The Roman Crown Jewels?
Now that we have dealt with which column is which (I’m at last prepared to say definitively that the picture on my previous post IS Trajan’s column), let me report in on an amazing exhibition I saw in Rome last weekend. It’s a tiny show in the Palazzo Massimo Museum near the railway station, and at first sight not much to write home about: a couple of Roman lances, some metal poles and spikes, a few glass balls and a short sceptre. They were all discovered by archaeologists, stashed away in an underground passageway in the foothills of the Palatine, just next to the Colosseum.
They are not half as unprepossessing as they sound. In fact they are almost certainly the remains of the ceremonial symbols of power belonging to a Roman emperor – they kind of thing we have only seen on sculptures and coins up to now. (The ones in the picture of Antoninus Pius and Faustina, from the base of what was originally their column, may be restored, but they give you the general idea.) The poles and spikes had once supported standards. Some of the glass balls had clearly been gilded and would have fitted onto the ends of more sceptres. The lances are the hastae that stood for imperial power. Not quite as glitzy or precious, but this collection is not far from being the Roman crown jewels.
So what was it all doing hidden away?
I usually distrust this kind of archaeological ingenuity, but the story goes like this. The stuff had obviously been concealed on purpose, in expensive boxes. The pottery found with it was dated to the beginning of the fourth century AD. Who would be burying the crown jewels at that date? There’s one plausible answer. This ceremonial equipment very likely belonged to the emperor Maxentius, and was hidden away for safe-keeping before his battle with his rival Constantine at the Milvian Bridge in 312. Constantine won (helped he claimed by the Christian god – it was on this occasion that he was supposed to have seen “The Sign of the Cross”) and Maxentius’ supporters obviously never went back for their treasure.
It might actually be true.
They only went on display last week. But the plan is to make them part of the permanent exhibition in the basement of the Palazzo Massimo, complete with an explanatory video (in Italian only, but quite a lot of the images are helpful even if you don’t know a word of the language).
Only five minutes away from this show, there’s a temporary exhibition (on until early April), that’s almost as exciting. It’s a collection of a thousand or so objects – from Greek pots to full size statues – that have been found in excavations in the city of Rome over the last twenty years. It doesn’t offer anything quite so extraordinary as the crown jewels, but the sheer quantity of stuff is staggering (and this is only a selection of what’s turned up). And the setting it pretty unbeatable too. It’s a new exhibition space in what was a papal olive oil depository (the old olearie papali), and the great vats are still set in the floor for you to walk over and round. A brilliantly clever conversion.
How come I got to see all this? Well, yes – it was another conference (on the history of ruins this time) and I was a faithful attender for most of it, honest. But I couldn’t resist the temptations of playing cultural truant for an hour or so, and I’m shamelessly pleased with what I saw.