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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.

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

24.11.2016
12:01

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

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

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

 

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.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum

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

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.

 

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

The Boxer, lifelike portrait of a pugilist.

“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.

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.

Egypt, Greece, & Rome

by Charles Freeman. Oxford University Press 2014.

There can be few things more galling to a publisher or author than to receive the kind of reader letter that breezily announces complete satisfaction with the previous edition of a guide or text book and no intention of buying its successor.

Software companies make it impossible, after a while, to continue to use their products without upgrading. Print publishers cannot indulge in such tyranny. And yet if readers don’t buy the most recently updated editions, how are authors and publishers to stay afloat?

Thus it was with great interest that I picked up the new (3rd) edition of Charles Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, & Rome, published by Oxford University Press earlier this year. Would it make my old, much-thumbed 2nd edition obsolete?

 

Egypt, Greece, & Rome is an enormously ambitious book. It aims to provide, in just a single volume, a comprehensive introduction to the great civilisations of the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Byzantium: their histories, behaviour, art, architecture, social structures, styles of warfare, belief systems, methods of government, thought processes, commercial networks, interconnections and legacy. No small task. But Freeman brings it off splendidly. The text is approachable and readable. It can be used both for sustained study as well as for idle browsing and dipping into. It is informative, succinct. There are no tedious digressions or woolly bits. It offers an opinion where an opinion is useful but does not dogmatically press an agenda. For the general reader, it is difficult to imagine how it could have been better done.

 

So what does the new edition have that the previous one did not? Of course, just as with any software update, there are things about the new version that are annoying simply because they are not the same as the old one. An Oxford comma has been introduced into the title, for example (this is OUP, after all) and Oxford commas annoy me--but I will get over it. Overall though, and on any serious level, there are remarkably few changes. This really is an update. The typeface has stayed the same. The structure of the book is unchanged. The selection of illustrations has been overhauled and the captioning system is much improved. I did feel though, that the illustrations themselves cohere less well. Gone are the pages of assorted pottery designs, sculpted heads, equestrian statues and temples, for example, that allowed a reader to compare and contrast styles and designs across centuries and even across civilisations. I miss the plan of the ancient Macedonian city of Olynthos, too, with its Hippodamian grid system and little domestic units.

 

But all this is just quibbling. The 3rd edition, in terms of the information it contains, certainly supplants the 2nd. The chapter on the ancient Near East has been substantially expanded. All through the book the latest findings are incorporated; new theories and thinking are discussed; more recent publications are quoted from. Thanks to the 3rd edition, I now know about a newer biography of Nero (by Edward Champlin), which seeks to do more than just portray a monster. The lovely little vignette of Pope Leo I castigating a group of Christians who had gone off message and were worshipping the Sun on the steps of St Peter’s is retained from the 2nd edition, but Freeman now adds more—just a clause here and there but it is enough—to flesh out even further this fascinating time when Christianity had been officially adopted but the old ways had not yet departed from men’s minds, instincts and hearts. Freeman is particularly good on Constantine and on his Roman-ness vis à vis his Christianity.

 

Suggestions for further reading—and this is a major improvement—are now incorporated into the text. In the previous edition they were scooped into a rather cumbersome and impenetrable listing at the end of each chapter. It is much better having them sown broadcast through the book, with the addition of a general “What to read next” chapter at the end.

 

The final chapter, entitled “Legacies”, is also new (at least, it might have appeared in the 1st edition, but it is not in the 2nd). It is a short chapter which outlines how the ancient world came back to us (in the Renaissance) and how it has continued to obsess us, from Grand Tourists in the 18th century to moviegoers in our own day, fired up by Gladiator. Freeman ends with a statement of robust support for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles and with a lament that the masuoleum of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, unearthed in 2008 beside the Via Flaminia, which leads northwards out of Rome, may have to be backfilled for lack of resources. Macrinus provided (very loose) inspiration for Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator, which has swept the tomb to prominence even if it has not brought in any hard cash. “Legacies” is an excellent way to end the book. It gets one away from one's desk and out to the sites themselves. Last month I visited Nonius Macrinus’ summer villa on Lake Garda. Not much remains of the 12,000 or more square metres it once covered but there are a few mosaic floors (as shown below) and stunning lake views. It must have been magnificent.

 

So to conclude? Yes. If you own and have enjoyed using Egypt, Greece and Rome edition 2, you need to upgrade to Egypt, Greece, & Rome edition 3. And if you have yet to make the acquaintance of either, get the new edition.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, editor-in-chief of the Blue Guides and contributing author of Blue Guide Rome.

Mosaic floor in the villa of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, Toscolano, Lake Garda. ©Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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