What’s on in ancient Rome this summer


Figure One: marble sculpture on display in the ‘temple of Romulus’.

With the opening of Claudio Imperatore in the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, there are now four exhibitions about the ancient world in venues across the city: Roma Universalis in the Colosseum, Forum Romanum, and on the Palatine; La Roma dei Re at the Musei Capitolini; and Mæternità at the Villa Giulia. It seems timely to compile a review.

Roma Universalis. L’impero e la dinastia venuta dall’Africa (15 November 2018 – 25 August 2019) tells the story of the Severan dynasty and their impact on the city of Rome, connecting also to the wider empire through subjects such as commerce and the imported amphorae of Monte Testaccio. Spread across the Forum Romanum, Palatine, and Colosseum, the majority of objects are on display in the latter, adjacent to the newly reinstalled permanent collection of graffiti, inscriptions, images, and small finds relating to the Flavian amphitheatre. A considerable number of the pieces on show are drawn from collections in Rome, although it is interesting to see the fragmentary reliefs from a Severan era triumphal arch depicting a naval scene recently uncovered in Naples. It is also always nice to see sections of the Severan Forma Urbis on display, frequently brought out of storage of exhibitions in the city, in this instance the fragments depicting the temple of Peace. In terms of new material, the most notable display is in the ‘temple of Romulus’ in the Forum. This installation includes seven fine portrait busts of the Severan era, along with 26 other fragments of marble sculpture, all of which were reused as fill for a 6-7th century AD wall near the so-called ‘baths of Elagabalus’ (Figures One and Two).


Figure Two: Severan era portrait busts.

Re-excavated and restored, the baths themselves, located on the northeast slope of the Palatine, are accessible as part of the exhibition. Indeed, one of the best aspects of Roma Universalis is that a number of sites around the archaeological park that were previously off limits can now be visited. These are indicated by a rather confusing system of numbered banners, the order of which is not immediately clear and the only map of which appears to be outside the Colosseum. Nevertheless, it is fantastic to be able to walk through the Severan substructures of the southeast corner of the Palatine to the sunken ‘stadium’ of Domitian, as well as down the ancient road that ran between the temple of Peace and the basilica of Maxentius. This means the visitor can now see a well-preserved section of the firewall of the temple of Peace, as well as gain a good view of the stunning marble floor of the interior (Figures Three and Four). Frustratingly, due to the ongoing work around the Comitium, the arch of Septimus Severus – a numbered feature of the exhibition – remains closed off. This continues the nonsensical situation that it is not possible to walk through a single ancient monumental arch in the historic centre, thereby ignoring the very function of their form (brave the traffic, and you can go through the so-called ‘arch of Drusus’ at Porta San Sebastiano).


Figure Three: rusticated tuff and travertine firewall of the Temple of Peace.


Figure Four: coloured marble floor of the temple of Peace.

Access to sites more generally across the Forum and Palatine has been considerably improved with the introduction in 2018 of the S.U.P.E.R ticket (Seven Unique Places [to] Visit [in] Rome). Although having two differently priced tickets causes understandable irritation to anyone who only realises they have purchased the basic one when they attempt to enter a particular location, it is now possible to visit the so called ‘temple of Romulus’, the wonderfully restored Santa Maria Antiqua, the ‘cryptoporticus of Nero’ (bemusingly only open at one end given its function as a passage), and the late-Republican, frescoed houses of ‘Augustus’, ‘Livia’, and the ‘Aula Isiaca’, the last visible from the loggia Mattei.

The most exciting development was the opening in April, following a decade of restoration, of part of the Domus Transitoria of Nero. Located near the centre of the Palatine, the entrance is down an ancient marble staircase below the Domitianic palace. Here, it is possible to visit a series of rooms thought to have belonged to Nero’s first palace complex, before the ‘Great Fire’ of AD 64 allowed for the construction of the more famous Domus Aurea (the Esquiline wing of his Golden House is also open again). The main feature of this part of the Domus Transitorium is a marble clad court and elaborate fountain, designed to imitate the form of a theatre backdrop (Figure Five). Throughout, there are traces of exceptional marble flooring and wall revetment, high quality frescos, and stucco coffering on the ceilings (Figures Six and Seven). Further sections of the painted ceiling, opus sectile floors and figural ornament remain on display in the Palatine Antiquarium (which you now need the more expensive S.U.P.E.R ticket to visit). As in the Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea, which was demolished to make way for the Baths of Trajan, the rooms of the Domus Transitorium are cut by the foundations of later buildings, but through an excellent Virtual Reality reconstruction, these walls are removed to restore a sense of the original space. The other main feature of the site is a fifty-seater latrine. Unlikely to have been intended for the builders of the Domus Transitoria, as the onsite interpretation suggests, it is an indication of the thousands of people who visited and worked at the imperial palaces, a reminder of the scale of the events that were hosted there.


Figure Five: marble clad fountain in the Domus Transitoria.


Figure Six: opus sectile floor in the Domus Transitoria.


Figure Seven: frescoed ceiling in the Domus Transitoria.



Figure Eight: part of the latrine in the Domus Transitoria.

Occupying the downstairs gallery of the Ara Pacis Museum, Claudio Imperatore. Messalina, Agrippina e le ombre di una dinastia (6 April – 27 October 2019) attempts to balance discussion of the emperor’s lineage and familial relations, with the broader context of his reign, including subjects such as the construction of Portus and the invasion of Britain. A version of this exhibition was first shown at Lyon (Claudius’ birthplace) and a number of the objects have travelled to Rome. The most significant of these is the bronze tabula Claudiana, a speech by the emperor advocating admission of people from the Three Gauls into the Senate. While this document is accompanied by a transcription, as well as Italian and partial English translations, other inscriptions in the exhibition are not – it is fantastic to see the tabula herbana, but it seems a little too much to expect visitors to decipher the incised bronze Latin text themselves.

There are several excellent sculptures from the Louvre, including fine busts of Agrippina the Elder, a person variously identified as either the military commander Corbulo or the conspirator Longinus, an oversized heroic nude of Claudius, and possibly Messalina and Britannicus in the guise of Eirene (Peace) carrying her son Ploutos (Wealth). The exhibition collects a number of fragments from a monumental relief thought to be the arch of Claudius which spanned the via Lata (via del Corso), including the particularly noteworthy ‘Praetorians’ relief, also from the Louvre. In the same room are casts of the iconographically rich ‘Medinaceli’ reliefs. Argued as being Claudian in date, these panels depict the battle of Actium and an associated processional scene featuring an image of the Aeneas, Anchises, Ascanius group. The original reliefs are dispersed between collections in Spain and Hungary, they were brought together for the first time in 2013 for the Augusto exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and it is good to see the casts displayed here. Claudio Imperatore concludes with the emperor’s deification, as represented by the depiction of his temple on the Severan Forma Urbis (again, it is always welcome to see this out of storage), and two statues – Agrippina the Younger and an unidentified youth – thought to be from the templum divi Claudii, strikingly carved in Egyptian bekhan-stone.

The opening panel of the Claudio Imperatore implies that through archaeology the exhibition will show Claudius as a more competent ruler than ‘historical’ sources make out. Setting up a dichotomy between literary and material evidence seems unhelpful – a prosperous empire does not automatically mean that accusations levelled against Claudius are untrue, and the best way of understanding a hostile literary tradition is through a critical reading of those same texts. The exhibition does not transform our understanding of Claudius, but it brings together many excellent objects that illuminate imperial ideology in mid-first century Rome (Figure Nine).


Figure Nine: Fragolina, in lieu of images of the exhibition due to photographs not being allowed.

At the Capitoline Museums, La Roma dei Re. Il racconto dell’Archeologia (27 July 2018 – extended to 2 June 2019) examines the condition of the city of Rome and its inhabitants between the 12th and 6th centuries BC. Bringing together a range of material excavated across the city from the 19th century to the present day, the exhibition includes much material that is not normally on view from the Capitoline Antiquarium. The first rooms contain displays about the Lapis Niger, the Comitium, and the temples of Sant’Omobono. The superb terracotta decoration of the latter, which includes panthers and a statue group of Hercules and Minerva, has been moved here from its permanent location near the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and is now helpfully displayed nearer eye level. In the exhibition, this statuary is united with material from the recent excavations and the accompanying panels present new interpretations of the appearance of the temple (although the reason for reconstructing the Hercules and Minerva pair as standing in the pediment rather than at the apex of the roof is unclear).

Other rooms include material from excavations on the Velia in the 1930s, on the slope of the Palatine Hill between 1987 and 2017, and from the Esquiline necropolis. Many of these objects are usually in storage and it is excellent to see them here usefully labelled. The only upside of Museo della Civiltà Romana being closed for restoration is that parts of its collection now frequently appear in exhibitions, and the large model of the early city is here on display. Inaccuracies aside, the model gives a wonderful impression of the topography of the city, and it is here combined effectively with a video and light show (Figure Ten).


Figure Ten: model of the early city showing the Palatine and Capitoline Hills (taken in Museo della Civiltà Romana, as photography is not allowed in the exhibition space).

Despite its title, much of the exhibition does not directly address the controversy of Rome’s kings. The visitor is presented with the objects alongside detailed panels about their dating and provenance, but not the idea that this activity or event necessarily occurred during a particular reign. In this way, it provides a welcome and effective balance to interpretations of the early history of the city that still insist on framing the archaeology through the ‘historical’ narrative of Rome’s kings and the Romulean foundation myth. The video includes the quote from Italian archaeolog Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli that ‘Rome was not born on the Palatine as they taught us in school’ – a point the exhibition ably demonstrates through the rich material culture that existed before the mid-8th century BC.

The biggest problem for the exhibition is its location. Tucked away at the top of the museum beyond the café, it gets little chance footfall. Also, despite having opened in July last year, the catalogue is yet to be published, making the prohibition of photos doubly frustrating.

Occupying the gallery space of the upper floor of the beautiful Villa Giulia, Mæternità. Maternità e allattamento nell’Italia antica (23 March – 2 June 2019) is the smallest of the exhibitions currently on. In an effort to go beyond discussions about maternity that focus exclusively on mothers and children, the exhibition aims to look at the roles that others played ‘from conception to… adulthood’. Taking the Etruscan and early Roman world, the themes addressed are breastfeeding, the extended family (attention is given to the presence of the maternal aunt), and kourotrophia (the raising of boys).

While some of the objects have been taken from permanent displays on the ground floor of the museum, other pieces appear to be out of storage. The material comes from sites in Etruria, including ex votos of breastfeeding mothers from the sanctuary of Campetti at Veii (Figure Eleven), representations of families from the sanctuary of Mater Matuta at Satricum, and three Hellenistic style terracotta sculptures of children from Vulci. There is an interesting tuff sculpture of a seated woman bearing four swaddled babies, from the sanctuary of Fondo Patturelli near Capua (Figure Twelve). One of two-hundred such sculptures found at the site, some holding up to twelve infants, another unlabelled example can be found next to the entrance of the museum. A display case containing dedications to gods, including a terracotta uterus with the name of the goddess ‘vei’ cut into it, as well as a bronze spearhead with an inscription to Diana from the nurse of the gens Paperia (Figure Thirteen).


Figure Eleven: mother and child ex votos.


Figure Twelve: tuff sculpture of seated woman and four children.

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Figure Thirteen: bronze spearhead with dedication to Diana incised along the top.

While further details about the dating and provenance of individual objects would be welcome, the panels are informative and place the objects within broader discussions about how to understand maternity in ancient Italy. The exhibition is small: there are just five displays. Yet focusing a small exhibition on a theme such as maternity is an effective way to draw attention to objects that might be otherwise overlooked in a museum that boasts an incredible collection of monumental and visually stunning pieces.


Chris Siwicki (Rome Fellow)