Tag Archives: ancient rome

The best little museum in Paris

Paris is a city of museums and galleries — the Louvre, d’Orsay, l’Orangerie, Cluny, la Crypte archéologique beneath Notre Dame, Carnavalet, Marmotan Monet, du quai Branly, Rodin, Invalides, Centre Georges Pompidou, and so forth. Last Saturday I visited what I think may be the best little museum here (and it’s free!!), the Bibliotheque nationale de France’s (BnF) collection of ‘Monnaies, médailles et antiques’ — coins, medallions, and … antiquities?

Now, you may think a museum that bills itself as a coin museum would be pretty lame. If you think thus, you’re clearly not that into numismatics and haven’t visited the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh. I have two things to say to you — 1. coins can be cool; 2. this museum isn’t only coins. It’s not even mostly coins. Or medallions. Mostly, antiques (antiquities??).

At heart, this little two-floor museum is the BnF’s collection of the above items, on display for the public to view for free, no library card necessary!! (I have such a library card, but that’s beside the point.) It’s in the old library site, ‘Site Richelieu’, 5 Rue Vivienne, through the right entrance, and then up the big, marble staircase.

I went expecting a bunch of small but awesome items, and I wasn’t disappointed.

By small, I mean that the largest item, besides a headless statue torso, was a Mesopotamian stele with cuneiform on it — about three feet high. And a few statue heads. And a beautiful Persian sword. But most of the artefacts were small and most of the space was devoted to these small objects.

The first small items I enjoyed seeing were Early Modern, including a medallion from some French King or other (they’re all Louis or Charles, anyway), and cameos of Reine Elizabeth Iere d’Angleterre and Olivier Cromwell. Didn’t expect those – certainly not the latter!

Elisabeth Iere, Reine d'AngleterreThose were not the most exciting cameos, mind you. Throughout the museum, I found a wondrous array of cameos of Roman emperors and family as well as of mythological figures. This was excellent. I could have played ‘Guess the Roman Emperor’ (extolled by me here) if I’d wanted. I didn’t, but I still delighted in them, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Trajan, (amongst others) and a family portrait including, of all people, Geta!*

A cabinet of cameosHere’s the cameo with Caracalla and Geta:

Caracalla and Geta!The best cameo was this one of Augustus (the mounting is Early Modern):

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI loved the cameos, I really did. But we should move on. Because there was other amazing stuff.

Like the throne of the Merovingian King Dagobert I (603-639). If it’s not his, it is at least seventh-century from the right part of the world.

Not my photo; my photo is blurry.

Or an eleventh-century ivory chess set, called ‘Charlemagne’s chess set.’

Mediaeval chessman

Mediaeval chess!Or a large number of consular diptychs, such as this one:

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

 And the other ivory diptychs, to boot.

Mid-14th-century diptych

Gothic diptych from the mid-1300s

There was also a variety of other Late Antique stuff, including things from the fifth century, such as these medallions of the Emperor Honorius (r. Western Empire 395-423) and his sister, Galla Placidia (392-450; mother of Valentinian III):

Medallions of Honorius and Galla PlacidiaThis pleases me greatly, given that sometimes those centuries (the fifth in particular) feel a bit neglected in the world of museums. But not here. There were grave goods from the Merovingian King Childeric (d. 481)!

Sword hilt of Childeric

Childeric’s sword hilt

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Oh, and some coins.

Coin of Valentinian III

Coin of Valentinian III (r. Western Empire 423-455)

Coin of Theodosius II

Coin of Theodosius II (r. Eastern Empire 408-450)

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last Roman Emperor

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last western Roman Emperor (deposed 476)

I recommend you visit if you’re ever in Paris, take in small objects, including Mesopotamian, Pharaonic Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Late Antique, Early Mediaeval, Central Mediaeval, and Early Modern ones. Small, beautiful, delicately-carved exquisite objects populate the two small floors of this museum. Worth seeing.

*Who is Geta? Geta is a short-lived emperor of the late-second/early-third century, brother to the Emperor Caracalla who had his younger brother executed and then pronounced a damnatio memoriae on the poor fellow. As a result, few portraits survive (although there is one in the Louvre), and there is a famous painting where Geta’s head has been blotted out:

A happy family

The Enormity That Was Rome (seen in the Consularia Constantinopolitana)

Roman Forum

Yesterday I read R W Burgess’ edition of the fifth-century Consularia Constantinopolitana (which he notes is a misnomer; it’s a Descriptio Consulum that is primarily — not entirely — western in origin). This is a document that is mostly a list of every consular pair from the first consuls of Rome in 509 BC up to the year AD 465 when the final redactor/editor of the document presumably ran out of source material.

Along the way and with increasing frequency after Constantine, other events are inserted — but not nearly so many as, say, in a Chronicle, and not with nearly so much detail. These are sort of the markers as we use them in real life. We may not necessarily remember what we did in 2003 or in the third year of Jean Chrétien’s time as Prime Minister, but we remember ‘The year Hale-Bop appeared,’ or, ‘The year my brother’s dog died.’ (Those events do not line up with the dates above.)

Anyway, it’s a fun document and pretty quick if all you’re doing is reading it (and seeing that Majorian’s consulship fell in AD 458).

What struck as I was looking at the first full, two-page spread of the consular list was how many consuls there were. Now, the enormity of Rome is exaggerated by the fact that consular terms are only a year in length, so every year theoretically gets an entry, and some years get more than just their consuls. But, still. It’s a lot of history.

974 years, in fact.

Add 11 more, and you go up to the deposition of the last western emperor in 476. 985 from the foundation of the Republic to the establishment of the first ‘barbarian’ kingdom in Italy.

That’s a long run.

Pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara, from 2600s BC, almost 2000 years before Rome was founded

I guess it’s not as long as the 2000 years of Egyptian history from the First Dynasty to the start of the Third Intermediate Period (3100-1100 BC; I stop us there since said Intermediate Period lasted a few hundred years and the next dynasty wasn’t Egyptian but Nubian — cool timeline here). But it’s a very long span of time.

Indeed, it’s almost as long as our next major human-constructed historical era, the Middle Ages. In that period, Rome goes from a major power in central Italy to the major power of Italy, the major power of the western Mediterranean, the only power in the Mediterranean, and then stretching beyond until oceans, Germany, Persia, and the Sahara get in the way (gross oversimplification) — and then back to one major (or should we say MAIOR?) city in central Italy.

The triumph of Roman Imperium is, in fact, how long she was stable. The Roman Empire is one of the few expansionist empires that made the ‘happy’ transition from expansion to stabilisation.

Anyway, in this 985-year period what do we get? We get (as things come to mind) the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Virgil, Horace, Livy, Ammianus, Claudian, Sidonius, Leo, the mosaics in the side chapel at Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, Augustine, Hadrian’s Wall, Plautus, Terence, and more, more, more. Some of the greatest works of western literature, some of the West’s most brilliant minds, some of her greatest statesmen and generals, some of her greatest art come from the 985-year rule of Rome.

Rome was big and around for a long time. So when you look at your puny, young nation-state, do not expect life to always go on as normal.

Note: It seems the Roman Senate was still active in the city’s affairs at least until 603. This gives the Senate a lifespan of well over 1112 years.

Augustine and the lesser gods of ancient Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

I am auditing a class on St Augustine of Hippo, most especially to get my mind around his Christology so I can comment on Leo’s intelligently. Nonetheless, all sorts of other interesting things are arising on the way (so far, no Christology, in fact), such as his discussion of Roman gods in City of God, Book IV.

In this book of his monumental work (the introduction to my volume [Penguin Classics] calls it the last great work of classical Latin; I, of course, am not so sure),  Augustine is attacking the ‘official’ and common religion of the Roman world through a frontal assault upon the divinities of the Roman world themselves. The usual anti-pagan polemic about the lascivious mythology surrounding the gods (as old as Justin Martyr of the 2nd century) comes up, as do discussions of more sophisticated visions of deity such as Jupiter is all the gods or a vision of pantheism/panentheism (apparently a Stoic thing).

Along the way, he mentions multitudinous divinities for the many aspects of life, from birth to death, and everything in between. He gives a catalogue of all the many divinities involved in the growing and harvesting of crops. He discusses so many gods that the list is exhausting — but by no means exhaustive. What Augustine has tapped here is the rich vein of the numinous that Romans traditionally find everywhere.

The English word numinous is from the Latin numen. A numen is the spirit of a thing. Not necessarily the spirit as a disembodied, metaphysical soul, although that can be the numen. More like the energy or force or power that lies behind and within something, that is associated with it. Before it became coalesced with Greek visions of deity — something that is almost complete by Virgil’s Aeneid — this was the primary encounter with the ‘spiritual’ that Romans had.

Everything was numinous. Beings we may call ‘less divinities’ were everywhere — the divinity/spirit of the hearth (Vesta), the divinity/spirit of all fire (Vulcan), the divinity/spirit of warfare (Mars), the divinity/spirit of water (Neptune), the divinity/spirit of abundant harvest (lots of choices, e.g. Ceres), the divinity/spirit of marriage (Juno), the divinities/spirits of the household (Penates), the divinities/spirits of the household who are ancestors (Lares), the divinity/spirit of the heavens & rain (Jupiter). And so forth.

In oldest Roman religion, these divinities were not always fully hypostasised personalities like their Greek counterparts Hestia, Hephaestos, Ares, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, Zeus. Vesta is both the spirit of the hearthfire and the hearthfire. The Vestal Virgins keep her fire burning both as a ritual that is symbolic of the goddess and as a way to keep the goddess herself burning. The numinous is all around the ancient Roman.

And since the numinous is everywhere, watching your every move, you perform your rituals very carefully. You walk backwards spitting beans out of your mouth on the right day at the right hour to keep the Penates of your household happy. If you screw up, you start over again or risk the displeasure of the Penates. This is why, when we look at sculptures of the Emperor Augustus as a priest, he has his head covered. They would cover their heads with their togas like that when performing sacred rituals to prevent anything in their peripheral vision from distracting them from their task at hand.

This ritualistic element persists throughout all of Roman paganism, to the bitter end. Even upper-class Neo-Platonists who believe that there is only the One Who is Good, or Stoics who believe only in the World Soul, will engage in these rituals that are the lifeblood of Roman religion.

Augustine’s listing of them may be tiresome, but it is part of his attack on the entire Roman pagan metaphysical artifice. If these gods are not worthy of belief, then why sacrifice to them at all? Why call the One ‘Jupiter’ if you don’t believe any of the stories about Jupiter?

I think that having so many numina around made things difficult for the average, thoughtful Roman once their religion began to be Hellenised, let alone by Augustine’s age, as mentioned above. If these are individuated hypostaseis who live not in the temples but on Mt Olympos or in the heavens, why make statues or tend fires or sacrifice bulls? It seems a bit strange. And so they move along into Stoicism or Epicureanism or some form of Platonism.

Roman religion. The undercurrents of its pre-Hellenistic roots are visible even in St Augustine. Go read some classics.