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Relief of a Military Scene

Roman art

This relief is part of a single, complex frieze, along with two others in the Portico (inv. X, XXV). Many theories have been advanced about the provenance of the monument since the sixteenth century, concentrating above all on the Arch of Claudius and the Forum of Trajan. There has also been lack of agreement over the subject of the scene. For some scholars, it is an adlocutio, a speech delivered by an emperor to his soldiers. For others, it is a submissio, or the subjugation of the conquered. The panel depicts tightly packed rows of soldiers, on multiple perspectival planes, wearing Attic helmets and facing left. There are three figures in the foreground, arranged around one in the middle, all of which are dressed similarly and have bare heads. Research seems to suggest that a date in the Trajanic period is most likely.

Object details

circa 117 d.C.
marmo di Luni
altezza cm 290; lunghezza cm 110

From the Della Porta Collection (Vacca 1594, p. 13, no. 68); entered the Borghese Collection in 1609. Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 41, no. 4. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1962 Ermenegildo Pedrazzoni (cleaning)
  • 1990-1991 Istituto Centrale del Restauro
  • 2008 Consorzio Capitolino


In the middle of this panel, there is a figure of a military captain wearing a short tunic under a lorica musculata (muscle cuirass), a paludamentum and a sash worn high around the waist. He wears leather boots on his feet, called mullei. His head, which is uncovered, is turned to the left. There are three figures next to him wearing similar clothing and also looking left. They are, however, wearing different boots, without the leather cuff. This footwear was worn by individuals of senatorial rank, in particular the legati legionis, former consuls or former praetorians given command of the legions. 

There is another figure in the foreground, only partially preserved, wearing a cuirass and boots. Although missing its head, the position of the feet suggests that this figure was facing right, unlike all the others. The background is filled with the heads of soldiers in profile, all wearing an Attic-style helmet with a feathered crest, and arranged in two rows.

The fragment belonged, along with two others displayed in the Portico of the Galleria Borghese (inv. X and XXV), to a larger frieze of military scenes. On fragment inv. X, which must have been immediately to the left of the present relief, the soldiers, wearing the same type of helmet, continue and there is a standard at upper left, symbolising the cavalry. The princeps and the soldiers are turned to the left, in the direction of an event depicted on a lost panel, to the right of which was, probably, fragment inv. XXV. Behind the heads of the soldiers in the upper row, we can see the spears they carry on their backs.

In 1594, Flaminio Vacca noted: ‘In the church of Santa Martina near said Arch, there were two very worn, large Histories in statue marble, representing Soldiers holding Trophies, and Togata, finely carved. Sixtus V demolished the church of S. Luca de’ Pittori [St Luke of the Painters] to build the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, and in compensation gave the [painters] the church of Santa Martina, who, in order to make improvements, sold said Histories, which are at present in the home of Sir Della Porta, Sculptor’ (Vacca 1594, p. 13, no. 68). In the inventory of the statues and marbles in the Borghese Collection that came from the collection of Giovanni Paolo Della Porta, datable to 1610, we find ‘an Ancient History in multiple pieces 19 palmi long 13 ¼ palmi high’ (de Lachenal 1982, Appendice Va, no. 339, p. 91). The Della Porta Collection was purchased by the Borghese family in 1609 (de Lachenal 1982, pp. 58–72). In 1826, the panels were mentioned in the area of the second enclosure in the garden of the Villa Borghese, in a letter to Prince Camillo Borghese from Evasio Gozzani: ‘I brought Filippo Visconti this morning to see the ancient bas-reliefs in the grand manner found next to the Tinello and the barns of Grotta Pallotta, to hear his thoughts about their approximate dating. Although massacred by the ravages of time, and the Barbarism that was unable to negate their remarkable superiority, and even though he initially mentioned the age of Septimius, he then changed his mind, after careful examination, in favour of earlier times, better for art’ (Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 353). Some time later, Evasio Gozzani described the reliefs in the Portico, in the course of illustrating the reliefs that had been moved to the villa to Prince Camillo Borghese (Nomenclatura, 1828).

Finally, in 1832, Nibby recorded them in their current location, walled into the walls of the Portico. The author associated the Borghese reliefs with a different work, cited in another passage of Vacca, arguing that they were from the Arch of Claudius, on the via Flaminia (Vacca 1594, p. 8, no. 28). He noted that this monument, which Vacca wrote was demolished in 1527, was excavated during the time of Pius IV, unearthing bas-reliefs that included portraits interpreted as representing Claudius. The author linked these figures to the busts in clypei in relief inv. XXV. According to Nibby, these fragments were purchased by Giovanni Giorgio Cesarini and used to decorate his garden, near San Pietro in Vincoli. When he died in 1585, they were purchased by Cardinal Farnese, from whom they could have passed, after 1594, to Cardinal Aldobrandini and then to the Borghese family (Nibby 1832, pp. 14–15, no. 4, pl. 1). The scholar’s theory was, however, proven incorrect by subsequent documentary research. In 1913, Helbig Arco acknowledged the argument that they were from the Arch of Claudius, in Piazza Sciarra, but considered the link to the Forum of Trajan more plausible (Helbig 1913, p. 225, no. 1529). Indeed, Winckelmann had already dated the reliefs to the Trajanic period in the mid eighteenth century, identifying the sitters in the clypeus portraits in fragment inv. XXV as Nerva and Trajan (Winckelmann 1764 [Italian trans. 1832, p. 813]). 

The Trajanic dating was solidly confirmed in the early twentieth century in an article by Stuart Jones, who reconstructed the formation of the Borghese Collection, showing that the panels were in the church of SS. Luca e Martina in the Roman Forum, and noted the stylistic similarity to the ones reused on the Arch of Constantine, without considering them part of that monument (Stuart Jones 1906, pp. 215–271).

In the twentieth century, various scholars, starting with Wace and Sieveking, developed the theory of Stuart Jones, noting a close similarity between Borghese panels and the ones reused on the Arch of Constantine, dating them to the Trajanic period (Wace 1907, pp. 229–249; Sieveking 1925, p. 25). In 1923, Eugene Strong confirmed that they belonged to a frieze in the Forum of Trajan, noting that the tightly packed rows of soldiers are reminiscent of other Trajanic reliefs (Strong 1923, p. 150, note 19, fig. 94 on p. 148).

Pallottino attempted to reconstruct the total size of the complete relief, believing it to be about twenty-eight metres. As for the interpretation of the scene, the scholar considered it an adlocutio, in connection with an event during a war. Finally, for the location of the original work, he imagined the enclosure of the Forum Pacis, given its elongated configuration, or the area of the Temple of Divine Trajan (Pallottino 1938, pp. 17, 31, pl. 2). Bianchi Bandinelli brought the frieze to the fore, tracing it to the hand of the artist who carved the Column of Trajan, especially given the rendering of the dying barbarians, and considered it part of the enclosure of the Forum of Trajan or the Forum Transitorium (Bianchi Bandinelli 1950, pp. 233–241). Toynbee agreed with the dating of the frieze to the Trajanic period, considering it impossible, however, for the monument to have been in the Forum of Trajan, given Ammianus Marcellinus’s report that the complex was intact when Constantius II visited it, considering it more likely that it was part of the Temple of Divine Trajan built by Hadrian (Toynbee 1965, pp. 60–62). Many scholars subsequently agreed with the Trajanic provenance, including Zanker, Bonanno, Andreae, Koeppel and Leander Touati (Zanker 1970, pp. 513–517; Bonanno 1978, pp. 77–81; Andreae 1973, pp. 202–204; Koeppel 1980, p. 149–153, 173–189; Leander Touati 1987, pp. 98–100, B, pl. 44, 3–4, 55.2). Lastly, Stefano Tortorella confirmed that the Borghese reliefs belonged to a Trajanic frieze, analysing them in relation to three others with a similar subject that came from the same church of SS. Luca e Martina in the Roman Forum and have been preserved in the Palazzo dei Conservatori al Campidoglio since 1515 (cat. IV.4.1–3; Tortorella 2012, pp. 55–57).

Gauer, on the contrary, dated the work to age of Domitian, linking them to the emperor’s Dacian Wars (Gauer 1973, pp. 318–350). In particular, looking at the imagines clipeatae on the military emblems in fragment inv. XXV, he found that the hairstyles are of Domitian’s first type, as seen in a statue in Munich dated to about 70 CE (Bernoulli 1969, p. 56, no. 18).

In a broad study of the reliefs, Desidera concluded that, since the first Dacian War took place between 85 and 86 CE, the most plausible theory is that the Borghese panels date to the second half of the 80s CE (Desidera 2007).

As for the most probable interpretation of the frieze as a whole, the scholar holds that it is a scene of submissio, the subjugation of the defeated population, as also concluded by Simon (Simon 1966, p. 700, no. 1940). She excluded the possibility of an adlocutio, a speech given by an emperor during an official celebration, due to the position of the soldiers in the present relief, who are behind the emperor, and the presence of the ceremonial hastae and the Attic helmet, which was only used for solemn occasions.

As regards the dating, the most likely date seems to be the Trajanic period, considering the last theories of the minority.

Giulia Ciccarello

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