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Relief of a Military Scene

Roman art


This relief, which is on display in the Portico along with two similar ones, was part of a single, complex frieze (inv. VII, X). Many different theories have been advanced, starting in the sixteenth century, about the original monument, with a particular focus on the Arch of Claudius and the Forum of Trajan.

The three panels depict a military scene that has been interpreted by some scholars as an adlocutio, a speech given by the emperor to his soldiers, and by others as a submissio, the subjugation of the conquered. The present fragment depicts rows of soldiers, on multiple levels, facing right. In the foreground, two figures, one in military dress and wearing a corona muralis on his head, hold up two standards with different ornamentation, including the imagines clipeate of the emperor. There is a third standard on the far left, but the standard bearer is missing.

The background is filled with rows of soldiers, also facing right, wearing plumed Attic helmets and cheek protectors decorated with lightning bolts.

Scholars agree that it likely dates to the Trajanic period.


Object details

Inventory
XXV
Location
Date
circa 117 d.C.
Classification
Medium
Luni marble
Dimensions
altezza cm 215; lunghezza cm 150
Provenance

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. 5. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

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

Commentary

This panel depicts a group of soldiers arranged in rows, on multiple planes, all facing right. In the foreground, there is a standard bearer to the left and a figure in military dress to the right. The latter is wearing a lorica and a paludamentum, and also holds a standard. He was also once wearing a crown, possibly a muralis crown, only part of which survives. The style of the standards is quite different. The one on the left ends with an eagle, on a bundle of lightning bolts; the one on the right is composed, starting from the top, of cuirass plates, a civic crown, an imago clipeata, a muralis crown and another imago clipeata. The standard bearer on the right is flanked by two, only slightly protruding heads in profile. The one on the left is carrying the two staffs that come all the way to the bottom of the fragment. There are soldiers in the background of the relief, wearing plumed Attic helmets and cheek protectors decorated with lightning bolts. On the left side, there is another standard, but the person carrying it is not shown; he was probably on a missing panel. The standard is decorated with an imago clipeata and, at the top, a raised hand.

The fragment belonged, along with two others displayed in the Portico of the Galleria Borghese (inv. VII and XXV), to a more complex frieze depicting military scenes. Considering that the figures in the present fragment are the only ones facing right, and the soldiers in the other two fragments, inv. VII and X, are facing left, we may suppose that the frieze comprised the sequence of the three fragments along with another one, now lost, towards which the soldiers were all facing.

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 minister Evasio Gozzani mentioned the panels in the area of the second enclosure in the garden of the Villa Borghese in a letter to Prince Camillo Borghese: ‘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 sculptures that had been moved to the villa to Prince Camillo Borghese (Nomenclatura, 1828). Finally, in 1832, Nibby mentioned them in their current location, in the walls of the Portico. According to the scholar, the Borghese reliefs belonged to the ruins of the Arch of Claudius, in via Flaminia, based on information provided in a different passage of Vacca’s text (Vacca 1594, p. 8, no. 28). He noted that the monument, which Vacca wrote was demolished in 1527, was excavated during the time of Pius IV, unearthing a number of bas-reliefs including portraits interpreted as representing Claudius, who the scholar identified in the busts inserted in the clypei in relief inv.  XXV. 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 acknowledged the theory 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 figures in the clypeus portraits in fragment inv. XXV as the emperors Nerva and Trajan (Winckelmann 1762 [Italian trans. 1832, p. 813]).

In the early twentieth century, Stuart Jones published research confirming the Trajanic dating. 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). Wace and Sieveking advanced a similar theory, expanding on that of Stuart Jones, noting a similarity between the Borghese panels and the ones that were reused on the Arch of Constantine, dating them to the Trajanic period. Strong argued that they were part of a frieze in Trajan’s forum, based on the tightly packed rows of soldiers, imagery also found in 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 a war episode, determined that the original frieze would have been twenty-eight metres long and located, considering its elongated configuration, 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 the latter location, considering it more likely to have come from the Temple of Divine Trajan built by Hadrian, based on a passage in Ammianus Marcellinus in which the complex was described as intact during the visit of Constantius II (Toynbee 1965, pp. 60-62). Many scholars subsequently agreed with the Trajanic date, 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 and Desidera each published broad studies on the figures in the reliefs in, respectively, 1973 and 2007.

The former identified the figure wearing a lorica as a personification of the Genius castrorum, based on the inclusion of the corona muralis. Desidera, who interpreted the scene as a submissio, the subjugation of the conquered (as previously interpreted by Simon: Simon 1966, p. 700, no. 1940) argued instead that the presence of the standard points to the Genius exercitus, since it is not an attribute of the Genius castrorum in the known iconography (Gauer 1973, p. 329; Desidera 2007, p. 638). Both scholars devoted particular attention to the portraits in the imagines clipeate in the present relief, suggesting a date during the age of Domitian, in contrast to the majority of scholars.

Two ancient sources attest to the custom of putting the portraits of emperors in signa. In Cassius Dio, we read: ‘So … they removed the images of Vitellius from their standards and took oath that they would be ruled by Vespasian’ (Roman History 64:10.3–4). Vegetius, writing about the nomina et gradus principiorum legionis, observed: ‘aquiliferi [is the name of] the ones who carry the eagle. Imaginarii or imaginiferi the ones who carry the images of the emperor’ (De Re Militari 2:7.1-3).  

Gauer noted that the imagines clipeatae of the emblem on the right-hand side of the fragment share similarities with images of Domitian. The one on top, which is of the ‘first type’, with a slightly rounded head and thick wavy hair that hangs straight down on the forehead, is reminiscent of a statue in Munich and dated to about 70 CE (Bernoulli 1969, p. 56, no. 18). Desidera also noted the figure in the second clypeus has a slightly receding hairline, a sign of incipient baldness and one of the emperor’s distinguishing features. Fruitful comparison can be made with a portrait in the Berlin Museum dated to 82 CE (Bernoulli 1969, p. 56, no. 16) and a soldier’s head found in Circus Maximus and dated to 81 CE. Based these comparisons, the scholar proposed a date for the Borghese panel just after the first Dacian War, which was carried out between 85 and 86 CE.

However, these theories are not broadly accepted and, as for the dating, it seems most likely that the panel dates to the Trajanic period.

Giulia Ciccarello




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