Tag Archives: late antique rome

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.

Making (or constructing) history

When you sit down to read a book about history, it is not always apparent where the narrative set out by the modern authors has come from. Indeed, it often looks like a straightforward story of Person A doing Thing Y, while Person B does Thing Z in response. And no one need question if that is how things actually occurred. Or perhaps one assumes that modern history-writing is simply a pooling of different narrative accounts of the same events by earlier history writers — taking, say, Livy and cutting out all the bits that modern, rational, scientific history discounts, and giving us the ‘pure’ story of ancient Rome, simple, no problem.

Well, even if we actually had narrative sources like Livy for all of history, that still wouldn’t be the way we construct the stories you read in histories.

This morning I was reading through Chapter 1 of my PhD thesis in preparation for my upcoming ‘viva’ (viva voce examination). In this chapter, I discuss the life and papacy of Leo the Great from two perspectives: first, from sources he didn’t write, second, from his letters with a little support from the sermons. Leo’s correspondence is our best source for the events of his tenure in the Roman episcopate as well as for the middle decades of the fifth century more broadly.

Where to look for those other, non-Leo sources? A person might assume that the tantalisingly-titled Liber Pontificalis, or ‘Book of Pontiffs’ would be a good place to start. This contains biographies of all the Bishops of Rome into the fifteenth century, being added to successively over the years. However, the earliest layer of this series of episcopal biographies dates to the early 500s, so it is not contemporary with Leo, who died in 461. Still, it’s only about 50 years later. That’s not bad, is it? After all, our earliest narrative history of Alexander the Great is Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing over 300 years after the Macedonian conqueror died. But we know that there are lost sources that Curtius would have used, so we do not fear to use it.

As it turns out, though, not all narrative sources are created equal, and whoever wrote the Liber Pontificalis didn’t really know what he was talking about at this stage — since we have other, earlier sources (say, Leo’s letters!), we can judge how well this book tells the story of Leo. And even if some details might be true, others aren’t.

Where do we turn now, then? What can we do to construct our story? We turn to the contemporary sources for the history of fifth-century Rome. None of our surviving Latin sources for this period gives us a tidy narrative like Livy or Tacitus. We have to make it ourselves. For Leo, we turn to a different kind of history-writing, very different from the garbled biography of the Liber Pontificalis and the extensive histories of Ammianus and Gregory of Tours — the chronicle.

Chronicles, in case someone has misled you, are a genre of scientific history writing concerning with chronology. They are brief, annalistic accounts of major events organised by year. Here’s an online translation of the Chronicle of Jerome from 2005; you can also take a look at The Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, The Gallic Chronicle of 452, and The Chronicle of Marius of Avenches, from From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader by Alexander Callander Murray on Scribd. They look non-biased (but they aren’t because nothing is), and different chroniclers have different interests. Some like to tell you about strange stellar phenomena; others will tell you about church councils; some mention great battles; others great heresies; most of them most of these things to one degree or another. The entries, I repeat, are short, and organised chronologically. The genre existed in the ancient Near East, and forms of it in the Graeco-Roman world; its origins have nothing to do with Easter Tables and, in fact, nothing to do with Christianity. Finally, longer narrative histories of the Middle Ages are obviously not chronicles; they are closer to histories such as those by Tacitus and Gregory of Tours.*

For Leo, two such chronicles are important, that by Prosper of Aquitaine, finished in 455, and that of Hydatius, written in 467. Prosper wrote in Gaul, Hydatius in northwestern Spain. From these we are able to piece together a lot of facts and information about Leo’s pontificate and the wider history of the Roman Empire at the time, although both also display a certain amount of local concern. This local concern is helpful, since Hydatius shows us the impact that some of Leo’s anti-Manichaean activities had in Spain, as well as the local context of the letter he wrote to Turribius of Astorga about Priscillianism.

Prosper is especially important because he tells us about Leo’s meeting with Attila in 452 and then his attempt to dissuade Geiseric from sacking Rome in 455. Prosper is very helpful for 455, telling us about Valentinian III’s assassination of the patrician general Aetius, then the assassination of Valentinian, the accession of Petronius Maximus, and then the Vandal sack under Geiseric, during which Petronius was killed (Hydatius says a mob did the deed). Prosper also tells us, in this year, about how the date of Easter was promoted as one date by the tenacious will of Proterius of Alexandria against the proposed date of Leo.

For Attila, we also have the sixth-century historian Jordanes whose Getica, a history of the Goths, deals with Attila in detail. More detailed and more reliable is the Greek historian Priscus, who exists only in fragments, but who went on a delegation from Constantinople to Attila in 449 (if my date is correct). Later sources of Leo meeting Attila turn it into the, stuff of legend, including sword-bearing apostles and the like.

For the Vandal sack, Procopius of Caesarea’s account of the Vandal war of Belisarius is also of help, discussing the loot Geiseric and his men took. For the events of 455, the seventh-century Greek historian John of Antioch is also of assistance.

Besides Attila, Leo is best known for his role in the convening of the Council of Chalcedon and its outcome. This happened in 451, although if we had only Prosper, we’d think it was 453. Besides Leo’s voluminous correspondence surrounding the event, we have the full acts of the council, taken down by stenographers. You can, if you so desire, read a blow-by-blow account of everything that took place, including a lot of shouting and some great awkward silences. Most of the chronicles are very summary about Chalcedon, but Evagrius Scholasticus, c. 593, wrote a fairly extensive account (in case the three-volume version seems a bit much to you).

Unlike Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History or Procopius or the chroniclers, the acts of Chalcedon are not narrative history but what we call documentary evidence. That is, it was not produced after the fact to tell a story but is an official document produced at the time. Leo’s letters would count as such evidence. The wider fifth-century context of Leo’s papacy is greatly aided by such documentary evidence; Leo’s papacy is directly illumined by two imperial edicts that serve to support Leo’s own rulings in canon law, as well as some other imperial documents concerning the treatment of bishops on the road to Chalcedon, and a letter of Marcian concerning an anti-Chalcedonian monk who tried usurping the episcopate of Jerusalem when Juvenal, Jerusalem’s bishop, voted in favour of Chalcedon’s doctrinal statement.

Although it seems long, these are the genres the ancient historian has to work with, the textual evidence for the deeds of the past. This is the raw material we are given, and then we try to construct logical, coherent accounts of events out of them. One source gives some evidence; how reliable is it? Another source gives other evidence — do we trust it? A third source is corroborated by some archaeology. What about that fourth source that is late but plausible? Taking these things and teasing out the details is what the historian does. And it’s good fun.

*For more, see R. W. Burgess and Michael Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time Vol 1.

The Baths of Diocletian – more from Late Antique Rome

In my series (original post here) on my quest for Late Antique Rome, which has made halting progress, I have already tickled your ears (or eyes, I suppose) with the Mausoleo di Santa Costanza and a few basilicas. One of the largest Late Antique edifices in the city of Rome is the Baths of Diocletian:

Baths of Diocletian

Baths of Diocletian, from Best of Rome, Italy by Wikimedia user Joris

In my other halting series, ‘Discover Late Antiquity’, I recommended that one first discover Rome before discovering Late Antiquity — that everything in the late and post-Classical world has roots and references in the history and culture of the Roman Empire. Baths are a key element of that tradition. Nothing is more (stereotypically) Roman than baths. As the famous graffito writes:

‘Baths, wine and sex ruin our bodies, but what makes life worth living except baths, wine and sex’ -CIL VI.15258, quoted in Latrinae et Foricae, p. 142

Although they came to Rome from the Greek world, baths went through their own transformation on Italian soil, and went from hot rooms with individual tubs to communal bathing full of lots of naked dudes all wet together. The basic Roman bath had a changing-room (apodyterium), a frigidarium (cold pool), a tepidarium (lukewarm pool), and a caldarium (hot pool), this last in a room also with a water basin on a stand. After 100 BC, hypocausts were invented, and things could really heat up in the baths. A hypocaust is basically central heating, running beneath the floor and even through the walls. Here are some photos my wife and I got of hypocausts at baths in Ostia Antica, Rome’s port:

Baths with the basic design can be found throughout the Roman world — as far afield as Jerash, in modern Jordan (where I’ve not been), and Bearsden, a suburb of Glasgow (we have some in Edinburgh at Cramond, but I’ve not yet found them, despite two trips out there):

My photo, complete with archaeologists!

My photo, complete with archaeologists!

Anyway, big baths, such as those at Ostia Antica or the Baths of Diocletian under discussion, typically come equipped with saunas, and exercise grounds. The really big ones in Rome, not just those of Diocletian but also of Caracalla and Trajan, if not others of which I know less, also had big, public, ‘basilical’ halls, gardens, lecture-halls, libraries, and more. They evolved into large spaces for public and civic activity in Rome and the other cities of the Empire.

Evidence that ‘Late Antiquity’ is still ‘Antiquity’, still Roman, is the building of the Baths of Diocletian ca. 306 as well as the maintenance of the other city baths into the fifth century — indeed, they are mentioned as being mended as late as Theoderic the Great (Ostrogothic King of Italy, d. 526).

IMG_1776

A good angle of the Baths of Diocletian

Anyway, after visiting some basilicas and the Museo Nazionale Romano in Palazzo Massimo, I visited one of its sister sites, housed today in the Baths of Diocletian (Terme di Diocleziano). Built, as I said, around 306, these are the largest bath complex ever built in Rome. When you walk around the neighbourhood, you can sometimes see a ruinous brick structure amongst the modern — bits and pieces of Diocletian’s legacy. This was more than a series of pools as found in Roman camps such as Bearsden. It covered over 13 hectares, over 32 acres. Small for an Albertan farm, perhaps, but gigantic for a bath complex. Here’s one of my shots to give you an idea of scale:

IMG_1762Besides their ground coverage, the Baths of Diocletian also have some good height:

IMG_1747 IMG_1748 IMG_1749The exhibits are worth seeing — a variety of Roman statues, sarcophagi, tombstones, etc., arranged throughout the bath complex as well as in the Carthusian cloister built by Michelangelo. There is also a very excellent gallery of Roman inscriptions, where I got to see these (amongst others):

Fragment of the 'Forma Urbis Romae', a stone map of the city. Here you can see a bit of the Forum, the Temple of Castor and Pollux

Fragment of the ‘Forma Urbis Romae’, a stone map of the city. Here you can see a bit of the Forum, the Temple of Castor and Pollux

An inscription with a letter invented by the Emperor Claudius to represent consonantal 'u'

An inscription with a letter invented by the Emperor Claudius to represent consonantal ‘u’

After the museum, I recommend going into the bit of the Baths of Diocletian that has been transformed in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Here, I think, you will get a better sense of the ancient grandeur of the place, with its marble floors and stone-lined walls and elegant grace and beauty. If you take out the Christian altars, it is probably much as the baths were in Diocletian’s day.

IMG_1767 IMG_1768 IMG_1775I enjoyed my visit to the Baths of Diocletian, and I think they are a unique witness to the monumental architecture of imperial Rome. In my next post of this series, whenever I get around to it, I’ll look at the little things of Late Antiquity that I found in Rome’s museums.