bathing ritual have survived to this day; the Turkish bath is a direct descendant of the Roman custom. As a “microcosm of many of the things that made life attractive” (Carcopino, 256), the universality of baths and bathing in Roman society are an ideal lens through which to study the lives of the ancients.

Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome : The People and the City at the Height of the Empire. New Haven : Yale UP, 2003.

DeLaine, Janet and David E. Johnston, eds. Roman Baths and Bathing: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Roman Baths held at Bath, England 30 March - 4 April 1992 . Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 37. Dexter: Thomson-Shore, 1999.

Fagan, Garret G. Bathing in Public in the Roman World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Keller, Sven. “Caracalla Leduc.” Photo. Caracalla-Thermen. 16 Aug. 2007.

McManus, Barbara F. “Piazza Armerina gymnast.” Photo. Roman Baths. Jul. 2003. 16 Aug. 2007

Menen, Aubrey. Cities in the Sand. New York: Dial Press, 1973.

Raaschou-Nielsen, Inge V. Thermae et Balnea : The Architecture and Cultural History of Roman Public Baths. Aarhus : Aarhus UP, 1990.

Roman Bath (Secrets of Lost Empires II). Prod. NOVA. Videocassette. WGBH Boston Video, 2000.

Piranomonte, Marina.The Baths of Caracalla. Guide Electa per la Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma. Milan: Electa, 1998.

Prins, Marco. "Cupid on sea monster." Photo. Livius Picture Archive: Rome - Baths of Caracalla. 16 Aug. 2007.

---. "Floor mosaic." Photo. Livius Picture Archive: Rome - Baths of Caracalla. 16 Aug. 2007.

---. "Frigidarium wall." Photo. Livius Picture Archive: Rome - Baths of Caracalla. 16 Aug. 2007.

Yegul, Fikret. Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity. New York: MIT Press, 1992.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Kelsea Yu
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

The Colosseum is often considered the defining symbol of ancient Rome, due partly to the psychological insights raised by the gladiatorial games that made it famous, but also in its role as an architectural wonder. Despite our revulsion at the ancient use of murder as a form of entertainment, we are inexplicably drawn to the violence. It is as if we are walking a fine line between reassuring ourselves that the Colosseum was built for a brutal society completely unlike our own, and knowing that the capability for such sadism might still be lurking in our modern culture.

Nero, the Roman emperor, never understood frugality. What he lost in love and support from his subjects, he made up for in lavish projects of self-indulgence. One of these projects was the Golden House, his gigantic palace built in the center of Rome, where the Great Fire of 64 A.D. had demolished everything that had previously stood on its ground.

After Nero and the three temporary emperors fell, Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, or Vespasian, rose to power. Eager to dispel any resemblances to the despised Nero, Vespasian began construction of the Colosseum, a public venue of entertainment and a gift to his subjects. He had the lake of Nero’s Golden House drained, and the Colosseum took its place. Unfortunately, Vespasian died prior to the completion of his colossal amphitheatre. His son succeeded him, and the Colosseum was completed the following year during the reign of Titus Flavius Vespasianus Augustus , or simply Titus.

The Colosseum was neither the first nor the last amphitheatre to be built. Prior to construction of the Colosseum, there had been multitudes of temporary amphitheatres, but none were too massive or too permanent. In Rome, gladiators performed in the Forum while audiences watched from wooden benches that were dismantled at the close of each day. The proliferation of such temporary amphitheatres may seem impractical, but the Roman senators had very strong political reasons for refusing to build a permanent amphitheatre. In a republic like ancient Rome, citizens had a direct influence on elections and laws. This fact was exacerbated by the dual role of citizens as both voters and soldiers. The power of the Senate depended on the willingness of the soldiers to fight. If the citizen-soldiers were to collectively revolt against the Senate, the republic would crumble and the government would be powerless. Fearful of a potential uprising, the Senate avoided constructing buildings large enough for the majority of citizens to meet and conspire. However, with the advent of Roman emperors, this fear reversed itself. By midway through first century BC, the Republican system of government had imploded. Free elections by the people quickly turned into rigged elections by bribed senators. By 80 AD, when the Colosseum was completed, the monarchy was firm enough for emperors to risk confronting their subjects as a collective. In addition, it was essential that the emperor see and be seen by the people, especially as a means of perpetuating the myth that the emperor was always accessible to his subjects. The Colosseum was the perfect sized forum. It was a place where subjects could view their emperor with gratefulness as a benefactor, for patronizing the Colosseum games, but also recall the power of the emperor as their ruler.

When the Colosseum was completed, Titus held a massive opening ceremony, which was to have lasted a hundred days. Estimates for how many animals were killed during these celebrations range from 9,000 to 500,000. There are various accounts describing the shows given during the celebrations, though most are probably exaggerated. According to Dio’s account, the Colosseum was intentionally flooded, and ships and animals were brought in to stage a mock battle, recreating a famous naval encounter of fifth-century BC Greece. He also describes battles between cranes and elephants, and other magnificent creatures, though it is difficult to imagine how one might persuade a crane to fight within the open Colosseum. Martial’s book of poems, The Book of the Shows, describes scenes in which stories from mythology would be re-enacted. In one myth, the god Poseidon vengefully makes the wife of King Minos of Crete fall in love with a bull, and then give birth to Minotaur, a mix of human and bull. In Martial’s book, this scene is acted out between a woman and a live animal. It is unknown how literally these stories should be taken. There is evidence for dramatic executions of criminals in along these lines (presumably, the woman would not survive the encounter), although it is difficult to imagine how one might force a criminal to act out his or her own death. Possibly, these descriptions refer to people acting as animals, made “real” only by Martial’s fantastical imagery.

The opening ceremonies were atypical of the games held at the Colosseum. Generally, the games were more structured and routine. In the morning, fights involving either animals against other animals, or wild animal hunts by people, were held. During lunch, the Colosseum featured public executions of prisoners, and the afternoon brought gladiatorial fights. Supposedly, a gladiator would salute the emperor, saying “Hail Caesar, those about to die salute you!” before fighting, but the evidence for this line is minimal. A wounded gladiator was at the mercy of the emperor or the audience. A thumbs up supposedly signaled mercy, while a thumbs down signaled death. However, there is no evidence that these thumb signals corresponded to these assumed events; the signals may actually have meant the reverse.

Though most days in the Colosseum varied only slightly, events were occasionally held to celebrate an anniversary or victory, or to commemorate a predecessor. The emperor usually sponsored these games, but a wealthy family could also obtain permission to hold and fund a celebratory event for the public at the Colosseum. An emperor’s reputation could suffer or gain based on their generosity with these displays. The emperor Trajan gave the biggest bloodbath ever recorded at the Colosseum, to celebrate his conquest over Dacia (modern Romania). According to Dio, 11,000 animals were killed and 10,000 gladiators fought over the course of 123 days.

While Trajan and other emperors strategically hosted these massive shows to curry favor with their subjects, other emperors transgressed the boundary of appropriateness. The emperor Domitian, among others, had members of the Roman elite fight as gladiators. Commodus pushed these boundaries the furthest. He was said to have fought hundreds of private gladiatorial bouts, and he often fought in public displays, though with wooden swords only. Once, he opened an extravaganza by killing a hundred bears with spears thrown from walkways through the arena. The next day, he killed many harmless domestic animals, with nets to prevent disaster anyway, as well as a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Senators and knights were required to attend the games when the emperor was fighting, though they were more tense than comfortable. At one game, Commodus killed an ostrich and then took its head and approached the senators in the audience, as if to threaten them. Though senators were forced to watch the games, commoners had a choice, and many chose to stay home. Some refused to watch out of disgust for the emperor, while others stayed away because they had heard a rumor that the emperor was planning to dress as Hercules and shoot random spectators as if he was killing the Stymphalian birds from Herculean legend.

Even if we were to assume that writers such as Dio and Martial exaggerated the figures they cited in their descriptions of the Colosseum games, the arena necessary to accommodate such lavish displays would have to be massive. Indeed, the Colosseum is forty-eight meters high, and the original building is estimated to have used 100,000 cubic meters of travertine marble, quarried nearby at Tivoli. Over the years, the Colosseum has suffered natural disasters and looting, and survived through restorations and renovations. The combination of these factors makes it nearly impossible to determine which sections are original. In addition, the Colosseum has lost almost all of its original decoration, including marble facings, rich paintings, stuccoes, and statues. We have an idea of what the monument would have looked like with its decoration based on surviving paintings of the Colosseum done during the Renaissance, when more of the stucco decoration remained intact. Today, small fragments of brightly painted plaster still survive from the corridors, perhaps a sign of vivid coloring in ancient times.

The original Colosseum had four visible arcaded stories and an underground level, which was added shortly after the initial structure was built. It is built in the shape of a series of concentric ellipses, with a series of four annular (the Latin word for “ring”) corridors. The ground floor contains all four corridors, while each additional story contains one less corridor, until the top story has just one ring. The ground floor has plain Doric columns, the first has more complex Ionic columns, the second even more highly flourished Corinthian columns, and the top has Corinthian columns interspersed with windows. The effect of the arcaded stories was to create stadium seating, so that everyone in the Colosseum had a clear view of the arena. Each corridor offered access to a different part of the monument, and stairwells lead to the higher levels. The corridors probably contained water fountains and lavatories as well. The staircases were carefully planned and situated so that the elites could directly access the lower levels without being forced to mingle with the peasants headed for the upper levels.

The Colosseum had eighty numbered arches. Seating assignments corresponded to the numbers on the arches, organizing spectators into sections. Unlike modern stadiums, it was not possible to spend more money to buy a better ticket. Instead, tickets were distributed at no cost by organizations or powerful, influential patrons. Though no entrance tickets survive, they were probably small tokens made of wood, lead, or bone, which specified a block or entranceway, level, and row number.

Upon entry, spectators would have seen the arena as the ground floor. However, below the ground floor was the underground floor, and below even that floor was a complicated system of drainage. Since the Colosseum was built on the site of what was once Nero’s lake, flooding was a problem. The bowl-like shape of the Colosseum only enhanced this potential issue. However, a vast hydraulic system was arranged even before the foundations were built. The intricate network of underground drains runs all the way around and through the center of the monument. This vast ring runs eight meters bellow the valley floor, taking water off to flow into the Tiber River.

The Colosseum’s deepest foundations are roughly in the shape of two concentric circles. Under the walls and seating, these foundations lie twelve to thirteen meters deep, continuing for six meters outside the perimeter wall. Beneath the arena, the foundations are only four meters deep. Digging just the oval hole alone would have been a massive enterprise. Most likely, some excavated earth was used to raise the ground level around the whole building, while the rest was carted away. After the area was excavated, the building of the retaining wall began. The remaining hole, around 250,000 cubic meters in volume, was filled in with concrete, lime, mortar, and sand mixed with water and volcanic rock.

Shortly after the Colosseum was built, the underground floor was added for logistical purposes. It is rich with mazes of walls, forming different rectangular compartments. Interspersed between these compartments are square areas, which formed shafts for lifts to carry animals from the underground to the arena level. Some of the other rectangular compartments were storage areas, while others were rooms for gladiators or animals to be kept while they waited for their appearance in the arena.

A thick wooden board lay over the underground maze, forming the arena level. This would have been the first level visible to spectators. Three inches of sand lay over the wooden board, to soak up the blood and urine from the games. A tall wall surrounded the arena, keeping spectators safely distanced from the fights ensuing below. However, even a thick wall is not always enough to prevent an angered animal or a vengeful gladiator from climbing or jumping into the crowd. Other measures would have been in place to prevent a tragedy. These probably included a set of ivory rollers set around the arena, an extra fence jutting out toward the arena, and a wide net.

The next three levels were all filled with seating areas. Class differentiation was built into the Colosseum, with seating determined by rank. The elite seating was in the boxes on the northern and southern sides of the arena, at ringside. Elaborate northern and southern entranceways led directly to these elite boxes. It is believed that the southern entrance was for the emperor, due to the discovery of an underground passageway which gave direct access to the ringside from somewhere outside the building. This passageway was an insertion, probably soon after the building was opened, and it was decorated elaborately. Originally, the walls were faced in marble or alabaster, later replaced with frescoed plaster, and there was lavish stucco in different spots, while the floor was covered in mosaic. This passage was added to give the emperor safe passage to his private box. The northern box probably accommodated minor royals or the Vestal Virgins.

The senators and Vestal Virgins sat in wooden benches near the arena, while knights, the next official rank, sat behind them. Each descending rank sat on the next highest level, until the top of the seating area, which was reserved for slaves, non-citizens, and women. Relegating women to the poorest seating of the arena ensured that the audience (at least the elite crowd) was overwhelmingly male, since no woman of any pretensions was likely to enjoy sharing seats with the lowest classes of society. A little above the peasant seating, on the highest level of the outer wall, sockets were used to attach an awning over the audience. The awning provided some shade for the seating, but the center had a circular hole to ensure that light could still enter the arena.

The Colosseum was built with every factor in mind, including strategically placed passageways, an elaborate drainage system, and rank-based stadium seating. Now only one question begs an answer: who designed the Colosseum? Much to experts’ dismay, this query remains unanswered. We do know that vast quantities of slave labor, both skilled and unskilled, made up the majority of the workforce. Individual sections and arches were probably subcontracted to different groups. While the voussoirs (crucial to structural stability) in the arches are virtually identical, each individual arch varies by quite a bit more, reflecting variety based on the size of the travertine blocks delivered from quarries.

Though the Colosseum began as a venue for emperors to host gladiatorial games, it has since held a variety of meanings and uses. Though the last gladiatorial game was held in the 420’s, animal hunts continued to be held for at least another century. Except for a bullfight held much later, our last evidence of an animal hunt is from 523. The Venerable Bede predicted, “While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand / When falls the Coliseum, / Rome shall fall, and when Rome falls – the world” (Quennell 89). Indeed, the Colosseum fell into disuse with the rise of Christianity and the fall of the ancient Roman Empire. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, passed legislation against the gladiatorial shows. However, it was highly ineffective and rarely enforced. Ultimately, it was civil war and barbarian invasions that drained Roman resources, effectively ending the shows through a lack of funding.

There are traces of animal stalls, shacks, and haylofts from the sixth century. Occupation of the Colosseum in this manner continued for centuries. Ownership is documented in legal records referring to small houses, gardens, courtyards, and boundary walls nestled both inside and around the monument. This smaller housing transformed into a much larger scale during the mid-12th century, part of the Colosseum was incorporated into the Frangipane palace. However, they lost control of the Palace a century later to the rival Annibaldi family, who then eventually sold it to the Christian “Order of St. Salvator”.
By the Middle Ages, the original use of the Colosseum had been completely forgotten. In 1332, a bullfight was held in the Colosseum, but ironically, those who held it seemed to have made no connection with the ancient use of the venue. Eighteen humans and eleven animals were killed during these games. There have been no recorded games held in the Colosseum since then.

The term “Colosseum” was actually adopted much later. The Colosseum began as the “Hunting Theater”, or simply the “Amphitheater”. However, during the Middle Ages, it was referred to as the “Coliseum”, from colo, the Latin word for worship. The building was thought to have been a Temple of the Sun, originally roofed with a gilded dome, and home to pagan demons, with a huge statue of Jupiter in the center of the arena. It was not until the fifteenth century, when Italian Renaissance humanists studied classical texts, that the Colosseum was once again recognized for the amphitheatre it had originally been.

Christianity took up the Colosseum as a holy monument, symbolizing the sacrifice of so many early Christian martyrs for their God. However, there are no actual accounts claiming that Christian martyrs were ever executed in the Colosseum; it is only assumed, since it would have been the logical place for executions to occur. Regardless, the role of the Colosseum as a symbol of death and brutality reversed with the rise of Christianity. The Catholic Church began to celebrate the Colosseum as a shrine to the martyrs who had died there. From 1490 until midway through the 16th century, Christian passion plays were regularly performed at the Colosseum, on Good Friday. In 1519, the small chapel of Santa Maria della Pieta, housing a resident chapel hermit, was constructed at the eastern section of the arena. Pope Clement X had a wooden cross placed atop the building with painted text to commemorate the religious significance of the Colosseum. In the 1750s, Pope Benedict X1V added another inscribed plaque. It was not until the 1870s that the religious décor was torn down and the resident chapel hermit was evicted. Catholic groups held pray-ins and the Pope protested the removal of religious symbols from the Colosseum, but both were to no avail. However, the Pope still visits the Colosseum every year on Good Friday.

Despite the religious significance of the monument, the papacy turned the Colosseum into a quarry during various points in time. Papal records dating up until the 17th century reveal permission forms to “quarry stone from the Colosseum”. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V signed permission for 2,522 cartloads of stone to be removed from the Colosseum to make limestone for St. Peter’s Basilica. During the 17th century, Pope Urban VII allowed his family, the Barberini, to take fallen travertine marble from the Colosseum to build their new Palazzo Barberini. One cynical comment reads cleverly in Latin: “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (“What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini have done”).

Religious groups were not the only special interest groups to claim the Colosseum as their own. One of the Colosseum’s long-standing claims to fame is its flora. Due to the micro-climate within the walls of the monument, or perhaps more fancifully because of seeds which once fell from the fur of exotic animals used in the games, an enormous range of plants thrived in the Colosseum. Some of the plants are even extraordinary rarities. The flora of the Colosseum were first catalogued and published in 1643 by Domenico Panaroli, of the University of Rome. Panaroli recorded finding 337 species. In 1815, another professor, Antonio Sebastiani, listed 261 species. The reduction in number may have been due either to poorer observation or to the major excavations of the monument, which would have disturbed the flora. Forty years later, Richard Deakin, an English doctor and amateur botanist from Sheffield published The Flora of the Colosseum. The illustrated work listed 420 different species (though modern scientists reduce this number to 418 unique species). He was especially keen on symbolic value, focusing especially on one flora called “Christ’s Thorn”. Deakin dreaded the excavation work which would ruin his beloved species. He had good reason to be worried; in 1870, archeological authorities ordered the removal of the “weeds” in the Colosseum. Today, the Colosseum is virtually a flower-free zone.

The Colosseum has been many things. It began as a gift from an emperor to his subjects, continued as a haven to the poor, a palace to the rich, a symbol of Christian triumph over paganism to some, as a quarry to others, and a ground of study to botanists. It has withstood time and the elements, and it held countless functions, but one thing the Colosseum has never been is completely forgotten. Today, it undergoes daily scrutiny by countless visitors, all of whom are awed and perplexed both by the resplendent genius of the architecture and by the psychological implications of such a structure. Even now, a myriad of myths surround the Colosseum, some based in fact, some shrouded completely in mysticism. And so the Colosseum stands: a collection of myths wound tightly into one of the grandest monuments of ancient Rome, destined to stand for generations to come.

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Quennell, Peter. The Colosseum. New York: Newsweek, 1971.

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