Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, May 18, 2009

How Secure is Your Job?

Now for a little fun. I was talking with a friend a while back, and he told me it would be fun to compare the modes of death of Roman Emperors (sounds like your idea of fun, doesn't it?). So, I decided to put a list together and see how things added up. The final tally was 11 for natural deaths and 16 for unnatural deaths; not what I would call job security.

Some disclaimers are in order. Unnatural deaths include murder and suicide, both which I have distinguished in my list. I consider natural deaths to be anything other than murder or suicide, be it old age, illness or injury. There is controversy surrounding the deaths of some emperors, most noticeably Claudius, so here I stick with the common belief that he was murdered. Also, my list ends at 235 CE for various reasons. 235 CE saw the end of the Severan Dynasty and marked a fundamental shift in the Roman world. The next fifty years would see over 20 emperors propped up by the military. From a political view point, the era was one of chaos and the Rome that would emerged in 284 CE was considerably different than the Principate of the preceding centuries. Also, cutting the list off at 235 CE gives me the opportunity to write a post at a later date comparing the "lifespan" of emperors of the Principate and the Late Empire.

Julio-Claudian Dynasty
Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) - natural
Tiberus (14-37) - natural
Gaius (37-41) - murder
Claudius(41-54) - murder
Nero (54-68)- suicide

Civil War of 69
Galba (68-69) - murder
Otho (69) - suicide
Vitellius (69) - murder

Flavian Dynasty
Vespasian (69-79) - natural
Titus (79-81) - natural
Domitian (81-96) - murder

Nervan-Antonian Dynasty
Nerva (96-98) - natural
Trajan (98-117) - natural
Hadrian (117-138)- natural
Antoninus Pius (138-161) - natural
Lucius Verus (co-ruler w/Marcus) (161-169) - natural
Marcus Aurelius (161-180) - natural
Commodus (180-193) - murder

Civil War of 193
Pertinax (193) - murder
Didius Julianus (193) - murder

Severan Dynasty (with usurpers)
Septimius Severus (193-211) - natural
Geta (co-ruler w/Caracalla) (211) - murder
Caracalla (211-217) - murder
Macrinus (217-218) - murder
Diadumenian (co-ruler w/Macrinus) (217-128) - murder
Elagabalus (218-222) - murder
Alexander Severus (222-235) - murder

Natural - 11
Unnatural - 16

Vive la France

When you think of Ancient Rome you probably picture the Colosseum or perhaps the Pantheon, right? What about the Arc de triomphe d'Orange or the Théâtre antique d'Orange? Not ringing a bell? How about the Maison Carrée or the Arèna de Nîmes? Still nothing? When one has a desire to see the physical remains of the Roman Empire, the best place to go is not necessarily Italy. France, particularly South East France, has some of the best preserved Roman architecture you'll find anywhere. First, a little history. In the beginning, the Romans had a uneasy relationship with their Northern neighbors. Though mocked by the Romans, the Gauls were also respected for their bravery and hardiness in battle. The Romans always had a eye turned toward those "hairy Gauls," especially after the sack of Rome in 387 BCE. It wasn't until the late 2nd century BCE that Rome intervened in Gaul and set up it's first permanent provincial holding there. The following century saw Julius Caesar's bloody conquest of the rest of Gaul. Gaul then began the process of "Romanization," but was always a troublesome region for the Romans.

Today, France has some of the best preserved Roman architecture. Both Nîmes and Arles have amphitheaters that, though not as massive as the Colosseum in Rome, are certainly more complete (though both have been restored). The Roman theater in Orange is a wonderfully preserved example of that type of architecture, and like Roman theaters throughout the Mediterranean, it is still in use. The Maison Carrée in Nîmes started its life in 16 BCE as a temple dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar and today is the most complete Roman temple found anywhere. The more practical side of the Romans is also evident in France. There are no shortage of Roman bridges from Roman times, including the Pont de Sommières, the Pont Flavien and the Pont des Marchands, just to name a few. We can't forget aqueducts since France is home to one of the most famous examples, the Pont du Gard. The exact date of the Pont du Gard's construction is a matter of debate, but it probably was constructed sometime between the late 1st century BCE and the mid 1st century CE. The Pont du Gard has long been a symbol of Roman Gaul and is probably the most famous Roman ruin in France.

Northern France can't be neglected and many wonderful sites are still to be found there. Lillebonne, Sens and Grand are just a few of the cities that have Roman theaters or amphitheaters. Even Paris has the small remains of its amphitheater, the Arènes de Lutèce, which is now a public park. The sites listed above are just a sampling of the Roman sites in France and there are dozens if not hundreds more ruins scattered around the countryside, not to mention what is buried underneath modern cities. From England to the Euphrates you can find physical remains of Roman civilization and it's always important to remember that there is more to Ancient Rome that the Colosseum.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hadrian's Villa Gets the Limelight

The Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) left us many monuments for which he is remembered. The most famous of course being the Pantheon, but he also left us with the Temple of Venus and Roma and Hadrian's Wall, to name a few. Those monuments were all meant for the public in some degree, but one of his most stunning architectural creations was meant for himself. Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli (Roman Tibur) was built by Hadrian as his own personal sanctuary away from Rome. Make no mistake, being emperor was a busy job and we can imagine Hadrian's Villa teaming with servants, courtiers and advisers, but compared to the hustle and bustle of Rome, the villa was certainly a place where Hadrian could relax.

Hadrian's Villa not only featured advanced architecture (the famous 'pumpkin' domes criticized by Apollodorus) but rich works of art as well. In building his magnificent country retreat, Hadrian wanted to recreated some of the many places he had traveled to throughout the empire. The huge pool was called the Canopus was named after a site in Egypt on the Nile and the copies of Greek statuary, especially the caryatids, recall his love for all things Greek. The villa is in ruins today, but from the ruins and art works found we can imagine what a breathtaking place Hadrian's Villa once was.

A new exhibit at Hadrian's Villa will be showing some of the hundreds of artifacts found there over the years. Showing those artifacts in the context of where they were found is a great way to educate the public about the ancient world. I know I've said it a thousand times, but without context, artifacts loose a lot of their meaning. I think this exhibit is a unique opportunity to showcase ancient artifacts in their original ancient setting. The Mediterranean world is lucky enough to be able to put on such a unique exhibit and I look forward to seeing more exhibits like this in the future.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Naples Museum Overhauls Roman Fresco Exhibit

When Pompeii and the other Roman sites on the Gulf of Naples were destroyed in 79 CE, posterity was given a unique gift. No were else was Roman civilization sealed in a "time capsule" to the extent that Pompeii was. Being sealed for over 1500 years, Pompeii and its related sites preserved much that was lost elsewhere in the Roman world. The most famous artifacts from the area are the hundreds of walls paintings found in situ. The importance of other artifacts can not be ignored and contribute immense knowledge to our understanding of Roman society, but the frescos are by far the most well know to the general public. Random (and limited) examples of wall painting have been found throughout the Roman Empire, but those few pieces pale in comparison to the shear magnitude of paintings found in Pompeii. The study and appreciation of those paintings has been going on since the 18th century and still today those paintings offer us a rare glimpse into the colorful world that was ancient Rome.

The Naples National Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) houses a great quantity of frescos removed from Pompeii and the Gulf of Naples area. Many of these paintings were removed to protect them, but many were also removed long ago for the sake of profit. Today, many of the paintings left in situ at Pompeii are badly deteriorating, so it is my opinion that the removal, though damaging the walls that once held them, was an appropriate thing to do (this is a complicated issue which I will discuss in a future post). After a 10 year renovation, the Naples National Archaeological Museum has completely revamped it's Roman frescos section. The new exhibition of frescos apparently seeks to place the paintings in their historical context, which I think is great. The paintings will also be organized by their "style," based on Mau's four style categorization. I get excited any time Roman art is shown to the public, but especially when it is done in a way that emphasizes the importance of art in the framework of culture and history.