Tag Archives: constantine

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.

If finding an academic job fails…

Romulus and Remus!

Romulus Remus, Vatican Museums

When I was in the gift shop of the Capitoline Museums, there was this American (presumably from USA?) guy trying to get the cashier – who was on the phone – to answer a query of his. His question was about the Capitoline She-Wolf. So I spoke up and explained to him the story of Romulus and Remus, gesturing to a magnet with said She-Wolf, saying that they were twin brothers conceived by Mars, and their uncle buried their mother, a Vestal Virgin, alive, while setting the babies adrift in the Tiber. They were saved by a She-Wolf who suckled them, and Romulus went on to found Rome.

I’m pretty sure I left the fratricide out of the picture.

He thanked me, and somehow it came up that I’m a PhD student in ancient history. Then he went to browse some other things while I agonised over whether or not to buy a magnet of Constantine’s big, giant head. (I saved my money in the end…)

A few minutes later, he said to me, ‘Hey, man, since I have an expert here,’ [I love being an expert!] ‘can I ask you a few more questions?’

‘Sure,’ I said.

His first question was about a three-headed dog. I said that his name was Fluffy – jk, I said that that’s Cerberus, the guard-dog to Hell, and that one time Hercules beat Cerberus up and brought him to the upper world.

His next question was if Constantine was the one who ruined the Roman Empire. I said that, no, most scholars are agreed that the Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire Is Not Constantine’s Fault. I said that, in fact, the Empire was very strong for most of the fourth century after Constantine’s reign, since many of his reforms and those of his predecessor, Diocletian, helped bring stability. I said that it wasn’t until a century later, in the mid-400s, that things started falling apart.

His third question was about the images of Jesus being crucified that he’s seen, and he wanted to know why in a lot of them there is a wound in Jesus’ side. So I explained that that’s because the soldiers were going around to break the legs of the people being crucified to make them die faster, but found Jesus apparently already dead. So they stabbed him in the side to be sure, and the wound bled what appeared to be blood and water – which, I said, is actually the plasma separating from the rest of the blood upon death so that it runs clear but everything else looks ‘normal’ — thus, blood and ‘water’.

He thanked me and asked if there was a book I could recommend or a TV show or something so he could learn about this stuff. And, you know me, I spend time thinking about stuff to recommend people so they can get into Classics, stuff that is both readable and accurate. And no books came to mind. Thankfully, I remembered Mary Beard’s documentary Meet the Romans (that I received for my birthday on DVD just before coming to Italy!), so he took its name and hers down on his phone. I told him that Mary Beard is good because she writes stuff that normal people could/would actually read.

My fellow museum-goer left, and I went to browse the books, where I found one of the books I’ve recommended on this blog in the past, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. But it was too late. At least he had Prof Beard to guide him on his way!

Then I got to thinking – I liked that! I mean, one of the reasons I want to be a professor of Classics is to teach people about Romans and Latin and ancient literature and even ancient art (if I ever feel qualified for that last one!). I really like the Classical world, and I want to see other people become interested, too. I don’t want to keep my knowledge to myself, but share it with other people. And those people needn’t always be undergrads, right?

Fact is, the academic job market is not super-great right now. Obviously, university lecturing would be my first choice of job. Failing that, I’d be interested in teaching Latin/Classics at a private school somewhere (I’m not qualified to teach in the government-run schools, having done no teacher’s college). Third option, as of my trip to the Capitoline Museums?

Tour guide.

Seriously. It’s fun when the subject matter is interesting, you know what you’re talking about, and the people are both engaging and engaged with the subject matter. I always enjoyed giving tours to keen groups at Fort William Historical Park, after all. Mind you, they were mostly children, but not always.

I would not be one of those people standing around near museums and attractions trying to round up randoms off the street, though. I would apply to work for those tour companies that are pre-booked, preferably the ones targeted to people with an interest in history (I see their ads in every issue of BBC History or History Today).

I think it would be fun to teach normal people about ancient things surrounded by ancient things! It would be exhilarating! It would be interesting. I’m sure many days it would be dull, and many tourists would be frustrating. But overall, the academic historical tour guide is not necessary a bad job.

Discover the Fourth Century: Politics

LII Constantius I Chlorus

Constantius I, father of Constantine; photo by GZakky on Flickr

Now, what to say about the politics from Constantine to Honorius and Arcadius? (Since we already discussed Diocletian with the third century.) For the first portion of Constantine’s reign, there were civil wars until 312 when he defeated his western rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (it was around this time that Constantine had his conversion to the god of the Christians), thus becoming sole emperor of the West. In 324, he defeated his eastern colleague Licinius (allegedly over persecution of Christians) and become sole emperor of the whole Roman world.

Let us remember that the whole Roman world, the empire, at this time stretched from Britain to Spain and North Africa, across to Mesopotamia and down the Nile. There were Black Sea provinces. There was influence in Armenia. Despite the images people like to paint of Roman hegemony after the 200s, the recovery of Diocletian and Constantine meant that Rome maintained and stabilised her territorial possessions.

Constantinian baths at Trier

Constantine had spent much of his earlier career based in Trier on the Moselle (a river which immortalised by Ausonius in this poem). In 330, he rededicated Byzantium on the Bosporus in the East as Constantinople — destined to be the New Rome and a Christian capital. Upon his death in 337, there was a bit of a bloodbath (see R W Burgess, ‘The Summer of Blood’). His son Constans ruled from the West until 350, and Constantius II ruled the East, then the whole thing, until 361. Constantius, as you learn in Ammianus, had a few bloodthirsty caesars co-rule with him. He was succeeded by the ‘pagan’ Julian the Apostate (would have called himself a Hellene), himself an orator, poet, and philosopher, who did to the Christians what Constantine and Constantius had done to the Graeco-Roman polytheists. He died on campaign against Persia in 363 (see my post on Julian in Ammianus).

Then came Jovian, hailed by the army in Persia. He lasted nary a year and was succeeded by Valentinian I (r. 364-375) who elevated his brother Valens as co-emperor (r. 364-378). Valentinian’s son Gratian (d. 383) was elevated in 367 and Valentinian II (d. 392) upon Valentinian I’s death in 375. 378-395 saw the reign of Theodosius I ‘the Great’.

Upon Theodosius’ death, the empire was finally and enduringly split between East and West, his son Honorius taking the West (r. 393-423) and his other son Arcadius the East (r. 395-408).

Those, in brief, are the emperors of the fourth century.

If this isn’t Valens, it’s Honorius.

Throughout these reigns there was ongoing warfare and military posting along the Rhine. As well, Goths were interested in crossing the Danube. They were settled on Roman territory in 376, but, rather than treat them well and integrate them into society, relations between the Romans and Goths deteriorated to the point where the Goths decided it was in their best interests first to plunder, and then to engage the Romans in battle. The most famous of these battles was near Adrianople in Thrace (Edirne, modern European Turkey, near Greece & Bulgaria) in 378, where the Emperor Valens was slain.

War with Persia was also intermittent. As I mentioned in the post about the third century, Persia had re-emerged as a major power in the East under the Sassanian dynasty, taking the Emperor Valerian captive in 260. Despite a treaty made in 363 after Julian’s disastrous campaign, the Persians found pretext to invade Rome, claiming the Romans had violated the treaty. Before I start sounding like a Roman talking of ‘typical’ Persian ‘duplicity’, I can well imagine the Romans having broken the treaty if it had been in their interest and they had had a pretext. Theodosius I and Shapur III signed a peace treaty in 384 that would last until 421.

Coin of Magnus Maximus

It wouldn’t be the Roman Empire without a few usurpers, either, though. The most famous of these is Magnus Maximus, a Spanish general posted in Britain who rebelled against the Emperor Gratian in 383. (Sorry that he’s not actually British.) In 384, Theodosius I agreed to give him command of Britain. However, in 387 he wanted more than he already had, so he invaded Italy. In 388, Theodosius  defeated him at the Battle of the Save. I would say that Maximus was more tolerated than fully integrated into the imperial system. Northern Gaul was often a troublesome place, and local aristocrats had previously, and would again in the future, taken the power of command into their own hands.

I feel that this has been far too cursory a treatment of fourth-century politics, but I also don’t want to go on too much. My apologies for this. I hope, however, when combined with the prior post on religion and literature and the upcoming post on art, it will help give you a feel for the fourth century and the people who inhabited it.

Discover Late Antiquity

Justinian I

I promise my brother, Michael, that I have a couple of fantasy-related posts up my sleeve, hopefully to appear in the next week. But first, I thought I would give you this post, the first in what I plan to be an ongoing series on the historical period of Late Antiquity. I wish to do this for two main reasons:

  1. I am on the way to being a scholar of Late Antiquity, and I think it’s a fascinating period of history, so blogging about it so that normal people can follow such discussions is a good way for me to get my mind around the various issues in the era and learn how to make history/art/culture accessible.
  2. When I asked what people wanted to read, Michael said Sci-fi/Fantasy or Other because then he would be able to understand what’s going on. Since I’m not going to turn this into a devoted SF blog, why not write posts that will help people understand the other posts that will inevitably drift through, about Ammianus or Augustine or the Fall of Rome?

So.

Although I still sort of favour old-fashioned ‘Later Roman Empire’ definitions of the period of Late Antiquity (as discussed here), I see the value of following a story for a long time. And I think the story of the Roman world to Justinian and then beyond is an interesting story, so I’ll be thinking of ‘Late Antiquity’ here as it is increasingly thought of, as running from the succession crisis of 235 to the death of the Eastern Emperor Heraclius in 641.

In terms of geographical markers, I take the Mediterranean world and western Europe to be the world of Late Antiquity, considering Persia only insofar as it impinges upon Roman imperial history. This choice arises not because the non-classical ancient world isn’t interesting but because there is too much of it, and the story of Late Antiquity becomes unwieldy otherwise.

But why should you join me to discover Late Antiquity?

First and foremost, because these four centuries of history are intrinsically interesting. People did interesting things that are fun to know and learn about. Late Antiquity includes art and poetry, war and politics, religion and philosophy, all of which are interesting in their own right regardless of when they happened to occur. Constantine built this in Rome, for example:

The Arch of Constantine, Rome

Second, from the removed perspective of 2013, ‘important’ or ‘major’ things happened in Late Antiquity. Not only did Constantine build a big, fancy arch, he also converted to Christianity, the long-term effects of which still go on today. Augustine penned some of Latin philosophy’s great masterpieces; other great Christian thinkers lived in this age, including amongst the Latins Cyprian of Carthage, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Pope Leo the Great, Pope Gregory the Great, Hilary of Poitiers, Boethius, Isidore of Seville; amongst the Greeks, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Philoponus. Important pagan thinkers of the period include Diogenes Laertius, Plotinus, Libanius, Damascius, Claudian and Symmachus. Calcidius made his translation of Plato’s Timaeus, which was influential on much western mediaeval philosophy.

Five of seven Ecumenical Church Councils occurred in this time-span. The last were in 681 and 787 (not counting mediaeval, western ones for obvious concerns of ecumenicity).

Constantinople was founded as an imperial capital. Theodosius II put together one of the earliest surviving codes of Roman law; under Justinian the greatest such project ever made occurred. Under Justinian ‘Byzantine’ architecture is truly born with Hagia Sophia, to dominate the architecture of church and mosque in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries to come. The western Empire ceased to function and exist as a political unit. The codex (books as we know them) came to dominate book production (as opposed to scrolls); in fact, the basic method of book production remained unchanged from the 300s to the invention of ‘perfect binding’ in the twentieth century, although different stages were mechanised along the way.

New polities arose in the West following the Empire’s accidental suicide, and modern nation-states like to trace their descent to these (but that’s really the story of the Early Middle Ages).

I do hope you’ll join me and discover Late Antiquity!