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What has that Roman ever done for us?

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Yes, I’m talking about what one Roman in particular did for us. As you may know if you’ve been following my social media recently, I have a new book coming out imminently (14th October in ebook, 10th December in hardback), written alongside the redoubtable Gordon Doherty, a fabulous author and a good friend.

Sons of Rome is the first volume in the Rise of Emperors trilogy, and deals with the early days of the emperors Constantine and Maxentius in the late 3rd and early 4th century. Most people will be familiar with the world-famous Constantine, I’m sure, though I expect fewer of you know much about our other protagonist.

Of course, history is written by the victor, and so Constantine has become both a saint and a household name, his image still visible all over the Roman world and his reputation impressive, while Maxentius has been resigned to barely-remembered footnotes and piecemeal wicked legend.

But the fact remains that though Constantine has left us a few monuments, it is actually Maxentius who has bequeathed to posterity a large spread of monuments that can still be seen and visited. Constantine’s main architectural legacy remains the impressive palace, basilica and baths in Trier (Augusta Treverorum), while the towers often attributed to him in York are now believed to be Trajanic, and the arch erected to celebrate him beside the Colosseum is largely pieces of much older imperial arches that have been stolen and rebuilt for the new hero.

As we shall see, Constantine actually appropriated many of his opponent’s works in his own name, and the main monument in Rome that could be said to be definitively his (a bath house on the Quirinal) has left no visible traces above ground. So what of the other contender. What has Maxentius left us? Well there are still a few monuments in Rome that bear his name, and others that might be a surprise for you. Let’s have a look at them.

This grand structure, just one remaining aisle of what would have been one of the world’s most impressive basilicas, is still mostly known as the Basilica of Maxentius, though some sources do refer to it as the Basilica of Constantine, which is satisfying evidence that while the victor attempted to take credit for everything, it did not always work. Lying within the forum, on the far side to the Palatine Hill, the building remains an iconic monument in Rome. It was most certainly begun by Maxentius, some time after 308 AD, but was probably finished and consecrated by Constantine after 312.

The Palatine Hill was the main city residence of the emperors from the time of Augustus far into the 3rd century. Only by the late 3rd did emperors put more stock in foreign locations, and the Palatine complex declined. Maxentius was the last of Rome’s emperors to have definitely resided upon the Palatine, and he has left his mark in a small way, for atop the Severan Arcades overlooking the Circus Maximus a visitor can find the remnants of a small but ornate private bath house built by Maxentius during his short time ruling the city.

A short distance from the urban sprawl, along the Via Appia Antica (a beautiful walk on a sunny day), lie the remains of several structures that if you are lucky will be open when you pass. The most obvious one is the remains of a chariot-racing stadium, constructed by Maxentius as part of his suburban villa. It remains one of the better preserved stadia in the western world and is impressive in scale.

Attached to the complex I just mentioned, and close to the stadium, lies a great brick box of high walls, surrounding a drum-shaped structure. This is the mausoleum of Romulus, Maxentius’s son, and abuts the road itself, where generations of Roman greats had been interred in mausolea. Despite that this is quite late for Rome, the form of this tomb echoes the great mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian, giving some clue as to how rooted in tradition this emperor of Rome was.

And the last part of that great complex on the Via Appia is the villa itself, Maxentius’s home away from the bustle of the city. There is some suggestion that this villa is a rebuild of a much earlier villa that belonged to the famous Herodes Atticus. Now little remains of the villa above ground, barring a cistern nearby, and the attached mausoleum and stadium, but the importance of this site cannot be overestimated.

Back to the city now, and you might have seen this one in the forum. It is a temple known as the Temple of the Divine Romulus. Though it was possibly an earlier structure dedicated to another divinity, this building was renovated by Maxentius, and seems to have been dedicated to the memory of his son. It forms the rear end of the Church of Saints Cosmo and Damiano. Impressively, the bronze doors are original!

You might now be sputtering angrily, and telling me that the Temple of Venus and Rome at the end of the forum and overlooking the Colosseum is nothing to do with Maxentius. Alright, the temple is definitely far older, yet Maxentius had a hand in it. By the time he reigned in the city, this temple had seen much better days and was in much need of work. What we can now see is largely the result of Maxentius’s reconstruction. So there you go!

What? But the walls of Rome are Servian and Aurelianic, are they not? The great stretch that surrounds the city are most definitely attributed to Aurelian and Probus, decades earlier than Maxentius. But what you might not know is that they were considerably lower and less defensive in their original form. It is thanks to Maxentius’s rebuilding of the walls that they remain the impressive specimen they are. Maxentius raised the height of the walls, added buttresses and hole storeys to the gates, added an archer’s gallery to large stretches of the circuit, and essentially turned them from ‘good’ to ‘formidable’.

My penultimate offering will now have Constantine’s fans spitting feathers. This, clearly, is the famous ‘colossus of Constantine, or the remaining pieces of it in the Capitoline museum on the Campidoglio, Well, yes it is, but the thing is that Roman emperors had this nasty tendency of tearing down the statues of their predecessors if they were unpopular or opposed and vanquished, and having them re-carved to resemble themselves. The simple fact is that this iconic statue shows all the signs of having been reworked from an earlier one (the head is a weird flat shape where the original face has been chiselled off.) The fact is that this was quite possibly a grand statue of Maxentius. But the more enticing fact is that it might just be of his son Romulus. The governor of Sardinia paid for a massive statue of Romulus, and it is more than possible – likely even – that this image of Constantine once bore the image of his opponent’s son.

The rarest thing of all to finish. This is something Maxentius bequeathed to us that is utterly unique. In the national museum in Rome sit these pieces. Discovered just over a decade ago under some stairs in a structure below the Palatine hill, they are the only known Imperial regalia ever found. The sceptres and wands of office of a Roman emperor, probably buried by Maxentius’s men after his demise. They are fabulous and one of a kind, and a reason alone to remember this most obscure of men.

Maxentius is one of those emperors who have suffered Damnatio Memoriae, their memory damned and cursed, their images destroyed, coins defaced, inscriptions scratched out and laws repealed. But while Constantine’s favoured bishops might have done their best to wipe the record of his reign from history, the monumental record speaks for itself. Here was a man who was a traditional Roman, in the mould of the oldest emperors. Thank you, Maxentius, for your gifts to us.

Read about Maxentius and Constantine in Sons of Rome, out tomorrow! Buy it here