In 2010, archaeologists exploring a garden on Rome’s Capitoline Hill discovered the remains of an ancient votive deposit, a pit full of broken objects that had once been consecrated to the gods: offerings, pieces of architectural decoration, things too holy simply to throw away without risking a curse. Instead, the Romans buried their sacred objects on sacred ground, in this case the precinct of the ancient city’s most famous temple, the shrine of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Jupiter Best and Greatest, master of thunderbolts and king of the gods. The votive deposit’s latest contents dated roughly from the time of Hannibal, that is, the third century BCE, but some of the sacred debris ranged as far back as the sixth century, when tradition holds that Rome was ruled by a series of Etruscan kings.
The first of these Etruscan rulers (the fifth king in all), Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (known in English as Tarquin the Elder), gave the city its first real urban form, by installing the sewer known as the Cloaca Maxima to turn a low-lying swamp into the Roman Forum, building the Circus Maximus, and initiating construction of a huge temple on one of the Capitoline’s two summits, dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno, and Minerva (as an Etruscan, he would have called them Tinia, Uni, and Menrva). Work on the huge project continued under the reign of the king’s son and eventual successor Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), but the Capitoline temple was inaugurated, at least according to Roman legend, only after a group of senators had deposed the arrogant king and set up a republic, traditionally in 509 BCE. Some of the temple’s imposing stone terrace still survives from the sixth century, but the structure that terrace supported is long gone, three times destroyed by fire (in 83 BCE, 69 CE, and 80 CE) and three times rebuilt in stone rather than the original materials of wood, mud brick, and terracotta.
Remnants of the last version of the temple were still visible in the early Renaissance, but a later structure, the sixteenth-century Palazzo Caffarelli, eventually covered them over. In the absence of more substantial clues to its appearance, the temple’s form and size have been debated for some five hundred years. Did it have three chambers, one for each divinity, or a central chamber flanked by two “wings”? (Until the advent of modern archaeology, the answer depended on which manuscript of the ancient architectural writer Vitruvius one happened to be reading: some copies reported that the Capitoline temple had alae, “wings,” whereas others read aliae, “other” rooms.) Did the building itself occupy the whole of its vast terrace, or only a part? The finds of 2010, which included shattered fragments of terracotta from the temple’s roof, discarded and buried some 2,300 years ago, began to provide some startling answers.
In the first place, the discarded pieces were not simply large; they were colossal. Only two other temples in the Mediterranean world have been found with terracotta roof decorations of comparable size, and both of them stood far to the east of Rome, on the borders of Persia: the temple of Hera at Samos and the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the latter eventually ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Furthermore, the Roman terracottas looked surprisingly like their counterparts from the Hera temple at Samos, as did the stone masonry of the Capitoline temple’s mountainous platform.
The discovery was unexpected, but not unusual. Artisans traveled widely in the ancient world: we now know, for example, that the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae, in the heart of Bronze Age Greece, was probably carved by Hittite stoneworkers. As John North Hopkins notes in The Genesis of Roman Architecture, his engrossing account of the Eternal City’s earliest urban development, there is also a precise moment when the political situation on the island of Samos could have favored the migration of skilled builders from Ionian Greece all the way to Etruria: the toppling of the Samian tyrant Polycrates in 522 BCE, a change of regime that brought the ruler’s grandiose projects, including the great temple of Hera, to a temporary halt.
The two gigantic temples of Rome and Samos may have shared a team of workers, but the structures themselves were radically different (Hopkins provides a useful illustration of their floor plans). Greek temples, the temple of Samos included, are basically oblong boxes sitting on a low flight of three steps, the more ambitious of them surrounded by columns on all sides. Most of them are made of stone, a material in which the rugged landscape abounds. Etruscan temples, on the other hand, stood atop high platforms, with deep columned porches in front and shallow rear chambers that gave them a squarish shape. Built with mud brick walls and wooden columns, they featured beetling wooden roofs covered in terracotta tiles, with vulnerable beam ends protected from rain and insects by terracotta plaques or revetments. The temples’ corners and their massive ridgepoles were studded with geometric ornaments and statues of animals, heroes, and gods.
As a rule, Etruscan temples were relatively small. Building the colossal Capitoline temple of wood and mud brick would have required trees of tremendous dimensions, but the virgin forests of Italy could still supply such trees in the sixth century, before Etruscan and Greek architects, shipbuilders, and metalworkers began to strip the peninsula of its wood. Archaeological excavations from the Italian Iron Age (the time of Rome’s traditional foundation in 753 BCE) have sometimes yielded trunks of staggering immensity.
But the votive pit’s surprises did not end with the Temple of Jupiter. They also included a second set of large-scale roof terracottas that must have belonged to another, hitherto unsuspected, temple that shared space on the Capitoline with the colossus.
From these unexpected finds, Hopkins draws a set of logical conclusions. To begin with, sixth-century Rome must have been a much larger and more sophisticated city than we have imagined hitherto. As it happens, excavations from 2013–2015 on the Quirinal Hill provide additional confirmation of early Rome’s exceptional size: an area that had always been regarded as somewhat outside the city center at this period turns out to have been the site of a substantial temple and a sixth-century house as sophisticated as anything in the area of the Forum and Palatine Hill. Rome, as it turns out, was a major settlement from a very early date, certainly significant enough to commission a temple as monumental as the Capitoline temple, and several more besides.
Hopkins goes on to suggest that the sheer immensity of the Capitoline temple must have drawn visitors for its own sake, a thought that leads to some intriguing consequences. The ancients, as we know from Greek and Roman authors, were avid religious tourists, and if more Etruscan texts survived we might have further evidence from that quarter as well. Cicero tells us that the Tarquins of Rome sent offerings to the Greek oracle of Delphi (as did King Croesus of Lydia in Asia Minor). Another Etruscan city, Caere, built its own treasury at Delphi. Etruscan donors also offered gifts to Zeus at Olympia. If, as Hopkins implies, Rome was already a religious destination in the sixth century BCE, then the city’s tradition as a religious capital goes back far earlier than the Christian era.
A memorable passage from Virgil’s Aeneid drew a famous contrast between the skills that defined Greece and Rome: the Greeks were artists and philosophers, the Romans conquerors and administrators. His account has shaped the general view of Rome’s significance ever since, as a city of soldiers, practical administrators, aqueduct builders, and tax collectors (the translation is John Dryden’s):
Let others better mold the running mass
Of metals, and inform the breathing brass,
And soften into flesh a marble face;
Plead better at the bar; describe the skies,
And when the stars descend, and when they rise.
But, Rome, ’t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.
But if Rome was already a religious destination in the early days, not simply a military power, then its emergence as a religious capital in the Christian era stands on a venerable ancient precedent, and makes the whole transition from Empire to Church a more complex, but also more comprehensible, process. The pilgrims who flock to Rome today expect to see not only Pope Francis but also the world’s largest church; in so doing they may be following a pattern of travel set at the very beginning of the city’s urban history.
For the Romans themselves, Virgil included, the most astounding aspect of their own history was the larger process of city-building that led to the construction of the Capitoline temple in the first place. In five or six generations, between the eighth century, the time of Romulus, and the sixth, the age of the Tarquins, Rome was transformed from scattered hilltop settlements of herdsmen in thatched huts to a bustling Mediterranean city, complete with a port, a network of streets, and masonry houses. Up to the fall of the Empire, an intact “hut of Romulus” on the Palatine Hill stood to remind citizens of the simplicity of their not-so-distant origins, and ancient authors mention a second such hut on the Capitoline (remains of a hut village are still visible on the Palatine today). Hopkins devotes his initial chapters to the mystery of what it meant to create and define an exceptional city, navigating this challenging terrain with balance and tact.
Retracing the development of Rome depends largely on two divergent types of evidence, both exceedingly scant: the literary testimony of ancient authors and the physical remnants of the past. Neither provides straightforward information, and there is no guarantee that the claims of ancient writers will agree with “the testimony of the spade.”* In the 1530s, the Renaissance architect Giovanni Battista da Sangallo was already complaining about the discrepancy between what he read in Vitruvius and what he saw among the ruins of Roman antiquity. In the margin of one drawing of an Ionic column capital, he writes: “It’s bad, really bad, according to Vitruvius, but it’s fine according to the Theatre of Marcellus.” Even when texts and objects seem to point in the same direction, it takes a generous dose of ingenuity to weave together a credible story from such random clues—part of archaeology’s eternal fascination. Hopkins is a master of this exacting art, helped along by an excellent complement of illustrations.
The long reach of the Roman Empire at the end of its millennial history emerges vividly in another recent book, focused on how the emperor Diocletian (reigned 284–305) left his mark on Luxor Temple in the distant realm of Upper Egypt. With its spectacular illustrations and international team of expert authors, Art of Empire: The Roman Frescoes and Imperial Cult Chamber in Luxor Temple shows how the imperial government transformed a chamber in the ancient sanctuary of Amun-Re, probably reserved for the pharaoh, into a shrine for Roman emperor worship. The temple by that time was 1,700 years old, one of the greatest monuments in all of Egypt, but long reduced in importance. The capital of Egypt had shifted to Alexandria more than six hundred years before, and for more than three centuries Alexandria had answered to Rome.
By Diocletian’s time, however, Luxor, like Palmyra in the Syrian desert, stood, despite its grandeur, at the limits of a crumbling empire, and so the emperor turned both sites into walled military camps. In recent years Egypt had revolted several times against Roman rule, and the ancient capital at Luxor still dominated the upper reaches of the Nile. Diocletian’s engineers raised their fortified settlement directly around the temple, leaving the shrine itself in the central place normally reserved for the Principia, or general’s headquarters (in the camp at Palmyra, more typically, the Temple of Allat stands off to one side of a custom-built Principia). As Susanna McFadden observes in her overview of this eternally fascinating site and its history, it took an enormous amount of extra work to adapt an ancient Egyptian temple precinct to serve a military garrison. The effort must, therefore, have made a forceful point to an audience that included both Romans and Egyptians. Luxor and its huge, ancient temple were still potent symbols.
As part of its incorporation within the Roman castrum, Luxor Temple was carefully remodeled to cater to the imperial cult, with the emperor replacing Amun-Re as the focus of attention. Originally, worshipers (or priests, or the pharaoh) would have passed through the sanctuary in a long, straight progression, first through massive pylons, then through a series of hypostyle (columned) halls, beginning with a monumental portico, shadowed by thirty-two thick, densely packed papyrus-bundle columns, colorfully painted and inscribed with hieroglyphs. After this, a smaller, lower chamber, also dense with columns, led into a four-columned offering hall, where gifts to the god were deposited. A third chamber followed, probably housing the image of Amun, who was normally shown in human form.
Diocletian’s engineers left the entrance portico intact, but in the next chamber they removed a series of enormous papyrus-bundle columns, raised its floor by half a meter by filling the space with blocks of red granite, and painted its walls with images of the imperial entourage standing at attention in scarlet military cloaks. At the far end of the room a niche, framed by Corinthian columns, contained portraits of the emperor and his three coemperors or tetrarchs. This feature blocked what had once been a central doorway, leading to the offering hall and the rooms beyond. Rather than moving steadily through the Temple, visitors stopped short before the painted tetrarchs. The rooms behind the imperial cult chamber (including the old chamber of Amun’s cult image and a shrine installed by Alexander the Great) could only be reached by side entrances.
Despite Diocletian’s best efforts, the Roman Empire crumbled, and so did the cult of its emperors. So, in its own time, did the cult of Amun-Re, replaced by the distinctively Egyptian branch of the religion Diocletian regarded as treasonous: Christianity. The liturgical language of Egyptian Christians, Coptic, is directly descended from the language of the pharaohs (“Coptic” comes from the Greek word for “Egyptian,” “Aegyptios”). A church dedicated to Saint Thecla rose within the temple precinct as the rest of the site filled with debris, eroded rock, and Sahara sand. The imperial cult chamber that had been so painstakingly created for Diocletian would not see the light again for more than a thousand years.
At the time of their discovery in the early nineteenth century, the wall paintings, buried for millennia, still retained their vibrant colors. Early explorers, misled by the faint images of the tetrarchs on their thrones and the deferential crowds, identified the imperial cult chamber as a Christian shrine. Ironically, Diocletian and his generation of tetrarchs were the Roman state’s last great persecutors of Christians.
Working from 2003 to 2008, an Italian conservation team succeeded in restoring some of the brilliance and astounding detail of these Late Antique frescoes. They are true frescoes, executed in classic ancient Roman technique: painted with mineral pigment on fresh plaster and sealed with molten wax. The details the restoration has revealed are captivating in their immediacy, from a golden buckle to the elaborate woven badges the emperor’s guards wear on their shoulders. Real examples of ornamental emblems like these have survived to the present day in the dry air of Egypt, and they are dazzling pieces, intricately kilim-woven of fine linen threads in brilliant colors.
Most impressive of all, however, are the expectant faces of a crowd of dignitaries, modeled in the same ochre pigments as the wall paintings in Pompeii, and just as hauntingly lifelike. Perhaps Diocletian himself came to Luxor Temple to survey his military installation, and the wall paintings record a real event. Perhaps he never came, and the visual record of this ceremonial visit, or adventus, was meant instead to stand in as a painted substitute for the emperor’s physical presence, while providing a vivid reminder that his long arm, through his army, still reached all the way up the Nile. Diocletian is known to have visited Egypt, or at least Alexandria, in 298 and 302; his second trip might conceivably have brought him as far south as Luxor before his visit to Alexandria in March 302. The records of his movements are scant, and at present we simply do not know. What we do know is that this commission was carried out with consummate skill. The paintings are ravishingly beautiful.
Diocletian knew how to seize the moment, artistic, political, bureaucratic, military. Born into modest circumstances in Dalmatia (modern Croatia), he had risen to power, like so many emperors, by advancing through the ranks of the army. He was in Persia commanding the cavalry arm of the imperial bodyguard when he was acclaimed emperor in 284, but trouble was also brewing in Germany and, as mentioned, Egypt.
Keenly aware of the Roman state’s vulnerabilities on three separate continents, he made sweeping changes to its civil and military structure, separating the bureaucrats from the army, improving methods of tax collection, patrolling the borders, and distributing executive authority among four coemperors or tetrarchs who could spread out to the Empire’s far-flung trouble spots: two senior rulers called “Augustus” and two adjutant emperors called “Caesar.” Diocletian himself served as Augustus of the East. His Caesar of the West was Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine, who would not only make Christianity a legal religion, but also abolish the tetrarchy in favor of one-man rule. The glorious frescoes of the imperial cult chamber at Luxor Temple, for all their timelessness, commemorate the most fleeting of historical moments.
The Rome that Clare Robertson describes in Rome 1600: The City and the Visual Arts Under Clement VIII might well have plunged Diocletian into despair had he lived another 1,300 years to see it. The religion he had struggled so hard to extirpate had spread beyond his own empire to regions unknown. The gigantic bath complex he had given to the city of Rome had been turned over to the Christians, who had recently converted two parts of the structure into churches: a round corner tower and the great bathing hall, the tepidarium. (He might be even more annoyed to know that a second round tower became a twentieth-century parking garage.) A walled cloister now sat rudely in the middle of his colossal swimming pool, the natatorium—the cloister designed, like the church in his tepidarium, by Michelangelo.
Constantine, the once-promising son of his Caesar Constantius Chlorus, had used the imperial treasury to build colossal churches on the outskirts of Rome, and now one of them, Saint Peter’s basilica, had been entirely reconstructed as the largest church in the Christian world. The master of Rome was now a Christian bishop named Clement VIII who had taken over the ancient Roman priestly title of pontifex maximus and the ancient Jewish tradition of jubilee festivals: in 1600, Christians who visited Rome could find pardon for their sins through prayer, fasting, and pious visits to the city’s sacred sites, just as religious tourists had come for centuries to visit the gigantic temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.
Pope Clement VIII had more polemical aims for the Jubilee as well. Painfully conscious that the Protestant Reformation continued to flourish in Northern Europe, he decided to punish a handful of heretics almost as brutally as Diocletian had once punished Christians. His most famous victim was the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, burned alive at the stake in the early morning hours of Ash Wednesday 1600. Clement’s violent policy was not a success. Neither, to most twenty-first-century eyes, were his artistic choices.
Rome 1600 brings us the painters, sculptors, and architects who were hard at work when a Milanese transplant named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio began to establish his reputation as “the best painter in the city,” and most of them will be unknown names to most readers. Caravaggio appears, as he must, but much of Robertson’s pioneering study is taken up with artists whose works are normally passed over lightly today when we see them on church altars and museum walls: figures like Giuseppe Cesari, the “Cavalier of Arpino,” who offered Caravaggio a place in his workshop, and the sculptor Jacob Cornelisz Cobaert, whose marble Saint Matthew with the Angel was eventually replaced by a Caravaggio altarpiece.
Robertson deals with well-known artists like moody, gifted Annibale Carracci, brilliant Federico Barocci, and “the divine Guido” Reni, but the importance of her substantial book really lies in its careful attention to artists and architects who are not well known today but who had an essential part in shaping the Rome we still experience. Many of them represent the traditions against which Caravaggio rebelled—pastel colors, exaggerated proportions, outlandish costumes, stylized gestures—and may not please contemporary tastes (like Caravaggio’s rival Giovanni Baglione). But there are also some little-known delights, like Federico Zuccaro’s ink drawings of his brother Taddeo at work, and Adam Elsheimer’s lovely, sylvan Flight into Egypt, radically different from Caravaggio’s, and all the more wondrous for that difference.