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Maxentius – the face of the damned

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It is an inescapable fact that history is written by the victors, and this is rarely as clear as it is in the case of the conflict between Maxentius and Constantine at the turn of the 4th century (click the link just there for a post by Gordon Doherty on that character). Because of the clean sweep Constantine makes of the world he claims, from the reuniting of a divided empire, through the legitimization of Christianity, to the very creation of a New Rome that bore his own name, Constantine’s legacy is hard to ignore. It is all around us in the Church that owes its existence to him, and even in his images. Rome abounds with statues of the man, and his likenesses can be found from Africa to Britain, from Spain to Syria.

But what of his opponent, Maxentius? The simple fact is that during his reign, between 306 and 312 AD, there will have been many statues, busts and images of the emperor who ruled from Rome, yet in the way of things, the majority of those images will have been destroyed following his defeat and his damnation at the hands of the victor. So while we have a very good image of Constantine, derived from numerous surviving busts, we have to search a little harder for Maxentius.

I will not here dive into the unfortunate emperor’s legacy in terms of architecture, though that remains perhaps his greatest gift to us. The Temple of Venus and Rome in its final form, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Romulus, the great villa and circus on the Via Appia, the baths that were the last structure added to the complex of the Palatine, even much of what we can see of Rome’s walls… all the work of Maxentius.

But what of the man’s image? Few statues have survived. One intriguing possibility is the so called ‘Colossus’ of Constantine, which survives as impressive fragments in the Capitoline museum in Rome. The statue shows signs of having been reworked from a previous incarnation, and therefore it is highly likely to have previously been a likeness of Maxentius, or possibly the statue of his son Romulus that we are told was erected by the governor of Sardinia.

Other busts have survived the destruction of images, though they are few and sparsely spread. Only one full statue of the man has been found in the imperial sanctuary at Ostia Antica, and which is now in the museum there. Appropriately, given history’s viewpoint of the two men who contested the throne, and Constantine’s subsequent sainthood, Maxentius in this statue is portrayed in the very traditional Roman pose of Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest of the Gods of Rome. Fascinatingly, despite the many changes in general attire over the three centuries preceding this date, the garb Maxentius wears, and the way he wears it, over his head, has not changed since the days of the republic, and Augustus, the very first emperor, is shown in exactly the same form three hundred years previously.

Other busts of Maxentius survive, including examples from the Dresden museum, the Louvre, Museo Torlonia, Stockholm museum, and a relief from the Arch of Constantine. The overall impression they create, for me at least, is of a pensive, intelligent and soft man, compared with the powerful, imperious and forthright image in statues of Constantine.

Our only remaining evidence comes from coins, a surprising number of which have survived intact, given the Roman habit of defacing coins of damned emperors. Once again, the image they portray seems austere and thoughtful, packed with Romanitas and tradition.

Maxentius, then, is represented in just six confirmed statues and friezes worldwide, and on a number of coins. By comparison, Constantine is represented in more than six busts and statues in the Capitoline Museum of Rome alone, let alone worldwide. Yet despite the paucity of images of the man who lost to Constantine, it is surprisingly easy to build a mental image and to endow it with qualities. This, then, is the man we should remember, the last pagan emperor to rule from the city of Rome, and the last man to expand its palaces. Hail and farewell, Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius. But his story is just beginning in a new saga from the pens of myself and Gordon Doherty, and the hardback of book 1: Sons of Rome, is out today and you can buy it here.

Written by SJAT

December 10, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Damned Emperors

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I guess it’s slowly becoming my speciality. It all started with Marius’ Mules, written back in 2003, in which I portrayed (and continue to do so throughout the series) the great dictator Julius Caesar. History gives us a larger than life hero in Caesar, (and Caesar’s own writings do nothing to disabuse us of this notioin) though even the slightest reading between the lines shows us a man of more depth and considerably more ambition and callousness than that. But from Caesar I’ve explored so much further.

Caesar accepts the surrender of Vercingetorix by Royer (1899)

The next step came with Praetorian: The Great Game, in which I dared, against traditional opinion, to show a Commodus who was golden and glorious, and not at all a sadistic, wicked and megalomaniac emperor. Admittedly he was young then, and even the ancient sources tell us that he started well. But still…

Then, persuaded to it by my agent (an all-round genius) I moved on to a truly great villain: Caligula, and I was determined to try and find the real man amid the cruel legend, picking holes in the logic or veracity of sources and trying to distill a truth from their viciousness. I think I succeeded, not in finding a nice man, for I don’t think that is true, but a man driven to cruelty by his experiences, not at all insane, and more a victim than a lunatic. This was followed up by re-examining Commodus once more, this time in great depth for his own novel, and from an angle that considered the possibility that he was actually bipolar. This opened up a wealth of possibility in terms of what could have been the truth. I have signed on to write two more fictionalised and rehabilitative biographies of damned emperors for Canelo in the coming years. Watch out for more rehabilitation…

Commodus as Hercules

Now, with the release of Sons of Rome, I’ve managed to get my claws into another maligned emperor: the enemy of Christians everywhere: Maxentius. Of course, once again, the meagre evidence gives us a very different picture to recognised history. This is a man accused of persecuting the Christians and yet who allowed them to elect a pope? Hmmm. I shall leave you to read the book to see what I mean.

What is it, though? What actually is a damned emperor?

Those emperors who suffered what we now call Damnatio Memoriae were surprisingly common when one looks down the list, and do not always tally with what we see as a villain in history. To take an objective point of view, let us say that it matters not how an emperor lived, but more how he died, as to whether he was damned or praised. There are plenty of emperors who started so well but ended corrupt and wicked (Tiberius) or who did the most appalling things but are remembered as great men (Hadrian), so I don’t think we can safely say that being a good man was a ticket to herohood, while being a bad one would label someone a villain for history.

Come on Caracalla, give us a grin….

Essentially, when an emperor, for good or ill, ended up at odds with the senate, or a powerful family member, or often his own bodyguard, and eventually the knife came in the dark (Caligula), or in the toilet (Caracalla), or in the groin (Domitian) or poison was given (Claudius), or sometimes they were just openly hacked to pieces (Didius Julianus), their fate beyond death was decided. Of the 81 emperors, or successful usurpers, who ruled Rome from the foundation of the Principate to the fall of the city in 410, up to 35 may have suffered damnatio memoriae!

If they were popular, even if they had been assassinated and their assassin seized the throne, they might well be granted apotheosis, and be given rites and said to have risen to sit among the gods. They would be given their own cult, they would be remembered in festivals, have priests assigned to them and be generally godly from then on. If they were unpopular, or their enemies were powerful enough to insist upon a course of action in the face of public opinion, the opposite would happen, and they would be officially damned. For the record there were odd occasions that buck the trend. Tiberius was neither damned nor ascended, while damnation for Caracalla was popularly sought, but not granted.

The emperor’s apotheosis as he rises to the heavens, from the column of Antoninus Pius

What happened, then, when an unpopular emperor was damned? Well it was pretty thorough as evidence, or lack thereof, clarifies. Firstly their statues and busts were torn down and destroyed, as well as other images. A famous painting of the Severan family has the face of Geta scratched out after his brother first murdered, then damned, him. Many damned emperors have left remarkably few statues for their incumbency.

Where’d you go, bro?

My latest investigation, Maxentius, has left half a dozen statues at most. Why? Not just because they were smashed. After all, marble was expensive. Bronze statues of an emperor could be melted down and recast, but with marble that was more troublesome. The great colossus of Nero that stood next to the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome (and gave it its eternal name) was changed to a statue of Sol Invictus after his death, and then into one of Commodus in the late 2nd century before being changed again after that. One of the most famous statues in the Roman world is the colossal Constantine that survives as fragments in the Capitoline museum in Rome.

Errrr…. Constantine

The interesting thing is that an examination of the head shows that it is unrealistically shaped, much wider than it is deep. This is a clear indication that the statue was not originally Constantine and has been cut back to change the face. Originally, it was almost certainly either his opponent Maxentius, or possibly his son Romulus who had a giant statue voted to him by the governor of Sardinia. The reworking of statues is an incredibly common theme in imperial imagery, and not as troublesome as you might think. After all, the statues of rich ladies were occasionally tooled to allow for separate hairstyles that could be changed depending upon the fashion of the time. For reference, the only surviving full body statue identified as Maxentius is now in the museum in Ostia. Not a single statue or bust remains in Rome.

Maxentius in Ostia

So does it stop there with the image? No it does not. The unfortunate’s name also gets scratched out of public inscriptions and even things like milestones. There is a wonderful milestone in the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle (RIB 2291) which has been changed three times. The first inscription is now illegible but then, after that was defaced, a new one to Carausius (a usurper emperor who ruled Britain for a while) was added. When Constantine’s time came, the milestone was upended and that end was planted in the ground, a new inscription worked into the other. Another nice example of this practice is to be found in the museum in Alba Iulia in Romania, where Geta’s name has been erased from a monument.

Oops… there goes Geta’s name
The Carlisle Milestone

Is there more to it? So far a damned emperor is lucky to have his face come down to us for posterity, and his name has been removed from most things but the rather damning accounts of later vicious biographers telling what must usually be apocryphal stories. Often the defacing goes so far that coins are deliberately mutilated. Remember that at this time, a coin’s value lies in its inherent metallic content, so defacing it does not necessarily decrease its value. And wait… there’s more.

Often decrees, laws and declarations made by an emperor would be repealed. A prime example is Commodus’s renaming of everything but the family cat in line with his own appellation. Clearly the city remained Rome, and not Colonia Commodiana (though an altar found in Syria confirms that the changes had been accepted readily before his death.) Tellingly, Gaius (Caligula) was in absolute power over the empire for four years and we know from contemporary accounts that he had made reaching changes to seating organisation in theatres, amphitheatres and circuses. We know that he made huge changes in laws to allow his sisters precedence. Yet there are no new laws or statutes surviving from his reign. That he might play with the social order but not alter laws and statutes seems unfeasible, which tells us that after his fall his opponents repealed everything he had put into place.

To some extent then, since usually any remaining family were executed alongside the emperor, they were by and large removed from history entirely, other than the defaming carried out by later biographers. As time went on, and Christianity became more powerful and rooted, the damning of emperors takes on a new angle. Nero is also now remembered as an aspect of the Antichrist in the Catholic Church, Julian was not damned politically as of old, but was demonised and damned by the Church. And my personal favourite, Maxentius, was turned into a vicious hater of Christians by Constantine’s pet Christian writers.

Julian the (fabulous) Apostate

But to those of us who like to study such things, the challenge presented by damned emperors is too much to resist. We are given men portrayed as monsters, with little in the way of evidence, yet there are tantalising hints throughout that there is more to their story than we are told, that they were more rounded and human than history tells us.

I won’t stop investigating them and writing about them, as the damned emperors fascinate me. I hope you find them as interesting.

Four ‘bad’ emperors in a classic Horrible Histories song – (from left to right) Commodus, Nero, Caligula and Elagabalus

Written by SJAT

October 28, 2020 at 10:56 am

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