Ancient and modern in the eternal city

Soon after returning from Rome, I logged into Facebook to find a question posed by a friend. She appealed to classicists, asking whether, when they visit Rome or Athens, they navigate using modern landmarks or ancient monuments/topography. Like others who commented on the post, this is a binary choice I find difficult to make, because in Rome the ancient and the modern are so frequently enmeshed.

The relationship between the ancient and the modern is something that all visitors to Rome confront. The many layers of the city’s past are particularly visible at certain sites in the city. At San Clemente, a twelfth-century basilica (still in use today) is built over the remains of a fourth-century church, a second-century Mithraeum (sanctuary of the god Mithras), and houses destroyed in the Neronian fire of AD 64. Piazza Augusto Imperatore today plays host to Augustus’ mausoleum, the Augustan-era Altar of Peace (moved to the square in 1938 and now housed in a glass structure built in 2006), Fascist-era buildings, and a daily-changing outdoor art installation.

The presence of the ancient alongside the modern, and an engagement with the relationship between past and present, is not a contemporary phenomenon; it has been a feature of the city since antiquity.[1] The ancient cityscape was littered with monuments from earlier periods, and writers reflected on the changes or continuities. Vitruvius describes the ancient (albeit heavily restored) hut of Romulus on the Palatine that ‘can recall to our minds and make clear the customs of antiquity’ (On Architecture II.1.5). Juvenal’s Umbricius laments the transformation of the Porta Capena (Satire 3). Perhaps most famously, the Pantheon, though rebuilt by Hadrian in the second century, carries a version of the original building inscription commemorating Agrippa’s erection of the monument a century and a half earlier.

Having time to appreciate the different phases of Rome’s history through long weekends of wandering or conversations over dinner, rather than having to dash from archive to archive on a compressed research trip, is one of the luxuries of a long-term residency at the BSR. The opportunity to consider the modern city against the ancient is especially exciting for me, since the themes of my research (multilingualism, identity, citizenship, migration) frequently invite reflection across the ancient and modern worlds. I have been thinking explicitly about how modern cities can be used to inform our understanding of ancient Rome, and vice versa. In the remainder of this blog, I therefore want to look at three sites of ‘modern’ Rome that each give a snapshot of ways that past and present (or more accurately different pasts and different presents) relate to one another.


Foro Italico

The first site is the Fascist-era sports complex known as the Foro Italico, north of the Milvian Bridge. The complex’s decorative scheme is an expression of Romanità, a movement in post-Risorgimento and Fascist Italy that sought to revive the ideal of ancient ‘Romanness’. The site makes use of ancient Roman visual language. Larger-than-life heroic statues offered by the different provinces of Italy tower over the marble stadium. The main processional way is covered with black and white mosaics in which, disconcertingly, passably classical images of wrestlers and toga-wearing statesmen are interrupted by bobble-hatted skiers, loaded tanks and acclamations to ‘Duce’.


Though the focus of my work is on textual rather than visual sources, seeing such active (mis)appropriation of ancient Romanness was especially interesting to me, given my research into changing conceptions of Romanness across time, and the gap between ancient and modern understandings or assignments of ‘Roman’ as a category. The term Romanità is itself an anachronism: though meant to mirror the Latin Romanitas, this term was not used before the third century AD, in the writings of the Christian author Tertullian.

The lack of in-situ commentary or explanation of the site’s use of ancient visual languages to promote one of the darker chapters of Rome’s history is surprising, all the more so given the site’s continued prominence in the city’s present. The complex is the home ground of AS Roma and Lazio, and hosts the Italian Open tennis and Six Nations rugby matches; it is therefore a site that welcomes visitors from across the world. It is a place where the encounter between ancient and modern shouldn’t go unremarked.

Jewish Quarter

A different perspective on the relationship between ancient and modern is offered in the Jewish quarter, just south of Piazza Venezia and Largo Argentina. The Jews formed a particularly interesting group in the ancient city, being more visible in the inscriptional and archaeological record than other ethnic groups.[2] They marked themselves out by the use of distinctive iconography and by their patterns of language use. In contrast to the inscriptions of the city as a whole, where Latin dominates, the majority of surviving Jewish inscriptions are in Greek, with some also in Hebrew. Language continued to be an important facet of Jewish identity into later periods. An inscribed bilingual Italian-Hebrew box for donations to orphans is still visible on the Via del Portico d’Ottavia. Modern restaurant signs and blackboards also frequently display Hebrew. As I discovered in the poignant Jewish museum, a unique Judaeo-Roman dialect of Italian survives in the streets around the synagogue today.

In other ways, however, the history of the Jews at Rome is not one of continuity. The papacy forced Jews to live in the ghetto between 1555 and 1870 (except for one short period under the Roman Republic of 1798–9). No such enforced ghettoization existed in the ancient city. Though there is literary evidence of the emperor Claudius expelling Jews from Rome (Suet. Claud. 25.4), authorities generally took a relaxed attitude towards migrant groups in the city and did not force Jews or other groups into particular areas. These differences highlight the changing role and attitudes of the state, and its consequences for the place of different ethnic groups in the city.


The ‘English’ cemetery

The place of foreign and migrant groups in the city is also a theme of the final site I want to highlight, the Cimitero Acattolico. (In English, the site is often known as the ‘Protestant cemetery’ or the ‘English cemetery’, and is most famous as the resting place of Keats and Shelley). Despite these anglophone labels, non-Catholics from all over the world, of many different faiths, are buried here.

This site marks a break with the ancient city: in antiquity, there were no burial sites specifically reserved for foreigners. Indeed, foreigners are often surprisingly difficult to trace in the ancient evidence.[3] The presence (or, more often, absence) of different languages is one illustration of this. In the Cimitero Acattolico, there are many different languages on display (English, German, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, Ancient Greek, Latin; sometimes, but not always, accompanied by Italian). In Rome’s ancient inscriptions, comparable multilingualism is relatively rare, though it is worth noting that even in the modern cityscape the multilingualism of the cemetery is itself exceptional.

But foreigners of diverse origins were present in ancient Rome. Writing in the first century AD, Seneca described how ‘more than half’ of Rome’s population came from elsewhere (modern estimates suggest that around 20% of the ancient city were immigrants).[4] Though never concentrated as they are in the modern cemetery, and rarely as explicitly marked out, glimpses of this immigrant population do appear, for example in the Palmyrene texts assembled in the first room of the Capitoline’s Galleria Lapidaria.

The modern cemetery draws attention to the place of foreigners at Rome across time, and the ways they are made both visible and invisible to us. Like the other snapshots I have offered here, it shows how considering the ancient and modern together can enrich our understanding of the eternal city, its changing identities and populations. To answer my friend’s question with a paraphrase: when in Rome, do as the Romans, both ancient and modern.

[1] On the presence of the past in ancient Rome, see Edwards, C. (1996), Writing Rome: Textual approaches to the city, especially Chapter 1, ‘The city of memories’.

[2] On Jews as an exception to other foreign groups, see Tacoma, L. E. (2013), ‘Migrant Quarters at Rome?’, p.127–145 in de Kleijn and Benoist (eds.) Integration in Rome and the Roman world. On Jews in ancient Rome, see also Rutgers (1995), The Jews of late ancient Rome; Leon, H. J. (1995), The Jews of ancient Rome.

[3] On foreigners at Rome, see especially Noy, D. (2000), Foreigners at Rome: citizens and strangers; Tacoma, L. E. (2016), Moving Romans: migration to Rome in the principate.

[4] On migration to ancient Rome and Italy, see especially Isayev, E. (2017), Migration, mobility and place in ancient Italy; Tacoma, L. E. (2016), Moving Romans: migration to Rome in the principate.

Dr Olivia Elder (CRASSH–BSR Research Fellow, Jan–June ’19)

Being Human Festival 2019: Discoveries and Secrets

A photo essay by Assistant Directors Martina Caruso and Harriet O’Neill on the Open Academy | Open Valley walk held here in the Valle Giulia to kick off the international season of this year’s Being Human Festival.

On 11 October 2019 the British School at Rome responded to the Being Human theme ‘Discoveries and Secrets’ with a walk through the national academies which characterise the Valle Giulia. Each Academy presented a secret object which walkers then discussed together, their conversations punctuated by Andrea Ventura, Kinga Ara and Harriet O’Neill’s enlightening interventions. The walk was introduced by Sarah Churchwell, (Being Human Festival Director and Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at SAS, University of London) and we set off at 15.30 from the BSR heading over to the Fontane delle Tartarughe opposite the National Art Gallery.

For our first stop, our group of circa 50 walkers looks over onto the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna which was built for the 1911 International Exhibition where Andrea Ventura from AMUSE (Associazione Amici del Municipio Secondo) plays La fontana di Valle Giulia all’Alba from Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome.


At the Academia Belgica Charles Bossu introduces us to their library designed in the 1930s by Gino Cipriani and Jean Hendrickx.IMG_6652

Asker Pelgrom from the Royal Dutch Institute KNIR making us laugh over correspondence he found in the archives from the 1930s describing the raucous behaviour of Dutch award-holders and their consequent banning from the BSR.IMG_6657

The Dutch Institute’s secret object was a beautiful statue of Rhea Silvia with her sons, Romulus and Remus by Corry Franzen-Heslenfeld, winner of the Dutch Prix de Rome in 1929. It was placed at the Royal Netherlands Institute in 1935.IMG_6659

At the Swedish Academy Fredrik Tobin illustrates the shared tools of archaeologists and looters.IMG_6666

The secret object of the Danish Academy hides behind gates, apparently impermeable to the gaze: a sculpture titled Aurora Septentrionalis in travertine marble by Danish sculptor Søren Georg Jensen which Adelaide Zocchi responded to in both a historical and personal way.IMG_6671

The leaders of the walk Harriet O’Neill, Kinga Ara and Andrea Ventura on Piazza José de San Martin where we learn about Pope Julius III’s activities in the Valle Giulia.IMG_6680

Walkers rapt by the Romanian Academy’s Director, Rudolf Dinuwith, with the Egyptian Academy in the background.IMG_6682

The Romanian Academy’s secret object was the 1930s pigeonholes recently re-used in a contemporary art experiment involving award-holders from academies across Rome writing in.IMG_6686

Moving on from the Passo dell’Arco Oscuro where we learned about bandits and the Madonna, walkers climb the steps up to our next stop…IMG_6691

On the 1930s staircase of the Austrian Historical Institute that was intended to welcome Mussolini and Hitler but was never inaugurated.IMG_6705

An unusual sunset view from the Austrian Historical Institute overlooking the Church of Sant’Eugenio.IMG_6710

Another unusual view from the Japanese Cultural Institute overlooking the Villa Giulia Museum and gardens.IMG_6712

And the secret Japanese Garden revealed from behind a sliding door made from rice paper.IMG_6719

A lantern sculpture is the hidden object set in the Japanese garden, it once offered guidance in case of a snowstorm.IMG_6720

The final stop on the steps of the BSR where dancers from the Compagnia Excursus/prod. Pindoc hint at our secret.


Have you guessed yet?


Culminating in the rose garden, Harriet O’Neill reveals the tome-like exhibition catalogue featuring three works by Alma Tadema which hung here during the 1911 international art exhibition and inspired the dance, from an idea by Theo Rawler.IMG_6743

Ricky Bonavita, the choreographer of the dance and founder of Compagnia Excursus/prod. Pindoc with Theo Rawler gives a final speech to describe the troupe’s vision and his site-specific response to the BSR’s neoclassical architecture with dance as a means of research and enquiry.IMG_6749

Photos by Martina Caruso.

A petition to free Ezra Pound

In 1955, American poet Ezra Pound turned 70 confined in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington for the criminally insane. He had been there for almost a decade, since pleading insanity in November 1945, to avoid facing treason charges for his activities as pro-Axis propagandist on Rome Radio during the Second World War – charges that could very likely have led to the death penalty. Many writers, such as Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost, sought to mobilise public opinion, lobbying for the poet’s release. Yale Broadcasting Company recorded ‘A Tribute to Ezra Pound’, a radio programme that collected testimonials by, amongst others, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and E.E. Cummings. Though some of these writers admitted to having no first-hand knowledge of Pound’s broadcasts, such was their devotion to Pound that they agreed to take part nonetheless. Their contributions were collected in Ezra Pound at Seventy, and the broadcast can be listened to here:

Similar campaigns were also underway in Italy, where Pound had lived for over twenty years until his arrest. In 1954, his son-in-law had helped arrange a series of broadcasts on Vatican radio, with José V. de Piña Martins, professor of Portuguese at Rome University, launching an appeal to free Pound. Also in 1955, poet Giovanni Papini collected signatures for a petition addressed to the American ambassador in Rome, Clare Boothe Luce, demanding Pound’s release. Co-ordinating many of these efforts was Pound’s Italian publisher, Vanni Scheiwiller, who worked ceaselessly to enlist the support of writers, poets and intellectuals, on both sides of the political spectrum. Scheiwiller offered to act as ‘postman’ for Papini’s petition, which was signed by a long list of writers, including Alberto Moravia, Ignazio Silone, Umberto Saba and Giuseppe Ungaretti. Though poets Vittorio Sereni and Salvatore Quasimodo and translator Fernanda Pivano agreed to sign Papini’s petition, their writings and correspondence with Scheiwiller reveal their enduring reservations about Pound’s wartime activities. I wrote this poem, which revisits their writings on the subject, to reflect the ambivalence of their responses.


Not ideas but ties

a united front

of many factions

bind poets, critics, left & right.


All, perhaps, agree on compassion,

incline to ask for grace –

less so to endorse action

committed in poetry’s name,

to clear responsibility

that does exist

that needs



Take Lorca – his position

in the order of civilisation;

Pound’s in a limbo, slightly strange –

civilisation yes, but which?

If you write the ambassador,

you must to Franco too. Find

the lost bones a proper spot,

better than the red rag

or Santa Ana. We’ll call it



Today in my heart

I feel a tremor of stars

but my path is lost

in the soul of the mist.


Spoon River seized, so far

from the jargon – words

made to mean the same,

Leone Ginzburg dead

in the Queen of Heaven.

And what of the meathooks

and the bloody branches?


How could we sing

with hearts under

foreign foot, with the dead

that crowd the square

on ice-hard grass,

the children’s lamb-lament,

the black cry

of mother seeking son

hung on the telegraph pole?


A war of many wars,

some with histories

still there in the street names –

some cried out too loud

others quiet in defeat: on the

green lawns of the ward

so far from the noise,

was the first silence sown

to build and accrete?


On the willow fronds, by vow,

a tree amid the wood

the poets had hung their lyres

of Daphne and the laurel bough

which swung lightly in the wind.


Sean Mark (Rome Fellow 2018-19)



Fresco-making workshop


Anna de Riso, from Studio Sottosopra Anna de Riso Paparo conservation laboratory in Rome, led a two-day fresco-making workshop which was attended by both Humanities and Art award-holders and Assistant Directors, Martina Caruso and Harriet O’Neill. We were also delighted that artist Helen O’Leary could join us from the American Academy. We started with a lecture during which Anna outlined the history of fresco-making and the main techniques used. This theoretical session was quickly followed by the practical, mixing the plaster and preparing our surfaces before deciding whether to trace and then pounce an existing image or paint directly, onto the topmost layer. We then began applying our pigments.


The paragraph above outlines what we did, what we learnt was far more complex and arguably more meaningful. As an art historian I was familiar with written descriptions outlining the process of fresco-making and canonical examples of the technique. I also had the opportunity to inspect fragments of frescoes such as A Group of Four Poor Clares (possibly about 1336-40) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti during  my time at National Gallery, but experiencing the medium through making transformed my thinking. Understanding how the plaster is applied, dries and feels, the strength needed to mix it, often using our hands, combined with getting to grips with how the pigment behaves once applied to the surface, provided a new appreciation of the subtlety and confidence artists such as Lorenzetti possessed, particularly in their approach to flesh tones. It also provided an insight into how a workshop might have worked, especially in relation to the transfer of drawings to the plaster.


More striking was the fact that frescoes in museum collections have been removed from their original context. This is an obvious point, but hitherto I had considered frescoes more decoration than wall and yet it became obvious as the workshop progressed that they were part of the physical structure of the buildings they came from, bestowing them with an aura and poignancy I had not previously considered. It was enormously productive to work alongside artists who were able to articulate the opportunities and limitations of the medium and classicists and archaeologists who could illuminate the context and subject matter of ancient frescoes.


BSR serendipity struck again when a number of newly trained fresco-makers joined Professor Rosamond McKitterick on a study trip to Catacombe di Priscilla, to see amongst other things, its frescoes. It was surprising to observe how our looking and understanding had been enriched through practical knowledge.

Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences)

Ashby Patrons Weekend 2019

This month we hosted our Ashby Patrons visit to Rome, a highlight of the BSR’s annual calendar. The benefaction of our Ashby Patrons plays a vital role in supporting the BSR. This special weekend, exclusively for Ashby Patrons, is a unique opportunity to become more closely involved with the BSR’s activities, award-holders and staff and to understand first-hand the work and mission of the institution. This years’ programme did not disappoint, with a full schedule of varied activities and excursions.

Studio tours (2)

The opportunity for our Patrons to meet and engage with our current resident award-holders is a key part of the weekend, be that through the medium of presentations, studio tours or one-to-one informal conversations over dinner.

Patrons Rinfresco

The first full day of the Patrons weekend included a behind-the-scenes visit to see the collections, Library and Archive of the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, a historically important institution which the BSR collaborates closely with, recently co-hosting this academic years’ international RA250 conference: The Roman Art World in the Eighteenth Century and the Birth of the Art Academy in Britain.

Academia Nazionale di San Luca

Following the visit, we were most grateful for the hospitality of Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Mrs Sally Axworthy MBE, who hosted us at the current Ambassadorial Residence for lunch. HMA Mrs Axworthy explained the direction and work of the Embassy in the context of current major global challenges.

Lunch at the British Embassy to the Holy See

On return to the BSR the Patrons were treated to a wet-plate collodion workshop given by Heritage Photography expert Tony Richards , which focused on the BSR’s archive collections and the photographs of Thomas Ashby, the BSR’s illustrious first director, after whom the Ashby Patrons are named.

Wet Plate Collodion shotThe second day continued along this watery theme… our Patrons took to the river for a boat trip down the Tiber. Despite rather wet conditions our spirits were not dampened – the cruise was most interesting. In the words of Director Stephen Milner it was an “eerie experience cruising down the Tiber… No boats, no developments, no tourists… an abandoned wildlife corridor to the sea. Yet once the umbilical cord that sustained one of the greatest cities known to human history”. The BSR has long worked on both the city and the port of Ostia and Portus, yet future research hopes to explore the river connections between the three sites.

Our boat docked at Isola Sacra where, after lunch, we were treated to a guided tour of the ancient Necropolis by Archaeology Officer Stephen Kay. This site was included in the area which was surveyed as part of The Portus Project, a very successful and long-standing research collaboration between the British School at Rome, the University of Southampton and the Soprintendenza Speciale per il Colosseo, il MNR e l’Area Archeologica di Roma.


To conclude the weekend, Director Stephen Milner delivered a ‘State of the Nation’ address to the Patrons, outlining the current direction and future of the BSR. In light of the update on the progress of the work currently being undertaken on the Lutyens façade, the Patrons were given the opportunity to view Lutyens’ original architectural drawings, recently returned to the BSR and partly conserved due to the generosity of the Patrons additional gifts.  

It was a pleasure to host the Ashby Patrons in Rome and to thank them for their continued encouragement and support.

If you are interested in becoming an Ashby Patron, or would like to learn more about how to support the BSR, please contact Alice Marsh on


Text by Alice Marsh (Impact and Engagement Officer). Images by Natalie Arrowsmith (Communications Manager).

Hear, there and everywhere – soundbites of the eternal city

Rodney Cross is the 2018-19 Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar at the BSR. His research project Cantus et Clangor looks at the representation of bird sounds in Latin literature from 100 BC to AD 200. Here he tells us about some distinctively Roman sounds and how this has fed back into his work.

Early on in my fellowship, I was quite struck by the ways that some of the Fine Arts fellows talked about the light in Rome: ‘it’s noticeably ‘other’, especially coming from London’ – ‘it’s really poignant … it enhances the clarity of the rich, dark shadows’ – ‘when the sun is rising or setting, the light refracts and phosphoresces in the air, bouncing off the walls and hitting the walls opposite, combining colours’.

Everyone who mentioned the ‘Roman light’ used a different linguistic angle in an attempt to get at that slippery core meaning of its rather nameless quality. I have a professional curiosity with the challenges and complexities of conveying perception in text, to which my coffee-stained thesis drafts can attest. Being inspired by the sensory attention-span of my artistic colleagues, I redirected my attention to the sounds of Rome. I have since (and often) strained my ears to detect the distinct timbres of the local soundscapes.

Sounds of the BSR – sounds of the birds


When you are new to an area, unfamiliar noises tend to play upon your senses. The number three tram that rumbles, tinkles, rattles and shrieks through the streets of Parioli has quite a conspicuous sound. The first time hearing it, I was reminded of Synaulia’s creative re-imagining of ancient Roman music. At other times (and more often than I’d care to admit), this same tinkling-tram would trick my well-conditioned lizard-brain into hearing the ‘ding’ of the BSR’s evening dinner bell.


Attentive listening does have its upsides though, as you can often hear birds before you can see them (if at all). This is especially the case for the local Tawny Owl (affectionately dubbed, ‘Pari-owl-i’) who remains quite allusive, apart from the characteristic lilting hoots and trills that carry on well into the early morning. In my first week at the BSR I received some invaluable advice from Stephen [Milner, BSR Director] and Valerie [Scott, BSR Librarian] to keep an ear out for the odd drumming of woodpeckers. After two weeks the advice had slowly begun to fade from my memory, when a hollow clicking seemed to emanate from my new headphones. I removed them, to further puzzlement as the clicking persisted. A few investigatory scans of the Director’s garden revealed a Greater Spotted Woodpecker drumming out a meal on the gnarled and naked tree across the way.

I have always been interested in field-recording, and had often considered producing my own recordings for my comparative analysis of animal sounds in Latin texts. But limited access to portable recording equipment, and the relevant subject matter (i.e. birds of Italy) made this a rather challenging prospect. Dan Popa, a filmmaker and the Québec Resident at the BSR from January to March, was kind enough to lend me some of his recording equipment. More importantly, Dan took the time to provide invaluable practical advice on capturing the sounds of the city.

Sunday morning proved the most profitable time to record the ‘dawn chorus’; a cacophonous array of avian voices singing out at the rising sun. After a few cold (yet caffeinated) mornings, I had a nice collection of these melodious refrains. I started experimenting by applying spectrograms to these recordings to assist in visualising the distinct bird calls. Spectrograms (like the one displayed below) identify the frequency and volume of sounds over time, which can help to visualise patterns in bird calls and songs. I am still getting my ears around identifying the European birdlife by sound, but I was quite taken by the melodic phrasing of a local resident Blackbird.


Spectrogram of a blackbird call phrases during a ‘dawn chorus’ at the BSR

Sounds of the past and present

I have become very interested in the ways that we, as a modern audience, engage with the remains of ancient monuments on a sensory level. Dan and I set out to record excerpts of Alvin Curran’s sound-installation Omnia flumina Romam Ducunt (‘All Rivers Lead to Rome’), which was presented within the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. Before we had set up the field-recorder, a momentary buzzing and the ululation of a ‘Roman lupa’ passed our ears in a flurry and quickly faded to silence. So we instead trained our ears upon the immediate soundsphere of the archaeological site itself; the ambient sounds of the space were punctuated sharply by the laughing of gulls, softly by the intermingling of multi-lingual VR audio guides, and harshly by the crunching of gravel underfoot.

DSC04131 copy

At times archaeological sites can be remarkably still, eerily still, and sometimes the silent atmosphere can fool us into projecting this stillness back onto the past. Considering the role and function of the baths for instance, the cavernous space would have been filled with the echoing of voices, and the raucous gurgling and splashing of streams of water. A noisy past succeeded by a certain stillness and the sounds of ringtones, audio-guides, and tourism.

A sound experience…

Ultimately the supportive and encouraging environment that can be found at the BSR has prompted me to reflect critically and creatively on my own academic work. It won’t come as a surprise to hear that my research focuses on the textual representation of animal sounds in ancient Latin texts. In discussing my topic with the BSR’s wide network of scholars and artists I have received stimulating feedback that has energised and encouraged me to both expand and strengthen my research in countless ways. And now with only two months left of my fellowship, there’s still so much more to hear!


Rodney Cross (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar 2018-19)

Thanks to the generosity of Mrs Janet Gale and the late Dr Bill Gale, the Ancient History Department of Macquarie University offers a scholar from Australia the opportunity to travel to and reside at the British School at Rome for up to six months.




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)