Discovering Late Antique Rome: The Small Stuff

I thought I’d wrap up my intermittent series on the Late Antique city of Rome as visible today with a few thoughts/images of the smaller items (that is, not monuments or basilicas) on display in Rome’s museums.1

Because of their enduring character and continual use, those buildings of Late Antique Rome that are most likely to have survived the Middle Ages and Renaissance are the churches and things turned into churches, like mausolea or the Roman Curia. But the Late Antique world is not all monumental architecture and churches, by any means, just as the ‘Classical’ Roman world wasn’t all monumental architecture and temples. A great many Late Antique items of smaller stature are on display in Rome’s museums, especially if we take our starting date for the period that used elsewhere on this blog, of 235-641.

Third-century stuff

The third century is interesting — great political crises around every corner, a great lacuna in the history of Latin literature, but Romans are still making the same stuff they were making a century before, like sarcophagi:

IMG_1660This is a sarcophagus of ca AD 270 with a bunch of togate fellows who, according to Palazzo Massimo’s display label, are involved in a consular procession. It is of larger scale than most second-century sarcophagi, but that has more to do with the wealth of the owner than the period of production. The figures here are cared in very high relief, almost as statues in the round. I love this sarcophagus because it has such great images of togas, that most Roman of garments.

Right next to that sarcophagus in the museum is this one, ca 280-90:

IMG_1664Here we see the growing trend that had already begun in some of the imperial art of the late second century of more front figures who are divided from each other in their own wee alcoves (on this, see Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph). These are the Muses, those most classical icons of world culture.

In the Baths of Diocletian, you can find a few more third-century artifacts, such as this spectacular relief commemorating a gladiator’s victories:

IMG_1739And this fantastic sarcophagus:

IMG_1751

In the Capitoline Museums you’ll find this image of Mars, Jupiter, and Nemesis erected by the Praetorians of Gallia Belgica in AD 246:

IMG_2118And then there’s Constantine…

In the Capitoline Museums (which are not to be missed!), you can also enjoy not one but two of Constantine’s big giant heads, plus a few of his limbs:

Part of the Constantinian revolution was the emergence of Christian art in traditional places. Like sarcophagi (I like sarcophagi). Here’s one from the same room in Palazzo Massimo as the ones above:

IMG_1667Early Christian art is interesting because it can be hard to spot the stories as you know them. Except it seems, the Nativity, as in this detail from the above:

IMG_1666One interesting artistic trend of the fourth century is opus sectile mosaics. Rather than describe them, I’ll show them to you:

1st half of 4th c., Palazzo Massimo

1st half of 4th c., Palazzo Massimo

Second quarter of the fourth century, Capitoline Museums

Second quarter of the fourth century, Capitoline Museums

Opus Sectile has a very simple appearance that is quite disarming. It has its charm, though.

Fifth-century playing ground

Other things you can find in Rome’s museums include coins, such as this of Theodosius II (r. 408-450) in the Capitoline Museums:

IMG_2101 (2)Of major significance is this pair of early fifth-century statue bases:

IMG_2120 IMG_2122They were erected by Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus (ca. 383-after 402), son of the famous Roman statesman and man of letters, Q. Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345-402). The top is dedicated to his father, the bottom to his wife’s grandfather, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (334-394).2

I don’t wish to burden you with too much more of this sort of thing, so I will simply close with two images from the Vatican Museum of some Christian items that herald to us the start of a new era, as the Classical recedes and the Mediaeval approaches.

6th-c reliquary from Syria-Palestine, Vatican Museum

6th-c reliquary from Syria-Palestine brought to Rome by a contemporary pilgrim, Vatican Museum

6th-7th-c ivory lid, Vatican Museum

6th-7th-c ivory lid, Vatican Museum

Anyway, as you can imagine, Late Antique Rome is not as hidden as I originally thought. You just have to know what to look for and where. All sorts of Late Antique objects are in Rome’s museums, reminding us of the continuous history of the City as a centre of culture and human experience.


1. In case you missed them, my other posts on Late Antique Rome are (in order): Late Antique Rome? Where?; Mausoleo di Santa Costanza; Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity; the Baths of Diocletian; as well as (although not of this particular series of posts) Thoughts on Rome’s Senate and Senate House in the Seventh Century 
2. The marriage of Memmius Symmachus to Nicomachus Flavianus’ graddaughter is the probable occasion of the production of a diptych of which I have seen both leaves, one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the other in the Musée de Cluny; I only have a photo of the second, though, but it seems not to be on Flickr.

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One thought on “Discovering Late Antique Rome: The Small Stuff

  1. Pingback: Discover Late Antiquity: Fifth-century Politics in the Eastern Empire | The Wordhoard

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