Favorite Photos

Favorite Photos
Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Photographs....Who's Who

Because of the nature of my husband's work, we have had to make a couple of major moves which meant transfering our entire household from one country to another. Moving meant packing, and any of you who have had to move knows how tedious that can be. In my case, there was one thing that would invariably delay the packing. Coming across photographs, boxes and boxes of photographs, would result in a whole afternoon of packing set aside! I like taking pictures, I like looking at pictures even more. Every time, I came across those boxes, I could not resist looking through them. The boxes have grown exponentially, so the time it takes to “look through” them has also taken much longer. I don’t go through these photographs by myself; it’s become a shared “family experience”. Seeing these photographs makes us relive portions of our lives and seeing pictures of people we know or used to know reacquaints us with them.

The ancient Romans were not so very different, they also “took” photographs. The first attempts at “photographing” were wax masks taken of deceased persons. The ancient Romans kept these masks, usually of their ancestors in special niches in the walls of their homes. After this, materials like terracotta, bronze and then finally marble were used to produce these portraits or busts.

I have been taking pictures of a lot of these busts and have enjoyed putting a face to the name, names familiar to us through our history lessons. For this blog post I am going to do a who’s who, a gallery of the portraits of the more important people from the Roman Republic until the Age of the Antonines. A bit of history is unavoidable, so I hope you bear with me.

No other persons to start with but Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Legend has it that they were children of the god Mars and Rhea Silva, whose uncle ousted Rhea’s father from the throne forcing Rhea to set her twins adrift on the Tiber. They were rescued by a she wolf that suckled them until found by a farmer who raised them. Romulus founded Rome on the Palatine Hill based on an augury contest he won over Remus who wanted to build Rome on the Aventine Hill. The only photograph we have of the brothers is as infants.... ;)

Romulus ushered in the era of the Kings, seven of them in all. The republic followed the ouster of the last king. There was a period of expansion followed by a series of Punic wars until Hannibal was defeated by Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, so called, not because he was from Africa (bust was carved on black marble), but because he defeated Hannibal in Africa.

After this, the Roman Republic would face a crisis, culminating in the civil war between Marius, a “new man”, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an aristocrat. Sulla prevailed and became dictator. Can you tell who’s who?

After Sulla’s death, the First Triumvirate came into being, composed of Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar. Crassus was known as the richest man in Rome and as the man who put down the revolt of slaves led by Spartacus. He backed Caesar but was killed in Syria.

Pompey or Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus led successful military campaigns and was granted the cognomen, “the great” by Sulla. He married Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar to seal the alliance between them. But when Crassus died, he sided with the senators against Julius Caesar and a civil war ensued. Caesar defeated him at the battle of Pharsalus. Pompey sought refuge in Egypt where he was instead assassinated.

Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, crossed the Rubicon in defiance of the Roman Senate and became dictator for life. But as we all know, he was assassinated by a group of conspirators led by Brutus and Crassus on the Ides of March. But before this he and Cleopatra had a son, Caesarion. The Egyptians also had their own way of "photographing".

Julius Caesar adopted Octavian, his nephew and made him his heir. Octavian defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, and so began the Imperial Age. He was given the name Augustus and reined for over 40 years. He was married to Livia, but they had no children.

The death of Augustus ushered in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which was marked by a series of palace conspiracies, intrigues, poisonings and assassinations. Tiberius, the son of Livia with her first husband became emperor after the death of Augustus. His reign started well enough but towards the end, he spent more time in his palace in Capri reputedly indulging the more prurient aspects of his sexual appetites.

Caligula, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was a nephew of Tiberius. As a child Caligula was affectionately called “Little Boots” by the troops of his father, Germanicus. Designated Tiberius’ heir, he stayed with Tiberius in Capri from a young age. His reign was remembered for its extravagance and Caligula for his cruelty and sexual perversities. He was assassinated by his own praetorian guards who proclaimed his uncle, Claudius, emperor.

Claudius was the brother of Germanicus and was afflicted with a limp and slight deafness and as such he was never expected to succeed to the throne. This defect may have also kept him safe from the intrigues that were rife in the family of Augustus. He adopted Nero, the son of Agrippina the younger sister of Caligula.

Nero succeeded Claudius. He built the Domus Aurea on the site of the Palatine that had been destroyed by the Great Fire. There are many stories relating to Nero the more notorious was he had had his mother killed and that he had a hand in starting the Great Fire, because he wanted to rebuild Rome in his image. And legend has him playing the fiddle as Rome burnt.

After Nero’s death there was a period of instability where four emperors followed one after the other until Vespasian, with the support of his legions in Judea became emperor, beginning the Flavian Dynasty. He started the construction of the Coliseum.

Titus, Vespasian’s son succeeded him and completed the building of the Coliseum. He was an able administrator but he had a short reign, dying suddenly after only two years.

Domitian, Titus’ brother succeeded him. Domitian continued the buildings started by his brother and father in the Field of Mars. However, he was despotic and hated by the senators who assassinated him. (These Flavians sure looked alike!)

The senators named Nerva, another senator to replace Domitian. Nerva began the principle of adoptive succession to the post of emperor, where the successor was chosen from outside one’s family and based on political and military talents. He was the first of the five "good emperors".

Nerva appointed Trajan, a Spaniard to be his successor. Trajan was given the title of optimus princeps, most excellent prince and his reign came to be known in history as a golden age. Trajan’s military victory over the Dacians is immortalized in Trajan’s column which is still visible today. He was married to Plotina.

Hadrian, another Spaniard succeeded Trajan. He did not seek to expand the empire, satisfied to consolidate the empire’s existing territories. He has left us, among other monuments, his mausoleum, the Castel Sant’Angelo, to marvel at today.

Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian, who adopted Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus and designated both to succeed him. Like Hadrian he pursued a policy of peace.

Marcus Aurelius succeeded Antoninus and shared power with his brother Lucius Verus, until the latter's death. At this time, the empire was rocked by revolts from some of the vassal states and Marcus Aurelius proved this military prowess by putting down these revolts. Today, he is remembered as one of the more important Stoic philosophers (Meditations of Marcus Aurelius). He was the last of the five "good emperors". He abandoned the principle of adoptive succession and returned to dynastic succession.

Commodus (the emperor in the movie Gladiator, who did fight gladiators in the arena, but always ensured, undoubtedly by foul means, that  he would be victorious), Marcus Aurelius son succeeded him. He restored the autocratic system of government and distinguished himself for his ambition and cruelty. He assumed the title “Roman Hercules”

These portraits, and many more like them, give history a face. Seeing them “in the flesh” so to speak brings home the fact that these bigger than life people really lived. Legends may have grown around them but in the end they were men and women, products of their time, and just like us coping with life’s challenges and rewards in their own inimitable ways.

And by the way, bringing my boxes of photographs around is nothing compared to what the Romans had to do to bring their photographs around! As for me, no more boxes .... technology to the rescue....this is how I bring my photographs around these days.  

1 comment:

  1. I liked visiting the Ostia near Rome. I did not like staying in Rome at a bed and breakfast where the elderly owner put potassium nitrate in my food. And I did not like the loud church bell ringing during the day. The restaurant food was good. The people sometimes seemed scared, some of the people seemed to be scared of Jesus. Scary.