The Ides of March and The assassination of Julius Caesar

Spurinna was a haruspex. His calling was vital, if a little unusual, requiring him to see the future in the warm entrails of sacrificial animals.

At the great festival of Lupercalia on the 15th of February 44 B.C., he was a worried man. While priests were running around the Palatine Hill hitting women with thongs to make them fertile, Spurinna was chewing over a terrible omen.

The bull that Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, had sacrificed earlier that day had no heart. Spurinna knew it was a terrible sign: a sure portent of death.

The following day, the haruspex oversaw another sacrifice in the hope it would give cause for optimism, but it was just as bad: the animal had a malformed liver. There was nothing for it but to tell Caesar.

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La Mort de César (ca. 1859–1867) by Jean-Léon Gérôme

In grave tones, Spurinna warned the dictator that his life would be in danger for a period of 30 days, which would expire on the 15th of March. Caesar dismissed the concerns. Although in his scramble for political power he had been made the chief priest of Rome (Pontifex Maximus), he was a campaign soldier by trade, and not bothered by the divinatory handwringing of seers like Spurinna.

The Ides of March

As the 30 days passed, nothing whatsoever happened. Yet when the 15th of March dawned, Caesar’s wife awoke distressed after dreaming she held his bloodied body. Fearing for his life, she begged him not to leave the house. His dreams, too, had also been unsettling. He had been flying through the air, and shaken hands with Jupiter. But he pushed any concerns aside. The day was an important annual celebration in Rome’s religious calendar, and he had called a special meeting of the Senate.

His first appointment of the day was a quick sacrifice at a friend’s house. Spurinna the seer was also there. Caesar joked that his prophecies must be off as nothing had happened. Spurinna muttered that the day was not yet over.

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The sacrifices proceeded, but the animals’ innards were blemished and the day was plainly inauspicious. Caesar knew when to call it a day, and agreed to postpone the meeting of the Senate and to go home.

Later that morning, his fellow military politician and protégé Decimus called round, urging him to come to the Senate in case his absence was seen as mocking or insulting. Persuaded by his friend, soldier to soldier, Caesar agreed to go in person to announce the meeting would be postponed.

Shortly after, a slave arrived at Caesar’s house to warn him of the plot against his life. But he was too late: Caesar had left. A short while later, a man named Artemidorus of Cnidus pushed through the jostling crowds and handed Caesar a roll setting out details of the plot. But the crowds were so thick he had no chance to read it.

The conspiracy and assassination

The main Senate House was being rebuilt on Caesar’s orders, so the meeting was instead at the Curia behind the porticoed gardens attached to the great Theatre of Pompey. Another round of animal sacrifices before the start of the session was unfavourable, and Caesar waited outside, troubled. Again Decimus spoke with him. Unaware of his friend’s treachery, Caesar allowed himself to be led towards the chamber by the hand. Decked out in his triumphant general’s reddish-purple toga embroidered in gold, Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, entered the Senate’s meeting room, and ascended his golden throne.

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The end came quickly. A group of Senators approached the dais. Daggers were produced from the capsae document chests the slaves had recently brought in. The metal flashed. In a frenzied attack, the most powerful man in Rome was stabbed 23 times. He fell, still clutching the unread scroll warning him to stay away.

In the English-speaking world, we know a slightly different story, thanks to Shakespeare. He lifted Caesar’s dramatic dying words, “Et tu, Brute?” from an earlier play by Richard Edes, and made them a part of the assassination mythology. In reality, most Roman writers state that Caesar said nothing, but merely pulled his toga up over his face. They do note, however, that some people were spreading the story that Caesar had gasped, “καὶ σὺ, τέκνον?/You too, my child?” to Brutus. (Many Romans of all classes were bilingual, with the more educated frequently preferring to speak Greek.)

Most famously, however, Shakespeare does away with Spurinna, the venerable entrails-gazer, and instead invents a soothsayer in a crowd, who shouts the famous prophetic warning to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” It is, perhaps, one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and, as a direct result, “the Ides” has come to mean a date of doom.

The Roman calendar

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In fact, it implies neither good nor bad. In Rome’s impossibly complicated calendar, every month had an Ides. Although Monty Python spelled out many of the Romans’ achievements, a user-friendly dating system was not among them.

In the mists of time, the early Romans began each month at the new moon. They called that day the Kalends (Kalendae). Two weeks later came the full moon, which they named the Ides (Idus). Midway between the two was the half-moon, which they referred to as the Nones (Nonae). For some inexplicable reason, they then chose to refer to every other day in the month in terms of its relationship to the next one of these coming up. So they would say, “five days before the Kalends of March,” or “three days before the Nones of June”.

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Fragment of an imperial-age consular fasti, Museo Epigrafico, Rome

The Kalends was always the 1st of the month. Over time, the others came to fall on set days. In March, May, July, and October, the Nones was the 7th and the Ides was the 15th. For the remaining months, the Nones was the 5th and the Ides was the 13th. Therefore the 4th of July was IIII Nones July (ie four days before the Nones – the calculation is inclusive, so both the 4th and the 7th are counted).

Although every month had an Ides in the middle, the date chosen by Caesar’s murderers was nevertheless significant. Traditionally, the Roman year started on the 1st of March, meaning the Ides was the first full moon of the year. It was a major celebration, and the festival of Anna Perenna, the goddess of the cycle of the year. Her special gift was to reward people with long life. Caesar’s assassins clearly thought they were giving long life to Rome (and their own political careers) by removing the dictator they believed was blighting it all.

A world changing aftermath

As it happens, the murder of Caesar did turn out to be a key moment in history.

Caesar may have brought Rome glory in his conquest of Gaul. He may have started and won a civil war that eventually vested absolute power in him. He may have begun highly popular social and political reforms, and even had time to abolish the chaotic ever-changing calendar and bring in his “Julian calendar,” which lasted a millennium and a half until tweaked by Pope Gregory in 1582. But in his muscular assumption of power, and his popularity among the citizenry, he threatened the deep vested interests of the patricians, who had run the Republic and the Senate for so long. It was enough to seal his fate.

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Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome.

With Caesar gone, Rome spiralled into another cycle of civil wars, which resulted in one of the most significant constitutional transformations in history. The Eternal City abandoned its trademark republican system of government and became an empire. In place of the Senate electing two consuls each year as joint heads of state, they transferred power to a largely omnipotent emperor. Ever since, people have argued which system was better.

Supporters of the Republic point to how it threw off the tyrannical king Tarquin the Proud and introduced elements of democracy, with power held by the patricians and the plebeians: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus. They note how it found fame and glory in conquering almost all the Mediterranean basin: Italy, Spain, France, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, spreading its influence far beyond ancient Latium.

Advocates of the Empire, on the other hand, highlight that the Republic was in reality a hereditary oligarchy in the hands of the wealthy patrician families who ran the all-powerful Senate with no genuine voice for the plebeians, women, or slaves. They also point out that the Republic was too weak to govern effectively at home or abroad, instead relying on “bread and circuses” to keep its citizens happy amid endless civil wars. They note that Rome only truly became a great power under the might of the Empire, which lasted even longer than the Republic, and in the East until A.D. 1453.

Caesar himself remains equally as contested a character. He embodies the conflict between Republic and Empire like no one else. He was a military colossus, original thinker, compelling writer, magnetic orator, dynamic reformer, and magnanimous politician. Yet he was also manipulative, narcissistic, egotistical, sexually predatory, shockingly savage in war even by Roman standards, and monomaniacally obsessed with acquiring absolute power for himself.

Little did Spurinna the haruspex know, as he pored over the succession of hot entrails in early 44 B.C., that the man who teased him about his dud prophecies would, within two years, rise from the tomb as “the Divine Julius” (Divus Iulius), Rome’s first resident to be declared a god. Far from heralding doom, the Ides of March, in fact, finally brought Caesar the hallowed immortality he always craved.

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Roman Imperial Ramp opens to public for first time

A vast underground passageway that allowed Rome’s emperors to pass unseen from their hilltop palaces to the Forum was opened to the public for the first time on Wednesday, 21st October 2015.

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The 2,000-year-old “imperial ramp” descended from the top of the Palatine Hill, where successive emperors built lavish palaces, down to the temples, market places and courts of the Forum in the valley below, from where the Roman Empire was governed.

Lit by flickering torches and protected by imperial guards, the high-ceiling passageway was so vast that emperors could have comfortably passed through it on horseback.

Originally more than 300 yards long, it consisted of seven zigzag ramps, four of which remain today.

The rest are believed to have been destroyed in an earthquake in the ninth century AD.

The covered walkway, which is enclosed and would have been invisible to the soldiers, slaves and plebeians going about their business in the Forum, was first discovered in 1900.

The tunnel was partially excavated but then was then abandoned for another century, until archaeologists embarked on a major restoration project a few years ago.palatine-ramp-2_3478001b

It has now been completed, and tourists will be able to tread in the footsteps of the emperors from today.

“For centuries, this was the entrance to the imperial palaces on top of the Palatine Hill,” said Francesco Prosperetti, the cultural heritage official in charge of the project.

“When it was discovered, this was a little-known corner of the Forum.”

Once tourists climb to its highest point, emerging from the arched passageway into the daylight, they have a panoramic view of the ruined temples, marble columns and ancient streets of the Roman Forum.

The entrance to the imperial ramp was a huge gateway which has been reconstructed using pieces of the original marble architrave.

The gate led to a reception hall which was converted into a church in the Middle Ages.

The walls are still decorated with frescoes of “the 40 martyrs”, Roman soldiers from the XII Legion who converted to Christianity and were then made to stand in a lake, naked, on a bitterly cold night, until they froze to death.

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Halfway up the steep passageway archaeologists found the remains of a latrine, built from stone and marble, which would have been used by imperial guards.

“The ceilings are eleven metres (36ft) high, so it really is a big structure,” said Patrizia Fortini, an archaeologist.

“We don’t know whether carts would have travelled up and down it with supplies, but certainly horses would have been able to.”

Rooms that lead off the ramp – possibly used by detachments of guards – have been converted into a mini-museum of Roman artefacts found close to the passageway.

They include an exquisite statue of Hercules, his shoulders wrapped in the pelt of a lion, and a marble statue of a child sacrificing a rooster, which was found close to a nearby sacred spring.

The Palatine, a craggy hill that overlooks central Rome, was first settled 800 years before Christ.palatine-ramp-view_3478000b

Successive emperors built huge palaces on top of it until the entire area became one interconnected imperial complex.

The covered ramp was commissioned by the Emperor Domitian in the late first century AD at the height of his reign.

He constructed a vast new palace on the Palatine, which is the origin of the words “palazzo” and “palace”.

The sumptuousness of the complex did the emperor little good in the end – he became paranoid and reclusive and was assassinated by courtiers inside the palace in AD 96, at the age of 44.

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Ancient Roman Silver Treasure Revealed

Accidentally discovered by a French farmer plowing his field near the village of Berthouville in rural Normandy in 1830, the spectacular hoard of gilt-silver statuettes and vessels known as the Berthouville Treasure was an ancient offering to the Gallo-Roman god Mercury. Following four years of meticulous conservation and research in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Antiquities Conservation Department, the exhibition Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, on view at the Getty Villa November 19, 2014, to August 17, 2015, will present this unique collection of ancient silver in its full splendor and offer new insights about ancient art, technology, religion, and cultural interaction. The opulent cache – in the collection of the Cabinet des médailles (now the Department of Coins, Medals and Antiques) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France – is displayed in its entirety for the first time outside of Paris, together with precious gems, jewelry, and other Roman luxury objects from the Cabinet’s royal collections.

“Since 2010, this magnificent collection of silver objects has been undergoing extensive conservation and study at the Getty Villa, providing us a unique opportunity to examine the production of Roman luxury materials and seeing what this has to teach us about the art, culture and religion of Roman Gaul,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

While the treasure – consisting of about 90 silver objects weighing more than 50 pounds – was first discovered in 1830, it was not until 1861 and again in 1896 that the site was extensively surveyed and excavated, uncovering the foundations of a Gallo-Roman fanum, a square colonnaded precinct with two temples. One was dedicated to Mercury Canetonensis (of Canetonum), while the other was devoted to his mother Maia or his consort Rosmerta. A theater-shaped gathering space was also found nearby. The site survey did not reveal any evidence of an ancient settlement or cemetery in the immediate area, so it’s possible that Mercury’s sanctuary at Berthouville was a place of pilgrimage, perhaps visited during annual festivals.

The Roman god Mercury, after restoration.

The most impressive objects in the Berthouville Treasure bear Latin inscriptions stating that they were dedicated to Mercury by a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus. Several of the vessels, profusely ornamented in high relief and then gilded, are recognized today as among the finest ancient Roman silver to survive. The elaborately decorated imagery of Tutus’s offerings, except for one ladle that was manufactured specifically for Mercury, feature Bacchic motifs and mythological scenes that are more appropriate to luxurious dining than religious observance. These items were probably presented to Mercury at Berthouville after initial use as private display silver. Subtle differences in their dedicatory inscriptions may indicate that they were given to the god over the course of a few years, again suggesting that it was perhaps offered during annual festivals.

Pair of cups with centaurs, after restoration.

Soon after its discovery, the treasure was acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris where it was cleaned and the disassociated parts of several vessels were reassembled. Since the treasure had been buried over centuries, many of the objects were heavily encrusted and the ancient solder that had held together their components often became separated. The nineteenth-century restoration included the removal of some of the tarnish, accretions, and harder encrustations, and left some deep scratches. Some of the corrosion was so tenacious that it had to be left in place, and a number of objects were restored with materials that were commonplace in the day, including solder, pine resin, and beeswax.

Offering Bowl with Bacchus, Hercules, and Coins.

In December 2010 the entire treasure, as well as four unrelated late antique silver platters or missoria from the Cabinet’s collection, arrived at the Getty Villa for a comprehensive conservation treatment. The four-year project focused not only on restoring the works but on historical research, careful study, and meticulous cleaning. This treatment has revealed much of the original gilding, additional inscriptions, and valuable evidence for ancient production techniques as well as nineteenth-century methods of restoration.

The four missoria, on view in the final section of the exhibition, were luxury objects in Late Antiquity. They were primarily intended to display the wealth, status, and cultural aspirations of their owners. The two largest platters are the famed “Shield of Scipio” (found in the Rhone near Avignon in 1636) and “Shield of Hannibal” (found in the Alps in 1714). The shape, scale, and imagery of these two platters led early scholars to erroneously identify them as votive shields of historical generals – the Roman Scipio Africanus and his rival, the Carthaginian Hannibal.

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The Vandals: victims of a bad press?

British Museum blog

mosaicBarry Ager, curator, British Museum

Copper 42 nummi coin showing a Vandal warrior. Although it does not carry a king’s name, it is possible that this coin was made during the time of Gelimer (AD 530-3), and thus he may be the intended identity of the cloaked figure with a spear. The reverse shows the mark of value in Roman numerals (including the long-tailed L (=50) typical of Latin inscriptions in Vandal Africa, and also seen on Gelimer’s silver coinage). Above is the fine image of a horse’s head, the traditional emblem of Carthage since Punic times. TC,p241.2.Car Copper 42 nummi coin showing a Vandal warrior. Although it does not carry a king’s name, it is possible that this coin was made during the time of Gelimer (AD 530-3), and thus he may be the intended identity of the cloaked figure with a spear. The reverse shows the mark of value in Roman numerals (including the long-tailed L (=50) typical of Latin inscriptions in Vandal Africa, and also seen on Gelimer’s silver coinage). Above is the fine image of a horse’s head, the traditional emblem of Carthage since Punic times. TC,p241.2.Car

The name of the Vandals is synonymous today with wanton violence and destruction. But it seems to me that, just like the Vikings, the Vandals have suffered from a bad press. The surviving accounts of their sack of Rome in AD 455, of their further piratical raids around the Mediterranean, and of…

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Pompeii is in crisis

From ArtNewspaper:

A Unesco report has identified serious problems with the World Heritage Site, including structural damage to buildings, vandalism and a lack of qualified staff. Unesco’s director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, tells The Art Newspaper: “The state of conservation is a problem, because of a lack of maintenance of very fragile structures. Visitor services need a dramatic improvement.”

The collapse of a column at Pompeii on 22 December raised further alarm. The column was in a pergola in the courtyard of the House of Loreio Tiburtino, whose adjacent rooms have very fine frescoes.

The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD killed Pompeii’s inhabitants but preserved their buildings. The city was covered with ash, and it was only after its rediscovery in 1748 that excavations began. In 1997, Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site. The Pompeii crisis came to a head with the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum, known as the House of the Gladiators, in November 2010, along with three further collapses later in the month. This was after extremely heavy rain.

Unesco sent a mission supervised by Christopher Young, the head of world heritage and international policy at English Heritage, who says that Pompeii represents “the world’s most important Roman remains, in terms of what it tells us about daily life”. He was assisted by two Paris-based specialists representing the International Council on Monuments and Sites: Jean-Pierre Adam, a professor at the Ecole du Louvre, and Alix Barbet, the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Their report, which has had virtually no international press coverage, was submitted last June to Unesco’s World Heritage Committee in Paris. It covers Pompeii and the nearby sites of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata, on the ­outskirts of Naples.

The Unesco report says that the “conditions that caused [the Schola Armaturarum] collapses are widespread within the site”. Storms last autumn raised fears of further significant damage, but so far it has not been serious.

Although much of Pompeii ­remains in good repair, the problems are numerous, including “inappropriate restoration ­methods and a general lack of qualified staff… restoration projects are outsourced and the quality of the work of the contractors is not being assessed. An efficient drainage system is lacking, ­leading to water infiltration and excessive moisture that gradually degrades the structural condition of the buildings as well as their decor. The mission was also concerned by the amount of plant growth, particularly ivy.”

Staffing at Pompeii remains a fundamental problem. The structure is “very rigid”, with “jobs ­being secure until retirement”, making it “virtually impossible to recruit new staff”. Although around 470 people are employed at Pompeii, it is “very short” of professional staff, there are “very few” maintenance workers and only 23 guards are on site at any one time.

The guards do not wear uniforms and fail to display their badges. The experts observed them “grouped together in threes or fours”, which meant there was a limited presence on the enormous site. Since 1987, the number of guards has been reduced by a quarter while visitor numbers have increased considerably.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

A further problem is that much of Pompeii is “closed”. In 1956, 66 restored houses were open to visitors, but this number has fallen to 15 (only five of which are always open). “Large areas of Pompeii are not accessible to ­visitors owing to the lack of guards, so accessible parts are overvisited and suffer considerably from visitor erosion,” according to the report. The mission found that the most serious vandalism was in houses that are closed to visitors, because of “the derisory effectiveness of efforts to prohibit access”.

Management changes have resulted in further problems. In July 2008, the Italian government declared Pompeii to be in a “state of emergency”, putting it under special administration until July 2010 (two commissioners served during this period: Renato Profili and then Marcello Fiori). There have been four successive superintendents since September 2009: Mariarosaria Salvatore, Giuseppe Proietti, Jeannette Papadopoulos and Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro.

The Unesco mission found that, although a management plan was drawn up in 2008, “site staff were not able to show clearly that the plan was actually used”. Scarce resources have been diverted from conservation and maintenance to “non-urgent” projects, such as the reconstruction of the theatre. The report says that such projects were “probably done with an educational aim in mind, but may also reflect a certain attraction for ‘entertainment archaeology’.”

“Uncontrolled development” near Pompeii is also criticised. At its meeting last June, Unesco approved a resolution saying that it “deeply regrets” not having been informed about the construction of “a large concrete building” north of the Porta di Nola. This is to be used by archaeologists for offices and storage.

Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the superintendent of Pompeii from 1995 to 2009, says that the report is “very meticulous”. Its proposals are along the lines of those suggested during his tenure, but “delays” were caused mainly by staffing problems. Guzzo welcomes Unesco’s involvement, hoping it will “spur the Italian government to give Pompeii more resources, both financial and professional”.

With Unesco poised to assist Italian specialists, an action plan could be developed. This should provide a basis for spending the €105m that has been committed for Pompeii by the European Union. However, there are some concerns that the project may be affected by the withdrawal of $65m a year of Unesco funding from the US, following the admission of Palestine in October.

Unesco has asked the Italian authorities to introduce monitoring of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata by 1 February, along with a statement on the site’s “outstanding universal value”. A report must be submitted by February 2013 on “the possible inscription of the property on the list of World Heritage in Danger”.

Although Pompeii is among Italy’s most important heritage sites, it is not the only one to face intractable problems. Italy’s 47 World Heritage Sites include Venice and its Lagoon and the historic centre of Rome, to take two examples. However, Bandarin, an Italian citizen, stresses that Unesco’s agreement with Italy is “only for the World Heritage Site of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata”.

The symbol or Rome – a medieval replica?

From The Telegraph:

The bronze statue, which encapsulates the mythical origins of the Eternal City, is one of the star attractions in Rome’s Capitoline Museums and is reproduced on countless T-shirts, key rings and postcards.

It has always been claimed that it was forged in the fifth century BC during the Etruscan era, which predated the Roman republic and empire.

Five years ago it was subjected to carbon dating testing, which suggested that it may have been made during the Middle Ages.

But curators said the tests were inconclusive and the museum continued to insist that the wolf was an Etruscan creation dating back two-and-a-half millennia.

But the controversy was reignited yesterday, with scholars saying that in all probability it dates from the 13th century, amid suspicions that the museum disregarded the original carbon dating tests in order to preserve the potency and romance of Rome’s most abiding symbol.

“It’s a medieval work but that takes nothing away from its importance,” said Adriano La Regina, an expert on Etruscan culture from Rome’s La Sapienza University.

“From the 1700s onwards, it has been considered Etruscan. But with new studies and the carbon tests, the dating has changed.”

Experts said the wolf was made from a single cast, using a technique which was not known to the Etruscans or Romans, who would have had to forge separate pieces and then solder them together.

The museum reluctantly announced that it would amend an information plaque to reflect the renewed doubts over the wolf’s age and provenance.

“Besides the current dating, which claims that the statue was created in the fifth century BC, we’ll include the theory that it may have been made during the medieval era,” said a statement from Rome’s archaeology and heritage department.

Umberto Broccoli, a senior heritage official, said some scholars still believed the wolf was of Etruscan origin.

He said that during the Middle Ages the symbol of Rome was a lion, making it unlikely that there would have been much call for a she-wolf statue. Historians say it may have been based on an original which was cast in bronze in Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, but which was then lost or melted down.

According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of a Vestal Virgin raped by the god Mars. They were then abandoned on the banks of the Tiber.

They were rescued by a shepherd and suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus eventually murdered his brother and went on to found Rome.

The statue includes cherub-like figures of Romulus and Remus suckling from the wolf, but they were added in the late 15th century.