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: https://library.harvard.edu/poetry/listeningbooth/poets/pound.html

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 outreach@bsrome.it


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.

figure thirteen.jpg

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)


Bringing African Religion to Rome: Roma Universalis and the Severan Dynasty

Natalie Mendes is the 2018-19 Coleman-Hilton (University of Sydney) Scholar at the BSR. Here she takes a look at the current Roma Universalis. L’impero e la dinastia venuta dall’Africa exhibition at the Colosseum, and how it ties in with her own research.

Like many visitors to Rome, one of the first places I visited was the Colosseum, which is currently hosting an exhibition called Roma Universalis on the Severan Dynasty, Rome’s first African-Syrian imperial family. I wandered through an excellent collection of large marble portraits of the Severan family, models of the buildings they built throughout the empire, and artefacts attesting the immense economic growth of the period. As a student of ancient religions, however, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the section on religion.

In contrast to the wealth of displays on building and the economy the only two artefacts relating to religion were a small opus sectile portrait of Sol Invictus, and a votive dedication to Jupiter Dolichenus for the health of Septimius Severus and his family. By way of explanation, the exhibition stated that these items represented the most important aspect of Severan religion, which they described as the rise of ‘untraditional cults’ of a ‘salvific’ and ‘eschatological’ nature.

This is a carefully worded reformulation of an old theory first proposed in 1906 by historian Franz Cumont, that religion in the later Roman empire was characterised by the rise of a series of cults from ‘eastern’ provinces that predominantly focused on attaining immortality.[1] This theory has been extensively critiqued by historians, not least because it anachronistically paints these varied religions as weak and/or juvenile forms of Christianity, but also because it completely depends on our hindsight knowledge of the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 315 A.D., over 100 years after the accession of Septimius Severus.[2]

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This drastically mischaracterises the nature of, and intentions behind, the religions promoted by the Severan Dynasty. A more helpful way of thinking about these religions is as very carefully crafted public relations stunts designed to promote the emperor. The gods became emblematic of the emperor’s identity and style of leadership. In the case of the first African emperor, religion became a way of negotiating his current position of power and Rome’s colonial past.

Septimius Severus, for example, acknowledged and celebrated where he came from by issuing coins featuring the two patron gods from his hometown of Lepcis Magna in Libya, Liber Pater (Shadpra) god of wine and Hercules (Melquart), with the legend DI PATRII.[3] He also dedicated an enormous temple to these gods on the Quirinal hill.[4] Although his contemporaries remarked on Severus’ excessive expenditure, overall this expression of pride in his African hometown was accepted by his Roman elite contemporaries.

Fast forward a generation to the emperor Elagabalus, and we see his attempts to capitalise on his cultural identity were not so well received. As a child emperor his greatest claim to fame was being a priest of the god he was popularly named after, Elagabalus from Syria. He used the god as a selling point of his regime. Instead of a cult statue, the Syrian god was represented by a large cone-shaped meteorite which the emperor brought to Rome in a golden chariot, surrounded by enormous pomp and ceremony, and placed it in a new temple.[5]

2019-01-27 12.59.40 HDR

This PR stunt backfired spectacularly. The first disaster was when Elagabalus married a priestess of the cult of Vesta, one of Rome’s oldest and most sacred cults.[6] This struck a sour note with the Roman public, not least because the priestesses were meant to be virgins, a responsibility taken so seriously that the punishment for losing their virginity was being buried alive. After a short marriage, the pair swiftly divorced, and the emperor arranged a new marriage for the Syrian sun-god, to the African goddess, Caelestis.[7] Josephine Quinn has recently argued that this staged divine marriage was intended to highlight the Phoenician diasporic heritage shared by the provinces of Africa and Syria, and deliberately mirrored the marriage of the African Septimius Severus and the Syrian Julia Domna.[8] In other words, the stunt was designed to sell the emperor’s own ‘Phoenician’ cultural identity. This was not necessarily well received. Rumours spread about the emperor’s religious practices such as that he sacrificed children and castrated himself, drawing on old stereotypes about the Phoenicians, and leading his contemporaries to declare his failure as a moral leader.[9]

Even for the emperor, the acceptable limits of expressing foreign identity in Rome were still being negotiated. One famous anecdote claims that when Septimius Severus’ sister arrived in Rome she was ridiculed by the court because she could barely speak Latin, and had to be quietly shipped back to Libya.[10] Elagabalus failed to sell his brand of identity, lurching from one public relations disaster to the next. His contemporaries connected his failures as a moral leader to his eventual assassination.[11] Elagabalus was assassinated by his own soldiers, and his body was dragged through the streets of Rome impaled on a hook and thrown in the Tiber, the ultimate dishonour.[12] The stakes of this game of identity politics were very high. Elagabalus’ successor, Alexander could see where the boundary lines were drawn and reversed the rearrangement of temples by Elagabalus.[13]

The history of Severan religion offers a darker perspective on the diversity of empire. The silence of the current exhibition on the subject may reflect the difficulty of talking about it. Recently the BSR hosted a conference on Roman Britain in The Roman Empire, in which issues of identity and diversity became the focus of the discussion. Hella Eckardt spoke about her exhibition at Yorkshire Museum showcasing the diversity of Roman British society during the Empire, including the ‘ivory bangle lady’ a high-status African woman who had been buried in Britain.[14] She also described the online backlash the exhibition received. Then as now, diversity need not be founded on tolerance.

I believe we cannot hold up Rome as a shining example of the virtues of diversity, but I do believe that these stories can help us think about religion and identity in the modern world. The story of the Severan dynasty and the African-Syrian religions they brought to Rome deserves to be told, and Rome’s most famous tourist attraction would have been a powerful setting for it.


Natalie Mendes (Coleman-Hilton (University of Sydney) Scholar)

Thanks to the generosity of Mr Jeffrey Hilton and Ms Suzanne Coleman, the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney offers an Australian scholar the opportunity to travel to and reside at the British School at Rome for six months.


[1] Cumont, Franz (1906) Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain, Paris.

[2] For example see critiques in: Bonnet, Corinne and Rüpke, Jörg, Scarpi, Paolo (eds.) (2006) Religions orientales – culti misterici. Neue Perspektiven – Nouvelles perspectives, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, and Bonnet, Corinne and Rüpke, Jörg (2009) Les « religions orientales » dans le monde grec et romain, Trivium.

[3] Rowan, Claire (2013) Under Divine Auspices, 68-84. Cf. Birley (1971) Septimius Severus, 228.

[4] Cassius Dio 77.16.3.

[5] Herodian 5.6.7.

[6] Cassius Dio 80.9.3; Herodian 5.6.2.

[7] Cassius Dio 80.12.1.

[8] Quinn’s argument is much more nuanced than the summary I have given here: Quinn, Josephine (2018) In Search of the Phoenicians, Princeton UP.

[9] Cassius Dio 80.11.1.; 80.16.7.

[10] SHA, Life of Severus, 15.7.

[11] See Cassius Dio 80.17.1.

[12] Cassius Dio 80.20.2.

[13] Herodian 6.1.3.

[14] http://www.romansrevealed.com/

Drawing in Academic Practice 

Earlier this month award-holders Caroline Barron (Rome Awardee) and Anna Brass (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture) held an experimental drawing workshop for academics who work on material culture. Here they tell us about how the idea for the workshop came about and where they hope to take the project in the future.


Drawing in Academic Practice workshop, April 2019. Photo: Anna Brass.

Caroline: Anna and I became friends over the course of the winter semester at the BSR; from October to December 2018 I was resident as a Rome Awardee, and Anna was – and continues to be until September this year – the Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture. Although we had chatted over dinner and during various excursions, it wasn’t until Anna and Holly Hendry, the Rome Fellow in Contemporary Art, coordinated the costume effort for the annual Halloween party at the American Academy that we really had a chance to talk in depth.

Anna: Caroline came to my studio in the afternoon of the party – we had to construct her costume quite quickly because it was the last one to do and we didn’t have much time. So, I made her help me paint it. We were working from a picture of a Roman cinerary urn with a fake inscription on her phone, and I did one row of lettering whilst she did another. Caroline was hesitant about painting – she didn’t want to muck it up – but I encouraged her to just look at the letters and paint, and not to worry too much about making it look perfect.

CB: Replicating epigraphic text in what appeared to be a scarily free way was unnerving to begin with; I wanted the letters to be exact representations of those in the stone inscription, but as I started painting I began to relax, and to isolate particular characteristics of the letters that stood out to me. Rather than focusing on proportionally accurate depictions of the letters, I allowed myself to pick up on specific details, and to paint them in an uninhibited way.

AB: Caroline did a top job and the costume was ace. We rolled up to the American Academy looking super cool in our homemade costumes and thoroughly enjoyed the attention from the other guests. After that Caroline and I became firm friends and we went on trips to museums, including to the Capitoline where I made her do some more drawings.


BSR award-holders at Halloween

CB: The afternoon we spent drawing in the Capitoline Museums remains one of my happiest memories from the BSR. Anna equipped me with a sketchbook and a crayon – not a medium I was particularly familiar with – and directed me to draw various aspects of the objects on display, such as the negative space between two Attic vases, and – my personal favourite – a dog in an Etruscan relief. I found these exercises so much fun, and they helped me to break away from the idea of drawing as something that had to be executed exactly. Anna encouraged me to look at the form of the shapes I was drawing, and to feel the connection between my hand and my eye as I drew them.

Fast forward to April and we’ve just led a drawing workshop at the BSR for academics who work with material culture. The Halloween costume and the Capitoline drawings turned into a discussion about how drawing makes you look at objects, and the differences between the ways that academics and artists approach visual and material culture. The workshop was a real experiment for us, an exploratory exercise that did not have at its base a particular question that we were trying to answer, but rather a trial run at how productive the use of various drawing techniques might be in academic practice.


Having invited some borsisti, Research Fellows, artists and friends who work on architecture and material culture, the workshop started with a series of warm-up drawings that were designed to immediately increase their confidence. Participants had to draw the person opposite them without looking at their paper, and then again but this time drawing with both hands simultaneously. Next, we drew objects from around the BSR – cups, pot plans, things from Anna’s studio – with the amount of time decreasing from 60 seconds, to 30, 20, 15, and finally 5.


Timed drawings

Timed drawings

After the warm-ups came a longer drawing in the cortile; the participants were each given a view of the space to draw. We went from drawing an object in 5 seconds to drawing a complete scene in half an hour, with the focus on using charcoal to think about texture and shadow. There’s very strong light in the cortile, as well as lots of ferns, which make really lovely angular shadows on the pebbles.

Chris and Olivia

Drawing in the cortile

A favourite exercise of the afternoon was a collaborative drawing session; six images were laid out with six pieces of paper and a range of crayons and charcoals. Each participant had 30 seconds to draw from that image before moving one place to the right to continue work on the next image. The result was a series of drawings in which it was impossible to tell who had made what mark.

4 collaborative drawings

Collaborative drawing

The day ended with a discussion session, in which we talked about how successful the different exercises had been and what the participants had – and had not – found most useful in these new approaches to looking at objects. We then set up a small exhibition, selecting some of our favourite pieces from the day and celebrating the results of the workshop as a whole body of work.


Exhibition and rinfresco. Photo: Stefania Peterlini.

The workshop was a really interesting experiment for us both; we’ve had lots of ideas about how to take it forward and remain convinced that drawing can, and should, be a vital part of academic questioning about objects and buildings and the forms that they take. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the workshop was the extent to which our brilliant participants were ready to – or in some cases have already – include drawing in their research, which was clear from the confidence and assurance with which they approached some of the exercises. It would be interesting to see how academics working with less obviously ‘drawable’ materials, such as manuscripts or musical scores, might engage with the same exercises too, which has given us food for thought for the next workshop. Drawing in Academic Practice is an ongoing project….expect to hear more from us about it soon!

Caroline Barron & Anna Brass