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Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Column of Antoninus Pius


Of Rome’s three major commemorative columns, that of Antoninus Pius is perhaps the least appreciated. Why? Like the Column of Trajan before it and the Column of Marcus Aurelius after it, it had a base, shaft, capital, and gilded bronze statue of the emperor whom it commemorated. But unlike those other columns it did not commemorate a military conquest; nor was it decorated with a sensational spiral relief or indeed carving of any kind (and the shaft is largely lost in any case).



Yet it did share with those other columns an important function: it served as an imperial tomb. While the Column of Trajan was a tomb in the strict sense, housing in its base the cremated remains of the emperor and his wife Plotina in golden urns, the Column of Antoninus Pius, like the later Column of Marcus Aurelius, was a cenotaph located near the spot where the emperor had been cremated, his Ustrinum (funeral pyre). The model (in the Museo della Civiltà Romana) pictured above shows where in the Campus Martius it was located with respect to the Pantheon (E). The column itself (A) was placed north of the the Ustrinum of Antoninus (B). To the east was the Ustrinum of Marcus Aurelius (C), whose column was located south (D).

The column was made of red granite imported from Egypt and it was monolithic, i.e., shaped from a single piece of stone. At 48’ tall it had less than half the length of the Column of Trajan, composed of drums of Luna marble. A mason’s inscription on the surviving lower end of the shaft tells us that the stone had been quarried in AD 106 for use in the Forum of Trajan. Contemporary coins, such as the denarius shown to the right, help us to imagine the whole monument. It appears to have had a Corinthian capital, and its pedestal was surrounded by a grating.

All that remains is the marble pedestal. Its inscription records that the column was erected by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in memory of their adoptive father: “To the Divine Antoninus Augustus Pius his sons (Marcus Aurelius) Antoninus Augustus and (Lucius) Verus Augustus (dedicate this monument).” Antoninus Pius died in 161 and it is likely that this monument was commissioned at that time. Faustina had died some 20 years earlier, in AD 140.


The other three sides of the pedestal are covered with reliefs. Shown above is the front, which faced the Ustrinum. It represents the apotheosis of Antoninus and Faustina. The imperial couple is being conveyed heavenward by a male figure that is youthful and almost entirely nude. Most striking about him are his wings, which span almost the field’s entire width. Hovering over the wings on either side are eagles whose spread wings iterate those of the central figure. In the lower left corner a seminude figure reclines, holding an obelisk meant to recall the nearby meridian obelisk of Augustus: he is certainly the personification of the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars, god of war. In the lower right corner is Roma, the personification of Rome. Leaning on a shield emblazoned with the babes Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, she wears a helmet, with one breast bared, like an Amazon, and with the armor of the conquered stacked up at her feet: the emphasis here is clearly on war—even more so than in the other corner. It is not that Antoninus was a belligerent emperor; indeed, his was the most peaceful reign of the Principate! Rather, the martial figures here stand for not Antoninus’ reign in particular but the march of Roman history in general. And they are bidding farewell to the divine pair.


But who is that central figure? The attributes leave the question open: he holds a globe encircled by the zodiac and entwined by a snake. He is often said to be a genius-figure (a genius is an alter ego or a guardian spirit), but if so he is the only one with wings in all of Roman art. Is he Aeternitas, the personification of eternity that we find on the coinage of Faustina?  But Aeternitas is a feminine noun, so we would expect a female personification. Other proposals: Ascensus, Consecratio, Aion, the Mithraic god of time. Lise Vogel, who devoted an entire monograph to the monument, argues for Aureum Saeculum, Golden Age personified. She relates the scene to an earlier one of Hadrianic or very early Antonine date that shows the apotheosis of Sabina.




In this relief Sabina soars to heaven astride Aeternitas, who carries the torch with which she has just lit the pyre (ustrinum) below. The ustrinum is represented doubly by the flaming structure itself and by its personification in the form of a youth. On the right, her husband Hadrian bids her farewell. Comparison with the Sabina relief does indeed show that the Antoninus and Faustina relief is traditional, even if it does not really help us to identify that enigmatic central figure.


Finally, let us turn to the other two sides of the pedestal of the Column of Antoninus Pius. They are identical representations of the military parade or decursio that took place at the time of the consecratio or cremation ceremony. In the middle, on a central ground line, we see ten standing praetorians, two of whom, facing each other at the center, are signiferi, holding military standards, while two more are officers and the the other six are ordinary soldiers. All around the soldiers are horsemen galloping in a counterclockwise circular movement. Ten are equites, of whom five bear the vexillum (banner). Six wear tunic, toga, and calcei (boots). One (bottom center) stands out, isolated and wearing the pallium (cloak). Vogel argues that the six are the seviri Augustales (priests in charge of the imperial cult) and that the isolated central figure is an augustus: Marcus Aurelius on the one side, Lucius Verus on the other: that explains why there are two decursio scenes.

The reliefs on the pedestal of the Column of Antoninus Pius depict two moments in the ceremony of consecratio (enrollment of the emperor among the gods, i.e., deification or apotheosis). One is the cavalry procession (decursio) that preceded the lighting of the pyre--in this case, there were two decursiones, each led by one of the deceased emperor’s adopted sons, who would rule jointly until Verus’ death in AD 169. This double parade was a demonstration of their pietas. The other moment was the main event, the apotheosis of the imperial couple. Note the eagles flanking the emperor and his wife on the relief. Herodian (4.2) says that after the lighting of the ustrinum or funeral pyre “from the highest story (of the pyre) … an eagle is released … and soars up into the sky with the flames, taking the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven …  After that he is worshiped with the rest of the gods.”



This sestertius, dated to 161, was issued on the occasion of the consecratio that is the subject of the column base. Note that the pyre had four tiers: Herodian says that each tier was made of wood and filled with brushwood but also decorated with gold-embroidered drapery, ivory carvings, and paintings. The body was placed in the second tier. The decursio was followed by a chariot display, with those in the chariots wearing the ancestral masks (imagines). Then the pyre was lit… 



Boardman, John, The Oxford History of Classical Art (1997) 240-241.
Kleiner, Fred, A History of Roman Art (2007) 176-177; 195-197.
Vogel, Lise, The Column of Antoninus Pius (1973).

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