Rome: City and Empire, opening September 21, 2018 at the National Museum of Australia (NMA), Canberra, will be a spectacular spring summer exhibition, showcasing more than two hundred wondrous objects from the cities and Empire of ancient Rome. They are integral to the British Museum’s extraordinary collection.
Just packing and shipping these works of art across the globe is a feat in itself, with all of them being intrinsically priceless at least in terms of reflecting on our history and the evolution of western culture.
The objects come from across the Roman territories, which encompassed present-day western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, revealing the diversity and interconnectedness of what was indeed, a vast empirical area of knowledge.
During the period of Rome’s greatness from 753 BC – AD 476 many of the traditions associated with our modern western civilization were born and established and her achievements in the perspective of history are indeed, significant.
This collaboration between the British Museum and the NMA is all about telling the Roman story to a new generation.
Students are encouraged to explore how and why Rome and its past remains so important in the grand scheme of our society today.
Teacher guided and Museum guided tours are available and the catalogue includes an exclusive chapter about the influence of Ancient Rome on contemporary Australia.
Long before Rome became the centre of that great Empire it was only a small town on a great coastal plain tucked between the Latin tribes in the hills to the east and south with the Etruscans in the north.
According to tradition seven Etruscan kings, The Tarquins, ruled in Rome between the foundation of the city and the revolution, which finally overthrew it in 509 BC when the Roman republic was formed.
In the process, the Etruscans lost their cultural identity as they were absorbed. Today we are left with not only the memory of their great civilization, but also fragments of its material wealth that remain as an overwhelming part of the present.
During the century before the Christ event a cultural mosaic composing elements from many different periods and cultures would have confronted any Roman travelling through the Mediterranean area.
This included famous statues and monuments from various periods. At the time, libraries were overflowing with scrolls containing Greek and Latin literary gems, famous ancient Greek dramatic tragedies which continued to be performed in theatres, as well as contemporary comedic mimes and farces.
The Roman general Ptolemy who became Satrap of Egypt and the first of the Ptolemaic dynasty of rulers, introduced to Egypt the god Serapis in order to unify the Greek communities.
A Lapis lazuli bust of Zeus Sarapis, modelled in the round, has a socket in the top of his head for the insertion of a kalathos, a symbol of fertility. Made of Lapis Lazuli, a precious mineral mainly mined in Afghanistan, which has been known since ancient times to be the very best available.
Serapis combined the appearance and roles of major Greek gods Hades, Zeus and Dionysus in order to create a human shaped Greek version of the animal-headed Egyptian god Osiris.
With its humanist rendering, flowing beard and curls Serapis would have been a sharp contrast to the Egyptian statues of gods which would have stood in nearby temples.
The spoils of war meant Rome wherever she marched, acquired not only works of art but also precious objects, personal ornaments and pearls.
In the collection is a sealstone, possibly belonging to the lover of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, Marcus Antonius, or as we more commonly know him, Marc Antony.
It showcases an exceptionally clear profile portrait, with long, tousled hair, the locks carefully delineated, and with no beard. The features resembling those of Mark Antony on some of his coin portraits and other objects.
Cleopatra VII was the first ruler of ancient Egypt to learn the local language and to look to powerful allies such as Rome’s great generals and imperator’s Julius Caesar and Mark Antony to bolster her power.
She and her brother Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator who ruled with her, believed they were brings blessings and prosperity to their people.
He was killed leading the Ptolemaic army against Julius Caesar’s forces in the final stages of the Alexandrian War, leaving his sister to retain the throne and to also become Egypt’s last ruler.
The Ides of March, March 15 44BCE, marks the untimely murder of Julius Caesar by those intent on reversing the status quo. At his death his support by the people of Rome and Italy was well 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 miscalculated. His vision for re-establishing Rome’s traditional values would be brought to fruition under the guidance of his nominated heir Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (63 BC-14BC) who at the time of Caesar’s assassination was a student in Apollonia.
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. The imperial age began by Octavian bringing about political unity in the Roman world.
At the battle of Actium 31BC he was called upon to defeat his brother-in-law Mark Antony and Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra bringing the struggle for the successor to Caesar to an end.
He adopted the title Princeps, which means first, as Octavian regarded himself as the ‘first among equals’. The Senate however had other ideas and gave him the title Augustus, meaning sacred – venerable.
This title from the Roman religious vocabulary, symbolized his exceptional role as imperator, or emperor and chief priest, as he was also required to defend the faith of his people, a tradition carried on in England where Roman influence was paramount for centuries, by Queen Elizabeth today.
The great centres for jewellery manufacture in the Roman world, outside Rome itself, were at Antioch and Alexandria.
There is a certain amount of written evidence, notably on materials and techniques, in the surviving documents of that commentator on Roman Times, Pliny the Elder, who died a terrible death on the beach nearby to Pompeii at the time of its eruption in 79AD.
His writing is backed up by the archaeological evidence of incredible mummy portraits found at Hawara in Egypt, often described as the first easel portrait paintings in history, they were discovered by England’s Sir Flinders Petrie, 1888-1889.
These were kept in the house during life and inserted as a panel painting in mummy wrappings over the face of the deceased when the time came to travel to the afterlife. Our lovely lady painted on limewood, reveals her preference for gold jewellery of simple form.
Roman women loved jewellery and they wore a great deal of ancestral jewellery handed down, so dating a great deal of it stylistically from Mummy boards, doesn’t always work for scholars .
The Ancient cultural mosaic was shattered between the four and sixth centuries AD as the borders of the Roman Empire collapsed.
Today this collection is but fragments representing the Greek, Etruscan and the Roman cultural mosaic now spread throughout the world, informing us about so much that has become integral to our culture and how quickly the present can become the past.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
From the British Museum
September 21 – February 3, 2019
National Museum Australia,
Australian Capital Territory