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Relief of a Military Scene

Roman art

This relief belonged, along with two similar ones in the Portico, to a single composite frieze with military scenes (inv. VII, XXV). Scholars have advanced different theories about the original monument since the sixteenth century, concentrating especially on the Arch of Claudius and the Forum of Trajan. There is disagreement over the subject, which some argue is an adlocutio, a speech given by an emperor to his soldiers, and others hold is a submissio, the subjugation of the defeated. In the foreground of the present relief, only the top part of which survives, there are two heavily abraded heads without helmets. In the background, there are some soldiers, turned to the left, on multiple planes, wearing plumed Attic helmets. There is a standard at the top of the relief. Scholars seem to agree that the fragment dates to the Trajanic period.

Object details

circa 117 d.C.
Luni marble
altezza cm 110; lunghezza cm 79

From the Della Porta Collection (Vacca 1594, p. 13, no. 68); entered the Borghese Collection in 1609. Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 44, no. 47. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1962 Ermenegildo Pedrazzoni (cleaning)
  • 1994 Abacus
  • 1997 Giovanna Carla Mascetti
  • 2008 Consorzio Capitolino


On this panel, only the upper part of which survives, we see the heads of a few soldiers arranged on different plans and facing left. They are wearing helmets with plumed crests, of the Attic type. There are two other, highly abraded, heads in the foreground, with bare heads. At upper left, there is a standard, symbolising the cavalry. The fragment was part, along with two similar ones in the Portico of the Galleria Borghese (inv. VII and XXV), of a larger frieze depicting military scenes. The present fragment must have been originally to the left of inv. VII, which has soldiers wearing the same type of helmet. The figures must have been facing an event depicted on a lost panel, to the right of which would have been fragment inv. XXV.

In 1594, Flaminio Vacca wrote that: ‘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 the friezes described as ‘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 his minister 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). Two years later, Evasio Gozzani presented Prince Camillo Borghese, among the sculptures brought to the villa, the reliefs on view in the Portico, (Nomenclatura 1828). In 1832, Nibby recorded them in their current location, inserted into the walls of the Portico. The scholar 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, which was demolished in 1527 (Vacca 1594, p. 8, no. 28). He noted that various bas-reliefs were unearthed during the excavation of the monument, under Pius IV, including portraits interpreted as representing Claudius, which the scholar linked to the busts in clypei in relief inv. XXV. As noted by Nibby, these fragments were used to decorate the garden of Giovanni Giorgio Cesarini, near San Pietro in Vincoli. When Cesarini 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. Almost seventy years earlier, in 1764, Winckelmann had dated the Borghese reliefs to the Trajanic period, identifying the emperors Nerva and Trajan in the clypeus portraits of fragment inv. XXV (Winckelmann 1764; Italian translation 1832, p. 813). 

Helbig acknowledged the theory that they were from the Arch of Claudius, in Piazza Sciarra, but he thought it was more likely that they belonged to the Forum of Trajan (Helbig 1913, p. 225, no. 1529).

In the early twentieth century, Stuart Jones published research that proved the Trajanic date. The scholar demonstrated 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). Many other scholars embraced this date over the course of the twentieth century, bringing to light various other aspects. Wace and Sieveking noted a close resemblance between the Borghese panels and the Trajanic reliefs reused on the Arch of Constantine, while Strong confirmed the provenance from a frieze in the Forum of Trajan, observing that the packed rows of soldiers are reminiscent of other Trajanic reliefs (Wace 1907, pp. 229–249; Sieveking 1925, p. 25; Strong 1923, p. 150, note 19, fig. 94 on p. 148). Pallottino, who interpreted the scene as an adlocutio connected to an event that occurred during a war, determined that the whole frieze would have been twenty-eight metres long and originally located in the enclosure of the Forum Pacis or in the area of the Temple of Divine Trajan (Pallottino 1938, pp. 17, 31, pl. 2). According to Bianchi Bandinelli, the artist behind the Column of Trajan was the same as that of the Borghese panels, based on the similar handling of the dying barbarians, and imagined that the latter came from the enclosure of Trajan’s Forum or the Forum Transitorium (Bianchi Bandinelli 1950, pp. 233–241).

Toynbee disagreed with this theory, based on a passage in Ammianus Marcellinus according to which the complex was intact during the visit of Constantius II. The scholar considered the Temple of Divine Trajan built by Hadrian to be a more likely location (Toynbee 1965, pp. 60–62). Many scholars subsequently expressed their agreement with the Trajanic provenance, including Zanker, Bonanno, Andreae, Koeppel and Leander Touati (Zanker 1970, pp. 513–517; Bonanno 1976, 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 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 instead dated them to the age of Domitian, specifically the emperor’s Dacian Wars, based on the hairstyles in the imagines clipeatae that decorate the military emblems in fragment inv. XXV (Gauer 1973, pp. 318–350). In his view, they are very similar to the hairstyles from the early part of Domitian’s reign, as attested in a statue in Munich dated to about 70 CE. (Bernoulli 1969, p. 56, no. 18). Since the first Dacian War took place between 85 and 86 CE, Desidera argued that the panels could have been made during the second half of the 80s CE (Desidera 2007). As for the interpretation of the frieze, the scholar presumed that it is a scene of submissio, the subjugation of the defeated, as previously concluded by Simon (Simon 1966, p. 700, no. 1940). She excluded the possibility of an adlocutio, a speech given by an emperor to his soldiers, due to their position behind him in the relief, and the presence of the ceremonial hastae and the Attic helmet, which was only used for solemn occasions. As regards the chronology, the date of the Trajanic period is the most convincingly argued and the one accepted by the majority of scholars.

Giulia Ciccarello

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008294, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.