Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum

When Freya Stark was in this area in the early autumn of 1952, she was on a quest (the very word she used in the title of the book detailing her adventures: Ionia: A Quest). Armed with her Classics, she was looking for the material reality underpinning the narratives of the likes of Herodotus and Pindar. As far as she was concerned, she was in Ionia (the other component of the title), sometimes in Aeolia, occasionally in Caria. She never doubted that she, like the antiquarian travellers before her, was in an extension of ancient. Her experience remains unique: travelling as a woman, a foreigner and on her own, she aroused curiosity and a sort of protective sympathy. She had a novelty value that made her feel occasionally like an animal in a zoo but which at times secured VIP treatment from the local poeple. Archaeologically was not ready for her (hence her disparaging comments on the state of the theatre at Pergamon). Transportation was not easy; the crossing of the Meander Delta, some 8km wide, entailed the use of a lorry, a tractor, a ferry and an overnight stay. She came across only one visitor on the same quest as hers, and yet she toured 55 sites.

Sixty years on, things have changed in many respects. For a start, today you will not be alone, probably not even in the depths of winter (the climate on the coast can be benign and Turkish pensioners use timeshares for a week in the sun when the tourists are away). And in the high season, tourists come not in units but in millions. Despite the efforts of the Turkish government to rebalance and diversify tourism away from the Aegean and Mediterranean and direct it more to the interior (set out in a document detailing the strategy for 2023, the centenary of the Republic), it may prove difficult to persuade holiday-makers to eschew the beaches. As far as archaeology is concerned, the region has been made ready for mass consumption. When I was here in 1969, it was still possible to photograph, not far from the main road, a couple of marble Ionian columns topped with an architrave. They stood sprouting from an overgrown field like an improbable weed. Now archaeological remains have either been obliterated by development, neglect, stone robbing or ploughing or they are fenced off, restored, reconstructed and signposted. They come with a bekçi (custodian), an entry ticket and a visitor centre. Bodrum and İzmir have major airports, which means you can bypass Istanbul altogether, and the roads have improved enormously—though the topography still makes for some interesting driving. Crossing the Meander, at any rate, is no longer a challenge.

Aeolia, Ionia and ancient migration
The idea that the east coast of the Aegean was systematically colonised by mainland Greeks, i.e. by would-be colonists under the leadership of a hero, is deeply engrained. Travellers, including Freya Stark, and archaeologists working on location, have all taken it as a fact. The ancient sources, albeit with a number of variants, agree that the Aeolians, a few years after the Trojan War, set out from Thessaly (or was it Boeotia?) under the leadership of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, to settle in Lesbos and on the coast north of the Gulf of İzmir. Four generations later the Ionians, fleeing the invading Dorians, occupied the coast south of İzmir as well as the islands of Chios and Samos. They had strong support in Athens and the enterprise was eventually presented as an Athenian triumph. Each ethnic group was organised into a federation of twelve cities. The Aeolian League had its seat at the Temple of Apollo at Gryneum; and the Ionian League had theirs at the Temple of Poseidon on the Mykale peninsula.

All this accorded well with the colonial attitudes of the late 19th century, when excavations began. After the Bronze Age, it was reckoned, progress could only have come from the West. However, as archaeological research continued, the evidence to back up this narrative failed to materialise. There is no trace in the Archaic material of a single dominant group either north or south of İzmir; no trace of new arrivals; no changes in the pottery.

Archaeologically speaking, an Iron-Age Greek migration into western Asia remains invisible. A re-evaluation of the sources was thus long overdue. It is interesting that Homer (7th century BC), who was well placed in İzmir, at the supposed junction of the two ethnicities, has nothing to say on the matter. No Aeolia, no migrations. The information comes later, and the later it is, the more detailed and complete. Strabo, in the 1st century of our era, gives the fullest account. On the ground, however, archaeology for the 7th century BC shows a very reduced Greek presence on the coast, with Phrygians and Lydians dominant in the hinterland. The leagues, it has been suggested, were not an expression of ‘being Greek’ but a way to cope with the patchwork of diverse ethnic groups that had occupied the space left by the demise of the Hittite Empire. About the same time, the expansionist policy of Miletus, up the coast and into the Black Sea, encouraged Athens to do likewise and set up a colony at Sigeum in the Troad, as close as possible to Troy, which was taking off as a cult centre celebrating Homeric heroes. Identities were being established with the assistance of made-up genealogies; new identities were forged as a reaction. The climax came with the Persian Wars at the end of the 5th century BC, when Athens was able to establish its primacy. It is then that Ionia (Aeolia had by then faded) looked west for leadership and the migration myth was crystallised. In the Hellenistic period Troy, Priene, Pergamon and Sardis all organised games in imitation of the Athenian Panathenaica. Architectural styles converge and Athens emerges as the mother of them all. The triumph of Ionia lives on today in the Turkish word for Greece. Yunanistan.

Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum, by Paola Pugsley, is the latest in the series of updated chapters from Blue Guide Turkey. It will be published in spring 2018.

A people who changed history

Silver belt ornament with twin horse heads (7th century)

The exhibition currently running in Pavia near Milan (Longobardi. Un popolo che cambia la storia) has been given a good amount of publicity in Italy since it is the first time artefacts produced in the period when the Lombards dominated the Italian peninsula have been collected together from many different institutions. More than 300 works have been lent by upwards of 80 museums and institutions, and some of the artefacts are displayed for the first time. You can see the exhibition in Pavia, in the Castello Visconteo, until 3rd December; then it travels to Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 21st Dec–25th March); then to the Hermitage (spring 2018). The show is spectacular, featuring Lombard gold jewellery found in tombs and the bas- reliefs sculpted for early Christian churches, beautifully displayed in the vaults of the huge castle which was built in 1360 by Galeazzo II  Visconti. Pavia was the capital of the Goths under Theodoric but is particularly famous for the subsequent period, when for two centuries from 572 it was capital of the kingdom of the Lombards. The kings established their residence in a palace here from 626 onwards and the reign of Liutprando (712–44) has been recognised as the most important period for the arts.

The sub-title of the exhibition, ‘a people who changed history’ underlines the result of recent scholarship which gives greater importance to the few centuries following the conquest of Italy by the ‘bearded barbarians’ known as the Lombards in 568. They adopted the Arian faith in the 7th century and by the 8th century they had occupied some two thirds of Italian territory. Their presence in Italy was subsequently marked by the spread of Catholicism.

Although there are no labels in English, the videos, multimedia supports and touchscreens which accompany the display are sufficient to explain the complicated history of this former nomadic tribe from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. For some 50 years they settled in the former Roman province of Pannonia (present-day Hungary). The Lombard period in Italy saw a fragmentation of power into various dukedoms. Apart from Pavia, the most powerful were Spoleto (in Umbria), Cividale (in Friuli) and Benevento (in Campania). When Charlemagne arrived with the Franks and crowned himself King of the Lombards in Pavia in 774, the peninsula and the powers around the Mediterranean began to lose their importance while the Holy Roman Empire (only formally brought to an end in 1806 by Napoleon) became established north of the Alps.

Left-hand leaf of the 10th-century ‘Rambona Diptych’, showing the Crucifixion and the She-wolf of Rome nursing Romulus and Remus.

Amongst the most memorable exhibits are the gold jewellery, some worked with filigree, and especially the exquisite pieces from the Museo di Antichità in Turin, the Museo Civica in Tortona, and the Museo  Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. There are also two exceptional pieces, one in rock crystal and the other in light and porous sepiolite, known as ‘sea foam’. Larger jewels showing Byzantine influence, today preserved in museums as far apart as Cagliari and Potenza, are also displayed. There are two coloured-glass horns, one of which, in blue glass of the 6th or 7th century, was found in Ascoli Piceno (Marche) and is perfectly preserved. Finds from a rich 7th-century tomb unearthed beneath the church of Santa Giulia in Lucca include a shield with appliqués of Christian symbols (Daniel and his lions, and peacocks). Bronzes which once decorated horses’ bridles come from Molise; and a fascinating little bronze figure of a warrior (proudly displayed on its own) comes from Pavia’s own Museo Civico. The finest of the many Christian bas-reliefs are those from a church in Milan dating from the 7th century showing two lambs adoring a jewelled Cross, and one of a peacock made in the following century found in the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia (and lent by the Museo della Città there). Among the later works is an exquisite 10th-century ivory diptych found in Macerata and commissioned by the first abbot of the monastery of Rambona (lent by the Vatican Museums): the scenes include a Crucifixion with the personifications of the sun and moon and the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus.

A last room (on the ground floor) proudly records the history of Pavia itself and how the town developed under the Lombards, and how this period of glory was remembered in succeeding centuries.

Visitors are then directed to a part of the Castello Visconteo that has recently been renovated to preserve the treasures from the Lombard period. Here one of the most memorable exhibits is a ‘camp’ saddle found in the bed of the Ticino river. Delicately made in bronze (with a restored leather seat) it could easily be folded up or erected in a hurry as the situation required—a unique find from the period.

The Musei Civici in the castello also include a large picture gallery with paintings from all periods and including some masterpieces by Antonello da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Hugo van der Goes and many others.

Pavia, with its lovely paved and cobbled streets, is a delightful place to wander and its churches well worth visiting (and three of their crypts dating from the Lombard period are open specially during the exhibition period). If you stay the night, local trains every half hour from the station take you to Pavia’s most famous building, the Certosa di Pavia. Delicious pastries are to be had at Vigoni (Strada Nuova 110).

by Alta Macadam

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians’ mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

Annabel Barber

The Seuso Saga

Together again under a single roof. In July 2017, the Hungarian government revealed that it had acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.

The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display in the Hungarian National Museum.

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Seuso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:

1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).

Detail from the Animal Ewer.

2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.

Dionysys and Pan: detail of the Dionysiac Amphora.

3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.

Hippolytus with the rejected love letter falling to the ground between his feet.

6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.

Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: the birth of Achilles.
Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: Athena receives the crown and palm of victory while Poseidon retreats.
Achilles hears the trumpet blast and seizes his spear and shield, causing consternation among the women. His manly leg is shown bursting from his chiton.

Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.

Annabel Barber

Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?

In his book Sites of Antiquity historian Charles Freeman takes 50 sites and uses them to illustrate the development of the Classical World.  But readers have asked, why those particular sites?  His reply:

It was good fun picking out 50 sites that I felt defined the Classical world. I interpreted ‘classical ‘ quite widely, to take it beyond just Greece and Rome, so there was ancient Egypt at one chronological end and early Christian sites at the other. I hope this makes it a special book for anyone with an interest in these great civilisations.

Of course, it made sense to highlight sites I knew from having visited them. I have been to every one of the 15 sites featured in the Greek and Hellenistic sections. They are all interesting ones and many of them, such as Mycenae, Dodona or Pergamon, are in superb physical settings. There is no way a book can show off the extraordinary atmosphere they have and it would be wonderful if this book can inspire readers to travel to these places.

I know Rome well, which explains why I chose seven different sites in the city. The Pantheon must be one of the most extraordinary buildings of antiquity, not just in the fact of its survival but also as a feat of architecture: its dome is a semicircle whose diameter across is exactly the same size as the distance of the top from the floor. Amazing design!

I have other favourites too. I lead cultural tours and am always happy to include a visit to the city of Aphrodisias, with its wonderful display of excavated sculpture. And nothing can quite equal going inside a pyramid or seeing the temple of Abu Simbel in the early morning light. Sadly I never got to Palmyra before its looting and destruction, but have tried to give a sense of its importance as an opulent trading centre.

Annabel Barber and Hadley Kincade, my editors, chose a stunning array of illustrations but, in the best tradition of the Blue Guides, we determined to make this much more than a picture book. So we included the historical background to the cultures, plenty of site plans and explanations of a lot of the architectural terms. The aim was to make something special for anyone who is enthusiastic about the ancient world or who wants an introduction to its fascinating civilisations. I think we succeeded.

Charles Freeman

Roman Brixia

Brescia is well known for its wealth of Roman remains due to the unique urban development of the town after the demise of the Roman Empire. The original nucleus of the settlement at the foot of the Cidneo hill became crown property under the Lombards in the 8th century and was largely occupied by a religious foundation. Medieval Brixia expanded to the west around watercourses that came in handy as Roman aqueducts and sewers went out of use.

Later the area became available again and a number of fine town houses were built on top of the Roman remains, with frequent use of spolia. The Roman street grid was largely respected: today’s Piazza del Foro is the same shape and size as the Roman forum. At its north end, the creatively reconstructed Capitolium (open Tues–Sun 9–5.30,10.30–7 in summer; entry fee) with its three cellae, one each for Juno, Jupiter and Minerva, its podium and monumental steps, dominates the scene. All around the piazza, the Renaissance houses are known to have Roman remains in their cellars; the archaeological trail at Palazzo Martinengo on the west side of the square is an excellent introduction to the complex archaeology.

Recently a couple of new venues have been opened to the public. In the forum itself, one cella of the Republican Temple is now accessible. It had been known for some time that the Capitolium (1st century AD) was not built on virgin soil. Two earlier buildings had been identified. The Republican Temple (1st century BC) had been levelled and backfilled to make way for the new structure willed by the emperor Vespasian. In the process Rome took the decision to stamp out any localism. The four cellae of the Republican Temple (three for the Capitoline Triad, one for a local deity) were reduced to three for the Capitoline Triad only. The local deity was completely obliterated: its name is now not even known. Its cella, however, is the one that has survived best and is now open to the public. The statue of the deity may be missing from its podium at the far end but the loss is largely compensated for by vivid painted decoration (illustrated above) with sumptuous dadoes imitating fanciful breccia marble underscored by elegant drapery. The floor is the finest mosaic, stark white with a black band, made of minute tesserae. Fluted columns are either trompe l’oeil or brick covered in painted stucco. Higher up on the wall, the grave and the drain belong to the Lombards. Further up a 17th-century building (Casa Pallaveri) obtrudes on the area. It is this stratification that has preserved the cella while at the same time making its display a technical challenge.

At the south end of the forum, part of the Roman Basilica (the legal and commercial heart of the town), over time incorporated in a later building, can now be visited (Mon–Fri 9–12). The entrance is in Piazza Labus (whose name celebrates a local 19th-century antiquarian and epigrapher). You can see immediately how much the street level has risen: over three metres. From the short bridge you can admire in situ the outer flooring made of thin slabs of imported marble arranged in a geometric design with contrasting blue-grey and white panels. Inside, in what is now the cellar, and was originally the ground floor, the flooring is the same pattern but the colour scheme is reversed. All around are the finds connected with the excavation of the area showing its development from the 5th century BC, with Attic pottery possibly obtained via Etruscan connections, through to its incorporation into the Roman forum; later, after the basilica lost its marble cladding and its roof, squatters moved in while earth and refuse accumulated. Towards the end of the 1st millennium AD, part of the basilica was a burial ground. It was the incorporation of the surviving elements of the south façade of the basilica into the so-called Palazzo d’Ercole around the 17th century that preserved it for us. In spite of its name, though, the new building was hardly a palace, with poky rooms and a dearth of decorative elements except for the painted terracotta ceilings.

Skipping the Roman theatre east of the Capitolium (it was hopelessly spoliated by the building of a Renaissance palace on top of it, now in part demolished), you can end your tour at Portici X Giornate 51. Here, at the back of an optician’s shop (Vigano’-Salmoiraghi), a substantial stretch of Roman urban road is accessible to the public. It is wide enough for two vehicles and the paving blocks are just enormous: you can’t fail to be impressed. All you are missing is the din of the populace and the screeching of the waggon wheels.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Crete and e-guides to Turkey.

The Roman Forum Reconstructed

Book review of Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer, The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

The Western Forum, with the Curia, Arch of Septimius Severus, Temple of Saturn and Tabularium.

It needed quite a lot of collaboration between kind friends before I could own a copy of this book. It is a lavishly detailed and illustrated study of the western end of the Roman Forum throughout its history, and is understandably pricey. One of the authors, James Packer, is a professor of Classics and an authority on the Forum of Trajan that adjoins the original Forum. He has excavated here and on the site of the Theatre of Pompey. His collaborator, Gilbert Gorski, is an architect who specialises in illustrating reconstructions. Between them they have produced a truly magnificent volume.

The area of the Forum they have chosen for their intensive study includes the Tabularium on the eastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, which still looks down on the valley with its original lower storey acting as a foundation for later medieval buildings. The furthest building to the east is the circular temple of the Vestal Virgins. On either side of the Via Sacra which runs through the Forum are two grand basilicas, the Basilica Julia on the south side below the Palatine and the Basilica Aemilia which is next to the Curia or Senate House. The Curia stands largely intact in the form in which it was rebuilt by Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD. This area encloses several temples, three triumphal arches, of which that of Septimius Severus (dedicated AD 202–3) is the most imposing today, and the rostra or speaking platforms.

Before discussing each building in detail, Gorski and Packer provide an architectural history of the Forum. From the start there are extensive reconstructions, notably, in the first chapter, vistas of the ensemble in its heyday. Panoramic fold-outs add to the luxury of the volume. This chapter covers the building types, techniques and materials from the reconstruction of the Forum by Augustus with an overview of his most important commissions. What is lacking is coverage of his other major projects outside this designated area, notably the Temple of Mars Ultor to the north. The authors can only give this a brief mention and so the wider study of Augustus’ vast building programme—82 temples in all are said to have been restored by him after the neglect of the late Republic—is inevitably limited.

Yet a broader history of imperial Rome is not the purpose of the book which benefits enormously from a focus that charts the evolution of a specific space over the centuries. The second chapter surveys the later reconstructions and restoration of the Forum until the end of the Empire. There were new buildings, such as the Temple to Antoninus and Faustina, begun by the emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 141 after the death of Faustina his wife, and complete by 150. Fire was a continual hazard. Often this gave scope for new building but by the time the Basilica Aemilia was completely destroyed during Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, there was little incentive, or resources, to rebuild it. The city government closed off the ruins from sight with a brick wall, part of which still stands. Melted coins from the fire can still be seen in the basilica pavement. It was, surprisingly, the Ostrogoth Theodoric, then ruling from Ravenna, who restored some of the decaying buildings in the late 5th century. The statue of the Eastern emperor, Phocas, set up in 608 on an earlier column, is the last recorded monument of the ancient Forum.

The bulk of the volume examines each of the major buildings one by one. So there is a description of the site and its previous buildings before the new commission. In some cases texts or even inscriptions survive that honour the patron and the background to the decision to build. So Augustus celebrates the return of the standards captured by the Parthians with a small triumphal arch. His successor, Tiberius, uses the spoils of campaigns in Pannonia and Dalmatia to rebuild the Temple of Concord and grace it with Greek statuary. The temple is later used by the senators as an alternative meeting place to the Curia. The Portico of the Dei Consentes (honouring in its origins the gods of Olympus) was developed as a series of shops faced by the columned portico itself by a succession of emperors from Titus through to Hadrian in the 2nd century.

Overall the book is a triumph of digital reconstruction. Not least of its glories is the imaginative use of illustrations, coins that show the original buildings, fragments of the cornices or paving, earlier depictions of the ruins before they had vanished still further. Photographs show the interior of the Curia when it was the Baroque church of Sant’Adriano and a page displaying the various marbles gives a hint of the vanished opulence of the interiors. So generous are the illustrations that there is even room for alternative reconstructions; what kind of roof did the Temple of the Vestal Virgins have and did the Basilica Julia have a second-storey terrace or not? The final chapter concentrates on how visitors over the centuries would have seen the Forum as they entered it.

After all the bright, shining—and perhaps rather clinical— reconstructions, the end has to come. There is a final view from the late 6th century that shows the buildings still standing but the bronze chariots and horses from the triumphal arches have vanished. Grass is growing in their place and the pavements too are full of weeds. This melancholy scene is suitably backed by a thunderous sky.

Much survived into the Middle Ages with some buildings used as strongholds by one aristocratic faction or other. However the mass of stone or marble was too tempting for the popes. So Poggio Bracciolini records the Temple of Saturn in 1402 as ‘almost intact with fine marble work’. By the time he visited Rome again in 1447 ‘the Romans’ had taken the cella and part of the portico of the temple to the lime kiln, detached the columns and demolished the rest. Houses then filled the site as the rest of the Forum gradually silted up.

The frontispiece shows the view of the Forum from an opulently marbled pavilion in the Domus Tiberiana on the Palatine Hill. Two toga-ed Romans stand together scrutinising plans of what lies before them. They turn out to be our authors and who can deny that their intensive study and knowledge of the buildings entitle them to be honorary Roman citizens. Few of their forebears would have known as much about the centre of their city as they do. The have produced a sumptuous and informative book which I will treasure.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum

In 1900 the archaeologist Giacomo Boni uncovered some intriguing remains in the Roman Forum: those of the so-called ‘Oratory of the Forty Martyrs’ and, leading off it, a covered brick ramp. These remains are usually closed to the public, and work on them is ongoing, but at the moment (until 10th January 2016) they are open as part of an exhibition.

Fresco of the reluctant martyr sneaking out of the frozen pond to the warmth of the bath house.

From the street which runs alongside what would once have been the entrance portico of the great Basilica Julia (an opposite the modern public toilets), a path leads to the excavations. The Oratory, its walls covered in fragmentary frescoes, has been enlosed by a modern roof, walls and door. At first sight, you might think there is nothing remarkable about these, but signboards explain the enormous trouble that has been taken to reconstruct what might originally have been in place here: a roof which rises above the ground at the same height as the ceiling of the ramp, a door whose dimensions conform to those of ‘Golden Rectangle’, and an interior volume that, like that of the Pantheon, is exactly as tall as it is wide, so that a perfect sphere could be fitted inside. The room itself, today known as the Oratory because of its later use as a place of Christian worship, was originally constructed in the 1st century, at the time of the emperor Domitian, to form an entrance vestibule to the ramp, the covered walkway which slopes and winds its way gently up to the Palatine Hill, linking the Imperial palace and the Forum.

The ramp and its ancillary buildings were added to by succeeding emperors so that by the time of Hadrian in the 2nd century the complex consisted of the ramp itself, two separate vestibules and a grand porticoed atrium. The current exhibition has opened the ramp and the first vestibule, the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, to the public.

The ramp is similar in its design to that inside Castel Sant’Angelo, the ancient mausoleum of Hadrian, which winds through the core of the building to the central sepulchral chamber. It is tall and narrow and barrel-vaulted, its walls and floor made of brick. It would have been possible to travel along its length on horseback. Rooms that open off it might have been used by the Imperial guard. They have been arranged to exhibit pieces of sculpture found during excavations. At the level of the first landing, on the right, are the remains of a latrine, built during the time of Hadrian and close to a staircase inserted under Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan to link the grand atrium or forecourt to the ramp. In the early Christian era, this atrium was turned into the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, and it is known that the staircase was still in use at that time. The ramp leads onward and upward, out into the sunlight again, to an elevated terrace from where there is a magnificent view of the Forum down below and across the rooftops, domes and bell-towers of the city. The continuation of the ramp from here to the summit of the Palatine is not open, and indeed excavations are not yet complete. It is proposed at a later stage to open it up and allow public access.

Interior view of the Imperial ramp.

The Oratory of the Forty Martyrs has interesting traces of fresco decoration. Each of the four walls was decorated with a dado of trompe l’oeil white drapery, above which are figurative scenes. On the wall on the left as you enter (the north wall) are the very scanty remains of the Forty Martyrs in Glory. You can still make out some of their heads, encircled with haloes, and their bright white robes, edged with purple like a magistrate’s toga. The east wall, with an apse at its centre, has the main scene. The Forty Martyrs were Roman soldiers of the Legio XII Fulminata, who had converted to Christianity. They were sentenced (in AD 320) to spend the night naked in a frozen pond, near which were warm baths, specially prepared to tempt any who might wish to recant rather than die of exposure. One of the company did so: the fresco shows him sneaking away from his companions to thaw his frozen limbs. His action left only thirty-nine faithful, until one of their guards came forward and confessed his Christian faith, taking the number back to forty again. To the left of this scene are large painted crosses, hung with jewels, and below one of them, a peacock, symbol of immortality. The south wall had scenes of monastic life (very ruined). The frescoes have undergone several restorations between 1969 and today. For this exhibition, they were restored (very beautifully) under the leadership of Susanna Sarmati.

by Annabel Barber. See here for Blue Guides on Rome.

Hellenistic bronzes in Florence

“Power and Pathos. Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” is the penultimate exhibition to be held under the mandate of James Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi. Bradburne has succeeded in turning the palazzo into Florence’s most important exhibition space.

The Boxer, lifelike portrait of a pugilist.

And no more fitting show could have taken place to mark the end of his tenure: it is filled with great masterpieces, and accompanied by a scholarly catalogue. When it closes in Florence (on 21st June) it will travel first to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles  (until 1st November) and then to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (until 20th March 2016).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the exhibition is the consistency it reveals in the styles of masters working in the Alexandrine world of Greece and during the later Roman era. A map (also reproduced in the catalogue) records the extraordinarily wide geographical area where the pieces have been found, either underground or underwater. The exhibition has deliberately concentrated on the “explicitly ‘un-ideal’: the innumerable contingencies of real-life physiognomy” which are the feature of Hellenistic art. But the curators of course were faced with the fact that so little bronze sculpture (as opposed to marble sculpture) survives because it was so often melted down. A tragedy because the skill (and technical ability) of the sculptors was never again equalled until the Renaissance.

To set the tone of the display (which is not chronological), the first room has just two exhibits. The first is a bare limestone base with its statue missing, which is here because it bears the signature of the greatest Hellenistic sculptor, Lysippus of Corinth, who was Alexander the Great’s court sculptor and who is reported by Pliny to have made no fewer than 1500 bronze statues. Not one of these survives, but other statue bases like this one can still be seen in Greece. The other exhibit is the splendidly-displayed Arringatore, or Orator. Because it normally forms part of the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence itself, it seems appropriate that it should be here to greet visitors, its right hand stretched towards us in a gesture usually interpreted as a call for silence. The Etruscan inscription on the toga tells us that the statue was made in Chiusi and it is dated to the late 2nd century BC.

The next room has another magnificent piece from the same museum, the Medici-Riccardi Head of a Horse. Examination of its copper-tin alloy during its restoration for this exhibition has confirmed its date of the second half of the 4th century BC. It belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and is to this day perhaps the most important classical bronze in Florence. Beside it is displayed a very well-preserved statuette (found in Herculaneum) of Alexander the Great mounted on his famous steed (the mane worked in just the same way as the larger head), with silver trimmings (one of many important pieces from the Archaeological Museum in Naples loaned to this exhibition).

Two very different but memorable portrait heads dating from the 3rd century BC are also in this room: that of Queen Arsinoë III of Egypt, and an unknown man, much less regal, wearing a flat leather cap (known as a kausia). He was fished up in the Aegean sea in 1997 and it has been lent by the local museum of Pothia on Kalymnos, in the Dodecanese. This is one of numerous underwater finds which have been made in recent years, and it is always good to learn, as in this case, that they have remained close to where they were found. This piece is an almost miraculous survival: its flashing eyes, made of alabaster and faïence, are still intact and it takes an honourable place alongside works of much greater fame and from much more accessible museums.

In the third room we come face to face with the famous, over life-size Boxer (from the Museo Nazionale in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome), as he sits to regain his strength, his hands strongly bound up in leather and with clear signs (made with copper inlays) of combat on his scarred face with its broken nose. Dating from the 3rd century BC and unearthed in the 19th century on the Quirinal hill, this would have been brought back to Rome as war booty and exhibited in a public place as an example of the highest expression of art known at the time, an accolade it holds to this day.

Close by, in strong contrast, is a little brown statuette from the Metropolitan Museum of Art of an elderly man in a short tunic with a notebook tucked under his belt: he only has one leg and an arm is missing but he is thought to represent an artisan. Also from the same museum comes an exquisite statue with a green patina of Eros fast asleep: depicted as an infant with exquisitely carved wings, this is the forerunner of many depictions of cupids, cherubs and putti in Western art. A statuette of Hermes in his flat hat is a beautiful work lent by the British Museum, somehow typical of that museum’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces, not all of them as well known as one would expect.

The ‘pathos’ of the exhibition’s title is summed up in the portrait of a man from Delos, one of the best-known of all Greek portraits, lent from the Archaeological Museum in Athens. He has a furrowed brow above piercing eyes made of glass paste and black stone. It is exhibited near two other portrait heads: one from an Etruscan votive statue thought to have been found on an island in Lake Bolsena in 1771 (and now in the British Museum) and the other from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, an extraordinarily refined work which retains even its eyelashes and its unshaven chin, also found in Italy (in 1847), and a very early example of Etruscan/Italic/Roman art (late 4th century BC).

The famous Greek bronze Apoxyomenos (the athlete scraping himself down with a strigil) from Ephesus is represented by a replica from Vienna (spectacularly restored in 1902 after it had been found in 234 pieces) and the head of an athlete purchased through Sotheby’s by the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth in 2000 (with a long pedigree including its presence in an 18th-century collection in Venice). A Roman marble statue the Uffizi here is also derived from the Apoxyomenos (wrongly restored in the Renaissance to hold a marble vase instead of a strigil).

Two more statues come from Florence’s Archaeological Museum: the Minerva of Arezzo, derived from a statue of the Praxiteles school (of which numerous copies have survived); and, in the last room, the so-called Idolino, which dates from around 30 BC and would have served as a lamp-stand at banquets. Its very beautiful head shows great similarities to that of the lovely small bust of an Ephebe from Benevento (lent from the Louvre and exhibited beside it) with red copper lips: this is dated a few decades before the Idolino.

Florence’s Archaeological Museum have been involved as partners in this exhibition and in fact have produced their own little show in conjunction with the main one (it also runs until 21st June). Entitled “Small Great Bronzes: Greek, Etruscan and Roman Masterpieces from the Medici and Lorraine Collections”, it shows some of the museum’s most precious possessions, arranged by type

by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of Blue Guide Florence and Blue Guide Tuscany, available in both print and digital format.

Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic

“The name Sassoferrato derives from the Latin saxum ferratum, ‘stone encircled by iron’; it stands on a rocky crest, in an area rich in iron ore. Close by, at the confluence of the Sentino and Marena rivers, stood the Roman city of Sentinum, where in 295 BC the Romans achieved a momentous victory at the Battle of Sentinum, or Battle of the Nations, over the Gauls, Etruscans and Samnites; later (in 41 BC) it was destroyed on behalf of Octavian by Salvidienus Rufus and, when Octavian became Caesar Augustus, rebuilt for his veterans. Sentinum was probably abandoned in the early Middle Ages, when the survivors of enemy attacks, pestilences and poverty built a new settlement on the top of the mountain, recorded from the 11th century, and the lower town in the 13th century. Control of the town passed from one liege lord to another. The last of these aristocratic tyrants, Luigi degli Atti, was killed in 1460, and after that Sassoferrato became a free commune under the aegis of the Papal States, with its own statutes and coat of arms: a stone encircled by an iron band. The economy, based on potteries, stone quarries, bell-casting and the manufacture of nails, flourished. Nowadays the main activities besides farming are footwear, leather, clothing and bathroom fittings.”

The above extract from Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino makes Sassoferrato sound a likeable sort of place, perhaps not with any particular claim to fame or attention. But read on. Roman Sentinum yielded to the world one of the most beautiful and enigmatic mosaics ever found: the Aion Mosaic, which was sold to Ludwig of Bavaria in 1828 and is now in Munich.

Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786–1868) was an interesting monarch in many ways. The behaviour of his scandalous mistress Lola Montez, the Munich Beer Riots and his abdication in the face of open revolt in 1848 have given tongues more to talk about perhaps than his love of the Greek and Roman world and his desire to recreate them in some measure in Munich. He built the grandiose complex of the Königsplatz, wth its monumental gateway, the Propylaion, and its twin Neoclassical museum buildings: the Antikensammlungen and the Glyptothek. Behind them is the abbey church of St Bonifaz, where he lies buried, the church exterior modelled on San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome. The entire ensemble is extraordinary. And while the architecture is one thing, the portable objects that the buildings contain are quite another. One of these is a mosaic from Roman Sentinum, dated c. AD 200 and showing Aion, god of Unbounded Time and Eternity, standing naked within a hoop of the Zodiac. At his feet reclines Tellus the earth goddess, surrounded by her offspring, the Four Seasons. King Ludwig acquired the work in 1828. It is beautifully preserved (as his agent, Johann Martin von Wagner remarked: damaged only in two small places) and unique in the arrangement of its subject matter. Close inspection reveals that the signs of the Zodiac appear in the wrong order. Aion has his hand on Pisces, the sign that coincides with the spring equinox and the beginning of the year, but Aries and Sagittarius are in the wrong place. Why might this be? Did the mosaicists follow their pattern-book incorrectly when they made it up? Has it been wrongly restored? Or is the “mistake” a deliberate one? It is, if we believe Filippo Venturi, who ascribes to the work a complicated symbolism, not only esoteric and eschatalogical but also connected to imperial propaganda. His thesis (in Italian) can be read here. The villa at Sentinum, he believes, can only have belonged to someone not only learned but supremely well-connected, perhaps to a relative of the imperial household itself.

Detail of the Aion Mosaic showing the order of the zodiacal signs as Pisces, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo. Aries is missing.
The right-hand side of the Zodiac loop showing the irregular order: Aries, Sagittarius, Libra and Scorpio.

Text and images © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.