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Looking over Wikipedia's article on adoption in Ancient Rome, I notice that it mentions that adoption of females "was much less common" than adoption of males. I don't see any sources for that statement, though one female adoptee is mentioned: Clodia.
As best as scholars can tell, what was the approximate rate of adoption of females in comparison to males in Ancient Rome? I'm particularly interested in the late republic/early empire years (perhaps 200 BC to 200 AD), if that helps narrow the question.
Normally, there was no sense in adopting girls. There are only two known examples, and both took place under very specific circumstances.
- Livia Drusilla was formally adopted by Augustus' testament, so she got the name of Augusta in AD 14.
On the first day of the Senate he allowed nothing to be discussed but the funeral of Augustus, whose will, which was brought in by the Vestal Virgins, named as his heirs Tiberius and Livia. The latter was to be admitted into the Julian family with the name of Augusta.
Tacitus, Annals I, 8
- Claudia Octavia was formally adopted in unknown family before her marriage to Nero, so Nero was not considered as her step-brother anymore (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LX, 33)
Along with the inhabitants of India, the ancient Romans were one of the first peoples in recorded history to develop a wide range of footwear. The ancient Mesopotamians (inhabitants of the region centered in present-day Iraq), Egyptians, and Greeks either went barefoot or used simple sandals as their dominant form of footwear. The climate in these regions made such footwear choices reasonable. But the more variable climate on the Italian peninsula, home to the Etruscans and to the Romans, made wearing sandals or going barefoot uncomfortable. These societies developed many different styles of footwear, from light sandals for indoor wear to heavy boots for military use or for travel to colder climates. Leather was the primary material used for making footwear in ancient Rome. The Romans were very skilled at making quality leather from the hides of cows.
Lupercalia rituals took place in a few places: Lupercal cave, on Palatine Hill and within the Roman open-air, public meeting place called the Comitium. The festival began at Lupercal cave with the sacrifice of one or more male goats𠅊 representation of sexuality𠅊nd a dog.
The sacrifices were performed by Luperci, a group of Roman priests. Afterwards, the foreheads of two naked Luperci were smeared with the animals’ blood using the bloody, sacrificial knife. The blood was then removed with a piece of milk-soaked wool as the Luperci laughed.
Roman plagues and pandemics
The Antonine Plague (165 - 180 AD), a.k.a the Plague of Galen (or Galenus) from the Greek physician's name, provided a detailed account of the disease. It was an ancient pandemic brought to the Roman Empire by soldiers returning from campaigns in the Near East (modern-day Iraq). In the treatise Methodus Medendi, Galenus describes the pandemic as affecting many people and lasting for a long time (15 years!). Based on Galenus' account, the disease's terrifying symptoms were at the onset a fever, a sore throat, and diarrhea. By the ninth day, the condition evolved to blisters of pus (pustular psoriasis) surrounded by red skin. Modern scholars generally diagnose the disease like smallpox. According to historian Dio Cassius 3 (155 – 235 AD), the Antonine Plague caused up to 2,000 deaths per day in Rome and had a mortality rate of 25%. The plague spread throughout the Roman Empire, killing five million people, and may have even reached China in 166 AD. It also probably killed Roman co-Emperor Lucius Verus who ruled the empire with Marcus Aurelius Antoninus during the Roman Principate hence the name "Antonine" Plague. Historians also believe that the plague fueled the growing popularity of Christianity.
The Plague of Cyprian (249 - 262 AD), named after an early Christian writer called St Cyprian 4 , bishop of Carthage, who described the pandemic in his book De mortalitate. St Cyprian described the symptoms as follows: constant vomiting, diarrhea, red eyes, limping, gradual loss of sight and hearing, decaying feet, or limbs. At the height of the outbreak, 5,000 people a day were reportedly dying from the disease in Rome. The pandemic was so severe that it created labor shortages, which affected food production, and wreaked havoc in the army. Historians are not sure what the disease was but suspect that it could have been smallpox, pandemic influenza such as swine flu, or even a filovirus such as the Ebola virus.
The Plague in Rome, Jules Elie Delaunay (1869) Public domain
The Plague of Justinian (541 - 542 AD) was one of the deadliest, if not the deadliest pandemic in human history. It lasted two years but with recurrences until 750 AD and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 to 100 million people. Emperor Justinian himself contracted the disease but managed to survive it. The disease affected mainly Constantinople, the Sasanian Empire and port cities in the Mediterranean as merchant ships harbored rats that carried fleas infected with plague. At its peak the pandemic killed an estimated 5,000 people per day in Constantinople. Dead bodies littered the streets of the capital and burial pits were dug by soldiers to handle the large number of deceased people. Animals of all types, including cats and dogs, could be seen lying dead throughout the city. In 2013, researchers confirmed the identity of the plague as yersinia pestis, a bubonic plague which was later responsible for the Black Death of 1347 – 1351 AD. The symptoms of the Plague of Justinian were terrifying and included chills, headaches, abdominal pain, swollen lymph nodes and gangrene.
The Roman Plague (590 AD) mainly affected the city of Rome. The epidemic killed a large number of people in the city with many dying shortly after contracting the disease.
A 'multicultural' army
Relief showing Mithras Saecularis (restored) from Housesteads, Northumberland ©
Sometimes, of course, it was outsiders who introduced the trappings of Roman life to the provinces. This was especially true in frontier areas occupied by the army.
In northern Britain, for example, there were few towns or villas. But there were many forts, especially along the line of Hadrian's Wall, and it is here that we see rich residences, luxury bath-houses, and communities of artisans and traders dealing in Romanised commodities for the military market.
The local regiment became more 'British'. The new recruits became more 'Roman'.
Even here, though, because army recruitment was increasingly local, it was often a case of Britons becoming Romans.
Foreign soldiers settled down and had families with local women. Grown-up sons followed their fathers into the army. The local regiment became more 'British'. The new recruits became more 'Roman'.
We see evidence in the extraordinary diversity of cults represented by religious inscriptions on the frontier.
Alongside traditional Roman gods like Jupiter, Mars, and the Spirit of the Emperor, there are local Celtic gods like Belatucadrus, Cocidius, and Coventina, and foreign gods from other provinces like the Germanic Thincsus, the Egyptian Isis, and the Persian Mithras.
Beyond the frontier zone, on the other hand, in the heartlands of the empire where civilian politicians rather than army officers were in charge, native aristocrats had driven the Romanisation process from the beginning.
The Roman emperors created a world that seems modern but contains unspeakable horrors, as new books by Mary Beard and Tom Holland reveal.
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Soon after Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44BC, a comet was seen streaking across the Italian skies for seven successive days. The soothsayers and astronomers soon agreed that the portent represented Caesar’s soul ascending to the heavens, “there to be received among the spirits of the immortal gods”.
Today, thankfully, we may no longer deify our politicians, but Mary Beard represents the nearest thing in contemporary academe: a semi-deified don and an object of worship, both by the Senate House and by the people. Her new work, SPQR, is probably her most ambitious yet, a magisterial history of Rome which attempts to understand “how a tiny and very unremarkable little village in central Italy became so dominant a power over so much territory in three continents”.
Professor Beard tops and tails her account of the rise of the Roman empire by laying out why she believes its study – to which, she says, she has “given a good deal of the past fifty years of my life” – is still not only relevant, but very important, so giving her own answer to the celebrated Monty Python conundrum: “What did the Romans ever do for us?” Rome, she explains, “still helps define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves”:
After 2,000 years it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.
. . . The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond. The main reason that London is the capital of the
United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province Britannia . . . Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from “senators” to “dictators”.
She concludes: “Many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.”
The publication of SPQR coincides with another excellent book covering much the same territory, Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland, the other contender for the laurel wreath of being Britain’s most widely read and industrious classicist. The two books differ slightly in their aims: Holland focuses on the century-long rise and fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, while Beard takes a longer view, from Romulus and Remus right up to the early 3rd century AD. The near-simultaneous release of these books, written in intriguingly different styles, can only sharpen an unspoken rivalry for dominance over the classical world, the modern literary equivalent of the showdown between austere Augustus – who nonetheless had a genius for good publicity and keeping himself in the public eye – and the more flamboyant Mark Antony. In this Actium, however, there are two winners.
Mary Beard is the more academic and measured of the two. Analytical and judicious, she is constantly weighing the archaeological evidence against that of written texts, and she watches the frontiers of the Roman empire with the assurance and authority of a senior umpire calling a wicket. Holland is concerned more with building an engrossing narrative, and in diving deep into the human and biographical forces driving Roman history. He is a witty and skilful storyteller, capable of penning penetrating psychological portraits of the monsters who form his subject: he notes with relish that Caligula is “one of the few people from ancient history to be as familiar to pornographers as to classicists”. He recounts with pleasure his racy tales of psychopathic cruelty, incest, paedophilia, matricide, fratricide, assassination and depravity.
Holland is quite correct that the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (that is, the first five Roman emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero) seems to have “sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set”:
Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through . . . Nero, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything.
Indeed – though for those who prefer their Rome without testicle-licking, Professor Beard may be the safer choice.
Both books open by considering the Romans’ strikingly unflattering myth of origin. The tale of Romulus and Remus is an odd one with which to celebrate the founding of a great city, involving as it does a rape, an unwanted pregnancy, a bungled attempt at infanticide and a successful fratricide. But as Holland comments, non-Romans “found it all too plausible. That Romulus had been fathered by Mars, the god of war, and suckled by a she-wolf appeared – to those brought into bruising contact with his descendants – to explain much about the Roman character.” As the Byzantine emperor Justin observed of his Roman neighbours, “It is only to be expected that they should all of them have the hearts of wolves. They are inveterately thirsty for blood, and insatiable in their greed. Their lusting after power and riches has no limits!”
Both authors then consider the early kings whose tyrannical excesses led the Romans for hundreds of years to refuse to allow supreme power to remain with any single ruler, and caused them instead to embrace a republican form of government in which supreme power long rested with Senatus PopulusQue Romanus – “the Senate and People of Rome” – the SPQR of Beard’s title.
It is only with the pivotal moment of the rise of Augustus, however, that the mists of mythology clear and both books fully come alive. It is a story so familiar from drama and fiction, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra through I, Claudius and Caligula to HBO’s Rome – indeed, even the Asterix comics – that it comes as something of a surprise to see how closely the lineaments of the tales we have followed since childhood resemble the hard reality of recorded history.
For Holland, Augustus is the small-town gangster who rises from a relatively obscure background to become Julius Caesar’s adopted son. He portrays a chillingly ruthless figure whose rise to become the first emperor of Rome involved using the murder of Caesar as his springboard into power-gathering a party around him and carefully orchestrating a series of assassinations by his illegal private army of thugs and hitmen, “a harvest of aristocratic heads” that culminated in the bloodiest civil war of antiquity. This reached its murderous climax on the fields of Philippi, where in 42BC he finally defeated Caesar’s enemies, the champions of the Republic, in a battle in which it has been estimated “that a quarter of all [Roman] citizens of military age fought on one side or the other”. Having come to power with the assistance of his partners in the Triumvirate, Marc Antony and Lepidus, he then turned on them and seized absolute power following his victory in the Battle of Actium and the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra.
Beard is more admiring of this mesmerising man who dominated the Mediterranean world for nearly half a century, and admits to remaining baffled by such a complex and contradictory figure. She quotes his 4th-century successor Julian the Apostate, who likened him to “a chameleon . . . a tricky old reptile continually changing colour . . . one minute gloomy and sombre, the next parading all the charms of the goddess of love . . . enigmatic, slippery and evasive”.
The tall and godlike figure we see in his still instantly recognisable, mass-produced statues, industriously distributed around the empire, seems to have borne only a passing resemblance to the real man, who, according to his contemporaries, was a frail hypochondriac who wore platform shoes to mask his shortness, and had unkempt hair, bad teeth, “poor spelling . . . terror of thunderstorms and [a] habit of wearing four tunics and a vest under his toga in the winter”. Among his final words to the friends who assembled at his bedside as he was dying was “a characteristically shifty” quotation from a Greek comedy: “If I have played my part well, then give me applause.”
“What kind of act had he been playing all those years?” Beard asks. “Where was the real Augustus? How Augustus managed to recast so much of the political landscape of Rome, how he managed to get his own way for more than forty years, and with what support, is still puzzling.”
Augustus, widely seen as Rome’s greatest emperor, highlights the problem we have with almost all these towering monsters: do we regard them as “great”, for the way they bestrode the world, bringing with the Pax Romana prosperity and civilisation to the entire Mediterranean region? Or do we see them as primal models of the corruption and depravity that autocracy and tyranny necessarily bring in their wake, as well as being templates for the violence and exploitation of later centuries of European imperialism? The Romans clearly believed in their own mission civilisatrice: as Pliny put it, it was Rome’s destiny “to unite previously distinct powers, to soften patterns of behaviour, to provide a common language to the numerous peoples hitherto divided by their savage tongues, to civilise mankind – in short, to unite the peoples of the world, and to serve them as their fatherland”. Yet the brutality of Roman colonialism was often extraordinary, and the casualties enormous even by modern standards. Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, for instance, have often been compared to a genocide. “A million people, so it was said, perished over their course,” Holland writes. “A million more were enslaved.”
In both books, the reader is repeatedly struck by the ease with which the very human figures of the Julio-Claudians move from being totally familiar, and motivated by thoroughly modern aspirations and desires, to moments when they suddenly become utterly alien. Beard is especially good on this. From one point of view, she writes, “. . . everything seems reassuringly familiar: there are conversations going on that we almost join, about the nature of freedom or problems of sex there are buildings and monuments we recognise and family life lived out in ways we understand, with all their troublesome adolescents and there are jokes that we ‘get’.” One of the great concerns of imperial Rome was immigration and the displacement by war of vast numbers of foreign refugees into its urban centres: these are issues which are still current in politics today. But, viewed through another peephole, the Roman world sometimes appears terrifyingly vicious and alien, as Beard explains:
That means not just the slavery, the filth (there was hardly any such thing as refuse collection in ancient Rome), the human slaughter in the arena and the death from illnesses whose cure we now take for granted but also the newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps, the child brides and the flamboyant eunuch priests.
Holland usually stresses the parallels with the modern world in the orchestrated theatricality of the emperors’ public performances, as well as the degree of international celebrity enjoyed by the Roman royal family. “No household in history,” he writes, “had ever before been so squarely in the public eye as that of Augustus.”
The fashions and hairstyles of its most prominent members, reproduced in exquisite detail by sculptors across the Empire, set trends from Syria to Spain. Their achievements were celebrated in spectacular showy monuments, their scandals repeated with relish from seaport to seaport. Propaganda and gossip, each feeding off the other, gave to the dynasty of Augustus a celebrity that ranked, for the first time, as continent-spanning.
Even their sexual lives can appear proto-modern. Augustus’s daughter Julia is a strikingly familiar figure: after her father divorced her mother, Scribonia, she grew alienated from both her father and her stepmother, Livia, and, like some unhappy child of Hollywood, or renegade royalty, took refuge in frenzied adultery. Yet as the depravity of the Julio-Claudians grows ever more bizarre, we again find ourselves in an alien world: the elderly retired Tiberius turns the entire island of Capri into the Roman equivalent of the Playboy Mansion, where youths from leading families are made to enact scenes from the lives of the gods, “obliged to pose as prostitutes, to hawk for business like the lowest class of sex worker, to perform sometimes three or four at a time”. Nero simulates “criminals being torn to pieces” by binding the objects of his lust to stakes, then releasing himself from a cage, “dressed in the skins of a wild animal”, and performing acts of oral sex on his victims.
If Beard is the considered Augustus of classical studies in this country and Holland the Mark Antony, with one eye firmly on the imperial bedroom, the third member of this literary triumvirate must be Peter Frankopan, whose epic study of East-West cross-fertilisation, The Silk Roads, was published in August. Frankopan, however, is no weak Lepidus: his is a book of dazzling range and ambition which, in its chapters on the Roman empire, illuminates a side of Romanitas that does not emerge in Beard’s and Holland’s more Eurocentric work: the degree to which the Roman empire was funded, softened and to some extent civilised by its eastern and Asiatic provinces. It was here, Frankopan writes, quoting the poet-historian Sallust, that “Roman soldiers came of age . . . learned how to make love, to be drunk, to enjoy statues, pictures and art”. It was, after all, Egyptian grain that fed the empire, Levantine taxes that paid for its monuments, and eastern silks that revealingly wrapped its society woman. And it was, finally, an eastern religion, Christianity, that replaced its ancient gods.
It is also Frankopan who gives us a fabulously apocalyptic vision – absent from these books by Beard and Holland – of the fall of Rome to Alaric’s Visigoths in 410AD, and an even more terrifying visitation from the “seedbed of evil”, the Huns. The picture he paints is a sort of classical version of Mad Max: Fury Road. The Huns, he shows, were creatures from a nightmare: dressed in robes made of field mice skins stitched together, they ate raw meat, “partially warmed by being placed between their thighs”. But it was not just that they were “exceedingly savage” they looked terrifying, too. The Huns performed cranial deformation on their young, “flatten[ing] the frontal and occipal bones by applying pressure [so that] the head grew in a pointed manner”, as well as “scarring the cheeks of infant boys when they were born . . . They spent so long on horseback that their bodies were grotesquely deformed and they looked like animals standing on their hind legs.”
These were the men who brought down Rome and ended the glory of the Caesars. At long last, the Romans had met their match – a people even more ruthless, brutal and lupine than themselves.
SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard is published by Profile Books (£25, 606pp)
Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caeser by Tom Holland is published by Little, Brown (£25, 483pp)
How Christianity invented children
We have forgotten just how deep a cultural revolution Christianity wrought. In fact, we forget about it precisely because of how deep it was: There are many ideas that we simply take for granted as natural and obvious, when in fact they didn't exist until the arrival of Christianity changed things completely. Take, for instance, the idea of children.
Today, it is simply taken for granted that the innocence and vulnerability of children makes them beings of particular value, and entitled to particular care. We also romanticize children — their beauty, their joy, their liveliness. Our culture encourages us to let ourselves fall prey to our gooey feelings whenever we look at baby pictures. What could be more natural?
In fact, this view of children is a historical oddity. If you disagree, just go back to the view of children that prevailed in Europe's ancient pagan world.
As the historian O.M. Bakke points out in his invaluable book When Children Became People, in ancient Greece and Rome, children were considered nonpersons.
Back then, the entire social worldview was undergirded by a universally-held, if implicit, view: Society was organized in concentric circles, with the circle at the center containing the highest value people, and the people in the outside circles having little-to-no value. At the center was the freeborn, adult male, and other persons were valued depending on how similar they were to the freeborn, adult male. Such was the lot of foreigners, slaves, women. and children.
High infant mortality rates created a cultural pressure to not develop emotional attachments to children. This cultural pressure was exacerbated by the fact that women were more likely to develop emotional attachments to children — which, according to the worldview of the day, meant it had to be a sign of weakness and vulgarity.
Various pagan authors describe children as being more like plants than human beings. And this had concrete consequences.
Well-to-do parents typically did not interact with their children, leaving them up to the care of slaves. Children were rudely brought up, and very strong beatings were a normal part of education. In Rome, a child's father had the right to kill him for whatever reason until he came of age.
One of the most notorious ancient practices that Christianity rebelled against was the frequent practice of expositio, basically the abandonment of unwanted infants. (Of course, girls were abandoned much more often than boys, which meant, as the historical sociologist Rodney Stark has pointed out, that Roman society had an extremely lopsided gender ratio, contributing to its violence and permanent tension.)
Another notorious practice in the ancient world was the sexual exploitation of children. It is sometimes pointed to paganism's greater tolerance (though by no means full acceptance) of homosexuality than Christianity as evidence for its higher moral virtue. But this is to look at a very different world through distorting lenses. The key thing to understand about sexuality in the pagan world is the ever-present notion of concentric circles of worth. The ancient world did not have fewer taboos, it had different ones. Namely, most sexual acts were permissible, as long as they involved a person of higher status being active against or dominating a person of lower status. This meant that, according to all the evidence we have, the sexual abuse of children (particularly boys) was rife.
Think back on expositio. According to our sources, most abandoned children died — but some were "rescued," almost inevitably into slavery. And the most profitable way for a small child slave to earn money was as a sex slave. Brothels specializing in child sex slaves, particularly boys, were established, legal, and thriving businesses in ancient Rome. One source reports that sex with castrated boys was regarded as a particular delicacy, and that foundlings were castrated as infants for that purpose.
Of course, the rich didn't have to bother with brothels — they had all the rights to abuse their slaves (and even their children) as they pleased. And, again, this was perfectly licit. When Suetonius condemns Tiberius because he “taught children of the most tender years, whom he called his little fishes, to play between his legs while he was in his bath” and “those who had not yet been weaned, but were strong and hearty, he set at fellatio,” he is not writing with shock and horror instead, he is essentially mocking the emperor for his lack of self-restraint and enjoying too much of a good thing.
This is the world into which Christianity came, condemning abortion and infanticide as loudly and as early as it could.
This is the world into which Christianity came, calling attention to children and ascribing special worth to them. Church leaders meditated on Jesus' instruction to imitate children and proposed ways that Christians should look up to and become more like them.
Like everything else about Christianity's revolution, it was incomplete. For example, Christians endorsed corporal punishment for far too long. (Though even in the fourth century, the great teacher St John Chrysostom preached against it, on the grounds of the victim's innocence and dignity, using language that would have been incomprehensible to, say, Cicero.)
But really, Christianity's invention of children — that is, its invention of the cultural idea of children as treasured human beings — was really an outgrowth of its most stupendous and revolutionary idea: the radical equality, and the infinite value, of every single human being as a beloved child of God. If the God who made heaven and Earth chose to reveal himself, not as an emperor, but as a slave punished on the cross, then no one could claim higher dignity than anyone else on the basis of earthly status.
That was indeed a revolutionary idea, and it changed our culture so much that we no longer even recognize it.
More facts about Rome?
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Banking and commerce
If a Roman had some capital, lending money could be very profitable. One source describes commercial moneylenders “rejoicing in the accrual of money which increases day by day”. Their joy was understandable as 12% interest was typically charged for unsecured loans. Interest on short-term loans in crisis periods could reach 50%. And if the borrower failed to make payments on time, creditors held considerable legal powers and could sell all the debtor’s possessions – including his children – into slavery.
Roman gold coins found in India: trade was a very lucrative profession in ancient Rome. British Museum
Trade was anther profitable business – and the empire’s shipping routes were busy with vessels transporting all manner of goods, such as wine, pottery, olive oil, spices and slaves. The aristocracy looked down on trade as being beneath them but that did not stop them from using front-men to carry out business on their behalf. It seems that former slaves were often used in this role, presumably because they could be more trusted to do what they were told and hand over the bulk of the profits at the end of the deal.
These freedmen frequently proudly asserted their prosperous – free – status on inscriptions on their tombs. Some former slaves of emperors became extremely influential and rich, such as Narcissus – a former slave of Emperor Claudius in the first century AD who went on to amass considerable wealth and influence as a freedman. The status of freedman as former slaves, however, meant they were never fully accepted among the social elite.
Art, Propaganda and Death in Ancient Rome
ROME — “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,” Edward Gibbon wrote in “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
In so declaring, the English historian was following the lead of a number of Roman and Renaissance authors, who took an equally rosy view of the state of the empire and humanity during the second century.
At first glance, by its very title “The Age of Equilibrium, 98-180 A.D.: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius,” the third in a series of exhibitions on art and society in ancient Rome at the Capitoline Museums, seems to be endorsing this traditional historical assessment that stretches from Pliny the Younger through Machiavelli and Gibbon into modern times.
But a strength of this latest show, curated by Eugenio La Rocca and Claudio Parisi Presicce with Annalisa Monaco, and especially of its catalog, is that, while achievements are recognized, darker aspects are not whitewashed and the dominant role played by propaganda in public art of the era is highlighted.
The reputation the second century won as a golden age was substantially based on the unusual stability of the political establishment during this period and on the economic prosperity that helped to nurture.
That stability was largely the result of the abandonment of the direct hereditary principle in the imperial succession in favor of the practice of adopting suitably talented candidates. Thus Nerva adopted Trajan in 97 A.D. Trajan’s second cousin Hadrian succeeded him in 117 Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius in 138, who adopted his son-in-law Marcus Aurelius as his own successor.
In a return to the old system, Marcus Aurelius was succeeded in 180 by his son Commodus, whose behavior became increasingly deranged. As everyone who has seen “Gladiator” now knows, Commodus developed a penchant for taking a personal part in gladiatorial displays (yet in reality met his end not in the arena but when he was strangled in his bath).
The first room of the show, “The Leading Actors,” introduces us to the stars of the epoch in the form of more than 40 portrait statues and busts of the emperors, their wives, daughters and favorites.
What is immediately striking in the representation of the male players is that they are so often depicted in some form of military dress.
This introduces one of the central paradoxes of this notional age of peace and harmony. For while the Emperor Augustus, a victorious general and founder of the imperial system, was seldom represented as a warrior, the emperors of the second century relentlessly emphasized this role.
The empire reached its greatest extent — an area of 3.5 million square kilometers, or 1.35 million square miles, with an estimated population of 55 million — during the reign of Trajan. Much of what he did to transform Rome is still visible from the Capitoline Museums or within a few minutes’ walk. The Trajan Forum was the largest and grandest of all the forums and the so-called Trajan Markets on the hillside above are well preserved. Nearby are the remains of the huge Trajan Baths on the Oppian Hill — the first to include a library, park and cultural complex — which was to serve as the model for all subsequent monumental baths. Vast infrastructure projects included a new port at Ostia, canals, quays, aqueducts and sewers.
But these improvements were mainly financed by war booty, especially what was gained from 101 to 106 during the conquest of Dacia — a kingdom centered on present-day Romania and Moldova.
These wars were celebrated in the spiraling friezes of Trajan’s Column on the edge of the Trajan Forum, the first column of its kind and the first depictions of an emperor on campaign. The Trajan Forum itself was adorned with multiple images of the Dacian Wars in the form of statues, reliefs and decorative elements of the victorious emperor and of defeated Dacians.
Hadrian, who had fought in the Dacian Wars, abandoned his predecessor’s policy of expansion and concentrated on consolidating the empire’s existing borders. But despite his image as a peacemaker, he put down the Jewish revolt led by the self-declared messiah Bar Kokhba (132-135) with resolute savagery, refounding Jerusalem as a pagan military colony. Hadrian, too, left his monumental mark on Rome, most prominently in the Pantheon and his mausoleum, now Castel Sant’Angelo.
Of all these emperors, Marcus Aurelius, thanks to his “Meditations,” has gone down in history as the ideal Roman philosopher-emperor. Yet his contemporary public image in art remained that of the warrior, as can be seen in the busts and reliefs in a subsequent section of the exhibition of “Historical Reliefs,” which continues the theme of this art as propaganda.
The reliefs lead on to the circular hall that is now the home of the magnificent gilded bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, as the armor-clad victor over the German tribes. The victory is also celebrated on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colonna, which shows him leading his troops and includes scenes of the massacre of prisoners and of violence being inflicted on women and children.
This bellicose imagery, so ubiquitous in the Trajan Forum as to turn it into a kind of Dacian War theme park, was not confined to the official depiction of emperors and their deeds, as is illustrated in a parallel section in the first room of the exhibition on “The Language of Art.”
Tumultuous battle scenes became popular on sarcophagi during this period. There are three examples here, all revolving around the crushing of mythical and actual barbarian tribes.
The second century saw a progressive shift away from cremation in favor of burial (and interment in sarcophagi for those who could afford it), perhaps in imitation of Hellenistic practices. As the last section of the exhibition, entitled “Tombs,” demonstrates, this is a trend that encouraged more elaborate sepulchers and also had the fortuitous effect of enriching posterity’s knowledge of various aspects of Roman everyday life.
This section opens with the famous sarcophagus, remains and grave goods of the teenage girl Crepereia Tryphaena, unearthed close to the Tiber in 1889. She was not only buried with her own jewelry, including a precious brooch with an engraved amethyst cameo, a gold necklace with beryl pendants, pearl earrings and a gold engagement or wedding ring, but also an exquisitely fashioned ivory doll with articulated limbs.
Crepereia’s body was placed on her side, with her head inclined toward the doll. Along with this lovely plaything were buried the doll’s miniature clothes, necklace, earrings and other jewelry as well as tiny combs, mirrors and a little jewel case, faced in ivory and bone. The doll’s minutely carved hairstyle is a meticulously realized version of one made fashionable by the Emperor Antoninus Pius’s wife Faustina Major and their daughter Faustina Minor.
Crepereia’s family name indicates that they were freed slaves, perhaps originally from Syria or Egypt, but they had clearly risen in the ranks and were likely attached in some way to the emperor since the tomb was within the estate of an imperial villa. The luxury doll (probably made in Alexandria) and expensive jewelry also indicate the family’s prosperity.
But as some of the subsequent sarcophagi and funerary panels show, monuments also preserved information about more humble classes. One panel here has a vivid relief of a Roman butcher shop. Another pair of reliefs gives two scenes of a deceased artisan’s life: one of him at his anvil and another in an apron behind the counter of his shop, proudly displaying for sale an array of the metal tools he had manufactured.