Unpeopling the Past

A few weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled across a temporary exhibit at the British Museum of Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome: ‘Light, time, legacy.’ Painted during a year long stay in the Eternal City from 1780 to 1781, this exhibit is a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the collection’s bequeathal to the British Museum upon the artist’s death in 1816. Towne apparently had some success during his lifetime despite failing to be elected to the Royal Academy on eleven occasions, but was largely forgotten after his death, until his works were re-discovered in the early twentieth century. The works held at the British Museum are not necessarily remarkable as far as eighteenth century landscapes go, but there is a use of light and perspective that I find captivating (beyond the subject matter itself, which of course if irresistible to a Romanist). There is a softness to his paintings that I find evocative of the evening light in Italy (and, in fact, he often wrote the time on the back of his paintings), of the texture of the stones the ancient Romans used to build their monuments, and one obviously endemic to the use of watercolour as a medium. What did strike me, though, as I wandered through the gallery, was the noticeable absence of people in his paintings.

The Roman Forum (1781)
View of the Colosseum from the Palatine Hill (1781)
The Baths of Titus (1781)
The Temple of Minerva at Sunset (1781)

Where the odd person is present, such as those with a cart in The Roman Forum, or the lone figure on the edge of the wall in The Baths of Titus (now identified as the Baths of Trajan), it appears to be a device used to add scale, so that the sheer size of the structures is not underestimated by the viewer. Overall, whether a figure is present or not, there is a feeling in each work of abandonment – that these relics of the ancient world are left in isolation, removed from the current world, and in many cases, slowly being reclaimed by nature. The Temple of Minerva at Sunset is a particularly good example of this, though I must say it did not appear much different the last time I was in Rome.

What immediately sprung to mind, when viewing painting after painting with almost no human trace, was the way archaeological sites are represented. A number of years ago, Jeremy Hartnett wrote about this practice in the early photography of the ruins of Pompeii. (I actually reviewed the volume it appears in for BMCR.) This chapter focuses on Vittorio Spinazzola, the director of excavation from 1910 to 1923, who was a pioneer in using photography to document not only the ongoing clearance of the site, but also the ruins once they were exposed. Hartnett wrote of the new use of photography in excavation for its importance as a means of documentation, where each image was concerned not only with ‘showing what came out of the ground, [but also] they explained how it was brought to light and by whom’ (p. 247). This is clear in a photo from the excavation of the House of Paquius Procolus (I.vii.1):


This photo shows the workman, clearing debris, whilst being supervised under the watchful eye of Spinazzola himself (in the dark suit at the top). Part of the aim of the photographic documentation, and one that anyone with field experience is familiar with today, is to preserve a record of how any particular area is being excavated. In addition, Spinazzola was interested in showing the extent of the work being carried out. The photo below is striking, not just for the length of the area being cleared along the Via dell’Abbondanza, but also for showing how much of the ruins had yet to be uncovered just a century ago (you can just see the upper levels of the amphitheatre in the distance).


What actually brought these photos to mind in viewing the exhibit of Towne’s watercolours, however, is the way in which the excavated areas were documented after the last of the volcanic detritus had been cleared. The workman are gone, Spinazzola himself is absent, and what remains is a street or a house, devoid of any human life.


The streets, wrote Hartnett, ‘are presented as empty, antiseptic spaces, made as whole as possible (with fountains even gushing water in some shots) but then left pristine and uninhabited’ (pp. 265-6). He argues that this was a conscious choice for which photos of the excavation were published, that has had a lasting impact not only on how both scholars and the public view the ancient world, but also on how we present it ourselves. I am sure I am not the only one who has stood in Pompeii (or Rome, or Athens, or anywhere else) and impatiently waited for the tourists to move along, so that I could photograph my own monuments with no human interference. The fact is that I have thousands of photos from Pompeii, and all are of an abandoned, empty, cityscape devoid of human life. This image of an empty space, of a quiet street, or of the abandoned Roman Forum or Colosseum, as presented by Francis Towne, other artists, and many historians and archaeologists, could not be further from the reality of the past. I was struck by this when I first read Hartnett’s work, and was reminded of this when wandering the galleries of the British Museum. The irony here is that the people are, after all, what has always drawn me to the past. Removing life from representations of the past, whether in photo or painting, suddenly seems the antithesis of our work.


Losing My Religion

I recently completed an article I was invited to write for a special issue of Leidschrift that focuses entirely on Pompeii and Herculaneum. My contribution looks specifically at the connections that exist between politics and religion. In doing so however, I noticed something that rather surprised me: it is difficult to reconcile the architectural and epigraphic evidence in regards to religious activity. There is a disconnect between which gods had temples dedicated in their honour, and which had active worshipers according to written records.

This map, with temple precincts shaded grey, locates the majority of temples and religious sanctuaries, with the exception of the Temple of Venus just outside the city walls, in Regio VII and Regio VIII, in and around the Forum and the Triangular Forum.

From W. van Andringa (2012) ‘Statues in the Temples of Pompeii: Combinations of Gods, Local Definitions of Cults, and the Memory of the City’

The temples include the aforementioned complex dedicated to Venus, as well the Capitolium dedicated to the Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, Apollo, Isis, Aesculapius, Fortuna Augusta, Minerva/Hercules, Divus Augustus, and other small shrines and altars. The official offices of priests and priestesses (sacerdos, flamen, and pontifex) that survive in the epigraphic record are limited to only three divinities: Venus, Ceres, and the Imperial Cult. Numerous men are named as sacerdos Augusti or flamin Augusti in the texts. I have previously discussed the priestesses, primarily from the Augustan and Tiberian period, who served Ceres and Venus. The precinct of Venus is well documented, but the texts that survive naming her priestesses are either funerary in nature, or in the case of Eumachia and Mammia, survive in dedicatory inscriptions on public edifices in the Forum. Despite epigraphic evidence for Ceres, there is no known temple, at least not within the city walls. A complex containing three small temples from the suburban area of Pompeii, may contain a Temple of Ceres, but identification is based solely on the discovery of two female statues, one of which is thought to represent Ceres.

On the contrary, the Temple of Isis, which has long been considered one of the most important religious centres in Pompeii, not least because of its speedy re-building after the earthquake in AD 62, has no identifiable priest.

CIL X 846 = ILS 6367
N(umerius) Popidius N(umeri) f(ilius) Celsinus / aedem Isidis terrae motu conlapsam / a fundamento p(ecunia) s(ua) restituit hunc decuriones ob liberalitatem / cum esset annorum sex{s} ordini suo gratis adlegerunt.
‘Numerius Popidius Celsinus, son of Numerius, rebuilt the Temple of Isis from the foundations at his own expense which had collapsed from an earthquake. Because of his generosity, despite his age of six years, the decurions nominated him to the ordo without charge.’

This is one of the only surviving inscriptions found in Pompeii that actually names a temple as such. However, there is no evidence of a priest of Isis. The few other inscriptions from the temple precinct are dedicatory and say little, if anything, about Isis. For example, the plinth on which stood a statue of Isis, was inscribed with the following:

CIL X 849
L(ucius) Caecilius Phoebus posvit / l(oco) d(ato) d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘Lucius Caecilius Phoebus placed (this statue). Place given by decree of the decurions.’

LRT_13700156000Whilst there might not be any evidence for those charged with the office of worshiping Isis, there are some dipinti that indicate that the goddess did have adherents.

CIL IV 787 = ILS 6420b
Cn(aeum) Helvium / Sabinum aed(ilem) Isiaci / universi rog(ant).
‘All the worshipers of Isis call for the election of Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus, aedile.’

CIL IV 3141
Isi[acis – – – ]is ubique.
‘The worshipers of Isis are everywhere.’

CIL IV 1011 = ILS 6419f
Cuspium Pansam aed(ilem) / Popidius Natalis cliens cum Isiacis rog(at).
‘Popidius Natalis, his client, with the worshipers of Isis, call for the election of Cuspius Pansa, aedile.’

That this last dipinto is commissioned by a member of the Popidii may give some indication that this family was heavily dedicated to Isis, but still fails to provide evidence for a priest. On some level, this may not be surprising. Priests of foreign – especially eastern or oriental – religions tended to live separately, often marked by distinctive clothing, shaved heads, and were not unusually foreigners themselves. Evilness aside, the characterisation of the Egyptian Arbaces in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii wasn’t entirely unfounded. This may go some way to explaining the lack of priests in the epigraphic record.

However, that is not the case for many of the Roman gods that also have temples in the city, many of which were more prominent in terms of location and within the Pantheon of Roman religion.  Apollo, Minerva, and Aesculapius all have temples but no named priesthoods. Jupiter, independently and as part of the Capitoline triad, has two named priests, albeit one is sligtly problematic. An inscription, dated to AD 37, has Greek on one side that names Gaius Iulius Hephaistion, a priest of the community of Frigi, who made  a dedication to Jupiter Frigio. The other side contains a fragmentary Latin text:

CIL X 796
I(ovi) [O(ptimo)] M(aximo) / pro salute [C(ai) Ca]esaris Augusti / Germani[ci I]mp(eratoris) pontif(icis) max(imi) / tribunic(ia) p[ote]stat(e) consulis / [- – -]octus p(ecunia) s(ua).
‘To Jupiter Best and Greatest. For the well-being of [Gaius] Caesar Augustus Germanicus, hailed as victorious general, chief priest, holder of tribunician power, consul, [. . .]octus at his own expense.’

Because the text specifically names the priest as belonging to another town, it is a bit tenuous to claim this represents a religious office in Pompeii. Likewise, one text, also dated to the Julio-Claudian period, that survives naming a priest of both Jupiter and Mars belongs to a man who had a rather illustrious career elsewhere:

CIL X 797 = ILS 5004
Sp(urius) Turranius L(uci) f(ilius) Sp(uri) n(epos) L(uci) pron(epos) Fab(ia) / Proculus Gellianus praef(ectus) fabr(um) II pra<i>f(ectus) curatorum alvei / Tiberis pra<i>f(ectus) pro pr(aetore) i(ure) d(icundo) in urbe Lavinio / pater patratus populi Laurentis foederis / ex libris Sib<u>llinis percutiendi cum p(opulo) R(omano) / sacrorum principiorum p(opuli) R(omani) Quirit(ium) nominis/que Latini qua<i> apud Laurentis coluntur flam(en) / Dialis flam(en) Martial(is) salius pra<i>sul augur pont(ifex) / pra<i>f(ectus) cohort(is) Ga<i>tul(orum) tr(ibunus) mil(itum) leg(ionis) X / loc(us) d(atus) d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
Spurius Turranius Proculus Gellianus, son of Lucius, grandson of Spurius, great-grandson of Lucius, of the Fabian tribe; staff officer twice; prefect of the curators of the Tiber channel; prefect with the powers of a praetor in charge of jurisdiction in the city of Lavinium; father of the deputation of the Laurentine people in charge of concluding the treaty with the Roman people in accordance with the Sibylline books, which relates to the rites concerned with the origins of the Roman people, the Quirites, and of the people of the Latin name, which are observed among the Laurentines; priest of Jupiter; priest of Mars; leading member of the Salii priesthood; augur and pontiff; prefect of the Gaetulian cohort; military tribune of the tenth legion (dedicated this) place by  decree of the decurions.’

One further example exists naming a flamen of Mars, but like Ceres, there is no known Temple.

CIL IV 879 = ILS 6364
M(arco) Lucretio flam(ini) Martis decuri//oni / Pompei[s].
‘To Marcus Lucretius, flamen of Mars, decurion of Pompeii.’

As the only two texts that name Mars consist of a man who had a long career elsewhere and a graffito, the worship of the war god in Pompeii remains somewhat speculative.

Overall, the evidence for religious activity in Pompeii is simultaneously abundant and scarce. There are ample architectural remains by means of temples, the city’s walls are covered with images of gods and goddesses in a mythological context, but the epigraphic record does not reflect the kind of religious activity one would expect. What strikes me as a potential solution to this paradox is evidence I have thus far overlooked, but is perhaps far more prevalent than the large public temples or official offices of priesthoods. The most visible form of religious activity is on a much smaller, localised scale – that of the household, street and neighbourhood shrines dedicated to the lares and genius of individual families and vici. It is here that the daily worship of Pompeians can be seen, but that is a post for another day.

With Malice Towards None

With thanks to Will, a lovely park ranger who answered my questions, gave me a fabulous book on Vicksburg’s monuments, and tipped me off to the gastronomic delight that is Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans.

If there is one period of history other than the Classical world with which I am utterly fascinated, it is the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, specifically the Civil War era. As such, when taking a little road trip on my way to New Orleans to attend the annual meetings of the AIA/SCS last week, I couldn’t resist a slight detour to visit the National Military Park at Vicksburg. The city of Vicksburg (if you need a little history lesson), marked the last battle between Union and Confederate forces for control of the Mississippi River, which had, to that point, been an essential conduit for supplies and troops in the Confederate war effort. It is the battle that made General Ulysses S. Grant known to President Lincoln, subsequently leading to his appointment as commander of the entire Union army for the last two years of the war. But more to the point, Vicksburg was a long, hard campaign for both sides, and ended only after the city was besieged by Union forces for more than fifty days in the summer of 1863. (Oddly enough, surrender came within a day of the conclusion of the other truly decisive battle of the war, taking place concurrently in Gettysburg.)

Having lived in the mid-Atlantic region for many years, I have already been to the majority of the Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia, and of course, to Gettysburg. They are all well presented, heartbreaking, and monumental each in their own way. Yet I was wholly unprepared for the sheer beauty of Vicksburg, the manner in which the tragic efforts of approximately 100,000 men have been commemorated, and most surprisingly to me, the fact that so many of the monuments are Classical in style. Indeed, there are so many references to and copies of Classical art and architecture that I could probably write twenty blog posts (don’t worry, I won’t). The Vicksburg Memorial Arch at the entrance to the park resembles a Roman triumphal arch, numerous state monuments are composed of obelisks (New York, Navy Memorial), columns (Louisiana, Wisconsin) or some combination of these devices (North Carolina, Texas, Iowa). A number of states combine the obelisk or column with a bronze sculpture based on a Greek or Roman deity. Michigan‘s statue of the ‘Spirit of Michigan’ is based on Athena Promachos as sculpted in the fifth century BC by Phidias. The ‘Statue of Peace’ at the base of the Minnesota memorial copies the iconography of the Roman goddess PaxOhio, the only state that didn’t erect a single monument but a series of them around the park, built a number of small memorials that resemble a temple façade, similar to the aedicula style tomb popular in Roman cities in the first centuries BC and AD. Pennsylvania also built a monument resembling an ancient tomb, choosing a large exedra with a central pillar, with an inscription carved into the rear of the bench that closely resembles the bench tombs, or scholae, that appear in the necropoleis of ancient Pompeii. Clio, the Greek muse of history, is also a popular feature, appearing in conjunction with an obelisk on the Mississippi monument, as well as in the tympanum of the Illinois memorial.

There are two state memorials in particular, however, which were outstanding for their replication of ancient styles. The first, and perhaps most surprising, is the monument constructed by the state of Illinois. As this state contributed the largest number of men to the Vicksburg campaign, more than 36,000, it is not surprising that they also have the largest memorial. What may be more unexpected however, is that the designers of this structure chose to replicate the Pantheon in Rome.



The Pantheon, built in the early second century AD under Hadrian, was intended to honour the gods of Rome. But by the late eighteenth century, pantheon had become a term used to describe a monument to the dead, and thus was viewed as a fitting model by the architect of the memorial, Major William Le Baron Jenney, who stated that he wanted to design ‘not only a grand and imposing commemorative structure worthy of the State of Illinois, but a temple of fame as well, within the walls of which will be preserved in enduring bronze and stone the name of every soldier from Illinois who participated in that memorable and decisive campaign and siege.’ Although a scaled down version of the original Roman temple, this pantheon is similar in proportions, following the alignment and ratio of dimensions as directed in the first century BC books of the architect Vitruvius. Like its model, the roof has an oculus, a coloured marble floor, and a sculptural group in the tympanum. The three marble figures depict Clio, the muse of history, seated between personifications of North and South, recording the names of the dead in a ledger.


Rather than sculptures of gods placed around the interior of the round chamber, there are sixty bronze plaques affixed to the walls inscribed with the names of the Illinois corps. There are, of course, other elements of decoration that are clearly American in design, such as the large gilded eagle, various symbols of the Republic in the exterior moulding, and an inscription of a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. However, there is a significant difference in design apart from size, which I find rather interesting: this memorial uses the Doric order in combination with an egg and dart design more commonly found in conjunction with the Ionic order, whereas the capitals of the original Pantheon are Corinthian. This may seem a trifling feature of the design to be concerned with, but it speaks to an overall amalgamation of styles that is typical of the Classically themed structures found in the park.

For a clear example of this, just look to the memorial to Missouri:


Until 2001, this was the only monument that honoured the fighting men of both the Union and Confederate armies, as Missouri was a border state that was divided in its loyalties. It consists of a large stele, fronted by a bronze female figure standing on the prow of a boat, framed by an exedra with bronze reliefs depicting both Union (left) and Confederate (right) soldiers in action. The style is described as Roman composite, but this is not the traditional composite order which combined elements of Ionic and Corinthian style. Instead, it seems to be something of a slightly (at least to the view of a Classicist) muddled combination of elements of both Greek and Roman influence. The stele itself is common enough in both Greece and Rome, found in honorific and commemorative contexts throughout antiquity. And yet the name of the state is written using the Roman letter shapes (specifically ‘V’ instead of ‘U’) and is decorated with egg and dart and dentil mouldings. The exedra is also ubiquitous, as honorific benches also occurred in both places.

The bronze statue, called the ‘Spirit of the Republic’ is based on Nike of Samothrace, the Greek goddess of victory who was depicted landing on the prow of a ship at the moment of victory.


Despite being depicted as entirely Greek in nature, adorned with a peplos and aegis, the two items she holds in her hands are decidedly Roman. In her right hand, she clasps an olive branch. Although the olive itself was closely associated with Athena, it was the Latin poet Vergil with whom the association as a symbol of peace originates:

Aeneid VIII 117 ff.
‘High on the stern Aeneas his stand,
And held a branch of olive in his hand,
While thus he spoke: “The Phrygians’ arms you see,
Expelled from Troy, provoked in Italy
By Latian foes, with war unjustly made;
At first affianced, and at last betrayed.
This message bear: The Trojans and their chief
Bring holy peace, and beg the king’s relief.’

The left hand of the statue contains another Roman symbol, the fasces. This bundle of rods containing an axe was a symbol of political authority, and was carried by lictors who accompanied magistrates through the streets of the city, serving as a sort of bodyguard. Like the statue of Nike, the ‘Spirit of the Republic’ stands on the prow of a ship, to which a battering ram is attached. This was a common feature of ancient naval warfare and cannot be attributed to any one civilisation, although I would note that the shape of it does seem to closely resemble rams recovered from the sea floor near Sicily, the site of a final battle in a Punic War.

What I find fascinating about the design of the state memorials at Vicksburg is not necessarily that they are so heavily influenced by commemorative art and architecture of the Classical world: this is hardly unique in the U.S. (just look to the government buildings in Washington, D.C.), and more to the point, it makes sense to turn to civilisations known for their monumental structures, for honouring their war dead in a grandiose fashion, and perhaps more relevant to this location, suffering the horrors of civil war. The mixing of Greek and Roman styles, the odd combinations of orders, figures, and symbolic elements, however, is striking. To me, this indicates not so much the desire (or dare I say, adequate knowledge) for perfectly replicating Classical architecture, but rather the importance of using a traditional and universally recognised motif that was held in great esteem in order to sufficiently honour those whose dedication and sacrifice are still viewed as being part of the greatest tragedy to befall the U.S.