At the Beginnings of Art – Precincts of Power and Glory

Italy - Roman Forum Hz

Emperor Augustus as Pontifex Maxiumus. His toga is drawn over his head as a mark of respect and reverence

Oh, Italia, wrote 19th century rock star poet Lord Byron, thou hast the fatal gift of beauty… the orphans of the heart must turn to thee. Ancient Greek colonists fixed the name Italy on the land they settled, applying it first to the southern Italian peninsula.

It was far richer in agricultural resources and just right for grazing animals an improvement on the landscape of Greece.

The local natives they mixed with referred to it as Vitelia, the land of cattle. But Italy it became and the name was applied from the late second century to the whole of the peninsula from the Alps southwards.

Sculpture-at-Rome-BESTLong before Rome became the centre of a great Empire it was only a collection of small settlements founded on seven hills above the River Tiber.

The lofty vantage points acted as a defensive standpoint from invaders and protected its inhabitants from the malaria and the other diseases that thrived on the marshy valley floor. And, there was only minimal agricultural flatland available for crop cultivation.

The Roman God Janus has two heads, one looks east, the other west. Symbolically looking back to a future still to be defined

The city of Rome came into being when the seven hill towns became one to drain the valley floor and improve their collective future.

Entrance-Cloacae-MaximaThe construction of the Cloacae Maxima, the great Roman sewer 6BCE meant they could drain the area of low ground south east of the Capitol between the Palatine and Equiline Hills and then markets, and other trading activities could take place on the reclaimed land.

The Roman Gods of community, such as Jupiter, Mars, Vesta, Janus and others were concerned with the welfare of the state expressed best by the word religio.

It meant a feeling of respect and awe towards that which was sacred.

As fertility is synonymous with survival it doesn’t take much imagination for us to endeavour to understand why allusions to everything associated with the act of procreation, were given prominence in their art and life and why they worshiped the goddess of love.

If you add to this the fragility of human life in a world without antibiotics or sophisticated surgical techniques; one in which an infected wound, the drinking of contaminated water or a miscarriage meant certain death, we can begin to understand a little more.

The Etruscans, smiling in life and death

Of all the civilisations rising in pre-Roman Italy the Etruscans stand out as the most brilliant, innovative and creative. Legend says they emerged somewhere between 900 and 500 BCE in the area of Etruria and on the Po Plain. It is likely this was not just the result of the arrival of a foreign people, but also an evolution in the way of life as the migratory tribes who had arrived merged and married with those already there.

The Etruscans traded with the Greeks and their passion for Greek art was so great it is said the tombs of Etruria have yielded more Greek vases than at Greece itself. Religion shaped their civilisation, and at the height of their power they controlled 15,000 square miles stretching to the Bay of Naples.

They gradually formed a confederation of twelve cities that included Rome. During their most prosperous period the Etruscans hunted, fished, dined and wined and enjoyed chariot racing all leisure activities of an exuberant civilised life and their men and women were considered equal depicted smiling, even in death.

Etruscan gold granulation technique

The Romans gave them the name Etruscan, Etrusci or Tusci, while the Etruscans called themselves the Rasenna.

The Greeks called them Tyrsenoi, rendered in English as Tyrrhenian, which is the name of the sea to the west of the Italian Peninsula where they may have come from originally.

The first tradesmen’s guilds were founded in the age of the Etruscan Kings and its members became famous for producing superb bronze sculptures, gold and silver objects and engraving gems, which they traded around the Mediterranean world.

The sheer quality of the gold objects made at Etruria between the seventh and sixth centuries before the Christ event, has never really been surpassed.

Their skill at a technique known as granulation, was considerable and it was difficult.

It was necessary first to produce tiny pellets of gold, and using a copper solution mixed with vegetable or fish glue diluted with water, apply them in selected patterns onto the object.

Copper has a lower melting point than gold when heated and this enabled artisans to join the pellets to their background without melting them.

According to tradition seven Etruscan kings ruled Rome between the foundation of the city and the revolution by the Romans who in 509BCE who overthrew them and established a republic based on a Greek Ionian model. After that the Etruscans gradually lost their cultural identity, as they were absorbed into the Romanisation of a huge geographical area now known as Italy.

By the beginning of the 3BCE Rome was already a precinct of power and glory in Italy and the encounter between the Roman world and Greek-Hellenistic art through Greek colonists in the south and Etruscans in the north gradually brought about an appreciation of beauty as an end in itself.

By 133BCE the Romans, having defeated all their enemies, had become the most dominant force in the Mediterranean and the city of Rome a rival of Antioch and Alexandria as the financial and political hub of the Mediterranean.

From 91 to 88BCE Roman society vigorously debated what it meant to be a Citizen of Rome. Politically the debate was divided between two groups the optimates, who defended the interests of an upper class, and the populares, who advocated reform for the greater good.

From 60 to 49BCE a struggle for power played out at against a backdrop of a Senate of powerful men whose factions were all trying to gain control for their preferred leader.

It eventually came down to a choice of three of its most prominent citizens and successful military leaders, who initially formed an unlikely alliance to try and govern together.

As in all such struggles it led to a stand off and to resolve the issue and one of the preferred, Gaius Julius Caesar, began a civil war in 49BCE knowing that if he won he would become undisputed leader of the Roman world.

Gaius Julius Caesar, reformer of Roman society

Caesar came, saw and conquered and after it was over set about bringing order from chaos, enacting extensive reforms, emboldening others. The Senate gave him the tile Dictator Perpetuo, ruler for life. He set about great public works extending the Forum Romanum on the south side of the Palatine Hill, the site of Rome’s earliest settlement.

The Forum Romanum was marked by freestanding commemorative arches at its east and west end but today very little is left because when migratory peoples overran the city centuries later the columns and other architectural elements were reclaimed and used to build churches and other new buildings.

The Ides of March, March 15 44BCE, marks the untimely murder of Julius Caesar brought about by those intent on reversing the status quo. At his death his prestige and support by the people of Rome and Italy was established. His plans to restore freedom of political life in the republic and leadership to the senate were already in motion and it was not long before those who murdered him realised they had miscalculated.

Julius Caesar’s vision for re-establishing Rome’s traditional values would be brought to fruition under the guidance of his nominated heir Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (63BCE-14years after the Christ event) who at the time of Caesar’s assassination was a student in Apolloniia.

Emperor Augustus, bringing about political unity and moulding the fabric of Roman society

Rome’s authority depended on the strength of its legions and it would be under a force of arms its economic and cultural power would finally be achieved.

At the battle of Actium 31BCE, as if to prove his worthiness, Octavianus was called upon to defeat his brother in law Mark Antony and Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra. The struggle for the successor to Caesar ended and the imperial age began with Octavian bringing about political unity in the Roman world.

He adopted the tile Princeps, which means first, because he regarded himself as the ‘first among equals’. The Senate however had other ideas and they gave him the title Augustus, meaning sacred – venerable a title from the Roman religious vocabulary that symbolized his exceptional role as imperator, or emperor. As its high priest he was also required to defend the faith.

During the reign of Augustus (31BCE – 14ACE) Rome emerged as an economically successful city with a population approaching one million. To become a free citizen of Rome was considered a great honour. Whoever you were if you were born within the boundaries of the Roman Empire you had the right to hold the highest office in the State.

A statesman of consummate skill, Augustus legislated to mould the fabric of Roman society. Some saw his leadership as a return to a mythical golden age, one in which there would be a place for everyone. This made it possible for each Roman citizen to devote himself to the creation of a better world by participating in public works on a grand scale.

The Forum, a centre of the city’s public life for centuries, was revitalised and renewed with splendid buildings, triumphal arches, columns and statues, all resplendent in rare marbles and gilded bronze.

Trees framed temples, civic buildings and amphitheaters and gardens provided essential shade and a place for repose and became an integral part of town planning.

He brought about with considerable skill the difficult transition from the republic to Empire transforming Rome into an imperial capital by providing the Roman world with exceptional administration and services.

He made the Senate an important part of government, advanced men on merit, rather than class, which was a complete change from the former republic. He put in place institutions that dealt with law and order, including the police and fire brigade. He divided the city into regions and wards administered locally through its own elected magister, or what we call today, the mayor.

Food distribution was regulated and he set up institutions to look after taxes, the water supply, to supervise public buildings, to look after the road system and to provide protection from flooding of the Tiber River.

Augustus exercised tact and good sense to win people’s co-operation. And, he set in place a pattern of procedures and processes for his successors to take forward. He guided by suggestion, not command and gave a lead when his advice was sought. He empowered others treating people with dignity and respect so that everyone’s self esteem remained intact.

Today we would admire him as the ultimate professional. His systems once established were put in place in towns throughout Italy, and all the other countries that came under Rome’s influence. They became prosperous under centralized Roman rule although losing their ability to govern themselves…

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2017

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.